It’s Almost March: Get To Know Your Mid-Majors
February is here, which means we’re officially in the March Madness red zone. That means you need to know the next potential Dunk City. Or even the next potential Mercer/Lehigh/Norfolk State/Hampton. Instead of trying to catch up on 22 mid-major entries* with a Selection Sunday cram session, I’m here a month and a half ahead of time to prep you on who could bust brackets and who could potentially be worth a flyer in the futures market. By the way, I say 22 because I excluded the Atlantic 10 (although probably a one-bid league), Mountain West and West Coast.
Who Should Win: Vermont
The Catamounts currently do not have star forward Anthony Lamb, but they are still steamrolling the America East. UVM has won 27 straight league games. TWENTY SEVEN. They have also won 11 straight by double digits. The Catamounts can shoot, rebound, and they defend in man-to-man without fouling. Plus, they have a bunch of returning experienced players who went to the Dance last year. Vermont is DANGEROUS.
What can they do in March: Win games.
Vermont will most likely get a 13 seed. And if they get a 4 seed like Clemson or even an inexperienced Kentucky team, watch out. Even without Lamb, this is a well coached, experienced team. Bottom line, this team has upset potential no matter where they end up in the bracket.
Who Should Win: FGCU
You should see Dunk City back in the Dance once again. They are off to an 8-0 start in ASUN play and should realistically go undefeated. The Eagles have a dynamic backcourt with Brandon Goodwin and Zach Johnson. Additionally, they have a loaded frontcourt that features high-major castoffs including Mike Gilmore (VCU), Antravious Simmons (VCU), Brady Ernst (Iowa State) and Ricky Doyle (Michigan, currently out with a concussion).
What can they do in March: Ruin your bracket.
Recently suspended Joe Dooley can help FGCU pull off an upset because of his fearlessness and playmaking ability. The deep and talented frontcourt is a luxury very few, if any, mid-majors have. They can match up against power conference bigs. Because of a surprisingly poor OOC showing and the overall stigma of the ASUN, FGCU might end up on the 15 line again. While 2013 upset victim Georgetown won’t sniff the NCAA Tournament this time around, a 2 seed with frontcourt issues (I’m looking at you Auburn) won’t want to see the Eagles. FGCU will represent the most likely “massive” first-round upset if they do indeed end up as a 15 seed.
Who Should Win: Montana
Montana sits at 9-0 in league play and looks like the class of the Big Sky. The Grizz have a pair of dynamic guards in Mike Oguine (the penetrator) and Ahmaad Rorie (the shooter). Additionally, head coach Travis DeCuire can also pair an efficient big in CSUF transfer Jamar Akoh with those guards. He lacked that luxury last year. While Montana looks like the team to beat, they have benefited from some bizarre Big Sky scheduling, to be fair. They have yet to play Idaho, Weber State or Eastern Washington, who could potentially threaten their presumed crown.
What can they do in March: Lose.
They run a mostly rim-reliant offense that lacks the stretch bigs needed to defend power conference frontcourts. Montana will probably get a 14/15 seed and likely get run out of the gym. Idaho could actually cause more problems if they make it through the Big Sky, as the Vandals’ tricky hybrid pack line/zone and transition-denial defense could cause matchup problems.
Who Should Win: UNCA (for now)
This is always one of my favorite conference tournaments because it’s the first to begin, thus it’s indelibly linked to “March” in my brain. We should see another wide-open tournament this year, as the league is a cluster at the top. Winthrop, Radford and UNC Asheville all set the pace with three losses. But electric Campbell (Chris Clemons and Marcus Burk each hit 10 3-pointers in a game… and it was the same game!) and Gardner-Webb are right behind. On top of that, preseason favorite Liberty sits at 4-6 in league play, mainly as a result of injuries and poor 3-point shooting variance against their pack line defense. Liberty was the team victimized by Clemons and Burk’s 20 3-pointers. So who should win? As of right now, I’ll take UNCA. The veteran crew down at Asheville looks to have turned a corner after the blowout loss at Winthrop on national television.
What can they do in March: Nada
The Bulldogs do extend a funky 1-3-1 pressure zone that can cause matchup issues. However, they generally run out five guards, which will eventually get exploited by any No. 1 seed. Regardless, we should all pray for the Campbell Fighting Clemons to make it through.
Who Should Win: UCSB
Ughhhhh… this is truly the most up in the air conference, with every team except UC Riverside, Cal Poly and CSUN having a legitimate claim to the throne. For now, I’ll take UCSB because they present the most matchup problems with a lethal shooter like Max Heidegger, a tough cover 4 in Leland King, and a solid post in Jalen Canty. Their only league losses are on the road by a total of two points.
What can they do in March: Zilch
Joe Pasternack, who took over for longtime head coach Bob Williams, brought with him a pack line defensive scheme from his time in Arizona under Sean Miller. The problem is that the Gauchos haven’t really picked it up. They have major defensive holes at essentially every position. Plus, they will likely get a 16 seed. See ya.
Who Should Win: Northeastern
Another conference you can decide with a coin flip, but only if the coin had four or five sides. However, Northeastern is the only Colonial team playing any semblance of defense at the moment, so I’ll go with Bill Coen’s squad. Although I wouldn’t count out Charleston’s outstanding backcourt.
What can they do in March: Exit quickly.
Northeastern has a 6-foot-5 point guard in Vasa Pusica, who excels at reading and reacting in ball screens. He’ll be a tough cover for any high-major team who has to play the Huskies, a likely 14 seed. However, NU lacks solid interior height, as Coen typically recruits bigs who can float out on pick-and-pops. A high-major team should expose that in the first round. Additionally, while Pusica has been outstanding offensively, his high dribble can be exploited. The Huskies also have the CAA’s highest turnover rate, which doesn’t bode well in March.
Who Should Win: Western Kentucky
Well, this exercise started out a lot easier with Vermont and FGCU. CUSA is another league with a murky outlook. MTSU, Western Kentucky and Old Dominion all currently sit at the top with one loss. WKU has the most hype because of the recent NCAA clearance of Tapha Diagne and Josh Anderson, although the former probably won’t contribute much. The Hilltoppers have an outstanding penetrating PG in Lamonte Bearden, an efficient big in Dwight Coleby and a stretch big in Justin Johnson. WKU’s defense, however, leaves a lot to be desired, whether in man or in Rick Stansbury’s 1-3-1. Meanwhile, MTSU, which recently won at WKU, has head coach Kermit Davis, the architect of the morphing zone and dominant interior offense that knocked off Big Ten teams in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. If the Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers remain tied at the top the league, they will meet again on March 1 in Murfreesboro. They could then meet again in the CUSA title game. Believe it or not, I see a path where two CUSA teams make the dance.
What can they do in March: Ruin your bracket.
We already know what MTSU can do. WKU also has that same potential, as they are loaded with high-major talent at every position. Do not forget they handed Purdue their only loss this year. Either potential champion would most likely wind up as an 11/12 seed in the play-in game at Dayton. WKU’s defense and MTSU’s shaky backcourt play could ultimately hold each team back from a Cinderella run.
Who Should Win: Wright State
After high preseason expectations and despite the sparkling offensive play of Kendrick Nunn, Oakland has belly-flopped in league play. That leaves defending champ Northern Kentucky and Wright State as the most likely winners. However, anything can happen in this tournament, especially in another down year for the league as a whole. Wright State currently owns a sweep of Oakland and a win at NKU. Scott Nagy has the Raiders rolling despite the loss of Justin Mitchell. Cole Gentry has stabilized the PG situation for WSU, which plays outstanding man-to-man defense.
What can they do in March: Don’t expect much.
Whether it be NKU or Wright State (or even Oakland if they get it together), they’ll almost certainly be a 15 seed in March. Wright State doesn’t possess a good enough offense to potentially pull off a huge upset, but Nagy will at least have his team well prepared.
Who Should Win: Harvard
Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale are the odds on favorites to return to the Palestra for the second annual Ivy League playoff. But Brown and Columbia could make things interesting. While Yale is the most likely of the four to miss the playoff, they’re also the most likely to skyrocket up the standings if Makai Mason can finally get healthy. Harvard and Penn have yet to lose in Ivy play, but the Crimson offense is still a trainwreck (although Bryce Aiken is back in uniform, and the defense remains the best in the league by a wide margin). Princeton, meanwhile, has shown the most potential with a win at USC and a very strong showing at the Diamond Head Classic. However, they lack frontcourt play, as they don’t have much outside of the big three of Myles Stephens, Devin Cannady, and Amir Bell.
What can they do in March: Give someone a scare for a while.
It’s a down year for the Ivy, proven mostly by a disappointing OOC season for the league as whole. That said, all four of Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale have coaches with March experience,. But ultimately a spot on the 15 line doesn’t hold much promise.
Who Should Win: Iona
Rider leads the way at the moment with Canisius tied in the loss column, but never count out Tournament Tim Cluess. Cluess has remarkably led Iona to the MAAC title game in all eight of his seasons at the helm in New Rochelle, and the Gaels have taken the title four times. This year’s team is just as explosive offensively as most of Cluess’ teams, and his matchup zone press almost always gels by March.
What can they do in March: Nothing significant.
The Gaels (or Rider or Canisius) would most likely be a 15 seed, and most power conference elites are more than capable of exploiting a team like Iona that wants to get out in transition. Cluess’ systems on both end may wreak havoc in the MAAC, but they typically don’t offer much upset value come tourney time.
Who Should Win: Buffalo
Despite a shocking meltdown against Kent State on Tuesday, the Buffalo Bulls should make it three MAC tournament titles in four years. The Bulls are atypically athletic for a mid-major, and they love to pressure the ball handler with three outstanding perimeter defenders in Dontay Caruthers, Davonta Jordan and Wes Clark.
What can they do in March: Make a deep run.
The Bulls played Cincinnati, Syracuse and Texas A&M tight this year. With their athleticism and physicality, they have the ability to catch a 4 or 5 seed off guard. The Bulls are a team to keep an eye on.
Who Should Win: Hampton
Jay Joyner’s North Carolina A&T squad has made one of the biggest turnarounds in D1 this year. After winning just one game against a D1 opponent last season, the Aggies sit at 6-1 in the MEAC. They also just defeated annual favorite and rival NCCU last time out. However, I’m sticking with Hampton until further notice. Buck Joyner’s teams always peak in March. And with the addition of TCU transfer Malique Trent, he’s been able to move volume scorer Jermaine Marrow off the ball. That said, we should all root for Savannah State. The Tigers are improbably 7-1 in league play after six straight wins and have topped 100 points in four straight. Horace Broadnax, who used to have the Tigers play at one of the slowest paces in the country, has apparently entered some sort of fugue state, as the Tigers have played at the fastest tempo in the country over the past year and a half. They also chuck 3s with reckless abandon. They would probably lose by 60 in the first round if they survived the play-in game, but it would be fun. I should also note that this is Savannah State’s last year in D1.
What can they do in March: Maybe cover a spread.
We will not see one of these this year.
Who Should Win: Loyola Chicago
Despite a loss at Bradley on Wednesday night, Loyola Chicago remains firmly ensconced as the team to beat in the Valley. The Ramblers were actually impressive in defeat, as they nearly rallied to beat the Braves in the biggest game in Peoria in 10 years. Porter Moser’s squad can shoot the lights out, and they have a dynamic offense/defense backcourt led by Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, who have been teammates for basically their entire lives.
What can they do in March: Pull of a first round upset.
The Ramblers, a likely 11 or 12 seed, can most assuredly knock someone off. Just ask Florida, as Loyola won in the Swamp despite losing Custer to an injury in the first half. Moser, a Rick Majerus guy, can flat out coach. They have shooters, solid guard play, competent bigs who can pass and a relentless man-to-man defense. The Ramblers could be the toughest out on the 12 line.
Who Should Win: Wagner
A healthy Wagner team certainly looks like the team to beat. They have already tallied five wins over fellow contenders St. Francis U, Robert Morris and Mt. St. Mary’s. They have one of the most hard-nosed man-to-man defenses in mid-major basketball — and they’ll frequently extend pressure full court.
What can they do in March: Nada.
Avoiding the play-in game in Dayton is probably the goal for the NEC this year, and Wagner can do that. While the Seahawks’ hyper aggressive defense dominates in the NEC, they will likely get whistled for 10 fouls in the first minute against a 1 seed.
Who Should Win: Belmont
The OVC always seems to be laden with upsets in March, but Belmont is still the team to beat. Rick Byrd’s motion offense and drag screens in transition are a thing of beauty, but Jacksonville State’s physicality and size have been a thorn in the side of the Bruins for two years running now.
What can they do in March: Maybe give someone a game
As JSU has shown, teams can overwhelm Belmont with length and athleticism. As you can imagine, teams drawing a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament tend to have both in spades.
Who Should Win: Bucknell
The clear class of the Patriot League, Bucknell should make a return trip to the Dance, where they competed with West Virginia for 40 minutes in last year’s tournament.
What can they do in March: Win games.
Bucknell received a fair amount of preseason love for a reason. They are loaded with seniors and big game experience. Bucknell also has a legit big in Nana Foulland, a high-scoring wing with size in Zach Thomas and a senior PG in Stephen Brown. I think every coach who ends up on the 3 or 4 seed line would tell you they do not want to face Bucknell (or ETSU, who we’ll get to next).
Who Should Win: East Tennessee State
ETSU, which has yet to lose a SoCon game, is the easy favorite to return to the Dance. Despite losing several key seniors from last year’s squad, Steve Forbes’ team hasn’t missed a beat. They have one of the best defenses in the country, not just in mid-major basketball.
What can they do in March? Play spoiler.
The Bucs will be every CBS analyst’s requisite “12 over 5” pick, and for good reason. Forbes is an outstanding game planner and the Bucs nearly took down Xavier at Cintas. ETSU has length and athleticism on the wings in addition to an extremely active defense. They will give their first-round opponent headaches.
Who Should Win: Stephen F. Austin
Another league with a logjam at the top, but SFA has to be considered the favorite at this point. After a tough transition year filled with injuries, the Jacks reloaded under Kyle Keller. They play the same wide spread motion offense and extreme denial man-to-man with full-court pressure defense. In fact, SFA currently owns the nation’s highest defensive turnover rate.
What can they do in March? Damage.
SFA could easily have a 3-0 against the SEC this year. They will likely be another 15 seed you don’t want to face. TJ Holyfield is a mobile big with a high-major skill set, and Kevon Harris is a long, athletic sharp shooter on the perimeter. SFA’s style on both ends almost guarantees a close game in the first round, regardless of opponent.
Who Should Win: South Dakota State
SDSU remains the favorite to return the Dance, thanks to Mike “The Dauminator” Daum, the best and most versatile big man in mid-major basketball. Head coach T.J. Otzelberger added a penetrating scoring guard in David Jenkins this year, which the Jacks desperately needed.
What can they do in March? Not much.
Mike Daum could put on a Harold “The Show” Arceneaux type performance, but ultimately, the lack of defense will keep SDSU from really competing for an upset bid on the 13/14 line.
Who Should Win: Louisiana Lafayette.
UL Lafayette is currently my favorite mid-major in the country. Bob Marlin’s Cajun squads have always been lethal transition teams, but this year’s version actually defends at an extremely high level.
What can they do in March? Get to the second weekend.
This team could do major damage as a 13 seed. The Cajuns have a high-major PG in Marcus Stroman and a high-major big in the hyper athletic Jakeenan Gant. They press and they totally disrupt backcourts and 3-point reliant teams. If they get paired against a team without a solid frontcourt, look out.
Who Should Win: Arkansas Pine Bluff
Well, this one suddenly got extremely murky. Texas Southern looked as if they would win their fourth SWAC title in five years before leading scorer Trae Jefferson got booted off the team. Then Mike Davis decided to bench 7-foot-2 center Trayvon Reed, who was not a fan of the Jefferson dismissal. That leaves Arkansas Pine-Bluff at the top of the standings with one loss,. Meanwhile, Grambling (yes, Grambling) is the league’s hottest team, having won six in a row, including a win at Pine Bluff. Unfortunately, the NCAA hit Grambling with another APR postseason ban.
What can they do in March? Lose in Dayton.
UAPB has the league’s best player in Tay McKnight. But another trip to Dayton is surely in the cards for whichever team emerges from the SWAC. There is no potential #SWACTION threat.
Who Should Win: New Mexico State
NMSU scored big with the hiring of Chris Jans after Paul Weir left for New Mexico. The Aggies handled their biggest threats in Grand Canyon and Utah Valley, with the GCU win coming in front of the Havocs in Phoenix.
What can they do in March? Make noise.
They proved they can hang with their outstanding showing in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. They defeated Davidson and Miami and nearly toppled USC to take home the title. Remember the name Zach Lofton. He is an elite scorer on the wing, while Jemerrio Jones balances out opposing defenses. This is another 12 or 13 seed you don’t want to see in the tourney. The Aggies can switch on every ball screen defensively and have enough firepower offensively to pull off an upset.
Worth a Flyer
Louisiana Lafayette +100000