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Which unknown teams are about to become household names this week?
The concept of a mid-major may be out of date thanks to the last few seasons.
Think about it: Butler and VCU have routinely put up high-major program results. Wichita State invests in its program in ways some programs in major conferences do not. Creighton and Xavier now share the Big East banner.
Even the pool of potential Cinderellas this season even seemed to take a hit. A dozen regular season champions in one-bid leagues lost in the conference tournaments. That either means the hottest teams from the low-majors are in the field or the most capable teams are playing in the NIT.
We’ll find out soon enough, but there’s still no shortage of teams that look like they can make a run in the NCAA Tournament even if they’re not household names. Here’s what we like about some of the best candidates.
SOUTH REGION (No. 1 seed Florida)
Record: 23-10, 10-6 Atlantic 10
Round of 64 opponent: Ohio State
Is Dayton too good a program to be considered a potential Cinderella? Perhaps. The Flyers play in a first-class arena and claimed one of the Atlantic 10’s six NCAA bids. But Dayton also has one NCAA Tournament win since 2004. The Flyers started the season in fine form, beating Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational and taking Baylor to the wire, and then won 10 of the final 12. This is a team that can hang with major programs. Dayton’s not a great defensive team, but the Flyers’ pod includes Ohio State and Syracuse, teams that haven’t exactly lit up the scoreboard during the final stretch of the season.
Stephen F. Austin
Record: 31-2, 18-0 Southland
Round of 64 opponent: VCU
The Lumberjacks rolled through the Southland Conference for a second consecutive season, this time under a first-year coach. Former Kansas State assistant Brad Underwood took over for the successful Danny Kaspar to lead Stephen F. Austin to 28 consecutive wins to finish the season. The Lumberjacks were rarely tested in the Southland, where they won their conference games by an average of 15.7 points per contest. The drawback to this 31-2 record: SFA’s best win all season was over Towson. Look for the round of 64 game against VCU to be a wild one: Both rank in the top three nationally in defensive turnover rate.
Record: 21-12, 13-3 Conference USA
Round of 64 opponent: UCLA
Tulsa didn’t make much noise in Conference USA until late in the season, but there’s plenty to like about the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa is the home of eventual national championship coaches Bill Self, Tubby Smith and Nolan Richardson and has another intriguing name on the bench in Kansas legend Danny Manning. This season’s team has been tested plenty. Even if the Golden Hurricane didn’t win many games against big-time competition early, Tulsa has been tested against top-five seeded teams Wichita State, Creighton and Oklahoma.
Record: 23-9, 14-4 MAC
Round of 64 opponent: Syracuse
The Broncos won 12 of their last 13 games, the only loss coming in overtime on the road to the next best team in the MAC in Toledo. Western Michigan has a pair of potential pros in 6-11 center Shayne Whittington and 6-3, 210-point guard David Brown. Throw in a first-round matchup against a Syracuse team that has fallen apart since the 25-0 start, and Western Michigan will be a popular pick for a 14-3 upset.
EAST REGION (No. 1 seed Virginia)
Record: 24-8, 11-5 Atlantic 10
Round of 64 opponent: Memphis
Like some of the other A-10 teams, George Washington may or may not qualify as a Cinderella. The Colonials are seeded ninth and defeated Creighton early in the season in a tournament in Anaheim. They also defeated high-majors Georgia and Maryland, for what that’s worth. Affable coach Mike Lonergan has two players recruited by major powers. Maurice Creek has flourished at G-Dub after his career at Indiana was cut short by multiple injuries, and Isaiah Armwood has been a double-double machine since transferring from Villanova.
Record: 26-4, 13-1 Ivy
Round of 64 opponent: Cincinnati
Harvard returns nearly every key player from the team that upset No. 3 seed New Mexico last season. The Crimson are a solid enough team to take advantage of a Cincinnati team that struggles to score. The Bearcats are one of the best teams in the defensive end, but they ranked worse than 200th nationally in shooting from 2-point and 3-point range.
North Carolina Central
Record: 28-5, 15-1 MEAC
Round of 64 opponent: Iowa State
North Carolina Central enters the NCAA Tournament on a 20-game winning streak, but the Eagles have a more impressive non-conference profile than previous MEAC champions. North Carolina Central defeated NC State on the road and faced Cincinnati, Wichita State and Maryland in guarantee games.
WEST REGION (No. 1 seed Arizona)
North Dakota State
Record: 25-6, 12-2 Summit League
Round of 64 opponent: Oklahoma
North Dakota State on paper has an offense that can hang with Oklahoma. The veteran Bison are 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 11th in effective field goal percentage. North Dakota State isn’t a great 3-point shooting team, but the Bison don’t need to be, shooting 56 percent from inside the arc.
Record: 23-11, 11-7 Sun Belt
Round of 64 opponent: Creighton
Few players are more valuable to their teams than Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton may be one of them. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ guard averages 19.1 points per game, 5.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.2 steals. Throw in a forward averaging a double-double (Shawn Long) and UL Lafayette has a twosome that maybe able to counter McDermott.
MIDWEST REGION (No. 1 seed Wichita State)
Record: 26-9, 14-4 Atlantic Sun
Round of 64 opponent: Duke
Looking for another example of a Cinderella team that can get hot from 3-point range? Try Mercer. The Bears made an average of 8.1 3-point attempts per game. Mercer won the Atlantic Sun regular season title last season and tied for the crown this season. If Duke’s defensive lapses from early this season return, Mercer could be a team to watch.