March’s Top Cinderella Candidates

Posted by zhayes9 on January 31st, 2012

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Did you think last year’s NCAA Tournament was chaotic? That was nothing.

That’s right, the tournament that saw two out of eleven Big East teams reach the Sweet Sixteen, #10-seed Florida State face #11-seed VCU in a regional semifinal and two mid-majors provide the undercard on Final Four Saturday could pale in comparison to what we’ll witness in 2012. Never before have the perceived top teams in the nation been more flawed. Never before has the soft underbelly of every power conference been more susceptible. Never before have the upper echelon mid-major schools been as viable and competitive. It’s a distribution of wealth that would make Bernie Sanders blush.

Which Mid-Majors Have the Best Shot to Celebrate Like This?

By the time we reach New Orleans, the cream may rise to the crop. A Final Four consisting of Kentucky, Ohio State, North Carolina and Syracuse wouldn’t stun me. It’s during the first weekend where a handful of non-BCS schools could knock off inadequate power-conference at-large teams. Don’t say you weren’t prepared.

Who are the mid-majors (a designation that excludes the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West) most likely to crash the party? Here’s a good place to start:

  1. Saint Mary’s: The Gaels performed an offensive clinic best saved for instructional videos in a difficult road environment at BYU on Saturday. After watching that display (and two prior destructions to both BYU and Gonzaga on their home floor) it comes as no surprise that St. Mary’s assists on nearly 62% of made field goals. Their offensive assault is led by face-of-the-program Matthew Dellavedova, who plays almost 92% of the teams’ minutes, ranks in the country’s top 50 in assist rate and provides another shooting threat. What gives the Gaels the sustainability to win multiple games in the Tournament is dominance inside the arc. Randy Bennett’s team shoots 55% and holds opponents to 44% despite employing just two regular rotation players taller than 6’7”.
  2. Creighton: We know all about Doug McDermott’s All-America caliber season: an unfathomable 65% from two and 50% from three to match his 23.5 points per game. Now he only needs a sexier name to reach Jimmer-like cult status. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a one-man rodeo. What’s carried the Bluejays to a 10-1 record in the Valley is a formidable supporting cast with all of the ingredients for a deep March push: an athletic big man in Greg Echenique who can hold his own against power-conference frontlines, a heady senior point guard in Antoine Young with a more than 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, stat sheet stuffer Grant Gibbs and two rangy shooters in Jahenns Manigat and Ethan Wragge.
  3. Wichita State: Before Saturday’s three-overtime marathon loss at Drake, the Shockers only defeats came to Alabama, Temple and Creighton. They’re not only supremely balanced (five players averaging more than nine points per game) but start four seniors craving for the March spotlight. They rank in the top-20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency; only Ohio State, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and Syracuse can boast such an honor. Joe Ragland provides outside shooting, Garrett Stutz is a legit seven-foot presence in the paint and both David Kyles and Toure’ Murry are matchup nightmares at the wing. The Shockers are solid across the board. If you’re looking for the most reliable Sweet Sixteen sleeper pick, look no further.
  4. Gonzaga: I know, Gonzaga fans, you’re not a mid-major. Save your hate mail. It’s just impossible to forget those captivating tournament runs when the program embraced the little-engine-that-could status. From a pure talent standpoint, nine-deep Gonzaga is superior to any team on this list. Mark Few’s team is led by future pro Elias Harris, whose 14 points and eight rebounds per game on 49% shooting shows he’s over last season’s disappointing campaign. The Zags are a solid shooting outfit from anywhere on the floor, especially freshman point guard Kevin Pangos. What should give supporters comfort come March is that only two teams in the nation get to the free throw line more than Gonzaga. That effort is headed by seven-foot center Robert Sacre, who needs to stay out of foul trouble at the other end to remain on the floor and effective.
  5. Murray State: By now you’ve probably heard Murray State is undefeated. The countdown to their Bracketbuster matchup with St. Mary’s is already underway, a chance to finally see the Racers butt heads with a team that doesn’t reside in the basement of Division I. Despite the feeble competition, all of the indicators suggest Murray is a threat to reach the second weekend. They’re experienced, with eight of their nine regular rotation players either a junior or senior, many of them having participated in the 2010 NCAA Tournament when the Racers knocked off Vanderbilt and nearly upset Butler. They also shoot the lights out. Murray makes a robust 42% from three and ranks 11th in the country in free throw rate (73% as a team). Led by Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole, their guard play is fantastic and they’ll have familiarity taking every team’s best punch.
  6. Harvard: They’ve faded out of the national spotlight since the UConn game due to a lack of television exposure and a weak Ivy League, but let’s not forget about the Crimson. Harvard’s two primary calling cards are team defense (14th in efficiency) and a fearsome frontcourt tandem in Keith Wright and Kyle Casey. Both Wright and Casey are slightly undersized but work relentlessly on the defensive boards, block shots and shoot around 57% from inside the arc. Unsung hero Brandyn Curry is a phenomenal distributor and defender at the point. Their formula for a deep March run: throttling halfcourt defense, control tempo, limit turnovers and keep Wright/Casey out of foul trouble.
  7. Long Beach State- Dan Monson knew he had a formidable bunch and scheduled as such. The 49ers played Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, Xavier, Pitt, San Diego State and will play Creighton in February. The 49ers will be sufficiently challenged come March and could receive a seed boost knowing how much the committee values non-conference strength of schedule. They have a multi-talented senior point guard in Casper Ware and both Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson possess high-major talent athleticism. After falling just short of the Tournament the last two seasons, Monson’s team will be motivated to make a statement on the sport’s grandest stage.
  8. Middle Tennessee- The Blue Raiders had their own Bracketbuster-type game last Saturday against Vanderbilt and posted 77 points in a close loss. This is a well-balanced team led by 6’9” senior big man LaRon Dendy who scores 14 points per game, shoots 55% from two and presents a shot-blocking presence in the paint. Unlike some other mid-majors, MTSU wins without living and dying with the three-ball. Just 20% of their points come from beyond the arc and they rank in the top 10 in free throw rate. Their 20-3 record, boosted by wins over UCLA, Belmont and Ole Miss, is no fluke.
  9. Belmont- Rick Byrd’s team isn’t quite creating turnovers at the same incredible rate as last season, but they’ve exchanged a more risky defensive philosophy for a more efficient offensive attack. Their hockey-line substitutions are not quite as radical, either, with only six players on the floor for more than 45% of available minutes. The coaching fraternity has the utmost respect for Byrd because of the winning consistency of this program. Kerron Johnson is their engine, a confident junior point guard who thrives on dribble penetration and shoots over six free throws per game. If the Bruins survive the Atlantic Sun tournament, everybody’s favorite upset pick last season will once again prove a dangerous out.
  10. Iona- The Gaels’ one-point loss to Purdue back in November sent them to the losers bracket in Puerto Rico and cost Iona a chance to build more of an at-large profile, so they’ll need to win a competitive MAAC Tournament to go dancing. Iona arguably has the best point guard in the country in Scott Machado. The 6’1” senior leads the nation in assists per game and is the primary reason the Gaels are such a well-oiled machine offensively. Seton Hall transfer Michael Glover is a high-major talent in the post who averages 19 points and nine rebounds per game on a remarkable 67% shooting. There’s a fair chance Iona will have the best guard and forward on the floor in their first round game. Not a bad start.

Keep an eye on: Weber State, Nevada, Cleveland State, UNC Asheville, Davidson.

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