The teams are in, the seeds are assigned, and you’re working on your brackets, right, before the Big Dance? Well, before you go any further, here’s five teams you should be taking a second, third, even fourth look at. But we’re not talking about power-conference names, because what’s the fun of picking nothing but favorites? Naw, we’re gonna look at five mid-majors who could make a deep run into the tournament, like the Butler Bulldogs have the last two years.
Harvard (Ivy League)
Wait, what? You think I’m kidding? I’m not. Welcome back, Harvard, it’s been a while…since a guy named Truman was President (1946). The Crimson (26-4 overall, 12-2 conference) are for real, having spent much of this season in the nation’s top-25 polls. They have a key early-season win over Atlantic Coast champ Florida State plus several other solid non-conference wins. The down side is that they drew Southeastern Conference surprise champ Vanderbilt (who has occasionally been called “The Harvard of the South”) in a classic 5-12 seed matchup. Player to watch: Junior Kyle Casey, who led the Crimson with an 11.3 ppg scoring average, and was second on the team in rebounding with 5.5 boards per game.
Murray State (Ohio Valley)
The Racers (30-1 overall, 15-1 conference) reeled off 23 straight victories, including an impressive regulation win over eventual Conference USA champ Memphis before unexpectedly dropping a home contest to lightly-regarded Tennessee State. Murray State (located in east central Kentucky) then came back with seven more victories, including a key BracketBusters win over St. Mary’s, and two redemption wins over TSU, the last clinching the OVC championship. The Racers are a #6 seed, and will take on #11 Colorado State in Louisville, a virtual home game. Player to watch: Junior Isaiah Canaan, who led the Racers in scoring with 19.2 points and 3.7 assists per game.
Detroit (Horizon League)
This is the same conference which produced Butler the last two seasons; and while the Titans (22-13 overall, 11-7 conference) are not quite the same caliber as the Bulldogs, as the Horizon champ they’re worth watching. They are peaking at the right time as well, having knocked off second seed Cleveland State in the HL semis, and then conference top seed Valparaiso on the Crusaders’ home floor to claim the automatic bid. This marks the Titans’ first trip back to the tournament since 1999; they’re a #15 seed and matched up with #2 Kansas. Player to watch: Sophomore Ray McCallum Jr. He led the Titans in scoring with 15.6 points per game, and also contributed 3.9 assists per game, also leading the team.
Creighton (Missouri Valley)
The Bluejays (28-5 overall, 14-4 conference) nearly didn’t make it, needing to gut out an overtime win over a surprising Illinois State squad to claim the MVC automatic bid. Slated to take on #9 Alabama, the Bluejays, a #8 seed, are the best-shooting team in NCAA Division I. They hit nearly 51% of their shots from the floor, en route to a seventh-best in the country 80 points per game. Their record is sprinkled with a number of significant wins – Iowa, San Diego State; Long Beach State in the BracketBusters; and a split in conference play with Wichita State, who is an at-large selection after falling to Illinois State in the conference semis. Player to watch: Sophomore Doug McDermott, who averaged 23.2 points per game on a lights-out 61% from the field (and 49.5% from three-point land). McDermott also led the Bluejays with 8.2 rebounds per game.
Long Beach State (Big West)
Talk about a hard row to hoe. The 49ers (25-8 overall, 15-1 conference) played probably the single most difficult non-conference schedule in the country: at Pittsburgh (then 9th in the country); at San Diego State; at then-#6 Louisville; at then-#13 Kansas; at then-#6 North Carolina; at then-#15 Xavier, and a BracketBuster at Creighton. The Niners pulled off significant wins over Pitt and Xavier, then nearly ran the conference table, losing narrowly at Cal State Fullerton in the regular season finale before blowing through the Big West tournament. They are paired up with New Mexico out of the Mountain West in another classic 12-seed vs. 5-seed showdown. Player to watch: Senior Casper Ware (who has been covered in this space before).
Also worth watching: #12 Virginia Commonwealth (a Final four squad last season); #5 Wichita State (who will face off against VCU); #14 Belmont; #13 Ohio University.