College basketball: Five teams that could surprise in March
What must a team have in March to rise from a seed in the teens to wreak havoc on NCAA tournament brackets?
History tells us that having a future NBA player on the roster helps. In the 2015 tournament, R.J. Hunter (1st round pick, Boston Celtics) led 14th seeded Georgia State to an upset of No. 3 Baylor while his father (and coach) Ron, celebrated from a stool on the sidelines.
When No. 2 Duke suffered a stunning loss in 2012, it was mainly because Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum was the best player on the floor. He was drafted 10th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers the following April.
Experience and balanced scoring can also be assets. No. 14 Mercer shocked No. 3 Duke in 2014 behind the strength of five seniors. LaSalle started out as a 13 seed in 2013 and advanced all the way to the Elite 8, with high-scoring guards Tyreek Dureen, Ramon Galloway and Tyrone Garland leading the way, as they had all season.
So as this season unfolds we’re going to keep an eye on these five programs, check their progress periodically. All belong to conferences that typically generate one bid to the NCAA tournament and a seed somewhere in the teens. Although some have scheduled aggressively, their NCAA dreams could be reduced to how they fare in their conference tournament.
Based on what we’ve seen over the years, however, don’t be surprised if one - or more - becomes the center of national attention in the days between the opening weekend and the Sweet 16.
Valpo returns every key piece from a team that finished 28-6 and won the Horizon League regular season and conference championships. Of course coach Bryce Drew knows plenty about March magic. He’s led the Crusaders to the NCAA tournament two of the last three years and his 13th seeded group came up just short, 65-62, against No. 4 Maryland last year.
A stout defense anchored by 6-10, 260-pound rim protector Vashil Fernandez is the foundation of the Crusaders’ success. The Defensive Player of the Year in the Horizon last season averaged 2.9 blocks for a unit that was 33rd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com
Drew is also fortunate to have a forward as versatile as Alec Peters, a 6-9, 230-pound junior who needed only two years to join the 1,000-point club. Peters (16.8 ppg) is dangerous from everywhere, shooting 46.6 percent on 3-pointers, 49.5 percent on 2-pointers and 82.9 percent on free throws.
Shane Hammink, a 6-7, 210-pound transfer from LSU, scored in double figures in the final three games of the Crusaders’ summer trip to Canada. Guards Darien and Tevonn Walker (no relation) each averaged 10 points last season.
Save the Date: The Crusaders head west Nov. 22 for a matchup with Oregon, which last season won 26 games and reached the third round of the NCAA tournament. Beating the Ducks on the home floor in front of a Pac-12 Network audience could boost the Crusaders confidence - and their at-large bid chances, should they need one.
2. North Florida
Last season - just its sixth as a full Division I member - UNF rolled to a 23-12 record and Atlantic Sun conference tournament championship. The Ospreys return four starters to a renovated arena with dreams of hanging around the NCAA tournament longer than one game this time. UNF played Robert Morris in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio and built a 13-point second-half lead that evaporated and ended in an 81-77 loss.
Driven by the hunger to atone for that collapse, the Ospreys appear to have all the personnel ingredients necessary to make a postseason run. And recent history confirms that it’s possible for an A-Sun team to advance in March.
Dallas Moore, a 6-1 junior, averaged 15.8 ppg and hit 38.9 percent on 3-pointers last season. Beau Beech (6-8, 210) averaged 12.9 ppg and 5.7 rpg. Both players made the All-Atlantic Sun team. Trent Mackey is the sharpshooter who can bust a zone or make a team pay for a slow defensive rotation. He drilled 81 of 186 3-pointers last season (43.5 percent). And, 6-11, 235-pound junior Romelo Banks provides the requisite heft to battle a college basketball powerhouse in the paint.
North Florida was top 60 in 2-point field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage last season, averaging 75.7 points per game. No coach of a favored team enjoys preparing for an offense that possesses such balance and firepower.
Save the Date: The Ospreys loaded their nonconference schedule with games against SEC and Big 10 schools and elite Atlantic 10 programs. They’ll have a legit shot at an early resume builder Nov. 21 when they travel to face a young, inexperienced Louisville team at a point when it could have more questions than answers.
Winning 20 games has become expected at Iona as coach Tim Cluess has reached that mark in each of his five seasons and led the program to the NCAA tournament twice. Fueled by a potent offense (79.5 points per game, fifth in the nation), Iona was 26-9 and won the MAAC regular season a year ago, but had to settle for a NIT appearance after it lost to Manhattan 79-69 in the conference tournament final.
The Gaels return three double figure scorers, including dynamic guard A.J. English (20.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg). The 6-foot-4 senior drained 106 3-pointers last season, converting 38.7 percent. Schadrac Casimir (5-10, 155) added 14.5 points on 42.3 percent 3-point shooting. Isaiah Williams missed 12 games in January and February with a broken foot but resumed his role as premier defender when he returned and averaged 13.3 points on the season.
This is a dangerous outfit that scored more than 37 percent of its points from behind-the-arc last season and plays an up-tempo style that, if the shots are falling, can negate another team’s advantage inside and force it to adjust matchups.
Save the Date: The Gaels try to avenge last season’s loss in the first round of the NIT when they play at Rhode Island on Dec. 19. The Rams are tabbed as one of the favorites in the Atlantic 10 so this should offer a good barometer for Iona as it prepares for conference play.
When you talk of unheralded teams pulling upsets in March, the conversation generally starts with terrific experienced guards. The Pride, the likely favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association, has a trio of fifth-year seniors in the backcourt who combine to lead a dynamic offense that ranked 49th last season in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com
Juan’ya Green (17.1 ppg, 6.5 apg) is the frontrunner for CAA Player of the Year. He can drive, shoot and score and when he needs to pass has willing and able targets in Ameen Tanksley (16.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 39.8 percent 3-pointers) and Brian Bernardi (11.6 ppg, 40.4 percent 3-pointers).
Denton Koon, a 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Princeton, should be a frontcourt upgrade.
Joe Mihalich has revived the program in just two years, and will surely draw from his experience at Niagara, which he led to two NCAA tournament appearances in a 12-year run. If the Pride hopes to improve on its 20-14 record, it must solidify the defensive end, where it ranked 249th in adjusted efficiency a year ago.
Save the Date: On Nov. 20, somewhere in St. Thomas amid the warm breezes, clear Caribbean water and sparkling sand, the Pride plays Florida State in the opening round of the Paradise Jam. Facing a powerhouse on a neutral court is a dream for smaller programs and an opportunity they’ll try to capitalize on.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have perhaps the best NBA prospect among the non power conference programs. Shawn Long averaged 16.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and shot 54.2 percent from the field a year ago. The 6-11, 246-pound senior is a large and skilled weapon not many Sun Belt Conference teams possess.
Louisiana-Lafayette is entering its sixth season under coach Bob Marlin, who was rewarded for his efforts with a lengthy contract extension during the offseason. They were 22-14 last season, 13-7 in the Sun Belt and lost to eventual champion Georgia State in the semifinals.
To improve on that performance, they’ll need another solid contribution from junior Hayward Register (40 percent on 3-pointers last season) and leadership from guards Kasey Shepherd (9.7 points per game) and Jay Wright (9.1 ppg).
The Ragin’ Cajuns committed turnovers on 20.5 percent of their possessions last season. If they can lower that number they’ll be a team capable of busting brackets in March.
Save the Date: Louisiana-Lafayette heads to the West Coast for a two-game trip prior to Christmas. The marquee game is against UCLA, which reached the Sweet 16 again last season. When the teams meet Dec. 15 in Pauley Pavilion, ULL hopes to leave with a holiday gift to remember.