College basketball: Valparaiso and 4 other bracket-busters
Back in the preseason, we identified five teams from lesser known conferences with the potential to spring upsets come March Madness.
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It’s time to check on those original teams, as well as identify others living under-the-radar who strung together upsets in the first month of the season and are trying to build their own postseason resume.
Record: 6-2, KenPom rating: 31, RPI Non Conference Strength of Schedule: 3
The Crusaders topped the preseason list of hopefuls because they returned every starter from a 28-6 team and added talented newcomers as well. Coach Bryce Drew’s team has fulfilled those expectations, picking up road wins over likely top-100 teams Rhode Island and Oregon State
Valpo lost by six at No. 24 Oregon on Nov. 22, but that result is more likely to help than hurt when the selection committee reviews its resume. A 69-66 Thanksgiving weekend loss at projected middle-of-the-pack-in-the-MAC Ball State could sting, but the committee should reward Valpo for challenging a half-dozen top-100 caliber opponents.
Defense fuels the Crusaders. They’ve allowed opponents a measly 0.84 points per possession to rank fifth in the nation in defensive rating.
They are searching for the touch from the 3-point arc (29.9 percent, 299th in the nation). Star forward Alec Peters (16.3 ppg, 57.1 pct. on 2-pointers) has been terrific, but needs help in the scoring column. Sophomore guard Tevonn Walker (11.3 ppg, 59.8 pct effective field goal pct.) is the only other Valpo player averaging in double figures.
At-large bid chances:Excellent. Thanks to smart scheduling and road success, Valpo is well-positioned in the at-large bid conversation. The Crusaders should enter Horizon League play at 11-2 or 10-3. From there, winning the regular season title with a two or three loss conference record should solidify their spot in the 68-team field regardless the result of the conference tournament.
2. North Florida
Record: 6-4, KenPom rating: 113, NonCon SOS: 159
The Ospreys, defending champions in the Atlantic Sun, have created one of the coolest and most appropriate Twitter hashtags in college basketball - #BirdsOfTrey. The 3-pointers fly early and often and splash through the net at a high rate. UNF leads the nation with 129 3-pointers, has hit 47.7 percent of its treys against Division I opponents and scores nearly half its points behind the arc. Firing from long range in transition is encouraged (56 percent of their field goal attempts in first 10 seconds of shot clock are 3s, per hoop-math.com) and it creates an efficient offense (1.14 points per possession).
With a stacked roster returning, coach Matthew Driscoll scheduled aggressively. UNF opened the season by beating Illinois, but has dropped four games by double figures to ACC, SEC and A10 schools. Each time, the Ospreys lack of bulk in the paint has been exposed. Built for speed and shooting, their heaviest rotation player is 220 pounds.
Late December visits to Arkansas and VCU offer opportunities to score a head-turning victory, and for the rest of the nation to discover multi-dimensional guard Dallas Moore (20.8 ppg, 6.0 apg, 5.4 rpg).
At-large bid chances:Slim. Even if the Ospreys stun the Hogs or Rams, the A-Sun is currently 25th (of 32) in the Pomeroy Ratings. There aren’t many opponents on their January / February schedule who will carry much clout with the committee. Still, should UNF win the conference tournament again, the ability to sink 15 3-pointers or so makes it a terrifying foe for any team on the opposite side of the bracket.
Record: 3-3, KenPom:78, NonCon SOS: 15
The Gaels are hardly a one-man gang, but the one man who makes the potent offense hum is 6-4 wing A.J. English. He has the highest single-game scoring total in Division I this season (46 points vs. Fairfield on Dec. 1). English also had eight assists in that game, and is assisting on a career-high 36.1 percent of Iona’s baskets. He’s scored at least 20 points in four of Iona’s six games, has a 10-assist, zero-turnover performance against Delaware and is connecting on 45.6 percent of 3-pointers.
“The last month and a half he’s had a really good feel for what’s going on on the floor with the other players, not just himself,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “What the defense is doing when he has the ball, where to look for his shot and where to look to pass. He’s making reads and passes that I’ve never seen from him. That part of his game is blossoming.”
The younger Gaels have looked to English for scoring and leadership. Cluess tells them to also notice his work ethic. He’s improved significantly since playing only 26 percent of available minutes as a freshman.
Iona’s defensive issues were exposed in losses to Valparaiso, Oregon State and Tulsa - the Gaels surrendered at least 1.08 points per possession in each game.
At-large bid chances: Slim to Moderate. Games with Rhode Island and Akron remain, and the Gaels will be favored to win their other nonconference games. Two games against budding MAAC rival Monmouth in the conference won’t hurt. And the committee should notice the caliber of teams Iona scheduled.
Record: 6-2, KenPom: 88, Noncon SOS: 43
The Pride landed a signature win over Florida State in the Virgin Islands last month. It also lost to Indiana State by one point in the same tournament.
Guards Juan’ya Green (18.3 ppg, 7.4 apg) and Brian Bernardi (52 percent 3-point shooting) have been steady and spectacular. Denton Koon (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Rokas Gustys (63.0 FG pct.) have formed a productive pairing in the frontcourt.
Hofstra has survived with a seven-man rotation and could easily enter the Colonial Athletic Association portion of the schedule with 10 wins.
At-large bid chances: Moderate to Good. The Pride has remaining games with Stony Brook and Siena that won’t hurt. But the best news for Hofstra is the nonconference success of the rest of the CAA. Through Tuesday’s games, the CAA has a 52-28 record. It’s 11th in the Pomeroy Ratings and ninth in winning percentage. Plowing through the CAA regular season with 14 or 15 wins would probably lock up the regular-season crown and certainly gain the committee’s attention.
5. Louisiana - Lafayette
Record:2-3, KenPom: 127 NonConSOS: 2
The Ragin’ Cajuns only two wins this season are against non-Division I opponents. In their three games against Division I teams, they’ve been the worst defensive team in the nation. The return of big man Shawn Long helped La. - Lafayette land on this list, but not even his presence can offset the opponents' 57 percent 3-point shooting and 52 percent 2-point shooting.
At-large bid chances: Sun Belt Tournament championship or bust.
Emerging teams capable of surprising in March
UT - Arlington: Scott Cross’ team is 8-2 with wins over Memphis and Ohio State, and an overtime loss to Texas. The Mavericks are tenacious on the offensive glass, stingy on the defensive end and now considered one of the Sun Belt favorites.
Arkansas - Little Rock: The Trojans are unbeaten with four games remaining before the Sun Belt opener against South Alabama. Guards Marcus Johnson and Josh Hagins are dangerous.
Saint Mary’s: Among their six home victories to open the season is a 17-point drubbing of Stanford. The Gaels travel to Berkeley to face California this weekend and appear poised to make a run at the West Coast Conference title.
Missouri Valley Conference trio: Wichita State’s early struggles have this looking like a three-team race between the Shockers, Northern Iowa (who beat North Carolina in November) and Evansville, which is 7-2 with losses to Providence and Arkansas. Could see two of the three finishing the regular season worthy of an at-large bid.