Selection Sunday arrives in 53 days, folks.
Let us now examine the mid-major teams who just might possess the talent and moxie to survive the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend - and perhaps beyond.While such a discussion might seem premature, consider how quickly the first two months or so of this season elapsed. Teams are entrenched in the two-game-a-week rhythm of conference play, the train is rolling downhill, gaining speed as it approaches tournament time.
What a season of uncertainty to enjoy. Just last night, two top-five teams lost (again) and another heavyweight, Maryland, needed overtime to escape at home. So, if we accept the narrative that great teams don’t exist this season (and you’ll find no argument here), then we could be looking at a 68-team bracket where seeds are simply suggestions and chaos reigns supreme.
Make note of these teams now, impress your friends later. Here are the reasons you shouldn’t be surprised if they survive-and-advance two months from now.
Note: Monmouth (42) is omitted, because we covered them last week, and because everyone understands they’re much more than a bench side show.
Saint Mary’s (Calif.)
Hardly strangers to such a conversation, the Gaels aim to rejoin the NCAA field after a two-year absence. They lack the starpower of past outfits from Moraga, California - no Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills or Omar Samhan on this roster. Rather, they’ve built the nation’s sixth most efficient offense (per KenPom.com) with balanced production from an eight-man rotation. The result is the top effective field goal percentage in the land (62.6 pct.) fueled by five Gaels who shoot 40 percent or better behind the arc.
We’ve been high on the Crusaders since the preseason, and aren’t hopping off the bandwagon now. The polar opposite of St. Mary’s, Valpo is blazing through the Horizon League (6-0) behind a ferocious defense that’s surrendered more than one point per possession in only three of 19 games. Need more proof? Study how coach Bryce Drew’s club bottled dynamic Oakland scoring guard Kay Felder on Jan. 8 in a convincing 84-67 road victory. The Crusaders hounded him into 8 of 28 shooting and a season-low 78 offensive rating.
Including the Shockers feels so unnecessary at this point. Coach Gregg Marshall’s squad sneaks up on nobody, anymore. Not after averaging 31 wins, reaching a Final Four and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in the last four years. Dismissed perhaps after an injury-riddled 2-4 start, the Shockers are full strength and plowing forward, having won 10 of 11. Guards are critical pieces in March and good luck finding a combo with more experience and talent than Ron Baker (113.7 offensive rating) and Fred Van Vleet (113.4).
Living in the Shockers’ shadow in the Valley perhaps, Evansville has a pair of Aces to match any team in the nation. D.J. Balentine is the type of lethal perimeter threat who can become a legend in March. The 6-3 guard has scored at least 14 points in every game and can finish (53.6 pct. on 2s). Controlling the lane is Egidijus Mockevicius, who is the best rebounder in the nation (14.5 per game!) and scores 17.4 ppg as well. Evansville dropped the first matchup at Wichita St. by three points. The rematch is Jan. 31st at home.
The Trojans are limited offensively, but play a low-possession, grind-it-out style that makes opponents earn each basket. Little Rock, which defeated San Diego State and Tulsa, holds foes to 0.89 points per possession (6th in nation) by forcing turnovers on 23.6 percent of possessions and commanding the lane (teams shoot 40.2 pct. on 2-pointers). The Sun Belt doesn’t offer many opportunities for head-turning victories, so Little Rock can’t afford many missteps if it hopes to be at-large worthy.
The tournament championship game in the one-bid America East has been the Seawolves achilles’ heel in recent seasons. Still, they have the best player in the conference in Jameel Warney, a 6-8 senior who averages 18.4 ppg and 10.7 rpg. This is also coach Steve Pikiell’s best defensive team on the banks of Long Island’s Smithtown Bay. They’ve held their first five conference opponents to 0.84 points per trip.
The 33-year-old Hawaii coach Evan Ganot signed a three-year contract in October. He’s doing his best to earn an early extension, applying lessons learned during a stint as associate head coach at St. Mary’s. The Rainbow Warriors - who lost by eight at Texas Tech and by three to Oklahoma - have ripped off seven consecutive victories upon the broad shoulders of 6-11, 235-pound center Stefan Jankovic. He scores 15.1 ppg, hits 43.8 pct. of 3-pointers and earns bonus points for spending his winters on Oahu after enduring them growing up in Mississauga, Ontario.
Another plucky member of the surprisingly strong Sun Belt, the Mavericks had their eight-game winning streak snapped by South Alabama last time out but are on pace to enter the conference tournament with 24 or 25 wins - including roadies at Memphis and Ohio State that seemed worth more when they occurred than they do now. Arlington likes to run (73.6 possessions per game) and apply pressure (force 16.7 turnovers per game). Sophomore forward Kevin Hervey is a handful as well (18.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg).
If the Anteaters outduel Hawaii and earn the Big West automatic bid, a certain three-year-old will pick them to advance based on nickname alone. But there’s substance here, namely 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiyae who blocks 10.6 percent of opponent’s shots, draws seven fouls per 40 minutes and sinks 62 percent of his field goal attempts. Irvine has befuddled opposing attacks, allowing only 0.84 points per trip in bolting to a 4-0 league start.
Let us venture off course and admit we have no clue who will win the highly competitive Colonial Athletic Association, a conference with a treasured postseason history and a jumbled leaderboard (six teams are tied for first at 4-2). A solid argument can be made for James Madison, UNCW, Hofstra, William & Mary, Northeastern or Towson. The team that emerges with three wins in Baltimore on the first weekend of March will be flexible enough to handle multiple styles of play, and hardened by a demanding 18-game slate in the nation’s ninth best conference per RPI and KenPom.
Stephen F. Austin
It was rough and rocky traveling for the Lumberjacks in November and December. But now that they are back in the friendly confines of the Southland Conference, they are chopping down the competition once again. Counting the conference tournament, SFA is 61-4 against league teams in the last four seasons. Thomas Walkup is still one of the nation’s toughest 6-4 guards, a wrecking ball around the rim who hits 59 percent on 2-pointers. The Lumberjacks have ripped off a ridiculous 1.30 points per possession against five hapless league victims, draining 52 percent of their 3-point efforts.