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Jack Freifelder | | August 18, 2016

7 Cinderellas trying to get back to the NCAA tournament

  Middle Tennessee guard Jaqawn Raymond (10) would be happy to see his Blue Raiders back dancing in 2016.

Each year the NCAA tournament gives several college basketball teams the chance to test their mettle on a national stage, and most programs relish the opportunity to dash a higher seed’s dreams of a deep tournament run.

Come March, many college basketball fans are busy trying to figure out who will be the double-digit seed(s) to play giant killer. In 2016, some of the more memorable moments came from the Round of 64, where eight teams managed to pull off an upset.

Getting back to the tournament is no small task, but what are the odds that last year’s upstart squads are planning to make a trip to the dance a regular occurrence? Let’s take stock.

Yale Bulldogs: 23-7 overall, 13-1 in Ivy League, lost to Duke in 2nd round

Key Departures: Brandon Sherrod, Justin Sears, Nick Victor

Need To Replace: Scoring, Rebounding

Who doesn’t remember the antics of the young, upstart Makai Mason as Yale ousted the Baylor Bears in the 2016 NCAA tournament?

First Round: Yale upsets Baylor

Yale is losing three of its top five scorers from its NCAA tournament team a year ago, a trio also accounted for the bulk of the team’s rebounding — not to mention its best singing voice (ehem, Mr. Sherrod).

The slog through the Ivy League is sure to be crowded as the Bulldogs only edged out Princeton by one game a year ago.

Despite the fact that Yale broke a seriously long NCAA tournament drought in 2016 — breaking Harvard’s stranglehold on the league’s top spot (champion or co-champion in each of the last five years) in the process — it may be too early to claim Yale has any real staying power.

RelatedTeams aim to end extended NCAA tournament droughts

  Things are looking up for Wichita State, despite the departure of Fred VanVleet (left) and Ron Baker (right).

Wichita State Shockers: 26-9 overall, 16-2 in Missouri Valley, lost to Miami in 2nd round

Key Departures: Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Anton Grady, Evan Wessell

Need To Replace: Scoring, Rebounding, Playmaking

For the first half of this decade Wichita State’s place at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference — not to mention a reservation for a spot in the NCAA tournament — has been foregone conclusion.

It seems the Shockers have been the perennial thorn in the side of NCAA hopefuls for the better part of this decade. Just ask Gonzaga (2013), Ohio State ('13), Kansas ('15), or Arizona ('16), all who have tasted defeat at the hands of Gregg Marshall and his Wichita State squad.

The team will likely stay at or near the top of the conference on the strength of coaching and scheme alone, but the backcourt duo of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet is no more.

Even the departure of Evan Wessell, a senior that boasted one of the best winning percentage in college basketball history, and Anton Grady will impact the winning culture that has been instilled at Wichita State.

Despite a little uncertainty being thrown into the mix, there is a silver lining for the Shockers. As the old adage goes: “Success breeds success.”

Coach Marshall has made this program one with serious national repute. As a result, Wichita State is getting more attention from talented recruits.

Players like Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie will lead the new crop of Shockers into the future, leaning on the lessons they gleamed from their time alongside Baker and VanVleet. Unfortunately for the rest of the MVC that likely means Wichita State will maintain its perch at the top of the conference.

Northern Iowa Panthers: 23-13 overall, 11-7 in Missouri Valley, lost to Texas A&M in 2nd round

Key Departures: Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson

Need To Replace: Scoring, Rebounding, Playmaking

One of the more intriguing storylines in last year’s dance was the Northern Iowa Panthers. UNI’s introduction to the tourney in 2016 was magical, but its finish was deplorable.

UNI vs. UT: P. Jesperson buzzer-beater

Some high-profile departures across the conference should work toward leveling the playing field in a crowded Missouri Valley Conference. Nonetheless, a repeat performance from UNI would be a tall task.

Sure, the Panthers have plenty of NCAA tournament magic to draw on (Ali Farokhmanesh’s jumper is still likely to give Kansas fans indigestion), but this squad is coming off a season where lady luck played a significant role.

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If not for a buzzer-beater in the MVC Championship game against Evansville, UNI would not have been selected among the field of 68 in the first place. No one is faulting them for that. The facts are the facts.

Replacing the scoring, rebounding and playmaking will be tough, but replacing the intangibles will be infinitely more difficult for head coach Ben Jacobson.

  VCU Rams guard JeQuan Lewis will lead the team in 2017 following some high-profile departures.
VCU: 25-11 overall, 14-4 in Atlantic 10, lost to Oklahoma in 2nd round

Key Departures: Melvin Johnson, Korey Billbury

Need To Replace: Scoring

Much like Wichita State, VCU has long been a name that teams dread drawing in a first-round matchup. Shaka Smart is long gone, but the Rams still have the same fire that was instilled under his tutelage.

Though VCU will start the season looking up at Dayton (regular season champs) and Saint Joe’s (conference tournament champs), another year of handling the offense for JeQuan Lewis will create a nightmare scenario for opposing teams in the Atlantic 10 conference

Lewis topped the 20-point mark five times in the 2015-16 campaign, doing so twice in the NCAA tournament.

In other words, big players show up when the spotlight is brightest.

With the losses of Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury (17.4 and 11.2 pts per game, respectively), Lewis will be called on to shoulder more of the scoring load and additional distributing duties in 2017.

Rams fans are hoping Lewis will be up to the task.

First Round: Middle Tennessee Stuns Michigan State
Middle Tennessee: 25-10 overall, 13-5 in Conference USA, lost to Syracuse in 2nd round

Key Departures: Perrin Buford, Darnell Harris, Jaqawn Raymond

Need To Replace: Scoring, Rebounding, Playmaking

No one needs to tell fans of the Blue Raiders how big the school’s victory over Michigan State was, but just in case it’s only the eighth time that a No 15 seed has taken out a No 2 seed.

The college basketball world was thrown for a loop with that result, but Middle Tennessee fans would like to see the team get another shot to run amuck in the Big Dance.

Things are looking up for this Conference USA squad, especially with the return of Giddy Potts (15 pts and 5 boards per contest) and Reggie Upshaw (14 pts and 8 boards per game). However, things are not all hunky-dory.

The trio of seniors that graduated this year, Perrin Buford, Darnell Harris and Jaqawn Raymond, all played in each of the team’s 35 games last year. That level of durability is one that should not be lost on head coach Kermit Davis.

More to the point, UAB is still top dog as far as the pecking order goes especially with a sweep of the season series in 2016.

Middle Tennessee needs no further motivation as the team prepares for the season, but rest assured that any of the 13 other teams in the conference would be happy to take the automatic bid to the Dance. The last three years have seen three different champions punch their ticket, so the door is open for a team to take a seat at the helm.

Little Rock Trojans: 30-5 overall, 17-3 in Sun Belt, lost to Iowa State in 2nd round

Key Departures: Josh Hagins, Roger Woods, Jermaine Ruttley

Need To Replace: Scoring, Rebounding, Playmaking

Herculean efforts have come to characterize the Sun Belt Conference in each of the past two seasons. Just ask Baylor about its defeat in 2015 at the hands of Georgia State.

Nonetheless, the magic from the 2016 season will be tough for the Trojans to recapture for a number of reasons.

Things could be worse for a team that returns six players that averaged double-digit minutes. As a result, the 2016-17 version of the Little Rock Trojans will have a veteran core of seniors to replace the void left by graduation.

But the departure of former head coach Chris Beard (for a job at Texas Tech) and the senior tandem of Roger Woods and Josh Hagins will all be tough blows to weather.

PUR vs. UALR: J. Hagins 3-pt

Hagins will not be leading this year’s bunch — be it through conference play or back to the Dance — but many will recall his performance in the double OT upset over Purdue in the NCAA tournament (31 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals).

Luckily, the Trojans boast one of the stingiest defenses in college basketball (yielding just over 60 points a contest). Most signs point to the defense carrying over into the new year, but it remains to be seen who will take on the leadership roles and how the offense meshes under new head coach Wes Flanigan.

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Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks: 28-6 overall, 18-0 in Southland, lost to Notre Dame in 2nd round

Key Departures: Thomas Walkup, Demetrious Floyd

Need To Replace: Scoring, Rebounding, Playmaking

Losing your leading scorer, rebounder and playmaker is not the way most teams want to head into the offseason, but these are the facts of life in college basketball. More importantly, it's the scenario facing Stephen F. Austin following the graduation of senior Thomas Walkup.

  Stephen F Austin will look to overcome the loss of senior leading scorer Thomas Walkup (0) in 2017.

Replacing veteran leadership is a tough job for any ball club to work back from, but when you take a look at the roster for the Lumberjacks a lot of underclassmen stick out.

Normally this would be a cause for concern, but in SFA’s case youth can be a point of strength going forward.

Granted Walkup has been the engine that made this team go in recent years, SFA will see a number of players return from its NCAA tournament run, including combo guard Ty Charles and big man Clide Geffrard Jr.

That type of experience can prove invaluable for a team trying to get back to the postseason.

And considering that SFA is 69-3 in conference play over the last four years, there’s not much of a reason to believe the Lumberjacks will be unseated anytime soon.

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