College basketball: Five mid-majors that could wreck somebody's March
If recent history is any indicator, some mid-major team -- maybe more than one -- will stun its opening-round opponent in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Here are five who might cause a problem in late March:
UNCW (15-2, 4-0 in Colonial Athletic Association)
UNCW nearly knocked off Duke in the Round of 64 last year, and the high-scoring Seahawks look like they could put a scare into somebody this time around, too. Their top two scorers from a season ago continue to flourish, and the emergence of sophomore forward Devontae Cacok -- an exceptional finisher who leads the country in true shooting percentage -- make UNCW a nightmare to cover. The Seahawks are aggressive on defense, too, typically pressing after made shots and forcing an average of 16.76 turnovers a game, leading to even more easy scoring opportunities. The athletic backcourt of fifth-year seniors Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and sophomore C.J. Bryce is tough to defend, especially in transition.
The Seahawks, with no player taller than 6-foot-9, might struggle against a team with height. Ultimately, the play of Duke’s 7-footer Marshall Plumlee sank them last year. But if they find themselves matched up against another strong perimeter team, the Seahawks could soar.
UT Arlington (12-4, 2-1 in Sun Belt)
After stumbling to a 1-3 start, the Mavericks have won 11 of their last 12, including attention-grabbing road victories over Texas and then-No. 12 St. Mary’s. UT Arlington doesn’t have one particular strength. Rather, this team is solid across the board, which should help the Mavericks adapt and avoid unfavorable matchups.
A key to most mid-majors’ tournament success is experience. The Mavericks have plenty of it. Of the team’s top eight in minutes played, all are juniors and seniors. Last year, UT Arlington knocked off Ohio State and Memphis in the regular season. With the same core of players back this year, led by forward Kevin Hervey (who has scored at least 10 points in 11 straight games), the Mavericks seem poised to find success in the postseason this time around.
Middle Tennessee (13-3, 3-0 in Conference USA)
Remember the Blue Raiders? As a No. 15 seed in 2016, Middle Tennessee shocked Michigan State. Coach Kermit Davis’ team has the pieces to play spoiler once more. Reggie Upshaw, who had 21 against the Spartans, is back and more efficient. So, too, is junior guard Giddy Potts, an excellent shooter and rebounder.
The addition of forward JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas, helps offset the loss of a trio of senior contributors. Averaging 17.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, Williams provides the Blue Raiders another go-to frontcourt player alongside Upshaw. And by taking care of the basketball -- only 10 teams have fewer turnovers -- the Blue Raiders limit easy scoring opportunities for opponents.
Ohio University (11-3, 3-0 in Mid-American Conference)
If Ohio makes something special happen this March, it would not be the first time the Bobcats injected madness into the tournament. In 2011, 13-seeded Ohio advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling in overtime to No. 1 seed North Carolina. The Bobcats, a veteran group that shoots well from outside, have the ingredients to do it again this year. The play of Kenny Kaminski, a 6-foot-8 redshirt senior forward, will be crucial. Kaminski, averaging 13.8 points and shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point territory, transferred to Ohio from Michigan State. He played in the Elite 8 as a freshman for the Spartans, giving the Bobcats a player familiar with the bright lights.
In the backcourt, redshirt junior Jaaron Simmons, whose 7.4 assists per game ranks third in the country, and sophomore sharpshooter Jordan Dartis make things difficult for defenders. Multidimensional senior forward Antonio Campbell, the team’s leading scorer and an excellent defender (he ranks No. 5 nationally in defensive rating), can wear down opposing bigs. If the Bobcats can get through the MAC tournament and into the field of 68, keep an eye on them.
Chattanooga (13-4, 4-1 in Southern Conference)
With five seniors in its starting lineup and a sharp young coach in Matt McCall, a longtime Billy Donovan assistant, Chattanooga is well-equipped to do damage in March. The Mocs play hard on both ends and have depth, two valuable traits come tournament time. Four starters have player efficiency ratings above 20, with senior forward Justin Tuoyo’s 32.3 ranking No. 6 in the country.
Chattanooga opened its season with a statement win over Tennessee and was a last-second 3-pointer away from knocking off Vanderbilt. It also played North Carolina on the road. While the Mocs lost than one badly, they won some valuable tournament preparation. Last season, the Mocs won 29 games, a school record, and returned to the Big Dance for the first time since 2009. McCall is pointing his team toward its second straight trip to the tournament..