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Friday, November 15, 2019

5 under-the-radar college basketball teams to watch

Frank Martin

Nothing deflates the excitement of finally eyeing the bracket on Selection Sunday quite like perusing the seeds and match-ups and seeing a team you just don’t have much familiarity with. You know the school, the coach, and maybe a player, but you haven’t seen them play and aren’t even really sure how good they are. Even though the NCAA selection committee gave them a seed, there’s always a desire to boil down beyond that number. The lady who works in the office down the hall from you with all the cat calendars in her office also knows their seed and you can’t let her beat you in the bracket pool again.

Since it’s only early February, there’s still plenty of time in the regular season and conference tournaments to catch good teams in action. Everyone knows about the blue-bloods, and all of the national media coverage will holler about possible Cinderellas. But what about some of the other teams that can do damage in March? These are the teams that live in the murky area between those two extremes, where brackets can crumble.

With that in mind, here’s a look at five teams flying under the radar that you need to watch out for.

5) Iowa State (14-9)

Ending Kansas’ home court winning streak was a nice reminder of how good Iowa State can be.

With a core of seniors, Steve Prohm’s team can play with anyone when at their best. Monte Morris is a top five point guard in the nation. Naz Mitrou-Long is a do-everything glue guy. Deonte Burton is a firecracker shaped like Charles Barkley, and Matt Thomas is a threat to make any shot he takes. That kind of balance makes for a scary offense, but that offense has shown a potentially fatal flaw this season.

Only one team in the nation shoots free throws at a lower rate than the Cyclones. In March, points at the line are a valued asset. Iowa State will need Morris and Burton to attack the rim more often to create those opportunities to really make noise in the tourney.

4) Marquette (15-9)

Marquette’s record doesn’t appear to be stellar at 15-9 thus far this season. To their credit, however, the Golden Eagles have avoided bad losses, with all nine losses coming to top 100 KenPom teams.

Back-to-back wins over Creighton and Villanova raised some eyebrows in the Big East and showed Marquette’s ability to hang with the nation’s best. They’ve done so with a one-two punch of inside and outside talent.

Luke Fischer is a 6-foot-11 Indiana transfer who has blossomed into a legitimate post threat in his third season in Milwaukee. He ranks in the top 3 in the Big East in effective field goal percentage, block rate, and offensive rebound rate. His presence clears space for JaJuan Johnson, Katin Reinhardt, and others on the perimeter, where the Golden Eagles shoot the best percentage from outside in the nation. That kind of hot shooting can beat anyone in March.

3) Dayton (18-5)

The Flyers had a successful season last year, earning a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a first-round loss (and a sound 19 point beating at that) erased memory of those successes faster than an Etch-a-Sketch.

Archie Miller’s team returns every contributor except DyShawn Pierre from last year’s squad, and they look poised to outdo their accomplishments from last season. Scoochie Smith runs the offense as point guard and is one of four Flyers averaging double-figure scoring this season. Charles Cooke leads the team in scoring and can be a match-up difficulty for most defenders.

2) South Carolina (19-5)

The Gamecocks got their first opportunity in the national spotlight on Tuesday night when their game against Alabama tumbled into four overtimes. By the time they hit the game’s 55th minute, South Carolina ran out of gas and lost at home. It was a tough loss for a team that can boast wins over Michigan, Syracuse, and Florida on its resume.

Despite losing, the game against Alabama showed flashes of how this South Carolina team can be successful. It starts in the paint with Sindarius Thornwell, who is a force on the block and the glass. Against the Crimson Tide, he posted a crazy stat line of 56 minutes, 44 points, and 21 rebounds. He broke Pete Maravich’s SEC record for free throw attempts, shooting 25 for 33 against Alabama. For reference, Iowa State’s entire team has only taken 27 free throws in its last two games.

The Gamecocks rely on an inside-out approach with Thornwell surrounded by playmakers, but defense is where they really shine. South Carolina leads the nation in defensive efficiency and no team allows a fewer percentage of points from the free throw line. Great defense, without fouling, is a recipe for success.

1) Cincinnati (22-2)

Mick Cronin has built a foundation and a culture at Cincinnati based entirely on defensive intensity. For years, his teams have shut down the opposition. This season is no exception, as the Bearcats have held opponents to the worst 2-point field goal percentage in America. Past Cincinnati squads have run into trouble when they were unable to translate that success to the offensive end of the floor.

This is one of Cronin’s best offensive teams, led by senior guard Troy Caupain. He’s unselfish, with the fifth lowest usage rate on the team, but when the ball is in Caupain’s hands, good things happen for Cincinnati. He leads the team in assists, creating opportunities for hot shooting junior forward Kyle Washington. The Bearcats have used that combination and stellar defense to start the season 20-2, without a loss since December 10.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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