10 potential March Madness sleepers
College basketball is in full swing, which means most eyes are on the power conferences. As the big boys battle one another, they attract almost all of the nation attention. For mid-major clubs, it can feel like they are toiling away, giving their best efforts, and all without being seen. Then when March rolls around, everyone who picks a bracket stumbles back into boxscores and stats trying to figure out which small school teams are worthy of pulling off an upset.
But I have a counter-proposal. Why wait until March? Why not check in with the best teams in the conferences that aren’t catching tons of attention right now?
Here are ten teams below the surface that are quietly building a case to be this year’s Cinderella story.
It may be hard to trust the Pride, given they have played the 316th-toughest schedule in the nation this year. That being said, they’ve taken care of business. Hofstra recently had a sixteen game winning streak snapped with a loss at Northeastern. The Pride hold a two game lead atop the Colonial Athletic Association standings, thanks in part to a top-25 offense in the nation.
Hofstra leads its conference in scoring, field goal percentage, 3-point shooting, and has turned the ball over the fewest times. They do all of this while also leading the nation in free throw percentage, making the Pride a tough beat in any close game.
Senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman leads the way, scoring nearly 26 points per game. He sinks 41 percent from outside the arc on almost 7 attempts per game.
Hofstra would be a high, high seed if it can earn the CAA’s bid to the Big Dance, yet would be pesky and troublesome for any opponent.
9. San Francisco
Cinderella runs are often built by teams that have a defined style. San Francisco fits the bill to a tee. The Dons run an efficient offense that rarely turns the ball over. Everything San Francisco tries to accomplish starts with the ball in the hands of point guard Frankie Ferrari.
The Dons love to use Ferrari in a Steve Nash-type role, running him off screen after screen, looking for the right driving lane or kick-out. Ferrari controls the ball tightly and always seems to know exactly who is open and how to get a pass to the right person. Charles Minlend adds 15 points per game, working off the ball and finding space to score.
The Dons already have two wins over lower level Pac-12 teams this season and gave Gonzaga a run for its money in their first meeting. San Francisco may have to sweep every non-Gonzaga game the rest of the season to earn an at-large bid.
8. Utah State
The Aggies succeed by doing what they do well and doing it very well. In his first year with the program, head coach Craig Smith has preached the fundamentals, and his team is responding. Utah State ranks among the top 15 teams in the nation in assist rate, sharing the ball to find the best scoring option. Junior Sam Merrill leads the way with 19 points and 4 assists per game.
Defensively, the Aggies have been incredibly strong, especially in the paint. Utah State allows the 4th-worst shooting percentage from 2-point range and is the 2nd-best defensive rebounding team in college basketball.
Those numbers lead to an elite defense that would perform in a tournament setting, perhaps well enough to steal a win.
7. Murray State
Any team that has the misfortune of drawing the Racers in the first round of tournament play will spend an inordinate amount of scouting and planning time on just one player. Ja Morant is being talked up as a future top-five NBA Draft choice, and deservedly so. The sophomore point guard can do it all, thanks to freakish speed and leaping ability.
Defenders in the Ohio Valley Conference have had little luck staying in front of Morant this season. He’s drawing 7.8 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play, best in the OVC. He also leads the conference — and the nation — in assist rate. Morant is a gifted passer, with his eyes up while making his lightning quick spurts through the defense.
Many Cinderella teams struggle to handle the athleticism from their high-major opponents. Morant will have the opposite effect, challenging any opposing point guard to slow him down and keep him penned out of the paint. When double-teams swarm on Morant, the other Racers can find scoring chances and spurn a run through the first few rounds of the Big Dance.
It’s been nearly a decade since Shaka Smart preached his Havoc defense and led the Rams to a Final Four. VCU has moved on, more than once, and is a far cry from the same program.
And yet, the Rams are still relevant and still succeeding with defense. VCU ranks 8th nationally in defensive efficiency, thanks to forcing difficult shots all over the floor. Opponents are shooting just 26 percent from outside the arc, good for 3rd-worst in the nation.
Offensively, VCU succeeds with balance. The Rams have four players scoring in double-figures on a nightly basis. That kind of attack is difficult to gameplan for and can cause serious headaches for defenses.
Just a few years removed from being fired at Stanford, Johnny Dawkins has built something intriguing in Orlando. The Knights have two players scoring more than 15 points per game on the perimeter in BJ Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son. Inside the paint, 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall causes trouble for every opponent.
Fall is far from the most polished big man you’ll see, yet his massive size makes him a weapon. He leads the nation in effective field goal percentage, thanks in part to 81 percent shooting at the rim. Fall has posted the 7th-best free throw rate in the nation, with many defenders finding no other way to keep him away from the basket. On the other end of the floor, his height and wingspan makes him an elite rim protector. Fall averages 4.6 blocks per 40 minutes and ranks in the top ten nationally in block rate.
With scoring guards and the size to contend with a high-major opponent, the Knights basketball team could overturn the apple cart in the same way the UCF football team has in recent years.
Part of finding a Cinderella is about finding a team with the blueprint for an upset. Sometimes a mid-major is good, but just doesn’t have the style or substance to beat a more talented squad. Wofford is the kind of club that is built to pull off an upset when they peak. The Terriers shoot the 6th-best 3-point percentage in college basketball, at 41 percent on almost 27 attempts per game. Despite being a slow-paced team, slowest in the Southern Conference, Wofford scores efficiently. The Terriers score the most points per game and have hit the most threes in the conference.
This effort is led by Fletcher Magee, who fires up 11 threes per contest. In four years at Wofford, Magee has hoisted more than a thousand 3-point shots and made 43 percent from outside the arc. His ability to sink a shot from absolutely anywhere opens avenues for his teammates within the Terrier offense. The biggest beneficiary has been Nathan Hoover, who shoots six threes per game and is making 46 percent of those attempts this season. Meanwhile, Tray Hollowell and Storm Murphy both attempt three triples per game and are hitting 42 percent and 50 percent, respectively, on the season.
Needless to say, Wofford can get hot and in a hurry. The Terriers are built to put pressure on a high-major defense. Even with a higher level of athlete guarding them, Wofford’s shooters will find the room to get looks from long range. If they start sinking them, the Terriers can beat anyone.
The Catamounts were on the precipice of being last year’s biggest Cinderella. If they’d been able to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Catamounts would have been one of the scariest double-digit seeds in the Big Dance. Entering the America East Conference Tournament, Vermont had won 20 of their last 21 games, after opening the year with a four-point loss against Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Clearly, Vermont would have made for a worthy Cinderella.
In order to earn a bid, Vermont hosted their conference tournament title game in front of a packed crowd. Unfortunately, the Catamounts had their hearts ripped out by a buzzer-beating game-winning shot that sent them to the NIT. Instead, the UMBC Retrievers celebrated as America East champions before completing the biggest upset in tournament history the next weekend.
This year, Vermont returns without last year’s leader, point guard Trae Bell-Haynes. Instead, they are led by one of America’s most productive college basketball players. Junior forward Anthony Lamb is averaging 21 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.3 blocks per game on the season. He is a throwback player, capable of bullying defenders on the post. Lamb also adds a modern touch to his game, stepping out to hit 36 percent of his threes.
Lamb is surrounded a capable set of role players, including a set of three brothers who average more than 26 points and 10 rebounds combined between the three of them. Pulling off an upset requires an extra something special, so the chemistry between the Duncan brothers could be a perfect spark in March.
After reaching the NCAA Tournament as a 15 seed last spring, Lipscomb returned nearly three-quarters of its minutes played. The Bisons have their eyes on the Big Dance again, with no plans of being a 15 seed or exiting the tournament without a win.
To date this season, Lipscomb has been one of the most impressive mid-major teams in America. The Bisons have just four losses: two to Belmont in games decided by four and two points, a four point loss at Louisville, and a loss at Clemson. In the non-conference, Lipscomb proved itself worthy of a glass slipper in March, sweeping a trip to the Dallas-Fort Worth area with back-to-back wins over SMU and TCU. Lipscomb also routed the very talented Vermont team we just highlighted.
The Bisons play at a high-octane pace, the 11th-fastest in college basketball, which has them scoring the 8th-most points per game in the nation. Opposing teams have been unable to keep up, with Lipscomb ranked in the top 20 in defensive efficiency. Any high-major slated to face the Bisons would struggle to handle their tempo and would need to slow down senior guard Garrison Mathews, who averages just shy of 20 points per game.
The only thing holding Lipscomb back from a run in March is a challenge from within the Atlantic Sun Conference. Liberty ranks 61st in KenPom and stole a win at UCLA earlier this season. The Flames figured to be a challenge for the A-Sun crown. The teams have already met once and Lipscomb won by 20 on Liberty’s home floor. The Bisons looked poised to charge into March without letting any obstacle slow them down.
We’re still more than a month away from the Big Dance, but you can already feel the buzz about Buffalo being the hot upset pick. The Bulls have just three losses this season and boast wins at West Virginia, Syracuse, and against the aforementioned San Francisco team. They also carried one of the ten most experienced teams in college basketball into this season, bringing the momentum of a first-round upset of Arizona from last season.
The Bulls’ success is built on stingy defense. Only one team in the nation allows assisted field goals less frequently than Buffalo, which forces teams into unwanted jump shots. Buffalo gets teams to play at the 10th fastest tempo in the nation, which leads to rushed decisions and poor shot selection.
Everything offensively is led by senior CJ Massinburg. Of any player mentioned in this entire list, Massinburg has the best chance of being a household name in March. In the Bulls’ second game of the season, he sunk nine threes, scored 43 points and grabbed 14 rebounds at West Virginia. It was one of college basketball’s best individual performances of the entire season and one he’s primed to recreate come tourney time.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.