5 mid-major teams poised for Cinderella runs in March Madness
Much of this college basketball season has focused on the typical blue-blood programs. That is the case every year, yet this year there has been a different reason for all the media attention paid to the usual suspects. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State, and Kentucky are each having their worst season in recent memory.
While there’s plenty to dissect in those situations, that discourse has taken away from another key element of college hoops. This season is littered with mid-major programs fully prepared to make an impact in March. Gonzaga is undefeated and atop the rankings. Houston is highly-ranked with just two losses to its name.
Deeper into the college basketball rankings, there are programs preparing for their Cinderella runs. I’ve culled five of those teams below, with apologies to the group sitting atop the Atlantic-10. St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis, VCU, and Richmond are all capable of winning games in the Big Dance, but it’s unclear which of them will be able to earn a bid to the tournament.
San Diego State
Last year will largely go down as the forgotten year in college basketball. We didn’t crown a champion or even seed and bracket the NCAA Tournament. Much of the accomplishments of last season will be forgotten to time.
We should not forget that San Diego State was undefeated deep into February and primed to be a factor in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Brian Dutcher lost three starters from that team, but still has the Aztecs in position to secure an at-large bid in this season’s tournament. With a swarming defense and the two returning starters from last year, Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell, combined to post 30 points per game, San Diego State could make noise in this year’s bracket.
The Bulldogs received a ton of attention as one of three remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball before losing at Valparaiso in early February. That attention was plenty deserved as Darian DeVries has built a strong team in Des Moines. Even after losing leading scorer ShanQuan “Tank” Hemphill to a broken foot, Drake is in a strong position to make its way off the bubble and into an at-large bid. Sunday’s win in overtime in the second game of a back-to-back against Loyola-Chicago was a crucial victory to keep Drake trending in the right direction.
There’s optimism that Hemphill could return in time for the conference tournament or the Big Dance, which would be a massive break for the Bulldogs. Slotting him in next to Roman Penn, a Siena transfer who leads the offense from the point guard position, makes this Bulldog team dangerous.
Within Drake’s own conference, there’s a more threatening Cinderella prepared to strike. Drake’s win against the Ramblers on Sunday was crucial, in part because Loyola absolutely blitzed the Bulldogs on Saturday in the first game of the series. The Ramblers coasted to an 81-54 win, outscoring Drake in the second half by 30 points.
Surely, you remember Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four in 2018. This Ramblers team is noticeably better than the 2018 edition, in part due to the three key holdovers from the Cinderella run.
First, head coach Porter Moser has his team playing at an elite level. His motion offense is leading to the 6th-best effective field goal percentage in the nation. Yet it’s the Rambler defense stealing headlines. Loyola-Chicago currently has the best defense in college basketball, per KenPom. The Ramblers’ adjusted defensive efficiency of just 86.7 indicates they are allowing just 86.7 points per 100 possessions, when adjusted to an average level of competition. That surpasses even Gonzaga, Baylor, and the heavy hitters atop the national rankings.
Second, Cameron Krutwig was a freshman center and double-digit scoring role player on the Final Four team. Now he’s one of the most impactful players in the sport. He operates the Rambler offense from the high post, twisting and turning like a Midwestern Nikola Jokic. His work leading this team needs to be seen to be appreciated properly.
Lastly, Sister Jean is still the team chaplain on the sidelines, when COVID protocols allow. Prepare to see her plenty more this season, as the Ramblers are going to be heavily back in the national conversation.
There are a few reasons to buy stock in the Hilltoppers at this point in the season. It’s clear that they could knock off a top team in March because they’ve proven they can do so already. Western Kentucky’s win at No. 8 Alabama is one of the most impressive victories across college basketball this season. They also nearly nipped No. 13 West Virginia before blowing a double-digit second half lead on Thanksgiving weekend.
The Hilltoppers also have the top-end talent to compete with power conference foes. Junior forward Charles Bassey was a five-star recruit who shocked the world by choosing WKU as his college destination. In his first two seasons on campus, he showed flashes of brilliance but was hampered by injuries. This season, he’s been dominant. Bassey averages 18.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game, with 12 double-doubles in 18 games. His 27 points and 12 rebounds sparked the Hilltoppers’ victory in Tuscaloosa.
When legendary Belmont coach Rick Byrd retired, there was some fear that his marvelous work at the helm of Belmont could not be continued. The Bruins brought in Casey Alexander from Lipscomb, who had previously played for and coached with Byrd, to lead the program. Belmont has barely missed a beat, continuing to be one of the sharpest offensive teams in college basketball on a yearly basis. Belmont has ranked in the top five in the nation in 2-point shooting percentage in every season since 2013. That’s nine straight seasons, with the Bruins leading the country in five of those years. That is a testament to the brilliant read-and-react offensive system preached and executed by the Belmont coaches.
This year, the Bruins are 22-1, with a top-25 offense in the country sparked again by shooting over 60 percent inside the arc. The Bruins’ lone blemish on the calendar was an early December dud against Samford in which Belmont shot just 10-for-41 from long range (and Samford hit 14-30 from outside the arc). On the other hand, Belmont doesn’t have a strong win on its resume. The Bruins rank outside the top 300 in strength of schedule, without a single Quad 1 or 2 win.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to the Action Network, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, Rotoballer, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.