March 1st marks the true start of college basketball’s crazy season. Conference tournaments are underway (seriously, the Atlantic Sun and Patriot League are about ready to crown a champion). Bubbles are popping and contenders are separating from pretenders. The annoying guy who emails you every March about his very important bracket contest is already prepping the bad jokes he’ll use.
The good news is there is still time to do some cram studying before the brackets are revealed. Don’t get caught with your figurative pants around your ankles staring at every double-digit seed like you’ve never heard of them. Make a point to seek out some of the teams capable of causing everyone else in your office to rip their bracket to shreds while you celebrate. These five teams are a blend of Cinderellas or surprising contenders, but each could make waves in their own way.
Remember last season when Monmouth was the cute story all season with bench mod antics and big wins over big programs? The story wasn’t so cute when the Hawks lost in their conference tourney and were one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament field. This year, they are back without as much fanfare and attention, but just as good.
Reigning MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson is a 5’8 bulldog who does everything for Monmouth. He is averaging 19.7 points, 4.8 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game, while leading the Hawks lightning fast offensive attack. Monmouth’s offensive possessions are the 10th shortest in America, as Robinson knifes through defenses and finds buckets for himself and his teammates.
The Hawks haven’t lost since January 2nd and are 26-3 since November 19. Wins over top 100 teams Memphis and Princeton show Monmouth is ready for a crack at one of the big boys in March.
Speaking of last season’s darlings, MTSU pulled off last March’s biggest upset with a first round win over mighty Michigan State. The Blue Raiders are back and even better. Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts return from last season’s team and averaging 15 points per game each, but the headliner here is Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who adds 17 points and 8 rebounds per contest. Williams plays an old school game, racking up those points while only shooting 2 for 12 from outside the arc all season long.
The Blue Raiders showed they are ready for the big show when they walloped in-state rival Vanderbilt (a bubble team at the moment), by 23 points. They’ve since mowed through Conference USA and earmarked a spot in the Big Dance as a dangerous double-digit seed.
Monte Morris is reminding college basketball fans what a major difference an elite senior point guard can be. The 6’3 floor general does everything for the Cyclones’ offense, leading the Big XII in turnover rate and placing second in assist rate, while playing nearly 93 percent of minutes for Iowa State. The Cyclones, as a whole, are an experienced team and it shows. Only five teams in the nation play a more experienced crop of players, statistically speaking, but Iowa State is more than just seasoned on paper. The Cyclones turn the ball over on the nation’s second fewest percentage of possessions and use that ball security to find better shots, leading the Big XII in 3-point and effective field goal percentages.
Morris is flanked by three double-digit scorers with a unique set of talents. Matt Thomas is a deadeye shooter. Naz Mitrou-Long can shoot or slash and cut. Deonte Burton is a classic college basketball match-up nightmare, at merely 6’5 but built like a Ford Explorer and producing in every way possible. Stopping the Cyclones is like handcuffing an octopus. It is possible, but you’ll need all hands on deck.
Remember when I said Iowa State turns the ball over at the second lowest rate in the nation? Meet the only team protecting the ball better than the Cyclones. UNCW’s offense hums like a well-oiled machine, led by perhaps the most efficient player in the nation, Devontae Cacock. The 6’7 sophomore posts the highest offensive rating in the nation, along with the highest true shooting and effective shooting percentages. He’s an analytics nerd’s dream player. Cacock scores 12.2 points per game on 78 percent (!!) shooting from the floor. In fact, no player in Colonial Athletic Conference history has shot a better career field goal percentage than Cacock. Oh by the way, he grabs 9.8 boards per game too.
He’s not alone, by any means, either. Cacock is efficient, but he’s the Seahawks FOURTH leading scorer, even with those bonkers analytics. Three scoring guards surround Cacock, all capable of handling the ball and scoring against the right match-up.
Most lower seeded mid-majors have one or two guys to target on the scouting report. Good luck with focusing on just one UNCW Seahawk.
The Flyers are riding a seven game winning streak, without a loss since January 27 at VCU. Wednesday night they get a crack at the Rams at home in Dayton, and a chance to clinch the Atlantic-10 regular season title.
Archie Miller’s team returns much of the talent from their last two trips to the NCAA Tournament, a host of versatile pieces and team first players who elevate Dayton on both ends of the floor. Seniors Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, and Charles Cooke lead the attack and are relentless. Dayton leads the A-10 in points allowed and steals. Remember when VCU was the team of havoc? Not anymore. It’s the Flyers who strike fear in the hearts of opposing offenses.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.