I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who like a sport, but don’t have a team to support.
This is particularly common for American soccer fans. Many scoop up a rooting interest in an English Premier League team. Others just watch the games for fun and root based on players and random whims. Team colors, the roster, the history, and a dozen other factors can be taken into account when picking a team for one game or for life.
This also happens when a pro sports team flees its home or abandons its fans with heinous decision making. What are St. Louis football fans or New York basketball fans to do? What about fans of teams with off-the-field issues? Some people jump ship when forced to root for a player, owner, or coach who has committed a terrible crime.
Sometimes it’s just as simple as not having a team. Maybe you didn’t adopt a college basketball team as a kid. Maybe you live fairly far from a Division I school. Maybe you attended a small school without big time sports. Who do you root for in March?
Sure, you root against Duke, but who would you root for?
That’s where I’m here to help, dear readers. I’ve scoured the college basketball landscape as this wacky season has unfolded in search of the teams that feel the most worthy of bandwagon jumpers. Yes, you could hop on with Duke, Kansas, or Michigan State in hopes of a championship, but that’s no fun.
I’ve pinpointed five teams with varying degrees of expectations that make for perfect temporary fan favorites. Some have a chance to reach the Final Four, others will be clawing for their chance to make the Big Dance. They all play a fun style of basketball and have a variety of reasons to earn your affection.
One disclaimer before we get started: I know I mentioned that it can be difficult to root for a team when a player or coach has committed a crime or other ethical mistake. To my knowledge, none of the teams below have any glaring red flags in that department, but I didn’t complete a full background check on every player, coach, and administrator involved with these teams. If one of them stands out to you for that reason, my inbox is open. I’m open to removing my endorsement if need be.
I promised to write about DePaul at the nearest possible junction, and here we are. It’s confession time for me.
I love this DePaul team.
The Blue Demons have been one of the wildest, most exciting, most intriguing stories of the season. DePaul University men’s basketball! I can barely believe it.
The case for being a random DePaul fan starts with school history. The Blue Demons have just two 20-win seasons since the turn of the 21st century. After 14 tournament appearances between 1976 and 1996, DePaul has just one trip to the Big Dance since 2000 (and it came all the way back in 2005). Last season, the Blue Demons ended an 11-year streak of sub-.500 seasons. You have no worries about being accused of being a frontrunner when you root for DePaul. You’re getting in on the ground floor.
DePaul hasn’t just had a successful season; it has had an exciting ride to date. The Blue Demons have played in seven games decided by five points or fewer, including two overtime games. This is anecdotal, but it seems like every time DePaul finds its way to my TV, something weird and wild is happening.
Some of that comes from DePaul’s style of play. The Demons rank 19th in the nation in fastest average offensive possession. They look to run and gun quickly on that end of the floor. On the defensive end, DePaul creates havoc, ranking 6th in block rate and 11th in steal rate in the nation. DePaul’s defense is far from elite, yet its built on athleticism and chaos.
Paul Reed is at the center of the mayhem. The 6-foot-9, 220 pound junior forward is one of America’s longest and most athletic big men. Reed is 2nd in the Big East in block rate and 3rd in steal rate, making him the only player to rank in the top ten of both stats in the conference. He’s one of the sport’s best bets to stuff a box score. Reed’s 15 point, 18 rebound, 2 assist, 5 block, and 4 steal performance against Buffalo is his current masterpiece, but I’d bet he’ll top that at some point.
Reed makes for a perfect pick-and-roll partner for point guard Charlie Moore, now with his third different program. Moore was a promising freshman at Cal in 2017, before upgrading with a transfer to Kansas. Bill Self couldn’t find much use for Moore, limiting him to just 13 minutes per game as freshman Devon Dotson emerged as a star. So after graduating, Moore headed to Chicago to join DePaul, where he’s an overqualified, soon-to-be-22-year-old team leader. He’s averaging 16.1 points and 6.8 assists, more than double his previous best average assist mark. Moore ranks in the top 30 nationally in assist rate, operating Dave Leitao’s offense with the ball in his hands most of the game.
He’s flanked by a crop of valued role players. Jalen Coleman-Lands is a strong shooter and secondary scorer. In the paint, DePaul relies on two dudes named Romeo Weems and Jaylen Butz, which regardless of their talent or production, are two great names for dudes who roam the paint.
Of course, there is a downside to jumping on the DePaul train. I mean, it’s DePaul. Of course there’s a downside!
After starting 12-1 versus the 263rd ranked non-conference schedule in Division I, things have turned on the Demons in the Big East. They started 0-4 in conference play, losing the four games by an average of just 5 points. Naysayers were quick to toss these Blue Demons in with every other DePaul team in recent history. They bounced back with a win over highly-ranked Butler by double-digits, before crashing back to Earth with a home loss to Creighton.
Right now, that leaves DePaul on the scary side of the bubble with some work left to do. There’s Sweet Sixteen upside in this team, but a trip to the NIT is also very much still in play. No matter which path the Blue Demons take, the ride to get there will be worth watching.
The Scarlet Knights are a checklist of fun things that should pique your interest.
First up, a historical bad program. Rutgers hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Rutgers hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1983. Rutgers is ranked in the AP Poll this week for the first team since 1979!
Second, they are coached by Steve Pikiell, a ready-made great story. In his first three seasons as the head man at Stony Brook, Pikiell won just 20 games combined over three seasons. He turned the program around, winning 20-plus games in six of his final seven seasons at Stony Brook. That earned him the chance to move on to Rutgers, his first major conference gig at the age of 50. Pikiell coaches his teams to play with a fierce intensity on the defensive end. The Scarlet Knights rank 9th in adjusted defensive efficiency this season and allow the 11th fewest points per game in the nation. Pikiell’s teams earn him his trademark motto from CBS Sports reporter, and noted goofball, Jon Rothstein:
Lastly, Rutgers is led on the court by a familiar name. The Scarlet Knights leading scorer is Ron Harper Jr., son of the former NBA player and Chicago Bulls great(?). The Younger Harper’s game is reminiscent of his father’s in certain ways. He’s a smart player who uses his size to probe the defense to find scoring chances or open teammates. I’m not personally old enough to remember Ron Sr. scoring 24 points per game at Miami (Ohio) in the 1980s, but Ron Jr. has shown an increased nose for the bucket since an injury to junior guard Geo Baker required some changes to the Rutgers gameplan. Harper is the Knights’ leading scorer and best option in clutch moments.
I truly cannot believe that Rutgers will be in the NCAA Tournament and favored to win its first game. Weird timeline we’ve stumbled onto, folks.
Buzz Williams’ departure was a bit unexpected, but the Hokies’ program hasn’t missed a beat. Tech hired Mike Young after 16 strong years at Wofford, where his teams developed a particular reputation.
Young was one of college basketball’s first pioneers of the 3-point revolution. Each of the last four years the Terriers ranked in the top 100 nationally in 3-point rate and top 40 in 3-point shooting percentage. It helps when you have Fletcher Magee, college basketball’s all-time 3-point shooting leader, on the roster, yet clearly Young found a niche with an offense built on the outside shot.
He’s brought that mentality to Blacksburg, where the Hokies are launching long balls this season. Tech ranks 7th in the nation in 3-point rate, with 48 percent of their field goals coming from outside the arc.
For those just rooting for the Hokies now, you couldn’t find a better time to climb aboard. Young is playing five freshman at least 15 minutes per game. Four of those freshman prominently feature in the Hokies’ long range attack, combining to attempt more than 19 threes per game.
Hunter Cattoor is shooting 37.8 percent on 4.1 attempts per game.
Naheim Alleyne is shooting 40.0 percent on 4.2 attempts per game.
Jalen Cone is shooting 55.6 percent (!!!!) on 3.8 attempts per game.
Finally, Landers Nolley II is shooting 37.4 percent on 7.4 (!!) attempts per game.
They are all freshman. They are all raining threes on a nightly basis. If that’s your thing, here’s your team.
If you’re going to watch a lot of college basketball, you need a West Coast to support. Once the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big East, and other East Coast conference finish their games and head to sleep, there’s plenty of spiciness left to enjoy with the late night festivities of Pac-12, Mountain West, and West Coast Conference.
This year, the team to watch out West is Oregon. They might not be the best team from the left coast (that’s Gonzaga or San Diego State), yet the Ducks bring a ton of energy and excitement to the court multiple times a week. Dana Altman runs one of the best offensive systems in college basketball. This season will mark the sixth time in Altman’s ten years in Eugene with a top 25 offense in the nation. The Ducks move, they share the ball, and they minimize mistakes.
Everything flows through senior point guard Payton Pritchard. He’s been making plays in a green uniform since his freshman year, when the Ducks made the Final Four, but this season he’s emerged as more than a game manager this year. Last season, he led the Ducks offense while only chipping in 12.9 points per game himself.
This season, Pritchard knows he’s the Ducks’ best scoring option and is playing with a go-to-guy swagger unseen in his earlier seasons at Oregon. It helps that he’s shooting better and seeing the game better than ever, posting 19.5 points, 5.7 assists, and 41 percent outside shooting.
His transformation from steady point guard to one of college basketball’s premiere players peaked with his game-winning shot at Washington.
Some of the four teams I listed above will miss the NCAA Tournament. In a year as wide open as 2020, they could all reach the Sweet Sixteen. Oregon has Final Four aspirations and certainly could win the national title. And yet, I’d be remiss if I did not add one of this season’s true contenders to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
That short list includes a few blue bloods and programs who have been there before. Duke, Louisville, Gonzaga, Michigan State, and Kansas already have enough bandwagon fans. Baylor and San Diego State would be valid choices as well.
Yet after seeing what Dayton has accomplished this season, there’s plenty of reasons to root for the Flyers to win it all. First off, how often is an Atlantic-10 team really in contention to win a championship? No team from the conference has earned a 3-seed or better since Xavier was in the A-10 back in 2008.
Dayton isn’t just good for a mid-major. The Flyers are one of the five best teams in college basketball. They aren’t lacking for talent. Obi Toppin is a First Team All-American and may well be the best player in college basketball. He’s chosen to dunk on anyone who gets in his way this season, and his list of victims continues to grow.
He’s a Dayton Flyer, literally. Toppin could be the star that captures this March and Dayton could earn its first Final Four berth since 1967.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.