Everybody loves a Cinderella story. They capture the hearts of basketball fan every March during March Madness. In a tournament where upsets are welcomed, there is always the one team that everyone picks to get at least to the Sweet Sixteen. Finding the mid-major team to make a deep tournament run is like finding a needle in a haystack. Last year, Georgia State and UAB defeated three seeds in the round of 64. Even Michigan State was counted out as a seven seed before making the Final Four. But predicting the mid-majors that could make noise before the conference play even starts is a whole different animal.
The first mid-major to come to mind is Davidson. They might not even be considered a Cinderella because they obviously have one most notorious runs in NCAA history with Stephen Curry, who’s turned out to be a pretty good professional player. This years Wildcats are led by junior Jack Gibbs, who recently dropped 41 in front of Curry. He’s averaging 26 points per game, which is third in the NCAA. Gibbs is the favorite to take home conference player of the year, and his team is the favorite to win the A10 after Rhode Island lost E.C Matthews to a torn ACL. Peyton Aldridge, Brian Sullivan and Jordan Barham, who all average over 10 points per game, aid Gibbs. The unbeaten Wildcats have a very potent offensive attack, as they average 88.2 points per game, 15th in Division I. Davidson has all the makings of a dangerous team come tourney time. They have a go-to scorer, solid role players, and plenty of experience in March Madness. Davidson should be the highest ranked mid-major team in the NCAA Tournament, but they’ll still be overlooked due to their schedule and conference. A great test for these Wildcats will be the game at North Carolina on Sunday.
Saint Joseph’s Hawks
Saint Joseph’s is another team in the A-10 that can make some noise if given the chance. The only reason they might not make the tournament this year is that they have to beat Davidson to win the A-10. If they don’t, the A-10 won’t likely get two bids to the tournament. There’s nothing that jumps out at you when looking at the stats so for the Hawks. However, an absolute stud in DeAndre Bembry leads the Hawks. The junior averaged 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game for the Hawks last season. He’s off to a slow start, but once he gets going, he could rival Jack Gibbs for A-10 player of the year. Bembry’s sidekick Isaiah Miles has been off to a flying start averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 38% from deep. These two players for St. Joe’s could lead them into the tournament for the second time in two years.
Oakland University Grizzlies
Fun fact, Oakland University isn’t in Oakland, it is located in Michigan. Also a fun fact, they have one of the best players in the NCAA. That players name is Kahlil Felder. The junior averaged 18.1 points and 7.6 assists per game last season. This year, he’s up to 23.5 points and 8.8 assists. He’s only 5’9 but averages 5.2 boards per game and he can also shoot it pretty well. He’s the runaway leader to win Horizon League player of the year. The Grizzlies average 86.5 points per game and five players average double figures in scoring. Another one of those players is junior Sherron Dorsey-Walker. He’s a 6’4 guard who’s averaging 10.8 points per game but a whopping 9 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting a sizzling 56% from three to begin the year. Oakland has two vital components for an upset in the tournament. They shoot the three well and they also make their freebees at the foul line. Getting those extra points from the foul line and behind the arc are two ingredients a team needs for an upset.
Howard University Bison
Howard University is a serious sleeper team this year. The MEAC might be the worst conference in Division I basketball, but that doesn’t take away from how good Howard could be. The 5-2 Bison fought hard against UMass and Rutgers. They actually held a 14-point lead over UMass in the second half before the Minutemen came storming back. Reason number one Howard has a chance; they own the leading scorer in Division I ball. James Daniel averages 28.7 points per game as a scoring first point guard for the Bison. He only shoots 33% from three but that doesn’t stop him from filling it up at a ridiculous pace. Daniel also averages 3 steals per game and is a menace defensively. The junior averaged 21 points per game as a freshman and averaged “only” 16.7 last season. The Bison only have three players in double figures but they still average 84.6 points per game. Howard should have no problem getting to the tournament, but out of all of these teams, they might have the worst shot of making a serious run, but don’t count out the Bison.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
First of all, the University Louisiana Lafayette has the best team name in all of college sports. The Ragin’ Cajuns (seriously, that’s their name, look it up) fill up the basket to the tune of 96 pointer game, second in all of Division I. They also rebound well at 45.3 per game, 13th in NCAA. At the helm of one of the best offenses this year is Shawn Long. The senior has averaged a double double in each of his previous three years and it won’t change this year. He was the wingman to Elfrid Payton to begin his career, but now this is his team. He’s putting up 21.3 and 12 through four games. Although the Ragin’ Cajuns (so fun to say) are only 2-2, they have lost to the University of Miami (FL) and Alabama. Lafayette has a star player that they can rely on all season, and they can fill it up. Those are crucial for a Cinderella team to have.
Iona has already notched a conference win and now stand at 2-2.I’ve mentioned A.J English before, and in the win over Fairfield, he knocked down 13 three pointers and poured in 46 points. He also had eights assists and two steals on the night. English is scoring at a rate of 25.8 per game and averages 6.5 assists per game. English also shoots an absurd 45% from three. After English, there isn’t too much left on the roster. Outside of English, Jordan Washington and Deyshonee Much, no player averages double figures. The pure talent of English could compare him to Jimmer Fredette, who became an NCAA folk hero in his time at BYU. English may be more talented, but both have the potential to be one-man teams down the stretch and come tournament time.
UC Irvine Anteaters
The Anteaters of UC Irvine have one BIG reason that they can make March truly mad. It all starts with junior Mamadou Ndiaye. Ndiaye really sticks out in a crowd due to his 7’6 300 pound frame. He actually has some decent skill, but his primary focus on the court is to stand in the paint and put his hands up. Nothing gets over him. He just doesn’t have the stamina to stay on the court for too long. Outside of Ndiaye, the Anteaters use a balanced attack, with seven players averaging between 13 and five points. UC Irvine doesn’t do much pretty; their assist numbers and points allowed per game are the only major statistics inside the top 50 in the nation. Usually having a star player would help a team, but the Anteaters buy into the system and play as a team. They made the NCAA tournament last season, but lost to Louisville in the round of 64. Don’t expect the Anteaters to be such an easy out this season.
North Florida Ospreys
North Florida fits the “having a go to guy” bill better than UC Irvine. The Ospreys have Dallas Moore to rely on when things go bad. Moore is a junior who fills the stat sheet night in and night out. He averages 20.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game. Moore is also a knockdown shooter for his squad. Five players for UNF score in double figures, led by Moore. North Florida is the favorite in the Atlantic Sun and should go dancing for the second straight season. The only team that could knock off the Ospreys is Florida Gulf Coast, who has an impressive NCAA tournament run to their credit. Despite a 6-3 start, North Florida hasn’t been spectacular as they allow 74.8 points per game, just 216th in NCAA Division I. But make no mistake about it, if and when the Ospreys make the tournament, they will be a tough out no matter whom they play.
The Valparaiso Crusaders play in the same conference as Oakland. So only one of these teams will go dancing. Valpo went dancing last year and gave Maryland a pretty good scare, losing only by three. Alec Peters is still the star for the Crusaders, and he’s one of the best mid major players around. The forward averages a hair over 16 points per game and shoots 41% from the field. The Crusaders are a balanced team, with no player playing more than 30 minutes per game, and no player playing fewer than 11. A 6-2 start to the season has been highlighted by wins over Rhode Island, previously mentioned Iona and very close loss to a potential Sweet Sixteen team in Oregon. Valpo is an experienced, defensively dominant team. But they also have the crucial go to scorer when they need him. Unfortunately, it will be up to whether they can win the Horizon League over Oakland if they want to go dancing.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
Stephen F. Austin is another team that went dancing last season. As a 12 seed, they gave the five seed Utah all they could handle. In 2014, the Lumberjacks won 29 straight games, including the Southland Conference title and a win in the NCAA tournament over VCU. A 3-3 start is no cause for concern, as they have played Baylor and Northern Iowa, a team who could also make the tournament. The leader of this team is Thomas Walkup. The senior does everything for the Lumberjacks. He scores, rebounds, passes and plays defense extremely well. He’s not much of a shooter, but that’s where Demetrious Floyd comes in; as he shoots 37% from deep. Stephen F. Austin doesn’t rely on the three point ball much, but if need be, Floyd is their guy. Stephen F. Austin seems to be struggling right now, but they could go unbeaten in conference play, which may lead to yet another upset for a top ranked team.
High Point University
These teams all have the potential to make a run in the NCAA tournament. One of these teams is bound to be mentioned in the same breath as Curry’s Davidson squad, or maybe George Mason or Florida Gulf Coast. Two pairs of these teams will meet in conference play, which will probably deter one of them from making it to March Madness. But be assured, each team in this field has the potential to make noise in the NCAA tournament.