Bracket Busters: The Mid-Majors That Will Make (Or Break) Your Bracket
Selection Sunday is two weeks away and closing fast. Traditionalists may argue you can't worry about your bracket till the field is decided and the matchups set. But take a step back from that mindset. What if those Cinderellas, those giant-killers, could be picked out of the crowd before the madness even began? Spoiler alert - they can.
The thing about predicting these teams' success is that many are not even a lock for the tournament. Many, if not most, will have to win conference tournaments to get a bid. But suppose they do get in. Suppose they are given an opportunity, 40 minutes, to show the sporting world why we should know what a Zip or a Gael is; to explain why two McDermotts are better than one; or perhaps, to simply put a small, rural town like Lewisburg, PA on the map. These are this year's mid-major bracket busters.
Davidson is a prime example of a team that will need to win its conference tournament to make it to the big dance. This team lacks a signature win over an RPI Top-50 team, and can only claim a 70-64 victory over Richmond in the RPI 51-100. Those numbers won't get the selection committee's attention. To gauge how good Davidson is, you have to look at the Wildcats' losses. Two of their losses come against two of the top schools in the nation, Gonzaga and Duke. Three of their other losses were by five points or fewer, including an 86-81 defeat at then-No. 14 New Mexico.
Player to Watch: Nik Cochran
At 6-foot-3, 188 pounds, Cochran isn't a huge guy. He's ranks among the top three of his team in points and assists per game, but doesn't put up huge, staggering numbers. The reason this senior guard from Vancouver, British Columbia is noteworthy is his success from behind the arc. Cochran's ridiculous .477 three-point percentage is among the top-20 in the NCAA, and includes a 17-point, 3-6 beyond-the-arc performance against likely top-seed Gonzaga.
Final Verdict: Davidson is currently first in its conference with only one loss, and is riding a 14-game win streak. While the possibility of getting knocked out of their conference tournament keeps the Wildcats from being a lock to even make March Madness, the possibilities if they make the tournament are even greater. If Cochran gets opportunities early from deep and can stay hot, it will cause the Wildcats' opponent to play catch-up. Against a team that likes to run a methodical offense like Wisconsin, this could spell upset.
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
South Dakota State's biggest claim to fame this season is certainly its 70-65 upset victory at New Mexico. The Summit League doesn't generally warrant a great deal of attention, and the Jackrabbits likely have to win their tournament over Oakland and Western Illinois to advance to the big dance. The 76-49 blowout loss to Belmont is scary, but it's one game where Belmont shot 68 percent and the Jackrabbits couldn't buy a basket, hitting just 28 percent of their shots. What matters come mid-March is the Jackrabbits' ability to score in a hurry. They have scored 80 points or more in nine of their wins this season. A large part of this is reliant on their ability to shoot the three. As a team, South Dakota State shoots .393 from behind the arc, good for 16th in the country.
Player to Watch: Nate Wolters
If you don't know who Nate Wolters is, you will by the end of March. The Jackrabbits' senior guard is fourth in the nation in scoring, averaging 22.8 points per game. He shoots over 41 percent from three. Against IPFW, he shot an absurd 9-14 from behind the arc and finished the day with 53 points. Wolters can take control of the game with both his shooting and passing, and is nearly impossible to defend when hot.
Final Verdict: Another team you don't want to get down against early, South Dakota State has the potential to run away with an upset come tournament time. Look for Wolters to do his best C.J. McCollum impression and step up in the bright spotlight of March Madness. Akin to their name, the Jackrabbits like to run the floor quickly and will try to keep teams off balance with their fast-paced offense. This is not a team you want to try to go basket for basket against.
The Jays started out the season as one of only two ranked mid-majors. Despite dropping out of the rankings, Creighton has had a stellar season. A 10-point win early in the season versus Wisconsin got the most national attention, but wins against Akron and at Cal should not be overlooked either. Creighton's offense scores points at a blistering rate and relies heavily on the three. The Jays' second ranked .422 three-point percentage is unreal and contributes to their top-ranked field goal percentage. Creighton also passes the ball incredibly well, with the fourth-best assists average in the NCAA.
Player to Watch: Doug McDermott
The son of his coach Greg McDermott, the 6-foot-8 forward is having a phenomenal junior season for the Jays. Currently tied for second overall in points per game, McDermott has the ability to change the momentum of a game single-handedly. He is a large contributor to his team's great three-point percentage, shooting over 48 percent from deep. Already a very common name in college basketball circles, look for McDermott to be a household name after the tournament.
Final Verdict: Creighton lives and dies by the three. In a recent loss to Saint Mary's, the Jays shot only 27.8 percent from behind the arc. When Creighton shoots well early, it can be nearly impossible to keep up with them. The coach-player McDermott duo is deadly, and Greg McDermott knows how to free up opportunities for his son, especially from deep. Look for Creighton to get their star player chances from behind the arc early and use his momentum with their high-tempo offense. If the first couple threes go in for McDermott, it's likely game over for a high seed.
Bucknell has been dominant in the Patriot League, losing only twice, to Lehigh by three and Lafayette by one. The Bison's biggest win was a 74-66 victory over La Salle, but it was not their most telling game. Bucknell lost a 66-64 thriller to then-No. 12 Missouri in early January. Despite the final result, the effort showed that Bucknell could hang with the best in the NCAA. Bucknell's rebounding was also superb that game, led by senior Mike Muscala, as the Bison became the first team to out-rebound Mizzou (currently ranked second in rebounds per game). Unlike the other bracket busters, Bucknell does't rely on the three for success.
Player to Watch: Mike Muscala
At 6-foot-11, 240 pounds, the senior center is not a force to be taken lightly. Muscala is all over the floor, averaging over 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. His versatility makes him dangerous on offense and defense and a dominating presence on the boards and in the paint. A solid free-throw shooter, Muscala is also not the big man teams want to foul at the end of the game. Quite simply, he may be the most exciting big man to watch in the sport. You'll hear his name a lot in March.
Final Verdict: The Bison are a fundamentally sound team who unlike many other bracket busters, do not employ the high-risk-high-reward system that goes with reliance on the three. Muscala is just a monster who one can only hope to contain. Bucknell may run into trouble against a team that shoots the three very well because they will have to play catch-up, but as long as Muscala is there, the Bison will be in it.
The Bruins were written off early after being trounced by Kansas, but since have come back nicely, going 14-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Another team that loves the three, Belmont ranks in the top-15 nationally in three-point percentage. The Bruins shot 46.7 percent from behind the arc in a 76-49 demolition of South Dakota State. Belmont shoots well all over, carrying the fifth-best field-goal percentage in the country. While turnovers plagued the Bruins in a loss to VCU, the team still shot better than VCU, at 54 percent, to keep themselves in the game.
Player to Watch: Ian Clark
A slender 175-pound, 6-foot-3 guard, Clark has a great touch from behind the arc. His .462 three-point percentage makes him a game-changer and he is consistently his team's top scorer, averaging 18.4 points per game. Clark's best asset however, is his efficiency. In Belmont's loss to VCU, Clark was a perfect 10-10, including 3-3 on threes, all good for 24 points. He won't always take the shot, but don't leave any open for him. Chances are he'll make good use of the opportunity.
Final Verdict: Belmont can score a lot of points and very quickly. Averaging 77.2 points per game, the Bruins' fast pace could throw off a team that plays for possession. It will be difficult for any team to put Belmont away because of the pace at which they can score points. It would not be unlikely, however, to see Belmont run away with a win if it can play its quick-paced style of basketball.
Saint Mary's Gaels
Hopefully the recent sanctions imposed on Saint Mary's basketball program won't steal the spotlight away from what the Gaels have accomplished this season and could accomplish come tournament time. Big wins over Creighton and Harvard headline the Gaels' record, but what really stands out is their first game against Gonzaga. Saint Mary's lost by only five, 83-78, to then-No. 9 Gonzaga despite shooting terribly in the first half.
Player to Watch: Matthew Dellavedova
Dellavedova does is all for the Gaels. The senior guard from Australia frequently leads the team in points and assists while regularly contributing five or six rebounds. Dellavedova is not overpowering, but his ability to control the flow of the game through his passing skills is extremely valuable. Look for him to keep the game at a comfortable pace if his team starts to panic as mid-majors often do during the tournament.
Final Verdict: The Gaels closed out the season winning 14 of their last 15 with a loss to Gonzaga being their only defeat over that span. They can score points in bunches and are efficient shooters. Look for Saint Mary's to be a popular 5-12 upset assuming nothing drastic happens in the Gaels' conference tournament.