Every year when we are filling out our NCAA Tournament brackets there are few things more satisfying than being able to correctly pick out a Cinderella team or two - the squads that unexpectedly win games and steal headlines. We'll obviously have a better sense of what is possible when the actual bracket is out and we know which teams are in and who they are playing. We can get a headstart on the process, though, and pick out a few teams that have a chance to do some impressive damage later in March. Here are five that stand out:
South Dakota State Jackrabbits: I really liked this team a few years back when Nate Wolters led them into the tournament two years in a row, but they lost their first game both times. They won a game in the NIT last year, though, and are looking to build on that success this year. They are currently tied atop the Summit League standings with IUPU-Ft. Wayne, so an epic conference tournament final game for the berth looms if both teams take care of business Up to that point. They have three players averaging 15 or more points per game, so they are very tough to contain. They are not as strong on defense, but they get by on offense often enough. If they make the field they have exactly the kind of depth and versatility - along with excellent offensive rebounding - that could surprisingly find them in the second round.
St. Mary's Gaels: We are so used to seeing Gonzaga as the dominant force out of the West Coast Conference, but St. Mary's has the better overall record this year, the same 15-2 conference record and, most importantly, they have beaten the Bulldogs twice this year. This is a young team but one that can shoot the lights out - especially from beyond the arc. They have three guys who could be the top shooter on most teams in the country. Three guys that can shoot make it less likely that a slump can derail them in a game, because if it's not going for one player it will hopefully be going for another. They are likely in the tournament whether they win the conference tournament or not - as long as they don't flame out early. If that is the case then I would probably rather that they lose to Gonzaga in the conference tournament final - that would lower expectations in the eyes of the public and get them a lower seed. The lower the seed, the bigger the upset in the first round, the better the payoff for believers.
Akron Zips: Bored a month ago, I watched this Akron team play Central Michigan. I expected little, but it was one of the best games I saw all year. Akron really impressed me with their shooting. Thirty-two of their 61 shots on the day were from beyond the arc. More impressively, they sunk 16 of those 32 shots - exactly half. I assumed at the time that the shooting explosion was an anomaly. Not at all as it turns out. More than half of their shots on the season have been 3-pointers, and they hit 40 percent of them as a team. A team that shoots that well from deep is always a dangerous one in the tournament. They are also very good defensively against the three, so it can be tough for teams to match them if they are in the groove.
Yale Bulldogs or Princeton Tigers: These teams each have a win against each other this season, and each is on track for identical 13-1 conference records. Princeton has three games left, but all should be simple. Yale has just two, with Columbia by far the biggest test either team faces. The Ivy League doesn't have a tournament, but if they are tied they would play a one-game showdown for the berth. Whichever team moves on will be a challenge for their opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Princeton can shoot the lights out from deep, and Yale is a relentless rebounding team. No matter what, the Ivy League champ will be one to watch.
Wichita State Shockers: The Shockers got off to a slow start this year and don't have nearly the buzz that they have had in recent years. They could get a lower seed, and they have a very good chance of pulling off an upset or two if they do. They are a very good defensive team, and they have pretty much everything it takes to be a dangerous team. If they wind up as somewhere in the 7-10 range of seeds they will be very dangerous - especially this year when all of the potential top seeds have vulnerabilities.
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