by Robert Ferringo - 01/24/2006
"Who the F*^# is Vermont!!"
"Where the hell is Bucknell?!?"
"Wait, is there a difference between Wisconsin and Wisconsin-Milwaukee?"
Yes, these are actual quotes from the 2005 NCAA Tournament. In that tournament - as in all the others before it - there were several colossal upsets that shredded brackets and retirement funds throughout the country. Naturally, everyone from television bobbleheads to that college hoops "expert" in your office claimed that Vermont beating Syracuse and Bucknell topping Kansas was "unbelievable".
I guess it's unbelievable if you only follow college basketball for four weeks in March.
There are exactly 51 days until the Big Dance (not that I'm counting). Inevitably, there's going to be that one out-of-nowhere, underdog school that humiliates one of the Sacred Cows. This can be crippling to your bracket and your bank account, but these landmines can be avoided with just a little bit of attention.
To avoid looking like an amateur later, you have to put in your work now. Following some mid-major schools will give you a feel for a team, and after a month or two you'll be able to separate cannon fodder from dream crushers.
And just like that time you underwent shock therapy in college to earn $50 you can make a little coin while conducting "research". There are more than 330 men's Division I-A basketball programs, and there's no way that the books can have a good grasp on all of them. As a result, excellent value can be found by wading into the mid-major waters.
The pairings for ESPN's Bracket Buster Saturday games will be announced on Sunday, Jan. 29. The event, slated for Feb. 18, is a chance for the top 22 mid-major schools to square off against one another while gaining some national exposure. Here are some teams you'll see on BB Saturday. And mark my words - you'll see one of these schools in the Sweet Sixteen:
Old Dominion (14-5 overall, 7-2 conference, RPI 33, Strength Of Schedule 62) - The Monarchs hail from the Colonial Athletic Conference, and returned four top players from last year's tourney club. Center Alex Loughton (14 points, 7 rebounds) is solid, and smooth-stroking guard Isaiah Hunter leads the team in scoring (15.4). The Monarchs have a key game with rival George Mason this Saturday, and a rematch in the conference title game is almost a certainty. ODU has victories over Georgia and Virginia Tech, and lost by only three in Wisconsin.
Air Force (16-3, 4-2, RPI 56, SOS 191) - Two words that no higher seed wants to hear concerning their first-round opponent: Princeton offense. The Falcons run their own variation of it, and have used the quirky sets to beat Miami and Georgia Tech, and to hang with Washington on the road. Air Force has been dropping bombs on opponents all season, posting the fifth best 3-point shooting percentage (43) in the country.
Creighton (13-4, 7-2, RPI 29, SOS 74) - The Blue Jays have won at least 20 games for seven straight years (one of only 12 teams to do so) and they're one of only eight schools to win more than 10 conference games for nine straight years. However, their biggest gun, the sweet-shooting Nate Funk, is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Creighton will get no quarter in the outstanding Missouri Valley Conference, and they ask for none. They have wins over George Mason, Dayton, Nebraska and Xavier.
Northern Iowa (16-3, 7-2, RPI 15, SOS 37) - I like this MVC team a lot. They brought back all five starters from last year's 21-11 tournament team, including four double-digit scorers. The leader is Ben Jacobsen, who is averaging 15 points, four rebounds and three assists thus far. Forwards Eric Coleman and Grant Stout combine for 24 and 16. Depth is an issue for the Panthers, who are looking for their third consecutive trip to the dance. They've beaten Iowa and LSU this season, and only lost at Iowa State by seven.
Winthrop (12-4, 6-0, RPI 53, SOS 125) - This club out of the Big South is another crew that I'm very high on because of their athleticism and defensive intensity. They played Memphis tough on the road earlier this year, trailing just 66-60 with three minutes remaining before falling by 10. In that game, preseason Big South POY Torrell Martin only managed two points. The Eagles also dropped games on the road to Alabama (by two, with Chuck Davis) and Auburn (by three). However, their five returning starters tallied a 27-6 record last year. I expect them to top that mark.
Bucknell (14-3, 5-0 RPI 39, SOS 127) - The Pride of the Patriot League has won at Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and beaten Kansas on a neutral floor in the last 12 months. The Bisons got housed by Duke earlier this season (84-50), but the same thing happened to Vermont in a game at North Carolina last year. I think we all know how that turned out. Center Chris McNaughton is very skilled inside, and Charles Lee chips in 11-6-3 each night.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (14-4, 7-1, RPI 22, SOS 66) - Bruce Pearl, who is now working wonders at Tennessee, constructed this team. The Panthers returned four of five starters from last year's Sweet Sixteen unit, which trounced Alabama and Boston College before losing to Illinois. Boo Davis (16 and 5) and Joah Tucker (16 and 6) are multidimensional talents. This team has won 32 straight games when leading at the half, and should roll through the Horizon League. They have already beaten Hawaii, St. Louis, Wyoming and Montana. They also lost by six at Wisconsin and by 13 at Memphis.
Ohio (10-3, 5-1, RPI 89, SOS 216) - The Bobcats came out of nowhere to win the Mid-American Conference last season, and gave Florida a scare in the first round. Ohio is currently fourth in the always-difficult MAC. However, they have four starters with NCAA tourney experience, and if sophomores Leon Williams and Jeremy Fears can find that freshman magic in February, these guys could be dangerous in March.
Wichita State (16-4, 7-2, RPI 20, SOS 49) - Nobody wants to lose to a team from Wichita, but the Shockers almost stunned Illinois back in November, losing 55-54 at Assembly Hall. They have three players averaging over 10 points and six rebounds, and guard Sean Ogirri provides plenty of 3-point pop (44 percent) off the bench. Wichita State won a pair of games in the NIT last season. I won't be surprised if they picked up a scalp in this year's Big Dance.
George Mason (13-5, 7-2, RPI 41, SOS 88) - This club lost by five at Wake Forest, by two at Mississippi State, and by one at Old Dominion. The good news is that they're battling. The bad news is that they didn't win. This is a very tough, disciplined crew. They play team basketball, evident by their five double-digit scorers. While George Mason might not have the stones to upset one of the big boys, they have the talent to give some No. 2 or No. 3 seed quite a scare.
Nevada (13-5, 3-3, RPI 42, SOS 138) - I'm not as impressed with this team as a lot of people are, and I turned a nice little profit from their home loss to Utah State on Monday. Nick Fazekas is a stud, as evident in his 35-point eruption during the win over Kansas, but I feel like they lost too much experience from last season's squad. However, since the program made the Sweet Sixteen two years ago and the Second Round last year, they deserve a spot on this list.
Others mid-majors to watch for: Utah State, Montana, Southern Illinois, IUPUI, Oral Roberts.
Questions or comments for Robert? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.