This college basketball season has been one of the more entertaining in a few years. With no clear cut favorite to cut down the nets at the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament, it feels like anything can happen. Even the best teams in the country have their weaknesses.
So it would only be fitting that this March’s Big Dance will feature its handful of upsets. Every season sees its fair share of higher seeds beating a top seed, but fans still are in shock when it happens. So with just under three weeks left until Selection Sunday, it is time to take a closer look.
As the regular season comes to a close for the smaller conference teams, now is the time to identify which ones could be the ones worth looking at once they make it to the field of 68. So with that said, here are four teams worth watching during their conference tournaments, as they could very much have an impact when we reach the big one.
You want to talk about a small conference team that is on an absolute roll, then look no further than the Monmouth Hawks. Led by senior guard Justin Robinson, Monmouth is currently on a 14 game winning streak following their 82-62 destruction of Fairfield on Tuesday.
The Hawks were the first team to clinch the top seed in their respective conference, earning top honors in the MAAC for the second straight season. They now have two games remaining, with a home game against Siena followed by a road game at Iona. This will be followed up by the MAAC Tournament, which is where Monmouth will look to punch their ticket to the Big Dance. After being passed over a season ago, the Hawks will need to earn a guaranteed spot in the Tourney if they want to go dancing.
Assuming they make it, four seeds better watch out. Behind Robinson, the team will be counting on the sweet shooting of Micah Seaborn and Je’lon Hornbeak. Big man Chris Brady is much improved in his senior year and is the team’s leading rebounder, pulling in nearly seven boards a game.
The teams greatest asset is their ability to knock down free throws at a tremendous rate. With their free throw shooting percent sitting at 75, the team ranks 41st out of 347 in the metric. If they get matched up against a team like Butler or Florida State, who tend to foul at a rate more than they should, Robinson and the Hawks could easily take down a four seed.
Vermont is the cream of the crop in the American East Conference. With only two games left in their regular season, the Catamounts are undefeated in conference play. While they have lost five games in total on the season, almost all of those losses have come to tournament teams, or teams on the bubble (Providence, Houston, South Carolina, Butler make up four of their five losses).
It should also be noted that all of those four losses came on the road. Outside of the record, this is a team build on some really solid basketball and impressive numbers. Trae Bell-Haynes does a little bit of everything and helps this team go. On the boards, Anthony Lamb and Payton Henson pull down over five rebounds a game while also serving as the team’s second and third-leading scorers.
As a whole, this team every statistical benchmark to look for in finding a sleeper team. They outscore their opponents by over ten points a game while also creating five possessions a game compared to their opponents. They shoot the ball well while also playing solid defense. They keep their fouls down while also shooting their free throws.
But on top of that, this team has one thing that can become absolutely crucial when it comes to taking down a five seed this March. This team has depth and does not rely on a single player. There are ten players on the roster who average over ten minutes a game, with five of them averaging over twenty. Pair that with the experience of them facing tournament quality teams already and this is a team that could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Who could forget Dunk City? Back in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Florida Gulf Coast shocked the world by becoming the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen. While this is not the same team, the Eagles are still rocking the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The team has gone 11-2 in conference play, with junior guard Brandon Goodwin being a crucial part of their success. The team has three others, Zach Johnson, Demetris Morant and Chrisitan Terrell, all averaging in double digits in points. Morant is a monster on the boards, leading the club on his way to over eight rebounds a game.
The team knows how to score the ball too. They are rather efficient scoring the ball, scoring just over .97 points per shot. Their field goal percentage sits at an extremely impressive 50.5 percent, which is good for fifth in the nation out of 347 teams. When they reach the free throw line, they knock shots down at an even 70 percent.
They may be relegated to a 15 seed, but a two seed better not take this team lightly. If they come up against a team that does not play defense all that well, things could get interesting really quick. Could 2017 see the return of 2013’s Dunk City? Only time will tell, but this is certainly a team worth monitoring, especially since they have already had a test run against clubs such as Florida, Baylor and Michigan State.
Middle Tennesse Blue Raiders
Middle Tennessee is considered to be hands down the best small conference school this season. They have been projected as an 11 seed in most early brackets, which is better than the standard 12 for the highest ranked small conference club. The Blue Raiders have a 14-1 record in Conference USA this season, which places them at 24-4 overall.
The team is built upon three core players. First, we have senior forward JaCorey Williams and his 17.5 points per game. Next, there is junior guard Giddy Potts, who shoots free throws at an 82.2 percent clip. Finally, we have senior forward Reggie Upshaw, who pulls down 6.6 rebounds a game. All three of these men average over 30 minutes a game, score over 14 points per game while also bringing home at least five rebounds a game.
The team has an impressive overall profile from a statistical point of view. Not only do they beat their opponents by an average of double digit points a game, but they also create over seven more possessions a game than their adversaries. They can shoot the ball at a 48.6 percent clip. But more impressively, they can play some lock down defense.
Given the fact that they are looking at either an 11 or 12 seed, they will get the luxury of getting either a five or a six seed. That puts them in the prime position for an upset given their big three. They will certainly be a popular upset pick when the bracket is released.
So which unlucky teams will have the luxury of facing off against these four small conference studs? They are ready to bust some brackets, as long as things go according to plan in their respective conference tournaments. So who do you see
So who do you see as this year’s Cinderella team? Who will pull the biggest upset? Tell us in the comments!