Cinderella Teams to Watch
The excitement of the NCAA tournament boils down to the sheer number of teams involved. Unlike college football's four-team finale, the tournament's policy of letting conference champions and various at-large bids play adds layers of intrigue to potential bracket-makers across the country. From Florida Gulf Coast's dunking frenzy of 2013 to George Mason's heart-stopping 2006 Final Four run, obscure programs can become legends in just one March.
Here are three conference champions that have not only clinched the right to go to the big stage, but possess the talent and teamwork to make a cinderella run:
The past few years, the Missouri Valley Conference's Wichita State squad has made quite the noise, converting NBA-level talent into several tournament runs, most notably 2013's Final Four appearance.
Wichita’s neighbors to the north, Northern Iowa, has the potential to replicate the Shockers' tournament success. For starters, the Panthers (22-12) have beaten their accomplished conference rivals twice this season, including in the MVC semi-finals. On top of that, the team took advantage of a strong non-conference schedule by knocking off both then-No. 1 North Carolina and Iowa State at home.
Multiple hallmarks of an upset-driven group surround the Panthers, all starting with the shooting. Three of the team's starters, Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson and Jeremy Morgan, all fire from 3-point distance at a 39 percent or better clip, giving the Panthers several offensive weapons. The long-range strength of the squad is exacerbated by the quantity of their bombing, shooting 42.4 percent of field-goal attempts from behind the 3-point line.
Another quality to add to the Panthers' cinderella case is the teams' pace, or lack thereof. The Panthers excel at slowing the pace, with the 63.7 possessions per 40 minutes, resembling Tony Bennett's Virginia teams more than the usual mid-major fare.
Taking the spotlight has come natural for the Panthers, now they can do it on the largest stage in college hoops.
Don't underestimate the raw excitement of a team finally going dancing. After 54 long years, the Bulldogs (22-6) are finally back in the NCAA’s, taking advantage of the last Ivy League season without a conference tournament. Not that the team hasn't earned it, dominating the conference with a 13-1 record and dispatching Ivy opponents by a double-digit average.
The Bulldogs, hoping to join the likes of 2010's Sweet Sixteen Cornell squad in Ivy cinderella lore, play every contest like the National Championship game. Out-muscling opponents on the boards is the teams' calling card, with only Michigan State grabbing a greater percentage of rebounds in the nation than the Bulldogs' 57.9 percent. Also in the nations' top ten in offensive rebounding, coach James Jones' group creates extra opportunities and keeps the ball out of opponents’ hands.
The team's tenacity extends to the defensive end as well; ranking 16th in the country in defensive rating and allowing a paltry 63.1 points a game.
By claiming victory in the rebounding game, getting offense from the team's top scoring duo of senior Justin Sears and sophomore Makai Mason, as well as stifling teams on the other end, the Bulldogs may make their first tournament stay in decades an extended one.
Forget Monmouth and its bench antics, Iona is the team to watch in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Defeating the top-seeded Hawks in the MAAC finals, the Gaels (22-10) punched their ticket to the dance on the back of senior supernova A.J. English. The 6'4" NBA prospect does it all for his team, leading the MAAC in both points (22.4) and assists (6.2) per game, while also topping the conference in 3-point field goals. English's reputation as a scoring sensation for the Gaels has grown in his senior year, pouring in 46 against Fairfield in December and 45 against Monmouth in January.
While English looks to be the next mid-major superstar, evoking memories of Stephen Curry's 2008 run with Davidson, the Gaels are more than a one-man show. Passing is key with this squad, putting in 60.7 percent of its' shots off of assists. The Gaels use their passing prowess to find someone behind the 3-point line, shooting 44.2 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc.
English's brilliance, combined with a potent team attack, gives the Gaels a chance against anyone.
Thomas Leffler is a sophomore studying broadcast journalism. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on twitter @tleffler32.