Three Mid-Major Teams Who Could Make Deep Tournament Runs in 2012

Story posted March 10, 2012 in Sports, CommRadio by Michael Ravotti

As Selection Sunday approaches, college basketball enthusiasts will be scanning conference standings, indulging in an ample amount of game action with 30 different conference tournaments (plus the Ivy League), all while pretending like they know how to calculate a team’s RPI and strength of schedule.

While this nationwide cram session of basketball knowledge ensues, there are always teams people forget about because they are not on the national scene as much as others. These teams are usually the ones that ruin brackets from sea to shining sea due to their lack of exposure for most, if not all, of the season.

There were several examples last year: Morehead State upsetting Louisville in the second round, Richmond finding a way to the Sweet Sixteen and VCU playing their way into the Final Four. All of these scenarios caused people to scratch their heads, throw their arms up in disgust and almost ceremoniously rip their brackets to shreds and toss them into the trash.

What did those three teams have in common? A lack of national exposure.

It is common to hear people say that nonconference games do not mean much when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. This is simply not true. For many teams in the college basketball landscape, nonconference play is the only chance for them to face tournament-caliber competition.

Once conference play arrives, the major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12) dominate television, regardless of what teams are playing. The key to bracket success in March is paying attention to nonconference "David vs. Goliath" matchups from October through December. To prove this point, let's take a look at the three teams who surprised people in last year's tournament: Morehead State, Richmond and VCU.

2011: Morehead State (Ohio Valley Conference)

The 13th-seeded Morehead State Eagles defeated the 4th-seeded Louisville Cardinals 62-61, providing the NCAA Tournament with its first true upset. You can probably count on one hand how many people had this one in their bracket pool.

This Morehead State team was not one that anyone should have overlooked. They were anchored inside by Kenneth Faried, who led the nation in rebounding (14.5 rebounds per game). He is now averaging 8.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, and has recorded a double-double in three of his last four games. Thanks to Faried and others, the Eagles entered the tournament as one of the better rebounding teams in the field, averaging almost a full rebound per game more than Louisville.

On November 21 of that season, Morehead State outrebounded 10th-ranked Florida 38-32 and nearly pulled off the upset, falling 61-55. Two days later, the Eagles faced 3rd-ranked Ohio State and trailed by just seven with 6:34 left in the game. They were only outrebounded 29-28 by the Buckeyes.

Morehead State proved in those games that their rebounding could keep them in games against highly ranked opponents. But by tournament time, those contests were completely forgotten. They both would foreshadow what Morehead State was capable of doing, and ultimately did to Louisville.

2011: Richmond (Atlantic-10 Conference)

The 12th-seeded Richmond Spiders advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen after defeating the 5th-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores and the aforementioned Morehead State Eagles.

Prior to the tournament, the Spiders put on an impressive display in the A-10 Tournament, clinching the automatic bid for the conference. The team was 27-7 entering its first tournament matchup against Vanderbilt, which was impressive enough. But their performance in nonconference games should have made their upset of Vanderbilt much less surprising than it ended up being.

On November 28, Richmond battled 8th-ranked Purdue at a neutral site near Chicago. The Spiders grabbed an early lead and never looked back, cruising to a 65-54 victory. Richmond shot 42 percent from the floor in that game, largely aided by Kevin Anderson's 28 point performance. At times, they made Purdue look confused and out of sync on defense.

Then on December 11, Richmond played one of the eventual Final Four participants in VCU at home. Richmond led 40-17 at half and never trailed, coasting to an easy 72-60 win. Topping the Purdue performance, the Spiders shot a mind-boggling 55 percent from the field and held VCU to just 7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Richmond didn’t have a bad loss on their schedule all season, and were running and shooting teams to death from October until March. Both of Richmond’s first two matchups in the NCAA tournament were against teams that weren’t know for their transition basketball, allowing the Spiders to trap them in their web, pun intended, and advance in the tournament.

2011: Virginia Commonwealth (Colonial Athletic Association)

The biggest Cinderella story from last year's tournament was the Rams of VCU. The 11th seed had to play in the newly created "First Four" round just to qualify for the field of 64 teams. To advance all the way to the Final Four, VCU had to defeat a wide range of major conference teams on its way to Houston. They knocked off Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and top-seeded Kansas en route to a Final Four trip.

While many people were appalled that VCU even made the tournament, let alone go to the Final Four, the stats showed in each of these games that VCU held true to their team identity the entire season: a stifling three-point defense. In the NIT Season Tip-Off, VCU made their way to Madison Square Garden, where they nearly defeated 24th-ranked Tennessee, as they held them to just 21 percent shooting from three-point range. They then overpowered a tough NCAA Tournament-bound UCLA squad in the third place game.

These two neutral site games showed that VCU could play with bigger name schools when the time came. When the NCAA Tournament came around and the Rams were selected into the field, every team they faced struggled from three-point range. Except for Florida State, every team they played shot under their season average for three-pointers. The most prominent example came in their upset of Kansas: the Jayhawks shot just nine percent from three. This was a trend throughout the season, and if people had taken notice, VCU's run might not have been so surprising.

Looking ahead at this year's NCAA Tournament, there are several teams that are following similar paths under the radar. While some mid-majors like Creighton, Murray State, St. Mary's and Gonzaga have been getting press for their performances, several teams have not been and could very well shock people again. These are the nation's unsung heroes.

2012: Saint Louis (Atlantic-10 Conference)

The Billikens have some very impressive wins on their résumé this season. The 71-37 drubbing of Tennessee State in their opening game this season does not sound that impressive until you realize that Tennessee State is the only team to defeat Murray State this season (and they nearly did it twice).

The November 20 demolishing of potential tournament team Washington stands out the most. Saint Louis never trailed and won that game 77-64 behind Brian Conklin's 25 points. They shot 52 percent from the field, and led by as many as 29 points.

They even had a couple of impressive conference wins, including a sweep of the always-tough Xavier Musketeers. Even though their statistics are middling compared to the rest of the nation, they have shown themselves to be a dangerous threat to tournament opponents.

2012: Wichita State (Missouri Valley Conference)

Another team that has been showing a lot of potential and has received a decent amount of publicity is the Wichita State Shockers. Currently ranked 16th in the country, the Shockers have been putting up some impressive numbers this season, including shooting 48.5 percent from the field as a team and average 77.7 points per game. Those numbers are 12th and 18th in the nation, respectively.

The Shockers don't have a bad loss on their schedule, and have a couple of very impressive wins. Wichita State blew out 20th-ranked UNLV on December 4, winning by 19 points. They also thumped 15th-ranked Creighton with 21 point victory on February 11.

Their only losses, aside from a conference loss to Illinois State, were a triple-overtime loss to Drake, an overtime loss to tournament team Temple and two losses to ranked opponents (15th ranked Alabama and 19th ranked Creighton).

The Shockers lack a superstar, which is part of the reason that they have remained under-the-radar. But the team has a deep bench, going at least seven deep in every game. Teams with deep benches consistently perform well in the NCAA Tournament, and Wichita State should be no different.

2012: Long Beach State (Big West Conference)

No team has flown more under-the-radar in 2012 than Long Beach State. The 49ers had a very tough nonconference schedule, with games at Pitt, San Diego State, Montana, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina, as well as neutral site games against Xavier and Kansas State.

The 49ers went 2-6 in those eight ballgames, and ended up with a 7-6 nonconference record. That should make any opponent of this team in the NCAA Tournament cringe. Not only did Long Beach State challenge themselves in November and December, but they also had some success.

At this point, people have probably forgotten all of the teams they competed with in 2011.  They will enter the tournament as the most battle-tested mid-major team, and will fear no one, regardless of seeding.

Until their three point loss on March 3, Long Beach State had not lost a game since Christmas Day, aside from a buzzer beater loss at Creighton on February 18. Like Wichita State, this team is also very deep, and lacks a bad loss to scrutinize on their schedule.

Some of these teams could lose in their first games in the NCAA Tournament. But when looking through their schedules and performances, Saint Louis, Wichita State and Long Beach State have the tools to make a VCU-esque run in this tournament. There may be other teams that ulaimtely assume these roles, but the point here is to raise awareness of what teams should not be underestimated. And teams that challenge themselves in their nonconference games fit that bill.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Michael Ravotti is a senior majoring in Broadcast Journalism and is a ComRadio Sports Director. To contact him, email mmr5124@psu.edu.