We all know some mid-majors (and they hate that term) are going to make noise in the NCAA Tournament. It has been happening for years now…remember Butler from the last two tournaments? Northern Iowa beating Kansas? Right now, after watching a lot of basketball over the weekend, I am very impressed with a couple of teams…in a big way.
1. No. 24 Wichita State may be the best mid-major this season. No surprise there. I picked them to beat Davidson (no slouches themselves…the Wildcats beat Kansas in Kansas City earlier this month) on Saturday. They won, going away. The Shockers shot nearly 64 percent and they are scoring 1.22 points per possession (this is the newest stat researchers love) over the past four games. Coach Gregg Marshall’s team won the NIT last year…he has the pedigree to get this team not only to the Big Dance…but they could go deep into the tournament.
2. No. 16 Murray State is as good as advertised. I picked the Racers to beat No. 21 Saint Mary’s and was rewarded with a surprisingly easy win. Saint Mary’s star guard, Matthew Dellavedova was listed as “doubtful”…which really means it’s “doubtful” whether he would NOT play. The home team overwhelmed their West Coast visitors in a raucous arena and even Dickie V was there to fuel the fans’ noise. Impressed? You bet…Racers star Isaiah Canaan had 23 points on just 13 shots and had four assists. Murray State shot 58 percent from the field. And this against a GOOD opponent. Yes, the OVC is weak…and the committee says you can play your way out of a bad seed, but you can’t play your way out of missing the NCAA tournament. Murray will be there…and will get a good seed.
3. Creighton was coming off a three-game Missouri Valley Conference losing streak and they had to play a GOOD Long Beach State team. The 81-79 win by the Bluejays is what the BracketBusters series is all about. A potential bubble team playing well and getting a win that the committee will look upon favorably…at least Creighton hopes so. Doing the Dougie is the thing for Creighton, and star forward Doug McDermott responded with 36 points and 11 rebounds. LBSU could be in a bit of trouble because of this loss. They are a good team with a questionable at-large profile. They beat Pitt on the road earlier this year and has a neutral-site win over shorthanded Xavier…but that’s it. This would have been a real good win for them…as good as it was for Creighton.
4. Let’s look at a tale of two teams in the MAC. The league’s best team, Akron, lost to Oral Roberts, 67-61. ORU is surprisingly good…an RPI in the top 50 and have played tough at Gonzaga and West Virginia earlier in the season. Their bad loss: UT-San Antonio in the first round of the Preseason NIT Tip-Off. ORU could win 27 games this year, lose in the conference championship game and go to the NIT.
The other MAC team I want to look at is Ohio. They ran UNC Asheville off the court Saturday night in what had to be one of the Bulldogs’ worst efforts of the season. They were out-of-sorts from the opening tip. Missing one key senior starter (Chris Stephenson) seemed to put them off kilter. The nation’s fourth-highest scoring team did nothing in the first half…scoring just 18 points on 21 percent shooting. Ohio is in fourth place in the MAC East, and they came out and dominated the Big South Conference’s regular season champions. Ohio’s lock-down defense and outstanding 73 percent shooting led them to a huge win before a loud crowd in Athens.
5. The Drexel Dragons held up the Colonial Athletic Association’s outstanding reputation by beating (okay, demolishing) Cleveland State, 69-49. Their poor play earlier this year has turned around. This is a defensive team, and they held CSU to 28 percent. However, their recent offensive turn-around is what is getting everyone’s attention. the Dragons have scored at least 1.10 points per possession in seven out of their last ten games. They will battle CAA co-leader George Mason for the title…but remember this. Four CAA BracketBuster teams, Drexel, Mason, VCU and ODU won their games. What a weekend for that league!
The BracketBusters may be a made-for-ESPN event, but even I was surprised at some of the quality of play in this year’s games. If anything, it shows the NCAA Tournament is really going to be fun. Yes, you can probably pencil in Kentucky, Syracuse, Duke and Mizzou or Kansas for a top seed…but watch out for the mid-majors. They will make noise again…and I will be picking some of them, that’s for sure.