Every year, one team makes a surprisingly deep run in the NCAA Tournament. This past year it was Butler and VCU making the Final Four, while in 2010 it was Butler making the national championship game and sixth-seeded Tennessee reaching the Elite Eight. This coming season, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State are heavy favorites to reach the Final Four in New Orleans, but here are 10 teams that could make a surprising run in March.
10. West Virginia Mountaineers
2010-11 Record: 21-12
Bob Huggins‘ teams are always known for defense and toughness, and this team will be no different. Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones will be the undisputed senior leaders for the team, while Deniz Kilicli will set the tone for the Mountaineers as he is one of the toughest players in all of college basketball and should see more minutes this year. Freshman Jabarie Hinds will provide playmaking and scoring off the bench for the Mountaineers, but unfortunately transfer Aaric Murray will not be eligible until next season as he could be a real difference maker.
9. George Mason Patriots
2010-11 Record: 27-7
Former Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt walks into a great situation at George Mason this season. This team is a veteran laden squad that is coming off of a first-round victory over Villanova last season. Forward Ryan Pearson could be a mid-major star in the making this year after he averaged 14.2 points on 51 percent shooting and 6.7 rebounds per game last year, and should see those numbers increase. Watch out for the Patriots to make a run similar to their Final Four run in 2006.
8. Cincinnati Bearcats
2010-11 Record: 26-9
While many people have Cincinnati in the top 15, they make this list because of the lack of attention they get behind other Big East teams. Traditional powers Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville are getting all the attention, but people would be wise not to overlook Cincinnati. They return one of the more powerful and athletic forwards in the country in Yancy Gates as well as standout guard Sean Kilpatrick. With those two anchoring the team and a strong freshmen class coming in led by uber-athlete Shaq Thomas, the Bearcats will be very dangerous.
7. Memphis Tigers
2010-11 Record: 25-12
Last season, Memphis was one of the youngest teams in the NCAA boasting a freshmen class of seven including homegrown players Joe Jackson, Tarik Black and Chris Black. The Tigers had some road bumps – as could be expected for any team that young – but seemed to get everything together in time for the NCAA Tournament where they suffered a close loss to Arizona in the first round. With last year’s freshmen all returning with a year under their belts, and another Memphis product, Adonis Thomas, entering the program as freshman, the Tigers should have a smoother season to set them up for a potentially great March.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
2010-11 Record: 17-14
Over the past two seasons, Mississippi State has probably been the most inconsistent team in college basketball. Two years ago, the team’s star freshman, Renardo Sidney, was ineligible for the entire season, and this past year Sidney, Dee Bost and Ravern Johnson were all suspended at some point throughout the season. This year, Bost returns as the floor general in Starkville and he is one of the more underappreciated true point guards in college hoops. The front court will be loaded with Sidney and athletic UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie, in addition to solid backup Wendell Lewis. Also, five-star recruit Rodney Hood should fill the void left by Johnson on the wing. If the Bulldogs can stay on track for the whole season, they have the potential to be really dangerous.
5. Missouri Tigers
2010-11 Record: 23-11
The Tigers started out last season strong before fading late and losing in the first round to Cincinnati. In the offseason, head coach Mike Anderson left for Arkansas and Frank Haith was brought in to replace him. Haith entered a great situation where has the chance to win immediately with essentially his entire rotation intact including Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe and Kim English. The wild card here is that these players were recruited to play in Anderson’s system, but if they can adapt to a new coach, they are one of the more talented teams in college basketball.
4. Xavier Musketeers
2010-11 Record: 24-7
Xavier received a big boost when point guard Tu Holloway decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return for his senior season. He averaged 20.2 points, 5.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game last year and Xavier’s second and third leading scorers return as well. The Musketeers also added versatile Vanderbilt forward Andre Walker who will be eligible to play right away and will be a defensive stopper for the team. The freshmen class consisting of Dee Davis, Dezmine Wells and Jalen Reynolds were all big coups for Coach Chris Mack, and are expected to contribute right away.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
2010-11 Record: 25-12
When talking about the SEC this year, three teams usually come to mind: Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida (all mentioned as possible top-10 teams), but nobody is mentioning Alabama. The Tide will be led by forward JaMychal Green, one of the most underrated players in the country who averaged 16.0 points and 7.8 rebounds last season, and will be a legitimate contender for SEC and National Player of the Year honors. ‘Bama will have a loaded backcourt as well with athletic two-guard Tony Mitchell being one of the most efficient shooting guards in the country (he shot 52 percent from the field last season) and point guard Trevor Releford, and boast a deep and talented six-player recruiting class. After making the NIT Finals last year, the Tide are well-positioned for a deep NCAA run this year.
2. Belmont Bruins
2010-11 Record: 30-5
Belmont is one of the deepest teams in all of college basketball. Last season, they ran away with the Atlantic Sun regular season and conference tournament titles, with an average margin of victory in conference of 24 points per game – suffering only one loss to arch-rival Lipscomb. The Bruins had 11 guys play at least 10 minutes per game last year, and nine of them are returning this season including junior guard Ian Clark, one of the better mid-major scorers in the country. With early season contests against Duke and Memphis, we will see very quickly if the Bruins are for real.
1. Harvard Crimson
2010-11 Record: 23-7
Last year Harvard won a share of their first-ever Ivy League title and only a Doug Davis buzzer beater in the Ivy League playoff prevented the Crimson from reaching the NCAA Tournament. They return their entire team this year including Ivy League Player of the Year Keith Wright, and forward Kyle Casey will be fully healthy this year after battling a foot injury throughout last season. Harvard also has a very talented freshmen class coming in with athletic forward Wesley Saunders and center Kenyatta Smith expected to make an impact right away. The Crimson should easily win the Ivy League outright this year.
What college basketball teams do you think are flying under the radar this season?
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