March is here and it has definitely brought the madness with it. The 2012-13 NCAA Basketball season has been one where no one team has been able to keep hold of the No. 1 ranking. With the parity level so high, the NCAA Tournament is set up perfectly to be one of monumental upsets. High major and mid major teams alike aren’t having their best years, and it has shown on the court.
Every year when the NCAA Tournament comes around, people try to pick out exactly which team is going to upset higher-seeded teams and go on a surprise run through the tournament. Unlike most years where there is an upper echelon of teams, this season there has been more parity. The longest any team has been ranked No. 1 was the Indiana Hoosiers, who held the claim during the first five weeks of the season.
With the lack of a dominant team, this year’s tournament could be full of Cinderellas and the clock most likely won’t strike midnight for a few of them. Much like in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when the Butler Bulldogs got on a roll, and in 2006 when the George Mason Patriots gritted their way to the Final Four, there is the potential for a lower-ranked team to make a name for themselves this year.
Here are the five teams that have the best chance to go on a similar run.
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1. MINNESOTA (No. 11 Seed, South Region)
The Minnesota Golden Gophers aren’t necessarily the first team that comes to mind when you think of a Cinderella team, and rightfully so. Minnesota is a team that many people across the nation have heard of and they played in the most competitive conference in the country, the Big Ten. However, Minnesota started off unranked in the Preseason Top 25 Poll, only cracked the top 10 for three weeks and spent the final four weeks of the season outside the top 25 polls.
Tubby Smith and his team finished with an 8-10 record in conference, an underperformance to say the least. After a 12-1 record in out of conference play and an opening conference win against Michigan State, Minnesota looked like it could live up to the potential that the players on their roster possessed. As conference play continued, the Golden Gophers turned in bad night after bad night, culminating in a first-round loss to Illinois in the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
Minnesota was definitely a team that could have found itself on the outside looking in if some of the automatic bids went a different way. But they found a way into the Big Dance and lucked into a more than favorable match up with No. 6-seeded UCLA. The Bruins started to look like the powerhouse they once were out West thanks to the play of freshmen Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams and impressive play from their trio of North Carolina Tar Heel transfers: Larry Drew, Tyler and Travis Wear.
However, with Adams being sidelined because of a broken right foot he suffered during the final play of the Bruins win over Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, the Bruins aren’t the same team that won the conference regular season title. Without Adams, UCLA loses a vital scoring option (15.3 PPG), as well as size (6-5, 220 pounds). And size is Minnesota’s greatest strength. Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams combine to make one of the most athletic frontcourts in the nation. Look for Mbakwe (10.3 PPG and 8.7 RPG) and Williams (10.3 PPG and 5.1 RPG) to be the key components in not only a win over UCLA, but a deep run by the Golden Gophers in the tourney.
2. BUCKNELL (No. 11 Seed, East Region)
Bucknell is definitely much more of an archetype for a “David.” Though the Bison were able to win both the regular season and conference tournament title in the Patriot League, their success this season has not been as well documented nationally.
Bucknell may be one of the hottest teams playing right now and they are riding high off a seven-game win streak where their average margin of victory was 13. The Bison are no stranger to the NCAA Tournament — including this year they will have made six total appearances and possess a 2-5 record in tournament play. Their two wins came against Arkansas — as a No. 9 seed in 2006 — and the Kansas Jayhakws — as a No. 14 seed in 2005. Bucknell has played the role of Cinderella before and are capable again of doing the same this year.
The key to the Bison keeping up their winning streak is the play of star big man Mike Muscala. The 6-11 senior center is Bucknell’s best player and in the second-round game against Butler, Muscala will be the best player on the court. On the year, Muscala put up 19 PPG, 11.2 RPG and 2.4 BPG. On the other side of the court, the Bulldogs tallest player, 6-11 Andrew Smith, is tied for the team lead in rebounds at only 5.7 per game. While Smith and Muscala are the same height that’s about where the comparisons between the two players end.
Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke is the engine that makes the Bulldogs go and if Bucknell can keep him contained, or if Muscala can straight-up outplay him, the Bison could very well be looking at their first appearance in the third round of the NCAA Tournament ever and a matchup with the winner of the Marquette Golden Eagles and Davidson Wildcats, a game that could be on upset alert as well.
3. IOWA STATE (No. 10 Seed, West Region)
The Iowa State Cyclones are the second team to play in a major conference and appear on this list. Finishing fourth in the Big 12 is nothing to laugh at. The Cyclones gave regular season and conference title champion Kansas the two hardest games it faced all season; two overtimes games, 97-89 and 108-96, where the Cyclones had them all but won in the final moments of regulation. Head coach Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg has turned Iowa State’s program around ten-fold during his three-year tenure, from 16-16 (3-13 in conference) to 23-11 and 22-11 seasons. The Cyclones are becoming a mainstay atop the Big 12.
One of the biggest reasons for the quick turnaround under Hoiberg has been the mass amount of transfers that have found themselves in Ames, Iowa. Players like Royce White (NBA), Chris Allen (Graduated), Chris Babb, Tyrus McGee, Anthony Booker, Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious were all players that transferred into the program. Hoiberg even admitted that transfer players have jumpstarted the rebuilding process in Ames, saying with freshmen alone, it would’ve taken a long, long time.
The Cyclones might be one of the most under-seeded teams in the tourney. Though their record may not say as much, this is a team that is capable of competing against anyone on any night in any arena. Come Friday night in Dayton, Ohio, No. 7 seed Notre Dame may be in over their heads when they take the court against Iowa State.
Lucious has proven he can shine in the Big Dance. In 2010 after star point guard Kalin Lucas went down with an Achilles injury, he hit the game-winning three-point shot against Maryland that propelled Michigan State to their eighth Final Four. While do-everything forward Royce White is no longer with the Cyclones, the roster is still stock full of talent from top to bottom. Iowa State has five players that average 10-plus points. If “The Mayor” is able to lead the Cyclones deep into the tournament he could become even more famous in Ames than he is now.
4. BELMONT (No. 11 Seed, West Region)
Belmont has been a favorite pick of many to be a giant killer in the last two NCAA Tournaments; however, they suffered losses to both the Georgetown Hoyas and the Wisconsin Badgers. This year the Bruins are once again a popular pick to score an upset in the second round. In 2008, Belmont almost pulled off a No. 15 seed over a No. 2 seed upset against Duke, ultimately losing by one point, 71-70. In their five tournament appearances, the Bruins have gone an unflattering 0-5.
This year could be the year that they add a win to the other side of that record. Led by senior sharpshooter Ian Clark (18.1 PPG, 54 FG percent and 46 3pt FG percent), Belmont could easily ride the right-hander’s shooting touch to national notoriety and a string of wins in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins second round opponent is Arizona. ‘Zona and head coach Sean Miller have been on a steady rise to the top of the Pac-12 the last few years. This season was supposed to be the year that they reasserted their dominance in the West. However, after an impressive 20-2 start, they finished the season 5-5.
Belmont’s offense is its best asset: nationally, they rank fourth in field goal percentage (49.4), 15th in assists (15.9 per game) and 15th in points per game (77.2). This team is capable of unloading a slew of buckets in a moment’s notice. But to get a win over not just Arizona, the Bruins will need to sure up their attack on the glass: for the season they average 32.2 a game, which nets them at No. 276 overall. If they can improve on that, than the sky is the limit for the Ohio Valley Conference champions.
5. OREGON (No. 12 Seed, Midwest Region)
The Oregon Ducks find themselves on this list only because the NCAA Tournament Committee completely messed up with their seed. After defeating UCLA in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament championship, a conference that wasn’t completely abysmal like it was last year, head coach Dana Altman and his team definitely deserved a seed somewhere in the 7-10 range, especially if Villanova can pull off getting awarded a nine seed.
Not only did the Ducks finish tied for second in the Pac-12 with Arizona and California, they beat UCLA twice and even got a win over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Oregon is one of the most balanced teams in the tournament. Dominic Artis (8.5 PPG and 3.4 APG), Arsalan Kazemi (9.3 PPG and 9.5 RPG), Tony Woods (9.5 PPG and 1.1 BPG), Damyean Dotson (10.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG), Carlos Emory (11 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and E.J. Singler (11.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG and 2.9 APG) are all quality contributors to this Oregon team. Dotson and Artis, the Ducks’ starting backcourt, are both freshman. And while the tournament isn’t always kind to freshmen, unless you’re as good as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both players have shown the mental and physical strength to play college basketball at a high level.
Their seed wasn’t the only bad draw that the Ducks got from the committee. Their second-round opponent, Oklahoma State, isn’t a pushover either. The Cowboys have one of, if not, the best freshman in the country in Marcus Smart… and don’t forget about super sophomore Le’Bryan Nash, and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State’s leading scorer. Artis and Dotson will have more than their hands full trying to keep Smart and Brown in front of them. If they are able to keep those two in check, then Oregon could be on it’s way to a Sweet Sixteen appearance (at the very least) this year.
Who’s your sleeper this year?
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