We all like to see the heavyweights battle it out come March. North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, & Kansas have all given us more than their share of great tournament moments. Aside from seeing our favorite teams cut the nets down on the first Monday night in April, the best part of the NCAA tournament is seeing who wears the Cinderella slipper. Who can forget Bryce Drew and Valparaiso, or George Mason going through Michigan State, North Carolina, and UConn as they made their way to the Final Four, or Davidson capturing the attention of the country on the way to an Elite Eight led by a skinny, baby-face, son of a former NBA player named Stephen Curry. The little guy is what makes March…well mad. It feels like a cop-out to call Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s mid-major anymore (one was about being a minute away from winning a national title, the other has become a mainstay in the top 25), so lets take a glance at a few other teams who are hoping they can keep the clock from striking midnight.
Middle Tennessee State
The Blue Raiders have advanced to the second round of the tournament each of the past two seasons. In 2016, they upset one of the favorites to win it all in Michigan State as a 15 seed. They followed that up by knocking off Minnesota last season in the always fun 5-12 matchup. Despite their first round success, MTSU is looking to stay at the dance a little while longer. They are led by Senior guard Giddy Potts. Potts burst on the national scene with his 18 point performance in their upset of Michigan State, and has since etched his name into the record books in Murfeesboro. Last season he became the 33rd member of the school’s 1,000 point club, while he averaged 15.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and led the team with 47 steals. Potts was also named MVP of the Conference USA Tournament where he scored 19.3 ppg.
There is plenty to be “Giddy” about for MTSU this season.
Vermont is no stranger to the month of March. The Catamounts have missed out on postseason play only twice since 2003. They own two NCAA tournament victories, highlighted by their upset as a 13 seed of 4th seeded Syracuse in 2005. Vermont gave another 4 seed a battle last season, before falling by 10 to Purdue in the first round. They return their top 3 scorers from last season in Anthony Lamb, Payton Henson, and Trae Bell-Haynes. Bell-Haynes was named 1st Team All-Conference & America East POY, while Lamb was the 2nd Team All-Conference & America East ROY.
You can’t advance if you aren’t in the dance, and after going undefeated through the America East last season, the Catamounts seem like a good bet to give one of the big boys a fit come March.
Rick Byrd is one of the most respected coaches in the game, and will begin his 32nd season as head coach in Nashville. Byrd took over the program in 1986, and has gone from NAIA, to navigating the purgatory that is known as being a college basketball independent, to the Atlantic Sun Conference, to making the seamless transition to Ohio Valley Conference power. The Bruins have spent the last 5 seasons as a member of the OVC, a move that was meant to give them a little more competition on the hardwood in a conference that many felt would provide them a stiffer path to the NCAA Tournament. How’s that working out for the rest of the OVC? Belmont has gone 66-14 in conference play, and has finished with at least a share of 1st place each season (4 times outright & a tie in 2014-15). In fact, Belmont has finished with a 1 beside their name each of the last 8 season going back to their time in the A-Sun. If they are to continue their success, they will have to find a way to make up for the loss of OVC POY Evan Bradds and his 20.8 ppg and 8.6 rpg. They will rely heavily on Bradds fellow 1st Team All-Conference member guard Austin Luke, as well as forward Amanze Egekeze.
Upset losses in the OVC tournament has sent Belmont to the NIT each of the last 2 seasons. They knocked off Georgia before falling to Georgia Tech last season, but are undoubtedly going to be in a position to return to the Big Dance as they seek their first tournament victory.
The Mavericks are coming off of their most successful season in school history. They posted a school record 27 wins, went 14-4 in winning the Sun Belt Conference Regular Season, and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT before falling to fellow “little guy” Cal State Bakersfield. Coach Scott Cross will begin his 12th season at UT-A, and will lean on a pair of seniors in Kevin Hervey & Erick Neal. Hervey is a 6’9 230 lbs monster, who is in the process of rewriting the record books. He ended the season with 1,107 pts (15th all-time at UT-A and the 2nd highest 3 year total ever), 639 rebounds (10th in UT-A history and the highest 3 year total ever), and 25 career double-doubles which is tops in that category. What makes those numbers even more impressive is the fact that they were done in 2 ½ yrs, as he was sidelined 16 games into his sophomore season with a knee injury while he was averaging 18.1 ppg & 9.8 rpg. Hervey was named Sun Belt Conference Student Athlete of the Year, Player of the Year, and was an Honerable Mention All-American selection. His teammate, Erick Neal, followed up a 1st Team All-Conference sophomore season by being named 2nd Team All-Conference as a junior. Neal led the SBC in with 6.6 apg, and his 237 assists were the most in school history. As good as he is at doling the rock to his teammates, he is equally good at taking from the other team. His 56 steals last season were good for 11th in school history, and his average of 1.7 spg were 2nd in the conference.
UT-Arlington advanced to the CIT quarterfinals in 2016, and the NIT quarterfinals in 2017. Their postseason experience could be invaluable come March as they look to make their 2nd NCAA Tournament.