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NCAAB: The mid-majors your team doesn't want to face

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

March 2nd, 2020

If you’re a fan of a big-time college basketball team, I don’t have to explain the danger of a team labeled as a possible Cinderella. We’ve all been there. Your team might be between a No. 3 seed and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, has had moments of strong play in the regular season, and then gets shocked by a team from a smaller conference that proves it can hang with the big boys.

If you’re a gambler, or looking for a possible edge in your local office pool, these are the Cinderella squads worth a closer look heading into the Big Dance.

Vermont

Conference: America East
Record: 23-7
Games of note: Win at St. John’s (70-68, Nov. 16), loss at Virginia (61-55, Nov. 19)

Vermont provided a notable upset back in 2005, when the Catamounts stunned No. 4 Syracuse in the first round. This year’s bunch has been strong all season and has made the most of limited opportunities against teams you’ve heard of. The Catamounts led Virginia with about five minutes to go, before they ran out of gas, and they’ve won 13 of their last 14 games.

The America East favorites bring stingy defense to the table and average 59.2 points allowed per game. Senior Anthony Lamb averages 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and complements a 6-foot-6 frame with a willingness to fire from deep if he is left open. If Lamb makes those shots, Vermont’s opponents can expect to be in for a long night.

UC Irvine

Conference: Big West
Record: 21-10 (13-2 Big West)
Games of note: Win at Boise State (69-60), loss at Colorado (69-53), loss at TCU (59-58)

UC Irvine has a strong recent record in the NCAA Tournament. A few years after it gave Louisville all it could handle in the first round, Irvine topped No. 4 seed Kansas State in 2019. The Anteaters' annual game plan is to play a tough out-of-conference schedule, which readies the squad for conference play and beyond.

This year that plan seems to have worked to perfection. Maybe the Big West isn’t good this year, but sleeping on the Anteaters would be a mistake.

Their offense is well balanced, with four players averaging double figures in points. UC Irvine also rebounds (39.5 per game, 40th nationally) and defends (65 points allowed per game, 58th nationally) very well. The Anteaters will be a tough out come tournament time.

Northern Iowa

Conference: Missouri Valley
Record: 25-5 (14-4 Missouri Valley)
Games of note: Loss vs. West Virginia (60-55), win at Colorado (79-76)

Northern Iowa has a history of making noise on a national stage. Say the words “Northern Iowa” to any Kansas fan, and the Jayhawk in your presence will shiver with the memory of the 2010 NCAA Tournament, when the Panthers took down the No. 1 seed in the second round.

It’s been a rough few years for the Panther faithful. Northern Iowa came into this season off three straight losing season. However, the 2019-2020 squad has done a lot right ahead of the Missouri Valley Tournament.

Guards AJ Green and Trae Berhow have combined to average nearly 33 points per game, while forward Austin Phyfe leads the team in rebounds and has shot 68.1% from the floor. If there’s a weakness on this team, it comes in ball movement, as the Panthers average just 12.4 assists per game. However, they also don’t make many silly mistakes, with an average of 12.2 turnovers per contest.

Unlike most teams in this article, the Panthers have likely assured themselves of a tournament bid. Barring a catastrophic loss early in the Missouri Valley Tournament and some rotten luck on Selection Sunday, they’ll be in the dance.

Colgate

Conference: Patriot League
Record: 23-8 (14-4 Patriot)
Games of note: Loss at Clemson (81-68), loss at Syracuse (70-54), loss at Auburn (91-62), win at Cincinnati (67-66)

As a native of upstate New York, I’m obligated to discuss a team north of the George Washington Bridge. Even if I wasn’t, though, I’d want to discuss Colgate, a team that has won 22 of its 27 games since a 1-3 start.

How have the Raiders done it? They’ve scored a lot of points by way of smart, unselfish play on the offensive end. Five Colgate players average 10 points or more per game, and the squad’s assist-to-turnover ratio (1.28) is tied for 28th best in Division I.

But Colgate’s depth hasn’t been tested. Only seven Raiders average more than 10 minutes per game, and that could be a problem against a team that knows how to get opponents in foul trouble. However, Colgate plays disciplined basketball and seems to have improved as the year progressed.

East Tennessee State

Conference: Southern
Record: 27-4 (16-2 Southern)
Games of Note: Loss at Kansas (75-63), win at LSU (74-63)

The Southern Conference is good, clean fun. This year the league may have the best mid-major team in the country.

It’s fun to see how ETSU has carved out such a successful campaign. The Buccaneers have an aversion to rebounding (35.7 per game, ranked 204th in the country), they don’t shoot three-pointers particularly well (34.1%), and four of the team’s top eight players in minutes per game are bad enough from the free throw line (65% or worse) to make fans nervous in late-game situations.

What the Bucs do well, though, is play defense like crazy. They’re tied for 19th in steals per game and rank 28th in points allowed, and that type of defense can solve plenty of problems. They rarely blow teams out, but if they get into a defensive showdown, they won't be out of their element.

New Mexico State

Conference: Western Athletic
Record: 24-6 (15-0 Western Athletic)
Games of Note: Loss at Arizona (83-53), loss vs. Washington State (63-54), win vs. Mississippi State (58-52)

The folks in Las Cruces have built one of the most successful mid-major programs of the last decade. The Aggies have won 23 games or more in every season since 2011-2012, and they’ve made the NCAA Tournament in all but one of those years.

But they haven’t won a game after their conference tournament since 1995, when they advanced to the NIT quarterfinals. There’s reason to believe this is the year New Mexico State breaks through.

In three seasons under coach Chris Jans, the Aggies are 82-17. The success they’ve had this season can be attributed to the squad’s lock-down defense and extraordinary depth. The Aggies are yielding just 60.1 points per game (seventh best in the country), and eight players average 20 minutes or more per game (with another three averaging 15 minutes or more).

The WAC is a below-average league, but the Aggies gained experience playing good teams and have found an identity. It wouldn’t be a shock to see them push a highly ranked team to the limit in the tournament’s first weekend.


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