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Preseason: Seven non-majors that could crash the Dance in March

Dave2015When we examine at our bracket sheets on Selection Sunday, there’s an undeniable urge to look for potential opening round upsets.  The 12-5 line is a common place to start, along with 11 or 13 seeds who are good teams from non-power leagues.

Here at Bracketville we ask … Why wait for March to starting talking about potentially very good teams who could crash the Dance?

Following are seven non or mid-major programs that could become March darlings – and even compete for at-large bids with a little help and a couple of key wins in November and December …

Southern Conference coaches and media members tabbed the Buccaneers as favorites to win the league title, and rightfully so.  The Bucs return three leaders from last year’s 24-10 team and seven of their top eight scorers.  That gives coach Steve Forbes a lot of tools with which to work.
Key non-conference games:
• November 19 (at Kansas)
• December 7 (at North Dakota State)
• December 18 (at LSU)
ETSU has the look of a potentially dangerous team.  Whether or not the Buccaneers become an at-large contender largely depends on how they perform at Kansas and LSU, and how strongly they navigate a better-than-you-think league schedule.  Last year, SoCon champion Wofford posted a perfect 18-0 mark en route to a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament.  East Tennessee State may not have to duplicate that but a dominating SoCon performance will likely still be required.  It will also help if programs such as UNC-Greensboro, Furman, and Wofford remain nationally relevant.

In what should be a contested Missouri Valley race, the Bears bring back all-league performer Tulio Da Silva and add a quartet of potentially impactful transfers – most notably Lamont West (a West Virginia graduate transfer).  The others include Anthony Masinton-Bonner (Colorado State, graduate), Josh Hall (Nevada), and Tyrik Dixon (Middle Tennessee).  The question, of course, is how well the pieces blend together for coach Dana Ford.
Key non-conference games:
• November 15 (at Xavier)
• November 21 (vs. Miami – at Charleston Classic)
• November 29 (at LSU)
• December 3 (Murray State)
• December 15 (at VCU)
Whether it’s good planning, good timing, or both, Missouri state’s non-conference schedule is loaded with opportunities to build an at-large resume ahead of its MVC campaign.  Winning a trio of the tilts listed above could look awfully good on Selection Sunday.  The fact that last year’s MVC tourney champion Bradley and perennial power Northern Iowa bring back key pieces helps, too.  There are no guarantees, but if the talent in Springfield gels, the Bears will be an unwelcome opponent for someone during the first weekend of March Madness.

For what it’s worth, Western Kentucky received 13 of 14 first-place votes in the Conference USA preseason poll.  It’s no surprise why.  The Hilltoppers bring back C-USA Rookie of Year Charles Bassey, all-conference guard Taveion Hollingsworth and two additional starters.  They also welcome three transfers: Camron Justice (IUPUI), Carson Williams (Northern Kentucky) and Kenny Cooper (Lipscomb).  Coach Rick Stansbury has a potentially loaded lineup that could be really good by season’s end.
Key non-conference games:
• November 22 (vs. Bowling Green – Paradise Jam)
• November 29 (vs. Louisville – in Nashville, TN)
• December 7 (Arkansas)
• December 21 (at Rhode Island)
If WKU puts together a strong Conference USA run, the Hilltoppers have a chance to be in the at-large conversation.  In-state rival Louisville is the biggest non-league fish, but WKU has a chance to meet up with Cincinnati at the Paradise Jam.  Rhode Island figures to be in the Atlantic 10 mix, so that’s a plus.  Arkansas is the biggest non-conference question mark.  The Hilltoppers haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2013.  That could (and probably should) change in 2020.

The fact that senior guard Anthony Lamb explored the NBA Draft process last spring before returning speaks volumes about his talent and the opportunity for Vermont be a dangerous NCAA opponent.  Additional pieces return for coach John Becker, who is further hoping that graduate transfer Daniel Giddens (Ohio State, Alabama), among others, can add an immediate impact.
Key non-conference games:
• November 8 (at St. Bonaventure)
• November 16 (at St. John’s)
• November 19 (at Virginia)
• December 3 (at Cincinnati)
• December 18 (vs. UNC-Greensboro)
Earning an at-large bid while playing in the American East Conference is no easy task. Despite some quality programs like Albany and Stony Brook, it’s a traditional one-bid league.  If that’s going to change (assuming Vermont doesn’t win the AE’s automatic bid), the Catamounts will need to do some heavy lifting between now and mid-December. Regardless, this is one team that no one wants to see opposite their name in Round 1.

Harvard earned all but two first place votes in the league’s preseason poll.  If nothing else, it’s an indication about how strongly the Crimson are favored to repeat as a regular-season champion (or at least co-champion).  Unfortunately, the Ivy League tournament final hasn’t gone according to plan the past couple of seasons, leaving the Crimson outside the NCAA field. Coming off an NIT victory at Georgetown in March, Harvard is hoping this year is different.  If it is, the Crimson – who bring back stars Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken – can certainly win a game there, too.
Key non-conference games:
• November 16 (vs. Buffalo)
• November 28 (vs. Texas AM – Orlando Invitational)
• December 29 (at California)
With Maryland, Davidson, Marquette, and USC also in the field at the Orlando Invitational, beating Texas AM in their opening game would provide a huge opportunity for the Crimson.  The rest of the team’s non-conference slate is lacking a proverbial punch (at least as we start the season).  Much like Vermont, it’s never going to be easy to earn an at-large bid from the Ivy League.  The Crimson should be good enough, but they’ll likely need to prove it on the court against a couple of NCAA-caliber teams while in Florida.

Once again, New Mexico State is favored to win the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). And once again, the Aggies will be tough to deal with.  They bring back leading scorer Terrell Brown and point guard A.J. Harris, along with several other key contributors, from a team that fell to eventual Final Four participant Auburn by a single point.  NMSU ran roughshod over the WAC a season ago, finishing 15-1.  A similar finish this year isn’t out of the question.
Key non-conference games:
• November 17 (at Arizona)
• November 21 (vs. New Mexico)
• December 14 (at New Mexico)
• December 22 (vs. Mississippi State – Jackson, MS)
In recent years, the WAC has made earning an at-large bid very challenging for its frontrunners, loading up their team sheet with too many Quad 4 opponents.  The only way to overcome that scenario is by taking advantage of opportunities against superior leagues.  Beyond Arizona and Mississippi State, rival New Mexico should be a Top 100 team (NET) this year.  That’ll help if the Aggies can manage a split (or more).  Either way, if the Aggies do make a return trip to the Dance, their first-round opponent can talk to Bruce Pearl about how easy it is to dispatch them.

Coming off an upset of Mississippi State in last year’s NCAA tournament, Liberty returns four starters, including potential Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, Caleb Homesley.  A year ago, the Flames put together a dominating 14-2 league campaign but could be tested this go-around by a North Florida team that returns largely in tact, too.
Key non-conference games:
• December 14 (at Vanderbilt)
• December 29 (at LSU)
Opportunities to make out-of-league noise are limited, so the game at LSU looms very large if the Flames want to be an at-large hopeful.  That said, if coach Jim Phelan’s crew earns a return ticket, their opening-round Dance partner will have its hands full.  The Flames will be a confident bunch and are the odds-on favorite to repeat at Atlantic Sun champions.



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