ROUNDBALL DAILY

Five mid-major teams who could bust your bracket come March

It’s only January, but we can’t be the only ones feeling a hint of March Madness.

Right around this time every year, there are a few small-conference schools that separate themselves from the pack, put the foot on the gas pedal and make moves towards becoming this year’s surprise guest on “One Shining Moment.”

Remember Vermont’s “stunning” upset of Syracuse in ’05?  Yeah, that wasn’t so stunning for us. We were on that all season, especially after the Catamounts beat UCLA and gave Kansas a run for its money in Allen Fieldhouse.

Things have gotten tougher in recent years, though. With conference realignment swallowing up some of the better mid-majors and placing them in major leagues, it may be difficult to survey the college hoops landscape and determine which teams have a chance at becoming bracket busters.

But that’s why you’ve got us! Roundball Daily, your definitive source for everything basketball. TM.

Here are five teams who could end up busting your bracket this March:

1. Monmouth. It’s not all about their bench. The guys on the court can actually ball, too, as the Hawks have proven over and over again this season. Listen to the list of teams Monmouth has beaten this season: UCLA (84-81, at Pauley), Notre Dame (70-68, in Orlando), USC (83-73, in Orlando), Georgetown (83-68, in D.C.). That kind of resume would get a middling SEC team an at-large bid.

Thanks in large part to the fact that their bench has gotten a crazy amount of national attention, 5-8 junior point guard Justin Robinson has flown under the radar as one of college basketball’s best players. Robinson is averaging 20.6 points and 3.4 assists per game, and he’s made impossibly-difficult plays look routine (like the Steph Curry of the MAAC). He’s an absolute joy to watch, and he showed out in the biggest games this season–putting up 28 and 27 in two games against USC, and hanging 28 on Dayton in a 73-70 loss.

Robinson won the AdvoCare Invitational MVP award, even though Monmouth didn’t play in the Orlando event’s championship game. Oh, and King Rice? That guy can coach, too. He’s done a fantastic job of motivating his players, and clearly, they love playing for him.

The Hawks (14-4, 6-1 MAAC) may have to win the MAAC tournament to earn a bid to the NCAAs, but it shouldn’t be that way. If they do crash the dance, watch out for these dudes. They’re meant for a big moment come March.

UAB is 15-3 this season, after stunning Iowa State in the Round of 64 last year. (Getty Images Embed)

UAB is 15-3 this season, after stunning Iowa State in the Round of 64 last year. (Getty Images Embed/Joe Robbins)

2. UAB. It feels like cheating to include the Blazers, who shocked much of the civilized world (and News 8 editor Cody Contois) when they knocked off trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the Round of 64 last year. But it seems like people have already forgotten about this team, which used last year’s out-of-nowhere NCAA run as a buoy to success this season.

UAB (15-3, 5-0/Conference USA) currently owns the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 12. They’ve got a lot of familiar names back from last season, including 6-5 sparkplug guard Robert Brown (12.6 ppg, 3.3 apg), 6-9 sophomore forward William Lee (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg), and leading scorer Chris Cokley (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), who is one of the most improved players in the country.

Coach Jerod Haase has done a remarkable job with this program, and given his success and pedigree (he was an assistant under Roy Williams), is going to have a chance to move up the coaching ladder pretty soon.

3. Valparaiso. Alright, so the Crusaders are always a candidate to make noise in the Big Dance, but they haven’t actually done so since Bryce Drew hit that miraculous shot against Ole Miss in 1998. Valpo is 0-6 in six dance invites since then, but last year, the Crusaders nearly pulled off the upset against Maryland, falling 65-62.

Many of those players are back, including 6-9 junior forward Alec Peters, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, at 17.4 points and 8.2 rips per game. Peters is the favorite to win Horizon League Player of the Year at this point. Sophomore point guard Tevonn Walker isn’t bad, either, averaging 12.3 points per.

Valpo hasn’t had many chances against big-time competition this season, but they do own wins over Rhode Island, Belmont and Oregon State, and took Oregon to the wire.

4. Hawaii. Yeah, that’s right, Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors are 15-2, 4-0 in the Big West, and they’ve fared well against power-conference teams, beating Auburn and Northern Iowa (the MVC might as well be a power league), and suffering narrow defeats to Texas Tech (82-74), and Oklahoma (84-81). The Sooners needed 27 points from Buddy Hield and a generous late foul call to stave off the islanders. Hawaii is a balanced club with four players averaging in double figures in scoring, led by junior Stefan Jankovic (15.2 ppg).

Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye is the nation's tallest player, but he's got some game, too. (Getty Images Embed/

Irvine’s Mamadou Ndiaye is the nation’s tallest player, but he’s got some game, too. (Getty Images Embed/Otto Greule Jr.)

5. Chattanooga. The Mocs (16-3, 5-1/SoCon) own wins over Georgia (92-90), Illinois (81-77), and Dayton (61-59) this season. They’ve got a balanced roster that includes four players who average in double figures in scoring, and they’re hungry to avenge a first-round Southern Conference tournament loss to Furman that kept them from doing damage in the NCAA’s last year. (Chattanooga was 15-3 in the league last season).  6-10, 235-pound forward Justin Tuoyo is a load inside, and he can trade blows with the best of them in the paint (11.1 ppg).

Bonus team: UC-Irvine. The Anteaters almost upset Louisville in the Round of 64 last season, coming within a questionable no- call  of knocking off the Cardinals, who eventually reached the Elite Eight. Irvine is best-known for having 7-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye, and earlier this year they employed the tallest starting lineup in college basketball history, starting with four guys over 6-10. Ndiaye is actually athletic and very mobile for his size, and he’s averaging 20.7 points and 12.5 boards per-40 minutes played.

 

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