Mid-Major Sleepers to Watch
In March, the major question everyone wants to know is: "Which small-conference team is going to pull an upset or two and possibly reach the second weekend?" Every NCAA Tournament has at least one; you just have to figure out which one or two it is going to be. Don’t mistake this for a “Who is this year’s George Mason?” column, though—that’s simply not going to happen again (or will it?). Maybe it’s more like a “Who is this year’s Davidson?” column. Last year there was a dearth of mid-majors past the second round -- expect that to change. Note: I'm not including teams from the Atlantic-10, Conference-USA, Mountain West, WAC or Gonzaga, because saying Tulsa is a sleeper is not the same as saying that Oakland is a sleeper.
For my complete Non-BCS Top 25, click here.
Butler: The Bulldogs are one of the most consistent mid-majors in the country on a year-to-year basis, and they will soon be in the Gonzaga category as teams that can no longer be considered mid-majors if they keep this up. This season, two of the top players in the country return in Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard, as does tough guard Shelvin Mack. Willie Veasley is also back. Although many think that a George Mason-esque run might not happen for awhile, Butler has the talent to potentially do it this year.
Siena: The Saints have reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons, and have threatened in the second-round in both years as well. They might be able to get over the hump and into the Sweet Sixteen this season. They lose Kenny Hasbrouck on the perimeter, but return wing Edwin Ubiles and do-it-all point guard Ronald Moore. Scorer Clarence Jackson should step into the lineup in the backcourt. Undersized Alex Franklin and Ronald Rossiter, both double-figure scorers, anchor the frontcourt.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers looked like they could have been a factor in the NCAA Tournament last season, as they won 11 consecutive MVC games before fading down the stretch and then losing in the Big Dance. All five starters are back for head coach Ben Jacobson, led by forward Adam Koch, an inside-outside scorer. Wings Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Ali Farokhmanesh provide scoring on the perimeter, and Johnny Moran will man the point. 7-1 Jordan Eglseder provides UNI with an option most teams don't have.
Western Kentucky: The closest mid-major to reach the Sweet Sixteen last season? You're looking at them. The Hilltoppers were a coast-to-coast drive by Demetri Goodson from knocking off Gonzaga in the second round -- but could take that next step this season despite losing Orlando Mendez-Valdez. Guard A.J. Slaughter is the next star to come out of WKU, and double-figure scorers Sergio Kerusch and Steffphon Pettigrew also return. Big man Jeremy Evans is the anchor down low.
VCU: Despite losing head coach Anthony Grant and point guard Eric Maynor, the Rams are not going away just yet. Future draft pick Larry Sanders is one of the best big men in the country, and guards Joey Rodriguez and Bradford Burgess will team with Marist transfer Jay Gavin in a very solid three-headed backcourt. Former Florida assistant Shaka Smart is taking over Grant's position, and he will keep up the pressure defense and up-tempo style of the Rams.
Creighton: The Missouri Valley is used to fielding candidates to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, and the Blue Jays are consistently one of the leaders to fill that role. They could be back in the mix in 2009-10. P'Allen Stinnett is one of the best players in the conference, and tough guard Justin Carter is another returning starter. Antoine Young is going to have to step up on the perimeter, while Kenny Lawson Jr. needs to pick up his production down low.
Niagara: Siena's main threat in the MAAC, the Purple Eagles play an exciting brand of basketball that consistently gives the Saints trouble. They bring back four starters, including former Connecticut transfer Rob Garrison and former Villanova transfer Bilal Benn. Throw in one of the league's best players in Tyrone Lewis and a solid guard in Anthony Nelson, and this team is tough to match-up with. They need to replace big man Benson Egemonye, but don't count this team out.
Southern Illinois: The Salukis, formerly a perennial NCAA Tournament threat, are looking to get back into the Big Dance and make some noise this season. They have an excellent wing duo in sophomore guard Kevin Dillard and Iowa transfer Tony Freeman, two guys who can really fill it up. Forward Carlton Fay is a double-figure scorer up front and guards Justin Bocot and Ryan Hare need to step up and provide more production on the perimeter.
Potential First-round Upset Threats
Cornell: The Big Red are starting their own legacy in the Ivy League, after years of Penn-Princeton dominance. Cornell has a very talented team, including all five starters from last season's NCAA Tournament team. Ryan Wittman is a big-time small forward and Jeff Foote is a solid center. A healthy Louis Dale completes an outstanding trio for Steve Donahue.
Oakland: Last year's Summit League champion, North Dakota State, gave Kansas a run in the NCAA Tournament. This year's Summit champion could do the same (well, maybe not Kansas). The Golden Grizzlies have one of the best mid-major trios in the country in distributor Johnathon Jones, scoring forward Derick Nelson and big-time center Keith Benson.
Radford: The Highlanders reached the NCAA Tournament last season on the back of center Art Parakhouski, one of the best at his position in the country. Joey Lynch-Flohr also returns up front, as does Amir Johnson on the perimeter. Look out for Binghamton transfer Lazor Trifunovic, who adds yet another big body to what will be a dominant frontcourt.
Troy: Although Western Kentucky is going to be tough to topple, the Trojans have the pieces to be a threat to the big boys if they get to the Big Dance. They have an outstanding perimeter trio in Brandon Hazzard, Michael Vogler and former Mississippi State transfer Richard Delk. Alabama transfer Yamene Coleman provides them with balance inside.
Northeastern: If VCU takes a step back with the losses of Anthony Grant and Eric Maynor, the Huskies could be the next CAA team to make noise. All-conference guard Matt Janning and do-it-all junior Chaisson Allen form a dynamite backcourt, while Manny Adako is one of the more dominant low-post guys in the conference. Plus, this team always defends.