Pat (PJ) Strathman and CJ Matson prepare you for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament by breaking down their four sleeper teams that could make noise come tourney time.
By CJ Matson
1) Murray State
America’s darling, the Murray State Racers, has been ranked as high as seventh in the country and has lost only one game this season, but much of the college basketball community isn’t expecting much from the Racers in the NCAA tournament.
They play big in the front court, but not in the back court, meaning they lack size. The Racers are led by guards Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole.
Canaan is one of the most dynamic guards in the country, scoring 19.4 points-per-game and shooting 48.7 percent from the floor, 48.4 percent from behind the arc and 83.9 percent from the free-throw line. He alone has been the main reason why the Racers have been so good this season.
Murray State is the mid-major version of the Missouri Tigers because they rely on their back court for its offensive production and have one big man to anchor the front court.
The Racers’ RPI is 26th in the country, but their strength of schedule is 183rd.
In the NCAA Tournament, it’s all about matchups. For Murray State to create madness in March, they need to matchup against teams that have difficulty defending the lane and perimeter, lack an adequate post game and foul at a high rate.
The X-men are living on the bubble. They failed to meet expectations and are fighting for their tournament lives. If Xavier can find its way into the NCAA Tournament, look out.
Yes, Xavier failed to meet expectations this season because they were projected by many pundits to play into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and possibly clinch a spot in the Final Four. They were supposed to be that good. After the infamous brawl in the their game against arch rival Cincinnati, the Musketeers fell apart, losing 11 of their last 21 games.
Xavier’s victories during its non-conference schedule are impressive, beating Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Purdue, Georgia and Butler. Tu Holloway is regarded as an All-American type player who can take over games. Holloway averages 16.4 points-per-game, 5.6 assists-per-game and shooting 86.3 percent from the free-throw line as well as 40.8 percent from the floor.
For Xavier to make the Big Dance, it must win the rest of its games to leave no doubt in the selection committee’s mind. The Musketeers’ RPI is 54th in America, and their strength of schedule is 52nd, both of which are solid for a bubble team. If they can make the field, they could make it to the sweet 16 and possibly the elite eight.
3) Wichita State
Wichita State, a perennial NCAA Tournament team, is having one of its best seasons. Under the leadership of coach Greg Marshall, the Shockers are 26-4, winning 16 of its 18 conference games.
The Shockers have not lost a game in regulation since New Year’s Eve. Their last loss was against Drake Bulldogs in overtime on Jan. 28.
The Shockers are a fundamentally sound team both offensively and defensively. The Shockers are led by Garrett Stutz, Joe Raglund and Toure’ Murry. The threesome combines for 39.4 points-per-game, which is 56.2 percent of Wichita State’s offense.
As a team, Wichita State does something that many teams struggle with: Make free-throws. The Shockers are shooting 75.2 percent from the free-throw line. In the NCAA Tournaments, free-throws can ultimately decide the outcome of a game.
Unlike Xavier, Wichita State is a lock to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers’ have quality victories over Creighton, UNLV and Davidson, so they have been tested.
As great as their offense is, the Shockers can defend too, holding their opponents to 62.8 points-per-game and forcing them to shoot a pedestrian 39.7 percent from the floor.
The Missouri Valley Conference is among the best conferences in the country, let alone mid-major conferences, and their track record in the tournament is a testament to that. Wichita State will show why it’s the best mid-major by making a deep run in the tournament.
4) New Mexico
All season long, San Diego State and UNLV has received all the attention from the national media, but neither one of them is in first place in the Mountain West Conference standings. That spot belongs to Steve Alford’s New Mexico Lobos.
The Lobos split the season series with both the Running Rebels and Aztecs, but they won the rematches.
Drew Gordon is a stud, leading the team in points and rebounds. If Gordon is on his A-game, then the Lobos will be a tough out for any team.
The Lobos are efficient on both ends of the floor They are 70th in the NCAA in scoring offense, 69th in field goal percentage, 26th in rebounding and 10th in assists. Their ability to pass the ball effectively is a key reason why they winning their games.
Defensively, New Mexico is a nightmare for any offense. Their field goal percentage defense is 37.8, which is 5th in America, and their scoring defense is 13th. Opponents are only scoring 58.6 points-per-game against the Lobos.
The Mountain West is the best west coast conference this season. If New Mexico played in the PAC-12, they would be the best team in the conference. A few slips late in the season against TCU and Colorado State won’t hurt this team going forward. Steve Alford can flat out coach. In a year where mid-majors could flourish in the tournament, look no further than the New Mexico Lobos to put on Cinderella’s slippers and make it to the second weekend of the tournament.
By Pat Strathman
1) Wichita State
This pick shouldn’t shock anyone. Okay, all puns aside, the Shockers are having a tremendous season.
Wichita State finished the regular season with an impressive 26-4 record with a 16-2 Missouri Valley conference record.
The Shockers lost to Alabama and Temple, but won against Creighton on the road and defeated a ranked UNLV team.
What makes the team so lethal? For starters, the team can score some points. Wichita State is 16th in the nation averaging 78.3 points. The field goal percentage is better at 8th in the nation. All of this offense is accomplished through balanced scoring. The Shockers have six players averaging eight points or more.
The inside game features Garrett Stutz who averages 14.1 point and eight rebounds. When the inside game struggles, the Shockers rely on Joe Ragland and Toure’ Murry, averaging 13.2 and 12.1 points respectively.
Whatever seed the Shocks end up receiving, look for them to strike.
Now here’s a team that doesn’t give a hoot about anybody! Yes, I’m in that type of a mood today.
The Owls from the Atlantic 10 have been impressive with a 23-6 record. Temple was on a 12-game streak until St. Joes ended it.
The Owls have a hit-and-miss non-conference schedule. Impressive wins against Wichita State and on the road against Duke, but losses to Texas and Bowling Green aren’t pretty.
Still, I love teams that can stroke the three ball. The Owls soar with the nation’s tenth best three-point percentage. They shoot 41 percent from behind the three-point arc. Temple has excellent guard play that can bring them deep into the tournament. Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez all can hit the threes.
Will that be enough to move them past the first round? Might not happen, but we all know about teams with the ability to hit from deep and Temple fits the mold.
3) Long Beach State
Now I can’t make a pun work for this team. I know, you were looking forward to it, but the 49ers look forward to the tournament after running through the Big West.
Not a very tough conference, but the 49ers are undefeated at 14-0 in the conference.
Now take a look at the non-conference schedule. Long Beach State played #9 Pitt, at San Diego State, at #6 Louisville, at #13 Kansas, at #6 North Carolina, #15 Xavier and Kansas State. Whoa! That’s a stacked non-conference record. They may have lost against most of those teams, but they competed against those teams. Still, the 49ers managed to win against Pittsburgh on the road and against Xavier.
This team reminds me of, dare I say it, VCU from a year ago.
They have players that can hit anywhere with the addition of a player inside. Casper Ware is one of the nation’s best point guards, averaging 17.2 points. Add three-point specialist Larry Anderson, averaging 14.5 points while shooting 43 percent from behind the arc. And to make things even harder, throw in double-double machine T.J. Robinson. Robinson averages 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.
This team can compete against the big boys and expect them to be deadly come tournament time.
4) Iowa State
No, I’m not picking Iowa State because of the trend of “state” being in the colleges I choose. Instead, I’m picking the Cyclones because of Fred Hoiberg and his solid squad from the Big 12.
No big wins in non-conference play, but Iowa State’s play in the Big 12 has been impressive. If the Cyclones would have won against Missouri (and possible should have both times against Missouri), they would be sitting as a top-three team in the conference.
Iowa State was picked to finish eight in the conference. Well, look who’s laughing now. The Cyclones sit at fourth place.
Iowa State has an interesting team. The Cyclones have guards that can shoot in Chris Allen and Scott Christopherson. They also have impressive forwards in Melvin Ejim and Royce White.
Depending of the seed, Iowa State can turn an opponent team’s season into a disaster in the second round.