What smaller NCAA teams have a chance to play in Atlanta?
By Josh Kurelac
As March quickly approaches, it’s time to start identifying mid-major teams that could have a legitimate chance of going to the Final Four in Atlanta this year. For many mid-major teams, a Final Four bid isn’t out of the question because of all the inconsistent play among the nation’s best teams.
The Akron Zips (21-4) are one of the most talented mid-major teams in the nation. The Zips, who are led by head coach Keith Dambrot, haven’t lost a game since December 15, when they were defeated by the Detroit Titans 80-73. Akron has won 17 straight games, including an undefeated (12-0) start in the Mid-American Conference. The Zips have 10 players who play 11 or more minutes per game. Akron can match up with any team in the country. Center Zeke Marshall, who is a seven-footer, provides the Zips with size. Demetrius Treadwell is a reliable post player, averaging 10.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. The Zips won’t be intimidated by the big stage of the NCAA Tournament. Dambrot starts four juniors and one senior. All five starters for Akron played on the NCAA Tournament team last year that lost to Notre Dame 69-56 in the first round. The Zips are the favorite to win the MAC Conference Tournament, which would clinch a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth for the school.
The Atlantic 10 Conference features three teams that could reach the Final Four if they are placed in a favorable bracket. The Saint Louis Billikens (21-5), winners of eight straight games, currently lead the Atlantic 10 with a (10-2) conference record. The Billikens aren’t a flashy, high-powered offensive team, averaging just 68.8 points per game. They have a balanced offensive attack with four players who average over 10 points per game. Another team, the Butler Bulldogs (22-6), are poised to have a memorable March. Due to Butler’s recent success in the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard to classify the Bulldogs as a mid major, but they want to prove to the rest of the nation that they belong among the nation’s elite teams. Despite a tough loss to Saint Louis Friday night, the Bulldogs are (9-4) in a competitive Atlantic 10 Conference. Lastly, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams (22-6) is a team that no other school wants to play in March. The Rams play hard-nosed, physical defense. They are one of the most productive offensive teams in the nation, averaging 77.5 points per game, as well.
The Memphis Tigers (24-3) have quietly won 18 straight games, and are comfortably in first place in Conference USA with a (13-0) record. The Tigers last loss was on December 15 against Louisville 87-78. Guard Joe Jackson leads the Tigers offensively, averaging 13.7 points per game and 4.7 assists per game. Memphis has plenty of athletes to compete with other big-name schools. D.J. Stephens is one of the best unknown dunkers in the nation. Check out this dunk. Head Coach Josh Pastner has Memphis playing some of the best basketball of any team in the nation.
The Missouri Valley Conference features two teams, Wichita State and Creighton, that should cause some problems for big-name schools in March. The Wichita State Shockers (24-5) are in first place in the MVC. The Shockers got off to one of the best starts in school history with a (15-1) record. Cleanthony Early leads Wichita State, who averages 14.6 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. After a three game losing streak that started at the end of January, the Shockers have won five straight games as they get closer to a matchup with the Creighton Bluejays in the season finale. The Bluejays (22-6) have a Wooden Award Watch candidate, Doug McDermott. He averages 22.5 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game.