By Kevin Sweeney
Every March, teams many people never have heard of explode onto the national scene by upsetting the blue bloods of college basketball. Everyone has seen Monmouth and their bench mob knock off big schools like UCLA and Notre Dame, and Stony Brook has rattled off 18 straight wins. Perennial giant-killer Valparaiso has also enjoyed a magnificent season. But who are some names you haven’t heard of that are poised to be this year’s Cinderella? Here are five teams that I think could make noise in March.
1. Chattanooga- The Mocs have put together a fantastic season in year one of the Matt McCall era. Chattanooga reached the halfway point in February with a 23-4 record (12-2 in the Southern Conference) and an RPI of 33. A veteran squad whose top 9 scorers are juniors or seniors, the Mocs are battle-tested, with wins over Georgia, Illinois, and Dayton, as well as a loss at Iowa State. Since losing SoCon Preseason Player of the Year Casey Jones, Chattanooga hasn’t slowed down, going 17-2 in his absence. If they can navigate through their conference tournament, the Mocs could be in position to be the next bracket-buster.
2. Hawaii- Another team that won’t be afraid of the stage, Hawaii stood toe-to-toe with Oklahoma, one of the top teams in the country, in the Diamond Head Classic in December. Even though they lost the game, they made it clear to the national audience that Hawaii Basketball would be a force to be reckoned with in the Big West Conference. Led by senior forward Stefan Jankovic, Hawaii has a 20-3 record. The Rainbow Warriors will have to avoid bad losses down the stretch to keep their RPI up, as dropping into 15-16 seed territory can be a huge blow to a team’s upset chances.
3. UNC-Wilmington- Playing in one of the best mid-major conferences, UNC-Wilmington has stood out in a league with 4 teams in the top 100 of the RPI. Since dropping two straight league games in early January, the Seahawks have turned their season around winning 11 straight, and seem to be playing their best basketball lately, knocking off CAA contenders James Madison and Hofstra in recent weeks. Second year head coach Kevin Keatts seems poised to earn his second consecutive CAA Coach of the Year honors, and if the Seahawks can make it through the conference tournament, Keatts may make his NCAA tournament debut as well.
4. Princeton- Overshadowed by Ivy League leaders Yale, the Tigers have put together a fantastic season in their own right. With a big win at Columbia on Saturday, Princeton moved into second place in the Ivy League. Sitting at 16-5 on the season, Princeton boasts an RPI of 41, mostly due to a strong schedule with games at Maryland, Miami, and St. Joseph’s. However, without a conference tournament, Princeton’s NCAA tournament hopes rest on a huge game at home on Friday against Yale. With a loss, the Tigers would trail Yale by 2 games with just 6 games to go. But if the Tigers can win Friday, watch out for them in March.
5. South Dakota State- Having reached the postseason 4 seasons in a row, the Jackrabbits are no stranger to March Madness. This year, South Dakota State has once again positioned themselves to be a contender in the Summit League. Led by senior guard duo George Marshall and Deondre Parks, SDSU holds wins over TCU and Minnesota in the non-conference. With an RPI of 45, expect the Jackrabbits to be a force to be reckoned with in March Madness.