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Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.
1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC)
After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.
Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.
2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC)
The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to statsheet.com and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.
3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt)
Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.
Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.
4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot)
Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.
The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.
5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)
The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.
With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.
Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State.