Northern Iowa’s pulled off some major upsets this season, beating both North Carolina and Iowa State, but they haven’t been able to maintain the level of consistency needed to threaten Wichita State in the Missouri Valley. Wednesday night the Panthers knocked off Evansville 57-54, with senior guard Wes Washpun being a key contributor in the win.
Washpun, who was a handful against both the Tar Heels and Cyclones, finished the game with a team-high 14 points and four assists. Two of those points came in impressive fashion, as he turned the corner on a ball screen and threw down an emphatic one-handed dunk on Evansville big man Egidijus Mockevicius.
Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.
Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.
2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.
3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.
4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.
5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.
6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.
7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.
9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).
10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.
Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine
Thursday night two championships were determined, with the title games of the CIT and NIT being played. With Evansville winning the CIT and Stanford the Postseason NIT, the non-NCAA tournament portion of the 2014-15 schedule has been completed.
Marty Simmons’ Purple Aces became the second Missouri Valley Conference team to win a postseason event in as many days, with Loyola (IL) winning the CBI title on Wednesday, as they beat Northern Arizona 71-65 in Evansville. Egidijus Mockevicius led the way offensively for Evansville with 27 points and he also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
Guard D.J. Balentine, the team’s leading scorer on the season, chipped in with 16 points. Evansville shot just 1-for-10 from three but made up for that by scoring 20 points from the foul line, seven more than NAU. First team All-Big Sky selection Kris Yanku, who will be a junior next season, led Jack Murphy’s team with 18 points.
The Lumberjacks picked up the first postseason wins in school history in the CIT, and with Yanku leading the way they should once again be a factor in the Big Sky next season. As for Evansville they had just one senior this season, guard Jaylon Moore, and the returning depth and talent should mean good things for the Purple Aces in 2015-16.
As for the Postseason NIT, Stanford’s senior class of Anthony Brown, Stefan Nastic and Chasson Randle won the title as freshmen and Thursday night managed to do so as seniors. Randle scored 25 points to lead the Cardinal to a 68-66 overtime win over Miami at Madison Square Garden, earning MVP honors as a result.
Miami’s quest for the program’s first-ever postseason title fell short, as Sheldon McClellan was forced to double-clutch a corner three in the final seconds by the solid defending of Stanford’s Anthony Brown. McClellan led the Hurricanes with 17 points but did so on 5-for-16 shooting, with Davon Reed adding 16 points and Ja’Quan Newton ten. Stefan Nastic scored 11 points for Stanford before fouling out late in the second half.
Stanford has some key pieces to account for next season, as Brown, Randle and Nastic will all be out of eligibility. However they have some young talent, including guard Marcus Allen and forwards Rosco Allen, Michael Humphrey and Reid Travis, to work with this offseason.
As for Miami, Jim Larrañaga won’t lack for depth or talent in 2015-16. Miami didn’t have a senior on this year’s roster, and that includes two contributors in Angel Rodriguez and Tonye Jekiri who missed Thursday’s game due to injury. With that being the case, Miami should be able to earn the NCAA tournament bid they missed out on this season in what will be an incredibly tough ACC.
Potential NCAA tournament bid thieves bubble teams should be rooting against
This season is a bit weird in that there are only two “mid-major” conferences that will be sending at-large teams to the tournament. That limits some of the potential bid thieves from the smaller leagues, but here is a list of teams that are completely out of the bubble picture with the ability to make a surprise run to their conference tournament title and win an automatic bid:
UConn: I mean, this one is obvious, right? The Huskies, coming off of a national title run, have been one of the country’s most disappointing teams this season. But Ryan Boatright is one of the nation’s most talented guards and capable of carrying UConn the way Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier have done before him. Throw in the fact that Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton seem to finally be hitting their stride, and that Amida Brimah is still swatting away everything at the rim, and Kevin Ollie’s club has the talent to beat anyone in the American. Ask SMU. They lost to UConn on Sunday.
Illinois State: The Redbirds have been beaten up for much of the season, but they’re now healthy and enter Arch Madness having won four straight games. They’re 11-3 against the Valley teams not named Wichita State or Northern Iowa, and three of their four losses to the top two teams in the league were by single digits.
Wyoming: The Cowboys were playing like the best team in the Mountain West midway through league play when Larry Nance Jr., a conference Player of the Year candidate, got mono and missed a few weeks. The Pokes have lost four of their last six since Nance went out, but when he was healthy, they swept Colorado State and beat Boise State in the only matchup between the two teams. At full strength, they can take home the title. But will they — meaning Nance — ever be at full strength this month?
Richmond: The Spiders have been inconsistent this season, but they do have some terrific wins on their resume. To name a few: they swept arch rival VCU and beat George Washington in D.C. You won’t find a team with a more difficult back court to guard than Richmond, who boast a pair of sub-6-foot speed demons in Kendall Anthony and Shawn’Dre Jones. On the nights those two are playing well and Richmond’s threes are dropping, they can beat anyone. And with the Atlantic 10 being wide-open this year, don’t be surprised to see the Spiders make a run.
Kansas State: The Wildcats are in a similar boat as UConn. They certainly have the talent to be an NCAA tournament team, but outside factors — and the inability of Marcus Foster to consistently stay out of trouble — means that they are just 15-15 on the season heading into their finale against Texas. But this group has seven top 50 wins on the season, which includes upsets of both Kansas and Iowa State last week. If they show up ready to play, Kansas State absolutely can earn the automatic bid from the Big 12. And if not, losing in the title game might give them enough quality wins to actually earn an at-large bid. Be nervous, bubble teams.
THREE MORE TO KEEP AN EYE ON
St. Mary’s: Gonzaga is clearly the best team in the WCC, and with BYU streaking, the Cougars look like a tournament team as of today. But don’t sleep on the Gaels, who had a dominant low-post presence in Brad Waldow and surround him with a slew of shooters and high-major transfers.
Evansville: Evansville has one of the Valley’s best scorer on the roster in D.J. Balentine and they’re the only team in the conference that actually owns a win over Northern Iowa or Wichita State; they beat the Panthers at home in the conference opener.
UNLV: The Rebels have been inconsistent all season long and after still waiting to see if Rashad Vaughn will be back for the MWC tournament. So the odds are long. But consider this: the Rebels are more talented than anyone else in the conference, they beat Arizona in Vegas earlier this season and the MWC tournament will be played in … Vegas.
Late Night Snacks: Evansville defeats No. 23 Northern Iowa
GAME OF THE DAY: Eastern Washington 84, Weber State 78
Two of the teams expected to contend in the Big Sky met Thursday afternoon, with EWU guard Tyler Harvey going off to lead the Eagles to the six-point home win. Harvey scored 39 points on the day, shooting 12-for-19 from the field and 7-for-10 from beyond the arc. Venky Jois added 18 points and eight rebounds for EWU, which moves to 10-4 on the season. Freshman guard Ryan Richardson led four Weber State players in double figures with 22 points.
1. Evansville 52, No. 23 Northern Iowa 49: The Purple Aces struggled mightily in the first half, with leading scorer D.J. Balentine scoring just four points and the team shooting 7-for-23 from the field. Marty Simmons’ team turned things around in the second half, erasing a ten-point halftime deficit with better execution on both ends of the floor, and Balentine scored 14 points to lead the Purple Aces to the win in the MVC opener for both.
Also key for Evansville was forward Egidijus Mockevicius, who added 12 points and 13 rebounds, and the Purple Aces scored 18 points off of 12 UNI turnovers. Seth Tuttle scored 18 points and Wes Washpun added 11 and eight rebounds off the bench for UNI, which is now 11-2 on the season.
2. Saint Mary’s 68, Pepperdine 59: Saint Mary’s moved to 3-0 in WCC play with a nine-point win at Pepperdine, as Brad Waldow scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds on a night that saw five Gaels score in double figures. Saint Mary’s won despite committing 17 turnovers and allowing the Waves to shoot 50 percent from the field, and they’re outscoring Pepperdine 27-9 from beyond the arc was the biggest reason why. Guards Aaron Bright and Kerry Carter hit three three-pointers apiece for Saint Mary’s.
3. Belmont 78, Southeast Missouri State 77: Craig Bradshaw scored 25 points and teammate Reese Chamberlain (ten points, nine rebounds and nine assists) nearly posted a triple-double as the Bruins held off the Redhawks in the OVC opener for both in Nashville. Jarekious Bradley led four SEMO players in double figures with 20 points, but Dickey Nutt’s team fell short due in part to Belmont hitting 14 three-pointers to their seven.
1. Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington: 39 points (12-for-21 FG) in Eastern Washington’s 84-78 win over Weber State.
2. Craig Bradshaw, Belmont: 25 points (10-for-15 FG) in the Bruins’ 78-77 win over Southeast Missouri State.
3. Egidijus Mockevicius, Evansville: Mockevicius posted his fifth straight double-double in the Purple Aces’ 52-49 win over No. 23 Northern Iowa, scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
4. Evan Payne, Loyola Marymount: 27 points (8-for-14 FG, 10-for-10 FT) in the Lions’ 77-63 loss to Pacific.
1. Tevin Svihovec, Northern Colorado: The Bears’ leading scorer (12.4 ppg) accounted for just three points in a 66-48 loss at Montana, missing all five of his field goal attempts.
2. Matt Bohannon and Deon Mitchell, Northern Iowa: Two of UNI’s three starting guards combined to shoot 0-for-7 from the field, failing to score a point in the Panthers’ 52-49 loss at Evansville.
3. Darion Rackley, Jacksonville State: Scored five points on 2-for-12 shooting in the Gamecocks’ 73-57 loss at SIU-Edwardsville.
Chase Fischer and Tyler Haws scored 14 points apiece and Kyle Collinsworth added eight points, 15, rebounds, six assists and three steals in BYU’s 81-46 pasting of Santa Clara.
Christopher Anderson’s steal in the finals seconds preserved a 57-56 win for San Diego at San Francisco. Mark Tollefsen scored 14 to lead the way for USF, but the Dons shot just 8-for-15 from the foul line.
Idaho won its Big Sky debut to kick off its second stint in the conference, beating Idaho State 77-54.
Dylan Garrity scored 26 points to lead five players in double figures as Sacramento State beat Northern Arizona, 78-73.
Thursday afternoon the Wooden Legacy was one of two early-season events to announce its field for next season, with traditional powers Arizona and Michigan State being part of the 2015 field.
Joining the Wildcats and Spartans in the field are Boise State, Boston College, Evansville, Providence, Santa Clara and UC Irvine. Of the eight teams in the field three reached the NCAA tournament last season, with Arizona and Michigan State reaching the Elite Eight and Providence dropping an exciting game to North Carolina in the Round of 64.
UC Irvine, which gave Arizona a run for its money Wednesday night, is the preseason favorite to win the Big West and Boise State was picked to finish second in the Mountain West.
The Wooden Legacy will be held November 26, 27 and 29, with the first two days of action being played on the Cal-State Fullerton campus. All four games on November 29 will be played at the Honda Center in Anaheim.