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Anyone looking for this season’s Butler – a non-BCS school capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament – doesn’t have to look far.
It’s still the Bulldogs.
Sure, Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley are gone, but there’s plenty to like about Brad Stevens’ team that came this close to stunning Duke in the 2010 NCAA title game. You know, like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Ronald Nored, among others. But you should already know about the Bulldogs. They’re 18th in our preseason Top 25.
So who’s that leave? Plenty. Bookmark this page. When March rolls around, you’ll see these six schools in your bracket. Ignore them at your own risk.
East Tennessee State
The Bucs’ finest NCAA tourney moment came in 1992 when they stunned 3-seed Arizona. They’ve been back four times since and have been routed just once, last season against Kentucky. There’s reason to think they could finally break through again. Still, among the teams listed here, ETSU is the biggest underdog.
Four starters return form a 20-15 team that played forced a ton of turnovers, hit the offensive boards and gets a boost thanks to a healthy Mike Smith, who was an all-conference selection until a knee injury derailed his 2009-10 season. He’ll be their best offensive player.
The Monarchs are a known commodity – they popped Notre Dame last season as an 11 seed – who bring back four starters from a 27-9 team that swept the conference crowns. Despite losing center Gerald Lee, ODU isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it could be better.
Senior Frank Hassell was the difference against Notre Dame (15 points, 9 boards) and junior Kent Bazemore is poised for bigger things after nabbing a spot on the All-CAA Tournament team. Guards Ben Finney (111.2 ORtg) and Darius James (22.1 ARate) are underrated and a huge reason ODU only allows foes to hit 30.1 percent beyond the arc.
Bottom line, ODU is nasty on defense (no easy shots, lots of forced turnovers and teams don’t get second-chance points) and hits the offensive boards relentlessly. In fact, no team did it better in 2010. That continues, good luck to the BCS school that plays the Monarchs in March.
Butler had a weapon most non-BCS school don’t have: An NBA-caliber talent. Same goes for the Gauchos, who have a dynamic player in All-American candidate Orlando Johnson. The 6-5 junior averaged 18 points and 5.4 rebounds game last season, his first with the program.
But … Santa Barbara needs a big jump in performance to match Butler. The Gauchos keep opponents off the glass and are good along the perimeter, but the offense is incredibly inefficient (a little too much Johnson?) and makes too many turnovers. Solve those issues, and they’ll elevate their game in March.
The Aggies are a March mainstay, having made seven NCAA tournaments since 2000. Yet they’ve won just once, a 12-5 upset against Ohio State in 2001. That’s the main reason one of the winningest teams of the decade isn’t better known. That changes this season and makes them a great opportunity to be the newest media darling.
Despite losing do-it-all guard Jared Quayle, Utah State returns every other player from a 27-8 squad that just missed pulling off a Big Dance upset against Marquette. That means shooters (Tyler Newbold, Brian Green), reliable post players (Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall), a savvy wing (Pooh Williams) and a deep bench.
Not that coach Stew Morrill uses the bench to outrun opponents. The Aggies play slower than almost every D-I team, yet few teams can hang with their incredibly efficient offense. March is made for teams who can make shots. That’s the Aggies.
Two CAA teams? Absolutely. While CAA foe ODU thrives on defense, the Rams do it with offense. Only 25 teams sported a more efficient offense in 2009-10. They hit 36.6 percent of their 3-pointers, 50.9 of their 2s, take care of the ball and get to the offensive glass.
It all starts with senior guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell, who can hit from outside and occasionally play some nice defense, too. VCU will miss center Larry Sanders, who cleaned up defensive miscues with his blocks, but this isn’t a team who overly relies on one player. That makes them a tough out in March.
The Terriers made the NCAA tournament for the first time last season. A return appearance could result in the school’s first Big Dance win. (They just missed it after four-point loss to Wisconsin.)
Wofford plays deliberately, prizes possessions and forces opponents to work for each shot, which usually results in a Wofford rebound. But it’s not all about defense. Senior forward Noah Dahlman averaged 16.6 points a game last season, but few players score more efficiently because the 6-6 Dahlman hits the boards for second-chance points and gets to the free-throw line frequently.
However, an NCAA tourney win will require a little something more. Guards Jamar Diggs, Brad Loesing and stout forward Tim Johnson must become more reliable scoring options.