It happens every year during conference tournament time. A team in either a power or mid-major conference goes on an unexpected run, grabbing an NCAA tournament bid for themselves while taking one away from a bubble team. What teams are capable of pulling off a similar run this season? Here are a few teams to keep an eye on over the next nine days.
– Northern Iowa: The winner of the Missouri Valley quarterfinal between the Panthers and Illinois State will be a team to watch this weekend. The Panthers won both regular season meetings, most recently beating the Redbirds 80-72 last Saturday, but as the saying goes it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season. UNI is 7-2 over its last nine games with Anthony James and Seth Tuttle lead the way offensively, and the Panthers have four players averaging at least 10.2 points per game.
– Providence: The Friars have been hot, as they’ve won seven of their last eight games leading up to Saturday’s regular season finale at Connecticut. Vincent Council runs the show at the point and Providence has two of the Big East’s most improved players in forward Kadeem Batts and guard Bryce Cotton. A win on Saturday gives Providence the seven seed in next week’s Big East tournament, which could mean an opener against a St. John’s squad that’s struggled of late.
– USC: The Trojans have played much better since Bob Cantu took over for the fired Kevin O’Neill, and the talent is there for this group to get hot in Las Vegas. Transfers Eric Wise (UC Irvine) and J.T. Terrell (Wake Forest) are the leading scorers, and USC doesn’t lack for size inside either due to the presence of Dewayne Dedmon and Rice transfer Omar Oraby. It’s all about focus for USC; if the Trojans show up in Vegas ready to compete they can win what looks to be a wide-open Pac-12 tournament.
– Iowa: Four of the Hawkeyes’ last five defeats have been by four points or less, and with Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White leading the way Fran McCaffery’s team doesn’t lack for talent. But Iowa struggles some from the field, as they shoot just 41.9% from the field. With a win in the first round they’ll likely get a shot at an Indiana or Michigan, and a win would not only open up the Big Ten bracket but also give the Hawkeyes another quality victory for their resume.
– Saint Joseph’s: Given how tough the Atlantic 10 has been there are a number of teams capable of winning the tournament in Brooklyn. The Hawks may be a bit of a surprise here given their inconsistent nature but Phil Martelli’s squad is talented. C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts Jr. are both skilled front court players, and the backcourt tandem of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway can put points on the board as well. Can Saint Joseph’s wake up and make a run? Don’t rule them out.
– Arkansas: The Razorbacks have been dreadful on the road this season, but Mike Anderson’s team has depth and skill with B.J. Young the main attraction. Maybe the Hogs will feel more comfortable playing at a neutral site than they do on the road, and if so don’t be surprised if Arkansas ends up winning games in a conference tournament that looks to be a crapshoot after regular season champion Florida.
Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.