By: Jay Bruce
Soon it will be time to fill those NCAA March Madness brackets out again.
Those who are looking for this year’s crop of small schools looking to pounce on the big dogs came to the right place. Back in 2006, nine small conference teams won their first round game and at least have won in each season since.
Before you go picking every small team in your bracket, take a look at these eight teams and decide for yourself whether they will be worth check marks and not X’s on your bracket?
Cornell Big Red
Cornell is a team that always flies under people’s radar. The Big Red have proven to the quite the road warrior this season, beating the likes of Alabama, Davidson, UMass, Drexel and Bucknell away from home. Cornell also lost a stunning 71-66 game at Kansas, leading the game most of the way before the Jayhawks turned the game around and pulled the win out.
Cornell is led by two talented veterans, senior three-point threat Ryan Wittman, who leads the team in scoring at 17.4 ppg, and big man Jeff Foote, who is a menace on the block.
In the past nine seasons, the Cornell posts an impressive 9-3 record in neutral site games, holding their opponent to just over 60 ppg in those victories.
Texas El Paso is one of those teams that are peaking at the right time.
As of March 1st, the Miners have reeled off 12 straight victories, not bad for a team that started the season at 10-5. UTEP got the monkey off its back by beating Conference USA foe Memphis by five points at the Tigers home gym.
The Miners may need to be Conference USA Tournament champs to make the big dance though. UTEP’s lost most of its crucial non conference games, with its only notable win coming against Oklahoma back in December.
The Miners are led by big man Derrick Caracter. The Louisville transfer proved to the world, and Rick Pitino, that given the minutes he could be productive. The junior has posted career numbers this season, with highs in points per game, free throw attempts and percentage, minutes, field goal attempts and percentage. Throw in Randy Culpepper, the UTEP scoring leader, and you’ve go a team you don’t want to see in the first round.
The Miners can score in bunches, rebound with the best of teams and thanks to their poised guard play, UTEP does not turn the ball over.
Butler currently holds the longest winning streak in the nation. At 18 straight wins, the Bulldogs ran the table on their Horizon opponents.
Only the fourth team in Horizon League history to complete its conference schedule unbeaten, Butler also finished the regular season with 26 wins for the sixth time in nine years.
With notable victories over bigger schools like Ohio State, Xavier, UCLA and Northwestern, Butler sees prepared for a tourney run.
While they’re not the defensive stalwart they used to be, the Bulldogs do keep the game in the low sixties and are ranked sixth in the nation in opponents rebounds per game.
Butler is ranked high this season and won’t sneak up on anybody, but count on them to possibly win a few games in the NCAA Tournament this year. They score in the paint and don’t give up rebounds. Do you smell the upset brewing?
Northern Iowa Panthers
NIU will be in its fifth NCAA Tournament in seven years.
The Panthers lack any stars. Their leading scorer, Adam Koch, averages a mere 12.3 points per game while leading assist man, Kwadzo Ahelegbe, manages only 2.8 assists per game.
So why is Northern Iowa so dangerous? Two reasons; defense and experience.
I am a big proponent of picking smaller teams that play good defense to win a fist round game, and what better team to pick than the Panthers? NIU is ranked No. 2 in the nation on the defensive side of the ball, holding opponents to 55.3 ppg. Whether you’re a run-and-gun style squad or a slower methodical team, the Panthers will not let you score, bad news for a team who may have only one or two scorers that carry a team.
Northern Iowa beat Boston College (81-69), Iowa State (63-60), and Iowa (67-50) en route to school record 25 wins.
With a recent notable victory over conference foe Richmond, Xavier not only launched itself into the Top 25 rankings, but also let college hoops fans know they are for real.
The stunning 78-76 double overtime victory has the Musketeers peaking just in time for the NCAA Tournament. Xavier hasn’t lost a first round game in the tourney since 2006, and is 8-1 in its last nine opening games.
The Musketeers have gone 13-2 since they suffered a 96-92 overtime loss at Wake Forest on Jan. 3. Early in the season it was obvious that XU lacked experience, but finishing the season 14-0 at home and winning its last five games, Xavier demonstrated the type of cohesiveness and mental toughness needed to go deep in the tournament.
No stranger to upset hungry fans, Richmond showed their promise early and often this season.
Defeating big schools like Missouri, Mississippi State, Florida and conference enemy Temple, the Spiders love neutral site games. Richmond went 3-0 in such games this year, holding opponents to 52.3 points per game.
There are two things you don’t do against the Spiders, score and shoot at a high percentage. Richmond is ranked top 25 in the nation in opponents’ points per game (60.8), field goal percentage (39%) and three-point percentage (28.4%).
Richmond lost its last first-round tourney game, a 76-64 defeat at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Utah State Aggies
The No. 1 three-point shooting team in the nation, Utah State could be the cause of a lot of red ink when you check your brackets at the end of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
The long-bombing Aggies are currently on a 13-game win streak, and have won 17 of their last 19 games.
With its only notable non-conference wins being against Wichita State and BYU, Utah State may need to win the WAC Tournament in order to make the big dance. The selection committee may award the Aggies for their recent winning ways, but could also shun the weak schedule they have played this season.
I hate to add a third Atlantic 10 team in my eight-team discussion, but you can’t ignore Temple when filling out those brackets.
They are one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding opponents to 57 points per game. With defense comes turnovers, and with turnovers comes easy buckets. The Owls have three players with over 20 steals and four players with over 70 assists on the season. The two go hand in hand, and with guards like Ryan Brooks (14.6 ppg, 22 steals, 72 assists), Juan Fernandez (12.2 ppg, 26 steals, 98 assists), Ramone Moore (7.7 ppg, 11 steals, 42 assists) and Luiz Guzman (4.9 ppg, 20 steals, 93 assists), Temple has a chance to do some damage.
The Owls have lost their last two opening-round games, but with veteran guard play and a stellar defensive attack, an upset could be just what the doctor ordered for Temple.
To Wrap it Up
In conclusion, there are a few things you need to think about when picking your upsets.
Firstly, if a small school has three or four starters who are seniors, pick them to get an upset. Seniors always outplay their potential in big games, and for most small conference teams, the NBA is not an option for most of its players. They are going to play their heart out and sometimes that is a bad thing for the Goliath’s they are looking to slay.
Also, do some research and look at teams with no stars. Some small conference teams have only one star scorer, which usually ends in disaster when they face bigger, more athletic rivals. For example, this season my pick would be Northern Iowa. The Panthers play amazing defense and if you shut down one player, any one of the rest can kill you in any given game.
With three players averaging more than 10 points per game, three averaging more than 4.5 rebounds per game and five players shooting better than .750 from the free throw line, NIU could be your key to getting a head start on your office pool buddies.