Every year we see a few NCAA basketball teams come up through the rankings and try and push the usual suspects for college hoops supremacy. This year we have a few new teams throwing the proverbial hats in the ring. Are they real contenders, or just more one year wonders that will quickly fade? Only time and a now 68 team heavy tournament will tell.
So while we see the usual teams up at the top, like Duke, Ohio State, Georgetown, and on and on, we see new teams, ones with good program history, but never big time shakers. As we see the networks spreading the wealth (both CBS and TBS will carry games this season) and the field expand for more teams, maybe a big run by a new face will help boost the ratings. Either way, it is still a very exciting time of year, and perhaps still the best playoff type system in all of sports.
What I did here is try to make some of you more familiar with some of the teams pushing for the big spot. I have chosen 5 teams that have had good seasons, mixed in with good players and good coaches. While none of these teams are locks to break into the sweet 16 in the tournament, they can be tough match ups. Here is my Miracle 5:
Former Michigan “Fab 5” coach and long time NCAA head man Steve Fisher has done quite a job with a program never known for being a top 25 squad. Led by Sophomore forward, 6 foot 7 inch Kawli Leonard (15.7 points, 10.3 rebounds per game) and talented senior guard D.J. Gay (13 points per game), the Aztecs are currently one of only two teams who are still undefeated, the other is number 1 Ohio State. They do have 2 very big games left against 9th ranked BYU, but outside of that, the schedule looks good enough for them to win 27-28 games. While they have not faced the best of competition this season, they have showed poise and play well enough to handle teams in front of them. They have depth to pull off some big wins in a tournament, and a Sweet 16 appearance is not far fetched.
BYU Cougars: 19-1, ranked 9th as of 1-24-2011
The Cougars are usually a team that makes its way into the tournament with 20 wins and a conference championship. This season they are much different and have a team that can make some noise. Head coach Dave Rose has a sensational leader in Jimmer Fredette, a 6 foot 2 inch guard who is averaging a whopping 26.6 points per game, and catching 3 point cotton at a rate of 41.3 percent. The big thing the Cougars have that can go a long way is balance. They have 8 players averaging over 3 rebounds per game, and Fredette, besides being a big scorer, also passes well and grabs his share of boards too. Being in the same conference as San Diego State will make a conference championship tougher this year, but this team can be very scary come March. This is a school that can use a big time post-season run in a sport to gain some exposure. This is not the old time BYU, they score points and play fast-paced ball. This is a fun team to watch this March.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: 15-4, ranked 15th as of 1-24-2011
While head coach Tubby Smith may have been overwhelmed at Kentucky, he has done a nice job here in the Big 10 with the Gophers. Usually a middle of the road team, Smith has them playing good ball despite the tough Big 10 schedule. Led by guard Blake Hoffarber and F-C Ralph Sampson III, son of former NBA player Ralph Sampson, the Gophers have a nice balance of size and speed. They do have some big test coming up against number 1 Ohio State and rival Purdue, but the rest of the schedule seems easy enough for 20+ wins and a tournament bid. No team wants to see Tubby Smith and a team of his come March, he knows how to coach in big time games.
St. Mary’s Gaels: 17-3, ranked 22nd as of 1-24-2011
Trying to get out of the shadows of conference rival Gonzaga, St. Mary’s is fielding one of its better teams in years. Head coach Randy Bennett is not so accepting of his team just being a small conference team with a bolstered record he believes they have the talent to make a good run. The 3 losses were tough ones, losing to #6 San Diego State, #9 BYU, and a top 25 team Vanderbilt. They have 2 real good leaders in 6 foot 6 inch forward Rob Jones (14 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) and team leader, senior guard Mickey McConnell (14.6 points per game). this Gaels team is one that can play with bigger teams, and can go deep to its bench to eat minutes. 2 games against Gonzaga in the next few weeks will show us what kind of team we have here. If they lose those, we may not see them in March, however if they win them, we can be seeing a lot of them in March.
Head coach Fran Dunphy knows his way around the tournament, having brought former Ivy League power-house Penn there several times. This Owls team is not the one that we are used to seeing, with stuffy defense and slow methodical play. This Owls team has some kids that can shoot the 3 pointer, and they play more of a face pace. This team has work to do, losing 2 of its last 3 to very tough A-10 rivals, and they have a conference jammed with teams with similar styles and records. They do have a win against top 10 team Georgetown, played number 7 Villanova tooth and nail before a 4 point loss, and still have a date with national super team Duke. On a given day, they can shock big time teams, but it relies on Dunphy keeping them grounded. Led by forward Ramone Moore ( 15 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 36% 3 point shooting), the Owls can be one of those teams to sneak up and grab teams come March, if they can survive that long.
We still have a very long month ahead of us before conference tournaments and the NCAA big dance start up, so we can see some teams just fall apart, or some of these play better and rise up the ranks. Stay tuned!