24- win Green Bay. 22-win Vermont. 24 -win Belmont. 20-win Davidson. Their win totals may be flashy, but their NCAA resume is not. Since these regular season conference champions and potential Cinderella teams did not take care of business in their respective conference tournaments, they have opened the door for some big boys to push their way into the Big Dance as an entirely different type of underdog, and perhaps leave them destined for the NIT. Which power conference regular season also-rans, then, have finally decided to wake up just in time to play the role of a top-five spoiler this year, bursting NCAA bubbles and answering the Cinderella role call?
There is no better place to start, then in the jam-packed Atlantic Coast Conference, where Florida State, Maryland and NC State all sit with 9-9 conference records. Out of these three teams, NC State appears the most primed to do some damage in that conference’s tournament. Not only does the 19-12 Wolfpack have the conference’s leading scorer, T.J. “Buckets” Warren (24.8 points per game), but the team as a whole can light it up from outside. N.C. State is shooting just under 39 percent as a team from three-point range. Not a bad stat to have when battling with high powered Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. As for Warren, the electric 6’8″ sophomore forward closed out the regular season with a 41 point effort against Pittsburgh and a 42 point performance against Boston College. He also averages over seven rebounds per game and can take a game over at any minute with his great ability to create his own shot.
Warren and the Wolfpack have no problem scoring points. The question is whether or not they can stop anybody. N.C. State has given up 79 or more points six times this season including a 95-point drubbing at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils.
Moving to the middle of the country, the Big 10, has one team that few people are talking about, but nobody wants to play in Illinois. The 18-13 Illini have proven that they could play with anyone in the nation, knocking off Michigan State and Iowa on the road, as well as Nebraska and Missouri at home. The Illini have one of the stingiest defenses in the Big 10, allowing only 62.8 points per game, good for 23rd best in the nation and No. 2 in the Big 10. Illinois is also playing with the hot hand in the Big 10. They have won four of five, with their lone loss in that span being to regular season champion Michigan.
The Illini are led by guard Ravonte Rice, who averages 15.7 points and six rebounds per game. With their current level of play, the Illini could easily step up to the Cinderella role call and burst the NCAA bubble of a number of teams, embracing the role of spoiler.
In the Big 12, no team is more poised to make a lengthy tourney run than West Virginia. The Mountaineers (17-14) are fresh off their regular season finale upset of then No. 8 regular season champ Kansas. The young West Virginia squad, which is ripe with freshmen and sophomores, have come on strong after a slow start to the Big 12 conference season. Despite the Mountaineers mediocre record, they have a resume that trumps aforementioned Illinois as well as many teams that are NCAA locks. Along with the stunning win against Kansas, West Virginia has beaten No. 23 Oklahoma and No. 16 Iowa State all in the last month. Against the Cyclones, West Virginia went completely crazy, dropping 102 points and winning by 25.
Heading south, the Southeastern Conference, like the ACC, has been a bloodbath all season long. While No. 1 Florida has been able to navigate through the SEC season unscathed, the rest of the pack has simply been toughening up in preparation for the tournament. One school to watch from this conference is LSU. The 18-12 Tigers clawed their way to a 9-9 SEC conference record with quality wins over Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas. LSU is beginning to find its rhythm behind the forward tandem of maturing freshman Jordan Mickey and junior Johnny O’Bryant III, Mickey is averaging 13 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while O’Bryant is averaging nearly a double-double with 15.6 points and 7.8 boards.
Finally, heading out west, the sleeper team in the Pac-12 has got to be Utah. The Utes unimpressive 9-9 conference record hides the fact that this team is on a roll. As winners of four of their last five, Utah is a dangerous team that experienced great success in last season’s Pac-12 tournament before falling to eventual champion Oregon. Coach Larry Krystkowiak’s squad has drummed up quality wins this season against BYU, Colorado and Arizona State while taking No. 4 Arizona to overtime in Salt Lake City before succumbing 67-63. Utah leads the Pac-12 in field goal percentage at 49.9 percent, and the team is led by breakout junior guard Delon Wright, who averages 16 points and seven rebounds per game. With their scoring efficiency, the Utes could easily be one of the top five spoilers that answer the Cinderella role call this week and burst the NCAA bubble of a few teams.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika