Many teams have made the NCAA Tournament with a .500 or worse record. Several of these teams have even won a game, thanks to the expanded field that matched up the lowest seeds for a chance to make the final group of 64. Since incorporating the play-in game in 2001 (which has since been expanded to four games) five teams with a .500 record or worse have won a game in the NCAA tournament, the most recent being Western Kentucky in 2012. The Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers are the latest team to crash the party after winning the Northeast Conference tournament and receiving an automatic ticket to the big dance. The Mountaineers do not have the season long credentials of many other teams, but they are built for a Cinderella run.
The Mountaineers are a team that do not rely on height. While they do feature a legitimate seven-foot tall center in Taylor Danaher, their four top scorers are 6’3″ or less. That lack of size led to them being in the bottom-third of the NCAA in rebounds, blocks, and two-point attempts. Their rebounding was so poor that they were outdone by 135 total boards. Size allows teams to score more easily in the half court, either through offensive rebounds and second chances or through the post and block game, where shots are taken from much closer than most guards can get. The type of guards who can score in close are typically a talent level above what a school like Mount St. Mary’s can recruit.
The Mountaineer’s potential Cinderella run does have a few things going for it. The first is their play style and the Mountaineers know their shortcomings, so to speak. When a team has trouble getting the ball inside or a lack of talent on the interior like they do, they have to become reliant on the three-point shot. Mount St. Mary’s was in the top ten in the nation in both three-pointers attempted and made. When a defense knows this is coming it can be hard to get off reasonable looks at the basket, but the Mountaineers get around this by spreading their shots around. In spite of their volume of three-point shots, their most prolific shooter, Rashad Whack, only had the 50th most attempts in the nation. Mount St. Mary’s had five players take over 100 three-pointers, so even if a defense is aware of it the ball can be circled around the perimeter until a good look is found.
The other positive about the Mountaineers is how much better they have been in the second half of the season. Through their loss at Texas Tech on December 30th, the Mountaineers were outscored by 148 points. Since that 31-point loss, they have turned things around and outscored their opponents by a total of 93 points. Mount St. Mary’s is getting warm at just the right time.
Getting hot on a given night can basically spell victory for any team, but that is especially true for teams reliant on the three. Mount St. Mary’s will probably have to play in, as all of the .500 or worse teams before them have, but the Mountaineers are built in just the right way to have a chance at a Cinderella run. If they can advance past their opening round opponent, they could become the first team ever to win a Round of 64 game after entering the tournament without a winning record.
Commentary by Brian Moore