Posted in: NCAA Basketball
Each year there are numerous head coaching changes in division one NCAA Men’s Basketball. This year there were fifty-five D-1 programs that changed head coaches. It seems every year that some new hot shot coach leads his team to the Big Dance only to be stolen away by a major conference program the following season. Or on the flipside, we see big programs making the change up top after their coach spends the season on the hot seat, only to come up short and be served his walking papers.
In this article, we will highlight what I think are the five moves that could affect your NCAA March Madness bracket this season. Everyone wants to be the guy that predicts the next Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart type of breakout season, and here I will show you where to start looking. Let’s get started!
This pick shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Zags have made the NCAA tournament for twenty consecutive seasons, and this team might be the best team yet in Spokane. Mark Few has a wealth of both talent and experience and Gonzaga opened up the season at number three in the inaugural AP poll this season, receiving several first-place votes.
The Zags feature big man Killian Tillie who has NBA level footwork and post skills as well as first-round talent in swingman Rui Hachimura. Throw in a four-year starting point guard in Josh Perkins, and sharpshooter Zack Norvell and this team bring back a lot of what led them to the Final Four two year’s ago and the Sweet 16 last season.
As Few likes to do, he also added in a major transfer as Brandon Clarke joins the squad from San Jose State. Clarke was an all-Mountain West Conference first-team player while also making the all-defensive MWC team as a sophomore. He shot nearly 60% from the field and was top fifteen in the nation in blocked shots at over 2.5 a game.
All of this adds up to a team that should coast to yet another West Coast Conference title. The Zags scheduled very heavy, and they have matchups with top ten teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Tennessee in the non-conference. If the Zags can finish up the non-conference portion of the schedule unblemished, this could be a team that is in the mix for the number one overall seed come March. While the Bulldogs have certainly outgrown their mid-major roots, they are still playing in the one or two bid WCC, so they top our list of small conference teams that could make it to the third weekend this season.
The Nevada Wolfpack is going to be really good this year. Nevada made their mark last season when they made a run to the Sweet 16, and they bring essentially everything back and more this season. Nevada won 29 games last season, and on paper, they are significantly better than a year ago. The Wolfpack return four of their five starts and add a McDonald’s All-American in Jordan Brown. They also added a big-time transfer in the form of Trey porter from Old Dominion. Porter went for a 13 points, 6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks stat line last year and should add a lot of depth to this already staggeringly deep Nevada squad.
Nevada isn’t scheduled all that heavy in the non-conference with their biggest game right now looking like a showdown with last year’s Cinderella, Loyola-Chicago.
Unlike last season, when the Wolfpack came a little unheralded, they are getting all kinds of hype this year. The Wolfpack opened up the season at number six in the AP poll, and all eyes are going to be on Reno to prove that a top ten preseason ranking is justified. You can pencil Nevada in for about 30 wins and a top ten scoring offense right now.
How could we forget last year’s wearer of the glass slipper, the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago? Sister Jean and company enthralled the nation last year as they made a run all the way to the Final Four. This year, the Ramblers bring back three starters and four of their top ten scorers from last year’s team. Almost nobody saw Loyola making the run they did last year, but when you look back at the season they had, this was a legit team.
They had a big non-conference win against the Florida Gators and ran away with a solid Missouri Valley Conference. Were they good enough to be in the Final Four? Doubtful. But this wasn’t a fluky team that jacked up bad shots and got lucky. This team played elite defense, and they deserved to win every game they won last season.
The big reason the Ramblers should be on your radar is Clayton Custer. Custer was the Missouri Valley player of the year last year after averaging fourteen points, four assists, and a steal and a half a game. Loyola will likely have to win their conference tournament again this year to get their ticket punched to the dance as the Valley just doesn’t pack the punch it once did. But make no mistake, nobody wants to draw this team in their bracket next season.
The Jackrabbits of South Dakota State are another small conference team you need to keep a close eye on this season. South Dakota State has made three straight NCAA tournaments, and they have acquitted themselves well in the tournament. They have made the tournament five times since 2012, and while they haven’t won a game in the Big Dance, they are always a tough out. The Jackrabbits return the back to back Summit League player of the year in Mike Daum. Daum is a matchup nightmare at 6-9 230 pounds with a sweet stroke from deep.
Daum is a prolific scorer and shooter as he has averaged over 24-points a game the last two seasons while shooting north of 40% from deep and over 85% from the charity stripe. Oh, and yeah, he also dragged down over ten boards a game last year too. Daum is likely the greatest player in Jackrabbit history and is coming into this season with hopes of a deep run in March to put a stamp on a historic career.
Clearly, this team will rely heavily on Daum on both ends of the floor, but they also have a senior point guard in Tevin King that should give them a steady hand and a lot of experience bringing the ball up the floor. When we do see these small conference teams make a deep run, it is usually when they end up with a great senior class of established stars. That is what the Jackrabbits have this year, and if the ball can bounce their way late in the season, you could very well see this team make a run.
The Buffalo Bulls are the final team on our list today and just because I have them listed last doesn’t mean that this is a team you will want to overlook. Buffalo won 27 games last season, and they return six of their top seven scorers this year. The Bulls have made the NCAA tournament three times since 2015 and are always a very tough out. And last year they even managed to pick up a 21-point thumping of a very highly regarded Arizona team that was chalked full-on NBA level talent in the NCAA tournament, before bowing out against Kentucky in the round of thirty-two.
The Bulls are loaded with upperclassmen as they have CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris, and Dontay Carruthers all returning for their senior seasons this year. They also have a solid recruiting class to go with all of their experience. As I said above, when you are looking for a small conference team that can make a surprising run, the teams that are full of upperclassman should always be ones that you take a hard look at.
So here they are folks, my five picks of small conference teams that could make a deep run in March. The best way to win your bracket pool at the end of the year is to identify these potential Cinderella teams now and watch them closely throughout the season.
Had more people paid attention to what Loyola-Chicago was doing last year during the regular season, they wouldn’t have all been so shocked when the team ended up in the Final Four.