Prepare to have your brackets busted.
After a regular season full of twists and turns, the NCAA tournament begins with the promise of upsets and isn’t likely to disappoint. Stop your search for another George Mason. This isn’t 2006 all over again. But there are at least a dozen darkhorse teams that deserve early attention.
To make our darkhorse list, a team must be seeded No. 5 or lower. We all know the tournament is heavy with teams from the major conferences, so we are going to limit our attention to the other guys. No darkhorses from the six BCS conferences. No Gonzaga, Butler, Xavier or Northern Iowa either. Those are programs that have worked hard to elevate themselves and are closer to majors than mid-majors.
So here is the Darkhorse Dozen, our teams that could make some noise, with their first-round matchup in parenthesis. We’re not saying they will all win a game, but you’d better pay some attention.
Cornell (No. 12 East vs. No. 5 Temple): Slightly surprised at the low seed for Cornell. A No. 8 or No. 9 seemed more appropriate. The Ivy League champions are difficult to prepare for and could pull off an upset or two. The big factor for the Big Red is offensive efficiency. Cornell leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage (43.4) and the Big Red make 9.8 per game. Ryan Wittman (42 percent) leads the way but Cornell has five regulars shooting better than 39 percent from behind the arc. Cornell has just one loss since that 71-66 setback at Kansas on Jan. 6.
Old Dominion (No. 11 South vs. No. 6 Notre Dame): The Monarchs defeated Georgetown 61-57 on Dec. 19. It’s one of those results you just can’t get out of your head. And it happened on the Georgetown campus in old McDonough Gym. Old Dominion proved it was the class of that Colonial Athletic Association by winning the regular season and tournament championships. Bring your rebounding shoes because Old Dominion ranks third in the nation in rebound margin (8.8). This team won’t be intimidated.
Murray State (No. 13 West vs. No. 4 Vanderbilt): Look at the statistics and it isn’t hard to understand why the Racers won 30 games. Murray State gets it done on both ends of the floor, with a national ranking of third in field-goal percentage (50.3), 13th in field-goal percentage defense (38.6), fifth in steals (10.0) and 20th in rebound margin (6.0). Put it all together and Murray State ranks fourth in scoring margin (17.0). That’s a combination any coach would be elated over. Vandy will be challenged preparing to play the Ohio Valley champs.
UTEP (No. 12 West vs. No. 5 Butler): The Miners came apart in the Conference USA championship game against Houston, but there’s still a lot to like about UTEP. Start with the team leader, the sensational Randy Culpepper (17.9 ppg), who can flat out score. Then there’s the rebounding of Derrick Caracter, the transfer from Louisville. UTEP plays a swarming type of defense that leads to 8.7 steals per game. Coach Tony Barbee may end up a candidate for some big-time jobs. This should be a good first-round game and another of those classic 12 vs. 5 matchups that has upset written all over it.
San Diego State (No. 11 Midwest vs. No. 6 Tennessee): New Mexico and Brigham Young captured the headlines all season and the Mountain West was referred to as an underrated conference. How underrated? San Diego State won the conference tournament. The Aztecs won their last five games and beat New Mexico and UNLV to close out the automatic bid. Since Jan. 16, Steve Fisher’s team has lost three times — twice to BYU and in overtime at New Mexico. Kawhi Leonard is the leading scorer and the Aztecs will attack the offensive boards and block shots.
Siena (No. 13 South vs. No. 4 Purdue): The Saints have done this before, beating Stanford (1989), Vanderbilt (2008) and Ohio State (2009). One of the great traditions in this program is consistent, smart coaching and Fran McCaffery is the latest in a long line of outstanding mentors. This year Siena dominated the MAAC with a 17-1 record. The Saints have great balance with Alex Franklin, Edwin Ubiles, Ryan Rossiter and Clarence Jackson all averaging in double figures. This could be a real problem for Purdue, now playing without Robbie Hummel.
Morgan State (No. 15 East vs. No. 2 West Virginia): There’s a lot going on with this program, which claimed is second consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship. Last year the Bears made the NCAA tournament for the first time, under the leadership of Todd Bozeman, the former Cal coach who has redefined his career at the Baltimore school. Now the Bears are playing to honor redshirt freshman Anthony Anderson, who was diagnosed with leukemia in October. Leading the way is MEAC tournament MVP, Kevin Thompson, and the league’s Player of the Year, Reggie Holmes. The Bears got a tough draw, but this remains a great story.
Richmond (No. 7 South vs. No. 10 Saint Mary’s): It’s a little difficult to term the Spiders as a darkhorse because they have good wins over Temple, Xavier, Missouri, Old Dominion, and Rhode Island. But Richmond did sneak up on the Atlantic 10 and most of the nation. Since Jan. 16, their only losses have been against Charlotte and Xavier. The Xavier game went to OT and was on the road. Richmond’s Chris Mooney has done one of the best coaching jobs in the nation and the backcourt combo of Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez gets everything started.
Ohio (No. 14 Midwest vs. No. 3 Georgetown): Every once in a while, a team discovers itself during a conference tournament, turns its season around and goes on to bigger things. Perhaps that will be the story with the Bobcats. The ninth-seeded Bobcats became the lowest-seeded team to win the Mid-American Conference championship and knocked off defending champion Akron in overtime to win the automatic bid. Armon Bassett, an escapee from Kelvin Sampson’s Indiana teams, and D.J. Cooper, a freshman, combined for 48 points against Akron. Not sure the Bobcats can pull an enormous upset, but don’t be surprised if they jump out to an early lead against the Hoyas.
Oakland (No. 14 West vs. No. 3 Pittsburgh): If winning breeds confidence, then the Grizzlies enter the tournament with supreme confidence. Oakland is 26-8 and earned the school’s second NCAA bid with a school-record 11th consecutive win. The Grizzlies have won 20 of their last 21 against Summit League opponents. In 19 of those games, Oakland had double-digit leads and in only two of those games did Oakland trail in the last five minutes. Coach Greg Kampe has called his team the greatest in league history. Obviously the Grizzlies know how to win, but can they do it in the tournament? That’s a pretty tough task against Pitt.
Utah State (No. 12 South vs. No. 5 Texas A&M): There were some tense moments for the Aggies after they lost the WAC championship game to New Mexico State Saturday night. But Utah State had won 17 games prior to that and coach Stew Morrill knows how to get his team to the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies, who won the WAC regular season by three games, got points from the selection committee by being dominant and having a fine overall body of work. Tai Wesley, Jared Quayle and Nate Bendall are the top scorers and rebounders. Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon probably expected an easier matchup with a No. 5 seed.
Wofford (No. 13 East vs. No. 4 Wisconsin): The little school that could. Wofford is one of the smallest institutions in Division I with an attendance of about 1,400. The Terriers play in the Southern Conference, better known for its football. And, oh yeah, Wofford is in the NCAA for the first time and didn’t join Division I until 1994-95. Coach Mike Young entered this season with a 90-117 record. Wofford has 26 wins this season, 10 more than last season. And the Terriers have won 13 straight. Noah Dahlman is the star, averaging 16.8 points. This is a David vs. Goliath game, in terms of school size, but that’s what makes the tournament fun, right? Wisconsin might want to watch out for Wofford’s swarming defensive style. It was good enough to beat Georgia and South Carolina.