Flying Under the Radar In the NCAA

Published: Jan 16, 2014 22:19pm EST
By mds2929, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Jan 16, 2014 @ 10:30pm EST

 

On December 2nd, then-#12 Connecticut edged then-#15 Florida 65-64 on a game-winning jumper by Kemba Walker 2.0, Shabazz Napier, moving to 8-0 on the young season. Despite having also topped Indiana and Maryland, albeit by identical one-point margins, 51% of ESPN.com's SportsNation declared that the Huskies were not legitimate contenders to make the Final Four in 2014. Following the dismissal of Chane Behanen and the decision to redshirt injured Kevin Ware, a similar assessment was made of defending champion Louisville. Whether or not one believes that voters mistook a team being a "contender" for being a "favorite," in which case voting "No" would make far more sense, it feels as though we experience Groundhog Day whenever it comes to evaluating the prospects of college basketball teams.

The historic instance of all four #1 seeds reaching the Final Four in 2008 has proven to have been an anomaly, as more and more completely off-the-radar teams are making deep runs every year. Since 2006, we have seen two controversial bubble teams from the CAA ('06 George Mason, '11VCU), an MVC team most thought was overseeded as a #8 ('13 Wichita State), and two consecutive Butler teams all make the Final Four. Given that only one of these teams held a seed better than eight and none were close to being favored to win their regions, it's frankly bemusing to see high-quality teams deemed basically incapable of making a run in the Big Dance.

While the NCAA Tournament isn't quite on the same level as the MLB Playoffs in that anyone in the field can take the title, the recent run of upsets by #15 seeds has shown that the gap between the seed lines is ever-shrinking, while the achievements of the previously-noted quintet (plus the likes of Stephen Curry's Davidson club and even Walker's UConn team that pulled a Danny Manning) should serve notice that a greater pool of teams than ever before is capable of going on a huge run.

With the hyped freshmen-laden teams hardly dominating and even solid teams based around veterans (like Michigan State and Ohio State) playing more close games than expected, it's hardly unreasonable to think that more surprises could be in store this March. As such, here are five teams that have yet to be ranked in the AP Poll (as of 1/13) who might be laying relatively low right now, but could provide major headaches for the favorites come tourney time.

- Florida State

The tie that binds most of the upstart teams that have gone deeper than the Sweet Sixteen is that they do not tend to vacillate too much in either direction, which might make the Seminoles an odd choice given the frequency with which they can deliver head-scratchers. However, the one thing that Leonard Hamilton's teams have been able to do consistently well is defend, which has been the case in a big way this season. After rolling at Miami, FL on Wednesday, FSU is presently 12-4 with no truly bad losses and a defensive allowing a meager 61.8 ppg.

Advanced metrics show that this isn't all just due to pace, as Ken Pomeroy's ratings have the Sems as the sixth-best adjusted defense in college basketball. What could hold Florida State back, per usual, is its offense, which has only totaled more than 67 points in one of the team's last six games. Sixth man Ian Miller is the lone Seminole averaging over 13 ppg (13.7), although to date FSU has been able to weather most storms thanks in part to the ACC remarkably playing at a slower pace than even the Big Ten.

However, as we saw when Chris Singleton led a very similar club to the 2011 Sweet Sixteen (where they fell in OT to aforementioned VCU), having a team loaded with athletic veterans who can take an opponent out of its rhythm can yield big dividends.

- Harvard

It's actually rather surprising that the Crimson have not been ranked this year, as they seemed to be the consensus "cute" choice as a preseason Final Four interloper - especially since the school was returning two of its best players in Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry (suspended for 2012-13 due to "academic dishonesty") to a club that stunned New Mexico in the opening round of last year's tourney. For the most part, Harvard's lived up to the hype, currently sitting at 14-2 with a title in the Great Alaska Shootout and with its only losses being tight contests at likely NCAA teams in Colorado and Connecticut. Those two misses at top victories have the Crimson flying UTR right now, which could be very dangerous for an opponent in the Big Dance, as winning the Ivy League with, say, one conference loss would likely depress Harvard seed down to the range of #11.

Even with a higher ranking, the parallels between this club and the 12th-seeded 2010 Cornell team that reached the Sweet Sixteen are striking, as both have one standout scorer (for Harvard it's junior swingman Wesley Saunders and his 15.7 ppg) complimented by a veteran-laden core of players than can score from anywhere on the court. Given that Curry is just starting to round into form, the Crimson's best offensive ball is likely still yet to come - a scary thought given that their oft-forgotten adjusted defense actually rates 26th best.

- Tennessee

Like Florida State, the Vols are more mercurial than one would like, as they've offset ugly losses to UTEP and Texas A&M by demolishing the quartet of Xavier, Wake Forest, Virginia, and LSU by a combined 87 points. However, Cuonzo Martin's starting five is not only loaded with freakish athletes, they are also marvels of efficiency. Despite often utilizing a three-guard lineup, all five of UT's starters shoot over 45% from the floor, leading scorer Jordan McRae (18.7 ppg) is capable of exploding on any given night, Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes nearly average a double-double, and role players Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson each shot over 40% from downtown.

Only once has Tennessee permitted an opponent to top 70 points in a game this year, which makes them arguably the most well-rounded team on this list. An SEC schedule that takes the Volunteers to each of the league's top teams (Florida, Kentucky, Missouri) could serve to depress Tennessee's seed, but make no mistake - this group is talented and capable.

- Wisconsin-Green Bay

Wisconsin's smallest margin of victory in the Badgers' 16-0 start was three points and it came in a tough contest in Green Bay, as the Phoenix served notice that the Horizon League has a new dangerous club atop its ranks following the recent defection of Butler. Green Bay's case for an at-large would be fascinating, as aside from its tight defeat against big bad Sconie, the club has lost in Alaska to Harvard (fine) and at Eastern Michigan (subpar), but has a victory over likely NCAA club Virginia to its name.

Obviously, the best plan of attack is to win the conference and Keifer Sykes has been the man to lead the way, pacing the squad at 20.5 ppg on 50.2% FG shooting to go along with 5.3 apg. Toss in Alec Brown's stellar shooting (16.2 ppg, 49.2% FG, 44% treys) and you have a 1-2 tandem that can cause fits for opposing teams. Defense is the issue here, as UW-GB has thrice permitted 85+ points in a contest (all wins) in its 13-3 start, which obviously won't fly against the game's elite. However, their averages vs. Virginia and Wisconsin were a perfect 70.5-70.5, showing that they can both score agains the big boys and keep them in check, too.

- Xavier

After seven consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, three of which resulted in Sweet Sixteen appearances, X limped home to a 17-14 mark last year in a lost season. After getting swept in the Bahamas in late November, including a 7th-place game defeat to mediocre USC, prospects weren't looking so great for this year being any different. However, Chris Mack's squad has caught fire since returning to the U.S., rolling off eight straight victories (including takedowns of Cincinnati and Marquette) before losing a shootout at Creighton. The Musketeers' response was to overcome a 17-point deficit, hang 80 points on Georgetown, and move to 4-1 in Big East play. The Muskies are doing so in a somewhat un-Xavier-like manner - with offense.

Xavier has averaged 75.6 ppg and rates 22nd in adjusted offense per Pomeroy behind a high-efficiency attack headed by Semaj Christon (49.3% FG, 46.2% treys, 16.3 ppg) and Matt Stainbrook (53.2% FG, 11.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg). These stats are more impressive given that X has played on of the toughest defensive gauntlets in the nation and while the defense remains a slight question mark, the step up to the Big East 2.0 should battle test this group heading into the Dance.


 

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