College Basketball Preview: Which mid-majors have the chance to make a deep NCAA Tournament run?

Monmouth guard Justin Robinson (12) brings the ball up court during an NCAA college basketball game against West Virginia, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)

You never even see them coming.

Like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, NCAA Tournament bracket busters do most of their work in the dark. They quietly build up their roster with experienced seniors and gritty young talent, grind through much of the regular season with little to no outside fanfare, and enter the NCAA’s as an afterthought mulled over for only a second by most bracket filler-outers.

March, much like nature, can be cruel.

It always helps to have advanced warning, though. Think about what would have happened if the Titanic had radar. That’s why, if you’re a fan of a high-major program, you should read this entry. Arm yourself with knowledge.

The following teams will be more dangerous in March than they might appear:

UAB forward William Lee (34) is defended by UTEP forward Ivan Venegas, left, and center Hooper Vint during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/John Amis)
UAB forward William Lee (34) is defended by UTEP forward Ivan Venegas, left, and center Hooper Vint during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/John Amis)

UAB  (26-7, 13-2/C-USA in 2015-16)

The Blazers were scorned by the selection committee a year ago, despite winning 26 games and pillaging their way through Conference USA in the regular season. An upset loss to Western Kentucky in the C-USA semifinals cost them a bid, and coincidentally, opened the door for 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State to pull off one of the greatest upsets in tournament history when it shook down 2nd-seed and popular national championship pick Michigan State in the first round.

It was the second straight year a Conference USA team pulled off a first-round stunner. UAB did it itself in 2015, knocking off 3rd-seeded Iowa State and busting a third of the nation’s brackets in the first two hours of March Madness.

That team struggled through the regular season, stumbling to 4-9 out of the gate before closing the year 16-6 and devastating the Cyclones. It had a sneaky amount of talent, which was young then but has now fully matured and is ready to take Conference USA–and possibly some unwitting tournament teams–by storm.

6-9 junior forward William Lee (10.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) won Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year award last year, and might be the frontrunner for the league’s Player of the Year award this season. He’s long, athletic, and skilled, and could end up being an NBA draft pick next June.

Also back is 6-8 junior Chris Cokley, who’s the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder (13.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Senior guard Dirk Williams (9.3 ppg) and junior guard Nick Norton (8.9 ppg, 5.1 apg) run the offense.

Monmouth guard Justin Robinson drives the ball during an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Monmouth guard Justin Robinson drives the ball during an NCAA college basketball game against Maryland, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Monmouth (28-8, 17-3/MAAC)

The Hawks were the most infamous NCAA Tournament snub last year, left out in the cold despite 17 road or neutral wins (28 overall) and triumphs over UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgetown and USC.

Monmouth might have had its own Shining Moment last March if it had been included in the NCAA field, but it committed an unforgivable sin for a low-major program: losing in its conference tournament.

This year, the Hawks will be back and (likely) better than ever. Monmouth returns 5-8 dynamo Justin Robinson, who averaged 19.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists last season and took the basketball-watching nation by storm.

His quickness, nose for the basket and dizzying array of moves helped win him MAAC Player of the Year honors. He was also the best player on the court during the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, breaking the tournament scoring record (held by former K-State stud Michael Beasley) and winning the MVP despite the fact that the Hawks lost in the semifinals.

It’s not all about Robinson, though.

The Hawks also return reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Micah Seaborn (13.2 ppg). The 6-5 sophomore guard has a nice shooting touch and a knack for finishing around the rim. He’s a deadly three-point shooter and was the perfect compliment to Robinson’s attacking style. Speaking of perfect compliment, head coach King Rice has done a terrific job with this team, recruiting exceptionally well and showing a natural ability to relate to and motivate his players.

Monmouth got a lot of at-large NCAA Tournament buzz after it defeated UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgetown and USC last season. This year, they’ve scheduled South Carolina, Syracuse, Memphis and North Carolina.

If the Hawks win one of those games, they’ll hear the buzz again, but they’ll probably need to win three of four to reach the Big Dance without winning the MAAC title. It’s unfair, but that’s life at the low-major level.

If they get to the dance, though…watch out. It could be a long stay in the spotlight for this group.

Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews (0) shoots against George Washington guard Kethan Savage (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament in New York, Friday, March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews (0) shoots against George Washington guard Kethan Savage (11) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament in New York, Friday, March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Rhode Island (17-15, 9-9/A-10)

Some Atlantic 10 schools (VCU, St. Joseph’s, Dayton, Saint Louis) shouldn’t really be considered mid-majors. Some (La Salle, Duquesne, George Mason) absolutely should. URI doesn’t necessarily fall in the first category, so we think they qualify for this list.

The Rams haven’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1999, but they’ve been steadily improving under head coach Danny Hurley. This might be the year they not only break out as an A-10 contender, but an NCAA threat as well.

URI might have ended their tourney drought last year if not for a devastating season-ending injury to E.C. Matthews. The 6-5 junior guard is a legit NBA prospect, as he’s currently projected by NBADraft.net as a second-rounder.

He’s quick, long, athletic, and can score at will. Matthews averaged 16.5 points per game two years ago, but raised his game against the best competition, going for 26 in an overtime win over Nebraska and 27 in a 68-60 loss at Providence. He also hung 20 on Kansas.

6-9 forward Kuran Iverson, who actually is related to Allen (which is crazy because of his size),  has big-time talent, as he originally landed at Memphis. He’s gotten better each year, and averaged 9.8 points, 7.1 boards and 1.2 blocks per game last season.

He’s flanked by 6-7 senior forward Hassan Martin, who averaged 12 points and 5.6 boards last season. He can be a shotblocking force and defensive presence as well.


Chattanooga
(29-6, 15-3)

The Mocs won 29 games and reached the NCAA Tournament last year despite losing preseason SoCon Player of the Year Casey Jones (who helped lead the team to upsets of Georgia and Illinois). The 6-5 senior, who averaged 14 points and 7 boards in 2015, is back after taking a medical redshirt last year.

Also back are 6-5 junior guard Tre’ McLean (12.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), and 6-10 beast Justin Tuoyo (11 ppg, 5 rpg). Tuoyo has power-conference size and is the two-time defending SoCon Defensive Player of the Year.

Chattanooga gained some much needed tourney experience last year, as they were waxed by Indiana, 99-74. They won’t be afraid this time around, though.

Head coach Matt McCall, a Billy Donovan assistant at Florida, has guided this team to several wins over power-conference foes. They won’t be intimidated, and with the right matchup, can make a real run in the Dance.

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