Cinderella Casting: Atlantic Sun, Big South, Ohio Valley Auto Bids

March 3, 2012

I give this segment a clever new name every year (see “Sizing Em’ Up” from 2011), but readers who have followed the blog since its inception know what these articles are about. One of my favorite parts of the NCAA Tournament (and of writing this blog) is taking a stab at the potential for the small conference and mid-major teams to upset the big boys.

Although I watch a ton of college hoops throughout the season, my bracket performance has yet to reflect the amount of “studying” I do. While I am confident you’ll come away more knowledgeable about some tourney teams that the majority of people haven’t heard of by reading these articles, I can’t be held liable for your busted brackets in a few weeks.

While there are always going to be mid-majors who upset power conference teams, this year there are a handful of very strong mid-majors that have been ranked in the Top 25 at one point or another. If you are familiar with my tendencies in these articles, you’ll know that I don’t usually consider a team that was ranked in the Top 25 a “Cinderella”, regardless of what conference the team is from. However, the quality of play in some of the lesser leagues was strong this season, which is a good sign for upsets.

So here’s the deal: as the automatic bids begin to trickle in, I’ll share my thoughts on what seeds I think the teams from mid-major and small conferences will get, their potential to be a Cinderella, and the possibility that any other teams from those conferences will get into the Big Dance.

Atlantic Sun

Automatic Bid: Belmont

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of Being a Cinderella: Unlikely

I was pretty high on Belmont last year, and it took a lot not to elevate their Cinderella probability status to “decent” again this year. The Bruins are essentially the same team as last year, with four starters back from the team that won 30 games in 2010-2011. In addition, coach Rick Byrd makes it tough on opponents by going deep into his bench (Belmont has nine players who average double-digits in minutes played).

Experience is key, and that may have been what the Bruins were lacking when they went up against a frustratingly efficient Wisconsin team in last year’s tournament. This year that should not be an issue. The only thing that could separate this team from a surprise trip to the Sweet 16 is their potential seed. If they draw anything below a 13, their chances of winning their first NCAA Tournament game in school history will take a hit.

Big South

Automatic Bid: UNC Asheville

Projected Seed: 15 or 16

Probability of Being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Last year the Bulldogs were an unknown, feisty underdog that gave top seeded Pittsburgh fits during the first half of their second round matchup in the NCAA Tournament. While their status as a heavy underdog probably won’t change, no team will be taking UNC Asheville lightly this year. The Bulldogs are a senior laden team with a capable backcourt led by seniors Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm. In addition to being the leading scorers for the team, they are the reason UNC Asheville is one of the most unselfish teams in the nation averaging 16.4 assists per game.

Seeding will play a huge part in whether or not the Bulldogs are a serious threat to be a Cinderella. Drawing a second consecutive 16 seed would make doing so almost impossible, but if they were to snag a 15 seed they could make things interesting. Regardless, the Bulldogs’ experience should keep them in any game for at least a half.

Ohio Valley

Automatic Bid: Murray State

Projected Seed: Anywhere from 4 to 8

Probability of Being a Cinderella: N/A

The Racers have lost only once this season, but have flown under the radar for the majority of their dream season. Murray State has the potential to go far thanks to the great backcourt play of junior guard Isaiah Canaan, who could become a household name by the end of March. Canaan is a marksman who wants to take the big shot, but is smart enough to pass it off when the shot isn’t there for him (as evident in the Racers’ win over Tennessee State in the OVC title game). The Racers, as their name would suggest, are a team that likes to run and could tire out opponents not ready for an up-tempo pace.

The big test for the Racers will be how they respond if they are matched up against a team with a strong post presence. Not very many teams could take advantage of Murray State’s undersized roster in the Ohio Valley Conference, but at some point they are going to face a team with some height. While winning their conference tournament should give them a higher seed, the key for the Racers is pretty simple: if they shoot well, they’ll have a shot against anyone.

– K. Becks

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