I know it is only December, but I promise you, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is right around the corner, and it will be March before you know it! There are few things in life more gratifying than winning your March Madness bracket pool and getting to tell all of your friends I told you so when some team that nobody has ever heard of makes a deep run in the tournament and you called it!
? New AP Poll!
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) December 13, 2021
In this weekly article, we are going to highlight teams that you need to keep your eye on now, that could go on a run in March. In order to qualify for consideration, these teams can’t be ranked in any of the major college basketball polls, and they need to project to be a 9-seed or higher, meaning that they are going to be underdogs in each game in the NCAA tournament. Want to impress all of your friends in March? Then do your homework now! Let’s gets started by taking a look at a familiar Cinderella squad, the Ramblers of Loyola Chicago!
Loyola Chicago Ramblers (9-2)
There have been lots of memorable Cinderella runs over the years. Teams like Gonzaga, George Mason, and Villanova come to mind as famous bracket-busting teams, but I am not sure that any team captivated the nation quite like Sister Jean and the Loyola Chicago Ramblers when they made it all the way to the Final Four back in 2018.
It was a magical run that basically nobody saw coming, and since that trip to the 3rd weekend of the tournament, the Ramblers have done a great job of staying relevant and building the program, including a trip to the Sweet 16 last year. Right now, the Ramblers feel a lot like the Zags did a decade ago, in that they have had too much success to really surprise many people, yet they continue to be ignored by the sportsbooks and betting public. This is an elite program, and they have a roster that could shock the world again this season.
— Loyola Men's Basketball (@RamblersMBB) December 14, 2021
The Ramblers are 9-2 on the year, with both losses coming to very good teams in Michigan State and Auburn. The wins haven’t been all that impressive due to a weak strength of schedule, but they have picked up quality victories over top-100 teams DePaul and Vanderbilt in the last 2 weeks. Looking forward on the schedule, Loyola has games against top-100 teams like Davidson, Missouri State, and Drake, so there will be plenty of time for this team to get tested prior to the tournament.
So, if they haven’t really beaten anybody, and they aren’t going to play too many tough games the rest of the way out, why do I love the Ramblers so much this year? Analytics. Kenpom has the Ramblers as the 17th most efficient offense in the nation and the 51st most efficient defense. They make you work for every bucket, and they refuse to take bad shots. That makes them very dangerous in March.
Colorado State, Loyola Chicago lead the top 10 mid-major teams in the country: Hoop Thoughts
— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) December 13, 2021
The Ramblers are very likely going to win the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title this year, as the league is a bit down with the exception of Drake and Missouri State, but even with the league title in tow, this isn’t a team that is going to get seeded highly in the tournament. You can pencil the Ramblers in as a double-digit seed, and if recent history tells us anything, no highly ranked team is going to want to see the Ramblers in their bracket on Selection Sunday.
San Francisco Dons (10-0)
The West Coast Conference has been all Gonzaga for the last 20 or so years, making it hard for any other team in the league to stand out. We have seen good teams from Saint Mary’s and BYU sprinkled in, but for the most part, it has been all Zags, all the time. But this year, the WCC just might be the best it has ever been, as the league is loaded with top-100 teams.
The WCC has 5 teams in the top-100 right now, including Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara, and San Francisco, and the league could end up getting 3, or even 4, bids into the NCAA tournament which would be a record for the conference. They say a rising tide lifts all ships and the Zags seem to have taken the WCC from a small conference to the top of the mid-major conference list in a hurry.
Predicting when the last 7 undefeated men's basketball teams could lose | https://t.co/5W4P0z50BV @BaylorMBB @ArizonaMBB @USC_Hoops @LSUBasketball @CSUMBasketball @USFDonsMBB @CycloneMBB https://t.co/fcbA3irjGD
— Andy Katz (@TheAndyKatz) December 16, 2021
The team that is getting ignored in the WCC right now, which absolutely shouldn’t be, is San Francisco. The Dons are one of the last remaining undefeated teams in the country at 10-0, and they have racked up an impressive list of quality victories already this season.
Wins over top-100 teams Davidson, Nevada, UAB, and Fresno State gives the Dons a nice resume for a mid-major team. And with the WCC being as good as it has ever been, the Dons are going to have lots of chances to pick up big wins in league play, and an at-large bid is very much a possibility for the Dons if they play up to their potential the rest of the way out.
Similar to the Ramblers, the analytics love the Dons. Kenpom has San Francsico ranked 38th on defense and 40th on offense in terms of efficiency, making them a well-balanced team. Overall, the Dons are ranked 32nd by Pomeroy, which tells me this is a very good team.
One stat that sticks out for San Francisco is their effective field goal % offense and defense. The Dons are shooting a sizzling hot 58%, 6th best in the nation, while allowing opposing teams to shoot just 45%, 48th best in the land. When you shoot the ball at a high rate, and your opponents don’t, that is a recipe for success in college hoops.
— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) December 14, 2021
Kenpom currently projects San Francisco at 24-6 on the year, with 6 A or B level wins. Is that going to be enough to send the Dons dancing? If you ask me, that answer is yes. The Zags are clearly the class of the league still and will easily pick up a bid, and I see BYU as solidly a tournament-level team as well. That leaves Saint Mary’s and San Francisco to battle it out for 3rd place and the potential at-large bid that comes with it. All I know is that this team is going to hit March battle-tested and afraid of no one, and that makes them dangerous to everyone.
Belmont Bruins (9-3)
The Belmont Bruins are no stranger to March Madness as they have made the tournament 8 times since 2006. That makes them one of the most consistent small conference schools around, and while they have yet to catch fire at the right time for a deep run in the madness, when you are on the dance floor as often as Belmont is, eventually you are going to do something special, and this year might be that year.
Head coach Casey Alexander joined Belmont after turning Lipscomb into a power in the A-Sun, and he has wasted no time getting up to speed at Belmont, running up a sterling 61-14 record in his 3 years at the helm of this Bruin’s program. Last year was a heartbreaker for the Bruins as they were 24-1 at one point late in the season, but crumbled down the stretch, dropping the last 2 games of the regular season and then losing in the conference tournament finals to Morehead State to cost them their dancing shoes.
Are You Not Entertained? ??? pic.twitter.com/uXQAgYbLam
— Belmont Basketball (@BelmontMBB) June 26, 2020
The Bruins are the heavy favorites in the OVC again this year, and they will battle it out with Morehead State and Murray State for the league’s coveted auto-bid. You just don’t see teams get at-large bids in the Ohio Valley Conference, so no matter what the Bruins do in the regular season, they need to win the OVC tournament to get into the Big Dance.
But don’t tell that to these Bruins, as they are playing hard, with wins over Furman, Drake, Iona, Saint Louis, and Chattanooga. Belmont is an upperclassman led team with a roster full of juniors and seniors, and that is the type of lineup that you need in March to upset teams. The veterans are what makes this team good, but the guy that I see as the X-factor to making them great, is freshman point guard Will Richard.
Another fantastic night in the ?? ????‼
— Belmont Basketball (@BelmontMBB) December 16, 2021
Richard has been a bit inconsistent at times, but this kid has a big body and knows how to play basketball. The sharpshooter is making 44% of his 3-pointers and 84% of his free throws, and we saw just how great he can be a couple of weeks ago when he torched Samford for 23 points, getting to the line a whopping 10 times.
Could Richard end up being this year’s Steph Curry or Jimmer Fredette that gets red hot and puts his team on his back in the tournament? It is too early to tell, but you must keep a close eye on Belmont as they have a lethal mixture of talent, experience, depth, and leadership, and I see them making waves this season.
UAB Blazers (9-2)
Conference USA used to be a multi-bid league every year. But this year, the league is way down, and it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see it as a 1-bid league this season. So, which team is the cream of the crop of Conference USA? I like the Blazers of UAB. Unlike the rest of these teams we have talked about, that have a history of winning in March, the Blazers haven’t punched their dance cards since 2015. They did make the Sweet 16 back in 2004, but that is a long time ago.
The Blazers pride themselves on the defensive side of the ball, and they feature 3 players that average at least 2 steals a game and 8 players that get at least 1 steal per game. On a per possession basis, the Blazers are top-10 in the country in turnover percentage. They are 2nd in steals per possession. And on the flip side, they are 39th in offensive turnover percentage.
??Our thx to @Twitter for hosting the exclusive reveal of the new KC’s Mid-Major Top 10.@RamblersMBB take over #1, @UAB_MBB climbs to 2, while @DavidsonMBB & @LATechHoops round out the Top 5.@IonaGaelsMBB @RacersHoops @BelmontMBB @UBmenshoops @NMStateMBB close the Top 10?? pic.twitter.com/jHgdJRpoFY
— Kevin Connors (@kevconnorsespn) December 15, 2021
That tells me that they take care of the basketball, and they force teams to turn it over. The best way to pull off big upsets in March is by getting hot and shooting the lights out from 3. The 2nd best way is to force a bunch of turnovers and take advantage of them on the other side of the floor, converting those turnovers to points. There isn’t a team in the nation that can turn the ball over 20 times in a game and win consistently, and this Blazer’s team has a nose for the ball.
Both of UAB’s losses have come to solid teams, and both of those games were lost by just a single possession’s worth of points. You don’t ever want to get too deep into what-ifs, but had the ball bounced the Blazer’s way late against San Francisco and South Carolina, and UAB was sitting at 11-0 right now, I think a lot more people would be paying attention to this underrated squad.
A Blazer speciality…
— UAB Men's Basketball (@UAB_MBB) December 15, 2021
The Blazers play their biggest game of the regular season this weekend as they welcome West Virginia to town. Bob Huggins has his Mountaineers sitting just outside of the top-25 nationally right now, and a win for UAB would be enormous for their at-large bid hopes. UAB hasn’t played a single team in the top-50, and they won’t, with the exception of the West Virginia game, and they really need that win to give themselves a shot to go dancing without winning the Conference USA postseason tournament.
Blazer’s head coach Andy Kennedy spent a long time coaching in SEC at Ole Miss, and he knows what it means to play against, and beat, talented teams. Kenpom actually has the Blazers winning that game against West Virginia, and if they do pull it off, you just might start to hear the Blazer’s names whispered as a team to watch out for come March. If Huggy Bear’s boys don’t protect the ball, they are going to have a long night against his swarming Blazer’s D.
Syracuse Orange (5-5)
This one might feel a bit out of place, as Syracuse has a Hall of Fame coach, and they play in one of the best leagues in the nation, the ACC, but hear me out here. The Orange have made 4 of the last 5 NCAA tournaments. Their seeds for those 4 tourneys were 10, 11, 8, and 11. So, while Syracuse is a brand name basketball school, they have made a habit of sneaking into the Big Dance, just barely.
What makes Syracuse such a sexy pick for a Cinderella team is that when they do inevitably go dancing, they nearly always do damage once they get there. The ‘Cuse has won games in the NCAA tournament in 3 of those 4 seasons, making the Sweet 16 3 times, and making it all of the way to the Final Four in 2016, as a 10 seed. This year, Boeheim’s boys are off to another slow start at 5-5, which tells me this is another year where the Orange are going to be sweating it out on Selection Sunday.
Game time‼️ pic.twitter.com/sY6bTHJVoy
— Syracuse Men’s Basketball (@Cuse_MBB) December 11, 2021
Speaking of Boeheim’s boys, he has not 1, but 2, of his kids playing on this year’s team, and both guys can flat out shoot the basketball. Buddy and Jimmy Boeheim are 1st and 3rd on the team in points per game, respectively, and they give their dad reliable guys to score the basketball. The other leader on the floor for Syracuse is high school legend Joseph Girard III.
Girard wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of high school, despite averaging an absolutely absurd 50-points per game his senior year and breaking every New York State high school scoring record. Girard is a junior, and while he has had a nice career at Syracuse, he has never quite lived up to his ample hype, well, at least until now, as this kid is lighting it up this year for the Orange. Girard is shooting 50% from the beyond the arc and could end up leading the nation in 3-pointers made, as he shoots nearly 7 a game.
— Syracuse Men’s Basketball (@Cuse_MBB) December 11, 2021
The 5-5 record is certainly concerning, but the Orange have played an absolutely brutal schedule, the 17th toughest in the nation, with games against Auburn, Villanova, VCU, Arizona State, Indiana, and Florida State. The Orange are going to get a little break prior to jumping into league play with gimme games against Lehigh and Cornell, which should put them at 7-5 when ACC play starts.
The ACC isn’t what is normally is right now, but this is still a very tough league, and if Syracuse can go even .500 in league play and win a game or 2 in the league tournament, they are going to get into the NCAA tournament, and with their trio of stud shooters, they can beat anybody on a given day.
Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim knows that titles are won in March, not December, so don’t expect him to get the least bit rattled with these early season struggles. Boeheim knows how to get the most out of his players, and I have this sneaking suspicion that when all is said and done after the opening weekend of this year’s Big Dance, that Syracuse is still going to be playing ball.
There you have it, folks, my picks for teams that could end up being this year’s Cinderella. If you want to get paid in March, you have to start doing your homework now, and keying in on these teams is going to give you a head start on the competition.
Make sure that you stay tuned next week, as we are going to bring you 5 more teams that could shock the world this year in March Madness and make sure that you swing by TheSportsGeek’s college hoops betting page, where our team of expert handicappers bring you high value, free, betting picks!