Don’t Sleep On: San Diego State (25-8, 11-5)
Every NCAA season, one mid-major conference tends to emerge as a formidable competitor to the “Power Six” conferences. In 2006, it was the Missouri Valley; in 2007, the Horizon; and in 2008 and 2009, the Atlantic 10.
These conferences typically post .500 records in the NCAA Tournament, and usually send a team to the Sweet 16. This season, the Mountain West has shed its “mid” status, placing four teams into the field of 65. The hottest team in this conference is San Diego State, winners of five in a row (en route to the conference championship) and nine of their last 10.
The Aztecs boast three wins against top 25 teams – two against New Mexico and one against UNLV. They outrebound opponents by 6.4 a game, and shoot a solid 47.6 percent. This bodes well against their first round opponent, Tennessee, which lacks the size to win the battle of the boards. If San Diego State can protect the basketball (forcing turnovers is Tennessee’s strength), it has a good chance of representing the Mountain West in the second round.
Poised for a Run: Marquette (22-11, 11-7)
If the Big East Tournament proved one thing, it’s that not much separates the conference’s top eight teams.
After disposing of St. John’s, Marquette outlasted Villanova (an NCAA No. 2 seed) before getting stomped by Georgetown (an NCAA No. 3 seed). The small and scrappy Golden Eagles thrive on forcing turnovers (+4.1 per game) and shooting the three (40.6 percent), but tend to struggle against bigger, stronger teams. Fortunately for Marquette, its first and likely second round opponents are similar in stature and style.
First-round draw Washington sports a small lineup that wins by forcing turnovers, while potential second round opponent New Mexico also lacks size but thrives on shooting threes. Winning these two games could potentially force a Big East rematch against West Virginia, except rather than Morgantown, the venue would be the Mountaineer-unfriendly Carrier Dome.
Poised for a Run: Baylor (25-7, 11-5)
The Big 12 was arguably the toughest conference in the country, and much of the media attention went to Kansas, Texas, and Kansas State. Lost amidst the hype was Baylor, the freakishly athletic team that tied for second in the conference. The Bears’ backcourt features the conference’s leading free throw maker (86 percent), 3-point shooter (3.3 made per game), and second leading scorer (19.4 ppg) in LaceDarius Dunn, as well as the Big 12 leader in assists (6.1) in Tweety Carter. Their frontcourt is anchored by 6-foot-10 forward-center Ekpe Udoh, whose 124 blocked shots set a conference record. He’s joined by 7-foot center Josh Lomers. Forward Quincy Acy provides energy off the bench, and is often the finisher of inbounds alley-oop pass plays drawn up by coach Scott Drew. If they can control their two main weaknesses – turnovers and foul trouble – the Bears could sneak up on potential opponents Villanova and Duke, who Baylor would face not far from home in Houston.
Don’t Sleep On: Murray State (30-4, 17-1)
The Racers live up to their name – they play a fast-paced game (77.5 ppg, +17.0 scoring margin), force turnovers (10.0 spg), move the ball effectively (15.6 apg), and shoot well (50.3 percent).
All of these averages were tops in the Ohio Valley Conference, but therein lies the problem: the Racers have yet to be tested by a power conference team. First round opponent Vanderbilt may provide a favorable opportunity. For starters, the Commodores are turnover-prone, coughing up the ball 13.7 times a game.
Moreover, while Vandy is used to playing in a conference that calls for shutting down one or two main scorers a night, Murray State has six players averaging 9.5 ppg or more to contend with. Vanderbilt has the size advantage, but if Murray State’s pressure defense can prevent Vandy from running its offensive sets effectively, the Racers could cruise into round two.