One of the hardest exercises every preseason is to project legitimate candidates for Cinderella. Teams from single-bid conferences that have a good chance at winning at least one game, as a double digit seed, in the NCAA Tournament.
The picture will be clearer by December, let alone March, but you want to know now. So I'm going to take my best shot. I've picked 10 programs that I think are set up to have successful seasons in 2016-17. I'd be willing to wager at least four of the 10 teams below wind up in the NCAAs -- which is harder than it seems, given the do-or-die nature of mid-major conference tournaments.
From there, it's a matter of matchups. And as an aside, a team like Saint Mary's -- which is a small program, but a reputable one -- doesn't qualify because it's from one of the 10 multi-bid leagues (ACC, Big East, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, AAC, Mountain West, West Coast, A-10). I think the Gaels could be a Sweet 16-type of team, a group you're going to get to know more and more about as the season goes on, even if the personnel there right now isn't recognizable.
But let's move on to the contenders at hand.
In alphabetical order, here are 10 teams which could be this year's Cinderella when we get to March Madness.
Man, part of the fun of doing a post like this is reminding everyone of these smaller schools' nicknames. Zips has to be a top-10 college hoops moniker. As for the team and its conference, the MAC is something of a wide open league, but Akron can certainly be the best team of the bunch. The Zips, who've made three NCAA trips under Keith Dambrot, return a lot of production from a team that went 26-9 last season. It's good on both ends of the ball, doesn't turn the ball over, and the Zips let it fly. Dambrot's crew had the second-most 3-pointers by ratio taken last season.
Longtime readers know I'm a Rick Byrd guy for life. Byrd's one of the most respected tacticians in the game. Belmont has a chance every year because the program's had fewer transfer than any program in the sport over the past decade. Guys stay, they become so fluid with Belmont's offensive scheme -- and there's usually a guy who's among the 100 or 150 best players in college hoops. Evan Bradds is that guy this season, taking over for the great Craig Bradshaw, who graduated in May. Belmont shot an outrageous 62.6 percent from 2-point range last season, which was tops in the country. And this is a team that still launched more than 28 3-pointers per game. Dangerous!
Tommy Amaker's team took an expected dip last season, but now the program gets Siyani Chambers back (best player in the Ivy? I think so) and it's a program with NCAA Tournament pedigree now, too. Amaker's taken Harvard to the Big Dance four times. This senior they've got, Zena Edosomwan, is just incredible around the glass. The defense will probably be the Ivy's best, and the offense has to be better. If Harvard breaks through, it will be a threat to do what Yale did a few months ago: beat a major-conference opponent in the first round.
Everyone's paying attention to Wichita State in the Valley, but Dan Muller's patiently built a solid mid-major program over the past four seasons. He's never won fewer than 18 games in a year. Now the Redbirds should be one of the best defensive mid-major teams in America. Paris Lee could be the best point guard in the conference, and if MiKyle McIntosh ups his efficiency, he'll be one of the most distinct mid-major players in the country. Big forward who can score in many ways. You want a real sleeper of a mid-major Cinderella? This is it.
THE MASTODONS. So metal. Previously branded as IPFW, the 'Dons were a 24-win team a year ago but lost out to South Dakota State for the program's auto bid to the NCAAs. They'll get a good run from the Jackrabbits again, so at the very least, expect the Summit League to put forth a team that will be very dangerous as a 14 seed. IPFW was picked to win the conference, thanks to its long-range shooting prowess and a roster seemingly filled with 6-foot-8 dudes. Size matters in basketball no mater the level, and IPFW will have the tissue to tussle with many teams it faces this season. Sophomore shooting guard John Konchar is the name to know.
Yeah, this is an automatic. Kermit Davis' team will have its hands full in a better-than-you-think Conference USA, but I'd love to see Middle make it back to the Dance. Its win as a No. 15 seed over No. 2 seed Michigan State last season still feels like the biggest first-round upset in NCAA Tournament history. Remember, Michigan State was seen by many as a No. 1 seed, and then you have to look again to see how Middle just absolutely sliced and punched Sparty for 40 minutes. This wasn't a win where Middle barely skated by. It was a definitive ending. Still stunning.
Middle brings back a lot from that team, including Giddy Potts, who shot better from 3-point range than any player in the country last season (50.3 percent). The team won 25 games. It's a lock to win at least 20 again.
Whereas Middle Tennessee took the glory in March, Monmouth was the mid-major du jour from November through mid-February. I still maintain this team deserved an at-large bid, but instead those went to Tulsa, Vanderbilt and Michigan. Had Justin Robinson and his teammates made it through, Monmouth would have scared the hell out of whichever big school it drew in the first round. Good news is, Robinson is back and so is most of the roster. The team will not be able to duplicate what it did last season, beating four major-conference opponents in the regular season, but it will be the favorites in the MAAC and should have a shot at finally giving us what we want: seeing that bench have its national moment in the tournament that matters most.
Yes, I can include two Ivy League teams because there is a (distant) possibility two teams crack the Big Dance, given the Ivy (unfortunately, in my opinion) is now just like every other league in college basketball. It has a league tournament. Princeton's probably going to be better than Harvard this season. Heck, Princeton was one of the 45 best at-large candidates last season. It's a senior-laden crew that's going to have a beautiful offense. Been too long since Princeton was a real threat to break a bracket in March. That should return in 2017. Henry Caruso should lead the prowl.
It's extremely rare that you'd have a team be on a Cinderella list after it lost its really good coach to a major-conference program. Valpo qualifies, though, because it's even more rare that you'd have a player on a mid-major team be one of the 100 best players in the country who
A) Has a shot to go pro, but instead decides to return to college
B) Decides to do that even after losing the coach that recruited him and elevated his game to such a level that he could weigh his options to go pro before expiring his eligibility and
C) Even still after losing his coach and with the option to play a graduate year at just about any school in the country -- because just about any school would take him -- still stays with the program.
That's what Alec Peters has done. It's admirable, really. And he's one of the 40 best players in college hoops this season, no question. He alone validates Valpo on this list, but also take into account how good this team was on defense a season ago. They lose some of that (Vashil Fernandez, a superb shot-blocker, is gone), but enough remains on the roster to warrant including the Crusaders.
Randy Rahe's team loses a pro in Joel Bolomboy, but everyone else is back. WSU was an NCAA Tournament team a season ago. Jeremy Senglin, a crafty shooting guard with a penchant for breaking down zones, is going to have a big year. Rahe's team plays smart and will have at least four guys capable of shooting from deep. Damian Lillard's alma mater should be the best team in the Big Sky, even with the huge hole created by Bolomboy's departure.