Six mid-majors primed for NCAA success

By now, you know about programs such as Butler, Gonzaga and George Mason. I would like to volunteer a few more teams that might have flown under your radar but could be the next teams to join the above list as world-class bracketbusters.

Top choices to win a game or more

The common theme for these three teams is that they present matchup problems and they are expertly coached.

Belmont spreads the floor while spreading the wealth; there is no star on this team. The Bruins are hard to plan against because of their diverse scoring. Ian Clark leads the team in scoring at 12.4 ppg, while nine other players on their roster average between five and 10 points a game.

Plus, Rick Byrd is simply one of the best coaches in the country. He won as an NAIA coach at Belmont and now has built the Bruins into one of the most respected mid-major programs in the country. Remember, it was Belmont that nearly knocked off Mike Krzyzewski and his second-seeded Duke Blue Devils before bowing out in a classic 71-70 first-round scare in 2008. Expect more of the same competitiveness from these Bruins, who are better than that '08 team and now face fourth-seeded Wisconsin. The Bruins’ four losses this season came to teams from their home state of Tennessee (UT twice, Vanderbilt and Lipscomb). They are 26-0 against other states.

Oakland also boasts a coach who is underrated to the masses but not to those in the profession. Fellow coaches know all about Greg Kampe, who has assembled better-than-mid-major talent. The Golden Grizzlies can really guard. Add to that a big man who just might be an early-first-round NBA draft pick and you have the makings for an upset against Texas. Keith Benson simply changes the game on the defensive end (3.6 blocks/game). On offense, he is a double-double waiting to happen, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a game.

Reggie Hamilton gives the Grizzlies a full-court roadrunner who can score (17.4 ppg) and distribute (5.4 apg), while shooting 38 percent from 3-point range. This team played an extremely tough schedule, with losses to West Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State. Even through all that, Oakland managed to hold it together and upset Tennessee in Knoxville 89-82 in December behind Benson’s 26 points and 10 rebounds . Watch out for the Grizzlies.

Old Dominion has a coach who is as good as any in the country in my view. Blaine Taylor has the talent to execute his recipe for success. ODU can rebound with anyone, as Frank Hassell leads five Monarchs who average between 5.0 and 9.6 rebounds per game. The Monarchs are a high-major rebounding team, and their length, athleticism and grit make this a team worth watching for multiple rounds in the tournament. Ben Finney is a “silent assassin,” as Taylor described to me earlier this season. Kent Bazemore has great range and accuracy from behind the arc. Add Taylor’s physical and stingy defense and you have the recipe for the Monarchs to win a couple of games in the NCAA tournament.

Three more to watch

The common thread for these three teams is big guys inside who can really produce:

Morehead State has one weapon that no one else has in Kenneth Faried. The last time Faried went up against high-major competition was in December, when he dropped 20 points and 18 rebounds on Florida and Gators coach Billy Donovan compared him to Dennis Rodman. Faried took on Jared Sullinger and the Ohio State Buckeyes a few days later and came away with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Sullinger finished with eight points and eight rebounds in that contest. In addition to Faried, Demonte Harper gives the Eagles a nice No. 2 guy who averages 16 ppg and shoots 40 percent from 3.

Wofford can be a real challenge to guard, because the Terriers have an inside scorer in Noah Dahlman (20 ppg, 61 percent shooter) who is surrounded by sharpshooters on the perimeter. Wofford’s personnel creates space for everyone else, and collectively the Terriers create headaches for opposing coaches, as they did for coach Bo Ryan last year in a tight first-round loss to Wisconsin. Cameron Rundles is a volume 3-point shooter with accuracy (40 percent from beyond the arc). Three other Terriers are connecting on between 36 to 42 percent of their 3-point attempts, as Wofford shoots 40 percent from deep as a team. This is team that can advance if its inside-out game flows.

Utah State is a team built with parts that all connect and allow coach Stew Morrill to turn the Aggies into a transformer. This is a team that can defend and rebound well enough to win on off-shooting nights. It is also a team that can score well enough to win on off-defensive nights. But when all of the moving parts come together, it can create the Optimus Prime of mid-major basketball. Tai Wesley is the inside working part for the Aggies. He is the leader of this bunch. Wesley brings a maturity, competitiveness and an in-the-paint, dirty-work mentality that drives the Aggies.