Part of the beauty of the NCAA Tournament is the unpredictability of it. There is always a team from a smaller conference such as the Horizon League or an Atlantic Sun Conference that surprises and upsets a major school.
Back in the day, those “Cinderella” schools typically lasted a round or two and were eventually forgotten by the Final Four. That isn’t the case anymore.
It’s perfectly acceptable to predict a mid-major school to make a run in March and possibly win it all. Wichita State came close last year. Butler went to consecutive championship games in 2010 and 2011. VCU and George Mason have made Final Four appearances in recent years.
Another small school could pull it off once again this year and punch its ticket to Arlington’s AT&T Stadium for the Final Four, although the shock factor is gone.
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Just look at how the college basketball season has gone this month.
San Diego State snapped Kansas’ 69-game nonconference home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday and then followed it up with a three-point victory over Boise State.
Harvard opened 2014 with consecutive 15-point victories over Boston College and Rice before falling to Connecticut by five points.
Wichita State has started Missouri Valley Conference play with three wins by at least 14 points, and Cincinnati continues to show its ability to win close games with a seven-game streakthat includes one-point wins over Pittsburgh and Houston.
Here’s a look at four mid-major conferences that could supply the NCAA Tournament with multiple teams capable of going deep into March:
Why: The A-10 has traditionally produced NCAA Tournament surprises. It has quality and depth throughout. La Salle reached the Sweet 16 last year, and VCU went to the Final Four in 2011. VCU is a darkhorse team that could make noise this March, as is 19th-ranked Massachusetts, which is 13-1.
NCAA Tournament teams (4): VCU, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Dayton.
Why: The MWC had a conference-record five schools make last year’s field, though it will probably fall short of that this season. Still, it’s a competitive conference with several Tournament-caliber schools. San Diego State has always been solid under Steve Fisher, New Mexico has a respected program, and Boise State has been on the rise.
NCAA Tournament teams (3): New Mexico, San Diego State, Boise State.
Why: Gonzaga has carried this league for years and is doing so again, even with an upset loss at Portland on Thursday. Saint Mary’s and BYU consistently field quality teams, and San Francisco is off to a 4-1 start in conference play.
NCAA Tournament teams (3): Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s.
Why: Always a fun basketball conference to watch, it suffered a blow when Creighton departed for the Big East. Wichita State has emerged as a legitimate title contender, and Missouri State and Indiana State could be on the bubble come Selection Sunday.
NCAA Tournament teams (1): Wichita State.
Colorado: Tad Boyle has the Buffaloes (14-2) playing well and rising in the rankings. They beat 10th-ranked Oregon on Sunday and beat Washington State 71-70 in overtime Wednesday. Junior guard Spencer Dinwiddie is shooting better than ever, making 46.5 percent of his shots from the field and 41.9 percent on 3-pointers.
Georgetown: The Hoyas (10-4) lost two of their first three before rebounding to win nine of their next 10. But Georgetown was blown out at Providence on Wednesday, and the schedule doesn’t get easier this week with Big East road games at Butler (Saturday) and at Xavier (Wednesday).
Three games to watch
North Carolina at Syracuse (11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN): The Tar Heels (10-5) were expected to be a top-10 team entering the season but have fallen out of the Top 25 with consecutive losses to Wake Forest and Miami. It could get worse for UNC, too, with No. 2 Syracuse up next in the new ACC. The Orange is undefeated (15-0) and coming off a 20-point victory at Virginia Tech.
Iowa at Ohio State (12:30 p.m. Sunday, KTVT/11): Iowa basketball is back with a high-scoring offense and one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The Hawkeyes (13-3) have yet to beat a ranked team, having lost to Iowa State by three and to Wisconsin by four. Ohio State (15-1) is among the best teams in the country, but is beatable as Michigan State showed Tuesday.
Kansas at Iowa State (8 p.m. Monday, ESPN): Big Monday has an early big-time game. The Jayhawks (10-4) had a rough nonconference, but still have to be considered favorites for a 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. But the Cyclones (14-0) could unseat them. And Hilton Coliseum is one of the underrated venues in college hoops.
Projecting the top seeds
The top-ranked team in the country had its second consecutive perfect nonconference run. Juniors T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson give the Wildcats (16-0) experience in the backcourt, and freshman sensation Aaron Gordon has lived up to the hype so far.
With an impressive start, the Orange (15-0) has to be considered the favorite to win the ACC in its inaugural season. C.J. Fair is one of the best big men in the country, and freshman Tyler Ennis has excelled at point guard.
Midwest: Michigan State
This could flip-flop between Ohio State and Michigan State all season. But the Spartans have the edge after a 72-68 overtime victory over the Buckeyes on Tuesday. MSU (14-1), as the most experienced team in the country, could keep a tight hold on a top seed, too.
The Badgers (16-0) are off to their best start in more than 100 years, including a 25-point victory over then-No. 23 Illinois on Wednesday. Forwards Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have been dependable scoring threats down low, and Ben Brust has knocked down 44.2 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts.
March 16: Selection Sunday
March 18-19: First-round (Dayton)
March 20, 22: Second-third rounds (Buffalo, Orlando, Milwaukee, Spokane)
March 21, 23: Second-third rounds (Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis)
March 27, 29: South Regional (Memphis) and West Regional (Anaheim)
March 28, 30: Midwest Regional (Indianapolis) and East Regional (New York)
April 5: National semifinals (Arlington)
April 7: Championship (Arlington)