It’s a rough existence for a program trying to scratch out a living in the back alleys of the college-hoops scene. Major recruiters seduce potential prospects, brilliant helmsmen frequently depart for greener pastures and even the most impressive of campaigns receive little media attention. Still, for those teams laboring in the dark, the month of March provides a unique opportunity to shine. After taking care of business in their respective conferences, five aspiring Davids will soon receive the opportunity to pick up a stone, take aim and bring fame to their programs — even if just for a night.
Before starting on the Panthers, one thing must be made abundantly clear: even though the Mountain West and WAC dwell below major status, it’s haphazard to lump Utah and Gonzaga with run-of-the-mill mid-majors. With Gonzaga in particular, the program’s foot has simply grown too big for Cinderella’s glass slipper. Analysts often shell out this false classification because it makes for a better storyline, yet even a one-armed boxer must abide by his weight class. On that note, UWM might look like a featherweight, but pity the three seed that considers this team totally innocuous. After a horrendous mid-December showing against Wisconsin, the Panthers bounced back to give then-No. 2 Kansas a bit of a scare on the Jayhawks’ home floor. By the beginning of January, head coach Bruce Pearl’s squad began to hit its stride, tallying a 10-2 record over the course of the month. In February, the Panthers ran the table over the remainder of their conference schedule and grabbed a huge win over Hawaii in the Bracket Buster. In Pearl’s stable of talent, senior guard Ed McCants proves the stud. The elder cousin of North Carolina phenom Rashad McCants, Ed provides the Panthers with a pounce on the dribble penetration and a near-automatic shooter from the charity stripe. Boasting of a 17.5 scoring average on the year, McCants has turned up the heat during Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s recent tear, posting more than 20 points on five occasions during the month of February. Although less consistent than McCants, two other Panthers — small forward Joah Tucker and two guard Boo Davis — can toss up big numbers on any given night.
Primed for upset: Containing the dribble penetration and working through the press prove the best ways to assure victory against the hungry Panthers.
Wisconsin, Duke, Oklahoma, Alabama, Charlotte, Cincinnati
4. Southern Illinois
When the boys from Carbondale grounded the Wichita State Shockers Saturday to secure their fourth-straight Missouri Valley Conference title, upset hunters across the nation found a new golden child. Guided by seniors Darren Brooks, Stetson Hairston, Josh Warren and LaMar Owen, the Saluki defense stifled Wichita State’s usually steady attack, holding the Shockers to just 43 looks from the field. While hardly overflowing with talent, the lords of the MVC combine veteran poise with defensive fundamentals to consistently contain quicker squads. Constructed several years ago by former head coach Bruce Weber — who has since enjoyed modest success at another program up the road — the Southern Illinois roster sports one gem: senior off guard Darren Brooks. Leading the Salukis in scoring (14.3 ppg), rebounding (5.1) and assists (4.5), this 6-foot-3 phenom from the Lou was a staple of the SIU squad that made a Sweet 16 run under Weber in 2003. Possibly the sharpest backcourt defender in the mid-majors, Brooks possesses the skill and experience to neutralize even opposing guards with lottery potential. Hairston and sophomore point guard Jamaal Tatum provide two adequate supplemental scoring options from the backcourt — though both have ball-control issues. The Salukis Achilles’ heel, a complete and utter lack of post scorers, makes them fodder for teams with a powerful body inside. However, for the garden-variety, guard-dependent squads of the American coastlines, Southern Illinois constitutes a rough first-round draw.
Primed for upset: Any squad that struggles in the half-court offense should struggle against the Salukis, and if said team — regardless of height advantage — slacks off on the boards, call it a snuff film because somebody’s getting upset.
Arizona, Washington, Alabama, Kansas, Florida, Connecticut
Lesson one: never underestimate a team with an all-around competitor the caliber of Nevada forward Nick Fazekas. Seriously, what can an opposing coach do with this guy? Double him up in the post? Forget about it, Fazekas can pull out and drop the rock from anywhere on the floor. Perhaps drive the lane and hope to rack up some fouls on the big man? Not a chance, the Wolf Pack star possesses body control rivaling most guards. How about just breaking his nose? Nope — Fresno State tried it and Fazekas still bombarded the ‘Dogs with 28 points, beckoning the next challenge. With the alpha wolf drawing attention inside and out, others in the pack receive the opportunity to chime in on uncontested looks. Since Fazekas stepped up his figures this season, all of the Pack’s veteran contributors have experienced a jump in productivity over last year. Freshmen slasher forward Mo Charlo and pointman Ramon Sessions are both putting up stellar debut campaigns in the shadow of the Nevada star. However, generally speaking, the Pack tends to rely on its defense — keeping the pace of the game slow and forcing opponents to take outside shots. Nevada’s offensive weakness becomes evident when the squad commits inside. Getting the ball to Fazekas in the post rarely poses a problem, although kicking it out is another matter, and turnovers in this situation sometimes spell disaster. Of course, this requires forcing Fazekas to not take the inside shot — most teams choke in that capacity.
Primed for upset: As Kansas proved, squads sporting a dominant post player can single-team Fazekas, leaving four players on hand to take advantage of the forward’s mediocre passing skills. Teams forced to double up, conversely, might get scorched by a simple change in strategy.
Boston College, Washington, Villanova, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati
Featuring a talented guard-forward tandem — think Yogi Bear and Boo-boo — the Catamounts will carry added motivation into this year’s tourney with eccentric head coach Tom Brennan on the verge of retirement. Brennan picked a fine class to go out with — the Catamount seniors just ooze with potential. Weighing in at 250 pounds and filling the Vermont four-spot with uncanny athleticism, senior Taylor Coppenrath is, far and away, the best player in the mid-majors. After garnering America East Player of the Year honors in his junior season, Coppenrath’s final campaign has proved all the more impressive. Leading the league in scoring (24.7 ppg) and on the glass (8.9 rpg), the standout forward has improved defensively and in the ball-control game to become as strong an NBA prospect as any in the Big East. Quite literally in the shadow of Coppenrath, 5-foot-11 guard T.J. Sorentine is also registering a career campaign. Averaging 18.5 points and 4.6 assists per game, the senior point man offers the Catamounts a bailout scoring option on the perimeter. With Brennan looking for a last hurrah, the seniors should deliver a Herculean effort for the legacy of their beloved helmsman. No matter what happens, the coach’s departure will leave a deep void. Who, now, is going to wake up opposing coaches with broadcasted crank calls after Brennan bows out? What a loss for NCAA basketball.
Primed for upset: Stopping the Catamounts’ superstar in the post remains the key to knocking off Vermont. A motivated Coppenrath can drop 30 points inside on a whim. It’s hard to overcome that kind of performance with just outside shooting.
Duke, Washington, Boston College, Louisville, North Carolina
Move over Gonzaga, there’s a new anomaly in town. Actually, when Pacific made its program debut in the Associated Press rankings last month, many hoops enthusiasts across the nation wondered where exactly the Tigers came from. Meanwhile, folks in Stockton, Calif., wondered what took the media so long to notice a team that only lost three games during the 2004 calendar year. Now, after recording its 19th-straight victory, there’s only one thing left to wonder about Pacific: how far will the scrappy Tigers go? After dropping a game Dec. 18 to San Francisco — for reasons unknown to man, the Dons seem adept at killing giants — Pacific proceeded to run amok in the Big West, a conference it clinched an entire month before March Madness. The strength of the Tigers lies in a well-balanced lineup. Unlike most mid-major success stories, which rely on a single superstar and a few solid role-players, the Pacific arsenal holds a variety of offensive weapons. A solid contributor for the Tigers since arriving in Stockton, junior power forward Christian Maraker plays the four spot old school and with ruthless effectiveness. Maraker uses his strength inside and possesses just enough finesse to get the job done on a consistent basis. Far more sporadic of a scorer but undeniably clutch in close games — a talent made evident on several occasions during the Tigers’ current streak — point man David Doubley can spot-up shoot from anywhere on the floor. Doubley has also improved his shot off the dribble, a notable weakness for the JUCO one guard heading into his senior campaign. Another key acquisition from the junior-college ranks, center Guillaume Yango, loves to muscle in the post and draw fouls. The senior big man usually proves capable converting from the charity stripe, keeping games close when the opposing squad hits a run.
Primed for upset: Yango and Maraker will score inside and crash the boards, but Doubley typically applies the dagger down the stretch. If Pacific’s opponent fails to acquire and hold an early lead, the Tigers can shock a team in the closing minutes.
Utah, Duke, Louisville, Boston College, Oklahoma State