Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

5 Dark Horse Mid-Major NCAA Tournament Teams for 2024

Will Wade, McNeese
There is no sporting event quite like the NCAA Tournament, and nothing quite as magical as an unexpected "Cinderella" run. In a college sports landscape that seems increasingly defined by greed, big money, and the nefarious intentions of power brokers behind the scenes, a Cinderella run is about as pure as you can get in this day and age, a group of young men coming together to defy expectations and achieve a common goal. Yet, picking who this "Cinderella" team may be remains as difficult as ever - but what's a little pre-March Madness fun without trying? I've picked five teams outside of the power conferences who I believe have the best shot at becoming this year's March darling. Not all five are likely to make the field and plenty is still yet to change in the fluid world of college basketball, but keep your eyes on these candidates the closer we get to the Big Dance. 

McNeese State Cowboys

23-3 overall, 12-1 Southland Conference

Projected Seed: 12-14

For all the off-court turmoil that led to his eventual dismissal at LSU, there's no denying that Will Wade can coach. After serving a 10-game suspension to begin the 2023-24 campaign, Wade has the McNeese State Cowboys rolling, with a 23-3 mark overall and 12-1 record inside the Southland Conference. What makes this particular team interesting is the balance they bring to the equation on both ends. They feature one of the stingiest defenses anywhere in the nation (allowing 61.4 per contest), but can go the other way and blow others away with an explosive, relentless offense. Shahada Wells is the headliner of the offense, the likely Southland Player of the Year, but the Cowboys feature four players who average double-digits, plus big man Antavion Collum (9.5 PPG). It's a balanced group that can hit defenses in a variety of ways, and they aren't going to be intimidate by any of their opponents, already beating NCAA Tournament regulars VCU and Michigan on the year. They are by far and away the top team in the Southland and assuming they finish the job and get to the Big Dance, they are going to be a tough out somewhere in the 12-14 seed range. Ironically, it may be Wade's best chance for a deep NCAA Tournament run - the farthest he's gone in the Big Dance is the second round, and this team certainly has the chance to get to the event's second weekend.

Green Bay Phoenix

17-10 overall, 12-4 Horizon League

Projected Seed: 15-16

Searching for a storyline team to cheer for this March? Look no further than the Green Bay Phoenix, who are in the midst of one of the greatest turnaround seasons in recent college basketball history. After going 3-22 in 2022-23, which led to the dismissal of head man Will Ryan, the Phoenix are nestled near the top of the Horizon League standings in the debut campaign of Sundance Wicks. Beyond having one of the best names in all of college basketball, Wicks has instilled both a toughness in the program that has been lacking for some time. Wicks has also a team that have developed a knack for winning close game after close game. Can they continue that magic into March? They'll have to find a way to overcome Oakland inside the conference, but that goal doesn't seem impossible to overcome - the two teams split the regular season series. With a soft conference schedule the rest of the way, the Phoenix are likely to be one of the three teams set to get a bye in the first round of the Horizon League Tournament, setting them up one step closer to achieving a miraculous turnaround.

New Mexico Lobos

20-6 overall, 8-5 Mountain West

Projected Seed: 8-11

It's hard to call New Mexico a mid-major when the Mountain West is poised to put as many as six teams in the NCAA Tournament field, but the conference still fits the definition as they ramp up for a potentially special March. San Diego State and Utah State are almost sure to be the higher seeds come Selection Sunday but if I had to put my money on one team in the conference to do significant damage, it just may be the New Mexico Lobos. The Lobos remain frightfully inconsistent, but this is a very scary team when they put it all together, and they have the type of roster competition that typically thrives come March Madness. Three tremendous guards lead the way in Jaelan House, Donovan Dent, and Jamal Mashburn Jr., the type of trio that can overwhelm opponents, while big man J.T. Toppin is the glue that holds everything together underneath. Interestingly enough, New Mexico isn't a great three-point shooting team, but they still have one of the most explosive offenses in the Mountain West, a group that run others out of the gym when they're on their "A" game. The key for them has to be figuring out how to play more effectively away from "The Pit" as they've taken their lumps on the road, but have beaten both Utah State and San Diego State in Albuquerque. There's also the Richard Pitino factor on the sidelines, but could this be the team that finally delivers his most successful NCAA Tournament trip yet? For all negative feelings towards Pitino, and I'll save the rant for a different day, he has done a tremendous job assembling this roster and if they can get a favorable path, it wouldn't shock me at all if this team is dancing deep into March.

Samford Bulldogs

23-4 overall, 12-2 Southern Conference

Projected Seed: 13-15

The Southern Conference may be a shell of its former self, but it will be forever known for giving us one of the most exciting NCAA Tournament underdogs of all-time in Steph Curry and the Davidson Wildcats. A decade-and-a-half later, the league may have another "Cinderella" lurking in the form of the Samford Bulldogs, who are poised to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in over two decades. There may not be a Steph Curry on this roster, but the Bulldogs, like many others on this list, do feature a high-flying offense that provides plenty of reason to tune in. They average nearly 88 points per game, fifth in the nation, and do so by sharing the ball among a deep and experienced roster. Forward Achor Achor may be their top scorer, but it's the backcourt that really paces this team, with Rylan Jones, A.J. Staton-McCray, and Jaden Campbell playing crucial roles. Just as important has been the healthy return of wing Jermaine Marshall, who missed a big chunk of the year but appears to be working his way back to full strength, giving Samford the type of inside-out threat that is needed come NCAA Tournament time. A healthy Marshall adds yet another capable contributor to the regular rotation, making this one of the deepest mid-major teams anywhere in the nation - they can genuinely go 10-12 players deep, another edge ever so critical late in the year. Assuming they can finish the job and get to the Big Dance, this is not a team I'd want to be playing in the first round. If they can find even a shred of defense, the Bulldogs are certainly capable of pulling off a major upset or two.

Appalachian State Mountaineers

21-5 overall, 11-2 Sun Belt

Projected Seed: 12-13

When James Madison shocked Michigan State to kick off the 2023-24 campaign, it appeared as though the Dukes were going to be the Sun Belt favorite and a dangerous mid-major opponent come NCAA Tournament time. The Dukes still remain firmly in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth, but have instead been supplanted inside the Sun Belt as a "Cinderella" candidate by the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Not only have the Mountaineers beaten James Madison twice now, both on the road and at home, they've won 11 of their 12 games, with the lone defeat coming at the hands of Texas State on the road. What I find particularly interesting about Appalachian State and why I like them as a "Cinderella" candidate, is that they don't have just one overwhelming strength - they can win games in a variety of different ways. Whether that's going for over 100 in beating another potential NCAA Tournament opponent in Toledo, or grinding out low-scoring victories like they did against James Madison on the road, this is an incredibly versatile Mountaineer team that adjusts as well to their opponent as anybody in the country. Simply look no further than their upset of Auburn earlier in the season - they played a controlled basketball game and forced Auburn's guards to try and beat them, which resulted in the Tigers shooting under 40% from the field and just 11% from three. Appalachian State is not going to be an easy out when it comes to March, and assuming they can get there, this looks like your prime 5-12 upset candidate in the first round.

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.