Last week, we shone the spotlight on six teams that we are used to seeing in the NCAA Tournament that either have work to do or have little chance to make the Big Dance this year. This week, we’re feeling a little bit more positive.
Here are six teams from the major conferences who have been bystanders recently at tournament time, yet may need to shine their dancing shoes this time around.
The surprising challenge by Florida State to the ACC supremacy of Duke and North Carolina has overshadowed somewhat the return to prominence of the Cavaliers. Coach Tony Bennett, who worked wonders at Washington State, has brought the same defensive-minded toughness to UVA and, as a result, has the Cavaliers thinking about their first NCAA birth in five years.
Senior Mike Scott is the workhorse, among the conference’s best in scoring and rebounding. The Cavs haven’t been able to upend any of the ACC’s Big 3 — though they came awfully close in a 54-51 loss to Carolina Saturday — but they get another shot at Florida State.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
This one is by no means a done deal. The Wolfpack haven’t notched a signature win — their best victory is probably over fellow bubble team Texas. They’ve been handled by the ACC’s best and are coming off four straight losses, including Saturday's 72-69 defeat at Clemson.
The positives are that NC State is closing in on a 20-win season and is over .500 in the conference. First-year coach Mark Gottfried inherited a talented team, and, led, by players like C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, the team has responded. Wins over beatable opponents in its last two regular season games might bring this proud program back to the dance for the first time since 2006.
The Cyclones have pretty much been doormats in the Big 12 since the brief glory days of Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley. But former Cyclone star Fred Hoiberg has returned enthusiasm to Ames as a coach, building the program on the backs of Big Ten transfers like Royce White and Chris Allen, who have flourished with their second chances.
Iowa State is looking like a lock for a bid, which would be their first since ’05. After all, the Cyclones are already at 20 wins for the season and 10 in the conference, and they’ve got that crucial resume win, a victory over Top 5 Kansas.
Can a team that suffered through a six-game conference losing streak make the tourney? If that conference is the Big East, you might have to make that exception.
Seton Hall, absent from the dance since 2006 as coaches came and went, have surged behind Kevin Willard to the middle of the pack in the conference. What’s more, the Pirates got their first huge win of the season on Tuesday when they absolutely thrashed Top 10 Georgetown.
The 19-9 Hall, led by veterans Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope, might need wins in its last two and a Big East tourney win to vault over the other bubble hopefuls.
The Bulls are an interesting case. They entered Big East play at 7-6, with ugly losses to BCS also-rans like Penn State and Auburn. They also haven’t beaten any of the conference powers. And yet they’re 10-5 in league play, winning every single game they were supposed to win.
Now comes the hard part: They’ve got to deal with fellow bubble team Cincinnati on Sunday before facing West Virginia and Louisville in the last two. USF, which is the epitome of a balanced team with only one player averaging double-figures in scoring, has made only two NCAA tournament appearances, the last coming in 1992.
Is it possible that the school of Bob Knight, Scott May, Isiah Thomas, Steve Alford and all the rest hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008? Can it be that this particular squad might cough up what once seemed like a sure-thing ticket to the dance?
The Hoosiers dropped an ugly game at Iowa to fall to just a game over .500 in the conference, and they have three tough contests left.
It’s likely they could probably lose all their remaining games and still have a great case, what with huge wins over Kentucky and Ohio State. Freshman big man Luke Zeller has been the catalyst for this resurgence.
So what does it all mean? It means that you better study up on some of these long-absent teams when it comes time to fill out your bracket. Until next week, Happy Hoops!