In each of the last four years, at least two teams have made the Sweet 16 that aren’t from one of the “Power 6” conferences (SEC, ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12).
This year, there are a slew of programs that have a chance to keep that streak going. In all honesty, there are almost a dozen schools that I could see in the Sweet 16 as Mid-Majors in March, but I’m not going to bore you with 1,500 words covering all of those teams.
So to get you educated on the smaller schools that may make a big splash, here are the five teams that I’m giving the best chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, as it stands right now.
No. 11 Murray State Racers (20-0, 8-0 Ohio Valley)
With just eight games left in their regular season, the Racers have a very good chance to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. They are the only team left in the country without a loss, and in my opinion, that has a lot to do with the makeup of their team. Of their nine-player rotation, they have just one freshman — bucking the trend of the one-and-done players that come to college for just one season and move on. Murray State is walking proof that a team that sticks together for several years can still be very good. They could be seeded as high as No. 4 or No. 5 if they win out, and that would allow them to do some damage in the Big Dance.
No. 13 San Diego State Aztecs (18-2, 4-0 Mountain West)
There’s nothing wrong with the season the Aztecs are having. Their only losses of the season came at No. 12 Baylor and to No. 22 Creighton, who you’ll be reading more about shortly. They beat California, Arizona and UNLV (who you’ll read more about shortly), and all three held rankings at the time they lost to San Diego State. Led by head coach Steve Fisher who led Michigan’s Fab Five in the early 1990s, they have the leadership to make it through a postseason tournament with a couple of wins.
No. 15 Creighton Blue Jays (19-2, 9-1 Missouri Valley)
Creighton may be the best team on this list, as they are tied atop the MVC with Wichita State (who you’ll hear more about shortly). The Blue Jays are led by sophomore Doug McDermott (23.5 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game), and they have a long list of impressive victories. They’ve beaten Tulsa by 19 points, Northwestern and Wichita State, and their losses to St Joseph’s and Missouri State aren’t bad losses. They’ll get another shot at Wichita State Feb. 11, and that could tell us more about both teams.
Wichita State Shockers (18-3, 9-1 Missouri Valley)
The aforementioned Shockers were called “the best Mid-Major in the nation” by Jay Bilas on College Gameday this morning. And as he says, real recognize real. So who are we to doubt Wichita State? The Shockers only have three losses — one to previously mentioned Creighton, one to No. 15 Alabama and one to Temple. Those are all strong teams, so no problems there. And their wins over No. 20 UNLV, Tulsa and Pac-12 leader Colorado prove they can beat good teams in March. Look out for WSU, because Mr. Bilas may know what he’s talking about.
No. 12 UNLV Rebels (19-3, 3-1 Mountain West)
UNLV’s three losses — Wichita State, San Diego State and No. 16 Wisconsin. Their big wins — No. 19 Illinois and No. 1 North Carolina. I think that will get them some respect, don’t you? They’ll get another shot at San Diego State on Feb. 11, this time at home. If sophomore forward Mike Moser (14.2 points per game, 11.7 rebounds per game) can have a great game, they can get another key victory and have plenty of confidence going into the tourney.
Did I miss anyone? Leave me a comment and let me know who I snubbed!