RECE DAVIS: So which of that list of automatic qualifiers do you think has a chance to make some noise in this year’s Tournament?
DIGGER PHELPS: Well, I think Winthrop …
DOUG GOTTLIEB: Winthrop.
DICK VITALE: Winthrop, baby!
RICK MAJERUS: When you look at Winthrop …
JAY BILAS: North Carolina.
RECE: Uh, Jay, Carolina’s not …
JAY BILAS: You’re inviting these teams to play for a championship.
RECE: ... Right.
Suffice it to say, if we were voting mid-majors into a high school yearbook, Winthrop would win “Most Likely To Succeed” in a landslide. And despite the previous fate of similar honorees (somewhere, Western Michigan is crying into its beer and muttering “Like we asked Vegas to make us a favorite”) Winthrop is so good and so experienced and so incredibly overdue it may not matter.
Still, the discussion of Cinderellas-in-waiting shouldn’t both begin and end with Winthrop. Here’s five more, all flying at various levels under the radar, one of which I all-but-guarantee will be good for an upset next week:
The MAC is due. The one-time year-in-year-out giant slayer (think about it … Kent St in the Elite Eight. Central Michigan and the Hulkster dumping Kyle Korver’s Creighton. Miami (OH)’s Wally Sczerbiak beating Washington and Utah one-on-five.) hasn’t scored an upset since 2003. And the Zips are the far-and-away the best bet to snap that streak. Point guard Dru Joyce (4.4 apg) and forward Romeo Travis (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) form a sweet senior inside-outside duo and juniors Cedrick Middleton and Nick Dials round out the MAC’s best backcourt. The Zips have the 12th-best shooting percentage in the country. They just flattened Central Michigan 82-53, beat back a good Kent St. team, and saw the 1-seed (Toledo) fall in the other semi. If this team survives the final, the MAC will be back.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Ladies and gents, if you’re looking for the next Winthrop or Davidson—i.e., a mid-major who will basically contend for their auto-bid every single year for the foreseeable future—this is it. The Islanders have crazy mid-major size (7-0 center Chris Daniels averages 15.3 and 6.8), crazy efficient guard play (senior Josh Washington shoots 46.8 from three), and a seriously crazy giant-killing pedigree from their days as an independent. They wiped the floor (14-2) with the same Southland that sent Northwestern St. to glory last year. If the two-year return of the 14-over-3 upset is to continue, this is the team that will do it.
To this point, Wright St. has just been “that team that kept Butler from winning the Horizon.” No one’s seemed to notice this team has an excellent shot at upsetting teams other than Butler. First, consider that the Raiders won a regular-season title in a league that’s won five NCAA games the last four years. Second, consider Dashaun Woods, and the fact that he could win a game all by his scrawny self. Third, consider that Brad Brownell has NCAA experience from his time at the Dub. Wright was a better team than Butler in Horizon regular-season play, better in the Horizon tournament, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they're better in the NCAAs as well.
If there’s going to be the national holiday, ticker-tape parades, and days of feasting that will surely, surely accompany the first 16-over-1 upset in history, it’s going to come courtesy of the Hornets. Yes, they’re a MEAC team, yes, they may very well be a 16. But how many 16 seeds boast an NBA prospect (6-6 guard Jasha Blunt), a 6-6 Cincinnati transfer that also averages 15 a game (Roy Bright), and a wicked slow-down game (this is the 334th-fastest team in the country) that could throw the right opponent (go-go-go North Carolina?) way off-kilter. Plus, two of the four 15 seeds to ever pull upsets (Coppin St. 1997, Hampton 2001) were from the MEAC—and Delaware St. is every bit the equal of those squads.
Ralph Willard and the Crusaders might be the only coach and team more due than Gregg Marshall and Winthrop. 2001: the 15th-seeded Cross leads Tayshaun Prince and Kentucky midway through the second half, loses by four. 2002: the 16th-seeded Cross leads Kansas and their boatload of NBA players early in the second half, loses by 11. 2003: the 14th-seeded Cross leads Dwyane Wade’s Marquette team midway through the second half, loses by four. With Keith Simmons and Tim Clifford, Willard has more than enough tools to finally get his team over the hump.