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Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 13:59 PM

Dark Horses to Watch

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ANOTHER LOYOLA-CHI IN THE HOUSE?

As usual, we think there are some intriguing low and mid-majors that might be able to make some noise in the Dance. Whether any become the “next George Mason” or the “next Loyola-Chicago” remains to be seen. But it’s always fun to speculate those entries that have the capacity to create upset alerts. And who knows? Maybe one of the following will make a George Mason or Loyola-Chicago-like run to the Final Four!

Wofford (SU record 29-4; seeded 7th in Midwest, facing Seton Hall in the first round)...We hesitate to even put the Terriers in this group; the secret is out on the SoCon champs, who earned a 7-seed in the Midwest, heady stuff for a mid or low-major entry. But it seems deserved. No shame in non-league losses to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Mississippi State (Big Dance entries all), and SEC South Carolina was hammered by 20 at Columbia, no less. Vet HC Mike Young has taken several Wofford editions to the Dance in the past, and the Terriers have never been humiliated; now this appears the best of many very good Wofford squads in the Young era. The Terriers enter the Dance on a nation’s-best 20-game win streak (and the SoCon was not an easy touch this season), with a squadron of bombers led by dagger-throwing sr. G Fletcher Magee (20.5 ppg). Wofford has four weapons who shoot better than 40% beyond the arc, and the Terriers’ 41.6% from tripleville ranks second nationally. For good reason, nobody is overlooking these guys.

Utah State (28-6; seeded 8th in Midwest, facing Washington in first round)...Nobody saw this coming at Logan under first-year HC Craig Smith, who was a winner at previous stop South Dakota. But few expected the Utags, picked ninth in the Mountain West preseason poll, storming thru the loop and likely having sewed up an at-large even before winning the MW Tourney last Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas against San Diego State. Strengths are ball movement and a variety of deadly spot shooters, including bombs-away G Sam Merrill (21.2 ppg), who is also quite a resource at the end of the game when USU is protecting a lead, as his 90.7% FT shooting ranks nationally in the top ten. But the real Utah buzz is being created by 6-11 Portuguese frosh C Neemias Queta, who physically reminds of Deandre Ayton and has been coming on like gangbusters as the season progressed. In fact, some observers believe Queta could even be a lottery pick should he declare for the NBA Draft, especially in a year that might be more than a bit diluted. What we do know is that Queta shuts off the defensive interior like no Utag we can remember, and his shot-altering presence unnerved Fresno State and San Diego State last weekend in Vegas, as USU earned the auto bid from the Mountain.

Belmont (26-5; seeded 11th in East, facing Maryland in first round)...We think the Committee definitely got it right by inviting the Bruins, who are a familiar March entity in the era of HC Rick Byrd, a possible future HOFer. They proved so in the at-large play-in win on Tuesday vs. Temple. The recipe is basically the same as it has been for a variety of Belmont teams that have danced over the past decade, with adept ball-spacing and plenty of shooters. One of the nation’s highest-scoring teams at 87.4 ppg, the Bruins shoot plenty of 3s, led by sr. G Dylan Windler (21.4 ppg), who has connected on an eye-opening 43% of his triples the past two seasons. Good news is the return to active duty of 6-11 frosh C Nick Muszynski (14.9 ppg), a legit post scoring threat (unique to Byrd’s Belmont teams) who missed the Ohio Valley finale vs. Murray State with an ankle injury but returned on Tuesday against Temple. With Muszynski, the offense is complete, and could be a load for the Terps (or any subsequent foe) to handle.

New Mexico State (30-4, seeded 12th in Midwest, facing Auburn in first round)...The Ags dominated the WAC, arguably the most forgiving loop in the nation, but still recorded a 30-4 mark this season. No matter the opponents, 30-4 is still 30-4. Regional observers believe this NMSU edition might be better than recent Dance qualifiers out of Las Cruces, now coached by former Wichita State aide Chris Jans, who like predecessors Marvin Menzies and Paul Wier, might not be sticking around the Pan Am Center much longer. The Ags are not big, but they have plenty of shooters and go 10-11 deep, with a variety of components capable of stepping into featured roles. An impressive stat worth noting in this era of the 3-point shot, however, is that the Ags lead the nation in FG% inside the arc (56.5%), though 3-balls account for almost half of their shots (NMSU 34% beyond the arc). Very efficient team; the leading scorer, G Terrell Brown, only tallies 11.3 ppg. But the Aggies’ strength is in their balance (indeed, thirteen players average double-digit minutes!).

Liberty (28-6; seeded 12th in East, facing Mississippi State in first round)...Emerging from the Atlantic Sun was a nice accomplishment this season, especially beating a dangerous Lipscomb side twice in Nashville, including the conference title game. Unlike his long-ago days at Portland State and Colorado State, Flames HC Ritchie McKay is preaching defense with his current bunch. Beyond those two road wins over Lipscomb, Liberty won at Kent State and UCLA (not the accomplishment it once was to beat the Bruins, we know, but ask Steve Alford, dismissed shortly thereafter by the Bruins, if that result wasn’t meaningful). Plus a highly-impressive 26-point blowout of eventual Sun Belt champ Georgia State. McKay’s team has decent balance, often running the offense thru bullish 6-8 post threat and Bradley transfer, Scottie James (13.1 ppg; 67% FGs!), and is among the nation’s shooting leaders, converting 49% of its FG attempts.

Murray State (27-4; seeded 12th in West, facing Marquette in first round)...The hype has preceded electric soph G Ja (pronounced like ya-ya) Morant, considered by some to be a potential top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft if he so chooses to declare, which most regional observers believe will happen right after the Racers finish their season, which might last a bit longer if Morant (24.6 ppg) is as good as he was in the OVC finale vs. Belmont, when exploding for 36. Though Morant (who also averages 10 apg) is the ultimate highlight reel, Murray State is not a one-man team. It hasn’t lost since Jan. 31, and connects on nearly 57% of its shots inside the arc. Marquette, fading down the stretch, is well-advised to be on alert for the first-round matchup at Hartford.

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