Raise your hand if you foresaw Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean capturing the imagination and hearts of the college basketball world before their Final Four run in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Is your hand raised? If so, you probably have the ability to predict the future. How about guessing the next Loyola-Chicago?
This is probably the year when another midmajor program could surprise and make a deep NCAA tournament run. In the regular season, Stephen F. Austin upset Duke. Evansville stunned Kentucky. Top-10 teams were as reliable as the early presidential polls.
The serious Cinderella candidates are starting to rise to the top, though, some familiar and some likely not so much to the average college hoops fan.
Dayton and San Diego State turned into midmajor powerhouses this year. They’re in line for No. 1 or No. 2 seeds with one conference loss between them.
Remember the names Obi Toppin for the Flyers and Malachi Flynn for the Aztecs. Neither under-the-radar All-America likely will win NCAA player of the year (that honor typically stays within the Power Five), but the two will keep us glued to our TV screens during March Madness. Toppin is a highflier, no pun intended. And Flynn lets it fly from deep like Steph Curry. No joke, either.
When it comes to not-as-hyped NCAA tournament squads from smaller conferences, keep an eye on BYU and Northern Iowa.
The Cougars made sure former No. 1 Gonzaga didn’t go unblemished in the West Coast Conference. Not many opponents made the Zags look as overmatched as they were in a 91-78 loss last month in Provo, Utah. Yoeli Childs, a versatile 6-8 senior forward, owned arguably the best frontcourt in college basketball with 28 points and 10 rebounds that night.
Childs is surrounded by the nation’s No. 1 three-point shooting team (42.1%), so don’t be surprised if BYU is a tough out for higher-profile opponents in the Big Dance.
His program hasn’t gone dancing in a few years, but Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson has Sweet 16 experience while upsetting Kansas in 2010. Jacobson has the talent to take down a powerhouse again this year. The backcourt of A.J. Green and Mayer, Minn., native Trae Berhow has helped UNI become the second-best three-point shooting team nationally (39.3%).
Green and Berhow combined for 40 points and 10 three-pointers in a 79-76 win over Colorado in December. That marquee nonconference win against one of the top teams in the Pac-12 won’t guarantee the Panthers an NCAA at-large bid if they don’t win the Missouri Valley tournament, but it certainly boosts their chances.
Other potential Cinderella teams to watch, if they can get into the NCAA tournament, are St. Mary’s (beat Wisconsin), East Tennessee State (beat LSU) and Utah State (solid backcourt and a 7-footer on the NBA’s radar).
Of course, it will be a great story as well if Gonzaga wins the first Division I national title for a midmajor conference since Texas Western in 1966. The Zags are more like a blue-blood program, but still.
Selection Sunday is around the corner. It’s about that time to stay up late filling out your brackets and playing the guessing game. Which Cinderella team can make a push toward the Final Four this year? There are plenty to pick from.
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller
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