Who will be this year's Cinderella Team?Posted: Updated:
Who's the next George Mason? The question has been buzzing around college basketball for the past month, and the real answer is that we might never see one again anytime soon. With so many top teams knocking each other off this year, though, perhaps another school does have a magical run in it.
The NBCSports.com college basketball writers gave their two cents on who could be this year's Cinderella.
David Mihm: Winthrop, Big South
But there certainly are a number of quality mid-majors this year, including from the Patriots' own conference: the Colonial Athletic Association. Old Dominion won 11 games in a row and boasts a non-conference win over Georgetown, and neither one of them won the title, which went to VCU. Any one of them could make victims of two higher-seeded major conference teams and play the role of Sweet 16 Cinderella.
But I'll take Winthrop as having the best chance at a surprise run all the way to the Final Four. The Eagles nearly knocked off two potential No. 1 seeds already this year (Wisconsin and North Carolina). They also took down the aforementioned ODU Monarchs, and picked up a win eerily similar to George Mason's 2006 victory over Wichita State by beating Missouri State on its home floor in the BracketBuster.
Gregg Marshall, who nearly took the head coaching job at College of Charleston over the summer, has now led Winthrop to the Big South's automatic bid seven of the last nine years, a remarkable run that rivals Duke's consecutive romps through the ACC Tournament.
This year's edition of the Eagles is largely the same team that was within a Chris Lofton desperation three of knocking off second-seeded Tennessee in 2006. Gregg Marshall's starting five features three seniors and two juniors.
Guard Torrell Martin was considered Winthrop's star player in the non-conference season, but when he went down with an injury in Big South play, backcourt mate Michael Jenkins picked up the scoring slack, and now gives Winthrop an outstanding second option on the perimeter. And don't forget about 6-10 Kiwi Craig Bradshaw down low, whom many feel is a potential second-round NBA draft pick.
Winthrop has the balance, upperclassman leadership and streaky perimeter shooting that can carry them to a Final Four. Is it likely? No, but Winthrop easily wins the award as the double-digit seed you least want to see in your favorite team's region.
Ed Williams III: Old Dominion, Colonial
If there's going to be another George Mason, then it's only fitting it should come from the Colonial once again. This year's best bet to fit into the glass slipper are the Monarchs of Old Dominion.
The Monarchs haven't lost since Jan. 20 against the Colonial's regular season champion, Virginia Commonwealth. Their 24-7 record includes a huge win over Big East powerhouse Georgetown on the road. En route to compiling a 15-3 conference record, Old Dominion has knocked off Virginia Commonwealth, Hofstra and road warriors Drexel twice. They also picked up a key BracketBuster win over Toledo. Old Dominion is more than battle-tested and could give some of the higher-seeded teams fits in the early rounds.
This team also has plenty of experience as its top six leading scorers are all seniors or juniors. While many schools often boast a strong frontcourt or backcourt, Old Dominion has found balance with solid versions of both. Senior forward Valdas Vasylius led his team in scoring with 16 points per game, as well as hauling in 6.2 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, senior guard Drew Williamson was steering the ship, dishing out 4.5 assists per game while also tallying more than 11 points and 3 rebounds per game.
Jim Carty: Davidson, Southern Conference
You want upset ingredients? How about a team ranked sixth in Division I in scoring, built around one of the game's best outside shooters, riding a 13-game win streak?
That would be Davidson (29-4), which also shares the ball, rebounds well for its size and shoots the three with anybody. Freshman guard Stephen Curry -- son of former NBA guard Dell Curry -- averages 21.2 points, shoots 41.1 percent from 3-point range and 84.8 percent from the line.
The Wildcats have a double-threat point guard in Jason Richards (13.6 ppg, 7.3 apg), and two solid forwards in Thomas Sander (13.5 ppg) and Boris Meno (11 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Watch the 3-point arc, where Davidson averages 9.6 bombs per game. If they're falling, the Wildcats can beat anyone in the Midwest bracket except Florida.
Peter Finney Jr.: Winthrop, Big South
Look no further than the Winthrop Eagles (27-4), who recorded the first perfect (14-0) season in Big South Conference history.
Winthrop's four losses were all on the road to Top 25 teams -- North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas A&M.
The Eagles, coached by Big South Coach of the Year Gregg Marshall, led the conference in six statistical categories, including scoring defense (60.9 ppg) and field goal defense (.408).
They are led by 6-10 senior Craig Bradshaw (15.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and 6-3 junior Michael Jenkins, who led the Eagles in scoring (15.6 ppg) and three-point shooting. He shoots 3s and a 44 percent clip. Torrell Martin, a 6-5 senior, rebounded from a midseason foot injury to average 14.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Phil Collin: Nevada, Western Athletic
Nick Fazekas is 6-11, was named the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year for the third time, and has played on four WAC champion teams at Nevada.
The Wolf Pack are 27-3, but aren't a one-man team, which equips them nicely for a potential run. When Fazekas sprained his ankle in January, he missed the first two games of his career, but that merely solidified the Wolf Pack, who won two road games without him at San Jose State and at Hawaii.
The guard trio of Marcelus Kemp (18 points per game), Ramon Sessions (13) and Kyle Shiloh (10) have found their comfort zone but aren't afraid to attack the basket with Fazekas willing to step outside for 3-point shots. With forward Denis Ikovlev, all five Nevada starters are hitting at 40 percent or better on 3-point attempts.
And it really doesn't matter what region the Wolf Pack are assigned to, since their travel budget in conference games --- from Louisiana to Hawaii to Idaho --- is among the most taxing in the country. And Nevada has three NCAA wins in the past three seasons. Before last year, George Mason was 0-for-3 in its history.
Roger Rubin: Vanderbilt, SEC
It's the ultimate decision almost every coach in a power conference has to answer: talent or chemistry? Some build a team around a superstar who might be in school just one year. Others assemble a group of good players that will succeed by playing together for a long stretch. Vanderbilt is a school in a power conference, but it never gets that choice. The blue chip recruits who are supposed to be on the fast track either couldn't get admitted or don't consider the program a stepping stone.
Well get a load of the Commodores this season. Picked to finish nowhere in contention they have been a player in the SEC. The reason is two of the conference's best scorers: 6-7 Derrick Byars and 6-6 Shan Foster, who both can get points on the drive or the outside shot. Foster's an excellent player, but Byars in an unrecognized All-America talent. He's as dangerous from 22 feet out as he is from two feet out.
Coach Kevin Stallings' pedigree is from the Princeton school of offense, but he thought the talent level on this team so good, he ditched it for this season. Even so, Vandy is one of the top passing teams you'll see - they run their offense with metronome precision. That's the chemistry coming into play.
Because they are one of the least athletic teams that will be in the field, they will be hard to watch sometimes. They are clutch-and-grab physical, send their opponents to the free throw line often and are likely to get beaten on the boards. Even so, Byars and Foster are going to be 1-2 punch no one is expecting.
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