When the NCAA Tournament field is set on March 12, college basketball fans will attempt to pinpoint Cinderella teams with the best chance of knocking off a high major team and making a run in the Big Dance.
Last year Middle Tennessee State did the unthinkable, knocking off No. 2 seed Michigan State. Stephen F. Austin knocked off No. 3 seed West Virginia and schools like Hawaii, Yale and Little Rock were underdogs that made it out of the first round.
Although none of them made it to the Sweet 16 last year, with the parity in college basketball and the way the current season is unfolding, nothing would be a surprise a month from now.
Here’s our look at 11 non-major teams you need to get familiar with between now and the start of the madness. The caveat — some of these teams will need to win their conference tournaments to get in the big one.
Rich BarnesUSA TODAY Sports
The Seahawks made the tournament for the first time since 2005 last season, and coach Kevin Keatts (pictured) has another intriguing team that could do some damage in March.
Averaging 86 points a game, Keatts' team plays a fast-paced, up-tempo and pressing brand of basketball. “I really play four guards and a post guy,” Keatts told FOX Sports. “We kind of press you, you get up and down and we force tempo.”
Senior Denzel Ingram is the catalyst, averaging 14.8 points and over five rebounds a game, while sophomore Devontae Cacok is effective on the interior and leads the nation in field-goal percentage.
The Seahawks are 22-5 and hold a one game lead on Charleston in the conference race with four games to go.
Tommy GilliganUSA TODAY Sports
Led by senior Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson, Akron sits at 22-4 and has one of the most efficient and effective offenses in the country.
Keith Dambrot’s team has been consistent and they have a firm grasp on the Mid-American conference, sitting at 12-1 in the league.
Akron is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country and are able to stretch the floor and get good spacing, as they utilize their four-man to step out and make shots. Akron has six players that have made 20 or more 3-pointers and eight players that are shooting 36 percent from three or better.
James SnookUSA TODAY Sports
After starting the season 4-4, the Bruins ran off 14 straight and currently sit at 18-5 with a commanding lead in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Belmont is led by one of the craftiest post scorers in the country in Evan Bradds (pictured), who is averaging 21 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. The combination of Bradds inside and their perimeter shooting (they’ve made 236 threes) make the Bruins tough to defend.
Taylor Barnette, who has made more threes in the league than any other active player, is a scoring threat and has developed into a lockdown perimeter defender, while Austin Luke, who averages 7.3 assists a game, is a gifted passer that runs the offense. They also have versatility and shooting at the four-spot with Amanze Egekeze (41 percent from 3) and Nick Smith (42 percent from 3).
Kim KlementUSA TODAY Sports
The Southern Conference Winner
In my preseason college basketball report, I said the winner of the SoCon could potentially be a team to watch out for the in the Big Dance. And I still believe that.
At that time, I cited ETSU and defending champion UT-Chattanooga as the schools with a chance to do some damage. Steve Forbes (pictured) and Matt McCall have very good teams and I’m still a believer in both, but Furman actually leads the conference with a record of 13-2. Junior guard Devin Sibley is pacing Furman with 17.5 points per game and shooting over 44 percent from three.
This conference tournament should be a fun one, as just 2.5 games separate these three teams and UNC Greensboro.
Jeremy BrevardUSA TODAY Sports
Middle Tennessee State
Last year Kermit Davis (pictured) and Middle Tennessee State knocked off Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Raiders have the potential to do something similar this year.
MTSU’s big three of JaCorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts have proven tough to stop and collectively average 46.5 points and 19.5 rebounds a game. Davis told FOX Sports that Williams, who transferred from Arkansas, has been a big addition and “he’s got a great motor and a competitive spirit.”
MTSU has high major wins over Mississippi and Vanderbilt and are rolling through Conference USA with a record of 12-1.
Jeff CurryUSA TODAY Sports
After a run to the NIT final last season, Valparaiso is looking to win the Horizon League and go back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the past four years.
The Crusaders are currently sitting at 11-2 in the league and 21-5 overall, including wins over Rhode Island, Alabama and BYU. Valpo is led by one of the best players in school history and potential first-round draft pick — Alec Peters (pictured). The versatile 6-foot-10 forward is a major scoring threat, averaging 23.1 points and 10.7 rebounds a game.
Peters is flanked by senior Shane Hammink, who averages 15.5 points a game, and junior guard Tevonn Walker.
Mark ZerofUSA TODAY Sports
With four games left in league play, King Rice and Monmouth have won 12 straight, sit at 22-5 and hold a commanding four-game lead in the MAAC standings.
Monmouth is led by arguably the best player in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in 5-foot-8 guard Justin Robinson, who is putting up nearly 20 points a game for the second year in a row. He’s also averaging 4.8 assists and 3.9 rebounds a game.
A pair of productive Texas guards — Micah Seaborn and Je'lon Hornbeak — round out Rice’s perimeter attack. The two average a combined 25.4 points a game and have hit 116 three-pointers.
Rich BarnesUSA TODAY Sports
Dan Muller’s Illinois State team is one to get familiar with. Muller’s group is 22-5 and has won 15 of its last 16 games, including four of its last six with one of their most important players — MiKyle McIntosh — sidelined with a knee injury. McIntosh, who averages 13.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, returned in Wednesday's win over Missouri State, scoring 9 points in 22 minutes.
The Redbirds have impressive defensive numbers, as they sit at No. 13 in KenPom adjusted efficiency defense and No. 6 in the country in effective field goal percentage against. Paris Lee (pictured) has started every game of his college career and is one of the best players in the league, averaging 13.2 points and 5 assists a game.
“We are pretty athletic and fast,” Muller told FOX Sports. “Our speed, athleticism and length for our level ... we don’t have Kentucky length, but it can match up on all levels.”
Sean PokornyUSA TODAY Sports
Gregg Marshall (pictured), who has been to the NCAA Tournament each of the last five seasons, currently sits at 24-4 and is tied with Illinois State at 14-1 in the league with three games to go.
The Shockers have been on a tear as of late, winning nine straight by an average margin of victory of 22.5 points, including a dismantling of Illinois State. In the non-conference slate, they knocked off Oklahoma and played Louisville and Michigan State close.
“They just have a really physical and deep frontline and are a very deep team in general,” an opposing coach in the league said. “They can just run waves at you.”
Wichita State has a balanced scoring attack with their top six players averaging between 7.9 and 12 points a game. They’re efficient on offense and play a tough, physical brand of basketball on defense. They rank in the top 25 adjusted efficiency on KenPom in both offense and defense.
Peter AikenUSA TODAY Sports
With just two games to play in the America East, the Catamounts are undefeated at 14-0 and haven’t lost since Dec. 21 at Butler.
John Becker has a balanced scoring attack and plays 10 players more than 10 minutes a game. Although they aren’t a great 3-point shooting team, they are effective 2-point scorers and ranked No. 12 in the country in 2-point field goal percentage at 55.8-percent.
Guard Trae Bell-Haynes, freshman Anthony Lamb and Payton Henson (pictured) pace the Catamounts and all average between 11 and 11.7 points a game.
“They're very solid,” a coach that matched up with them earlier this season told FOX Sports. “They play tough man-to-man defense. Trae Bell-Haynes is great off of ball screen action.”
Jeff BlakeUSA TODAY Sports
Saint Mary’s has been a little overshadowed in the league with the ridiculous year conference rival Gonzaga is having, but the Gaels certainly have the potential to make a run in the tournament.
Saint Mary’s holds wins over Dayton, Stanford and BYU and are 22-3 on the season with losses to UT-Arlington and Gonzaga twice. Offensively, they are gifted and one of the most efficient teams in the country. They have a roster full of shot makers and have connected on 214 three-pointers this season.
Big man Jock Landale leads the way with 17 points and 9.4 rebounds a game, but they have an impressive perimeter attack as well. Saint Mary’s ranks No. 22 in assists a game and both Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon average more than five assists a game.