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Looking for the mid-major contenders

11/26/2008

Looking back one calendar year, we can see that 24 of the AP Top 25 teams on Feast Week 2007 were destined to be thankful all season long. With the exception of North Carolina State, which never did shake off that L-Tryptophan, each squad listed qualified for the NCAA Tournament. It's an eerily prescient list too, with the 2008 Final Four quartet all lodged in the top positions.

A more difficult forecasting task is trying to figure out which schools among the tangled mass of mid-majors will enter the field to challenge the top seeds four months from now. Few saw eventual Round of 32 participant Siena coming, for example, and fewer could have predicted that San Diego and Western Kentucky would be battling for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Elite 8 team Davidson sounded a fair warning in the 2007 tournament, giving Maryland a scare in then-freshman Stephen Curry's national coming-out party (30 points), and the national media followed intently all season long. Butler's 30-win season was heralded by a Sweet 16 berth the previous year. But with all the prognostication tools at our disposal, how did we overlook the potential of teams like the Saints, Toreros and Hilltoppers?

None provided the kind of clear winning formula on paper that the Wildcats did -- a massive star-in-the-making like Curry, a solid supporting cast full of role-players, and shoulder chips from coming so close the year before. But with the templates they provided, perhaps we can find a surprise or three like Siena, San Diego or Western Kentucky hidden in this year's field of over 200 mid-major schools.

Bowling Green (MAC)

Western Kentucky's secret was their one-two senior backcourt punch, with Sun Belt player of the year Courtney Lee lighting up the scoreboard and Tyrone Brazelton launching shots whenever perimeter players dared to double-team Lee. Good shooting and ball control helped make up for an undersized front line, and the Hilltoppers clawed their way past Drake and San Diego. The MAC's Falcons have decent senior shooters in Brian Moten and Darryl Clements, take excellent care of the basketball, and pushed Ohio State to the brink the other night in a 61-57 game. (And besides, Bowling Green is the name of the city WKU is located in.)

Northeastern (Colonial)

San Diego excelled last year despite having a very young team, and won a NCAA game out of a No. 13 seed with a roster that included seven freshmen -- it's a big reason they're heavily regarded again in the WCC this year. Instead of relying on a boatload of seniors, last year's Toreros did it with a strong policy of stopping 3s and forcing turnovers. And that's the M.O. in the northernmost outpost of the CAA, which in five games has allowed just 21.7 percent of 3s to fall and have abruptly ended 25 percent of opponent possessions in turnovers. And it may not be UConn, but the Huskies have already beaten Providence this year.

Illinois State (Missouri Valley)

Siena in 2007-08 showed what balanced and shared scoring from every position could do, with three starters averaging at least 15 points. Inside Illinois State's 4-0 record so far, which includes a clean sweep of SMU's tip-off tourney, the entire starting five is averaging double-figure scoring yet aren't afraid to pass the ball -- three average over two assists per game. Keep your eye on junior Redbird Osiris Eldridge, who emerged as one of the Valley's hidden gems last year and is averaging 14.8 ppg in the early going.