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Bracket Big Board: Iona one of five true mid-majors to fear

Brad Evans
Roto Arcade

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Scott Machado and the Gaels will be no early-round pushover (AP)

The Bracket Big Board takes into consideration past returns, current performance and expected future gains in determining who should be included among the field of 68 (31 automatic and 37 at-large bids). Essentially, the Bracket Big Board is a cheat sheet designed for amateur bracketologists if they were filling out a Tourney Pick 'Em '12 entry today (SIGN UP NOW!). The Triple-B, the second-most accurate bracket predictor among macro-sites over the past four years, is updated every Monday until the dance card is unveiled March 11.

Wonder. Amazement. Complete insanity. That's what the ides of March produced last year.

Eleven months ago, madness enveloped the college basketball world. Unpredictable runs by mid-major darlings Butler and VCU left brackets bloodied and egos bruised. A trail of defeated favorites — Kansas, Pittsburgh, Purdue and Wisconsin — were left in the underdogs' wake.

For self-proclaimed bracket gurus the carnage was humbling.  Out of the roughly three million participants in Yahoo!'s tourney game, only a librarian from Salem, Ore. predicted the improbable Final Four field accurately. And she accomplished the feat with a rather quirky method.

In roughly three weeks, when Pick 'Em participants scrawl names on bracket lines, mid-majors will be taken more seriously.

They should.

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Butler has carried the Horizon to great heights in recent years.

The once ocean-wide gap separating Bigs from Littles has shrunk considerably in recent years. On a player-by-player basis power schools still boast more talent, but the constant turnover at the high-major level combined with excellent coaching and competitive non-conference schedules on smaller campuses have accelerated mid-major performance. As a result, perceived whipping boys have stepped onto the court prepared and unintimidated, even when the lights are brightest.

Typically laden with a wealth of upperclassman compared to Goliaths, Davids have overcome weighty odds with chemistry and savvy, a prime example of the sum being greater than the parts. No surprise, nowadays experience is not only the best teacher, but also a great predictor of overall success. From the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:

"Nobody has those big difference-makers for four years anymore," said St. Mary's head coach Randy Bennett. "And you don't need 60 players in basketball. You really need three or four difference-makers, and three or four other good players, and you can be really good."

"The feeling you've been through it, you have that confidence, that experience," Bennett said. "That's huge."

This year, a number of Cinderellas are awaiting a pumpkin carriage to take them to the sport's pinnacle. A couple could live out the dream.

Excluding marquee mid-majors, teams well-known to even casual fans (e.g. Wichita St, Creighton,  Murray St. and Harvard), and mislabeled "Little Guys" from the Atlantic 10 (Temple, St. Louis and Xavier), West Coast (Gonzaga, St. Mary's and BYU) and Mountain West (New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego St.) conferences, here are five true mighty mites that could wreck brackets come March:

Iona

Iona Gaels
Conference: Metro Athletic
Record: 22-6
Why dangerous? It's possible the Gaels might struggle in a matchup with a group of wily octogenarians. Largely due to their pressing nature, they are abominable on defense ranking north of 200 in effective field-goal percentage allowed and 172nd in defensive rebound percentage. Contesting shots isn't their game. However, Iona more than makes up for it on the opposite end. The nation's premier point guard, Scott Machado, has dropped more dimes than the U.S. Mint. He averages a DI-best 10.1 assists per game. His ability to command and create combined with projected NBA pick Michael Glover's muscle inside gives the Gales quite the 1-2 punch. Off guard Lamont Jones, who dropped 43 on Canisius earlier this month, can also fill it up. On the season, Iona has netted 54.7 percent of its shots inside the arc, the sixth-best tally in the country. Equally formidable from three (38.4%) and cautious with the rock (26th in offensive TO%), it definitely doesn't lack polish offensively. With noteworthy wins against Maryland, St. Joe's and most recently Nevada along with a near-miss versus Purdue in a neutral setting, the Gaels are an experienced, uptempo team that has the potential to win a game or two in the Big Dance, provided it nails down the automatic berth.

TheBeach

Long Beach St. 49ers
Conference: Big West
Record: 19-7
Why dangerous? Of all the schools on this list, The Beach is the one no Big Boy wants to face. Seasoned, explosive and unfazed, the Niners are a real Western gem. Dan Monson, similar to what Fran McCaffery did with Siena back in '09, challenged his upperclassman by scheduling a stretch of murderous non-conference road games. Though its wins against Pittsburgh and Xavier aren't nearly as impressive now as they were in November/December, The Beach's staunch competitiveness at San Diego St., North Carolina and Kansas has it well-prepared for post-season play. The team's leading scorer, Casper Ware, can absolutely ball. He's exceeded 20 points in a game eight times, including a 38-point explosion at Pacific Feb. 8. Lengthy guard Larry Anderson and double-double machine T.J. Robinson (12.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg) are also quite potent offensively. Long Beach isn't the stiffest on defense, ranking 96th in adjusted D efficiency, but it's brutal early season slate, unblemished Big West record and wealth of experience could propel it into the second weekend. And don't expect the 49ers' heart-wrenching last-second loss at Creighton Saturday to slow them down. This is a club bound to strike it rich come March.

VCU

VCU Rams
Conference: Colonial
Record: 23-6
Why dangerous? Compared to last season, the Rams are less talented, experienced and battle-tested. Bradford Burgess is the only remaining starter from 2011's magical Final Four team. And the Rams' only "standout" victory this year was an overtime W by the slimmest of margins at Akron. Still, VCU shouldn't be overlooked. Shaka Smart, arguably the brightest young coach currently in college basketball, is a master motivator who squeezes every ounce from his kids, particularly defensively. Opponents have turned the rock over 27-percent of the time against them, the third-highest mark in Division I. Overall, they've surrendered just 0.92 points per possession, which ranks 32nd nationally. Unfortunately, inconsistency on offense has often ruled the day. Burgess, the club's leading scoring, is a well-rounded player, but in order for the Colonial kings to make another deep tourney run, paint patroller Juvonte Reddic needs to avoid whistles. More importantly, they must consistently dial it up from long-distance like they did against Northern Iowa Friday (8 threes made). On the season, VCU has shot just 33.3 percent from three. Their 77-68 disposing of the Panthers in BracketBusters is a step in the right direction, but without a signature win, the Rams must take the CAA tourney crown if they want to 'Dougie' again.

MTSU

Middle Tennessee St. Blue Raiders
Conference: Sun Belt
Record: 24-4
Why dangerous? In recent memory, the Sun Belt representative has burned a few headline programs in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. Western Kentucky, for example, advanced at least one bracket line in 2008 and 2009. The Blue Raiders haven't danced since the days "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" rocked cinema megaplexes (1989). That year they hung 97 points in a 13-over-4 toppling of Florida St. MTSU's seeding and outcome could be eerily similar if it emerges unscathed in the Sun Belt tourney. Keep in mind it crushed UCLA on the road in mid-November, took down Mississippi in December and nearly pulled the upset at Vanderbilt last month. Turnovers and rebounding are major issues for Kermit Davis' team. But very sound defensively (29th nationally in D efficiency) and solid inside the arc (53.1 2PT%), it certainly is capable of competing with smallish high-major clubs. If long-bomber Raymond Cintron can get hot at the right time, opening up opportunities for LaRon Dendy near the bucket, the Blue Raiders will be hard to bounce.

Belmont

Belmont Bruins
Conference: Atlantic Sun
Record: 21-7
Why Dangerous? The tiny university in Nashville, best known for its influence on the music industry, may sing a celebratory song come mid-March. Very early this season, the 'other' Bruins nearly pulled off an unthinkable upset against Duke at Cameron Indoor, losing by a measly point. With notable wins against aforementioned Middle Tennessee St. and Marshall, the A-Sun standout is no slouch. Belmont is rather meek defensively. It ranks below average in several key categories — effective-field goal D, defensive rebounding percentage and block percentage. However, similar to Iona, it's a force to reckon with on the offensive end. On paper, the Bruins are the seventh-best scoring club in the land averaging an impressive 1.18 points per possession. Guard Drew Hanlen, one of the nation's deadliest sharpshooters, has proven especially good. On the year, he's netted nearly 49-percent from the arc, including seven trey bombs at Lipscomb Feb. 3. Also equipped with suitable size and balanced scoring, Belmont is very capable of rising from the depths of obscurity. Competitive against Wisconsin in Round 2 last year, it could scare the bejesus out of another well-known opponent this time around, assuming it punches its ticket in the A-Sun tourney.

Others to fear: Nevada, Oral Roberts, Davidson, Akron and Butler

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Here are the movers and shakers on this week's Triple-B:

*For games played through Sunday, February 19
*RPI data provided by Rivals
*T50 = Record versus RPI top-50
*BL = Bad losses (dropped games to opponents with a 100+ RPI)
*Orange teams are rising, blue falling

On the Bubble: Oregon (19-8), Arizona (19-9), Illinois (16-11), Minnesota (17-10), St. Joe's (18-10), South Florida (17-10), Colorado (18-8), Drexel (23-5), Loyola Marymount (18-10), UCF (19-7)

Dropped Out: Illinois, Arizona, Cleveland St.

Conference Breakdown: American East (1), ACC (5), Atlantic Sun (1), Atlantic 10 (3), Big 12 (6), Big East (9), Big Sky (1), Big South (1), Big Ten (7), Big West (1), Colonial (1), Conference USA (2), Horizon (1), Ivy (1), Metro (1), Mid-American (1), Mid-Eastern (1), Missouri Valley (2), Mountain West (3), Northeast (1), Ohio Valley (1), Pac-12 (2), Patriot (1), SEC (5), Southern (1), Southland (1), SWAC (1), Summit (1), Sun Belt (1), West Coast (3), WAC (1)

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