The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Eight mid-majors with the potential to make Cinderella runs in March

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Chase Fieler and Florida Gulf Coast have Cinderella potential again this season (Getty Images)

Our 2013-14 season preview continues with the Dagger's look at the eight mid-majors with the most Cinderella potential. Check back every morning for the next six weeks for more college hoops preview content.

Florida Gulf Coast (26-11, 13-5 last season): What made Florida Gulf Coast's march to the Sweet 16 so magical last spring was more than just that the Eagles became the first No. 15 seed to win two NCAA tournament games. It was the way they did it -- with aplomb, pizazz and bravado instead of by slowing the game down. Don't expect Florida Gulf Coast's style to change much this season even though coach Andy Enfield is at USC and former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley has replaced him. Though senior leader Sherwood Brown has graduated, four starters return including the high-flying perimeter trio of Brett Comer, Bernard Thompson and Chase Fieler. The Eagles also bring back top big man Eric McKnight and add a pair of impact transfers in ex-Marquette guard Jamail Jones and former Georgia Tech big man Nate Hicks. Does Dunk City have more March magic in store for us? Maybe, but an at-large bid is highly unlikely, so they'll have to overcome a potent Mercer squad in the Atlantic Sun tournament just to earn a return trip to the NCAA tournament. If the Eagles can do that, however, no high seed will want to see them in the round 0f 64.

Louisiana Tech (27-7, 16-2 last season): In spring 2011, Michael White inherited a Louisiana Tech program two decades removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance and a few weeks removed from a 2-14 finish in the WAC. A little over two years later, White has high hopes of capping a stunningly fast turnaround by earning an NCAA bid. Louisiana Tech returns four starters from a team that won 27 games a year ago but collapsed in March, falling to ninth-seeded Texas-San Antonio in the WAC quarterfinals. A move to Conference USA represents a step up in competition, but a formidable pressure defense and plenty of returning talent gives Louisiana Tech a great chance to contend immediately. High-scoring Raheem Appleby and pass-first point guard Speedy Smith form perhaps Conference USA's top backcourt, while top big man Michael Keyser protects the rim and gobbles up offensive boards.

Towson (18-13, 13-5 last year): When Towson went 395 days between wins from Dec. 2010 to Jan. 2012, the Tigers became such a punchline that players were afraid to check their voicemail or text messages. Nobody's laughing at Towson anymore, however, because the Tigers appear to be poised to continue one of the more incredible turnaround stories in recent college hoops history. Last season, Towson upset Oregon State in December, won 13 games in CAA play and finished at 18-13, a remarkable 17-game improvement over the previous season. The Tigers have every chance to improve on that this season with CAA player of the year Jerrelle Benimon and three other starters back and impact transfer Four McGlynn set to arrive. Benimon is a double-double machine and one of the best mid-major players in the nation, while McGlynn is a former America East rookie of the year whose outside shooting prowess makes him a big weapon. Those two are the biggest reason Towson is regarded as the favorite in the CAA and a legitimate threat to win an NCAA tournament game should it get there.

Harvard (20-10, 11-3 last year ): Though capturing the Ivy League crown and toppling third-seeded New Mexico were milestone achievements last spring, Harvard can aim even higher this season. Believe it or not, the Crimson are a legit threat to advance to the second weekend of the tournament because last year's young core is returning and all-conference seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are also back. With Curry and Casey sidelined last season after being implicated in an academic scandal that caused over 100 students to withdraw, Harvard rallied around freshman point guard Siyani Chambers and sophomore wing Wesley Saunders. Chambers was so impressive that Curry will likely slide to off guard this season and sweet-shooting senior Laurent Rivard will probably come off the bench as a fourth guard. Casey, the 2011-12 Ivy League player of the year, will anchor a frontcourt that also includes juniors Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi and freshman Zena Edosomwan, a 6-foot-8 power forward from California who turned down the likes of UCLA, Texas and Washington to play for the Crimson. It's safe to say this is Tommy Amaker's most talented team. An Ivy League title is the minimum expectation, and far more is possible if the newcomers and returners mesh.

New Mexico State (24-11, 14-4 last season): You probably can't rattle off all eight schools in the WAC these days, but you should be able to name the league's premier team. That label goes to New Mexico State, which returns most of the key players from a team that finished third in the WAC behind now-departed Louisiana Tech and Denver but won the league tournament to capture a second straight NCAA bid. Last year's leading scorer, guard Daniel Mullings, returns, but the strength of the Aggies is their massive frontcourt. Five members of the New Mexico State frontcourt stand 6-foot-8 or taller, including 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar and his 7-foot-3 younger brother Tanveer. Sim and 6-foot-10 Tshilidzi Nephawe will likely share the center position, with Tanveer also contributing if he does not redshirt. Six-foot-10 Renaldo Dixon and 6-foot-8 Remi Barry will split time at power forward, though Barry could play some small forward too when New Mexico State wants to go with its biggest possible lineup. New Mexico State's NCAA tournament ended quickly at the hands of Saint Louis last season. Don't be surprised if the Aggies hang around a round longer this March.

Georgia State (15-16, 10-8 last year): The Panthers should be among the favorites in this season's loaded Sun Belt Conference because of two guards with high-major talent. One is wing R.J. Hunter, a coveted recruit who spurned the likes of Iowa, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to play for his dad at Georgia State and then averaged 17 points per game as a freshman. The other is former Kentucky and NC State point guard Ryan Harrow, an ex-top 50 recruit who is immediately eligible at Georgia State after transferring in part to be closer to his ailing father. With Harrow in a less high-pressure spot and Hunter and Devonta White providing scoring help from the wings, Georgia State has one of the nation's most potent mid-major backcourts. Throw in a good 3-point shooter and rebounder in forward Manny Atkins and 6-foot-9 USC transfer Curtis Washington in the paint, and Georgia State has an explosive offense. The only question is whether the Panthers can shore up a defense that was below average in the CAA last year. If Washington protects the rim and the guards contest a few more shots, the pieces are there to outduel formidable Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama for a Sun Belt crown.

Mercer (24-12, 14-4): Florida Gulf Coast's improbable run received so much attention last March that it's easy to forget which team actually won the Atlantic Sun regular season crown last season. The league champ was Mercer, which returns every contributor but one from a team that won 24 games, upset Alabama and Florida State on the road during the regular season and toppled Tennessee in Knoxville in the opening round of the NIT. The Bears' top perimeter player is point guard Langston Hall, a double-digit scorer whose 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was among the nation's best. A stingy defense is anchored by a senior frontline of shot-blocking center Daniel Coursey and forwards Bud Thomas and Jakob Gollon. With it's methodical tempo and defense-first strategy, Mercer is the perfect foil to Florida Gulf Coast in every way. The only thing the two share in common is that whichever one emerges from the Atlantic Sun is going to be a challenge for opposing teams in March.

Eastern Kentucky (25-10, 12-4): Whether it was Murray State in 2010 and 2012 or Kenneth Faried-led Morehead State the year in between, the Ohio Valley Conference has won at least one NCAA tournament game three of the past four years. The team with the best chance of continuing that success may be little-known Eastern Kentucky. Whereas Murray State, Belmont and Tennessee State each lost a slew of all-conference caliber players, the Colonels return nearly every major contributor from a 25-win team. The scoring punch will come from the backcourt, where sharpshooters Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden both space the floor by sinking 40 percent of their attempts from behind the arc. Slashing wings Tarius Johnson, Marcus Lewis and Orlando Williams take advantage of the space with their forays to the rim. Eastern Kentucky would be better if 6-foot-8 Eric Stutz gets more help protecting the rim and cleaning up the defensive glass, but realistically the Colonels are a perimeter-oriented team. They're at their best chance when compensating for a lack of size inside by scoring efficiently and forcing turnovers on the perimeter.

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