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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Five programs that could make a run to their first Final Four this month

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Can Kim English and his fellow Tigers deliver the Missouri program its first Final Four appearance? (AP)

In recent years, several Cinderella stories have made their first NCAA tournament trips thanks to storybook runs and victories over the nation's elite programs along the way.

Butler … George Mason … VCU … someone could do it again his year.

There are a few of those candidates in the field, plus some more prominent programs that have never tasted the NCAA tournament's final weekend in the modern era.

Here's a closer look at who could open next season by hanging that first Final Four banner in program history …

Missouri, No. 2, West Region

 

These teams are listed in no particular order, but Missouri would be the odds-on favorite from this group to make a run to its first Final Four. It's almost hard to believe that they've never made it that far, though the Tigers have seen the Elite Eight three times since 1994. What might hold them back is the Tigers' draw, which includes potential meetings with Florida and Marquette down the line — teams that play a similar style and can trade blows with them in an uptempo game. Plus, No. 1-seed Michigan State, should the two meet in the Elite Eight, might present a tougher challenge than Missouri's thin front line can handle. Still, when Missouri is shooting the ball like it did last weekend in three games at the Big 12 tournament, they can beat just about anyone.

 

Wichita State, No. 5, South Region

 

The Shockers enter the tournament off of an, um, shocking loss in the Missouri Valley tournament semifinals to Illinois State, but don't let that diminish what they did leading up to it. Plain and simple, they match up well and can present difficulties to anyone put in front of them. They have great shooters, and have legitimately one of the nation's most versatile rosters. First-round foe VCU isn't a great shooting team, and they're more than capable of beating either Indiana or New Mexico State after that. And once you reach the second weekend, anything can happen. Picking Wichita State to emerge from a region that contains the nation's top team — Kentucky — is gutsy, but it can certainly happen.

 

New Mexico, No. 5, West Region

 

One of the nation's hottest teams got one of the NCAA tournament's toughest first-round draws, as New Mexico will face Long Beach State on Friday afternoon. You won't find a more battle-tested mid-major in the field of 68 than the 49ers, but the Lobos could present plenty of problems. New Mexico is as deep and balanced as anyone. After believing he was snubbed of Mountain West Player of the Year honors, senior forward Drew Gordon tore through the competition over three days at the league tournament, and New Mexico's top shooters are hot. If the bench remains consistent, the Lobos have enough firepower to match up with anyone.

 

Baylor, No. 3, South Region

 

Well, it all depends which Baylor team shows up. The one that blitzed through its first 17 games of the season and looked highly motivated last weekend in the Big 12 tournament terrorizes the glass, can play any style of ball and has the talent to overwhelm almost anyone. Then there's the one that hit the skids for a few weeks during conference play, can get reckless and out of control, visibly losing its confidence in the process. But the good Baylor is arguably one of the four or five best teams in all of college basketball.

 

Creighton, No. 8, Midwest Region

 

Here's your ultimate sleeper. Getting out of the first weekend will be far from a cinch, as the Blue Jays will have to not only knock off a back-on-track Alabama squad, but then there's a likely meeting with No. 1-seed North Carolina. But they have a balanced lineup and a legitimate star in sophomore wing Doug McDermott, who is the type of player that could carry his team through four games to New Orleans. Again this one might be the longest shot of the bunch, but don't count it out as a possibility.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for RunRebs.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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