Thanks to a loss in its conference title game on March 9 against Atlantic Sun co-champion Mercer, Florida Gulf Coast won't have the chance to try to duplicate its memorable Sweet 16 run of a year ago.
The Eagles' absence robs the NCAA tournament of a potentially fun storyline, but there are still a handful of double digit-seeded mid-majors with the potential for a Dunk City-esque run. A look at five candidates to do some damage below beginning with the team that eliminated Florida Gulf Coast:
League: Atlantic Sun (Tied for first place)
Seed: No. 14 in the Midwest
Opening-round opponent: No. 3 Duke
Potential Round of 32 opponents: No. 6 UMass/No. 11 Iowa/Tennessee
Why the Bears are dangerous: Who's a better candidate to be this year's Florida Gulf Coast than the team that actually won the Eagles' league last season, split the title with them this year and ousted them from the Atlantic Sun tournament? Mercer boasts a balanced but efficient offense and a defense that excels at defending the perimeter, which is ideal against Duke. The Bears also won't be intimidated going against a power-conference foe, having toppled Florida State, Alabama and Tennessee last season and Ole Miss and Seton Hall this year. Mercer also fell by only three at NCAA tournament-bound Texas in its season opener. Still, none of those teams are of Duke's caliber and none have forwards as talented as Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Mercer is a heavy underdog against the Blue Devils but they're also the most capable No. 14 seed in the draw.
League: Sun Belt (Third place)
Seed: No. 14 in the West Region
Opening-round opponent: No. 3 Creighton
Potential Round of 32 opponents: No. 6 Baylor/No. 11 Nebraska
Why the Ragin' Cajuns are dangerous: On the surface, they shouldn't be. They finished a distant third in their league, they lost convincingly to Baylor and Louisville early in the season and the two best teams they'd beaten prior to Sunday's Sun Belt title game upset of league champ Georgia State were Louisiana Tech and Houston. Dig a little deeper, however, and there's reason to believe Louisiana-Lafayette could at least threaten Creighton. The Ragin Cajuns have an athletic backcourt highlighted by volume-scoring pro prospect Elfrid Payton and big men quick enough to defend Creighton's shooters on the perimeter. They're also peaking at the right time, having won 11 of 13. Creighton has the national player of the year and an experienced supporting cast, but the matchups make this a more dangerous opening-round game than many realize.
North Dakota State (25-6)
League: Summit (First place)
Seed: No. 12 in the West Region
Opening-round opponent: No. 5 Oklahoma
Potential Round of 32 opponents: No. 4 San Diego State/No. 13 New Mexico State
Why the Bison are dangerous: If your idea of a threatening mid-major is a team laden with experience and led by a proven star, North Dakota State fits that perfectly. The senior-laden Bison have two big men who can score in the post and one of the elite mid-major guards in the country in high-scoring Taylor Braun. They're ultra-efficient offensively, attacking inside out and shooting a national best 51 percent from the field. The challenge for North Dakota State will be maintaining that efficiency against a power-conference foe like Oklahoma with the size and strength to try to guard the Bison big men one-on-one in the post. North Dakota State won at Notre Dame when the Irish still had their full complement of players and also beat CAA powers Towson and Delaware, but the battle-tested Sooners are better than any team the Bison have defeated this season.
League: Ivy (First place)
Seed: No. 12 in the East Region
Opening-round opponent: No. 5 Cincinnati
Potential Round of 32 opponents: No. 4 Michigan State/No.13 Delaware
Why the Crimson are dangerous: Though toppling third-seeded New Mexico was a milestone achievement last spring, Harvard is probably an even bigger threat this March. Point guard Siyani Chambers, wing Wesley Saunders and the rest of last year's young core is back and former all-conference players Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are in uniform too after sitting out all of last season as a result of being implicated in an academic scandal. Harvard dominated the Ivy League, beat a good Green Bay team and led at UConn and at Colorado into the second half before falling by single digits. They're capable of challenging Cincinnati too if they aren't overwhelmed by the smothering defense of the Bearcats and if they can keep Mick Cronin's array of athletic big men off the offensive glass.
Stephen F. Austin (31-2)
League: Southland (First place)
Seed: No. 12 in the South Region
Opening-round opponent: No. 5 VCU
Potential Round of 32 opponents: No. 4 UCLA/No. 13 Tulsa
Why the Lumberjacks are dangerous: Only one team besides Wichita State can say it hasn't lost since late November. That's Stephen F. Austin, which has reeled off 28 straight victories since losses to Texas and East Tennessee State in November. The formula for the Lumberjacks' success is an unusual one: They force turnovers defensively but they seldom try to turn that into transition opportunities, preferring instead to drain the shot clock looking for an open shot. What will be interesting is whether Stephen F. Austin's approach will translate against better competition. The Lumberjacks have piled up victories against a schedule rated 325th in the nation and have not beaten anyone in the RPI top 100. VCU is by far the best team Stephen F. Austin has played all season, aside from perhaps Texas in November. It bodes well that Stephen F. Austin takes care of the ball well but the Lumberjacks also haven't faced anything like HAVOC.
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