Seven small-conference teams with Cinderella potential

The Dagger
Seven small-conference teams with Cinderella potential
Seven small-conference teams with Cinderella potential

Yahoo Sports' 2014-15 college basketball season preview continues with a look at seven mid-majors with Cinderella potential this March. And for those wondering, you won't find Wichita State, Gonzaga or any Atlantic 10 powers on this list. There's nothing "Cinderella" about those programs.

1. Harvard (27-5, 13-1): After four straight Ivy League titles, three straight NCAA bids and two round of 64 victories, Harvard appears poised to extend its run of success. The Crimson return all but three key players from last season's loaded team including a deep frontcourt and two of the better mid-major guards in the nation. The key for Harvard will be the health of junior point guard Siyani Chambers and senior wing Wesley Saunders. Chambers is an outstanding playmaker and Saunders has led the team in scoring the past two seasons, but the Crimson lack the perimeter depth they had a year ago with Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard having graduated. Sharpshooter Corbin Miller, a 45.6 percent 3-point shooter in the 2011-12 season, returns from his Mormon mission and will likely start alongside Chambers and Saunders. There are no such depth concerns in the frontcourt, where Amaker has size, strength and numerous options. One likely starter is senior Steve Mondou-Missi, a double-digit scorer last season and the team's top rebounder. Kenyatta Smith, who played all of two minutes last season due to injuries, is another potential starter thanks to his shot-blocking prowess, while sophomore Zena Edosomwan and freshman Chris Egi are both top 150 recruits that will play a role off the bench. Last year, Harvard dominated the Ivy League but received a modest No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament because it failed to notch any notable wins out of conference. This year, the Crimson's best chance to impress in non-league play is a critical Dec. 21 matchup with Virginia.

2. Georgia State (25-9, 17-1): The Panthers had Cinderella potential last season before falling by one point in overtime to Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt title game. That should provide them plenty of motivation to avoid another conference tournament slip-up this season — or better yet play their way into at-large contention so that their season doesn't come down to three days in mid-March. What gives Georgia State a chance to emerge as one of the nation's elite mid-majors this season is a backcourt headlined by three talented guards. R.J. Hunter is an NBA prospect who averaged 18.3 points per game last season and thrives off moving without the ball. Former top 40 recruit Ryan Harrow enjoyed an all-conference caliber season last year in a bounce back from his struggles at Kentucky and Louisville transfer Kevin Ware will seek to show that he is finally fully recovered from the gruesome broken leg he suffered two years ago. Among the biggest questions facing Georgia State is whether it can rebound at a competent level, a season-long problem a year ago. Marcus Krider, Jalen Brown and freshman Jordan Session will all try to help returning starter Curtis Washington transform that from a weakness to a strength this season.

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3. Green Bay (24-7, 14-2): Fueling the Phoenix this season will be the memory of the day they let a gift-wrapped chance to reach last season's NCAA tournament slip away. In one of the most surprising outcomes of conference tournament week last March, Green Bay fell to rival Milwaukee in the Horizon League semifinals, a loss made all the more frustrating by the fact that 7-foot NBA prospect Alec Brown aggravated a shoulder injury early in the first half and explosive pont guard Keifer Sykes played with a hyperextended knee and an injured ankle. Though Green Bay will miss the inside-outside contributions of Brown, the return of Sykes and three other starters gives the Phoenix hope of again ascending to the top of the Horizon League. Sykes will be the catalyst with his ability to get into the lane, finish at the rim or create for his teammates. He'll be aided by sharpshooter Carrington Love, high-flying Greg Mays and defensive standout Jordan Fouse. Look for forwards Kenneth Lowe and Alfonzo McKinnie to each absorb some of the minutes vacated by Brown in the frontcourt. This is a potent Green Bay team with enough talent and experience to do some damage in the NCAA tournament, but getting there won't be easy. Cleveland State is formidable competition in the Horizon League and Valparaiso and Wright State won't be pushovers either.

4. Louisiana Tech (29-8, 13-3): They've won a combined 56 games the past two seasons. They've captured an outright WAC title and a share of the Conference USA crown. At this point, all that's missing for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs is to finally enjoy some conference tournament success and to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. That certainly will be the goal for Louisiana Tech this season with four pillars of last season's success returning and coach Michael White also back despite heavy interest from Tennessee. The strength of the Bulldogs once again will be a backcourt powered by pass-first point guard Kenneth "Speedy" Smith and high-scoring wings Raheem Appleby and Alex Hamilton. Smith notched 90 steals in Louisiana Tech's pressing, up-tempo system last season and averaged 7.7 assists per game, second most in the nation. Appleby was Louisiana Tech's leading scorer before an injury sidelined him for 12 games late last season, while Hamilton picked up the slack in his absence. Shot-blocking specialist Michale Kyser headlines the frontcourt, but the key to Louisiana Tech's season could be whether its young players can provide the depth needed to run a full-court pressing system. If so, the Bulldogs have a great chance to emerge as the class of Conference USA. If not, UTEP or Charlotte could overtake them.

5. UTEP (23-11, 12-4): Though Tim Floyd's teams have averaged 18 wins per season in his four years at UTEP, he has never won a conference title or reached the NCAA tournament. This could be his best chance yet to change that. Nine of 10 UTEP's 10 top scorers return from last year's team that finished a game out of first place in Conference USA including a pair of all-conference-caliber talents in senior Julian Washburn and sophomore Vince Hunter. The 6- foot-8 Hunter averaged 12.3 points and 6.5 rebounds en route to earning Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors, while Washburn averaged 13.1 points and 3.5 rebounds from the wing. The only loss from last season was efficient double-double threat John Bohannon, but UTEP has the post depth to survive it between Hunter, Matt Wilms and Cedrick Lang. One area where UTEP must improve to take the next step this season is its inconsistency. The Miners went 7-1 on the road in league play, but home losses against New Orleans, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic proved damaging.

6. Northern Iowa (16-15, 10-8): If any Valley team is going to emerge as a foil for Wichita State, Northern Iowa is probably the most likely candidate. The Panthers return their six leading scorers from last season and add a potential impact newcomer in Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson. One of the major reasons Northern Iowa underachieved a bit last season was the Panthers lost their hardscrabble defensive identity, playing at a faster tempo but surrendering the Valley's fifth-most points per possession. Interior scorers Seth Tuttle and Nate Buss sometimes appeared afraid to challenge shots in the paint last season because they didn't want to get into foul trouble, a mindset that must change. Regardless of how much Northern Iowa gets better defensively, the Panthers should remain efficient on offense. The 6-foot-8 Tuttle is a four-year starter and a returning all-league player, guard Deon Mitchell generates offense off the dribble and Jesperson is a former top 100 recruit who shot well from the perimeter at Virginia but will seek to showcase an improved all-around game. Dethroning Wichita State will be a difficult goal for Northern Iowa to achieve, but the Panthers could be formidable if they can improve their defensive without sacrificing scoring. This is a team with legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations.

7. Toledo (27-7, 14-4): Three years after Toledo went 4-28 in Todd Kowalcyzk's debut season, the Rockets won a program-record 27 games last season and a share of the MAC West crown. The only goal Toledo didn't accomplish was reaching the NCAA tournament, a chance that slipped out of the Rockets' grasp when they lost to Western Michigan in the conference tournament title game. The only silver lining to that loss was Toledo knew it would have another shot this year. Julius Brown and Justin Drummond lead a formidable group of returners and guard Rian Pearson is the only major contributor the Rockets don't bring back. The 5-foot-10 Brown is a four-year starter at point guard who averaged 14.9 points and 6.0 assists per game last season. The 6-foot-4 Drummond also averaged more than 14 points per game  and shot 50.7 percent from the floor. Toledo will need its perimeter-powered offense to be efficient again because its frontcourt has its share of question marks. Nathan Boone plays smaller than his size and J.D. Weatherspoon is a great rebounder but stands only 6-foot-6.

Others worthy of consideration: UC Irvine, Murray State, Charlotte, Cleveland State Manhattan, Iona, Florida Gulf Coast, New Mexico State, Stephen F. Austin,

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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