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Mid-Major Magic
by Justin Spicer (NCAA Basketball)
Posted on March 16, 2006, 11:37 AM

This time of year 65 teams have the highest of hopes--to be crowned NCAA basketballís kings. However, itís fair to say some teams, those deemed power teams due to their stacked conference schedule, are head and shoulders above the rest. No one can question the level of consistency from the Dukes and Connecticuts of the world, or the legacies of excellence the names Indiana, Kentucky, Arizona and Kansas carry.

These teams, no matter the school etched across their mesh jersey, are fallible. And a large crop of mid-majors (many in the tournament thanks to healthy RPIs, strong out-of-conference schedules and 20+ wins) are foaming at the mouth to experience a piece of their own glory. Many will taste victory in the first round thanks to the now infamous 5-12, 6-11, and 7-10 upset, but can a team string together a few victories and ride Cinderellaís pumpkin-turned-carriage to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight or the biggest of dreams, the Final Four?


UNC-Wilmington: The Seahawks won the Colonial Athletic Conference automatic bid, but donít take this team lightly. The CAA may not get much respect, but this is a league that boasts 2 teams in the field of 65 (George Mason receiving an at-large bid), and another school (Hofstra) that had a legitimate case for inclusion. While many may see George Washington as a sizeable obstacle, junior guard TJ Carter is a lights-out shooter who may not post big points, but is clutch when Wilmington is in desperate need for a bucket. Do the Seahawks have a shot at beating Duke if they advance to the second round? It depends on the play of Carterís surround cast, not to mention the readiness of Dukeís big two: JJ Redick and Shelton Williams.

Iona: From a league that has produced past upset-minded schools Manhattan and Niagara, the Iona Gaels will have a long, hard road ahead of them to make it to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Plopped into a #13 seed and a match-up against a hungry LSU team, Iona will have to find a way to shut down LSUís Glen Davis and freshmen phenom Tyrus Thomas. The positive in Ionaís favor: LSU was upset last year by UAB. The negative in Ionaís corner: LSU was upset last year by UAB. If Iona pulls the upset, their path only gets more difficult with either a hot Syracuse or a slow and defensive Texas A&M.


Utah State: A team that has mastered slow play and staunchy defense, Utah State has a surprisingly easy run to the Sweet Sixteen. Their first match-up is against a Washington Husky team that thrives on the fast break, and itís a rarity that Utah State allows any team to run rampant on the floor. Washington will rely heavily on guard play, yet they have no inside threat. Utah State happens to have one hell of an inside scorer and defender in forward Nate Harris. If Utah State can shut down the run and gun of the Huskies, then theyíll have a win for the taking. A second round match-up with Illinois looms, and though Dee Brown will be a hard player to shut down, again Utah State has an advantage in the tempo and style they play. The Aggies may be the toughest #12 seed in the tourney.

Wichita State: It was just a matter of time before the Missouri Valley Conference got some love. Though many will argue that Wichita State is statistically favored in their first round match-up, itís the projected second round match-up with #2 seed Tennessee that has the Shockers licking their chops. Tennessee is viewed as a vulnerable high seed with many picking Winthrop upsetting the Vols. Figuring the Vols survive, theyíll have a hard time defending Witchita Stateís big men. Paul Miller and Kyle Wilson are capable of dropping double digits on any team lacking an inside presence, and if both men are having off days, guards PJ Couisnard and Sean Ogirri are more than able to pick up any slack. The Shockers may be the most well-rounded mid-major gracing the tourney this year, and if things fall their way they may be still be dancing come the Elite Eight.


Wisconsin-Milwaukee: A Sweet Sixteen surprise a year ago, the Panthers return with most of their 2005 team intact. Though coach Bruce Pearl has ran off to Tennessee, former assistant Rob Jeter was able to rally the troops through the Horizon League once more. Though UWM holds no victories over the RPI Top 50, this team hasnít forgotten about last yearís run. As it turns out, neither has the selection committee, giving them a cushy #11 and a match-up against regular mid-major punching bag Oklahoma. Once again OU is looked upon a shaky team, and a second round meeting with Florida (who also wears a target where mid-majors are concerned) could end up in another Sweet Sixteen invitation.

South Alabama: While itís easy to focus on the match-up of coaches (John Pelphrey was once an assistant coach under Billy Donovan at Florida), itís South Alabamaís guard play that could spell doom for any team whose guards arenít having a solid game. Couple dominant three-point shooting and defense with the inside presence of forward Richard Law and the Jaguars could not only up-end Florida, but they may luck into a game with another mid-major: Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Northern Iowa: With wins over Iowa and LSU during the regular season, not to mention a respectable finish in the Missouri Valley Conference, itís hard to find reasoning in Northern Iowa having to fight hard in the bottom of the Minneapolis bracket. Many have first round opponent Georgetown pegged for a deep tourney run, but donít be surprised to see Northern Iowa sneak up on the Hoyas as well as projected second round opponent Ohio State. Though the Panthers have faultered lately, they are capable of rallying around leading scorer Ben Jacobson. If Jacobson's shots are falling, then Northern Iowa is nearly unstoppable. This is a veteran laden and tournament tested team, much like the Catamounts of Vermont last year.


Bucknell: Another tournament tested underdog, Bucknell surprised the Jayhawk nation last year with a huge upset. This time around Bucknell comes back with a higher seed (#9) and higher expectations. While many sports journalists are drooling over a possible Arkansas/Memphis encounter, don't be surprised to see Bucknell advance to the second round and give Memphis the contest it never imagined. With victories over Syracuse and Saint Joseph's during the regular season, Bucknell is capable of slowing down quick-minded, high scoring offenses while racking up a big score of their own. With three stand-outs at each position of the floor, Bucknell's balance is hard for any team to handle. If a team concentrates on shutting down inside presence Chris McNaughton, then guard Kevin Bettencourt will take advantage of the easy jump shot. If a team tries to shut down Bettencourt, than versatile all-arounder Charles Lee will make you pay.

Kent State: Before the draw, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon was on record acknowledging Kent State as a team you don't want to meet in the first round. Apparently the selection committee has a sense of humor as Dixon and his primed Panthers are about to face off against the always overlooked Golden Flashes. This game will be the proverbial track meet. If the Golden Flashes hope to upset heavily favored Pitt, they'll have to pound the inside on offense and crash the boards on defense. Should Kent State survive, a meeting with a darling Kansas team could await. It'll be hard for Kent State to break away from Kansas and Bill Self's defense-first philosophy, but if they can run up and down the floor against the Jayhawks, Kent State will be running straight into the Sweet Sixteen.

Xavier: Taking advantage of George Washington's failure to wrap up the A-10, Xavier looks poised to return to their post of upset specialists. Xavier had a magical run in 2004 before Duke squeezed out a victory over the Musketeers in the Elite Eight. Though Lionel Chalmers is long gone, the junior Justins (Doellman and Cage) were a part of that run and make no mistakes about it, they are capable of recapturing the slipper once more. First round opponent Gonzaga is no stranger itself to upsets, but once again the Bulldogs are a high seeded team with much to prove against likeminded mid-majors. The key to Xavier's success lies in the inside play of Doellman and Cage. Both get into foul trouble easily, and if they enter into a game of cat and mouse with Zags big man JP Batista, their hopes will vanish into thin air. There is no way Xavier will be able to stop Adam Morrison, but if they are able to contain the rest of Gonzaga's youngsters and keep Derek Raivio from draining three-pointers, don't be surprised to see Xavier have an advantageous match-up with Indiana (or perhaps San Diego State) in the second round.

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