College basketball: 7 potential bracket-busters for March Madness

Mercer shocked the college basketball world once. So did Norfolk State. Coppin State, Lehigh, UAB, Georgia State, Florida Gulf Coast … the list of giant killers is long and fun to revisit.

Filling out a bracket each year seems so simple. A 5 seed has to be better than a 12 seed, right? And there’s no way a 14 can knock off a 3. Perhaps, over the course of a season. But in a 40-minute game played at a neutral setting where unaffiliated fans sit waiting to cheer the underdog to victory, anything is possible. There’s no set recipe. Factors contributing to an upset include the 3-point shot, foul trouble, a higher seed crumbling under unexpected late-game pressure, savvy seniors outplaying talented freshmen. Any combination can spoil the weekend for the big boys.

Who will be this year’s Middle Tennessee State? (don’t be surprised if the Blue Raiders take Conference USA’s auto bid again). Is there another Little Rock out there? Which teams can stun a Big 12 school a la Stephen F. Austin?

Here are seven programs combining the requisite talent and experience to tear a bracket to shreds when March rolls around.

Akron

Akron will look to big man Isaiah Johnson to give other teams issues inside.

Marco Garcia | USA TODAY Sports Images

Akron will look to big man Isaiah Johnson to give other teams issues inside.

In the heart of Big Ten country, coach Keith Dambrot has constructed one of college basketball’s more consistent winners. The Zips have won at least 21 games in each of the last 11 seasons, going 130-54 (.707) against MAC opponents. Dambrot has strong ties to two of the hottest names in basketball. He coached LeBron James’ high school team and mentored Texas coach Shaka Smart.

The Zips won a school-record 26 games last season, claimed the MAC regular season title and lost in overtime to Ohio State in the NIT. They were 15-0 at home and set a season mark for 3-point field goals (409), connecting at a 38 percent clip.

Akron aims to earn its first NCAA bid since 2012. Starters returning include playmaker Antino Jackson (11.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) and low-post force Isaiah Johnson, who led Akron with 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

Could surprise: at Creighton, Dec. 3; at Gonzaga, Dec. 10

Chattanooga

Matt McCall won more games (29) than any first-year coach in the nation last season, setting a school record in leading Chattanooga to the Southern Conference title and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.

Expect more of the same in season two.

The Mocs return four starters from a balanced attack in which seven players averaged 7.5 points per game or more. Justin Tuoyo, a 6-foot-10 senior, scored 11.1 points per game and blocked 10 percent of the shots launched when he was playing (21st in the nation). 

The return of Casey Jones is another reason the Mocs should rock McKenzie Arena. He led the team in scoring before an ankle injury ended his season after eight games. Jones is a versatile and explosive 6-foot-5 grad student.   

Could surprise: at North Carolina, Nov. 13; at Vanderbilt, Dec. 17

Fort Wayne

John Konchar's combination of size and versatility makes him a huge weapon for Fort Wayne.

Chris Nicoll | USA TODAY Sports Images

John Konchar’s combination of size and versatility makes him a huge weapon for Fort Wayne.

During the offseason, the school formerly known as Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (or IPFW) made life simpler for headline writers everywhere, changing its name to Fort Wayne for athletics. Equally important, the Mastodons retained one of the coolest nicknames in Division I.

Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman guides an electric attack predicated on selfless ball sharing and long-range snipers who hunt great shots. Fort Wayne hit 39 percent from deep last season and scored 40 percent of its points beyond the arc, ranking top 10 nationally in both areas. The Mastodons won 24 games and shared the Summit League regular-season crown. 

They welcome back 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare John Konchar (13.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and senior guard Mo Evans, who had a 118.3 offensive rating in the first 16 games but missed the second half of the season due to an academic issue.  

Could surprise: at Arkansas, Nov. 11, vs. Indiana, Nov. 22

Monmouth

Let’s face it. The Hawks aren’t sneaking up on opponents this season. Not after last November and December when a streak of upsets and bench theatrics earned Monmouth more time on “SportsCenter” than any program this side of Duke or Kentucky.

Although the element of surprise has faded, the Hawks return enough seasoned vets to improve on last season when they won 28 games but lost to Iona in the MAAC finals and failed to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Teams need great guard play to make magic in March, and Monmouth’s backcourt pantry is stocked. Justin Robinson, Micah Seaborn and All-Name team candidate Je’lon Hornbeak combined for 198 3-pointers and more than 41 points per game last season. The Hawks aren’t bashful about shooting, either. Their average offensive possession lasted 14.7 seconds last season — eighth in the nation. 

Could surprise: at Syracuse, Nov. 18; at Memphis, Dec. 13

Harvard

Corey Johnson stands out as one of the nation's best shooters for Harvard.

Bob DeChiara | USA TODAY Sports Images

Corey Johnson stands out as one of the nation’s best shooters for Harvard.

Last year notwithstanding, Harvard is a mid-major hoops powerhouse. After 10 indifferent seasons at Seton Hall and Michigan, coach Tommy Amaker has lifted the Crimson to unprecedented status. Harvard had one NCAA tournament appearance before Amaker led the program there from 2012 to 2015, winning its opening game against New Mexico and Cincinnati in consecutive years.

Last year, the former Duke point guard lost his veteran at the same position and the Crimson never recovered.

But folks are feeling good again in Cambridge because Siyani Chambers has recovered from the torn ACL. He’ll want to feed Corey Johnson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who swished 74 3-pointers on 40 percent shooting last season.

Could surprise: vs. Stanford in Shanghai, China

UNC Wilmington

UNCW coach Kevin Keatts enjoys an abundance of backcourt talent entering his third season at the coast. The Seahawks are the clear front-runner to repeat as Colonial Athletic Association champions and make the sixth NCAA tournament trip in school history.

Chris Flemmings is a 6-foot-5 former walk-on who lines up at power forward but possesses guard skills. His 124.9 offensive rating was 15th in the nation among players using at least 20 percent of possessions. Denzel Ingram made 74 3-pointers against Division I teams and C.J. Bryce, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, could see his uniform hanging in the Trask Coliseum rafters one day. He scored 16 points against Duke in the NCAA tournament.

The Seahawks’ disruptive pressure inhibits teams from running their offense and makes opposing ballhandlers sweat (20 percent turnover rate).  

Could surprise: at Clemson, Dec. 28

Valparaiso

The return of Alec Peters gives the stingy Valparaiso defense a much-needed scoring punch.

Brad Penner | USA TODAY Sports Images

The return of Alec Peters gives the stingy Valparaiso defense a much-needed scoring punch.

Behind a ferocious defense, Valpo won a school-record 30 games last season, advancing to the NIT title game in Madison Square Garden. Of course at their level such success can prove costly, as it did when coach Bryce Drew elected to replace Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt.

While he will be missed, the best news of the offseason was when Alec Peters announced his return. He’s on track to leave Valpo as the career leader in scoring and rebounding. A 6-foot-9 forward, he’s made 231 career 3-pointers.

Shane Hammink, a 6-foot-7 wing, was a dangerous sixth man much of last season before cracking the starting lineup late. He’ll likely deliver 15 points per night.

Could surprise: at Oregon, Nov. 17; at Kentucky, Dec. 7

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