In a season where there isn’t a clear-cut favorite in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, there’s plenty of sleepers and dark horse candidates to choose from. Here is a good place to start:
Louisiana Tech (25-3): The Bulldogs made postseason noise last season when they nearly ran the table in the WAC Tournament as a No. 5 seed. This week La. Tech is nationally ranked for the first time since the Karl Malone era in 1985. Depth makes them dangerous led by leading scorer Raheem Appleby (14.7), one of six players who average 6.8 points or more. The Bulldogs attack defensively and rank 18th nationally in steals with 9.1 a game. Remember the name of 35-year-old Michael White, a rising star in the coaching profession.
Davidson (22-7): When Bob McKillop has experience throughout the roster, the Wildcats generally make things more difficult for opponents come March. Three seniors and two juniors are in the starting lineup from a group that has won 13 consecutive games heading into their regular season finale today against Georgia Southern. They have size along the frontline in 6-foot-10 senior Jake Cohen and 6-7 junior De’Mon Brooks who can both stretch the defense from long range. The Wildcats gave Louisville all it could handle in the second round of last year’s tournament.
Detroit (19-11): Take your pick on which Titan to stop. Will it be NBA-ready guard Ray McCallum, Jr. who averages 19.2 points a game? How about Nick Minnerath, who hit up Valparaiso for 36 and Wichita State for 25? Temple found out about the long-range shooting of Jason Calliste and Doug Anderson, who combined for 36 points in a loss to the Owls. It all goes back to the awareness and leadership of McCallum, who makes everyone better. His talent alone makes Detroit a legitimate Sweet 16 threat.
Akron (23-4): The Mid-American Conference is a league where in recent years Ohio, Kent State and Akron rotate in taking a bite from the championship apple, and this year the chunk belongs to the Zips. They haven’t lost since before the start of the holiday season, a span of 19 straight coming into today’s game at the University at Buffalo. Defense is the team’s calling card, and the Zips held five consecutive opponents under 62 points until an 88-81 overtime win over Ohio on Wednesday.
New Mexico (24-4): Talk around Albuquerque centers on a possible No. 1 seed and the Lobos have a strong argument. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has New Mexico as a No. 3 and the Lobos can strengthen their cause with regular season wins over Wyoming, Nevada and Air Force and a sweep through the Mountain West Tournament. They also have Top 50 RPI wins over Connecticut, Cincinnati, UNLV and Colorado State among others. If the Lobos make a deep March run, it will be because of junior guard Kendal Williams, who poured in 46 last Saturday against Colorado State. A top seed would be a nice parting gift for Steve Alford, one of the candidates for the opening at USC.
Temple (20-8): The Owls are surging at the right time and have won four straight, their longest since opening the season with six in a row. They’ve been up and down all season – the Owls suffered losses to Canisius College and St. Bonaventure – but have a win over Syracuse on their resume as well as a double-digit victory over Villanova in December, another team that’s peaking at the right time. Lately, Khalif Wyatt has played like an All-American and the emergence of Jake O’Brien as a consistent threat from long range has relieved some of the pressure on Scootie Randall to play more freely.
Saint Louis (22-5): Rick Majerus would be proud of the way his Billikens are playing. They have been the most consistent team in the Atlantic 10 this season and have largely gone unnoticed thanks to the presence of newcomers VCU and Butler. They managed to sweep through Butler and won their only game against the Rams. There shouldn’t be any question as to whether Saint Louis can play with Dwayne Evans scoring inside and out while grabbing every rebound available. The Billikens lost back-to-back games to Temple and Rhode Island in mid-January and haven’t fallen since. If Majerus were still alive, Saint Louis would have a legitimate shot at reaching the Final Four but as it stands now, the least the Billikens administration should do is take the interim tag off Jim Crews.