March Madness: Three Mid-Majors Who Can Go Far | GMTM

March Madness: Three Mid-Majors Who Can Go Far

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Thu Mar 04 2021

|

4 min read

March Madness: Three Mid-Majors Who Can Go Far

It's just about time for the greatest tournament in sports, and all eyes are on the college basketball world as teams shuffle for seeding and the chance to reach the big dance. While upsets are obviously what makes March Madness great, most of the focus is on elite teams that could stumble, not on who will be ending their season.

Here are three sneaky mid-majors that could wreck your bracket this March (Statistics and rankings courtesy of Sports Reference CBB):


Loyola-Chicago

It may be cheating to claim that Loyola-Chicago is under the radar. This is the same program that made a Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018, led by the same coach in Porter Moser and six returning seniors who were part of the '18 roster.

This season, the Ramblers aren't shocking anyone. At 19-4, they are currently ranked at #21 in the AP Poll. The team has played their usual brand of grind-it-out basketball, holding opponents to 55.7 points per game, tops in the nation. While Loyola-Chicago's only truly impressive win was over fellow Missouri Valley Conference rival Drake, the team's record should power it to an at-large bid even if they fail to win the MVC Tournament.

Can lightning strike twice in four years? It isn't the craziest thought. The Ramblers are one of the most experienced teams in the tournament, as five of the aforementioned six seniors are scoring more than seven points per game. While their competition hasn't been too impressive, advanced metrics are bullish on the Ramblers. According to KenPom.com, Loyola-Chicago sits at ninth in the nation in adjusted efficiency margin, while ranking as the best in defensive efficiency. No other mid-major sits in the top ten of either category.


San Diego State

Way back when in the early months of 2020, San Diego State looked like a potential top seed in a March Madness tournament we were 20a

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201939.">unable to witness due to COVID-19. Ending their season with a 30-2 record, the team was carried by leading scorer Malachi Flynn, who left for the NBA Draft later that year. Many prognosticators were skeptical about the Aztecs and their chances to make the big dance without their leading scorer in 2021.

Right now, the experts appear to have misjudged coach Brian Dutcher's squad. While not as dominant as last season, SDSU is 18-4, first in the Mountain West Conference and ranked #22 in the AP Poll. What is so remarkable about this year's iteration is that they have carried over their hard-nosed identity from last season with another top-ten defense. The Aztecs have replaced Flynn's 17 PPG with increased output from seniors Jordan Schakel (14.2 PPG, .457 three-point

) and Matt Mitchell (15.6 PPG, 5.5 TRB). The two stars compliment each other perfectly; Schakel's smooth shooting and Mitchell's slashing play style space out the floor and keep defenses on their toes.

Unlike Loyola-Chicago, San Diego State has not had much success in March; the team has made the tourney just once in the last six years, a first-round exit in 2018. However, the team returns several seniors who have only improved this year. Despite relying heavily on Schakel and Mitchell (no other SDSU player averages more than 8.6 PPG), the rest of the roster plays consistently solid defense, slowing down the pace for high-powered offenses.

Perhaps what stands out the most about the Aztecs is that their numbers are deceiving; despite ranking 85th in points per game, the team's adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, sits at 41st in the nation, while their defensive efficiency sits at 11th. This is an extremely well-balanced, experienced group that is likely angry over a missed opportunity last season. It wouldn't be a shock to see San Diego State make a deep run this March.


Belmont

Following an Ohio Valley Conference regular season and tournament win, Belmont was set to reach the NCAA Tournament, only to have their chances at making a run dashed by the pandemic. Now, the 2021 Bruins look to 'return' to March Madness, this time bolstered by an even stronger squad than last season's OVC winners.

This pick could age incredibly well or incredibly poorly by the end of the month. Belmont ranks just 86th in KenPom's Adjusted Efficiency Margin; not exactly a promising number amongst a field of just 64 teams. The team hasn't exactly played top competition either. The OVC is not a particularly top-heavy conference, and the team lost two consecutive games heading into their conference tournament. However, head coach Casey Alexander's group has been playing inspired ball all year, going 25-3 and typically doing so in dominant fashion.

The Bruins are powered by junior center Nick Muszynski, who averages 14.9 PPG in a little under 25 minutes per game. Additionally, four other players (all guards) average double-digit points for the nation's 13th highest-scoring offense. Junior transfer Luke Smith and freshman sixth-man JaCobi Wood give the team an added mix of shooting and ball-handling that last year's squad lacked. The all-around play of Grayson Murphy (10.7 PPG, 8.1 TRB, 5.4 APG) and Ben Sheppard (11.2 PPG, 4.3 TRB) balance out a deep roster.

With so many tools at his disposal, Alexander can match up with just about any team in the nation. Since every scorer on the team other than Muszynski is a perimeter player, Belmont can utilize a four-and-out strategy to keep teams from crowding the paint. Despite a recent injury, expect Muszynski's minutes to increase for March Madness, giving the team an interior presence to compliment their finesse players. Even if they do stumble in the OVC Tourney, the team's stellar record keeps them firmly in the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. With a layer of depth and flexibility most mid-majors can't match, savvy fans should keep an eye on the Bruins when filling out their brackets.

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