Year in and year out, there are several mid-major programs who make a name for themselves on the national stage. Whether they upset a power conference opponent on the road, or put together a lengthy winning streak, thee are a few mid-major teams that catch the eye of basketball fans everywhere.
Commonly referred to as ‘Cinderella’ teams when the NCAA Tournament comes along, these are the teams that fans root for once their favourite team is eliminated, or their bracket is completely busted.
However, before teams receive the label of Cinderella, they have to put in work during the regular season. Year after year, there are a handful of mid-major teams that stand out above the rest in terms of success.
Below you can find five mid-major programs who look to be the cream of the crop when it comes to talented programs for the 2015-16 season. If any of these teams make the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament, they all could be deserving of the Cinderella label.
Vermont Catamounts – America East Conference
The Vermont Catamounts always seem to find themselves towards the top of the America East standings. In recent years, however, it’s been hard for the Catamounts to get over the hump and advance back to the NCAA Tournament.
Vermont last advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2012, where they won their First Four game against Lamar before losing to North Carolina in the Round of 64. Since then, the America East has been represented by the Albany Great Danes in each of the past three seasons. In 2015-16, the time could be now for the Catamounts to retake the throne in the America East.
Senior Ethan O’Day, junior Dre Wills, and sophomore Canadian Trae Bell-Haynes are the nucleus of the 2015-16 edition of the Catamounts, and it’s a talented group of players that can provide in different areas for Vermont.
The 6’9” O’Day gives Vermont a strong offensive threat in the front court, while Wills and Bell-Haynes provide a solid one-two punch in the back court. If the Catamounts can stay healthy, and play up to their potential, we could be talking about Vermont come March and NCAA Tournament time.
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks – Southland Conference
Over the past four seasons, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks have been the kings of the Southland Conference. Ever since Brad Underwood took control of the team as head coach, the Lumberjacks have played like a runaway train in conference action.
Since the 2011-12 season, the Lumberjacks have accumulated a record of 108 – 25 overall. Over that time frame, their Southland Conference record is an astonishing 63 – 7 (four of those losses came in 2011-12). Their dominance in the conference has translated to three straight post-season appearances, including back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths.
Looking ahead to 2015-16, it’s hard to imagine the Lumberjacks’ run of dominance coming to an end this year. Underwood turned down offers from other programs to return as head coach, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Reigning Southland Player of the Year Thomas Walkup is back, a year after averaging 15.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game last year. Add in the return of other key pieces, like Demetrious Floyd and Trey Pinkney, and the Lumberjacks look like a sure-fire bet to advance to the NCAA Tournament out of the Southland for the third straight season.
Columbia Lions – Ivy League
Back in the 2013-14 season, the Columbia Lions made history with their memorable run through the CollegeInsider.Com Tournament. The Lions advanced to the quarter-finals of the tournament, scoring wins over Valparaiso and Eastern Michigan, before falling to Ivy League counterpart Yale.
Coming off their successful season, expectations were high for the Lions entering the 2014-15 year. Before the season even got underway, the Lions were behind the 8-ball. Alex Rosenberg suffered an injury that forced him to leave the team, missing the entire 2014-15 campaign. From there, the Lions were never able to get going, struggling to a 13 – 15 overall record, and 5 – 9 in Ivy League play.
Heading into 2015-16, expectations are once again high surrounding Columbia, and the Lions look poised for a rebound year. Rosenberg is back with the team, which will provide them with an immediate boost. Leading scorers Maodo Lo (18.4 ppg) and Kyle Castlin (10.3 ppg) are also back to make Columbia one of the better offensive teams in the Ivy League.
If they can play strong defensively like they did last season, the Lions have a great chance of winning the Ivy League this season. Just so it is in writing, the Columbia Lions are this writer’s pick to take home the Ivy League crown in 2015-16.
Valparaiso Crusaders – Horizon League
The Horizon League will have a new look to it in 2015-16, as there are now 10 teams in the conference with the addition of Northern Kentucky from the Atlantic Sun. Despite the new look, the standings could look the way they have for the past few years, with Valparaiso as the top team in the conference.
Valparaiso is coming off a year where they went 28 – 6 overall, 13 – 3 in Horizon League play, and made it back to the NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed in the Midwest Region. The Crusaders almost pulled off the major upset in the opening round, losing a nail-biter to the Maryland Terrapins.
With the loss to Maryland still fresh in their minds, the Crusaders have the look of a team that could very well shock a team or two come tournament time in 2015-16. With the bulk of their offense returning, headlined by junior Alec Peters, senior Darien Walker, and sophomore Tevonn Walker, the Crusaders have the look of a true Cinderella team.
What may solidify the Crusaders as a threat, and help make the team more consistent on both ends of the floor, was the announcement that senior big man Vashil Fernandez was granted another year of eligibility. The reigning Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year will have a huge impact for the Crusaders on the defensive end, and could be what the doctor ordered for Valparaiso to pull off a major upset come March.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns – Sun Belt Conference
The past two seasons in the Sun Belt have seen a flip-flop in terms of teams representing the conference in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the talented Georgia State Panthers avenged their loss to the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns from a season prior, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. In 2013-14, the Ragin’ Cajuns made the big dance, thanks in large part to the play of point guard Elfrid Payton (now with the Orlando Magic).
Last season, the Ragin’ Cajuns finished with a 22 – 14 overall record, and a 13 – 7 record in conference play. In the regular season standing, they finished just 2 games behind the Panthers.
In 2015-16, the pattern could continue, as the Ragin’ Cajuns look like the conference’s top team. Their success all starts with senior big man Shawn Long. Long was projected by some to be a lottery selection in the 2015 NBA Draft after his 16.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg season in ’14-15. He chose to return to school for his senior season, and his decision alone made the Ragin’ Cajuns top contenders in the Sun Belt.
When you add in players like Devonta Walker, Kasey Shepherd, and others into the mix around Long, there’s no denying that the Louisiana – Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns are top contenders for the conference title.