It happens every year. A major conference team comes out of nowhere in their conference tournament to make it to the championship and, in some cases, win the title. It also happens in some mid-major conferences that were expected to get one bid but then send two dancing because of upsets in the league tournaments.
The aforementioned situation is a nightmare for bubble teams hoping to get bids to the NCAA Tournament. When teams that are locks for the NCAA Tournament lose in their respective conference tournament and a mediocre team that gets hot at the right team either makes the championship or wins the automatic bid, teams on the fence become some of the most nervous people in the world. You hear the announcers every March:
"Well, [fill in bubble team of choice] has to root for [fill in league favorite] if they want a bid to the NCAA Tournament. If [fill in upstart team] pulls off yet another upset, it means that there is one less at-large bid for the bubble teams."
This year is not going to be any different. With all the parity in college basketball this season, there are several teams that could make Cinderella runs in their respective conference tournaments. In some leagues, these teams are in the lower half of the league and win an early game before getting on a run, and all of a sudden they look like the second coming of the UNLV teams from the early '90s. In other conferences, these Cinderella teams are just ones that have a decent chance to upset the heavy favorite and steal the automatic bid.
Who are the main candidates to make this kind of run in Championship Week 2006? Let's take a look at the major conferences, as well as the A-10 and West Coast Conferences, and find teams that have the ability to win a few games in early March.
ACC: Georgia Tech
Yes, I am going to tout a team that is 3-10 in the ACC and has lost 10 of their last 11 games as a potential bubble burster down the stretch. The Yellow Jackets have been playing much better lately. Their last five road losses have come by a combined 14 points. They nearly pulled off upsets against North Carolina, Florida State, Boston College, Virginia, and Maryland. The Jackets have the talent necessary to be competitive against the top teams in the country. Just last week they defeated North Carolina State. Anthony Morrow is a very good shooter and, when hot, can keep Tech in the game. Ra'Sean Dickey is a solid option in the low post, while Jeremis Smith is an underrated rebounder. Zam Frederick is a decent point guard, and freshman Lewis Clinch is developing into a good scorer. Mario West is an athletic defender on the wing. Georgia Tech is young, but they have been steadily improving and have loads of talent. Look out for them in the ACC Tournament.
Big East: Notre Dame
Discussed all season as the nation's unluckiest team, the Fighting Irish recently pulled off a road upset of Seton Hall, which could give them the necessary confidence to make a run. No higher-seeded team really wants to face the Irish when they are shooting the ball well. Chris Quinn is one of the best guards in the country, and Colin Falls is an outstanding three-point shooter. Torin Francis is a double-double threat in the post. Notre Dame has won three in a row after losing their previous five games by a combined 11 points. They took Pitt and Georgetown to overtime, and nearly upset Villanova, Marquette, and West Virginia. When their shots are falling, this team can beat anyone in the country. Could they be this season's West Virginia? Digger Phelps said it about 15 times this past weekend, and I agree. Watch out for the Irish.
Big Ten: Minnesota, Penn State
That's right, I have two teams that could create some havoc in the Big Ten Tournament. Penn State has played possibly the Big Ten's most difficult in-conference schedule, and finally put themselves on the map with a road win over Illinois, something no team had done in over 30 games. They then followed that up with a home win over Indiana and a road victory at Purdue. With only one senior in their rotation, the Nittany Lions could be a sleeper next season, but don't sleep on them this year just yet.
Minnesota came into the season with high expectations after last year's NCAA berth. Six straight losses to open the Big Ten season was not the start they were looking for in conference play, but the Gophers have turned it around. UM has won four of six, including victories over Indiana, Michigan State, and Iowa. Vincent Grier is very difficult to stop one on one, while Maurice Hargrow and Adam Boone combine with him for a talented perimeter trio. Although they have not proven they can beat a good team on the road, I would not overlook Minnesota.
Big XII: Iowa State
One of the season's biggest disappointments, the Cyclones still have enough talent to cause some stress to higher-ranked teams. They are only 3-8 in their last 11 games, but the 'Clones have not looked as bad as that record would indicate. ISU struggles at home but is much better on the road, which is a good thing because the Big XII Tournament is not played at Hilton Coliseum. They hung with Kansas for awhile on the road, lost by one at Oklahoma, and only lost by a basket on the road at Texas Tech and Kansas State. Curtis Stinson is one of the best players in the conference, and he and Will Blalock make up the best backcourt in the league. Rahshon Clark is a matchup problem on the wing. The Cyclones have shown their potential with wins over Colorado, Iowa, and Northern Iowa. Anytime you have the talent to beat those types of teams, you shouldn't be underestimated so by no means should you underestimate the Cyclones.
The Trojans were looking very solid early in the season after beating North Carolina in impressive fashion. They even started 6-4 in the Pac-10. Then star guard Gabe Pruitt was injured and deemed out indefinitely. Three straight losses followed, and the season looked like it was lost. Then, this past weekend, Pac-10 leader UCLA came to town, and something happened. USC looked like a quality team again. After the win over the Bruins, they moved to .500 in the conference. USC has an excellent trio of wins over UCLA, Arizona, and North Carolina, meaning they have the ability to beat good teams. Nick Smith is very difficult to defend, while Lodrick Stewart is a good defender and scorer. If Pruitt is back for the Pac-10 Tournament, this team is going to be a nightmare to defend on the perimeter. If I was on the bubble, I'd be praying that Pruitt does not return. But who prays for injuries? That's just mean.
SEC: South Carolina
The Gamecocks are on the bubble in some people's opinions, but I'm not seeing it. With that said, I can definitely envision this team being a pain in the you-know-what in the SEC Tournament. They are athletic, can shoot the ball, and are excellent at crashing the glass. In addition, they have defeated Florida twice (USC is the only team to win at Florida), and they also have a win over Alabama. Carolina also beat Vanderbilt on the road. Tarence Kinsey and Tre Kelley are an excellent backcourt duo, and Renaldo Balkman is playing the best basketball of his career. Several athletic role players round out the rotation. A hot, athletic team coached by Dave Odom is not a team I would want to face in the SEC Tournament. They were hot late last season too, and what happened? The Gamecocks are your defending NIT champions.
Missouri Valley: Bradley
In the new and improved Missouri Valley Conference, all the focus is on Northern Iowa, Creighton, Wichita State, Southern Illinois, and Missouri State. But what about the only other team with an above .500 conference record? The Bradley Braves have wins over Northern Iowa, Creighton, SIU, and MSU, and also took WSU to overtime on the road. They have won 7 of their last 9, and have been seen in some brackets lately. Patrick O'Bryant might be the best big man in the conference, while Marcellus Sommerville is an excellent scorer. They always have some of the best talent in the league, but it never seems to mesh correctly. This season they are finally playing as a team, and have been very difficult to play against. With everyone talking about the other top teams in the league, Bradley has flown under the radar. Beware of them making a run in the MVC Tournament, aka "Arch Madness." If they play up to their potential, the Braves might be in the other "Madness" come Selection Sunday.
I really don't know what to expect from this team. They have wins over Xavier, Maryland, Alabama, and South Carolina, but also tote losses to Auburn, Saint Louis, and La Salle. The Owls are nearly impossible to beat at home, but the A-10 Tournament isn't on Temple's homecourt. They look like an NCAA team at times and a cellar-dweller on other occasions. That is why they are 7-6 in the mediocre Atlantic-10. In other words, they are the definition of inconsistency. However, you can't count out a team coached by John Chaney. They play excellent defense and have one of the best players in the league in Mardy Collins. Mark Tyndale and Dustin Salisbery are two more very good players on the perimeter, while Antwayne Robinson anchors the interior. I wouldn't be surprised to see this team in the Atlantic-10 championship, but it is also not out of the question for the Owls to be done after the first round.
West Coast: St. Mary's
Can any team beat Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference? In my opinion, no. However, the Bulldogs have had several close games in the conference season and seem to play down to their competition on many occasions. Loyola Marymount and San Diego have each given the Zags scares, but the team with the best chance of defeating Adam Morrison and Co. is St. Mary's. They only lost by 8 at home and took Gonzaga down to the wire on the road before losing by a single point. They are only 6-6 in the conference, but may have the second-best player in the WCC in Daniel Kickert. He has the potential to put the Gaels on his back and carry them to multiple victories. Add in Brett Collins and several capable scorers, and you have a team that could make a run and possibly pull off an upset of Gonzaga. If that happens, you will hear a sound. The sound of bubbles across America popping.