Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Cinderella Rankings: February

By Jean Neuberger

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It's never too early to start finding that Cinderella team. So, we're back with a revised version of the Cinderella Rankings for February.

Just to remind: these are the double-digit dynamos that destroys brackets everywhere. The quiet, dangerous squads that sends the big boys home and reminds us all of what helps to make March Madness special. Also, to be in the Cinderella Rankings, a team can't be in the Power Five, the American, or the Big East. They also can't be ranked in the top 25 (Otherwise, Rhode Island and Nevada would be No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.) These are the true underdog teams that can make some noise.

1) Vermont (19-5) — Since the January rankings, Vermont has gone 8-0, dominating the America East conference and showing no signs of weakening any time soon. I believe Vermont wins out their regular season and will pose a lot of problems with their confidence and veteran leadership. Still a huge fan of Trae Bell-Haynes, a name to watch come March.

2) Loyola-Chicago (19-5) — When the Ramblers had a skid and lost three out of four, I was skeptical. They've turned it around since then and now sit atop the always solid Missouri Valley Conference. Loyola has five players that average in double figures, a fairly deep bench and a very nice win at Florida on their resume. They're officially a team to watch.

3) New Mexico State (20-3) — They've dominated the WAC and have a great win against Miami on their resume. New Mexico State has very quietly snuck up on all of us and could really cause some commotion next month. A name to watch on the Aggies: Zach Lofton. The traveling guard seems to have found a home in Las Cruces and has been a force this season, averaging over 20 points a game.

4) East Tennessee State (21-4) — It's hard to go against teams that just know how to win and are used to winning, and right now, the Buccaneers are just that. They almost took down Xavier, which would've been huge. ETSU will be dangerous in the postseason because they're athletic and they play a very deep bench; 11 of their players average 10 minutes or more on the court. Catch the right half-court team and you could have an upset special.

5) Penn (15-6) — I've said it before. I'll say it again. Never, ever count out the Ivy League champion. Penn has been the best team in the Ivy all year and, barring an upset, should be in the Big Dance. Penn will be the disciplined, patient, half-court team that will drive opponents and opposing fan bases insane. This isn't about season statistics; this is about history.

6) South Dakota (20-6) — It could be South Dakota in the Big Dance, or it could be their in-state rival over in Brookings, South Dakota State. But the Coyotes took SDSU down pretty well in their first showdown, so I'll give a slight nod to USD for now. They gave UCLA and TCU fits and didn't embarrass themselves in Cameron Indoor Stadium, so they should have no nerves under the big lights of March Madness.

7) Louisiana (20-3) — All the Cajuns have done since the last rankings is further control the Sun Belt and continue to get better and stronger. Since their last loss (an 89-60 drubbing at Clemson), Louisiana has won 10 straight by double digits. That's the makings of a resilient bunch who could cause someone problems in that first round.

8) Buffalo (18-6) — They gave Cincinnati and Syracuse fits in the regular season and right now sit atop the MAC, so it'd be foolish not to keep the Bulls on your radar. They're a good shooting team with a great Assist:Turnover ratio, veteran leadership in the backcourt (Wes Clark and C.J. Massinburg) and a solid scoring balance both inside and outside. The Bulls can beat you in all sorts of different ways.

9) Belmont (19-6) — They're already the best team in Nashville, having taken down Vanderbilt earlier in the season, but Belmont is always in the discussion year after year. The Bruins don't have a deep bench (four of their players average over 30 minutes a game). They can really shoot well though and really execute the half-court game perfectly. They're always a tough out in March.

10) Middle Tennessee (18-5) — A third Tennessee team? Yep. MTSU already has some recent success in taking down big name opponents in the tournament (ask Michigan State), and Kermit Jones's Blue Raiders sit atop Conference USA with another dangerous squad. The Blue Raiders rely on Nick King and Giddy Potts, their leaders in scoring, assists, steals, and minutes. If either of them get in foul trouble, they're in trouble. Otherwise, you can't sleep on Middle Tennessee.

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