Four Teams That Could Crash the Party For March Madness

If you're a college basketball fan of any level of passion, but have held out until the most important month of the year to start following the sport closely this year, that's completely understandable. As we discussed in January, there's been a lack of star power and especially compelling regular-season action this season.

The biggest exception has probably been the Big Ten, where the conference's top 12 teams all demonstrated the ability to beat each other from December to now and the league's top eight teams could be top eight seeds on Selection Sunday. The ninth, Rutgers, stands to end an almost 30-year NCAA tournament drought.

Yet, when I watched games throughout the day and evening on Saturday, the last day of pre-conference tournament action for most power leagues, I found myself salivating at the potential of some thrilling basketball for the next four weeks.

There was a fantastic comeback by Nick Richards and Kentucky at Florida that denied the Gators a chance for a signature win against the SEC champs. In a rock fight of a game, Jonah Mathews beat the buzzer for USC to keep the surprising Bruins from claiming a share of the Pac-12 crown. UCLA now has some work to do this week to be included in the tourney in Mick Cronin's first year in Westwood.

In what amounted to a Big East regular-season title game in Omaha, Creighton had a fantastic second half and used an array of Marcus Zegarowski threes to beat Seton Hall. Then, Utah State claimed the first automatic bid of March Madness, beating San Diego State in a Mountain West tournament moved up a week from its traditional spot. In later action, Butler senior guard Kamar Baldwin unleashed a 36-point performance and a last-second three-pointer to give the Bulldogs a win at Xavier.

We can expect close finishes, great team basketball and superlative individual shows throughout the rest of March. And traditional powers like Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Louisville, and Villanova all have good shots to make the Final Four — or better. But a season after Virginia and Texas Tech played a National Championship Game for the ages as first-time finalists in the NCAAs, and in a season in which some non-traditional teams have come to the fore, I want to take a look at a few national title contenders who haven't made the Final Four in the modern era.

(Listed odds for the NCAA championship are according to 5Dimes. Your book may vary.)

Dayton (+950)

Obi Toppin will finish in the top five of just about every player of the year award (maybe winning a few) and will likely be a top-10 pick in the NBA draft, but I still don't think Dayton is getting enough credit for its accomplishments so far this season.

The Atlantic 10 is typically an absolute war of a league and going 18-0 and winning the conference by four clear games over second place is almost an unheard-of task. You have to go back more than a decade to find the last time a team pulled that off in the A-10.

And yes, the league could very well be a one-bid league if the Flyers prevail in the conference tournament, but there's still seven top-100 KenPom teams in the A-10, meaning that Dayton had to win 10 games against the top 100 to pull off the undefeated conference season. It doesn't sound like much, but it's incredibly tough to do in a three-month conference season. Furthermore, the Flyers haven't lost a game in regulation, as losses to Kansas in Maui and Colorado in Chicago were each overtime battles.

San Diego State (+1300)

The Aztecs were probably playing for a No. 1 NCAA seed on Saturday in the Mountain West tournament and let a double-digit first half lead slip. Still, after already racking up 30 wins before Selection Sunday, including victories against BYU, Creighton, and Iowa in the non-conference season, there's no doubt this is an elite team. That resume is right up there with the Kawhi Leonard-led season of 2011.

For my money (and with apologies to Markus Howard), Malachi Flynn has been the best point guard in the country this season. However, my main worry with the Aztecs as a true title contender is if they can score against elite talent. That might not matter until at least the Sweet 16, and this SDSU team has a much stronger offensive profile than recent Aztecs teams, but it's still a concern after going cold against Utah State.

Creighton (+4500)

After Khyri Thomas left Creighton for the draft a couple years ago, I have to admit to thinking that the Bluejays would fall into years of being middle of the pack in the Big East. This year has proven I was wrong in a big way.

In fact, this Creighton team may be even better than the 2014 team led by Doug McDermott that claimed a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. After all, that team, Creighton's first in the Big East, didn't win the regular season conference title, and this one has. If the Bluejays can win the conference tourney title with a third win over Seton Hall or a second against Villanova, a No. 2 seed is well within reach.

As is the case with just about any Greg McDermott team, Creighton runs an amazing offense and shoots the ball incredibly well. Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock, and Ty-Shon Alexander all shoot about 40% or better from three-point range, which is a huge asset to have with this year's longer three-point line. However, Creighton doesn't rebound well and has just one rotation player over 6-7. While the Jays are certainly a Final Four chance, a team with an athletic big man could give them a lot of trouble as soon as the first weekend of the tourney.

BYU (+5000)

During football season, I commented that Clemson in the ACC was becoming like Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference for basketball, with the point being that neither team would really be tested in their respective conference schedules.

The basketball part of that equation hasn't held up as much this year. While Gonzaga is still the best and most talented team in the WCC, BYU showed it can beat the Zags on Feb. 22 behind a great offensive performance from Cougars big man Yoeli Childs. Since Childs returned from a finger injury in late January, BYU is 10-1.

The Cougars might also be the best three-point shooting team in the country. They shoot 42% as a team and boast three of the top 17 players in the country in three-point field goal percentage. If BYU can pull off the St. Mary's/Gonzaga double at the WCC tournament early this week, a No. 4 or 5 seed is a real possibility.

There are several traditional, big-name programs who will have a great shot at March success in the coming weeks. However, a wide-open season means that these programs who aren't blue bloods could go further than ever before in the NCAA tournament.

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