It meant navigating our way through coaching suspensions, reports on infractions, and even a male cheerleader drawing a technical foul, but March is finally here. In just 13 days the NCAA tournament will tip off, and college basketball will have the full and undivided attention of all your office mates.
Today I want to give you a leg up on those colleagues in your office, uh, "tournament contest." Just because a team doesn't get a lot of attention or coverage doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. And while picking dark horses more than a week before Selection Sunday is hazardous duty (injuries can happen, pairings can be cruel, etc.), that's exactly what I'm going to do. I'll assume you already know about obscure nationally ranked teams like Brigham Young and San Diego State, perennial Sweet 16 entrant Xavier, and even a somewhat well known program out of Spokane, Washington. Who else is out there?
Here are four mid-majors I strongly suggest you keep your eye on.
George Mason (25-5, 16-2 Colonial)
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Patriots' amazing run to the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis. Who knew that head coach Jim Larranaga would choose to celebrate the occasion with a team that has the same kind of potential? It's a long shot, of course. The NCAA tournament excels at putting tough opponents in between you and the next round. But GMU has the profile of a team that can make a deep run. For one thing they're strong on both sides of the ball. Mason is both the Colonial's best offensive team (by a mile) and its top defensive squad (by a hair).
The Patriots haven't lost a game since January 8. In running off 14 straight CAA wins since then, Larranaga's team has outscored opponents by an outlandish 0.27 points per possession. To say George Mason has momentum is putting it mildly. Both Cam Long and Ryan Pearson have proven they can score from either side of the three-point line. GMU actually doesn't shoot threes that often, but in CAA play those perimeter shots went in 43 percent of the time. This offense minimizes turnovers, draws fouls, and gets good looks at the basket. George Mason wasn't held to less than a point per possession in any CAA game this year. Not once. The Patriots will be a tough out.
Utah State (26-3, 12-1 WAC)
I realize you might be thinking you hear about the Aggies every March. I also understand if you're somewhat skeptical. After all, Stew Morrill's team was supposed to be oh so very dangerous last year, and all they did was lose to Texas A&M by 16 in the round of 64. True enough. But I'm here to tell you that USU is, well, dangerous. Again. Give a lot of the credit here to 6-7 senior Tai Wesley, who makes 60 percent of his twos and draws more than six fouls for every 40 minutes he plays.
But this is no one-man show. The Aggies have an ability that's often more dependable than something as unpredictable as shooting. The Aggies rebound. Like crazy, at both ends of the floor. Getting to 37 percent of your own misses in conference play may not sound all that impressive, but in a WAC where the average figure in this category is just 31 percent USU's work on the offensive glass qualifies as outstanding. And, if anything, State's even better on the defensive boards. This is a punishing and disciplined defense that limits you to one shot and takes away the perimeter: conference opponents made just 27 percent of their threes against the Aggies.
Belmont (27-4, 19-1 Atlantic Sun)
Time for some unqualified praise: Belmont's the best team the A-Sun has ever produced. True, it's not like the conference has been around as long as the Ivy League or anything (the Atlantic Sun drew its first breath in 1978 as the Trans America Athletic Conference), but the Bruins are setting a standard that may last a long while. Then again with Belmont we cross a boundary in this discussion of mid-majors. George Mason or Utah State can lose in their conference tournament and still entertain hopes of receiving an at-large bid. But Rick Byrd's team might not have that luxury. A loss in the A-Sun tournament could well keep the Bruins out of the NCAA tournament.
Let's hope it doesn't come to that, because Belmont has the ability to do the A-Sun proud and wreak some bracket havoc. In Byrd's swarming 11-deep rotation no player averages more than 25 minutes a game, but Ian Clark is first among equals. The 6-3 sophomore puts the "threat" in dual-threat wing, hitting 42 percent of his threes and an even more impressive 57 percent of his twos. Lastly, you should know that Belmont is really fun to watch. They love to shoot threes and this year they forced A-Sun opponents into turnovers on 28 percent of their possessions. Byrd's Bruins don't play it close to the vest. They attack.
Butler (21-9, 13-5 Horizon)
On February 3 the Bulldogs lost 62-60 at Youngstown State (Youngstown State!), and it really looked like Brad Stevens' team was dead in the water. At that point Butler was 14-9 and had lost three straight. And while I'm not going to tell you that this year's edition of the Bulldogs is as strong as last year's, it is true that Stevens and company have won seven straight games by looking just a bit more like the team that reached the national championship game last April.
The problem this season was never on offense. Butler's scoring points at more or less the same rate that they did last year. Matt Howard still specializes in getting to the line, only this year he's added some perimeter touch to his game. No, the problem was on defense, where the Bulldogs allowed Horizon opponents to score well over a point per possession over their first 11 conference games. Since that loss to Youngstown State, however, Stevens' team has played better D. They may not be the same team that came within a Gordon Hayward heave of winning it all, but Butler has quietly regained just a little of that old 2010 swagger .
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.