While it is no secret that the odds are in your favor if you pick a school from one of the six major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big 10, Pac-12, SEC) to win the NCAA Basketball Championship, there are always Cinderella teams each year that make deep runs to bust up those always popular Bracket Contests such as the one at SBR Forum.
While it is true that major schools have won each of the last 21 national championships and no non-major has won the national title since UNLV way back in 1990, there are almost always quite a few mid-majors sprinkled in the late rounds, such as Butler reaching the last two National Championship Games and VCU joining Butler in the Final Four last season.
So who will be this year’s Butler or VCU or George Mason? Well, before making your NCAA Basketball picks in the NCAA Tournament this year, here are our Top 10 non-major schools in the country that we feel are either capable of either making deep runs or messing up a lot of brackets with early round upsets as low seeds.
Please note that two notable non-majors that did not make our top 10 are Murray State and St. Mary’s. We have also provided each team’s record against the spread in lined games based on the closing odds from Pinnacle Sports.
1 – Wichita State (25-4, 14-12 ATS): Wichita State has been in the Top 25 for much of the season, and unlike some other non-majors that have frequented the polls (see Murray State, St. Mary’s, San Diego State), we feel that the Shockers are legitimate candidates to make at least a run to the Sweet 16 if not beyond. Amazingly, Wichita State is ranked eighth in the country overall on the Pomeroy Ratings, as it ranks a sizzling eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency while also ranking a very good 23rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Shockers have faced a schedule that ranks 75th in SOS according to Pomeroy, as three of their losses have come to teams in the Pomeroy Top 40 (Alabama, Temple and Creighton) and the fourth one came in triple overtime to Drake.
2 – New Mexico (22-5, 17-7 ATS): The Mountain West Conference is the sixth ranked conference in the country overall according to Pomeroy, and it is ahead of one of the majors in the Pac-12, which ranks eighth even behind the Atlantic 10. And there is no MWC team playing better basketball than these Lobos right now, as we will grant New Mexico a mulligan for losing at Colorado State following a 20-point destruction of UNLV and a double-digit road win at San Diego State. What sets this New Mexico team apart from past teams is the vast improvement of the defense, as the Lobos ranks an amazing fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency and ninth in effective field goal percentage allowed. The offense has always been there under Coach Steve Alford, and the new-found defense has New Mexico ranked 11th in the country overall by Pomeroy.
3 – Saint Louis (22-5, 14-8-1 ATS): As mentioned, the Atlantic 10 is ranked seventh in the country ahead of the major Pac-12, and we have felt all season that Saint Louis is the best team in the conference. Supporters of Temple may disagree, especially since the Owls beat the Billikens head-to-head at St. Louis, but the Billikens simply have the better full body of work. Saint Louis is ranked 10th in the country overall by Pomeroy while ranking 36th in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency, and this is the best team that Coach Rick Majerus has ever had because he personally recruited every player on the club to fit his system.
4 – UNLV (23-6, 11-14 ATS): We had UNLV ranked higher a couple of weeks ago, but they stumbled a bit lately while losing three out of four games with the lone win being by only two points at home vs. San Diego State. The Runnin’ Rebels did rebound with a rout of Boise State and this is still a dangerous team that is well balanced, ranking 29th in offensive efficiency and 40th in defensive efficiency while facing a schedule ranked 77th in SOS. The Rebels beat then number one North Carolina earlier in the year and they also blew out California, just about the only thing good about the Pac-12 this season, by 17 points. Both of those wins came at home though and we would like to see more from UNLV on the road, as the highest ranked team on the Pomeroy Ratings it beat away from Las Vegas was 63rd ranked Illinois. UNLV is currently ranked 30th by Pomeroy.
5 – Memphis (20-8, 11-12-2 ATS): Memphis and Xavier were the two highest ranked non-majors in the pre-season polls, and for a while, both teams fell below the radar. Xavier never resurfaced and is now in danger of not even making the NCAA Tournament, but Memphis is quietly six points away from being 13-0 in Conference USA play. The Tigers are 14-3 in their last 17 games with the losses being by one, three and two points respectively. This is a young team that has gotten better as the season has gone on, which is a scary though for potential major opponents given that Memphis ranks 25th in offensive efficiency and 20th in defensive efficiency with its five biggest contributors all being sophomores! The Tigers have faced a schedule ranked 51st in SOS thanks to a strong non-conference slate, and they are now up to 18th overall on the Pomeroy Ratings.
6 – Creighton (24-5, 14-11 ATS): The Bluejays have fallen back a bit as we had them neck-and-neck with Wichita State as the top team in the Missouri Valley Conference not too long ago. That changed when Wichita State went into Creighton and won by 21 points on February 11 and while the Bluejays have won three straight games since, the last two victories were by two points over Long Beach State and by one point over Evansville in overtime, both at home. That said, Creighton still has a great player in Doug McDermott that is capable of taking over a game, which is also dangerous come tournament time. McDermott is averaging 23.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting an unbelievable 61.4 percent from the floor including a scorching 48.4 percent from beyond the three-point arc. He is the main reason why Creighton leads in the country in effective field goal percentage, ranking third in two-point shooting (55.6 percent) and second in three-point shooting (43.3 percent). The Bluejays are down to 40th on the Pomeroy Ratings but do not sleep on this club.
7 – Gonzaga (22-5, 12-14-1 ATS): For a while it looked like St. Mary’s would run away with the West Coast Conference, but at 12-3, these Bulldogs have now trimmed the Gaels’ lead in the conference to one game. Gonzaga is in the better current form though, and it was the Bulldogs that handed St. Mary’s its first loss in the conference on February 9th at home in Spokane. Gonzaga is now the highest ranked WCC team on the Pomeroy Ratings at 32nd overall, ahead of BYU in 36th with St. Mary’s now down to 42nd despite leading the conference standings. The Bulldogs are also more proven vs. quality non-conference clubs and it is no big secret that Head Coach Mark Few has flourished in past NCAA Tournaments.
8 – Temple (22-5, 16-11 ATS): Temple is actually one game ahead of Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 with an 11-2 conference mark, and as mentioned the main reason for that is a win over the Billikens on the road. Yet, Temple still lags behind Saint Louis in the Pomeroy Ratings as the Owls rank 18th in offensive efficiency, 87th in defensive efficiency and 31st overall while the Billikens are ranked 10th. We still think that Temple is capable of doing some damage during March Madness though as in addition to winning at Saint Louis, Temple has also beaten Duke at home and Wichita State on a neutral court this season, and the Owls also rank ninth in the country in three-point percentage, which helps keep them in games.
9 – Belmont (23-7. 2-2 ATS): While the whole world is enamored with Murray State, we feel that Belmont is the most dangerous minor conference team in the tournament. The Bruins obviously get no national publicity hailing out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, and as you can see, they have had just four lined games all year. However, you may be surprised to learn that Belmont is ranked 23rd in the country overall by Pomeroy, as the Bruins rank seventh in offensive efficiency and fourth in effective field goal percentage, ranking fourth in two-point shooting at 55.5 percent and 34th in three-point shooting at 38.1 percent. If you do not believe that Belmont is good, just ask Duke as the Blue Devils beat the Bruins just 77-76 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Comparatively, Murray State is ranked 51st by Pomeroy.
10 – BYU (23-7, 14-12 ATS): This spot came down to BYU, St. Mary’s, Iona or Harvard. While the latter two are definitely dangerous, the first two have faced the much tougher schedules so they get the nod. Now left with two WCC schools, we chose the one that is in better current form and is ranked higher by Pomeroy over the one that leads the conference but is stumbling down the stretch. We will learn a lot more about BYU in the upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament.