Memphis, Butler and Xavier look like legit contenders
Which teams from conferences outside the "big six" are poised to make noise in March? Here's a list of several teams that look ready to bust some brackets right now, and a few more that have some work to do.
Butler (Horizon League) 12-1, 1-1:
The Bulldogs showed up on radar screens in November 2006, with a surprise NIT Season Tip-Off championship, and stayed strong all the way to the Sweet 16, falling by eight to eventual champion Florida. Then they lost coach Todd Lickliter to the Big Ten (Iowa) and third-option power forward Brandon Crone to the cap and gown. But Butler is 12-1 for the second year in a row, nationally ranked and in the top 10 of the RPI. But seriously, the Bulldogs might actually be improved this season.
The senior tandem of A.J. Graves and Mike Green, averaging 31.3 points combined, is as talented a backcourt you're going to find at the mid-major level. Then add a healthy Pete Campbell, a 6-foot-9 forward with a guard's feathery outside shooting touch who is progressing well after an early-season knee injury. Then there's heralded newcomer Matt Howard, a 6-8 freshman whose skill around the basket is equal to Crone's or perhaps greater already. And suddenly new coach Brad Stevens' squad has four legitimate double-figure scoring threats. Even though they're averaging 10 fewer points per game than last season's version, the defense has become nastier and stingier, allowing just 50.3 points (compared to 58.8 in 2006-07).
Davidson (Southern): 5-6, 3-0
No team on this list has as bad an overall record as these Wildcats, but the record that matters is the one on the right, the SoCon mark. Critics might say that coach Bob McKillop was out of his mind to schedule UCLA, North Carolina, NC State and Duke, and the 0-4 record against that quartet might seem to justify that opinion, but they're missing the point. At this moment, no mid-major team in America knows more about itself and its capabilities than Davidson.
Led by Stephen Curry and his 24.6 points, Davidson lost by a combined 11 points to its ACC opposition (including a one-point heartbreaker at NC State) and was victimized by extreme foul trouble in a 12-point loss against UCLA. The Wildcats also had plenty of time over the holidays to think about areas for improvement (perimeter defense, free throws and keeping the fouls down), which is nothing but bad news for the rest of the SoCon. That's where they'll spend the next two months before a likely return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Dayton (Atlantic 10): 12-1
The Flyers have been Weekly Watch mainstays this season, garnering national attention for their upset wins over Big East schools Louisville and Pitt. Led by super senior Brian Roberts (19.1 points per game, including 31 in a 80-55 home beatdown of No. 6 Pittsburgh) and fantastic freshman Chris Wright (10.9 points per game on 59.5 percent shooting), this is a team that can seemingly beat anyone, anywhere. Dayton is also the premier 3-point shooting team in the Atlantic 10 and one of the best in the nation, connecting on 41.8 percent of its attempts.
But what's made this Dayton team really special is how they play in their bright red jerseys. Even in down years, the Flyers have always been strong at home for their UD Arena faithful, but this season's squad has won as many games on the road (three) as it did all last season. Their defensive form has translated well to opposing buildings, like when the Flyers took down Louisville, 70-65, on Dec. 8 despite shooting just 33 percent themselves. On the whole, Dayton's only given up just 61.8 points in road games.
Memphis (Conference USA): 12-0
You can't spell "Memphis Tigers" without "PTS", and coach John Calipari's crew has put up points in bushels, topping the century mark twice and averaging 90.4 points at home, the program's highest home average since it ripped through the Great Midwest Conference in 1994-95. The RPI's No. 1 team is also one of the most balanced -- in the Tigers' 11 wins, they have featured five different leading scorers. Freshman phenom and potential NBA lottery pick Derrick Rose has lived up to the massive expectations, scoring 14.8 points on 47.2 percent shooting while fulfilling his point guard duties with 4.5 assists per contest.
Memphis still has trouble hitting free throws, fouls a bit too much and could stand to improve its numbers from 3-land. But the Tigers click so well in every other area, these are minor quibbles that won't be real areas of concern until the one-and-done world of March basketball. For now, they appear to be a lock for their third straight 30-win season, and they don't look to be strongly challenged until at least Saint Patrick's Day.
Niagara (Metro Atlantic): 9-3, 3-0
The Purple Eagles were too good for the NCAA play-in game last year, but that's where they ended up. This season's team could be even better, led by scorer Charron Fisher. The 6-4 senior is averaging 27.4 points so far this season (second nationally) and averages 9.8 rebounds despite his swingman-like height. He has had five double-doubles, shoots a healthy 78.3 percent from the line and even finds time to blog. Double-team him at your peril, however. Guards Stanley Hodge (13.3 points and 6.5 rebounds) and Tyrone Lewis (14.7 points and 4.6 rebounds) can hurt you, too.
Despite the loss of last season's top rebounder Clif Brown (9.7 boards) to graduation, Niagara is actually averaging more rebounds per contest than it did in its MAAC championship campaign last season. Though the three losses were early away games, the Purple Eagles have recently fixed themselves with a four-point win at St. John's and a faraway sweep of Santa Clara's tournament this past weekend in California.
Sam Houston State (Southland): 11-1
Sure, four of the Bearkats' wins are against non-Division I sparring partners. But even against top-level competition, they've played like real champs, doing things schools from the Southland (conference RPI: 20th) generally aren't supposed to do. They beat Texas Tech 56-54 at home on Nov. 14 and have shown extraordinary road form, winning five games away from Hunstville, Tex. Sam State's only loss to this point is a 79-78 overtime loss on Friday to San Diego State of the Mountain West.
The Bearkats have three double-figure scorers, led by senior guard Shamir McDaniel's 13.7 points. But this team really shines on defense, allowing just 57.4 points per game so far. Only two teams in the nation defend the perimeter better; Sam Houston allows just 26.3 percent of opponents' long bombs to fall -- that'll be deadly D in the 3-happy Southland. And despite topping out at 6-foot-8, the Bearkats are relentless and hungry rebounders, averaging 39.7 boards per contest (sixth-best nationally). Best to put this team on your NCAA first-round upset list right away.
Xavier (Atlantic 10): 11-3
First there was the 8-1 start, including a gutsy 64-59, nationally televised, come-from-behind win over Cincinnati in the annual city game. That faded quickly with losses at Arizona State and at home against Tennessee. But just when the rest of the Atlantic 10 was getting ideas about knocking off the champs, Xavier rang out the old year with a 103-77 explosion against the Big 12's Kansas State and rang in the new year with a 108-70 thumping of Virginia. Most notably, the X X'ed out superfrosh Michael Beasley, holding the KSU star to a measly five points.
Featuring six double-figure scorers, the Musketeers might have the country's most fundamentally solid squad at this level. Xavier gets high marks on the national charts in shooting, ball control, defensive field-goal percentage and rebounding. If the Musketeers can hold off strong challenges from improved teams at Rhode Island, Saint Joseph's and Dayton in conference play, they will be plenty poised and battle-tested for yet another Sweet 16 run.
Creighton (Missouri Valley): 9-3, 0-2
The surprising Bluejays roared into Valley play, winning nine of their 10 nonconference contests and losing only to aforementioned Xavier. It was an unexpected development for a league with lots of unexpected developments early on, including a 6-6 start from overwhelming favorite Southern Illinois. Creighton had lots of questions about production replacement and was answering them with freshmen. Dana Altman is getting 32.4 points per game from his frosh, including standout P'Allen Stinnett (10.8 points, 48 percent shooting), a 6-2 guard from the Las Vegas area. So far, the Bluejays have had four different players win the Valley's Newcomer of the Week award.
But last weekend, the Bluejays received a hard lesson in toughness and intensity from the unlikeliest of sources. Recent league punching bag Illinois State, which came into the Qwest Center, delivered an 80-67 wire-to-wire thumping and outplayed Creighton in every aspect of the game as 16,808 CU fans looked on in horror. The tape of that MVC opener went out to every opposing staff immediately, a color-by-numbers instruction book on how to take advantage of Creighton's relative youth: ball-pressure harassment and well-timed, well-screened 3s. How will the crafty Altman, the league's resident coaching MacGyver, respond?
George Mason (Colonial): 9-4, 1-1
No team in the CAA can boast the talent level of the Patriots, just two seasons removed from the Final Four appearance that put them on the national map. And GMU still has two heroes from that run on the active roster, seniors Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas (28.0 combined points). Few teams looked as strong early on, especially after a 6-1 start that included wins over Kansas State and Dayton, as well as an 85-38 destruction of Drexel in an early conference opener on Nov. 29.
The Patriots are 3-3 since then. They didn't put together a solid 40-minute effort all December, a stretch that has included losses to East Carolina and Kent State that both featured complete offensive blackouts for long stretches. There's every reason to trust that Jim Larranaga will find away to keep the team's focus on championship objectives once the CAA regular season begins in earnest, but a lack of focus thereof could allow a strong team like VCU to sneak away with a second straight title.
Gonzaga (WCC): 10-4
Folks say this every year, but this might really, really be the season that the Zags' flaws keep them from the West Coast Conference title. There's no obvious go-to guy like Derek Raivio, and although three Zags average between 11 and 12 points per game, the offense in general has been a mere shadow of recent excellence. In the past two weeks, the Zags have dropped consecutive decisions to Oklahoma and Tennessee and struggled to beat Utah at home. In their past four games, they've lost the turnover battle, a prime problem in Gonzaga's struggles a season ago.
But as we've found out year in and year out for the past decade, NIT-picking the Bulldogs is a dangerous exercise since their December scars seem to magically heal themselves before another dominant run through the league. And with 6-11 monster Josh Heytvelt's return from last season's suspension and this season's injury, the Zags' offensive numbers could get good again in a hurry. But even if re-emergent Saint Mary's and the rest of the West Coast Conference can't offer the type of NCAA-caliber competition Gonzaga will need to cut their March teeth on, the Jan. 26 summit at Memphis will serve as a true test of Gonzaga's contendership.
Ohio (Mid-American): 9-4
The Bobcats have received national headlines for thrilling wins away from home against power-conference opposition like St. John's and Maryland, but the rest of the résumé is not quite as impressive. Sporadic effort, poor defense and sloppiness with the basketball has led to some too-close wins over inferior competition, as well as a painful-to-watch 88-51 beatdown at Kansas on Dec. 15 and a Rainbow Classic closing loss to Saint Mary's. Ohio shot just 1-for-14 from beyond the arc in the 70-63 defeat to the Gaels.
Leon Williams and Jerome Tillman have been a formidable frontcourt tandem, but Ohio will need improved and consistent backcourt play if the Bobcats want to hang in the super-tough MAC East. One out of every five Ohio possessions ends in a turnover, and no guard is shooting better than 42 percent. Overall, the team could also use more stingy field-goal defense -- 53.4 percent of all opponents' 2-pointers find the mark.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.