Loyola–Chicago did it in 2018, five years after Wichita State crashed a Final Four hoops bash that is almost exclusively reserved for the game’s bluebloods.
In 2011, both Butler and Virginia Commonwealth stormed those gates, following George Mason’s feat in 2006.
Who might spoil the elite NCAA Tournament party next March?
The first step is identifying the squads with A-ratings in backcourt, frontcourt, bench/depth, and intangibles from the nation’s 358 Division-I programs.
Gonzaga and Baylor, both 4-A rated, met in last season’s national title game. UCLA, with only a B+ (in intangibles) to spoil an otherwise perfect report card, lost to the Zags in an epic national semifinal.
Upon further review, the Bruins proved they possessed A-level intangibles.
That’s the benchmark of excellence we applied to unearth three potential Final Four upstarts this season. Of those 358 programs, 25 get the 4-A seal of approval. Some aren’t exactly bluebloods.
With some fortunate bounces and an upset or two to ease their bracket journeys, maybe even two, like they did in 2011, will crash the April fête in New Orleans.
Belmont Bruins (+10000)
Two year ago, Casey Alexander took over for Rick Byrd, who guided Belmont into D-I hoops in 1999 and turned it into a 20-win juggernaut. Over the past 11 seasons, the Bruins have lost at least four conference games only twice.
The Bruins have gone 52-11 under Alexander, who understudied at Stetson and Lipscomb.
Alexander returns all five starters from the squad that went 26-4 and, at 18-2, won the Ohio Valley Conference last season. In ’22-23, Belmont moves to the Missouri Valley Conference.
For about 15 seasons, the Bruins have been an impeccable moneyline pick at home. They also defeated UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in December 2018.
Belmont’s Bruins are poised to etch bolder headlines. They can be found around the betting market for +10000, or 100-to-1 odds, to reach the Final Four.
They’re fueled by 6-foot-11, 240-pound center Nick Muszynski (pronounced mew-ZIN-skee), the first player to earn first-team OVC honors as a freshman, sophomore, and junior.
Now, the senior from Pickerington, Ohio, is on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar center-of-the-year watch list. He and his four fellow fifth-year seniors are all working on their MBAs, so they know numbers.
Last season, Belmont was top-10 in the nation in effective field-goal percentage (56.3%, ninth), assists-to-turnovers ratio (1.527, sixth), and offensive efficiency (1.115, sixth). Its fourth-ranked 18.2 assists average was keyed by guard Luke Smith.
Muszynski (15 ppg), Smith (12.7), and guards Grayson Murphy (10.9), and Ben Sheppard (10.5) all averaged double figures in scoring, as did top reserve JaCobi Wood (11.3).
Colorado State Rams (+3500)
The 20-8 Rams finished third, at 14-4, in the Mountain West Conference last season. Third-year coach Niko Medved, whose mentors include Dan Monson and Jim Molinari, is 52-40 in Fort Collins, Colo.
Medved, too, returns all five starters, and nearly 97 percent of his scoring. That continuity will be a key as CSU’s effective field-goal percentage of 54.1 placed it among the country’s top 10%.
Our favorite Ram might be 6-foot junior guard Isaiah Stevens, who shot nearly 43% beyond the 3-point arc and 86.5% at the free-throw line.
CSU is a tad undersized, but Medved will use that to his advantage.
Six-five junior swingman David Roddy is the scoring leader, at 15.9 ppg, and he recorded a dozen double-doubles last season. Adam Thistlewood, a 6-6 senior forward, is nearly as effective as Stevens from 3-point range and at the line.
Non-conference games against Mississippi State (neutral site) and Alabama (in Birmingham) will set the tone for the Rams.
Richmond Spiders (+5000)
In 17 seasons coaching the Spiders, Chris Mooney is 288-231.
A high point arrived in 2010-11, when Justin Harper (who would play in the NBA) and Kevin Anderson powered a 29-8 campaign that ended against Kansas in a regional semifinal in San Antonio.
The Spiders defeated Vanderbilt and Morehead State to advance to the second weekend of those NCAAs, where the Jayhawks awaited, the second consecutive season in which Richmond had played on the game’s biggest stage.
It hasn’t been back, but it has the pieces this season. Four of five starters return, including one of the smallest players in D-I hoops who looms large for the Spiders.
Jacob Gilyard, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior from Kansas City, Mo., who turned 23 in July, is 28 steals away from breaking John Linehan’s career D-I record of 385. By mid-March, he could be a household name.
Last season, he was the floor general who coordinated a smart attack that had a 1.358 assists-to-turnovers rate, 21st in the land. Richmond turned it over only 15% of the time, and only six teams took better care of the ball.
Marcus Randolph, the new 6-foot-5 lefty marksman out of Archbishop Wood in Philadelphia, will gel with Gilyard to form the Atlantic-10 Conference’s most-dangerous guard tandem.
The Spiders play a sneaky-tough home game against Georgia State and get Drake and Northern Iowa away, and Maryland and North Carolina State at neutral sites in their non-league slate.
Other non-blueblood 4A-rated betting notables: Last season, Southern Utah’s ‘over’ rate of 68.4% (13 of 19 lined games) was 11th in the country….Since 2018, North Florida is fifth, at 61.5%, in covering the spread….Also in that span, New Orleans tilts have sailed ‘over’ at a 67.5% clip, tops in the nation among teams with at least 70 lined games.