Lesser-known teams loom as dangers

Mar 13, 2001 6:01 AM

Selection Sunday has finally passed. Now, college basketball fans can turn their attention to filling out the brackets. As in any year, a number of teams the average fan hasn’t seen play are coming into the tournament. Some of them can be downright dangerous in a one-and-done situation.

Here’s a closer look at a few of those teams.

Georgia State went 28-4 this season, and is riding a seven-game winning streak into the tournament. The Panthers played a pretty tough schedule this season for a small school. They beat Georgia in their season opener, beat Bradley, won at Hawaii and beat UAB. Their four losses were at Creighton, Stetson, Troy State and New Mexico. They outscored their opponents by 12 per game. They’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country.

Four Panthers players averaged more than 12.5 points per game in regular season. All four shot 118 (or more) 3-point attempts this season. Each connected on at least 36 percent from downtown.

Their best player is senior Shernard Long, a do-everything swingman. He averaged over 18 points per game, and at 6-feet-4 was tied for second on the team with over 4.5 rebounds per game. He was the team’s second leading passer, with almost three assists per game. He hit on over 37 percent of his three-point shots.

Butler, a quality team, goes into the tournament playing well. The Bulldogs have won their last eight games. Their season record is 23-7 SU (straight up), a school record for most wins in a season. They went 13-12 ATS (against the spread) on the season. Last season, they lost to Florida in the opening round, 69-68 in overtime. They made the tournament in 1997, 1998 and 2000, losing in the first round each time. No MCC team has advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament since Xavier in 1990 — and Xavier is now a member of the Atlantic 10.

Butler is a tenacious defensive team, and a great perimeter shooting team. They aren’t particularly big, but they have a number of scoring options in Thomas Jackson, LaVall Jordan and Ryland Hainje, who can all shoot the three. They also play great defense, hit their free throws and are well coached by rookie head coach Thad Matta.

Iona is the first team to win back-to-back conference tournament titles in the MAAC since La Salle did it three times in a row from 1988 to 1990. La Salle is now a member of the Atlantic 10. Iona has taken the mantle of being the finest team in the conference. It dropped their last three regular season games, but bounced back to win three straight in the conference tournament, finishing the season with a 22-10 record. They lost six games in the conference. Their four non-conference losses were all close. They lost at U Mass, 67-65, to open their season; lost at Fordham, 85-82 a week later; then fell to Nebraska, 81-80, and Northwestern, 69-67, at the San Juan Shootout.

The Gaels’ top player is center/forward Nakiea Miller (6-10, 230). He almost single-handedly carried the Gaels to the MAAC championship. He led the team with 15 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He averaged almost three blocks per game, and shot a whopping 67 percent from the field.

Iona has good size for a small school. They have plenty of tournament experience. Throw in senior starters with Earl Johnson at point guard and Miller at center, and this team could surprise some people.

The ultimate tournament underdog over the last decade has been Princeton, starting with the close loss to Alonzo Mourning’s Georgetown team over a decade ago. But this is not a great Princeton team. While they played a tough schedule, they didn’t do very well against good opponents. They lost to Duke, Monmouth, Penn State, TCU and Rutgers twice, but they did beat Ball State and Xavier.

Princeton won its last five games, covering all five as well, to finish the regular season with a record of 16-10 SU and 12-9 ATS. This is a small, balanced team. Eight players average more than five points per game. The Tigers don’t have the number of shooters they used to have, and they don’t have any size up front. They’re led by senior forward Nate Walton, their best player, and Bill Walton’s son. He led the team in points, rebounds and assists this season with averages of 10.5, 5.6 and 4.5, respectively. He shot 47 percent from the field, and was tied for the team lead in blocked shots, with just 16 all season.

Walton is small, though, at 6-7, and with no players taller than 6-9 on the roster, he’s forced to take on the opposition’s top low-post player. Don’t be fooled by the name. The Tigers don’t have much of a chance to move on. They’re simply too small, slow and don’t shoot it well enough.

This year’s tournament figures to be wide open. Any of 15 to 25 teams has a legitimate chance to reach this year’s Final Four. No one should expect any of the above teams to be Final Four bound, but these are the kind of teams (besides Princeton) that can turn a bracket upside down with a single upset.