As March approaches, the conversation around college basketball focuses on two areas: the top of the bracket, and the bubble. Everyone is eager to figure out the top seeds and the last teams in the tournament. That does a disservice to one of the most interesting groups of teams in college basketball. There’s a huge chunk of teams that aren’t contending for a top seed, should safely reach the Big Dance, and have a real chance to be a factor in March.
Every year we see teams seeded in the meaty middle of the tournament emerge with an upset or two and find their way to the second or even third weekend of play.
These five teams stand out as the kind of clubs that won’t be top-three seeds but could make a Final Four run.
5. Northern Iowa
We’ll start with our boldest pick, the current leaders of the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Panthers fail to win the MVC’s automatic bid at Arch Madness in St. Louis, they’d head to the bubble with a real chance at a double-digit seed as an at-large selection.
Northern Iowa sits at 23-5, with four of its losses coming in heated road games in conference play. In non-conference play, the Panthers showed themselves worthy of tournament buzz. They won at Colorado and defeated South Carolina on a neutral court. NIU lost to West Virginia in the game’s final moments, with a head-scratching call going against the Panthers to swing the potential outcome.
Northern Iowa is led by AJ Green, a shifty point guard who can score and make plays for others. To date this season, he’s averaged 19.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game, on top of 40 percent 3-point shooting on 7.6 attempts. Green’s shooting is just one piece of a high-powered Panther offense, which ranks 17th in offensive efficiency and 3rd in 3-point shooting.
If they get hot in March, the Panthers can outscore anyone. In a season full of parity, a double-digit seed could poke through any of the bracket’s four regions. There’s no reason that couldn’t be Northern Iowa.