- From Ja Morant-powered Murray State to hot-shooting Lehigh, these mid-majors aren't likely to be a welcome sight by power conference teams in March.
Between UMBC and Loyola-Chicago, the 2018 NCAA tournament was a mid-major paradise. Will we see an encore in 2019? There's no shortage of really good mid-majors this year, whether they made waves in non-conference play, feature an All-America-caliber star or are currently tearing through their respective leagues.
With less than two months before this year's madness starts, we broke down the teams you should be keeping an eye on if you want to get a jump on identifying this year's potential Cinderellas. And to see all of the mid-major teams that are currently positioned to be in the Selection Sunday field, check out SI.com's most recent Bracket Watch.
Tier 1: You Don't Want to Face Us
Murray State: The hype around Murray State starts—and ends, quite frankly—with Ja Morant. He's a legitimate Player of the Year candidate and a sure lottery pick in June's NBA draft. He leads the nation in assists (10.5) and is tied for seventh in points (24.1). There's not a ton of help around Morant—he's the sun, and the rest of the team orbits around him. There's talent in the form of senior guard Shaq Buchanan and freshman Tevin Brown, but not a lot of length or shooting ability. Still, do you really want to face Morant? He's on the type of Davidson-era Steph Curry run that draws national attention no matter how small the gym is. No one's been able to stop Morant from single-handedly winning games. What makes you think a five seed will do any better?
Buffalo: Balanced. Deep. Experienced. The Bulls have left mid-major darling status and are starting to become a legitimate power, and they could wind up being the higher seed in the Round of 64 if they limit further setbacks. They have a big three—CJ Massinburg (18.2 ppg), Jeremy Harris (14.7 ppg) and Nick Perkins (14.4 ppg) powering the nation's 12th-ranked offense, and they're 13th in assists. The one concern was their blowout loss against Marquette, but they have road wins over Syracuse and West Virginia on their résumé. For a team that blew out No. 4 seed Arizona last year in first round, Buffalo is as good a bet as any to make a run.
Wofford: Last season, Marshall's Jon Elmore scored 27 points in the Thundering Herd's first-round upset of No. 4 seed Wichita State. Don't be surprised if Wofford's Fletcher Magee does something similar this March. The 6'4" senior guard is fourth on the all-time three-pointers leaderboard, and has a good shot at passing J.J. Redick for second place. He's averaging 18.8 points, and is actually having a down year shooting from three. Pair him with senior forward Cameron Jackson (15.2 points per game, 7.9 rebounds per game) and you have an inside-out combo that could go far.
Tier 2: Potential Matchup Nightmares
South Dakota State: Mike Daum is really, really good. He's fourth in the nation in scoring, and if he gets hot, he can easily carry the Jackrabbits. But last year, as a No. 12 seed, South Dakota State lost 81–73 to Ohio State—and Daum scored 27 points. So why is this year different? Well, last year, Skyler Flatten scored zero points against the Buckeyes. This year, the 6'6" senior guard is averaging 15.3 points, more than double last season's output. With impressive guard David Jenkins improving on his freshman year to the tune of 19.8 ppg, the Jackrabbits are not just one and Daum. And the team as a whole can shoot it, making 50.7% from the field (second in the nation) and 42.3% from three (third in the nation).
Lipscomb: The Bisons, who upset TCU and SMU on the road in November and later played Louisville close, are 11th in the nation in scoring, led by senior guard Garrison Mathews, a really underrated mid-major star who is averaging 19 points per game and hitting 42.8% of his threes. Rob Marberry is a really efficient big man, shooting 61.7% from the field. Look to the early-season win against the Horned Frogs, when Mathews scored 23, as a model for what Lipscomb could do in the tournament.
Yale: Yale is a very well-rounded team. The Bulldogs are eighth in the country in rebounds, 15th in shooting percentage and seventh in assists, and they play at a fast tempo that could cause problems in the right matchup. Early wins against Miami (by four) and Cal (by 17) showed Yale isn't to be taken lightly. Watch 6'6" junior guard Miye Oni, who leads the team in points and rebounds and adds 3.9 assists.
Tier 3: So You're Saying There's a Chance?
Hofstra: No one's been able to stop Justin Wright-Foreman this year, and there's no reason why a tournament game would be any different. The 6'2" senior guard is averaging 26 points, third in the nation. If you try to double him, junior Eli Pemberton (15.8 ppg) is a nice second option. The Pride, winners of 16 straight, own the country's longest active winning streak.
Lehigh: Bombs away! Lehigh is the nation's leading three-point shooting team, at 45.6%. Junior guard Jordan Cohen leads the team with a ridiculous 52.1%, and the team has four players shooting 45% or better. If they get hot...
Northern Kentucky: Drew McDonald is the best big guy you don't know about. The 6'8" senior forward is averaging 19.2 points and 10.1 rebounds, and he shoots 43% from three. Get him against a small team and he could go off.