I'd like to fly below the radar, but it's hard to go unnoticed with biceps the size of grapefruits and a Dr. J afro. In college basketball, on the other hand, it's a lot easier to be overlooked, especially at the beginning of the season. Most analysts are so busy sniffing Tyler Hansbrough's jock that they forget to examine the more anonymous teams making an early-season push for a post-season berth. So let's take a look at a few currently unranked teams that will be in the hunt for a tournament bid come March.
1. Evansville -- Ace in your face means peace see you later. Watch out for the Purple Aces! After kicking off the season by going 7-1, the school's best start in 27 years, Evansville is now 8-2, having lost only to mighty North Carolina and Butler, both on the road. Plus, the Aces absolutely destroyed Western Kentucky, a team that has already beaten Louisville. Evansville owes its undefeated home record largely to senior captain Shy Ely, who surpassed 1,000 career points in the Aces' recent win over North Carolina A&T. The six-foot-four forward is averaging 17.3 points and six rebounds a game. Even better, his entire name, first and last, is only six letters. Without a signature win, Evansville will most likely have to win the MVC to make the NCAA Tournament, which means it'll have to knock off Illinois State, a team that is currently undefeated, but has an RPI of 80 compared to Evansville's 22.
The Big Test: December 31st vs. Illinois State.
2. Rhode Island -- Sure, the Rams are 8-4, but those four losses have come against two Big East teams, one ACC team and one Big 12 team. And, other than the 13-point defeat at the hands of Villanova, all the games have been close. URI may very well have the best shooter in the country, Jimmy Baron, son of Rams coach Jim Baron. Baron almost single-handedly beat Duke and is averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting .468 from behind the arc. Last season, URI won 14 of its first 15 games and looked to be a lock for the Tournament, but collapsed by the end of the season. This year, the Rams have returned with a more tempered approach, led by three seniors -- Kahiem Seawright, Jason Francis and Baron -- who will not let last year's plight befall this year's team.
The Big Test: January 15th, vs. Xavier.
3. Saint Mary's -- The Gaels have already beaten Providence, Oregon, San Diego State and Southern Illinois. Patrick Mills is a special player and very well might be the best point guard in the country, averaging 20 points and 2.2 steals per game. But what makes Saint Mary's so dangerous is the team's aggressiveness on the boards. Center Omar Samhan pulls down 9.8 rebounds a game while Diamon Simpson grabs 11.9. The Gaels will compete with Gonzaga and possibly San Diego (if the Toreros can get their act together) for the West Coast conference title. But even if they don't get their conference's automatic bid, Saint Mary's will certainly make the Tournament as an at large-bid.
The Big Test: January 22nd, vs. San Diego.
4. Portland State -- The secret is out on this one. The Vikings beat Gonzaga on Tuesday to officially introduce themselves to the nation. The team is well-rounded and coming off a season in which it made the Tournament for the first time ever. Five players on Portland State are averaging over ten ppg and the only three games the Vikings lost were by a combined 10 points. Plus, the Portland State coach's name is Ken Bone, and that's just fun for the whole family. When the Vikings handed Gonzaga their second loss in a row, we were all granted the opportunity to say, "The Bulldogs got Boned!"
The Big Test: December 29th, vs. Baylor.
5. Virginia Military Institute -- In Duggar Baucom's three seasons as coach in Lexington, Va., VMI has never had a problem scoring. Winning, on the other hand, is a different story. But this year, the Keydets are doing both. They beat Kentucky to kick off the season and are currently 9-2 and atop the Big South standings. In certain Southern enclaves, Baucom is considered an offensive guru, renowned for creating a free-flowing offense at a very regimented school. This season, Baucom employs the services of twins Chavis (20 ppg) and Travis Holmes (18.9 ppg) to implement his run and gun philosophy. To date, no team in college basketball, not even North Carolina, averages more points per game than the Keydets.
The Big Test: January 17th, vs. Liberty.
And finally, let's finish this off with a list of teams that have yet to win a game this season. Loyola Marymount, North Carolina Central, NJIT, Houston Baptist, Southern University, Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State. Of these winless teams, three are independent, three are in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and one is in the West Coast Conference. May the new year bring prosperity where once there was only hardship.
Remember kids: shoot hoops, not guns.