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Eyeing the upset

These eight mid-majors could make noise come March

Posted: Wednesday February 16, 2005 12:49PM; Updated: Wednesday February 16, 2005 12:49PM
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Stetson Hairston
SIU's Stetson Hairston is a four-year starter for the surprising Salukis.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Once upon a time, trying to pick the inevitable bevy of first-round upsets on an NCAA tournament bracket involved mostly the art of blind guessing. How could anyone differentiate between Hampton and Hofstra, UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Asheville?

Starting with Gonzaga's 1999 run to the Elite Eight, and coupled with the subsequent success of teams like Kent State, Butler and Creighton, the recognition level for many smaller-conference teams has risen substantially. The term Cinderella has been ushered aside by the more politically correct mid-major, and ESPN now devotes an entire day of game programming to the so-called "Bracket Busters." The latest edition will air Saturday with 11 games spread over two networks.

With less than a month remaining before Selection Sunday, SI.com identified eight teams -- some of them familiar to bracket followers, some of them relative newcomers -- with the potential to bust a few brackets come March:

Pacific (20-2, 14-0 Big West)
Projected NCAA seed: 8*

Despite losing last year's conference player of the year, Miah Davis, from a team that upset No. 5-seed Providence in last season's tournament, the Tigers are out to the best start in school history. Helped by the experience of seven seniors, Pacific has road wins against Nevada and Fresno State and swept longtime Big West power Utah State. Junior Christian Maraker (14.1 ppg) and senior Guillaume Yango (12.9), both 6-foot-9, form a strong frontcourt. The Tigers rank in the top-50 nationally in 3-point percentage (38.3). They'll be tested by UTEP on Saturday.

Wichita State (18-4, 11-3 Missouri Valley)
Projected NCAA seed: 8

Fifth-year coach Mark Turgeon has the Shockers on the verge of their first NCAA berth since 1988. They started the season 9-0, including a win at Providence, and they're presently tied for first in the tough Missouri Valley. A veteran team is led by three four-year starters (guards Randy Burns and Rob Kampman and power forward Jamar Howard), a three-year starting center (Paul Miller) and a transfer from Illinois (Kyle Wilson). The Shockers are extremely balanced, with four players averaging between 10 and 13 points, and they're 10th nationally in rebounding margin (7.6). They travel to Miami (Ohio) on Saturday.

Southern Illinois (20-6, 11-3 Missouri Valley)
Projected NCAA seed: 9

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The Salukis have become an annual threat, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2002 and losing by one point in their past two first-round games. Using a three-guard lineup led by honorable mention All-American Darren Brooks (14.3 ppg, 3.0 steals), SIU's pressure defense ranks 20th nationally in points allowed (60.7) and produces nearly 10 steals per game. Sophomore guard Jamaal Tatum has shot more than 40 percent from 3-point range during his career and third-leading scorer Stetson Hairston is a four-year starter. The Salukis face fellow bubble team Kent State on Saturday.

Vermont (18-4, 13-1 America East)
Projected NCAA seed: 10

Led by the nation's top scoring tandem in four-year starters Taylor Coppenrath (24.3 ppg) and T.J. Sorrentine (18.2 ppg), the Catamounts are cruising toward their third consecutive tourney berth, but this time they won't be a No. 15- or 16-seed doormat. On Nov. 19, they went into Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse and held a four-point lead with less than five minutes remaining before falling 68-61. A veteran team, Vermont ranks in the top-12 nationally in 3-pointers (8.8) and fewest turnovers (11.5) per game and the top 20 in scoring defense (60.1). Saturday it visits Nevada, a Sweet 16 team last year.

Old Dominion (23-3, 13-1 Colonial)
Projected NCAA seed: 11

The Monarchs, which haven't reached the Dance since 1997, are off to their best start since 1976-'77. They beat fellow potential tourney teams Kent State and Saint Joe's in the non-conference season and hung tough at DePaul. Fourth-year coach Blaine Taylor uses as many as 11 players and preaches a tenacious pressure defense that ranks 14th nationally in points allowed (59.6 per game). Australian center Alex Loughton, the preseason player of the year in his conference, leads ODU in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (8.0). Point guard Drew Williamson is a good ball-handler.

St. Mary's (20-7, 7-3 West Coast Conference)
Projected NCAA seed: 11

Four years removed from a 2-27 season, the Gaels are eyeing their first tourney berth since 1997. Led by fourth-year coach Randy Bennett, St. Mary's started the season by winning at Cal to reach the Coaches vs. Cancer semifinals in New York. On Jan. 8, the Gaels beat conference power Gonzaga for the first time in 18 meetings. Top scorers Daniel Kickert (15.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Paul Marigney (14.6 ppg) are both returning all-conference selections, and both shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. The Gaels lead the WCC in scoring defense, allowing just 61.4 points per game.

UW-Milwaukee (19-5, 12-2 Horizon League)
Projected NCAA seed: 13

Fourth-year coach Bruce Pearl led the Panthers to their first tourney berth in 2003 and a league title in '04. This year's version, which is likely to repeat as Horizon champs, starts four juniors and senior Ed McCants, last year's Horizon newcomer of the year. A junior college transfer, he leads the team in scoring (17.0 ppg) and shoots 38.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Panthers' biggest wins came against Air Force and at Purdue. As is Pearl's trademark, UWM goes nine to 11 deep regularly and plays aggressive defense, holding opponents to 63.5 points per game and 40.9 percent shooting. Pearl leads his team against Hawai'i on Saturday.

Davidson (18-7, 14-0 Southern Conference)
Projected NCAA seed: 14

With a core rotation of five juniors and two seniors -- all but one have played together for two years -- the Wildcats opened some eyes in November. That month, they won at Missouri and cut a 20-point deficit at Duke to four with 5:41 left before losing by 13. They lost by three at UMass and took Princeton to double overtime. Davison's go-to guy is shooting guard Brendan Winters (17.1 ppg, 41.6 percent from 3), the son of former NBA head coach Brian Winters, but nearly every player on the floor can hit the long ball. They rank in the top-20 nationally in 3-pointers per game (8.6).

* -- Projected seeds taken from SI.com's latest Bracket Watch.