By technicality the SEC basketball tournament started tonight. But unless you’re a glutton for bad hoops (or a reaaaaaallly big Ole Miss) fan, the action really doesn’t get underway until tomorrow. Heck, we’re still a full 24 hours from Kentucky playing its first game.
Thankfully though this is that glorious time of year, where even if your favorite team isn’t playing, there’s still plenty of hoops on TV to watch, especially in the random, small conferences that no one knows anything about. Still, with 350+ D1 teams it’s worth asking: Which teams are worth actually paying attention to?
Thankfully, that’s why I’m here. While UK fans are focused on counting down the hours until the Wildcats play again, I figure that the least I can do – as the national voice of college hoops on this site – is give you a little scoop, on a couple teams you might not know much about. They range from “really good teams that can make a deep run in the Big Dance” to “totally random teams and – hey, why not hop on the bandwagon?”
Here are five totally random teams that might be worth following for UK fans this week.
Grand Canyon Antelopes (WAC – first game, Thursday afternoon)
By now, you’ve probably at least tangentially heard about Grand Canyon. And not just because Rick Pitino called their home arena the toughest road environment he’s ever played in.
Yes, Pitino really said that. But while it might been just a slight, tiny exaggeration, the simple truth is that the ‘Lopes (as the kids call them) really are a buzzy, mid-major team to watch out for over the next couple years. They’re coached by former NBA All-Star Dan Majerle, and in just their fourth year as a DI school, they’ve already won 20+ games in each of the last three years. With lots of money at the school, fancy facilities and a well-known coach, they really could become a mid-major power in the years to come.
Ultimately though, no team is a legit player in the college hoops world until they make a run in March, and for Grand Canyon, this is their first chance. After a four year wait period, this is their first WAC Tournament and first chance to break through to the Big Dance. It will be fun to see whether they can pull through or not.
Utah Valley Wolverines (WAC – first game, Thursday afternoon)
What’s that? Thunder Dan and the Grand Canyon Lopes don’t do much for you? How about we stay in the WAC and go to one of Grand Canyon’s biggest rivals, Utah Valley. Kentucky fans should remember Utah Valley well; the two schools opened up this season at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats won 73-63 thanks to 18 points from Hamidou Diallo.
Well, a lot has changed for both clubs since that night at Rupp. Kentucky has found its groove, and so too has Utah Valley, which went 21-9 overall this season and 10-4 in the WAC. They finished in second place in the league’s regular season standings, and like Grand Canyon, they are playing for their first NCAA Tournament berth this weekend.
In addition to all those random facts, there are a couple other reasons for UK fans to root for Utah Valley. One, they’re coached by former Wildcat Mark Pope. And two, while Kentucky doesn’t need help necessarily with their resume, it’s probably not the worst thing either for UK if Utah Valley keeps winning games.
Houston Cougars (American Conference – first game, Friday night)
The Cougars aren’t exactly a “small school” like some of the teams on this list, and they don’t play in a small conference either. They play in the American Conference (home of Cincinnati, Wichita, SMU, UConn etc.) and are actually pretty good. Houston finished 24-6 overall this year and 14-4 in league play, and will be in the NCAA Tournament whether they win the conference tournament or not.
So why should you root for them? Well, it’s multi-fold, really. For starters, rooting against the Cougars breaks one of the few cardinal rules I have in life: Never root against a guy with a man bun. Houston star guard Rob Gray has one (picture below), and could end up as one of the break out stars of the NCAA Tournament. Also, let’s not forget all the incredible humanitarian work that Houston did this off-season, collecting boxes and boxes of clothes for hurricane victims, after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the city of Houston. Kentucky their share of clothes to help out the cause as well.
— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) March 4, 2018
Oh, and you want one more reason to root for Houston? They have a great chance to knock off two teams in their conference tournament that have come to be a bit of an annoyance to Kentucky fans. One is Wichita State – which we know will inevitably end up in Kentucky’s bracket this year. And the second is Cincinnati. And after what Cronin said the other day about Cincinnati comparing to Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana – well I mean, who can root for that guy?
Western Kentucky (Conference USA – first game, Thursday night)
I’ll be honest, I have no idea how the whole “Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky” dynamic goes within the state borders, but it seems to me like he two fan-bases seem to get along just fine (unlike say, Kentucky fans and another school that wears red in that state). And this year, it feels like there is genuine buzz about the Hilltoppers. After a couple down years, Rick Stansbury has things rolling and WKU enters this conference tournament at 22-9 overall. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if they stole the automatic bid from favorite Middle Tennessee.
Beyond just rooting for WKU because of state ties, keep in mind, they’ve got a few Kentucky kids on their roster too. Most notably Taveion Hollingsworth, who was Kentucky’s “Mr. Basketball” last year.
And finally, want one more reason to tune into the Hilltoppers? Remember a few years ago when John Calipari started pitching the idea of playing the SEC Tournament in a massive stadium (say, the Georgia Dome) with two games going on at once and a curtain down the middle? Well, Conference USA is literally doing that this year, playing its men’s and women’s tournaments together at the same time, in the same building. You can read about it here.
If that’s not worth tuning in for, I don’t know what is.
Nevada Wolf Pack (Mountain West – first game, Thursday afternoon)
Alright, I’ll admit that this is the one, random team on this list that has absolutely no ties at all to UK. At the same time, I’m just gonna throw it out there: Nevada is damn fun to watch play. Like Houston, they’re already in the Big Dance, regardless of whether they win this conference tournament or not. And like Houston, they could spring an upset or two and end up playing the second weekend of the NCAA’s.
For those who know nothing about them, here’s the quick rundown: They are nothing like a typical mid-major team. They are coached by a former NBA head coach Eric Musselman, and their two best players – twins Cody and Caleb Martin – began their careers at the high-major level at NC State. Their other star is a kid named Jordan Caroline who looks like he could play defensive end in the NFL – and to be blunt, he probably could. He’s the son of former NFL Pro Bowler Simeon Rice. Those three and their teammates play kind of new age hoops, where there aren’t really “guards, forwards and centers” but instead, just a bunch of guys who can run, jump, handle the ball and shoot. Again, they’re fun to watch.
Oh and one other thing: Keep an eye on Musselman as a guy who could get a BIG-TIME job this off-season. In three years at the program he has completely flipped this team on its head, and with his NBA background (as well as the CBA and G-League) he’s used to coaching all different kinds of teams and players and is great at adapting his personnel on the fly.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t shock me to see him at a major program next year, and with Louisville, Georgia and Ole Miss all likely to open up this off-season, don’t be stunned to see him on Kentucky’s schedule in 2018-2019.
Enjoy Championship Week everyone!