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Mid-majors to keep an eye on in '06

This year’s Sweet 16 doesn’t begin until Thursday, but it’s never too early to take a look at which mid-majors tourney entries could be the 2006 Cinderellas.

Although they were seeded 10th in 2004, Nevada had a superstar, Kirk Snyder, with a great supporting cast of underclassmen and one of the hottest young coaches in the business. Couple that with an easy draw—Nevada’s second-round matchup was recent choke artist Gonzaga—and it was almost too simple to pencil the Wolf Pack into last year’s Sweet 16.

This year’s tournament has seen its share of upsets, but only a few mid-majors have made it as far as the Wolf Pack did in 2004. Nonetheless, these three teams in this year’s tournament have the potential for a deep run next March:

• Wisconsin-Milwaukee: No, they won’t beat Illinois Thursday, but in just four years, head coach Bruce Pearl has morphed the Panthers from a relative basketball backwater into one of the nation’s hottest mid-majors. Last season, Wisconsin-Milwaukee made its first NCAA Tournament. This season, Pearl has guided his team to its first Sweet 16, extending his own career record to a ridiculous 297-72.

The secret to the Panthers’ success is a suffocating full-court press that has generated 41 turnovers in tournament victories over Alabama and Boston College. Their all-out style doesn’t hurt, either—the Panthers probably had more hustle plays in their 85-73 win over BC Saturday than Rashad McCants had all season.

In 2006, they’ll still have the personnel to terrorize the Horizon League. Wisconsin-Milwaukee returns four starters from its tournament run this year, including budding star Joah Tucker, who buried Boston College with 23 points. With those players and their superstar coach back, the Panthers are primed to make another big splash in 2006.

• Winthrop: It’s a shame the Eagles were seeded 14th this year; with a little better matchup Winthrop could have made some serious noise in this year’s tournament. The Eagles may not play in the most difficult of mid-major conferences, but they sure took care of business this season.

The Eagles went 15-1 in the Big South and ran off 18 consecutive wins before the tournament. The end result was a 27-6 record and a team that gave third-seeded Gonzaga all it could handle before falling in its first-round matchup.

“They had a swagger about them, they were playing with a great deal of confidence,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after his team’s 74-64 win. “It reminded me of our first one in 1999.”

Not only do the Eagles know how to win, but they are extremely well-coached and play very well together as a team—no Winthrop player scored more than 13.1 points per game last season, although six averaged better than six points per game. In addition, the Eagles are very young; Winthrop returns the top nine players in its rotation for the 2005-2006 season, six of whom are freshmen and sophomores.

• Nevada: The Wolf Pack are no stranger to winning postseason games. This year marks the second consecutive season Nevada has made a run into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

In fact, the team has set itself up for 2006 much like it did in 2004. New head coach Mark Fox has done an admirable job, winning 25 games in his rookie season. Like 2004, Nevada looks to have a superstar in Nick Fazekas, the WAC Player of the Year with nearly 22 points and 11 rebounds a game as a sophomore. He’ll be joined by guard Ramon Sessions, the WAC’s Freshman of the Year, physical junior forward Mo Charlo, who scored 12 points against Illinois Saturday and the rest of a Nevada team that loses just two major players.

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