Last year, the Connecticut Huskies began an incredible run from Big East afterthought to conference champion, and eventually national champion. Aside from that, the New England area didn't make much of an impact on the NCAA Tournament.
Boston College started strong in Steve Donahue's first year as head coach, but some unfortunate losses to less than stellar opponents and a humiliating loss to Clemson in the second round of the ACC Tournament placed them squarely on the wrong side of bubble. Additionally, Harvard had been seeking its first bid to the big dance in ages, but suffered a crushing defeat to Princeton in a one game playoff to decide the Ivy League Champion. Other annual New England area participants like Vermont and Holy Cross struggled and weren't able to make their way in. Only America East champion Boston University joined UConn in the tournament, and they were quickly dispatched by Kansas.
This year though, there's a little bit more buzz around the teams from the area. Three teams from the area are represented in the field of 64, two of them with expectations of winning at least a game and potentially creating some chaos with your carefully plotted brackets.
The defending national champion UConn Huskies are back to defend their crown, though they are in no way the darkhorse favorite to win the title this year. After finishing ninth in the deep and talented Big East Conference for a second year in a row, the Huskies weren't able to replicate their incredible run through the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, being dispatched by Syracuse in round three.
The Huskies enter the tournament this year as the ninth seeded team in the south region and face a potential second round game with overall top seed Kentucky...in Louisville. The Huskies are seeded this low in large part because they closed the regular season with nine losses in their last 13 games including a gruesome loss to Big East doormat Providence. During that stretch, the Huskies were marred by concerns about the effort of their players and the ongoing health problems of longtime head coach Jim Calhoun.
Despite all that, the Huskies are still the defending national champion and that comes with a perk known as "benefit of the doubt". Most expect them to win their first round game* against Iowa St. on Thursday (9:20 p.m. on TBS), and they're also a trendy pick to be the team that topples Kentucky in round two based on the raw talent of the team and the run they made last year.
*NOTE: We interrupt your regularly scheduled column to remind you that regardless of what the NCAA wants to call it, the games on Thursday and Friday are the first round games, not the "opening round" cash grab between the bubble teams that only get in because the tournament is too big. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. Now back to your regularly scheduled column.
The other team with designs on doing some damage in the tournament this year from a lower seed is the aforementioned Harvard Crimson. After the brutal buzzer beating Ivy League playoff loss to Princeton last year, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker rallied the troops and used the game as motivation to get this years team to do something that no Harvard squad had done since 1946. Thanks to a strong non-conference season that saw them upend teams like Utah, Florida St., and UConn and a little bit of luck late in the year (Princeton knocked off Penn in the regular season finale to give the Crimson the Ivy League Championship and the league's automatic berth in the tournament), Harvard is dancing.
The committee did Tommy Amaker's team no favors though, pairing them with the school often referred to as the "Harvard of the south", but more currently referred to as "the team that beat Kentucky to win the SEC tournament", Vanderbilt in a Thursday match-up (4:40 p.m. on TNT). Despite winning the SEC tournament this past week though, the Commodores are not exactly what would you would call world beaters. This is a team that lost to Cleveland St., Indiana St., and a woefully unimpressive Tennessee squad this year and has shown a number of holes in their roster, making them incredibly vulnerable to a team like Harvard that prides it self on its balance defensively and its motion offense. Maybe the biggest thing the Crimson have going for them in this game though is the fact that this game is the 5-12 match-up in the East regional, a seed pairing which always has a number of surprises (a 12 has beaten a five every year in the NCAA tournament with the exception of four).
The final team from the New England area to make the dance are the always upset minded Catamounts of Vermont. In fact, the record books will show that Vermont has already won a game in this tournament thanks to their "First Four" win over Lamar on Wednesday night. Their reward? How about a date with third overall seed North Carolina in Greensboro on Friday (4:10 p.m. on TBS)? The Catamounts are known for springing upsets in the tournament (wins over big time programs Kansas and Syracuse come to mind), but a 16 seed has never beaten a top seed...ever. It's probably safe to say that this won't be any different, but still, Vermont is in the big dance and representing the New England area, and always does so with pride.
There's no area team with serious hopes of winning a national title this year, but for the first time in awhile, there are multiple teams from the New England area that have people buzzing about their potential to surprise some teams and do some big things. With other area schools like Boston College and UMass improving and expected to at least have a chance to make the tournament, this could be the beginning a new era in college basketball for the New England area.