Every March they become the nation’s darlings.
This year, a host of stalwarts aren’t waiting nearly that long to establish themselves as contenders — either for their own, non-power conferences or possibly the Final Four after another round of realignment.
If last year’s championship run for American Athletic Conference member Connecticut is any indication, there’s no telling how long their fun might last.
Seven teams from non-power conferences were ranked in this week’s Top 25, and that doesn’t include the defending national champion Huskies. Even without UConn, several ranked teams — led by No. 6 Villanova — are regulars amid discussions about college basketball’s best.
Schools such as Kentucky, Duke, Arizona and Louisville are considered among the favorites to advance deep in this season’s NCAA tournament. Don’t be surprised, however, if it’s Villanova’s version of the Wildcats — along with other familiar names such as Gonzaga, Wichita State and St. John’s — who are still playing when the Final Four arrives in Indianapolis in April.
Here are some of the usual suspects to watch as conference play arrives:
• SHINING ‘NOVA
Many expected Villanova to reach last year’s Final Four after earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the Wildcats were knocked off by seventh-seeded UConn. This season, led by a balanced and veteran scoring attack that features four players averaging double figures — including seniors Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston — Villanova already has wins over Michigan, Virginia Commonwealth and Syracuse, and hopes to make amends for last season’s disappointment.
• UNCOMMON RAMS
Speaking of VCU, the Rams — known for their 2011 run to the Final Four — remain a threat for this year’s NCAA tournament out of the Atlantic-10 Conference. Led by coach Shaka Smart, VCU was ranked 15th in the preseason poll and is currently third in RPI by the NCAA — aided largely by a difficult schedule that has included games against Tennessee, Villanova, Oregon, Virginia and Northern Iowa. The Rams were shocked by Stephen F. Austin in their opening game of last year’s tournament as a No. 5 seed, but leading scorer and senior Treveon Graham is a significant reason to expect a tournament run this season.
• GONZAGA’S LEGACY
What? You didn’t think we’d go an entire story about non-power schools without mentioning the Bulldogs from Gonzaga, did you? With its only loss this season coming to No. 8 Arizona — the same team that eliminated the Bulldogs in the round of 32 in last season’s tournament — Gonzaga is back and primed for another run through the West Coast Conference. While 6-foot-10 junior Kyle Wiltjer is the leading scorer for the seventh-ranked Bulldogs this season, it’s freshman Domantas Sabonis — son of gold-medalist Arvydas Sabonis — who could provide the trump card in Gonzaga’s efforts to make the Final Four.
• STORM WATCH
Among Gonzaga’s early wins this season was a 73-66 defeat of St. John’s, another Big East school hopeful of making an impact this season. The Red Storm hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011, when it lost in its opening game to Gonzaga. After finishing 20-13 last season, losing in the first round of the NIT, No. 15 St. John’s has started this year 11-1 and is led by senior guard D’Angelo Harrison’s 19 points per game.
• SAME OLD SHOCKERS
Wichita State followed a surprising run to the 2013 Final Four by earning a No. 1 seed at last season’s NCAA tournament, only to lose 78-76 to eventual finalist Kentucky in the round of 32. Well, the Shockers are back once again this season — ranked No. 16 and possibly the class of the Missouri Valley Conference, though No. 23 Northern Iowa figures to say something about that. Junior guard Ron Baker is averaging a team-best 16.6 points per game for WSU, which has wins over Memphis, Seton Hall and Alabama on its tournament resume so far.