Identify March Madness darlings now

College basketball fans begin to fall in love each March with teams that seem to come from out of nowhere to play the role of Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament.

Bettors don’t have the luxury of waiting around to find out which teams that will be each season. The way to truly take advantage of the lesser-known schools ready to compete with the big boys is to pinpoint those teams early in the season and try to find moneymaking opportunities throughout the year.

Obviously, schools such as Gonzaga and Wichita State don’t fit in this category. They aren’t sneaking up on anyone. Neither is Virginia Commonwealth, where Shaka Smart’s team might be one of the nation’s best.

The following teams from nonmajor conferences might cause some torn-up brackets in March, but more importantly they might help bettors build their bankroll well before then.

■ SAINT LOUIS — Rick Majerus helped build the Billikens into a strong program that is only one step below the Gonzagas and VCUs of the world. His health struggles and eventual death last season could have dealt a major blow to the team, but Saint Louis rallied around the tragedy to win 28 games under interim and now head coach Jim Crews. Don’t expect much of a drop-off. While they won’t beat VCU in the league, Saint Louis will defend relentlessly and have enough scoring to hang with anyone. The Billikens’ only real shot at a power conference team comes in late December at Vanderbilt, though they get a marquee game when they host Wichita State on Dec. 1.

■ BOISE STATE — The Mountain West certainly doesn’t qualify as a nonmajor conference in basketball. Boise State still fits in this category, though, as it certainly doesn’t have the kind of history New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State do on the hardwood. Everyone is back from a Broncos team that won 21 games and went to the NCAA Tournament. The backcourt is loaded with scoring and experience, but look for Ryan Watkins to take a big step forward to make the frontcourt formidable enough to possibly win the league title. They might be overmatched on their Dec. 10 trip to Kentucky, but don’t be shocked if the Broncos hang around and cover what could be a pretty big number.

■ HARVARD — Last year was expected to be a huge season for the Crimson until an academic scandal rocked the program. They still won 20 games and an Ivy League title. Now, Harvard gets back two key players who were suspended last season to go with a solid group of returnees. This team will dominate the Ancient Eight and won’t be an underdog often, but could prove a good bet on trips to Colorado and Connecticut.

■ WRIGHT STATE — The Raiders came from nowhere last season to improve from 13 wins to 23 and missed out on the NCAA Tournament only because they let a big lead slip away against Valparaiso in the Horizon League title game. Nearly everyone returns from that team, and Wright State gets an early shot at Georgetown to see if it has taken another step forward.

■ WEBER STATE — Davion Berry and Kyle Tresnak form the best inside-outside tandem in the Big Sky and make the Wildcats a dangerous team again. They helped Weber State make a run through the Tournament last season and should be in a position to make noise in a more prestigious event in March. The Wildcats will provide early tests for Brigham Young and Colorado State.

■ TOLEDO — The Rockets were ineligible for the postseason last year but spent the season giving young players experience, which could set them up to make a run at the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1980. Ohio State transfer J.D. Weatherspoon joins the returning nucleus to make Toledo a dangerous team.

■ GEORGIA STATE — If Kentucky transfer Ryan Harrow, who started his career at North Carolina State, can finally harness his talent consistently, the Panthers could be scary good for the level. Look for Georgia State to put a scare into Vanderbilt in the first week of the season and potentially make noise in the Preseason NIT. The team should make the NCAA Tournament.

■ TOWSON — The Tigers won one game in 2011-12. They went 18-13 last season in a year in which they were ineligible for the postseason. All Towson was missing was a knockdown 3-point shooter, and it found one in Vermont transfer Four McGlynn. Towson gets to see where it stands quickly with early trips to Villanova and Kansas.

■ GREEN BAY — Accusations of player mistreatment by coach Brian Wardle appear to be behind this team, which is poised to make a run with the all-league duo of point guard Keifer Sykes and center Alec Brown. The Phoenix get two rare shots at major conference opponents at home when Wisconsin and Virginia visit. Neither team figures to come away with an easy win.

■ INDIANA STATE — Jake Odum, a four-year starter and All-Missouri Valley guard, leads a team that could finish second to Wichita State now that Creighton has left the league. The Sycamores wore down late last season, but not before winning in Wichita. They get two more cracks at the Shockers, plus a trip to Notre Dame to prove they are for real.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.

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