Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Who is this Year's George Mason?

First of all, to address the title question: the answer is a simple no. Ever since the Patriots reached the Final Four two seasons ago and several mid-majors made runs to the Sweet Sixteen since then, everyone assumes that there will be one or two non-BCS teams making deep runs to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, though, that was an extremely rare occurrence that we might not see for several years. Despite that, the main topic on everyone’s mind heading into the NCAA Tournament is the mid-major darkhorses that can pull upsets and advance past the first weekend.

With a couple of weeks of conference play finished, the picture is starting to become clearer in several conferences. However, for the one-bid conferences, their March Madness starts a few weeks before Selection Sunday, when the conference tournaments begin. In other words, the team in first place right now doesn’t really matter. It will only matter in early March. What sleepers are out there looking to create chaos in your bracket? I’ll guarantee that it comes from one of the teams listed below. And you can hold me to that.

Multiple-Bid Conferences

Atlantic-10: The A-10 went from a mediocre conference over the past couple of seasons to a legit four-bid league this year. Dayton and Rhode Island have led the resurgence, while Xavier has been one of the best teams in the country lately. Those three teams are likely guaranteed to make the NCAA Tournament. Dayton has the No. 4 RPI and No. 29 SOS, plus victories over Louisville, Pittsburgh and Rhode Island. However, it will be without Chris Wright for the next several weeks, so the Flyers will have to prove they can win without him. Rhode Island is also likely a lock for the Big Dance. It has the No. 15 RPI and a 7-2 record against the top-100. It also gets Dayton and Xavier at home the rest of the season. Xavier is in line for a top-4 seed if things stay the same. The Musketeers have been on a tear since going on a two-game losing streak, winning six straight games by an average of 27 points per game. After those three, Massachusetts and Saint Joseph’s will fight for the final bid. UMass has a solid RPI and SOS, but two sub-100 losses canceling out a win at Syracuse. St. Joe’s is just 2-4 against the top-100, but it has won five in a row, including a road at, who else, Massachusetts. Its four losses were by an average of less than five points per game, including two overtime contests.

Champion: Xavier
NCAA Tournament Teams: Xavier, Dayton, Rhode Island, Massachusetts

West Coast: This league is basically guaranteed of getting two bids this season, barring a collapse by either Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s in conference play. Despite common perception, the Zags actually have more to do within the WCC than Saint Mary’s does. Gonzaga has good power numbers, but it is just 5-4 against the top-100, with a game at Memphis still looming. The Bulldogs’ best wins are over Connecticut and at Saint Joseph’s. They can’t afford too many bad losses in the WCC. Saint Mary’s is in good shape. The Gaels have the No. 6 RPI and No. 15 SOS and an outstanding non-conference resume. They own wins over Drake, Oregon, Seton Hall, San Diego State and Ohio, with the only losses at Southern Illinois and Texas. It will be interesting to see if they can keep it up.

Champion: Gonzaga
NCAA Tournament Teams: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s

Potential Multi-Bid Leagues

Missouri Valley: This is certainly not the MVC of the past couple of years. Unlike those seasons, the conference will be lucky to get multiple bids this year. Southern Illinois was expected to win the league easily, but the Salukis have been a huge disappointment and aren’t going anywhere. Realistically, the MVC has three teams with a shot at an-large bid – and that may be pushing it. Drake and Illinois State have been two of the country’s biggest surprises. Drake is 14-1 (the lone loss at St. Mary’s) with the No. 18 RPI in the nation. It doesn’t have the most impressive non-conference resume, with wins over Duquesne, Iowa and Iowa State highlighting the docket. It could have trouble getting at an-large bid with too many MVC losses. Illinois State has a poor SOS and a decent RPI, but it also has a loss to Eastern Michigan canceling out a win over Cincinnati. On the plus side, the Redbirds have won eight straight, including four road games. Creighton doesn’t have much of a chance, due to its 1-3 top-100 record. It did beat DePaul, Nebraska and Saint Joseph’s, though.

Champion: Drake
NCAA Tournament Teams: Drake

Mountain West: Another league that is normally in the running for more than one bid that will likely have to settle for just an automatic invitation this season. There is just way too much parity in the league; if you asked five different people who follow the conference who the best team is, you might get five different answers. UNLV has the best power numbers best non-conference wins are over Nevada and Minnesota. The thing that the Rebels have going for them is that the league tournament is in Las Vegas. San Diego State had a decent resume until it lost to Northern Colorado at home last week, as did New Mexico until back-to-back losses to SDSU at home and TCU on the road. Utah has had plenty of close losses, but tight defeats don’t really matter in the big picture. Wins over California, Utah State and Missouri State could help. The preseason favorite, BYU, has fallen off lately after starting 10-2 with impressive performances against North Carolina and Michigan State. The Cougars have lost three of five, including a 29-point defeat at the hands of UNLV last night. It doesn’t seem that any team will be able to separate itself from the pack this season; if one does, that might be the only way the MWC gets more than one bid.

Champion: UNLV
NCAA Tournament Teams: UNLV

Horizon: Similar to last season, the Horizon is looking like a one-bid league unless a team besides Butler wins the conference tournament. Last year, Wright State took an at-large bid from the rest of the pack after winning the league tourney on its home floor. WSU won the regular season title last year, which gave them a huge edge heading into the Horizon tourney. Right now, Butler is a clear lock, with the No. 20 RPI, a 9-1 record away from home and eight wins over the top-100. Wright State looked like a contender, but it has lost three of four. Cleveland State, if it finishes with a gaudy Horizon record, could be a factor as it owns wins against South Florida and Florida State on the road and rising power numbers. Valparaiso has lost four of six, which drops them out of contention despite their decent RPI and close calls against big-name opponents.

Champion: Butler
NCAA Tournament Teams: Butler

Conference-USA: Going into the year, Conference-USA was supposed to have something of a resurgence after a one-bid campaign a season ago. However, it looks like more of the same this season, as Houston, UAB and Southern Miss have all faltered after entering the season as at-large contenders. Houston looked solid until it lost two in a row, dropping the Cougars’ RPI into the 100s while keeping the SOS in the mid-200s. UAB is 0-4 against the top-100 and is below .500 away from home, so the Blazers need to do a lot of work despite winning nine of their last 11. Southern Miss has been a severe disappointment, sitting at 5-7 with an RPI in the 200s. 11-4 UTEP, with two wins over New Mexico State, needs a great showing in the conference to enter the conversation. Yup, it looks like Memphis will be attending the Dance alone again this year. A No. 1 seed will accompany the Tigers, though.

Champion: Memphis
NCAA Tournament Teams: Memphis

One-Bid Conferences

America East: Maryland-Baltimore County: The preseason favorites faltered in the non-conference, and UMBC has arguably the most talent in the league. Brian Hodges and three D-I transfers all average at least 13.5 points per game for the Retrievers.

Atlantic Sun: Mercer: The team that upset USC to open the season could end up ending its season with a berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Bears are led by James Florence, one of the best players in what is shaping up to be a wide-open conference race.

Big Sky: Northern Arizona: The deep and balanced Lumberjacks are coming off an impressive 20-point victory over Montana State this past weekend. Kyle Landry is a beast down low. It is still early in league play, though, and Weber State and Portland State look like contenders.

Big South: Winthrop: It’s still hard to go against the Eagles, the perennial conference champion. They have wins at Miami (Fl.) and over Georgia Tech this season, and are led by sharpshooter Michael Jenkins. Look out for high-scoring VMI and Arizona Reid-led High Point, though.

Big West: Cal State Northridge: Always one of the most interesting league races in the country, it is no different this season. CS Northridge is 4-0 in the league, including a road win against UC Santa Barbara, who could be their biggest competition for the league crown.

Colonial: VCU: It looks like the Colonial is back to its one-bid status with a disappointing year from George Mason. The Rams are second in the league right now – to surprising 5-0 Delaware – but Eric Maynor and co. will be back in the Big Dance to upset another giant.

Ivy: Cornell: Is this the year someone finally breaks the Penn-Princeton stronghold in the Ivy? It sure looks like it, as the two perennial powers are a combined 7-22 overall. Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale are a formidable combo for the Big Red. Brown will contend.

MAAC: Siena: The high-scoring MAAC will feature another exciting race for the league title. Siena, led by Kenny Hasbrouck, upset Stanford earlier this season, but several other teams will be in the mix. Marist and Niagara are also 5-1 in the league, and Rider has Jason Thompson.

MAC: Kent State: The loaded MAC East will again be a victim of its own strength as no team will be able to separate itself as an at-large contender. The Golden Flashes own wins over Illinois State, Hampton, George Mason and Cleveland State. Mike Scott is very solid.

MEAC: Hampton: The Pirates are far and away the best team in the league. They own wins over VCU, Delaware, William & Mary and Tulsa as well as close losses to Maryland, George Mason, Kent State and Holy Cross. Rashad West can carry this team to impressive heights.

Northeast: Wagner: Another fairly wide-open league that features several contenders. Wagner is 5-0 and atop the conference, but Robert Morris is supremely talented and just beat Boston College on the road, while Sacred Heart beat RMU on the road this past weekend.

Ohio Valley: Austin Peay: I still think the Governors are going to give a higher-seeded team a very difficult time come March. Five guys average at least 9.2 points per game, led by all-conference performer Drake Reed. APU has won seven of its last eight.

Patriot: Holy Cross: The Crusaders opened conference play with a loss at Lafayette over the weekend, but no other team boasts a player like 6-11 Tim Clifford, who dominates inside. American, led by Derrick Mercer, beat Maryland on the road and is a solid group.

Southern: Davidson: Despite a disappointing non-conference showing, everyone’s preseason darlings are 6-0 in conference play. Stephen Curry is one of the best players in the country, and the Wildcats have shown they can hang with the top teams in the country.

Southland: Sam Houston State: This should be a very good league race between the Bearkats and Stephen F. Austin, who beat Oklahoma. Ryan Bright averages almost 12 and 12 per game down low for SHS, one of the best defensive teams in the country.

Summit: IUPUI: Another team that could potentially throw a huge scare into a higher-seeded team. The Jaguars defeated Massachusetts and don’t have a double-digit loss this season. George Hill is one of the best guards in the country. Don’t count out Oral Roberts, though.

Sun Belt: South Alabama: The Sun Belt boasts several quality teams, but USA is the best of the bunch, as evidenced by its impressive power numbers (No. 31 RPI), nine-game winning streak, victory over Mississippi State and the fact its three losses are by a combined 11 points to Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Miami (Ohio). Demetric Bennett is an outstanding guard.

SWAC: Jackson State: The winner is likely headed to the play-in game again, but the league with the No. 1 non-conference SOS will feature an exciting race. No team can boast the frontcourt duo of Grant Maxey and Jeremy Caldwell like Jackson State does, though.

WAC: New Mexico State: The Aggies had a very disappointing beginning to the season, but they have righted the ship and look to be contenders for the league title. The return of Hatila Passos (six-game suspension) and freshman phenom Herb Pope make them the favorites.

Sweet Sixteen Non-BCS Rankings
1. Memphis
2. Butler
3. Xavier
4. Dayton
5. Gonzaga
6. Rhode Island
7. Saint Mary’s
8. Drake
9. Illinois State
10. VCU
11. South Alabama
12. Kent State
13. Massachusetts
14. Davidson
15. UNLV
16. Sam Houston State

Others Teams to Watch: New Mexico State, San Diego State, Houston, Creighton, Charlotte, Saint Joseph’s, UAB, Austin Peay, Siena, Cal State Northridge, UC Santa Barbara, Cleveland State, Winthrop, Utah State, Nevada, Utah, BYU, New Mexico, IUPUI, Niagara, Hampton, Holy Cross


  1. Duquesne has a legit shot at being the 4th team out of the A10 this year, all 4 of their loses this season are against teams in the Top 25 (Pitt and Rhode Island) or receiving votes in the Top 25 (WVU and Drake).

    Duquesne has defeated 2 of the teams you list as "Other teams to watch" in Niagara and Cal State Northridge.

    Keep an eye out for Duquesne come NCAA time.

  2. I like Duquesne this year, I love their offense -- they have a lot of guys that can score the ball and they can beat anyone on a given night. However, I think they're sixth or seventh in the league this year -- Charlotte is playing very well lately.

  3. Coupla thoughts....If you ignore records a second and just look at who the teams have played and how they played them, I think Miami, OH will be the team to come out of the MAC and not Kent State. That's not really a slight against Kent State, as the MAC East is pretty solid from top to bottom. But as time wears on, I think Miami will separate themselves due to their tenacious defense. Their computer numbers are pretty impressive, too...though not as impressive as Kent's.

    Secondly, I think it's worth taking a second look at UNC-Asheville in the Big South. They really played well against Tennessee and North Carolina, and no other team in that conference is going to be able to cope with their size. They could, however, be hurt by his effectiveness if they have to play three games in three days in the Big South tourney.

  4. If you're going to talk down to UAB, you need to accurate give people the situation. At 12-5 overall and 2-0 in CUSA, UAB hasn't really underachieved when you consider the circumstances. About 4 games into the season, UAB lost 1 of only 2 seniors (an All-CUSA 1st Team PG no less). UAB also played half the 1st semester without Jeremy Mayfield and Channing Toney who were both 4-star prospects in high school. Both are now back. UAB has also lost another big player, Walter Sharpe, for academic reasons. UAB also had 2 freshmen declared academically ineligible.

    For UAB to be 12-5 given those circumstances, I wouldn't call that underachieving. UAB's still got some work to do, but UAB is probably the most likely team in CUSA to get an at-large bid.

  5. I didn't "talk down to UAB" at all. All I said was that they have a ton of work to do if they are going to get an at-large bid because of their 0-4 record against the top-100 and their below .500 record away from home.

    Would you not agree with that statement?

  6. I wouldn't say "a ton." If some of the RPI projections are correct, UTEP and Houston could both end up being Top 100 RPI teams. UAB plays UTEP twice and Houston once. UAB plays Memphis twice, and clearly they'll be a Top 100 team to say the least.

    Most of the projections I've seen estimate UAB to finish with an RPI of 55 or so... and that's factoring in losses @ UCF, @ UTEP, @ Memphis, and vs. Memphis. Of course that 55 ranking is just an estimate, but if UAB pulls up at least 1 upset of Memphis, UAB should be in fairly comfortably. And though that seems like a tall order, UAB is the last team to have beaten Memphis in CUSA play so UAB is as likely as anyone to pull off that win.

    What bothered me is the wording of the statement that UAB was supposed to be improved and the implication that we're not. First of all, UAB is improved. Secondly, UAB has dealt with a great deal of adversity this year. I'm not angry, but people do need to be aware of the adversity UAB has endured and yet still has managed a respectable 12-5 record overall.

  7. I gotta disagree with your WAC pick. Even though New Mexico State will have the conf tourney on their home court, they're a VERY flawed team with TONS of off the court issues that may or may not sort themselves out. Who knows if Pope is even ready to make significant contributions to NMSU? He's missed a lot of time while the rest of the guys have been playing together. Utah State's current win streak is one win less than New Mexico State's season win total. One of those wins was against New Mexico State head to head when Jaycee Carroll struggled to find his shot. Carroll won't have two bad games again NMSU, and Utah State has enough other weapons around Carroll to run the table in the WAC. Nevada is a dark horse in all of that too. They're a very good team who I think is going to be dangerous come March, and Javale Mcgee is emerging as a stud big man. And they still have Kemp, who seems to be less of the dominant factor he was with Fazekas and Sessions, but still very good. Keep an eye on Boise too. They flirted with an upset of USU earlier tonight in Logan, where Utah State is 136-12 now under Stew Morrill.

  8. From a Milwaukee Panther fan, great insight on the Horizon League. Cleveland State is putting together a very quality resume, and if they win the HL (and it looks like they well may after beating Butler last night to go two games up), CSU will have around a Top 25 RPI and give the HL two at-large locks. With the # of quality, Top 100 teams in the HL this season, don't be surprised to see a darkhorse like Wright State, Valpo, Milwaukee, or even GB steal the automatic and give the HL three teams for the first time in a while.

    Keep up the great breakdowns, it makes following all the conferences throughout the season a lot easier!

  9. Boy was I off base with my Miami, OH prediction. Looks like Kent really is the pick of the litter.

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