Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mid-Major Madness

Who's this year's Davidson?

First of all, to address the above question: the answer is most likely going to be a simple, “no one.” Ever since George Mason reached the Final Four three seasons ago and the Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight last year, everyone assumes that there will be one or two non-BCS teams making deep runs to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, though, those were rare occurrences that we might not see for a few 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 almost a month 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 is very likely to get more than one big to the NCAA Tournament this season. Xavier is a lock. The Musketeers are one of the best teams in the country, and could put themselves in line for a top three or four seed come Selection Sunday. They have a top-five RPI, a terrific non-conference resume and an 8-2 record against the top-100 of the RPI. They just need to continue to win in order to get a top-four seed. Dayton is the next in line for the conference. The Flyers have an excellent 18-2 record, but outside of their win over Marquette, the profile lacks substance. A loss to Massachusetts doesn’t help matters. Their SOS is in the 200s and they have played just five games against the top-100 of the RPI. After that, Temple and Saint Joseph’s are the only ones who harbor even remote at-large hopes. The Owls have decent computer numbers and wins over Tennessee and Penn State, but they have seven losses, include two sub-100 losses. St. Joe’s is right on the heels of Xavier in the A-10 race, but it is 0-3 against the top-50 and the best non-conference win is over Cornell.

NCAA Tournament Teams: Xavier, Dayton

West Coast: The WCC is essentially guaranteed multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament barring a complete collapse by Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s in conference play. Both teams are in the top 25 and look to be second-weekend threats in March. Gonzaga struggled in December, losing four of five games. However, the Bulldogs have won six straight since then, all by double-figures. They have average computer numbers, but two wins over Tennessee, both away from home, look good. Saint Mary’s hasn’t even played a team that will likely be in the NCAA Tournament, but the Gaels are 18-1 and can only improve on their awful strength of schedule. A win over Gonzaga is a necessity for the most part.

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

Potential Multi-Bid Leagues

Conference-USA: Unless Memphis loses in the conference tournament, C-USA is only likely to get one bid. However, unlike the leagues in the next category, there are actually teams that could develop profiles for an at-large bid. The Tigers are getting better and better and will be in line for a top-four seed should things continue to progress in this way. They have very good computer numbers and a 7-3 record against the top-100 – although the 1-3 vs. the top-25 is not attractive. The road win at Tennessee over the weekend was crucial. Outside of Memphis, UAB is the best bet for an at-large bid, but the Blazers’ 0-4 record vs. the top-50 and 2-7 record vs. the top-100 are not going to cut it. Beating Memphis and losing only one or two other games might be the only way to get a bid. Tulsa has marginal computer numbers and a 3-5 top-100 record, but the Golden Hurricane are not going to get a bid unless they basically run the table.

Champion: Memphis
NCAA Tournament Teams: Memphis

Missouri Valley: Unlike in past years, the MVC does not have a litany of teams with similar resumes and potential at-large hopes. This season, Northern Iowa leads the conference at 8-1, and then six teams are within two games of each other after the Panthers. The only true at-large hopeful out of that group is Illinois State. The Redbirds started the season 14-0 before dropping two straight and going 3-3 since then. Outside of an RPI of 58, they have awful computer numbers and no marquee wins. Their best non-league win over Wright State. They need to have a very gaudy record if they want an at-large bid. Creighton has an outside shot, but the Blue Jays have a few bad losses and not enough quality wins. They are 5-4 against the top-100, though. What about Northern Iowa? Well, the Panthers were just 6-5 in non-conference play and will need to finish MVC play with no more than three losses if they even want consideration.

Champion: Northern Iowa
NCAA Tournament Teams: Northern Iowa

Mountain West: What an absolute mess this conference has turned out to be. Heading into the season, UNLV and BYU were thought to be the two best teams in the conference. However, before Utah beat BYU Tuesday night in overtime, six teams had two conference losses. Out of that group, UNLV, Utah and BYU are the main at-large hopefuls. San Diego State has to do a ton of work in order to get consideration. UNLV has a top-50 RPI, two top-25 wins and a 7-3 record vs. the top-100. The Runnin’ Rebels win over Louisville is looking better and better. Losses to TCU and Colorado State aren’t helping matters, though, and neither is the No. 187-ranked SOS. Utah boosted its profile with the home win Tuesday night over BYU in overtime, which might push the Utes’ RPI even higher. They have six wins against the top-100, including victories over Gonzaga and LSU, and their computer numbers are outstanding. 1-4 against the top-50 leads the negatives, while a couple of bad losses don’t help, either. BYU could have used a road win at Utah, but blowing a second-half lead put the Cougars back in tenuous territory. The loss dropped them to .500 in the conference, and pushed them to 0-3 vs. the top-25 in the RPI. They have come up just short against each of those top-25 teams that they have played, though. However, quality wins need to start accumulating for BYU.

Champion: UNLV
NCAA Tournament Teams: UNLV, Utah

One-Bid Conferences Unless Favorite Loses

Horizon: Cleveland State fell off after its win at Syracuse and Wright State started too slow, leaving Butler as the only likely representative from the Horizon. The Bulldogs have a great resume and could be in line for a top-four seed if they keep winning. They have a top-10 RPI, the No. 4 non-conference RPI, an 8-1 record against the top-100 and a victory at Xavier. Not to mention, their record of 17-1 is pretty impressive. The computer numbers will drop as the season progresses, but Butler is a lock.

MAAC: This league is not definitely going to get two bids if Siena loses in the conference tournament, but with the way the Saints are playing, it won’t matter, either. They are 10-0 in league play, including double-digit wins over the second and third-place teams. However, their non-conference campaign didn’t bring any marquee wins, as the Saints missed chances against Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Kansas. The best victories are over Saint Joseph’s, Buffalo and Cornell. However, they are 7-0 against teams ranked from 51-100, and have a top-20 RPI. They will be squarely on the bubble should they lose in the MAAC Tournament.

Southern: It’s Davidson or bust for the Southern Conference. The Wildcats are 9-0 in the league and haven’t had a single-digit league game since late December. They are clearly the class of the league, but Charleston is only two games back and only lost by four in the first meeting. Should Davidson lose, it will be an interesting case. The RPI is good, but the SOS is in the triple-digits, and they are only 1-3 against the top-100. The one win is over West Virginia, though, which is very impressive. Can Davidson be this year’s Davidson?

WAC: Like the MAAC, it is not a certainty that the WAC will get two bids if Utah State loses in the conference tournament. However, the Aggies have won 14 in a row and are sitting at 7-0 in the conference. Their 18-1 record is very impressive on paper. On the other hand, though, their SOS is in the mid-200s and their non-conference SOS is even worse. They are 3-1 against the top-100, but playing only four of 20 games against the top-100 stands out. The win over Utah looks better than it did when it originally happened. They will make for a very intriguing case.

One-Bid Conferences

America East: Vermont: The Catamounts have won five straight games in conference play, and they are led by the best inside-outside combo in the league in guard Mike Trimboli and forward Marquis Blakely.

Atlantic Sun: Jacksonville: There are only three teams with a shot in this league, and the Dolphins have the most balance and have won eight in a row. They lost to four of five BCS teams by single-digits.

Big Sky: Portland State: The Vikings beat Gonzaga and nearly knocked off Washington. They have plenty of options offensively and could be a first-round upset threat. The 14-point home loss to Weber State is slightly worrisome.

Big South: Liberty: The third-place Flames’ last two losses were both in double-overtime and their previous four losses were by five or fewer points. Seth Curry is a scoring machine and Anthony Smith is tough inside.

Big West: Cal State Northridge: If the Matadors get leading scorer Deon Tresvant back from suspension, they will be even more dangerous. They have five players averaging in double-figures, and are solid defensively.

Colonial: VCU: Despite the Rams’ home loss to Northeastern Tuesday night, VCU is still the favorite. They have Anthony Grant, Eric Maynor and the experience in March to win the always-competitive CAA crown.

Ivy: Cornell: One of just two teams above .500 in the league, the Big Red are 8-1 since guard Louis Dale returned at full strength. Combine him with Ryan Wittman, and you might have the two best players in the league.

MAC: Buffalo: The typically wide-open league no different this year. Miami (Ohio) has great computer numbers, but Buffalo has proven they can win on the road. Plus, Rodney Pierce is one of the best in the conference.

Morgan State: No team is above .500 against D-1 opponents, but the Bears are the best of the bunch. They have beaten DePaul and Maryland on the road, and Reggie Holmes is one of the better guards in the MEAC.

Northeast: Mount St. Mary’s: It will come down to Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary’s. Both are playing well right now, but MSM has the scoring versatility and experience to get the edge. Jeremy Goode can carry this team.

Ohio Valley: Tennessee-Martin: The Skyhawks have won 12 of their past 13 games, and have the best player in the league in Lester Hudson. He can get this team to the Big Dance with the way he lights up a scoreboard.

Patriot: American: The Eagles had won six in a row before falling at first-place Holy Cross, but will end up on top come March. Garrison Carr can really shoot, and Derrick Mercer is an excellent point guard. AU has experience, too.

Southland: Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks defeated North Dakota State and Drake earlier this year, and have the best frontcourt duo in the conference in gunner Josh Alexander and center Matt Kingsley.

Summit: North Dakota State: The Bison have won six in a row, and are tied with Oral Roberts atop the league standings. Ben Woodside and Brett Winkelman form a highly-productive inside-outside tandem.

Sun Belt: Western Kentucky: No two bids for the Sun Belt this season, but WKU will make a return trip to the Dance. The Hilltoppers have defeated Louisville, Georgia and Southern Illinois and have a plethora of scorers.

SWAC: Jackson State: Certainly the worst conference in America, but it will have a tight title race. In the end, JSU, with Grant Maxey and Jeremy Caldwell on the inside, and Darrion Griffin on the outside, will take it.

Sweet Sixteen Non-BCS Rankings
1. Xavier
2. Memphis
3. Butler
4. Gonzaga
5. Saint Mary’s
6. Davidson
8. Siena
9. Utah
10. BYU
11. Dayton
12. Utah State
13. VCU
14. Northern Iowa
15. Illinois State
16. UAB

Other Teams to Watch: Saint Joseph’s, Tulsa, San Diego State, Buffalo, Portland State, Northeastern, George Mason, College of Charleston, Creighton, Cornell, North Dakota State, Western Kentucky, American, Temple

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