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 four seasons ago and the Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight two years ago, 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 every year. 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.
Atlantic-10: The A-10 is clearly the best non-BCS conference in the country this season, with a legitimate chance of getting five bids to the NCAA Tournament. Currently, there are six teams in the mix for invitations to the Big Dance, but only one lock. Temple has a shot at a top-four seed, as the Owls have a top-20 RPI and three top-25 wins. After that, though, it’s wide-open. Xavier is probably in the best shape of the bunch, with the No. 11 SOS and four top-50 wins. Unfortunately, the Musketeers are 1-5 against the top-25. Rhode Island has the best RPI in the league, No. 12 in the country. The Rams are 5-3 against the top-100 and 8-2 away from home. Next in line would be Richmond, which has very solid non-conference wins over Mississippi State, Missouri, Florida and Old Dominion but a No. 38 RPI and a bad loss to Saint Louis. Dayton was the preseason favorite to win the league and looked good after beating Georgia Tech in the second game of the season. However, now the Flyers are only 4-3 in the A-10 and have a loss at Saint Joseph’s on their resume. They have just two top-100 wins and are 0-5 against the top-25. Charlotte has snuck up on some people this year, and the 49ers are building quite a resume. They have a terrible non-conference SOS (No. 214), but wins at Louisville and Richmond, as well as over Temple. Moreover, they are on a five-game winning streak.
- Champion: Temple
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Temple, Xavier, Rhode Island, Richmond, Dayton
Conference-USA: With Memphis falling back this season, Conference-USA has been a joy to watch. There are three teams tied atop the conference at 6-1, and there is not an at-large lock in the bunch. In the best shape of the group is clearly UAB, which owns a top-30 RPI and wins over Butler and Cincinnati. The Blazers own a ton of close wins, which could come back to bite them later in the season. Following UAB in the pecking order would likely be UTEP, which needs to be judged on its resume with Derrick Caracter. Overall, the Miners are 4-4 against the top-100, including road wins at UAB and at Memphis. They do need to improve on their No. 72 RPI, though. Tulsa was the preseason favorite, but the Golden Hurricane have just one top-100 win and nothing too noteworthy on their resume. They do have road games at Duke, Memphis and UTEP remaining, as well as a pair of games with Marshall, so opportunities remain. Memphis is slipping, especially after its loss to SMU over the weekend. The Tigers are 2-4 against the top-100 with its best win coming at Marshall. Speaking of Marshall, the Thundering Herd have been competitive this season, but their 0-5 top-100 record won’t cut it.
- Champion: UTEP
- NCAA Tournament Teams: UAB, UTEP
Mountain West: Another fun conference to keep an eye on, the Mountain West is almost guaranteed at least three bids this season. BYU is the best team in the conference, and could be a team to watch come March. The Cougars are 20-2 overall, with a top-20 RPI. They don’t have a truly marquee win, although road wins at Arizona, UTEP and San Diego State are looking better. They are 7-2 against the top-100. New Mexico, with its No. 11 RPI and 8-2 top-100 record, is in good shape as well. The Lobos could be in the mix for a top-four seed if they keep this up. They own wins over BYU, Texas A&M, California, Dayton and Texas Tech. The third in line is UNLV, which has six top-100 wins and an RPI around 40. The Runnin’ Rebels non-conference SOS was in the 200s, but wins over Arizona, Louisville, New Mexico and San Diego State are solid. They will need to keep winning, though. San Diego State has lost three of six, and doesn’t have much on its resume besides wins over New Mexico and Arizona. With a 2-5 top-100 record, the Aztecs need to add heft to their resume.
- Champion: BYU
- NCAA Tournament Teams: BYU, New Mexico, UNLV
Potential Multi-Bid Leagues
Colonial: The CAA has four teams with at least 14 wins, but none are locks for an at-large bid and the way they keep beating up on each other could lead to trouble. William & Mary looked well on its way towards a berth with non-conference wins over Richmond, Wake Forest and Maryland, but three consecutive losses in late January have put those chances in peril. With an RPI hovering around 50, William & Mary needs to get back on the winning track. Old Dominion might have the best at-large profile right now, with a 9-2 conference record to go with non-conference wins over Georgetown, Marshall and Charlotte. The Monarchs have also already defeated William & Mary. Northeastern is also 9-2 in the league, but the Huskies have bad losses to Boston University, Western Michigan and twice to Drexel. However, they are 5-4 against the top-100 and have a rising RPI. Keep an eye on them. VCU owns wins over Rhode Island, Richmond and Oklahoma, as well as a victory over William & Mary. However, the Rams already have four CAA losses and need to finish strong to have a chance. George Mason leads the league with a 10-1 record, but the Patriots have no shot unless they win the automatic bid.
- Champion: Northeastern
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Northeastern, Old Dominion
Missouri Valley: Unlike in some 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 with a 10-1 record and by far the league’s best profile. The Panthers are 19-2 overall and 6-1 against the top-100. Unfortunately, they don’t own any marquee victories, and their best non-league wins are over Siena and Boston College. If they win out until the MVC title game, they will still likely get a bid – but it isn’t a sure thing. Wichita State is the only other team with a legitimate shot at a bid. The Shockers have defeated Northern Iowa, and also own a win over Texas Tech. They are 4-1 against the top-100, but have some bad losses against sub-100 MVC teams. Their non-conference SOS (No. 329) is an eyesore.
- Champion: Northern Iowa
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Northern Iowa
West Coast: The WCC is once again Gonzaga’s league to lose, but there are still at-large possibilities in the conference. The Bulldogs have surprised some this season, and were in line for a top-four seed before their loss to San Francisco over the weekend. They have seven top-100 wins, including victories over Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Illinois and Saint Mary’s. One thing going against Gonzaga and its seeding is the fact it plays its last six games against sub-180 RPI teams. Saint Mary’s looks solid right now, with its 18-3 record and No. 35 RPI. The Gaels are 6-3 against the top-100, with wins over Utah State, San Diego State and Northeastern. However, none of those are marquee wins. The Gaels lost the first meeting with Gonzaga, and a road win against the Bulldogs would be huge.
- Champion: Gonzaga
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s
One-Bid Conferences Unless Favorite Loses
Horizon: Although Butler isn’t playing as well as predicted in the preseason, the Bulldogs are hitting their stride and will more than likely wear white jerseys during the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They have wins over Ohio State, Xavier and Northwestern and are undefeated in the Horizon League. However, Butler is only 3-4 against the top-100, and only a BracketBusters match-up with Siena remains for the Bulldogs against the top-100. They should solidly make the Big Dance, but they shouldn’t slip up too many times down the stretch.
Ivy: With its shellacking of Harvard over the weekend, Cornell clearly established itself as the team to beat in the Ivy League. The Big Red have the No. 33 RPI and are 11-2 away from home. However, their best wins are over middling majors Alabama and St. John’s, and Harvard is their only top-70 win. Of course, there are not many opportunities in league play to enhance their profile, meaning that the return battle at Harvard will decide a lot. A loss to the Crimson, and (providing Harvard wins the rest of its games) the two teams will need to play a one-game playoff for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament. I’m not sure Cornell has the profile to get a bid if it loses to Harvard twice.
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, that might not matter. The Saints are rolling through conference play, sitting at 12-0 and owning the nation’s longest current winning streak at 13 games. However, the at-large profile isn’t all that impressive, with the best win coming over Northeastern. A victory over Butler in BracketBusters is necessary. This team will be squarely on the bubble should they lose in the MAAC Tournament.
WAC: The WAC will likely not get two bids to the NCAA Tournament, but it will feature a good race for the league title and could produce a team on the periphery of the bubble. Utah State and Louisiana Tech – along with New Mexico State – are tied atop the conference at 6-2. USU has won six in a row after struggling a bit, and a win over BYU will look good on the resume come March. Losses to Utah and Long Beach State don’t help. Louisiana Tech lost two of three after starting 17-2, and its at-large hopes are faint, at best. The Bulldogs’ best non-league win is over Murray State – that won’t cut it. NMSU and La Tech have more firepower than Utah State, but the Aggies have the experience to get the nod.
America East: Vermont. Marquis Blakely is the league’s best player, and he is impossible to stop on the interior. Former Michigan State transfer Maurice Joseph provides perimeter punch for the Catamounts.
Atlantic Sun: Lipscomb. It should be a wide-open hunt for the auto-bid, with six teams above .500 in the league. The Bisons have been inconsistent, but they have the inside-outside combo to get it done in Josh Slater and Adnan Hodzic.
Big Sky: Weber State. Northern Colorado was a nice story for most of the season, but Weber State has the most experience in the league. Guard Damian Lillard is one of the more productive all-around guards at the mid-major level.
Big South: Radford. Coastal Carolina and Radford should battle for first-place all season long, but the Highlanders have Art Parakhouski down low and two more dominant frontcourt players in Lazar Trifunovic and Joey Lynch-Flohr.
Big West: Pacific. The Tigers might not have the most firepower in the conference, but they are leading the league with a 7-1 record, with the only loss coming by one point. They are deep and balanced, and have enough to get the bid.
MEAC: Morgan State. The MEAC won’t feature much of a race, as the Bears are currently undefeated and coasting towards a title. Reggie Holmes can absolutely fill it up from the perimeter, while Kevin Thompson is a double-double machine down low.
Northeast: Quinnipiac. Although the winner could be destined for the play-in game, the Bobcats vs. Robert Morris could be a good battle. In the end, Quinnipiac’s scoring balance and versatility – especially James Feldeine and Justin Rutty – will make the difference.
Ohio Valley: Murray State. Look out for the Racers in the NCAA Tournament. They are undefeated in the OVC, and are very deep and talented. Five players average in double-figures, and MSU is dynamite defensively.
Patriot: Lehigh. No team really stands out in this league, but the Mountain Hawks look solid. C.J. McCollum can really shoot it from distance, while Marquis Hall is an excellent distributor. Gabe Knutson and Zahir Carrington are effective down low.
Southern: Wofford. There are several candidates in this league, but the edge goes to Wofford. The Terriers have won 11 of their last 13, including seven of eight conference games. Forward Noah Dahlman is good enough to carry them, but they are ridiculously deep as well.
Southland: Sam Houston State. The Bearkats are undefeated in conference play, and their offense is hitting on all cylinders. Corey Allmond and Ashton Mitchell form an excellent backcourt, while Gilbert Clavell is the main man up front.
Summit: Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies have the weapons to throw a scare into a first-round opponent. Keith Benson is a legit big man down low, while Johnathon Jones is a terrific distributor. Derick Nelson can fill it up at forward.
Sun Belt: Troy. With seven teams above .500 in the league (not including Western Kentucky), it is basically a crapshoot at this point. However, the Trojans are loaded on the perimeter with scorers and shooters, and former Alabama transfer Yamene Coleman is a load down low.
SWAC: Texas Southern. Jackson State has a one-game lead on the Tigers, but Tex. Southern already won at JSU. DeAndre Hall and Junior Treasure are a very explosive guard duo, and forward Travele Jones provides scoring and rebounding.
Sweet Sixteen Non-BCS Rankings
- 1. BYU
- 2. New Mexico
- 3. Butler
- 4. Northern Iowa
- 5. Temple
- 6. Gonzaga
- 7. Siena
- 8. Cornell
- 9. Saint Mary’s
- 10. UAB
- 11. UNLV
- 12. Xavier
- 13. UTEP
- 14. Old Dominion
- 15. Rhode Island
- 16. Murray State
Other Teams to Watch: Dayton, Richmond, Tulsa, Charlotte, Northeastern, William & Mary, Wichita State, Oakland, Utah State, Louisiana Tech, Memphis, San Diego State, VCU, Harvard