Who's this year's Butler?
First of all, to address the above question: the answer is most likely going to be a simple, “no one.” With Butler coming within a few inches of a national championship last year and George Mason reaching the Final Four in 2006, 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: This is shaping up to be a crowded race at the top of the standings. Duquesne and Xavier are 6-0, with Richmond right behind them at 5-1. The best bet for an at-large bid might be Temple, though. The Owls are 4-2 in the league, but own wins over Georgetown, Georgia and Maryland and zero losses outside the top 100. They need to stay within striking distance of first-place, though. Xavier has the best RPI in the conference, at 27, and has already defeated Temple. Outside of that win, though, the Musketeers don’t have a win against a team that’s a lock for the Big Dance. Duquesne is undefeated in the league, but the Dukes have poor power numbers and only a win over Temple on its resume. They need to roll through the A-10. Richmond is picking up momentum, adding a win at Dayton to a resume that includes wins over Purdue and VCU. The Spiders have some questionable losses, though. Dayton is on the way down, losing at home to Richmond in a must-win contest. If the Flyers lose at Duquesne this weekend, they might be done. Wins over George Mason, New Mexico and Mississippi are countered by losses to East Tennessee State and Massachusetts. Rhode Island is in the mix, but the Rams will need to pick up some impressive wins in A-10 play.
- Champion: Duquesne
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Temple, Xavier
Mountain West: It’s almost unfair to include the MWC in this article, as it is probably better than at least two BCS conferences this season. It’s also a lock for multiple bids – likely multiple teams in the top-four seed lines. San Diego State was in the mix for a No. 1 seed before its loss last night at BYU. The Aztecs have seven top-100 wins, including victories over Saint Mary’s, Wichita State, UNLV and Gonzaga. They also have impressive power numbers, with an RPI of 4 and an SOS of 35. BYU has the No. 1 RPI in the country, and its win over San Diego State last night gives some oomph to the profile. The Cougars now have six top-50 wins and are 10-1 away from home. These two are locks for the NCAA Tournament. After that, it gets interesting. UNLV was looking great, but the Runnin’ Rebels have lost five of their last 12 games, including three at home. They have wins over Wisconsin, Kansas State and Virginia Tech, but a loss to UC Santa Barbara is an eyesore. New Mexico has low RPI numbers and only a win over Colorado on its resume; that 2-4 MWC record isn’t getting it done. Colorado State has been making a run at the bubble, and is now in the top-50 of the RPI. The Rams have a nice win at UNLV, but losses to Hampton and Sam Houston State more than cancel that out. They need to pick up some quality wins the rest of the way.
- Champion: San Diego State
- NCAA Tournament Teams: San Diego State, BYU, UNLV
Potential Multi-Bid Leagues
Colonial: The CAA is going to have a fantastic race down the stretch for the regular-season title. Right now, VCU and Hofstra are tied at the top with 8-1 records, while George Mason and Old Dominion are in striking distance. The best at-large profile belongs to Old Dominion. The Monarchs have the No. 31 RPI, as well as wins over Xavier, Richmond, Dayton and George Mason. They are 7-4 against the top-100, but do have a loss to Delaware on the resume. However, finishing fourth in the CAA wouldn’t look good. VCU doesn’t have the power numbers that Old Dominion has, but the Rams defeated the Monarchs on the road and sit tied for first. They also defeated UCLA in New York back in November. Like ODU, the Rams have a bad loss – at Georgia State – and a defeat to South Florida doesn’t look good, either. They need to have a gaudy record in CAA play. George Mason has the league’s best RPI, at No. 30, but its best non-conference wins are over Duquesne and Harvard. A loss to Wofford also brings the resume down. The Patriots will need to beat ODU and VCU in league play. Hofstra might be tied for the league lead, but the Pride only have a win over George Mason and several bad losses.
- Champion: VCU
- NCAA Tournament Teams: VCU, Old Dominion
Missouri Valley: Normally, the Missouri Valley has at least one team that seems like a lock for the NCAA Tournament. This season, there are two borderline at-large candidates, and neither is likely to go through the rough MVC slate without a few bumps. Missouri State is 9-1 in the league, with the only loss coming on a last-second shot at Indiana State. The Bears have a solid RPI, but their best win is over Wichita State and they don’t own a remotely impressive non-conference victory. They also have a loss at Tulsa. They might have to finish with only one or two losses the rest of the way. Wichita State’s late loss to Connecticut in Maui is still coming back to haunt them, as the Shockers have zero top-100 wins, going 0-4 in those games. They have a shot at Missouri State in the season finale, but that might not be enough if they lose more than two games down the stretch.
- Champion: Missouri State
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Wichita State
West Coast: The tides have turned in the WCC this season. No longer is Gonzaga the hunted – the Bulldogs are currently in third-place after back-to-back road losses to Santa Clara and San Francisco. Despite that, Gonzaga will still be in the mix for an at-large bid, as will Saint Mary’s. The Gaels sit atop the standings at 5-0, although they are coming off a blowout loss to Vanderbilt. They have a top-40 RPI, but the SOS is quite low. SMC’s best win is over Saint John’s, back in mid-November. They don’t have any bad losses, but a loss to anyone but Gonzaga or Portland in the WCC would be a sub-100 defeat. Gonzaga, as we mentioned earlier, is still in the hunt despite a couple of bad losses. The Bulldogs own a collection of solid wins, with victories over Xavier, Marquette, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Their power numbers are surprisingly low, though, but a home game against Memphis next week gives them another shot at a decent win.
- Champion: Saint Mary’s
- NCAA Tournament Teams: Saint Mary’s
One-Bid Conferences Unless Favorite Loses
Conference-USA: After UCF’s hot start, many assumed Conference-USA would be heading for a multiple-bid season. Not so fast. The Knights have completely fallen off in conference play, starting 1-5, including losses to Rice, Houston and East Carolina. Wins over Florida and Miami (Fl.) aren’t going to matter with such a bad league record. The only true hope for an at-large bid in C-USA this season is – surprise, surprise – Memphis. The Tigers don’t have much in the way of quality wins, but they have the No. 37 RPI and are 5-3 against the top-100. A loss to SMU is a problem right now, but if the Tigers roll through the league with only one more loss, that might be enough – provided they beat Gonzaga next week. UAB has a decent RPI, but they have no top-50 wins and its best non-conference win was over VCU. Southern Miss has padded its record with sub-100 victories – the committee will see through that.
Horizon: Although Butler is not in first-place right now, the Bulldogs are the Horizon’s only shot at an at-large bid this season. They have wins over Florida State and Washington State, and have also defeated Cleveland State and Valparaiso within the conference. However, their resume is also littered with a quartet of sub-100 losses. They will need to win the regular-season title if they want a shot at an at-large. Cleveland State has the league’s best RPI, but the Vikings don’t own any impressive wins and have a mostly empty resume.
Ivy: This is a long shot, but don’t overlook Harvard if it goes undefeated in Ivy League play. The Crimson have wins over Boston College and Colorado, and their RPI is currently in the 50s. Although they don’t have any bad losses, nearly any defeat in the league will weigh down the resume and the RPI is bound to drop with so many sub-150s on the schedule.
WAC: Utah State is going to run away with the WAC title, but that doesn’t mean the Aggies are a lock for the Big Dance. They have a solid RPI, 38, but they don’t have any top-100 wins. The best win right now is over Long Beach State – not overly impressive. Moreover, they don’t face a team the rest of the way with an RPI better than 154, aside from whomever they face in the Bracket Busters. They might need to go undefeated in conference play.
America East: Maine. The Black Bears have the league’s best offense and also lead the conference in field-goal percentage defense. Moreover, Troy Barnies and co. have already defeated second-place Vermont on the road.
Atlantic Sun: Belmont. The Bruins suffered their first loss in the A-Sun this week against Lipscomb, but they are still the heavy favorite. Ian Clark leads a very deep and balanced group that can cause problems in March.
Big Sky: Montana. Northern Colorado is undefeated and atop the standings, but Montana is a great inside-outside duo in Will Cherry and Brian Qvale. Moreover, the Grizzlies have experience after last season’s NCAA run.
Big South: Coastal Carolina. This is an interesting race. Coastal Carolina is undefeated, but leading rebounder Mike Holmes was just booted off the team. With that said, the Chanticleers still have Desmond Holloway and Chad Gray.
Big West: Long Beach State. I was heavy on the UC-Santa Barbara bandwagon, but after watching LBSU beat UCSB on the road in December, it’s tough to bet against LBSU’s explosive and balanced offense. This is a tough out.
MAC: Kent State. An absolutely wide-open conference – any team can come out of this league with the bid. I’m going with the Golden Flashes. Forwarrd Justin Greene is a difficult match-up, and the roster is filled with experience.
MAAC: Fairfield. The Stags were my mid-major darling before the season started, and after early struggles, they’re back in my good graces. They play lockdown defense, and Derek Needham is one of the best point guards you’ve never heard of.
MEAC: Morgan State. Hampton plays tremendous defense, but Morgan State’s frontcourt duo of big man Kevin Thompson and match-up nightmare Dewayne Jackson is going to be too much. The Bears are battle-tested in March.
Northeast: Quinnipiac. The Bobcats are struggling right now, but once they get 20-10 threat Justin Rutty back from injury, he and James Johnson will form the best one-two punch in the league. They do need to shore up their defense, though.
Ohio Valley: Murray State. Yes, the Racers have struggled this season, but aggressive half-court defense and experience at the other end will get them a bid. They are also extremely balanced offensively – no one has scored 20 points in a game.
Patriot: Bucknell. At 6-0, the Bison are the heavy favorite for the rest of the season. They take care of the ball and shoot well from deep offensively, and they force difficult shots at the other end. Mike Muscala is a very solid inside player.
Southern: Charleston. I originally had Wofford, but I can’t see myself going against Andrew Goudelock. He is capable of putting the team on his back and carrying them to the Dance. Moreover, Jeremy Simmons is a solid inside option.
Southland: Stephen F. Austin. This might be the most wide-open league in the country – every team but one is within 1.5 games of first place. The Lumberjacks, though, play tremendous half-court defense and have a balanced offense.
Summit: Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies received national pub earlier this season when they nearly beat Michigan State and then defeated Tennessee. Keith Benson is one of the best big men in the country, and Reggie Hamilton can score from the perimeter.
Sun Belt: North Texas. It should be a fun conference race and tournament, but the Mean Green get the edge here. They are very efficient offensively and have high-major athleticism. Tristan Thompson and Josh White are solid guards and George Odufuwa is a double-double guy.
SWAC: Texas Southern. The worst league in the country by a wide margin, but it does have three teams tied for first. Texas Southern has so many ways to hurt you offensively, with Kevin Galloway one of the most productive players around.
Sweet Sixteen Non-BCS Rankings
- 1. San Diego State
- 2. BYU
- 3. Temple
- 4. UNLV
- 5. Saint Mary’s
- 6. Richmond
- 7. Utah State
- 8. Butler
- 9. Memphis
- 10. VCU
- 11. Gonzaga
- 12. Xavier
- 13. Old Dominion
- 14. Wichita State
- 15. Missouri State
- 16. Colorado State
Other Teams to Watch: George Mason, Harvard, Belmont, Long Beach State, Fairfield, Murray State, Charleston, Oakland, Cleveland State, Coastal Carolina