With each passing week, one near fact emerges in this college basketball season. No one team is dominant this year. The eventual national champion might be a middle of the pack team in its own conference today. A mid-major team or two might be poised to make it to the Final Four. A good dozen at-large teams that will be awarded will probably be weaker than NIT teams of recent years. Of the 46 or 47 at-large bids that will be awarded, probably no more than 25 to 30 will really deserve that invitation this year.
Let’s take a look at how our 32 geniuses bracketed the teams this week. Most agreed on 63 of the 68 participants, not counting any disagreements in which teams will represent the one-bid leagues.
Stony Brook’s (10-0/19-4) winning streak has now extended to 15 games. The Seawolves followed up their win at Vermont (6-4/14-11) the previous week with consecutive blowouts over two bottom-division conference foes. The league faces a three-game week, and Stony Brook’s contest at New Hampshire (6-3/13-9) on Sunday figures to be the key game.
Albany (8-2/19-6) plays at New Hampshire Thursday night, and the Great Danes still have a home game with Stony Brook, but it may be a little too late to overtake the Seawolves for the top seed. Albany edged SBU by a point in last year’s conference tournament championship, and the two teams may be headed to a rematch on the Seawolves’ home floor this year.
This race got interesting last week. North Florida (7-2/18-8) fell twice, once at home to a Stetson team that is just one game ahead of last place. Meanwhile, Jacksonville (7-2/15-11) ran its winning streak to five games including a second win over Florida Gulf Coast (5-4/14-11). Don’t overlook NJIT (5-4/14-11). The Highlanders, in their first year in the league, could be a tough out in Newark, where all conference tournament games are played on campus sites of the better seeds.
The top two teams both suffered losses last week, and now the rest of the field is closing in. Montana (9-2/14-8) and Weber State (8-2/16-7) were picked one-two in most preseason polls, and Eastern Washington (7-4/13-10) was the consensus third place choice, so this league is holding to form. The one surprise is the Fighting Hawks of North Dakota (7-4/12-10). There is no clear-cut leader as the race enters its final weeks.
Six of the 11 schools in this league are still in contention for the top seed, and it promises to lead to an exciting conference tournament in Buies Creek, North Carolina, home to current last place team Campbell. Until somebody dethrones them, defending champion Coastal Carolina (9-4/15-8) is our favorite to repeat as conference tournament champion. Coach Cliff Ellis tends to produce teams that pound the ball inside and control the boards, beating teams with physical dominance. In their current seven-game winning streak, the Chanticleers are keeping opponents out of the lane with tough defense, dominating on the glass, and getting the ball inside for cheap baskets.
UNC-Asheville (10-3/17-8) still leads the loop, but the Bulldogs have a tough closing schedule, that includes a chance to get some revenge on CCU after losing to them in overtime.
Winthrop (8-4/16-7) made it to the championship game of the Big South Tournament last year, and the Eagles had won seven games in a row before falling to Liberty (8-5/11-15) Saturday. Gardner-Webb (8-5/13-12) faced a killer pre-conference schedule, and it appeared to wear the Bulldogs down some in January, but GWU is a definite contender. The Bulldogs beat Coastal Carolina and had a big lead at UNCA before falling at the end. GWU would be the clear front-runner if Jerome Hill had not decided to become a pro in Iceland.
Both of the co-leaders recovered from unexpected losses the prior week to return to their winning ways. Hawaii (7-1/18-3) won twice by double digits on the mainland to run their league road record to 4-0. The Rainbow Warriors have been a major surprise under first-year coach Even Ganot, a former St. Mary’s assistant. Hawaii has a +5 rebounding edge and +3 turnover margin, and they are consistent. It took five three-pointers and eight for eight foul shooting from All-American Buddy Hield for Oklahoma to hang on and edge the Warriors in Norman earlier this year.
UC-Irvine (7-1/18-6) doesn’t have as impressive stats as Hawaii, but they have the headache matchup problem for opponents. He isn’t nearly as talented as an A.J. Hammons or Jakob Poeltl, but Mamadou Ndiaye is a 7 foot 6 fly-swatter. Backing him up is a Greek monolith in seven foot, two inch Ioannis Dimakopoulous. The two titans combine to score 17.8 points, pull down 9.8 rebounds, and block 3.5 shots per game. These stats are more impressive when you consider that UCI runs a slower-paced game.
The two contenders face off twice in eight days, beginning on the island late Thursday night/early Friday morning. We believe these teams will split and more than likely finished tied for first, with the rubber game coming in the conference championship at Disneyland in Anaheim.
Long Beach State (6-3/12-12) cannot be overlooked. The 49ers’ pre-conference schedule was brutal with games against BYU, Seton Hall, and New Mexico State, which they won, and two games against Oklahoma State plus games against Virginia, San Diego State, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, and Duke.
This continues to be a race with a lot of contenders. Six teams look talented enough to get hot for three days in March in Baltimore. Up in Louisville, the Cardinal fans are sadly disappointed for their team’s fate, but many of them will now route for UNC-Wilmington (10-2/18-5), led by former UL assistant Kevin Keatts. In just his second season in Wilmington, Keatts has shown that the Rick Pitino coaching tree is still fruitful, as it looks like the Seahawks could finish first in the CAA for the second consecutive season after suffering through seven losing years in a row prior to Keatts’ arrival.
The leading contender to UNCW has a coach from a famous tree as well. William & Mary (9-3/17-6) head coach Tony Shaver comes directly from the Dean Smith coaching tree, having played for the maestro at North Carolina while Roy Williams was an assistant on that staff. Shaver made Hampden-Sydney a major power at the Division III level, and he has done a very good job building up the Tribe program to where they have a legitimate shot at getting to the Big Dance for the first time in school history.
Other teams firmly in contention in the CAA include Hofstra (8-4/16-8), Towson (8-4/17-8) , James Madison (8-4/18-7), and Charleston (7-5/15-8). The CAA will not produce an at-large team and can probably expect a 14-seed, but whoever represents the league is going to make it hard on the three-seed that draws a team from this league. JMU defeated Hofstra in an overtime thriller yesterday.
This league has two teams that are too far behind the other bubble teams to receive serious consideration as an at-large candidate, but the top two teams in C-USA might defeat most of the bubble teams on a neutral floor. UAB (10-1/20-4) and Middle Tennessee (9-2/17-6) go on the road this week as a pair, both playing Louisiana Tech (6-4/17-6) and Southern Miss. Then, they face off against each other in Murfreesboro, on the Blue Raiders’ home floor on Sunday, February 21, in a nationally televised contest.
UAB pulled off the big NCAA Tournament upset over Iowa State last year, and this Blazer squad is considerably better under fourth year coach Jeron Haase, a former North Carolina assistant and former teammate of Jason Kidd. Haase is sure to get a lot of attention after this season by power conference teams looking for a bright and energetic coach to turn around a beleagured program.
Middle Tennessee has won nine of their last ten games, and they feature a powerful quartet of players that make it hard to consistently slow the Blue Raiders down. Middle doesn’t excel in anything, but they don’t have any major weaknesses either, and they have a deep bench. Guard Giddy Potts has been lighting it up from outside in recent games, where he has connected on 58.6% of his three-point attempts over the last six games.
Three teams have separated themselves from the rest of the league, but two others could be contenders in the conference tournament in Detroit. Valparaiso (10-1/20-4) is among the national leaders in scoring margin, rebounding margin, and field goal percentage defense. This is a Valpo team that returned all five of its starters from a team that took third-seeded Maryland to the wire in the NCAA Tournament last year, losing by three.
Oakland (9-3/17-8) and Wright State (9-3/15-10) are the chief competition to Valpo for the conference title, and Wright State penned the lone conference loss on the Crusaders. Oakland blew Wright State off the floor in a home contest, but the Grizzlies lost big at home to Valpo, and they still must play the other two on the road this month.
Keep an eye on three other teams. Green Bay (6-5/14-10) and Detroit (6-6/12-11) can both light up the scoreboard, and both teams rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring (Oakland is number two nationally). Milwaukee (6-6/15-9) has lost four of seven games after having defeated Wisconsin and Minnesota earlier in the season.
For now, Yale (6-0/15-5) is the leader after dusting Columbia (5-1/16-7) by 14 points Friday night on national television. The Bulldogs were blistering hot from the field, hitting better than 60% of their shots and then running time off the clock, forcing the Lions to foul numerous times, and then connecting on 28 out of 36 foul shots. Princeton (4-1/14-5) makes this a three-team race, and this race will get much more interesting the rest of the way.
Yale finishes with six road contests in their last eight games, including trips to Columbia and Princeton. One of these three teams will win the Ivy, and two or even all three could end up tied and force a playoff.
A couple of notes about the contenders; they are not your typical Ivy League teams. Yale currently rates number two in the nation in rebounding margin at +12.4. Princeton, long-noted as a team that slowed the pace of games down to win 60-50, now is one of the quicker-paced teams in the nation and tops in the Ivy.
Akron (8-2/19-4) is the class of the league this year as well as the hottest as they ride a six-game winning streak, but the Zips are not a sure thing to receive the one bid from this league. It might help that the conference tournament is just up the road in Cleveland, but even the class of the league is not head and heels better than three to five other teams in what is usually a very competitive tournament.
Buffalo (7-3/14-9) fell at home to Akron, but the Bulls recently went on the road to first-division Toledo (5-5/14-9) and Northern Illinois (5-5/16-7), winning both games. Ball State (6-4/15-8) has the league’s top defense.
Look out for NIU in the conference tournament. The Huskies have positive rebounding and turnover margins, and well as the top field goal percentage defense, and they have a balanced lineup with seven players contributing positive minutes.
Three teams have pulled away from the field, and their closing schedules set them up to finish in a three-way tie if they continue to play at their current paces.
Hampton (8-2/13-9) fell at Maryland-Eastern Shore Saturday to fall into a tie with South Carolina State (8-2/13-11). SCSU won at Hampton, so they would be the top-seed if the conference tournament began today. Norfolk State (7-2/11-13) is just a half-game behind the co-leaders, and the Spartans downed SC State by 13 in their lone meeting. Norfolk hosts Hampton to close out the regular season on March 3, and that game could decide which team gets the top seed. The MEAC Tournament will be in Norfolk, so the Spartans must be considered the favorite.
Keep an eye on Howard (4-4/10-13). The Bison have the nation’s top scorer in James Daniel (27.8 ppg), who is also one of the top thiefs in D1 with better than 2 1/2 steals per game. With big man Marcel Boyd, Howard could sneak through to the championship game of the MEAC Tournament and be a tough out for any of the top contenders.
Monmouth (11-2/19-5) might have done enough this year to earn an at-large tournament bid if they do not earn the automatic bid. For that to happen, the Hawks would have to win out until the finals of the MAAC Tournament and lose to Siena (9-5/16-9) on the Saints’ home floor. Monmouth would then be 28-6 with wins over USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and two out of three against Siena with losses to USC and Dayton. It is a long shot, but it could happen.
Iona (11-3/14-9) was supposed to race through the league and repeat as regular season champions after returning four starters from last year’s title run, but the Gaels lost guard Kelvin Amayo early in the season and did not recover for a month en route to a 4-6 start. Iona’s win over Niagara was its fourth consecutive victory, the last three of which came on the road. The Gaels still must face Siena twice and Monmouth on the road.
San Diego State (11-0/18-6) is the class of the MWC, but the Aztecs appear to be in a different situation than Wichita State in the MVC. SDSU’s schedule and results are not enough to merit an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The Aztecs shouldn’t even be undefeated in the MWC, as the officials made a grievous error that cost New Mexico (7-3/14-9) a victory over SDSU Saturday night in San Diego.
Boise State (7-4/16-8) and Fresno State (6-4/15-8) are capable of doing damage in the conference tournament in Las Vegas. San Diego State is still the overwhelming favorite, and the Aztecs currently lead the nation in field goal percentage defense at 36.3%.
This continues to be one of the most interesting conference races in college basketball. Eight of the ten teams qualify for the conference tournament, with all games played at the better seed. So, finishing in the top four is the key, and as of today, six teams are fighting it out for those top four seeds.
Wagner (8-4/15-8), Fairleigh Dickinson (8-4/12-11), and St. Francis (Pa.) (8-4/12-11) lead Mount St. Mary’s (7-5/10-15) and Sacred Heart (7-5/8-15) by one game and St. Francis (Brkn) (6-6/10-15) by two games. St. Francis (Pa.) and Sacred Heart are the current hot teams, but none of the teams look capable of avoiding a 16-seed, and the automatic participant might be faced with an opening round game in Dayton.
Until the last 10 days, Belmont (9-2/17-8) looked unstoppable in the OVC. Now, they don’t even look like the frontrunner after losing to Tennessee Tech (9-2/17-7) and bottom division Eastern Kentucky. Tennessee State (7-3/16-7) leads a group of three other contenders in what should be a fantastic conference tournament in Nashville.
Keep an eye on Morehead St. (6-5/12-11). The Eagles have lost a lot of close games, and they are starting to look like a cohesive team under former Kentucky Wildcat Sean Woods’ coaching style. Woods plays 10 players extensive minutes in every game, and the Eagles are a vastly improved team since the year began.
This league plays its conference tournament on campus sites of the better seeds. So, finishing first guarantees home court advantage all the way through the tournament. Bucknell (10-2/13-10) has opened up a three-game lead over four others with a fifth team another half-game back. The Bison lost at home to Colgate (7-5/11-12).
Navy (7-5/16-9) must not be overlooked. The Midshipmen combine strong rebounding with excellent ball handling and could go on a late season run to earn the number two seed.
Chattanooga (10-1/21-3) won three home games by an average score of 95.3 to 67.3 to run their winning streak to eight games. The Mocs don’t exactly excel at any one thing, but they are good at every facet of the game. The Mocs are +6.1 in rebounding plus turnover margin, and they shoot 5% better from the field than their opposition. It’s hard to lose many games when you get more scoring opportunities thanks to your superior rebounding and turnover margins, while shooting better than your opponents.
Mercer (8-3/18-6) lost by 12 at Chattanooga last month, and the Bears host the Mocs in Macon tonight in a game you can see on ESPN3. A Mercer win would throw this race wide open with East Tennessee (8-3/15-9), Furman (8-4/14-11), and Wofford (7-4/11-13) within striking distance if Mercer can pull off the upset.
The conference tournament is in Asheville, where the league has no team.
What team is outscoring its conference rivals by 20.7 points per game? It isn’t Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, or Arizona. It’s not Wichita State either, although the Shockers were in that range until losing Saturday. The answer is Stephen F. Austin (9-0/16-5). On consecutive Saturdays, the Lumberjacks went on the road to the top two contenders, Texas A&M Corpus Christi (8-2/17-5) and Houston Baptist (8-2/14-9), and won both games to put this race away.
Road games against Incarnate Word (7-2/12-8) and Sam Houston (7-4/12-12) are the only possible stumbling blocks in SFA’s way of running the table in conference play in the regular season. Coach Brad Underwood will get multiple chances to move up the ladder after this season, as the Lumberjacks are now 77-13 under his direction. They lead the nation in turnover margin, and if they draw a team that is not an exceptional rebounding squad, SFA could scare a possible two-seed for much of 40 minutes.
After beginning the season 1-11, Texas Southern (9-1/10-12) began conference play by upsetting Southern U (8-2/16-7) and continued until their streak reached nine wins in a row. The Tigers fell Saturday to a Prairie View team that entered the game 1-20. TSU and Southern met in the SWAC Conference Tournament Championship Game last year, and there could be a rematch in Houston in a month.
South Dakota State (8-2/19-5) has won five in a row, the latest a 22-point win over IUPUI (7-4/11-15). IPFW (8-3/19-7) lost by 16 at SDSU in January, but the two teams play again in Fort Wayne on February 18. Omaha (7-4/15-10) and North Dakota State (6-4/16-8) give this league five competitive teams, but the conference tournament is Sioux Falls, less than an hour’s drive from Brookings, where SDSU is located.
Chris Beard is the last of the Bob Knight assistant coaches to obtain a head coaching position at the Division 1 level. In his first year at UALR (11-1/21-2), Beard has the Trojans two games ahead of second place Louisiana-Lafayette (9-3/13-8). UALR is among the national leaders in field goal percentage defense (37.0%) and points allowed per game (57.2). The Trojans lead the league in turnover margin, and they are above average in shooting and rebounding. Senior guard Josh Hagins is one of the most consistent players in college basketball. He’s good for 12 points a night for three year’s running as well as the best assist to turnover ratio in the league among regulars.
UT-Arlington (6-5/15-7) at one time looked like a top contender for the regular season championship, but the Mavericks have dropped four straight games and five of six to fall out of the race. Arkansas State (7-5/11-12) and UL-Monroe (7-5/11-12) have passed UTA, but it is strictly a two-team race to the top seed in the SBC.
The conference tournament is in New Orleans, and in the SBC’s format, the top two teams receive double byes to the semifinals.
New Mexico State (8-1/16-8) has won seven consecutive games to sprint to the top of the league and look like a team ready to make it five consecutive NCAA appearances. With Grand Canyon ineligible for the postseason, Cal State-Bakersfield (7-2/17-7) is the top contender. Former Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes has the Roadrunners on a hot streak with a February 18 rematch against NMSU just ten days away. NMSU must play a weather-caused make-up game at Wichita State three days earlier, and it could help the Roadrunners, who lost the first contest to the Aggies in double overtime.
With seven teams headed to Las Vegas for the conference tournament, the top-seed will receive a bye to the semifinals.
Possible 2-Bid League
We continue to keep this as a one-bid league for now, but Wichita State (11-1/17-6) took one on the chin Saturday night in Normal, Illionois, against Illinois State (8-4/14-11), and the Shockers are not so invincible in the Valley. Now, Arch Madness might be a little interesting, as the Redbirds have moved into a tie for second with Evansville (8-4/19-6), ahead of the swooning Southern Illinois Salukis (7-5/18-7).
The Shockers only have one tough road game left, at Indiana State (7-5/13-11), so Wichita State will soon clinch the top seed in the conference tournament. Should they fall in St. Louis, then the MVC comes a bid-stealer from the bubble.
Okay for Now
Connecticut has won six out of seven games and has non-league wins over Michigan, Ohio State, and Texas. The win over the Longhorns was in Austin. The Huskies have key road games against Temple and Cincinnati in the next two weeks.
Cincinnati fell at Memphis Saturday, and the Bearcats still have work to do. A 5-2 finish and a win in the conference tournament should be enough to get Cinti in the Dance, but if some conference tournament upsets accrue in other major conference tournaments, their bubble could be popped.
Okay for Now
St. Joseph’s (8-2/19-4)
George Washington (7-3/18-5)
GWU picked up a crucial road win at VCU Saturday night, and the Colonials’ closig schedule gives them a chance to play themselves into an at-large spot in the Field. It starts with a key game against St. Joe’s in D.C. Wednesday night.
North Carolina (8-2/19-4)
Miami (Fla.) (7-3/18-4)
Okay for Now
Notre Dame (7-4/16-7)
Florida State (6-5/16-7)
Louisville may be the top team in the loop, but even without the Cardinals’ participation in the postseason, this league still could place nine teams in the Big Dance.
Clemson’s hold on the bubble will either become firmer or burst tonight, when the Tigers play host to Notre Dame. CU needs to win five of their final seven conference games and then maybe one in the ACC Tournament to move into the safe zone.
Iowa St. (6-4/17-6)
West Virginia (8-2/19-4)
Okay for Now
Texas Tech (3-7/13-9)
Kansas St. (3-7/14-9)
The big game of the week takes place tomorrow night in Lawrence, when Kansas takes on West Virginia. In the first meeting in Morgantown, WVU forced 22 turnover and had 12 steals to win by 11 despite shooting just 33.3% from the field.
Vastly improved Texas has won seven of eight games, but the Longhorns have a tough schedule this week, starting with a road game tonight against Oklahoma and followed by a trip to Ames Saturday night to face Iowa State. If UT can get star center Cameron Ridley back before the Big 12 Conference Tournament begins, and Ridley can provide some meaningful minutes, then Texas could be a sleeper team to watch for in the Big Dance. Coach Shaka Smart has already shown he can take a mid-Major to the Final Four.
The conference tournament in Kansas City should be its most exciting in years.
Okay for Now
Seton Hall (7-4/17-6)
The Big East wasn’t expected to stay near the top of the power conferences when the American Athletic Conference formed taking all the football playing schools. However, if the tournament started today, there is a chance this league could have two number one seeds! The two powers face off for the second time on February 24 in Cincinnati.
In past years, Villanova was a little soft inside, and it cost the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament. That is not the case this year. VU has the talent and toughness to go to the Final Four. ‘Nova allows just 41.1% shooting from inside the arc, and they are more dominant on the boards this year than last, when they were an early upset loser to North Carolina State in the Round of 32.
Michigan St. (7-4/20-4)
Okay for Now
The Big Ten has placed at least one team in the Final Four for four consecutive seasons and six of the last seven years. Seeds as low as number seven have advanced to the Final Four from this league, so don’t discount teams like Indiana and Michigan just yet.
Michigan State, Iowa, and Maryland have proven it on the court this year with a combined 10-6 record against Top 25 teams. All three have brilliant inside and outside games, and Iowa has all the ingredients to go all the way. The Spartans and Terrapins have shown a tendency to have ball-handling issues at times and do not create a lot of turnovers against their opponents.
Okay for Now
Oregon State (5-6/14-8)
In recent years, the Pac-12 has been acquiring excellent coaches, and it is starting to show off in the bracketology research. Dana Altman at Oregon, Larry Krystkowiak at Utah, Andy Enfield at USC, Cuonzo Martin at Cal, Bobby Hurley at Arizona State, Steve Alford at UCLA, Sean Miller at Arizona, and Wayne Tinkle at Oregon State join long-timers Johnny Dawkins at Stanford and Lorenzo Romar at Washington to make this possibly the most well-coached league in college basketball. When 10 of the 12 teams are still contending for NCAA Tournament berths in the second week of February, that is quite telling.
Texas A&M (7-3/18-5)
Okay for Now
South Carolina (7-3/20-3)
Ole Miss (5-5/15-8)
You have to figure that if LSU continues to stay in first place in the SEC, the Tigers will be in the Field of 68. The Bayou Bengals can earn their way into safe for now status with two wins this week, as LSU faces South Carolina in Columbia Wednesday night, and Texas A&M in Baton Rouge Saturday afternoon.
As for Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Ole Miss, it is going to take a monumental finish. The cut line in the SEC will probably be 11-7 with at least one additional conference tournament win. Alabama gets an immediate excellent opportunity to prove they belong; the Tide’s next three games are against Texas A&M on Wednesday night, Florida in Gainesville on Saturday, and LSU in Baton Rouge the following Wednesday. If they come out of this at 6-7, and then close 4-1 to begin conference play at 10-8, then Coach Avery Johnson’s squad might only need one conference tournament win thanks to wins over Clemson, Wichita State, and Notre Dame and a competitive loss to Oregon.
Okay for Now
Saint Mary’s (10-2/19-3)
Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga have become the 21st Century versions of UNLV and Marquette from year’s past and Davidson from even farther year’s past. You expect one or both of these teams to be in the NCAA Tournament every year, and you know that one season, one of these two Western mini-powers will make the Final Four. Gonzaga made its second Elite 8 appearance last year, and Saint Mary’s has been a Sweet 16 participant in the recent past.
Former SEC semi-stars Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky) and Eric McClellan (Vanderbilt) have joined monster center Domantas Sabonis to make Gonzaga much more athletic the last two seasons than they have been in the past, and the Bulldogs may be primed to make a run to the Final Four this year. Their liability is an inability to force turnovers on opponents, and a powerful rebounding team like Michigan State would be a tough matchup.
Saint Mary’s has all the tools to do well in the Dance. The Gaels can shoot lights out from inside and outside; they can dominate on the glass; and they don’t turn the ball over.
This Week’s Seedings
|13||San Diego St.|
|13||South Dakota St.|
|15||Stephen F. Austin|
|15||New Mexico St.|
Last 4 In
First 4 Out
Next 4 Out