The Pi-Rate Ratings

February 22, 2016

America’s Most Accurate Bracketology Composite—February 22, 2016

This time next Monday, multiple conference brackets will be set in low and mid-major conferences. In a typical year, maybe three or four of these conferences would feature interesting matchups, as one or two teams were clearly superior to the rest in these leagues. This year, the entire college basketball world is all about parity. Among the Power Conferences, there are upwards of 20 teams capable of winning the National Championship. The same parity exists in the lower and mid-major conferences, where possibly a dozen of these leagues should have exciting conference tournaments.

Here is this week’s breakdown of the conferences you may not closely follow and why you should tune in to their conference tournaments.

America East
Stony Brook has an RPI of 55, so the Seawolves will not get an at-large bid if they lose in the conference tournament. They will drop too low. SBU outscores its opposition by almost 15 points per game and outrebounds them by more than 8 per game. Star power forward Jameel Varney averages 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 62.6% from the field.

Albany and New Hampshire are talented enough to kock off Stony Brook. The key in this tournament is seeding, because the higher seeds host the lower seeds. Albany has a one-game lead over UNH and would host a possible semifinal game between the two teams.

The top three teams in this league are also the top three rebounding teams, and they rank 1-2-3 in the standings as they rank in rebounding margin.

Atlantic Sun
Here is a tournament that will be totally up for grabs. All games will be played on the higher-seeded teams’ home courts, but this league does not have many incredible home court advantages. Five teams have basically played to a standoff in the last six weeks, and any of the five could win the conference tournament.

North Florida, NJIT, Florida Gulf Coast, and Jacksonville could finish in a four-way tie for first with Lipscomb one game behind. UNF could clinch the regular season title, while the other four could finish in a four-way tie for second.

This tournament will feature some exceptional talent for a low-major conference. Dallas Moore of North Florida scores almost 20 points per game, while Kori Babineaux of Jacksonville and Damon Lynn of NJIT score more than 18 points a night. UNF has a pair of wings that can fill it up from deep. Trent Mackey (46.3%) and Beau Beech (42.5%) force defenses to extend outside the paint.

Big Sky
This looks like a four-team scramble developing in Reno. Weber State and Montana play in Ogden Saturday, and the winner will most likely earn the top seed in the tournament. Eastern Washington hosts Weber State the following Saturday to conclude the regular season. Montana has a tough road game against Idaho State Thursday night.
The most intriguing team to us is Eastern Washington. The Eagles can go on big runs with hot streaks that put teams away. Their defense is suspect, but in a three-day stretch, if the shooters are “on”, they can win three games. EWU has an inside-outside combination that does a lot of the damage to the other team. Austin McBroom is a little jitterbug. The 5-9 guard scores at a 22-point clip and thinks he is in range the moment he crosses halfcourt. When he is hot, it forces defenses to stop double-teaming inside toughie Venjy Jois, who shoots close in and connects on almost 70% of his shots.

Weber State has a mobile center that can take over in a three-day tournament. Joel Bolomboy averages a double-double for the second consecutive season, scoring 17.6 points and getting 13 rebounds per game. Montana has its strong inside player in Martin Breunig (19.2/8.8 65.4% FG).

Idaho State is the odd-team of this group. While the other three were picked as the top three contender before the season started, tha Bengals were selected to finish in the bottom two of the league. Instead, ISU has won eight of their last ten games with a multi-talented guard leading the way. Ethan Telfair runs the offense and leads the team with a 19 points per game average. In late games, he’s the man Coach Bill Evans looks to make the big play, and when protecting a lead, he is deadly at the foul line, hitting better than 85%.

Big South
This conference has been interesting all season long, and the top five teams have done little to separate themselves from each other. With the tournament taking place at 8th place Campbell, none of the key contenders will have a home court advantage, making this tournament one to watch for sure. By the way, Campbell is just a .500 team at home.

The hot team with 10 wins in their last 11 games, Winthrop is an exciting bunch to watch. The Eagles made it to the Big South Tournament Championship Game last year, and they are a better team in 2016 than they were last year. Coach Pat Kelsey comes from Chris Mack’s staff at Xavier, and Kelsey’s team plays the same style of attack basketball. Winthrop averages 83 points per game and leads the league in shooting percentage at 48.2.

High Point is just one game back of Winthrop, and the Panthers host the Eagles Thursday night. HP has the top player in the league in forward John Brown, who averages 19.6 points per game and connects on nearly 60% of his shots. The Panthers earned a share of last year’s regular season title, and they could repeat that in 2016.

UNC-Asheville and Coastal Carolia are defensive-oriented teams, and they say defense wins championships. UNCA is just one game behind Winthrop, tied with High Point for second, and the Bulldogs host CCU Saturday. If UNCA wins, the regular season could end with a three-way tie at the top. As for Coastal Carolina, they lead the loop in defense, giving up just 67 points per game and holding teams to 39% shooting.

Big West
What was a two-team race became a one-team runaway as Hawaii swept UC-Irvine to open up a two-game lead over UCI and Long Beach State. The Rainbow Warriors’ 22-3 is real, and they have not done so just by winning on the island. UH is undefeated on the mainland in conference play and 6-1 overall away from home. They outscore their opposition by more than 12 points per game and have impressive rebounding and turnover margins. First-year coach Eran Ganot faced a lot of turmoil when he took the job and players left the program. Ganot tutored the guards at Saint Mary’s for several seasons, but it has been the development of forward Stefan Jankovic that has propelled UH to the top of the Big West Standings. The 6-11 tower leads the Warriors with a 16-point average.

Long Beach State is the only Big West team to defeat Hawaii this year, and the 49ers did it in Honolulu. UH must still come to Long Beach to close out the regular season, so Dan Monson’s squad still has a shot at the number one seed. First, they will have to win at UC-Irvine, where they play Wednesday night.

This is another league where five different teams have the talent to earn the lone tourney bid. Only UNC-Wilmington and Hofstra can win the regular season title, but James Madison, William & Mary, and Towson are strong enough to win the conference tournament in Baltimore. Thursday night, the top two meet in Wilmington. The Pride lost at home to UNCW earlier this year, and a series sweep by the Seahawks would clinch the regular season title.

UNCW coach Kevin Keatts will definitely receive the opportunity to move up in the coaching food chain after this season. He took over a program that had endured eight consecutive losing seasons and guided UNCW to a first place tie in year one. Then, after preseason predictions placed them in the bottom half of the standings, in season number two, Keatts has the Seahawks poised to win the league outright and maybe become a darkhorse candidate to pull off a second round upset in the Big Dance, should they win the conference tournament. Keatts learned the trade as an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino, and UNCW plays the same aggressive style of ball. The Seahawks average more than 80 points per game with a scoring margin of 8.6 per game. They pilfer 8 steals per game and have an overall turnover margin of 4.2, placing them among the national leaders. Chris Flemmings, a former walk-on transfer from Division 2 Barton, has proven he can score at the D1 level, leading the team with 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while connecting on 52% of his shots. Point guard Jordan Talley knows how to get the ball into the open player’s hands and not turn the ball over with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Hofstra is a balanced team with all five starrers averaging double figure scoring. Depth is the big problem for the Pride as all five starters also top 30 minutes per game, which is not conducive for winning three games in three days in Baltimore, especially when Coach Joe Mihalic can only go seven-deep. Hofstra has an incredible inside-outside combination. Beefy power forward Rokas Gustys forces double and even triple teams inside. He is successful on better than 65% of his shots, and he averages a double-double (13.6/12.3). Guard Juan’ya Green is more than a long-range bomber. Green can penetrate and score or dish. He leads the team with a 17.9 average as well as passing for 7.3 assists per game. For a 6-2 guard, he can grab a good share of rebounds thanks to exceptional hustle for loose balls.

Conference USA
UAB went a long way toward securing the top-seed in this tournament, when the Blazers ventured to Middle Tennessee yesterday and blew the Blue Raiders off their home floor to complete the season sweep. UAB is a veteran unit that has NCAA Tournament experience (winning experience to boot). The team has no individual star, and they go 10-deep without losing effectiveness. Chris Cokley knows how to maximize his minutes played. The 6-8 sophomore plays just 22 minutes per night, but he scores 14 points and gets 7 rebounds in that time played, while shooting at a 58.6% clip. 5-10 point guard Nick Norton is an excellent floor leader with a 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio as well as excellent defensive hustle. Big guard Robert Brown is a 40% three-point shooter. Coach Jerod Haase has consistently improved this team year over year, and he may receive numerous opportunities to advance to a higher profile job.

Marshall has caught on to the infamous D’Antoni System. Dan D’Antoni, younger brother of Mike and former NBA assistant to his brother, has implemented the up-tempo system in Huntington, and the Thundering Herd are stampeding opponents this year. MU averages 85 points per game and makes every game exciting, if only because their defense surrenders points almost as quickly as they can score them.

The downfall to the Thundering Herd might be two-fold. MU has compiled their won-loss record by winning at home. Away from home, they thunder putters out. Additionally, the depth is quite thin, so asking a running team with little depth to win three games in three days is probably too much to ask. They do have possibly the best player in the league, and he is hard to stop in the paint in their fast-paced game. Former Miami Hurricane James Kelly averages 20.6 points per game and almost 10 rebounds per game. He is an intimidating shot-blocker, and he knows how to interrupt enemy passes and send the ball the other way to a fast-breaking teammate.

Keep an eye on Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are currently in fourth place, but they have the talent and skills to win the conference tournament. LT has a pair of wing players that can light it up and carry the team on their shoulders. Alex Hamilton and Erik McCree team up for 35 points and 13 rebounds per night.

Can a win at Oregon State, a split with Belmont, and a close loss at Oregon in which they led with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game be enough to sneak Valparaiso into the Tournament as an at-large team should the Crusaders fail to win the automatic bid? Valpo stands at #60 in the current RPI, which is probably too low to be considered for an at-large bid. Coming off a 28-6 season and first place Horizon finish, Valpo was expected to take the 2016 Horizon crown, and the Crusaders might be the heaviest favorite of any team other than Stephen F. Austin, to win their conference tournament. The Crusaders finish the regular season with a rough road trip to Milwaukee and Green Bay, but they have already clinched the regular season title.

The conference tournament should still be exicting, because other than Valpo, the rest of the league consists of up-tempo teams. Three of the top offenses in the nation belong to Oakland (87.1), Green Bay (85.9), and Detroit (83.7). Meanwhile Valpo gives us just 59.8 points per game.

Oakland leads Wright State by a half-game, but they swept WSU and will most likely get the number two seed. The Grizzlies have two big ingredients that help teams win conference tournaments. They have the best depth in the league, as they can bring in three double figure scorers off the bench. They also are by far the best foul shooting team, and in close games, Oakland has a big advantage. It also helps to have the league’s top player in Kay Felder. Felder averages 24.4 points per game, but he is not a ball hog, as he also dishes for 9.2 assists per game. He can bury the long jumper and drive the lane for the crip, and when he is fouled (which is quite often), he makes better than 85% of his charity tosses. He can carry the team on his shoulders, as he did in a three-game stretch where he scored 109 points in wins over Toledo and Washington and an almost upset of then number one Michigan State, a game where Oakland led by double digits in the second half.

Wright State actually pinned the two losses on Valpo, so it the Raiders won’t fear Valpo should they meet in the conference championship.

Yale still leads the loop, but only by a half-game over Princeton and one game over Columbia. After losing at home to the Bulldogs, Princeton won at Yale last week and must be considered the slight favorite at this point, but the Tigers still have a game with Columbia. There is still a chance that the three contenders could all finish 12-2, but it is looking more likely that Yale and Princeton will finish tied one game ahead of Columbia.

Each Ivy contender has its weapons. Yale’s big asset is its dominant rebounding game, where the Bulldogs enjoy a margin of close to 11 boards per game. However, they have a negative turnover margin and could be vulnerable against pressure defenses.

Don’t confuse this Princeton team for the Pete Carril teams that won games 55-45. This Tiger squad is more like the Butch Van Breda Kolff teams of the 1960’s, as Princeton scores close to 80 points per game with an up-tempo offense. The Tigers are not the rebounding behemoth like Yale, but they hold their own on the boards with a +3.8 margin. They also hold onto the ball and have a positive turnover margin as well. It also helps to have the best sixth man in the league in Devin Cannady, who comes off the bench to score 11.7 points per game with deadly outside shooting ability and an almost automatic two points at the foul line with an accuracy near 90%. With an RPI that has now reached #40, should Princeton win out to finish 13-1 and then find themselves matched up against Yale in a playoff which they lose, the Tigers could possibly sneak in as an at-large team, something that has never been afforded to an Ivy League team.

Columbia is a team that lives and dies by the three-pointer. Of course, the Lions have four guys that can fill it up from downtown. Alex Rosenberg, Grant Mullins, and Maodo Lo team up to connect on 43.5% from behind the arc.

Metro Atlantic
Monmouth was taught a little lesson last week when they lost at home to Iona. The Hawks were a little disresectful when they snapped Iona’s long home winning streak a month ago, in a game marred by a post-game tussle. Iona’s players stewed for weeks and then unleashed their Gael furor to the tune of a 17-point win, holding Monmouth scoreless for more than seven minutes in a first half in which they built a lead in excess of 20 points.

Now, Monmouth is no longer a sure bet to have an at-large bid sewn up before the MAAC Tournament. With an RPI of 47, a loss in the conference tournament would leave the Hawks with an RPI in the 50’s. Monmouth has definite strengths but just as definite weaknesses, which will keep us from labelling them the team to beat in the MAAC Tournament. While the Hawks top 80 points per game and hold opponents under 40% shooting, they also have a negative turnover margin.

Siena joins Iona as a team capable of winning the conference tournament, and the Saints benefit from having the tournament take place in their home town of Albany. Siena hosts Iona tonight, and the Saints won at Iona earlier this year. The winner stays in contention for the regular season title.

There is one for sure reason to watch the MAAC Tournament. Iona’s A.J. English, son of the former NBA player of the same name, averages 21.7 points per game and saves his best for the big games. Against Monmouth this year, he scored 45 and 34 points.

After the bottom eight teams play at the higher-seeds in the opening round, once down to eight teams, the league will head to Cleveland to conduct the quarterfinal, seminfinal, and final rounds. The potential is there so that all eight teams that make it to Cleveland will have serious chances to compete for the one bid, so if this happens, the MAC will have the most exciting conference tournament of all. It will be as competitive as the Elite 8 of the Big Dance.

For this to happen, Buffalo, Northern Illinois, Toledo, and Central Michigan need to win their opening round games (if these are the 5th-8th-seeded teams. They would join Akron, Ohio, Ball State, and Kent State and thuse make for the most parity of any conference.

Akron currently leads the Bobcats, Cardinals, and Golden Flashes by just one game, and the Zips finish with Ohio and Kent State at home, giving Coach Keith Dambrot an excellent chance to sew up the number one seed. Because this year’s tournament is in Quicken Loans Arena, Akron will be the de facto home team. However, the Zips rely too much on three-point shooting, as more than 65% of their scoring margin comes from three-pointers made. In tournament action, chances are not great that a team can remain hot for three consecutve days. On the positive side, the Zip bench is deep with talent, thanks to numerous injuries last year forcing Dambrot to give extensive experience to bench players.

Ohio was not expected to compete for the upper division, let alone the MAC title this year. Second year coach Saul Phillips is a Bo Ryan disciple, and his Bobcats play a lot like Wisconsin, rarely beating themselves. Picked to finish near the bottom of the league, Ohio has been a big surprise with the emergence of freshman guard Jaaron Simmons (14 points and 8 assists per game) to take some heat off inside force Antonio Campbell (17.5/9.9). Ohio doesn’t force the action on either end of the floor, and that has been their downfall in losses this year, where opponents capitalized on a couple extra Bobcat turnovers while never feeling threatened that Ohio would force any turnovers in return.

Ball State is an even bigger surprise this year than Ohio. The Cardinals were the consensus choice to finish last in the West Division, yet they are in first place today. After 5-25 and 7-23 seasons, Coach James Whitford has guided BSU to a 9-5 league mark and 18-9 record overall to date. The Cardinals are peaking at the right time, and they have a win over Valpo earlier this year, so they must be considered a real contender. The Cardinals rely on a two-headed monster in the post. Franko House and Bo Calhoun team up to score 23 points and haul in 14 rebounds per game.

Mideastern Athletic
This has become a three-team race for the regular season championship and top seed in the tournament. Because Norfolk State is one of the three contenders, and they will host the MEAC Tournament, the Spartans are the current favorite to take the league’s automatic bid.

Norfolk currently is a game under .500 overall, but the Spartans could easily run the table from here. If they do so, they will enter the Dance at 13-3 in the league and 20-14 overall. It would probably put them in Dayton for an opening round game.

Hampton has been the hunted all season after emerging from the MEAC pack last year to win the tournament and then take an opening round game in Dayton, before falling to top seed Kentucky. The Pirates can do all but one thing well–shoot the ball, which is like having the best defensive shortstop in baseball, who only hits .180. Still, Hampton is the second choice in the odds to win the tournament, especially if they find a 5th gear to shift into like they did last year.

South Carolina State has won 10 of their last 12 games including beating Hampton on the road. The Bulldogs are led by freshman Eric Eaves who paces the team with 16.7 points per game.

Missouri Valley
For now, we are keeping the Valley at one bid, because we believe Wichita State will win Arch Madness yet again, and no other team qualifies for at-large consideration this week.

After losing at home for the first time in ages, Wichita State recovered to win three games last week, all by more than 30 points. The Shockers needed the shock, and now they look like a team ready to make a run in the NCAA Tournament if they can get a favorable draw void of a lot of inside dominant teams. WSU is one of a few teams that do everything well. They shoot the ball with confidence, lower the opponents’ shooting percentage, and they control both the boards and force turnovers. It leads to a 14-point scoring margin. Few teams can rely on two senior staters in the backcourt, and very few have two the talent of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. The two stars team up for 26.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, and both can take their defender to the hoop like forwards. If Shaquille Morris can step up his game just a little, this is a team capable of making a run to another Final Four, but if Morris and Anton Grady bring their B-games to the Dance, the Shockers could go home quickly.

Lining up behind Wichita State are Evansville, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, and Northern Iowa. SIU and Evansville both have good records away from home and must be considered the top contenders to pull off an upset in St. Louis. We are high on Evansville, as the Purple Aces have all the tools needed to make a 3-day run to the Championship Game against Wichita. This team got some additional tournament experience winning the CIT last year, and they returned all their key players from that squad. Center Egidijus Mockevicius (16.6/13.8) dominated the glass in both games against Wichita State, and if he can get a little help, Evansville can win Arch Madness. Guard D. J. Balentine leads the team in scoring at almost 21 points per game, and he adds 4.4 assists per game.

Mountain West
San Diego State appears to be headed to the automatic bid, so for now, we leave the MWC with just one bid. The Aztecs win ugly games with a lot of scoring lapses, but they frequently keep the other team off the scoreboard for long stretches. They lead the nation in allowing just 36.8% of enemy shots to be made. SDSU only connects on 41.6% of their own shots, but they are tough on the offensive glass and frequently go 1 for 3 in a possession, scoring the same two points that a terrific shooting team scores in that same possession.

The Aztecs pose extremely tough matchup problems for their league foes. Coach Steve Fisher goes with a starting five that goes 6-10, 6-10, 6-8, 6-7, and 6-4 with a former starter coming off the bench at 6-6. Former Louisville coach Denny Crum won a lot of games with a lineup of five forwards, and this Aztec squad will be a major headache for any opposing NCAA Tournament coach.

Fresno State is the team most likely to dethrone the Aztecs. In their two games against SDSU, FSU was up to the task, splitting two close games. The Bulldogs have a tandem of forwards that can bang along with SDSU. Former Missouri Tiger Torren Jones and Karachi Edo team for 20 points and 15 rebounds a night to supplement offensive star guard Marvelle Harris, who tops 20 points a game by himself. Harris can rebound like a forward, make plays like a point guard, and steal balls like a bandit. His outside shooting range is iffy, but it there are times where this has threatened to come around. He connected on 7 of 8 treys in a recent game against Wyoming, and if he can hit 40% from deep, FSU will be tough to beat, even by SDSU.

In a 10-team league with only three teams below .500 in conference play, there must be great parity in the top seven. The NEC promises to be one of the more interesting conference tournaments, but since they don’t play it in one place, it will miss some of that excitement. On the plus side, home team fans will get to see games, as the higher seeds host all tournament games.

Wagner, Mount St. Mary’s, and Sacred Heart are in contention for the top seed. Wagner leads the other two by a game. The Seahawks were not expected to contend for .500 in league play, after falling from 20 to 10 wins between 2014 and 2015. Wagner has depth and balance, but they don’t have a go-to star that can put the load on his shoulder. Romone Saunders recently returned from a hand injury, and he is threatening to become that key player Coach Bashir Mason can rely on to make the big basket when needed. Saunders has averaged 16 points per game in his last three games showing an increased accuracy from behind the arc.

Mount St. Mary’s can play pressure defense and force a lot of turnovers, but when they cannot force the action, they are very vulnerable to an inside power team. The Mountaineers are one of the weakest rebounding teams in all of Division 1 basketball with a margin of -9 per game! Additionally, their top three scorers shoot just 39.8% from the field.

Sacred Heart is the hot team in the league. The Pioneers started 2-13 and then won nine of 12 games. SH has the top offensive weapon in the league in guard Cane Broome, who paces the NEC with a 22.8 scoring average. On the negative side, SH must outshoot opponents by a considerable margin, because they have negative rebounding and turnover margins.

Whoever wins the automatic bid will most likely hear their name called to proceed to Dayton for the opening round with a date against Kansas, Xavier, or North Carolina if they win.

Ohio Valley
Because the top two teams receive double byes to the semifinals of the conference tournament, and because the current top two teams would also be the two hometown teams in the conference tournament, we should concentrate this write-up on Belmont and Tennessee State. However, since only the top eight qualify for the tournament, and because four other teams are good enough to make a run in Nashville, we cannot count out Tennessee Tech, Morehead State, UT-Martin, and Murray State.

This is not your typical Belmont team of recent years. The Bruins still score points in rapid and efficient style, as their 82.3 point average and 49% field goal accuracy reveals. However, Belmont suffers with negative rebounding and turnover margins. With Evan Bradds hittong on better than 70% of his shots and averaging 18 points and 10 board per night, and with outstanding guard Craig Bradshaw adding 17 points per game, Belmont is still the team to beat in the OVC.

Tennessee State may be the biggest pleasant surprise in all of Division 1 this season. After finishing just 5-26 last year, second year coach Dana Ford has guided the Tigers to within one game of Belmont, and TSU hosts the Bruins Sunday afternoon. If TSU can get by a tough UT-Martin team in Martin on Wednesday night, then they will host Belmont with the number one seed on the line. The Tigers have made the big step up with three transfers providing the major improvement. Keron Deshields starred at Montana; Tahjere McCall starred at Niagara; and Wayne Martin starred at St. Francis (Bklyn) before winding up in Nashville.

Tennessee Tech is 13-0 at home but just 5-9 away from home, so the Golden Eagles may find it hard to advance in the conference tournament if they fail to get one of the top two seeds. Morehead State is the dark horse team to make it to the finals. The Eagles have a squad of hustling workhorses not afraid to accumulate multiple floor burns. Former Kentucky Wildcat star Sean Woods has Morehead playing with a lot of heart, and they go 11-deep with no real star.

The Patriot League is another conference that plays all its tournament games on the home floors of the higher seeds, but the potential top-seed is mediocre at home with just an 8-6 record. Bucknell could be the top seed, but the Bison could be forced to face Colgate in a semifinal game, a team that swept Bucknell this year, winning both games by double digits.

Lehigh is the hot team, riding a seven-game winning streak. In that seven-win streak the Explorers have outscored their opposition by more than 1 1 points per game. Lehigh is balanced with all five starters scoring more than 10 points per game. 2015 Player of the Year Tim Kempton has a chance to earn the award a second time. He paces the Explorers with 17.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Surrounding Kempton are a host of good three-point shooters, as Lehigh connects on 39.2% of their threes.

Boston U leads Navy and Colgate by a game with Army two games back. Two of the four will be first round hosts in the tournament.

Chattanooga has come back to the pack with a couple of recent losses, and now the SoCon Tournament looks to be more competitive than first thought possible. It’s not just the fact that the Mocs have lost two of their last four games; it is who beat them. UC lost at Western Carolina in a mild upset, but they were clobbered at home by UNC-Greensboro.

It’s now a wide-open field, and there should be multiple exicting games in Asheville. UNCG has now won three consecutive games including beating Wofford as well as Chattanooga, and the Spartans have reached .500 in the league. They could easily win their final two to finish 10-8 and earn a five-seed, where they would face either Furman or Wofford with the winner of that game playing the Mocs in the semfinals, assuming Chattanooga doesn’t get shocked in the quarterfinals.

Where would an upset of Stephen F. Austin in the SLC Tournament rank among sports upsets? About somewhere between the USA beating the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics and Man o’War losing his one race to a horse named “upset.” The Lumberjacks have dominated this league like UCLA used to dominate the Pac-8 during the Alcindor and Walton years. Under third year coach Brad Underwood, SFA is merely 54-1 in SLC play!

SFA got into tournament form by winning games by 38 and 35 points last week. The Lumberjacks own a 14.7 point scoring margin, a 2.3 rebound margin, and a 5.8 turnover margin (with 8.8 steals per game). They shoot 48.3% from the field. Swingman Thomas Walkup leads the Lumberjacks with 17.2 point average to go with 6.6 rebounds per game. He connects on 60% of his shots and doles out 4.3 assists per game.

The one team left on SFA’s regular season schedule that can possibly pin a loss on the Lumberjacks is Sam Houston. The Bearkats have a big game Saturday against Texas A&M-CC, and if they win that game and can pull off the big uspet, they could sneak up and cop the number two seed in the SLC Tournament.

Southwestern Athletic
Alcorn State is the hot team in the league, but the Braves are ineligible for postseason play, so we will not include them in the preview here. That leaves Texas Southern with a 2 1/2 game lead over Southern U and Jackson State.

Texas Southern has a problem holding onto the ball, suffering nights with too many turnovers to be a consistent winner. Of course, a lot of those bad nights came before conference play began. The Tigers have won by large margins in SWAC play, including a 31-point toasting of Mississippi Valley over the weekend. Coach Mike Davis has won big at Indiana and UAB, and the Tigers are no pushover against bigger conference opponents. TSU beat Michigan State last year.

Southern may give the SWAC their best chance at avoiding a first round game in Dayton. The Jaguars have competed against decent non-conference opponents this year, which includes wins at Mississippi State and Wyoming.

Jackson State may have the best tournament-ready roster with three stars combining to carry the load. Paris Collins, Raeford Worsham, and Chace Franklin team up to score 40 points and retrieve 19 rebounds per game.

After leading the loop for most of the year, South Dakota State has surrendered the league lead to IPFW. The Mastodons now lead the Jackrabbits by a game, but IPFW finished with two road games, while SDSU gets two at home.

IPFW has a couple of star guards in Max Landis and Mo Evans. Like Wichita State, the Mastodons have a big advantage over any Summit League opponent where experience is vital in tournament play. Landis and Evans combine to score 36 points per game, and both can throw it in from 20 feet out, as Landis connects on 48% and Evans on 43% from behind the arc.

South Dakota State has three big-time players in George Marshall (16.2), Deondre Paks (15.4), and Mike Daum (14.4). The Jackrabbits are tough on the boards and hungry after losing the Summit League Tournament to North Dakota State the last two years. Speaking of NDSU, the Bison are in contention for a third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. NDSU owns wins over IPFW and South Dakota State. Throw in a much improved Omaha team, and this lines up to be another exciting conference tournament.

Sun Belt
Chris Beard served under the General, Robert Knight for seven seasons, and he has proven that the Knight coaching tree is still alive and well, as he has his UALR Trojans in first place in year one in Little Rock. This is a team that lost 12 times in SBC play last year and was expected to finish in the middle of the pack this year. Instead, the Trojans lead the league by three games with four games to play.

This is not a UALR team that feasted on a bunch of no-names to begin the year 24-3. Outside of Sun Belt play, the Trojans beat San Diego State and Tulsa on the road. They Trojans hold opponents to just 37.7% from the field, and they give up just 58.4 points per game. They go nine-deep with no players scoring as much as 13 points per game and seven averaging between 5.5 and 12.8. This team reminds us of the Army teams coached by Coach Knight in the 1960’s. If they win the conference tournament, some favorite in the second round will be in for a tough fight.

The two Louisiana schools, UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette pose the top threat to UALR, but beating the Trojans would be a major upset, almost as much as if Wichita State were to lose in the MVC.

Western Athletic
Marvin Menzies has built a mini-dynasty at New Mexico State, as the Aggies have made trips to the Big Dance the last four years, and they should make it five for five this year. They have already clinched the top seed in the conference tournament by sweeping second place Cal State Bakersfield. With Grand Canyon ineligible to compete in the postseason due to their transition to Division 1, it leaves little in NMSU’s way in their march to a “five-peat.”

The Aggies are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, and they need this strength because they win despite laying a lot of bricks against the glass. NMSU does not even make 40% of their shots, yet they have an 8-point scoring margin, as they tend to look like they are playing volleyball on the offensive glass. Pascal Siakim is one of the few that can light up the scoreboard, as he averages 20.7 points to go with 11.8 rebounds per game with a 55.4% accuracy rate. He is an intimidator on defense, averaging 2.5 blocks per game and altering other shots.

West Coast
We still believe the WCC will eventually send two teams to the Big Dance, but as of today, we cannot make that statement with any muscle behind it. Saint Mary’s got the season sweep over Gonzaga Saturday night, and if the Gaels win the conference tournament, it will likely make this a one-bid league.

How did SMC come back to the top of the league after losing all five starters from a second place finish last year? Coach Randy Bennett should receive serious consideration for National Coach of the Year honors after replacing 80% of the scoring from last year. Once again, the pipeline to Australia has helped the Gaels, but a transfer from Boston College has made SMC the 22-4 team they are today. Joe Rohan is a scorer and a play-maker that makes the team go. He teams with Emmett Naar to give SMC two incredible guards. Both average 6 assists per game, while teaming to score 24 points per game. Naar forces defenses to concentrate on him with tight coverage, because when he is open, he is a 50%+ three-point shooter. Four other players average better than nine points per game.

Gonzaga was supposed to contend for a Final Four this year after making it to the Elite Eight in 2015, but the Bulldogs have come up short. Gonzaga has one of the best frontcourts in the nation with Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis in the post. The duo teams up to score more than 38 points per game and haul in 18 rebounds per game, but the loss of Przemek Karnowski due to a back injury in November, has forced Coach Mark Few to go with a three-guard lineup that isn’t quite up to competing against Saint Mary’s fine backcourt.

BYU has been hiding in the bushes this year, and the Cougars could be ready to pounce in ambush in the WCC Tournament. As always, this team knows how to run up the score, as BYU averages 84 points per game. Coach Dave Rose uses the same style as his mentor Guy Lewis, so BYU will run the floor and play power basketball. The Cougars have four capable scorers, something most teams cannot match. Chase Fischer leads at 18 points per game, followed by Nick Emery at 16, Kyl Collinsworth at 15, and Kyle Davis at 13. BYU is still in the thick of the WCC race, trailing Saint Mary’s by just a game after splitting the season series against the Gaels. The Cougars must still face Gonzaga, but they get the Zags in Provo.

The Power Conferences

There was some movement over the weekend with the Bubble teams, as Syracuse, Connecticut, Alabama, and LSU all lost, while Tulsa and St. Bonaventure won big games. Our bracketology experts must be pulling their hair out trying to move teams in and out so frequently.

American Athletic
In: —-
Bubble: Connecticut, Cincinnati, Temple, Tulsa
Out: —-

Atlantic Coast
In: North Carolina, Miami, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame
Bubble: Syracuse, Pittsburgh
Out: Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech

Atlantic 10
In: Dayton, St. Joseph’s
Bubble: VCU, St. Bonaventure, George Washington

Big 12
In: Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa St., Texas
Bubble: Texas Tech
Out: Kansas St.

Big East
In: Villanova, Xavier, Providence
Bubble: Seton Hall, Butler
Out: Creighton

Big Ten
In: Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan St., Purdue
Bubble: Wisconsin, Michigan
Out: Ohio St.

In: Oregon, Utah, Arizona, USC, California
Bubble: Colorado, Oregon St., Washington
Out: Stanford, UCLA

In: Kentucky, Texas A&M
Bubble: South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Vanderbilt, LSU
Out: Ole Miss

The Bracketologists’ Picks

Seed Team
1 Kansas
1 Villanova
1 Virginia
1 Oklahoma
2 Xavier
2 North Carolina
2 Oregon
2 Michigan St.
3 Miami (Fla.)
3 Iowa
3 Maryland
3 Duke
4 West Virginia
4 Kentucky
4 Utah
4 Iowa St.
5 Arizona
5 Baylor
5 Texas A&M
5 Purdue
6 Indiana
6 Dayton
6 Texas
6 California
7 Notre Dame
7 South Carolina
7 Texas Tech
8 St. Joseph’s
8 Providence
8 Pittsburgh
8 Connecticut
9 Florida
9 Wisconsin
9 Seton Hall
9 Wichita St.
10 Syracuse
10 Colorado
10 VCU
10 San Diego St.
11 Michigan
11 Cincinnati
11 Valparaiso
11 Oregon St.
11 Temple
12 Monmouth
12 Saint Mary’s
12 Alabama
12 Tulsa
13 Akron
13 Stony Brook
13 Chattanooga
13 Hawaii
14 Princeton
14 UNC-Wilmington
14 UAB
15 Belmont
15 Stephen F. Austin
15 New Mexico St.
15 Winthrop
16 Weber State
16 N.J.I.T.
16 Hampton
16 Wagner
16 Lehigh
16 Texas Southern
  Last 4 Byes
  Last 4 In
  Oregon St.
# Last Out
69 Butler
70 St. Bonaventure
71 Gonzaga
72 G. Washington
73 Vanderbilt
75 Creighton
76 Washington
77 Georgia Tech
78 Florida St.
79 Clemson
80 Stanford
81 LSU

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