Early Look At Mid and Low Major Conferences
As we take our first look at the conferences that should receive just one NCAA Tournament bid, we are in total agreement among the lot of us that 22 leagues will definitely produce just one tournament team–the winner of their conference tournament, or in the case of the Ivy League, the regular season conference championship, and it is likely that a 23rd league will receive just one bid.
Let’s take a look at the 23 probable one-bid leagues.
Vermont, MD.-Baltimore Co., UMass-Lowell, and Stony Brook are tied for first, but only with 1-0 conference marks. Vermont is 11-5 overall, with two losses to top 25 teams.
Conference play has yet to begun, but Florida Gulf Coast and Jacksonville look strong in the pre-conference. FGCU lost at Michigan State by just one point, while Jacksonville sports the top won-loss record at 12-5. We believe overall that this league is stronger than it has been in recent years, but no at-large bid is possible this year.
Eastern Washington, Southern Utah, and Weber State have begun the conference race at 2-0, with Montana a half-game back at 2-1. EWU owns a hot home court advantage, and they already have four overtime wins in their 15 games played.
With losses by 55 to Creighton, 37 to George Mason, and 31 to Texas Tech, you would not expect Longwood to be on top in the conference race at 3-0, but the Lancers from tiny Farmville, Virginia, own first place by themselves by a game over Radford, UNC-Asheville, Winthrop, Campbell, and Liberty. UNCA lost at Ohio State by a bucket.
It’s a down year in this league, as no team looks capable of avoiding a 15 or 16-seed. Most of the members in this league perform poorly away from home, and we expect this year’s race to be won with a record as low as 10-6. UC-Irvine, Long Beach State, and UC-Davis appear to be the top teams, but there is not much separating the teams at this point. While somewhat mediocre, this league could put on one of the most exciting conference tournament’s this season.
UNC-Wilmington is on the cusp of competing for a spot on the bubble, but at this point, it looks like they would have to win the CAA Tournament to get into the Big Dance. The Seahawks join Charleston, Northeastern, and James Madison at 3-0 in league play. Northeastern is the hot team at this point. The Huskies have won six games in a row, including four on the road, with one of those coming at Michigan State.
Middle Tennessee is 2-0 in the league and 12-3 overall, as well as 2-0 against SEC teams, but the Blue Raiders would be a long shot in the at-large sweepstakes this year. If Middle wins the automatic bid with a record in the vicinity of 29-5, they could receive an 11 seed and possibly a 10 seed. Chief challengers to the Blue Raiders this year are Marshall, Louisiana Tech, and Western Kentucky. Keep an eye on Marshall, as their unique fast-paced philosophy can give the Thundering Herd a big advantage against teams lacking depth, especially at conference tournament time.
No, it’s not a Super Bowl preview, but Oakland and Green Bay look like the top two teams in this league. Actually, both of these teams are close runners-up to Valparaiso at this point. The Crusaders are 1-0 in the conference and 11-3 overall, with wins over Alabama, BYU, and Rhode Island. Northern Kentucky and Wright State have shown signs of moving up into the top tier with the big three.
This is still the one holdout league that does not sanction a post-season conference tournament. Thus, one hot team can become the first official invitee to the Big Dance, but in recent years, this has not happened. There is no clear-cut favorite to win the crown as the first conference games commence next weekend. Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Penn look to be the leading contenders at this point, but this group is not setting the woods on fire.
After a sluggish first month of the season, Canisius has found its groove. The Golden Griffins have reeled off seven consecutive wins, averaging 88.6 points per game. With approaching road games with Iona and Fairfield, if Canisius wins both, they will be in the driver’s seat in the MAAC. Pre-season favorite Monmouth has not been as strong as expected and just lost three games in a row. Still, you cannot dismiss the Hawks, as they have non-conference win over Memphis and an overtime loss to South Carolina. Monmouth beat Canisius and can gain command by pulling off the sweep when they face them in Buffalo on January 16.
The MAC once was worthy of multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, but in recent years, this league has been down some. Akron, Ohio, and Eastern Michigan have separated a bit from the rest of the pack in this league, and these three top contenders are just talented enough to compete in the Round of 64. Home court advantanges are rather strong in this league, so expect the teams to beat up on each other, leaving no team with a conference mark better than 14-4.
The MEAC has frequently been given #15 and #16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but this league consistently produces teams capable of pulling off huge upsets. The league does not get the credit it deserves, because the teams tend to begin the season slowly and develop as the year progresses. We like what UNC-Central has done to this point, and it would not surprise us if the Eagles make a run to 20 regular season wins. UNCC won at Missouri and led at LSU by as much as 13, before the Tigers came back to win in the final minute.
This is a caveat one-bid league. Wichita State would be on the bubble if the Shockers won 25 games but not the MVC Tournament title. However, at this point, we do not see a serious contender to knock WSU off the perch at Arch Madness. Illinois State currently shares first with the Shockers with a 3-0 league mark, but WSU looks to be double digits better than any league opponent. Sure, some team is liable to upset the Shockers, but we don’t see WSU losing more than two conference games, and they have as good a chance at running the table in the league as the do at losing twice.
The MWC has taken quite a tumble this year, as this looks like a sure one-bid league. Nevada and Boise State are this year’s quality clubs, but they do not have at-large approved resumes. Normal power San Diego State has begun league play at 0-2, so this does not look like the Aztecs’ year.
It looks like a strong possibility that the conference tournament champion in this league will be headed to the opening round (first four) in Dayton. The NEC is rather weak this year, even though second division Wagner has a win at Connecticut. Fairleigh Dickinson has a game and a half lead in the race with a perfect 3-0 mark, but the Knights tumbled off their horses outside of league play. Keep an eye on Long Island. The Blackbirds are just 9-7 and 2-1 in the league, but most of their losses have been close, and they did beat St. John’s.
In past years, both Murray State and Belmont have done quite well in NCAA Tournament play. The two contenders already have moved to the top of the standings in their respective divisions, and it looks like they might square off when the bid is on the line in March.
Bucknell and Boston U are tied at 3-0 in league play with Loyola (MD), Holy Cross, and Lafayette a game back at 2-1. Lehigh looked like a top contender in the preseason, taking Xavier to the final gun before losing by 3 and winning at Mississippi State, but the Mountain Hawks lost at home to Loyola to fall to 1-2 in league play.
This will be an exciting conference race with five teams competing for the regular season title. Furman, East Tennessee, Chattanooga, Samford, and UNC-Greensboro are about equal, and the five could stay within two games of each other all season. A multiple tie in the 14-4 and 13-5 range is quite possible.
Stephen F. Austin has lost the magic, as it left town for Stillwater, Oklahoma. Now, this league is wide open. New Orleans, and Nicholls State, two teams not expected to contend for league honors, currently are unbeaten in league play.
In recent years, the SWAC champion has known it would be headed to Dayton, and chances are strong that could happen again this year. In recent years, multiple league members have been ineligible for postseason play due to low APR scores, but that number has been reduced to just Alcorn State this year, and the Braves are an also-ran in the SWAC this year. Jackson State and Texas Southern have begun league play at 2-0, with Arkansas Pine-Bluff at 1-0. Grambling and Southern are 1-1, and most of their out of conference losses have been closer than normal for this league. We believe Southern might be the best representative for this league this year.
Bigger schools better keep an eye on this league. Whoever draws the conference tournament champion better not overlook their opponent, because their is quality in numbers in the Summit League this season. North Dakota State got hot at the right time, and the Bison are 3-0 in league play. Fort Wayne can play quality defense, bang the boards, and run the fast break like a team from the 1970’s. The Mastodons beat Indiana and gave a good game against Notre Dame. They can score points in spurts, and they average close to 90 points per game.
UT-Arlington is off to a 12-3 start with a 2-0 mark in conference play. Included in those dozen wins is a big upset of Saint Mary’s, but as each day passes, that win does not look so much like an upset, just more like one really good team beating another really good team. Still, the Mavericks do not have enough on their resume to contend for a bubble spot. Arkansas State is also 2-0 in the league, but the Red Wolves do not have a signature win that gives them a shot at the bubble. Their win at Georgetown could look better in March than it does now, but still we see only one team making the dance from this league.
New Mexico State is 1-0/14-2, but the Aggies’ best win is only against Arizona State. This is not enough to merit bubble consideration, so if NMSU runs the table in the league and then loses in the WAC Finals, they could be NIT bound at 30-3. UT Rio Grande Valley is a hot team with seven wins in eight games, and the Vaqueros can fill the nets with buckets, but they don’t play enough defense to do damage in the Dance.
Multiple Bid Leagues
45 bids remain after the 23 one bid leagues are accounted for. Those 45 bids will go to nine conferences, an average of five per league. Of course, some of the nine leagues will receive just two or three bids, unless an upset winner earns the automatic bid. Let’s look at those now.
Cincinnati and SMU appear to be in good shape for now. The Bearcats (2-0/12-2) are ranked in the top 25 and have a win at Iowa State. Cinti can strengthen their hold on an at-large bid with a win at Houston (3-0/12-3) tomorrow. SMU (3-0/13-3) currently owns a nine-game winning streak, but they have yet to record a win over a top 25 team (they have yet to play one). They do own a win over Pittsburgh as well as losses to Michigan and USC. Central Florida is in the mix at 3-0/12-3. They present a monster matchup problem with 7 foot 6 inch center Tacko Fall hitting 80% of his shots (95% are within a foot of the basket or dunks) and pulling down double digit rebounds while playing a one-man zone in the low post.
Dayton and Rhode Island look like the class of the league at this point, but both teams have a watchful eye on VCU. Two of the three should make the Dance, and it is possible that this league will send a third team there as well, but for now, we are sticking with two for sure.
Gonzaga and St. Mary’s should both get bids, but SMC cannot afford to slip and lose more than two conference games. A win at Dayton is not enough to guarantee the Gaels an at-large bid. They will have to go 12-2 in league play or beat Gonzaga one time out of three.
39 Bids Left for 6 Power Leagues
Of the remaining six power leagues, we will give only 3 bids to the SEC. Kentucky, Florida, and one other team from among South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama should receive bids.
The Pac-12 will send 3 or 4 teams. UCLA, Arizona, and Oregon look good at this point, while USC and California vying for a possible fourth bid.
We are going with 5 Big East bids: Villanova, Xavier, Butler, Creighton, and Marquette.
6 bids go to the Big Ten: Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and either Northwestern, Ohio State, or Michigan State.
The Big 12 could send 8 teams dancing: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, TCU, and Oklahoma State would all be in the tournament if the season ended today.
The ACC will reign supreme in this year’s Dance Party. As of this moment, we have an incredible 10 teams in the tournament: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest all have tourney-worthy resumes.
This brings us to 65 bids. The remaining three bids are reserved for three possible conference tournament surprise winners. If the three do not emerge, then the at-large possibles to secure the bids would come from a pool of these teams: an additional SEC team from the group of Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama; yet another ACC team from among Syracuse, North Carolina State, and Pittsburgh; Houston from the AAC; an additional Big Ten team from the group of Northwestern, Michigan State, and Ohio State; an additional Pac-12 team from the USC/Cal pairing; and Wichita State, should the Shockers finish highly-ranked but fail to win the MVC Tournament.
This Week’s PiRate Ratings Top 10
1. West Virginia
7. North Carolina
2. North Carolina
5. Florida State
7. Notre Dame
8. Miami (FL)
9. Virginia Tech
10. Wake Forest
13. North Carolina St.
14. Georgia Tech
15. Boston College
1. West Virginia
4. Texas Tech
5. Iowa St.
6. Kansas St.
7. Oklahoma St.
6. Seton Hall
9. St. John’s
7. Michigan St.
8. Ohio St.
13. Penn St.
9. Arizona St.
11. Washington St.
12. Oregon St.
3. South Carolina
9. Texas A&M
10. Ole Miss
13. Mississippi St.
This Weekend’s Spreads
|Games Scheduled for:||Saturday, January 7, 2017|
|Florida St.||Virginia Tech||8||10||13|
|North Carolina||North Carolina St.||14||15||9|
|Penn St.||Michigan St.||-1||-3||-4|
|South Carolina||Texas A&M||7||5||8|
|Games Scheduled for:||Sunday, January 8, 2017|