The Pi-Rate Ratings

February 17, 2022

February Madness

This is the time of year where college basketball starts to get really interesting.  2022 is more interesting than normal.  Teams that were almost locks to be at-large tournament teams have lost multiple games and have moved down into Bubbleville.  Teams that were on the Bubble for the NIT two weeks ago have played themselves into at-large contention in just a couple weeks.  Then, there are a plethora of Mid-Major conferences where the best team has moved into contention for an at-large possibility if they do not win their conference tournament, and there are a few mid-major leagues where two or more teams have resumes worthy of consideration.  The first conference tournaments tip off in 12 days.  Here’s a quick look at the leagues for basketball fans that haven’t had the time to follow as closely as this maniac does.

Power Conferences

ACC

North Carolina lost against lowly Pittsburgh this week, and the Tar Heels are now fighting for a last 4 in spot with a dozen other teams.

Notre Dame has won 9 out of 10 games, basically against the lower half of the league but with wins over Miami and Virginia, to move to the good side of the Bubble.  The Irish have two critical road games left that can move their resume into safe territory with wins.  If they beat Wake Forest and Florida State, they will break through the Bubble and enter safe territory.

Virginia and Virginia Tech have considerable work to do to get into consideration.  UVa is 10-6/16-10, which in most years in the ACC would be enough, but not this year.

Big 12

Kansas, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Texas are safe, while TCU is close to being safe.  Kansas State is making a late charge in the league, moving from last place in January to 5th place today.  Their final 5 games are tough, and a 3-2 finish might give them enough resume boost to get the Wildcats into the field.  

Oklahoma and Iowa State are both 4-9 in the league.  I cannot remember any team 5 games under .500 in a power conference that ever got into the field of 68.  It looks like 7-11 is the ceiling for both teams.  Yet, their team sheets, as seen by the Selection Committee, still show them in strong contention for an at-large bid.

Big East

Providence, Villanova, and UConn are safe at this point, but there is a logjam after that.  Creighton, Marquette, and Xavier are on the good side of the Bubble today, but Seton Hall is 3-4 in their last 7 games and now has work to do to secure an at-large spot.

Big Ten

Rutgers is the hottest team in the nation other than Gonzaga.  From being hopeful to sneak into the NIT three weeks ago, the Scarlet Knights have knocked off Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois in succession combined with prior wins over Purdue, Iowa, and Michigan.  RU is now 10-5 in the Big Ten and facing a really tough 4-game stretch, where if they split these games, they have to be moved into the at-large field and high enough to avoid having to go to Dayton for a First Four game.

Indiana has fallen off the mat with four consecutive losses to drop to 7-8 in the league.  They are now in the danger field.

Pac-12

This is an interesting process.  First-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd might be the national Coach of the Year, and he makes the Mark Few coaching tree look sturdy.  The Wildcats are vying for a #1 seed,  UCLA, Oregon, and USC should also be in the field, but they still need to win some games.  Unless another team wins the automatic bid, it doesn’t appear like the Pac-12 will go beyond four teams, and it could fall to three if Oregon drops some games in the final fortnight.  Washington, Washington State, Colorado, and Stanford sit just below the threshold of contention.  If one of these teams were to win out in the regular season, they could get into contention with a couple of conference tournament wins.

SEC

The big news here is that Florida has played itself out of the field for now after losing at home to Texas A&M.  The Gators are now 6-7 in the league and have a tricky closing schedule and just one big win all season.  Michael White’s job security is getting thinner and thinner as his teams tend to underachieve again and again.  Following Billy Donovan has been tough, and this could be the year the Gators decide to move on to another situation.

The rest of the league is pretty well set.  Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, and Alabama are safe.  None of the rest of the league can work themselves into an at-large situation and can only get into the field as an automatic bid.

Mid-Majors (and Low-Majors)

American Athletic

Houston has been safely in the field for weeks.  Their seed line has dropped from a 2 to maybe a 5 or 6.  SMU is on the Bubble but likely looking at a high NIT seed unless the Mustangs can beat Memphis at home and then knock off Houston on the road.  Memphis has worked themselves back into contention after suffering through a horrific January.

America East

This is a one-bid leage (OBL), and if anybody other than Vermont wins the conference tournament, it will be a big shame.  Stony Brook has been banned from the post-season tournament for announcing its move out of the league.  If the Catamounts don’t win the bid, whoever does is likely looking at a #16 play-in game in Dayton.

Atlantic 10

Davidson has not done enough to guarantee themselves an at-large spot should they not win the automatic bid.  Dayton, VCU, Saint Louis, and St. Bonaventure are co-contenders with the Wildcats for the possible one bid.  Keep an eye on the Billikens; they probably have the most complete team in the A-10.

Atlantic Sun

If you are a basketball maniac like me, you should cheer for Bellarmine to win the automatic bid in this OBL.  The Knights, with long-time coach Scott Davenport.  I know Scott from the past.  He was Allan Houston’s high school coach at Louisville Ballard, and I think he is the last former Denny Crum assistant to be in college basketball.  He also worked for Rick Pitino at UL.  He took over the Bellarmine program when the Knights were still Division 2, and he won a national championship.  The Knights have a unique playing style, a five-out motion offense similar to the old Princeton offense under Pete Caril.  They put a big scare in close losses to Saint Mary’s and UCLA and are battle-tested with other games against Gonzaga, Murray State, and Purdue.  

Liberty was leading the A-Sun for most of the year until a couple losses moved the Flames down to third place.  Jacksonville State (from Alabama not Florida) is currently in first in the league.  Their coach, Ray Harper, has had a controversial career, where he was accused of verbal and other abuse during his tenure at Western Kentucky, but he won big there.  He’s stayed out of the headlines at JSU, and the Gamecocks are the team to beat in the league tournament.

Keep an eye on Jacksonville (The one in Florida where Artis Gilmore played).  First-year coach Jordan Mincy has done an admirable job with the Dolphins.  He’s just 35 years old and has a rep for being a great recruiter.  He probably has an long and successful career ahead. and JU has to be considered the Dark Horse to win the league tournament.

Florida Gulf Coast is playing their best ball at the present, and they have sneaked into the upper division.  

Big Sky

The league has five teams that are rather evenly matched and all talented enough to play a high-seeded favorite close enough to put a scare in them.  Montana State is 16-1 since early December, but the Bobcats begin a rough three-game road trip tonight.  Weber State and Southern Utah could sneak past MSU if the road trip proves to be trouble.

Big South

This is a two-team race between Longwood and perpetual contender Winthrop.  The best the Big South can hope for this year is a #16 seed that avoids a play-in game in Dayton.  Winthrop has a road win against Washington, but the Huskies were not in great shape at the time of that game.

Big West

Covid affected this league more than most other leagues, and thus the conference standings have been overly skewed.  This is an OBL, so it will be all about the conference tournament.  Defending champion UCSB is in 7th place with a 4-5 league mark, but they have won three games in a row.  Perpetual contender UC-Irvine started 1-3 but has reeled off six consecutive wins to move to 7-3 and 4th place.  I’d put my money on the Anteaters as the top contender for the bid.  The three teams ahead of UCI in the standings, Long Beach State, Cal St. Fullerton, and Hawaii have decent talent, but UCI is the superior team.

Colonial Athletic

Considering this is another OBL, it has been an interesting race to this point with four equally talented teams emerging as the co-favorites.  Towson looked like a potential runaway winner in the conference race into late January, but in the last three weeks, UNC-Wilmington has been the hot team, and the Seahawks have won 15 of their last 17 games.  They are a small team, mostly guards and a tough matchup for bigger teams that cannot match UCW’s quickness.

Speedy Claxton is one incredible gentleman.  He was a big star at Hofstra, playing for a conference championship team under coach Jay Wright before Wright went to Villanova.  After having a semi-successful NBA career, Claxton returned to his alma mater as head coach.  When the Pride needed a better arena, Claxton wrote a sizable check to make it happen.  When longtime coach Joe Mihalich retired last year, Claxton took over the Hofstra program and has the Pride in 3rd place in the CAA.

Conference USA

North Texas and UAB are both potential Bubble teams at this point.  UNT has won 10 games in a row and sits at 11-1/18-4.  The Mean Green has a tough man-to-man defense that forces opponents to use all of the shot clock on many possessions.  The Blazers are the better offensive team but not as consistent at UNT.  There are at least four other CUSA teams strong enough to win the automatic bid. 

Middle Tennessee State has a nice history of upsetting big teams in the Dance, and current Coach Nick McDevitt took UNC-Asheville to a Big Dance from about the same spot the Blue Raiders sit today.

Sixth place UTEP and seventh place Western Kentucky cannot be ignored in the conference tournament.  The Miners, under first year coach Joe Golding, are a team nobody wants to play.  Their pressing defense has become stronger and stronger as the players gain the experience playing it.  Golding made Abilene Christian a tough out.

Horizon

Oakland appeared to be running away with the league championship in January, but they came back to the rest of the pack.  This is another OBL, and the conference tournament should be quite exciting, because there are at least six teams that can win it.  Third place Northern Kentucky has won 9 of their last 10, and I think they are the team to beat in March.

Ivy

This league only invites the top 4 teams to its fledgling postseason tournament.  Yale, Penn, and Princeton are rather secure at this point, but the fourth spot is still up for grabs between Cornell, Brown, and Harvard.  If any team other than Yale wins the tournament, they are looking at a #16 seed.  Yale is probably a #15 seed.  Princeton has the most talent.

Metro Atlantic

Rick Pitino is doing it again.  He has taken Iona back to the heights it enjoyed under Jim Valvano 40+ years ago.  The Gaels looked to possibly run the table in the MAAC until they fell in consecutive road games to Niagara and Siena.  Iona still has a multi-game lead over the rest of the league and will be the #1 seed in the MAAC Tournament.  If you are looking for a potential upset team, it has to be Monmouth, where Coach King Rice tends to have his undermanned team playing in peak form in March.

Mid-American

Toledo and Ohio will be the number one seeds out of the two divisions, and one of the two should win MACtion in Cleveland.  Both teams have just enough talent to pull off a first round upset in the Big Dance.

Mid-Eastern Athletic

The MEAC has been wounded by defections to other conferences and now has just eight teams left.  Norfolk State has quietly dominated this league the last 11 years, winning more than 78% of their conference games, but the Spartans have only won two conference tournaments in that time.  They did once beat Missouri in the NCAA Tournament.  Usually, the MEAC champion automatically goes to Dayton to play a first four game as a #16 seed, but Norfolk has the potential to work up to one of the top two 16-seeds this year if they can keep winning.  Of course, that means instead of having a chance to win a tourney game against another 16-seed, they will get blasted against a #1 seed in their only game.

Missouri Valley

Arch Madness in St. Louis is always fun, and the league championship game is always the first big one televised by CBS on the first Sunday of Championship Fortnight.  Loyola (Chi.) is ending their membership in the league at the end of this season, but the folks in the MVC, led by a long-time acquaintance in Commissioner Jeff Jackson, didn’t ban the Ramblers from Arch Madness.  Loyola is firmly an at-large candidate if they do not win Arch Madness, and this year, the tournament will be loaded with good teams capable of cutting down the nets.  

Drake, Missouri State, and Bradley have already defeated the Ramblers, while Northern Iowa has beaten those same three teams and still gets Loyola at home to conclude the regular season.  These five teams will make Arch Madness Madnificent.

Mountain West

Might the MWC get more teams in the Big Dance than the Pac-12?  The answer is most likely “no,” but this league will put three teams in the field with the possibility of a fourth getting in.  Boise State, Wyoming, Colorado State, and San Diego State are within one game in the loss column of each other.  If the Aztecs can finish the regular season 5-1 in their six games in two weeks dash, then all four could be in line for a bid if there aren’t many Power Conference upset winners. All four of these teams have Sweet 16 talent.

Northeast

Wagner has been rated highly in the NET Rankings this year, as they have a signature road win against VCU, but this is another OBL.  The Seahawks beat second place Bryant at home in overtime and still have to play the Bulldogs in Rhode Island.  One of these two should win the automatic bid.

Ohio Valley

Could the OVC be a two-bid league this year, as they have been multiple times in the past?  Murray State has the best overall record in D1 basketball at 24-2 and is 14-0 in the league.  Should the Racers be upset in the OVC Tournament, then yes, this is definitely a two-bid league.  Additionally, if Murray State wins the league tourney, and they beat Belmont in the Championship Game, and Belmont has a record of 26-7 or 27-6, then the Bruins might sneak into the field as an 11 or 12-seed playing in a First Four game.  Belmont has wins over Drake, Iona, and Saint Louis, all away from Nashville, plus a win at home over Chattanooga.  The Bruins still must play at Murray.

Patriot League

Colgate is 12-1 in their last 13 games, and the Raiders look to have returned to their lofty elite position they enjoyed last year in the PL.  They do have one nice road win, topping Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, but this is most likely a one and done team if they win the automatic bid, even if the Raiders are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation.  They will get manhandled in the paint by a bigger opponent.

Navy and Boston U have enough talent to win the automatic bid.  If either does win, they will most likely be a 16-seed or at best, the weakest 15-seed.

Southern

The SoCon has frequently been overlooked in the past, especially once Davidson left the league.  Chattanooga is definitely a team that must be shown respect, as the Mocs have an above average offense and defense.  UC has swept second place Furman in the regular season, and there is the old saying that it is hard to beat a good team three times in one season.  The Mocs might have to do just that to get a Dance ticket.

Southland

This poor league was decimated by the loss of its best teams to the WAC, and now, this may be the weakest of the D1 conferences.  New Orleans, Nicholls State, and Southeast Louisiana are the only three teams with winning conference records, but 6th place Texas A&M-Corpus Christi may actually be the best team.  Regardless of the eventual winner, they will play in Dayton in a First Four game.

Summit League

Do you remember last year?  Fourth place Oral Roberts finished the regular season at 10-6 in the league and just 13-10 overall.  The Golden Eagles then upset South Dakota State in the Summit Semis and topped North Dakota State in the Summit Championship Game to sneak into the field as a 15-seed.  They then upset 2-seed Ohio State and 7-seed Florida to make the Sweet 16, where they faced a heavily favored Arkansas team and took the Razorbacks to the buzzer, losing by two.

ORU is in second place in the league at the present time at 11-3, but three games behind what looks like a potential Sweet 16 team in South Dakota State.  Even with the 2021 success, this league is an OBL, because neither team has the strength of schedule or strength of record to get an at-large bid.  

From deep in the pack, keep an eye on Western Illinois.  The Leathernecks’ style of play will keep them loose in tournament action, and if they can pull off a quarterfinal upset, they will get the confidence and have the momentum to do more.

Sun Belt

Of the Low-major leagues, this one has the most parity, and it will be a crap shoot to predict the automatic bid winner in this OBL.  Nine of the 12 teams can make it to the SBC Championship Game.  If I had to choose one team in the bottom half of any conference to win their league’s conference tournament, it would be here in the SBC.  Coastal Carolina is in 8th place at 5-7 in the league and 13-11 overall, but this is the deep dark horse in my opinion.  Aged veteran coach Cliff Ellis has been coaching college basketball for 50 years, and I was there watching his tiny Cumberland College in Lebanon, TN, in the early 1970’s.   He’s been the head coach at South Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, and CCU and has taken all four schools to the NCAA Tournament, a combined 10 times.  

The actual co-favorites for this conference are Texas State, Appy State, and Troy.  Texas State has won a lot of close games, and the Bobcats lead the race at the moment.  Appy State has the best backcourt, but they lack inside muscle.  Troy has the best inside muscle but is lacking in the backcourt.

Southwestern Athletic

The SWAC teams must schedule a lot of paycheck games to fund their basketball programs, so their records are never great.  In fact, some past NCAA Tournament teams have lost 10 more games than they won out of conference.  With the addition of two former MEAC teams and the expansion in the number of conference games, the SWAC overall records are a little better this year.  15-10 Southern could actually avoid Dayton if they win out.  Texas Southern is 11-11, but in their numerous paycheck games, they own a 15-point win at Florida.  The Tigers kept it close in road games against Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Washington, BYU, and North Carolina State.  Coach Johnny Jones has taken three different schools to the Dance and has the favorite to do so again this year.

Western Athletic

If I was offered a free tournament pass to see all the games in a Mid-Major league this year, the WAC would be the one I chose.  Of course, the tournament is in Las Vegas, but there is another reason to make this one my choice.

The WAC gained a bunch of quality teams when they raided the Southland, and now this 13-team league has seven rather strong teams competing for the league’s one bid.  There are interesting little stories to each of the teams.

Seattle is leading the league today with a record of 11-2 in the WAC and 20-6 overall.  The Redhawks are playing under an interim head coach, Chris Victor, after their former coach was forced to resign after making racist statements.  Seattle has actually made it to the National Championship in the distant past, as one of the 10 greatest players in the game’s history, Elgin Baylor, took the school to the finals, where they fell to Adolph Rupp’s “Fiddlin’ Five” last national champions at Kentucky.

New Mexico State is a year removed from being a travel squad, as the Aggies had to leave New Mexico and hole up in a motel in Arizona for months just to play a handful of games.  NMSU is 10-2/21-4 led by my #1 Mid-Major head coach in Chris Jans, and the Aggies present significant matchup problems with their size and quickness.

Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin dominated the Southland Conference for many years, and the two Lone Star State teams are doing just fine playing in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones, even better playing their new rivals at home.  Ask Kansas and Bill Self about playing SFA.  He wants nothing more of them after watching the Lumberjacks come into Allen Fieldhouse and take KU to the final minutes.

Grand Canyon, Abilene Christian, and Utah Valley might be leading five or six other Mid-Major/Low-Major leagues this year.  ACU still has the great pressure defense they had under former coach Joe Golding when they won last year’s Southland Tourney.  GCU may be a tad stronger this year than last year, after they won both the regular season and conference tournament.  Utah Valley has the top big man in the league in Fardaws Aimaq, who averages 19.2 points and 13.4 rebounds per game.

West Coast

Should this league still be considered a Mid-Major?  Along with the AAC, the WCC is one of the top eight leagues and should be considered a power conference.  Gonzaga is number one in the nation, looking at another 1-seed.  Saint Mary’s and San Francisco are also at-large worthy, while Santa Clara and BYU both have the potential to get back into the at-large discussion.  

Look out for USF in the NCAA Tournament.  Todd Golden’s Dons have senior leadership along with a team that knows how to take care of the ball and play cohesively as a team.  USF played Gonzaga tough in Spokane and gets a rematch with the Bulldogs a week from today.  Golden might be on an expedited path to a big time job.  With his past ties to Bruce Pearl, he could easily coach east of the Mississippi River as well as west.

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