The Pi-Rate Ratings

January 29, 2019

The PiRate Ratings Look At The One Bid Leagues

Mid-Major teams have been pulling off big time upsets for many years longer than the 68-team field era.  Back in the days when just 32 teams made the NCAA Tournament, Cal State Fullerton snuck into the Elite 8 and came within a couple possessions of advancing to the Final Four in 1978.  Before that, Texas Western had to be considered a Mid-Major team in their run to the National Championship in 1966, even though the Miners were no surprise team that year as they entered the NCAA Tournament as the number two-ranked team in the polls.

In the recent era, all the fun with Mid-Majors began with George Mason in 2006.  That GMU team was a controversial at-large pick after they lost in the Colonial Athletic Tournament.  Since then, Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State, and most recently Loyola of Chicago have made it to the Final Four.  Of course, Butler made it to within a couple inches of a National Championship on its way to back-to-back Championship Game appearances.

Is there a Mid-Major in 2019 that could do the unthinkable and go all the way?  If you consider Nevada or Buffalo a Mid-Major, then it could happen. If you consider Nevada and Buffalo like Gonzaga, then probably not, but there are many teams that could win an opening round game and a couple that could sneak into the Sweet 16.  Here’s a breakdown of the potential one-bid leagues.

 

America East Conference

Four teams have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, but for now this is a three-team race between Vermont (6-1/16-5) and Stony Brook (5-1/17-4) , the two teams that have dominated this league in the past and and Maryland-Baltimore County (5-2/13-9), the team that won the conference tournament last year before becoming the first ever 16-seed to beat a 1-seed.
Last week, UMBC beat Vermont, and then Vermont blew Stony Brook off their own floor, giving every team a loss in league play. Wednesday night UMBC host Stony Brook, so this race will see movement in the upper half of the standings.
Fourth place U Mass-Lowell (4-2/12-9) has a four-game winning streak, which includes a win over UMBC. The River Hawks host Vermont this Saturday, so this race could be a tight four-way competition by the weekend.

 

Atlantic 10 Conference

The A-10 moves into Mid-Major territory this year, because this looks like a one-bid league. In a 14-team league with some weak teams bringing up the pack, it is obvious that there must also be either a few really strong teams or several competitive teams, and in this case, the league has eight competing for the conference championship and six that are legitimate threats as potential first round NCAA Tournament underdogs. Former Final Four surprise team George Mason (7-1/13-8) looks better than their overall record. The Patriots lost by one point at Kansas State, and they competed with Cincinnati, Baylor, and Vermont. Coach Dave Paulsen did a great job at Bucknell, and he has slowly brought GMU back to the top of the standings in the league.
Davidson (6-1/15-5) has turned up the defensive intensity in league play, and the Wildcats are limiting league foes to 39% shooting, 26% three-point shooting, and 59 points per game. Coach Bob McKillop is in his 30th season at DC, and he has the talent to take his 10th team to the Big Dance.
If you are looking for a team on the rise, look no further than Duquesne (5-2/14-6), where Coach Keith Dambrot has quickly turned the fortunes around in this once strong program. Dambrot owned the MAC at Akron with eight league titles in 11 years, and he is working his magic with the Dukes, making them the equal of big brother Pitt in the Steel City.
Saint Lous (5-2/14-6) lost a heart-breaker by a point against Davidson this past Saturday, and the Billikens could be a half-game out of first place had the breaks gone their way at the end. Former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford has revived this program that suffered three consecutive 21-loss seasons.
Virginia Commonwealth (5-2/14-6) didn’t skip a beat when Will Wade left for LSU, and Mike Rhoades took over the program and brought back the Havoc Defense. VCU is killing it on the defensive end of the floor, limiting opponents to 38% shooting and forcing a lot of turnovers. The offense began to look competent in the Rams’ big win at Duquesne last time out. Keep an eye on VCU. If their offense continued to improve, they might be the team to beat in this league, and they have the defense to upset an opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
A Former VCU coach, Anthony Grant has resurrected his coaching career at Dayton (5-2/13-7), where the Flyers have won eight of 10 games riding the backs of their two big men, Josh Cunningham and Obadiah Toppin. The two forwards are instant offense in the paint, but they have excellent range and can drain the three if left open.

 

Atlantic Sun Conference

This may be the best two-team race in all of college basketball, and you should make a note to tune into ESPN+ tonight and catch the big game between the two league powers vying for the top spot in the league. There might be consideration to take both teams in the NCAA Tournament if they continue to dominate this league.
Liberty (7-0/18-4) hosts Lipscomb (7-0/16-4) at 7:00 PM Eastern Time, and the winner will find itself in the top 35 in the NET Ratings if they also win Saturday. This game will feature the high-flying offense of Lipscomb against the tough defense of Liberty.
In their eight-game winning streak that started with the big upset of UCLA, the Flames have limited opponents to 55 points per game while scoring 71 points per game. Liberty is undefeated at home, and they have an experienced coach in Ritchie McKay, who took New Mexico to the NCAA Tournament in the previous decade.
Lipscomb is the reigning conference tournament champions, under Coach Casey Alexander. The Bisons program was once the Duke of NAIA, and Alexander continues to win with a roster full of local players in the talent-rich Nashville area. Lipscomb scores 85 points per game by following the basic rules of the new advanced metrics–their offense is designed to get a lot of open three-point shots and to draw a lot of fouls with quick and straight moves to the basket.
NJIT (5-2/17-5) is the one team that could sneak past the two top teams in the conference tournament, but still must play Liberty twice, as well as play at Lipscomb, so the Highlanders might be fighting just to earn the number three seed in the A-Sun Tournament.

 

Big Sky Conference

An exciting three-team race has developed in this league, which is down a bit this year and probably will not field a team capable of challenging for an opening round win in the Big Dance. Northern Colorado (8-2/14-7) has a half-game lead over Montana (7-2/14-6) and Weber St. (7-2/13-7).
Northern Colorado has the top player in the league in Jordan Davis, who averages 24 points per game and has scored in double figures in every game this year. The problem with the Bears is that sometimes the rest of the team relies too much on Davis to do everything, and it leads to offensive lapses.
Montana has won eight of 10 games with balanced scoring and by taking care of the ball. The Grizzlies have four players averaging between 13 and 16 points per game. The Grizzlies went on a big winning streak in January and February last year to sweep the regular season and tournament championships.
Weber State may be the best equipped to play tough against a power conference team in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have the second best scorer in the Big Sky in Jerrick Harding, who scores better than 21 points per game. Inside, they have the league’s two best rebounders. Brekkot Chapman clears the glass on the defensive end, and Zach Braxton gets a lot of offensive boards and second chance points.

 

Big South Conference

Radford (7-0/15-6) is the clear best team in this league, and the Highlanders own a top 25 win this year having won at Texas after Thanksgiving. All five starters returned from last year’s conference tournament champion team that unfortunately had to play Villanova in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Mike Jones has one of the most unique backgrounds with a wide range of coaching styles in his days as an assistant. He has been on staffs coached by Shaka Smart, John Beilein, and he was on Dennis Felton’s staff at Georgia, when the Bulldogs pulled off one of the most incredible feats in modern basketball history. In 2008, he helped guide Georgia to the SEC Tournament Championship after the tournament was forced to move from the Georgia Dome to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Coliseum following the direct hit from a tornado that rendered the Georgia Dome too dangerous to continue. Georgia was forced to play two games in one day and win four games in three days in order to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, and the Bulldogs did it.

In addition Jones is the son of a former ABA basketball star Jimmie Jones, who I saw play for the Memphis Pros in the early 1970’s.

 

Big West Conference

This league will probably only garner a 15-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but there is some really good basketball being played in the Big West, and more than one head coach might be in line for a pay raise and move to a power conference.
UC-Irvine (5-1/17-5) and UC Santa Barbara (4-1/15-4) are the heavy co-favorites, but there is enough parity in the Big West for somebody else to earn the league’s automatic bid.
Former Alabama and North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried has resurfaced at Cal State Northridge (3-2/9-12), and the Matadors play at a frenetic pace that might cause another earthquake one night. CSUN has two big scorers averaging better than 20 points per game in Lamine Diane (23.5ppg) and Terrell Gomez (20.1 ppg). Diane averages a double-double, and CSUN has a roster to watch out for in a three-day tournament.

Hawaii (3-2/12-7) is always handicapped by having to play difficult road trips. For those that do not pay attention to geography, the Rainbow Warriors basically have to fly the equivalent of New York City to Phoenix, Arizona, every time they go from the island to LAX, and then they must travel by bus to places like Irvine, Fullerton, and Santa Barbara.

 

Colonial Athletic Association

What team has the nation’s longest winning streak? If you said the current number one Tennessee Volunteers, you are wrong by two games. The Vols have won 14 in a row, but Hofstra (9-0/19-3) has won 16 games in a row. The Pride have fielded some great teams in the past under former coaches Jay Wright (that Jay Wright) and Butch Van Breda Kolff. Current Coach Joe Mihalich comes from the Paul Westhead coaching tree, but Hofstra does not play anything like the legendary offensive mastermind.
Mihalich’s team is one of the most efficient on the offensive side of the ball, as the Pride average about 120 points for every 100 possessions in CAA play. They connect on almost 51% of their field goal attempts, 42% of their three-point attempts, and better than 80% of their free throw attempts in conference play. The name of the game is to put the ball through the hoop, and the Pride certainly accomplishes that most nights. Add the best turnover ratio with a high percentage of forced turnovers coming by the all important steal, and you have a team with the ability to sneak into the Sweet 16 with the right matchup.

 

Conference USA

This has been a league where outstanding coaches have made major impacts before going to bigger and better Power Conference programs. Kermit Davis, Jr. has taken his genius to Ole Miss. Michael White is now at Florida. Jerod Haase is at Stanford.
The current hot coach is Grant McCasland, who has guided North Texas to a 6-2/18-3 mark so far this year. McCasland has a history of producing powerful teams at lower classifications including a national junior college championship. The Mean Green lead the league, but they have a brutal finish to their schedule. Aside from the fact that they must play four of their next six games on the road in some difficult places to win, this league is experimenting with a new scheduling method, where the final two weeks of games will be scheduled based on conference standings. So, North Texas will likely have to play the best three teams in the league to finish the regular season, while a team like Western Kentucky (4-4/11-10) will get to play middle of the pack teams and arrive at the CUSA Tournament without having to play the same schedule.

WKU has the talent (highest two rated players, including 5-star center Charles Bassey) to win the league’s automatic bid, but that talent has not gelled. Teams can gain confidence entering conference tournament play by mopping up against mediocre competition, so I expect the eventual conference champion to come from off the pace due to the new scheduling experiment.

Other middle of the pack teams that should compete for the lone bid are Marshall (5-3/12-9), Lousiana Tech (5-4/15-7), and Florida International (4-4/13-8)

 

Horizon League

Northern Kentucky (8-1/18-4) has the talent and coaching to pull off a first round NCAA Tournament shocker. The Norse have not been a Division 1 program for very long, after being a division two power for years. Coach John Brannen has his team prepared to play hard night after night, and he could be in line for promotion to a big program with a good showing in March. In these times, seldom do you see a team that can pass the ball as well as great teams from the past like North Carolina under Dean Smith and Indiana under Bob Knight. NKU is one of the few remaining teams that know how to move the ball rather than dribble for 15 seconds of fake offense. If the Norse can get a little more rebounding power, they have the tools to be a dangerous 14-seed against a 3-seed that overlooks them.

 

Ivy League

As per usual, this league brings up the rear in playing its conference schedule. Here we are at the end of January, and the eight Ivy teams have played two conference games each. It is too early to get a grip on this race, because last place Penn (0-2/12-6) has played rival Princeton (2-0/10-5) in both conference games, losing two close games. At the same time, the Quakers own the Big Five this year with wins over Villanova, La Salle, St. Joe’s, and Temple. They also own a blowout win over Miami of Florida.
Princeton won at Arizona State, but they also lost at Duke by 51 points. With four consecutive conference road games coming up, expect the Tigers to be no better than 4-2 in a couple weeks.
Yale (2-0/12-3) swept travel partner Brown (0-2/12-6) in two close games. The Bulldogs have the most balanced scoring in the East with five players scoring double figures per game and two more averaging better than eight per game. Yale’s big liability is there inability to hold onto the ball. The Bulldogs turn the ball over too many times, and that will keep them from advancing if they win the Ivy League Tournament.

 

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

The MAAC has been mired near the bottom of the conferences for many years, and this league will most likely produce a 16-seed in this year’s tournament with a decent chance that said qualifier will be forced to play a First Four game in Dayton. The problem with the MAAC is that the regular season champion has not won the conference tournament since 2010!
That is not good news for the league’s only decent team. Rider (6-1/11-8) won the regular season championship last year with a similar strong offensive efficiency, but the Broncos laid an egg agaist 9th seed Saint Peter’s in the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament with a 30% shooting effort.
In recent years, the 4-seed has won more conference tournament titles with around 11 or 12 conference wins. This year, that could be Siena (4-3/9-11), Iona (5-3/7-12), or Canisius (5-2/8-11). If any of these three win the bid, it’s Dayton here they come.

 

Mid-American Conference

The MAC has a chance to move to a two-bid conference two different ways. Buffalo (6-1/18-2) is going to the Dance unless the Bulls totally collapse, so if another team wins the always competitive conference tournament, there definitely will be two MAC teams in the Field of 68. If Buffalo wins both the regular season and conference tournament, there is a chance that Toledo (4-3/16-4) or Bowling Green (6-1/14-6) could sneak in as an at-large team if there are no upsets in the Power Conference tournaments.
Northern Illinois (4-3/11-9) was the team that knocked off Buffalo, which is a reason why the MAC Tournament every year is exciting with a lot of plot twists. The regular season division champions always have a rough going in Cleveland.

 

Mideastern Athletic Conference

The MEAC owns three of the five 15-seed NCAA Tournament victories over 2-seeds, but the champion in recent years has not only been placed on the 16-seed line, they have had to play a First Four game in Dayton.
This year, Norfolk State (7-0/12-10) (Beat 2-seed Missouri in 2012 Dance) and North Carolina A&T (6-0/11-9) lead the pack and figure to contend for that spot in Dayton. The two co-leaders use different methods to win, and if they should meet in the MEAC Championship Game, it will be one not to miss. Norfolk State has the inside punch and rebounding ability, but the Spartans sometimes have a difficult time taking care of the ball. NC A&T has some liabilities in the paint, but the Aggies can guard the perimeter and know how to take care of the ball.

 

Missouri Valley Conference

Arch Madness is always fun in Saint Louis every year, and this year should be one of the better in recent years. Loyola of Chicago (6-2/13-8) became the nation’s darling last year in their run to the Final Four, and the Ramblers lead the way again this season, but this team is not clicking like last year’s team. Drake (5-3/16-5) also has a Final Four team in its past, which by the way came the closest to beating a Kareem Abdul Jabbar-led UCLA team.
This Valley has balance, and the next four teams after the two above have enough talent to get hot for three days and steal the lone bid. Keep an eye on Missouri State (4-4/10-11). Coach Dana Ford was a Gregg Marshall assistant at Wichita State, when the Shockers owned the Valley, and in the last week, the Bears looked just like one of those Wichita teams in blowout victories over Loyola and Bradley. MSU outscored the two victims 125-72. They out-shot Loyola 63%-37%, and they held the Ramblers to an incredible eight rebounds for the game!

 

Northeast Conference

Short of some other low major conferences sending 20-loss teams to the Big Dance, the champion of the NEC is doomed to play a First Four game in Dayton. There isn’t a particularly strong team in the league this year.
Robert Morris (7-1/12-9) is one team that has won a game in Dayton before losing big as a 16-seed in the next game. St. Francis of Brooklyn (5-3/13-8) has never been in the NCAA Tournament. There isn’t another league team with the talent to win a game in Dayton this year.

 

Ohio Valley Conference

Like its first cousin, the Atlantic Sun Conference, the OVC has multiple teams capable of winning in the NCAA Tournament. There are actually four talented teams this year, as well as a potential top three draft pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Murray State (7-1/16-3) has been sort of like the Kentucky of the OVC. The Racers have won the conference championship under nine different head coaches, one of them being current head man Matt McMahon. Led by superstar Ja Morant, the Racers have competed on the road against good SEC teams. Morant might be the best and toughest point guard in the nation. He averages 24 points and 10.5 assists per game, and he does it without taking ill-advised shots. He does tend to make some bad decisions passing the ball, but he is tough as nails. Against top rival Belmont (6-2/15-4), he played 37 minutes, 35 of them with a sprained ankle.
Speaking of Belmont, the Bruins hit a rough spot for a week, but they have rebounded to win by double digits at Murray. Coach Rick Byrd’s teams always pass and shoot brilliantly, but in recent years, he has been able to bring in and train big guys to compete against the power conference teams inside the paint.
Jacksonville State (7-1/15-6) owns both of the wins over Belmont, and former Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper has taken three teams to the NCAA Tournament in his previous seven years as a Division 1 coach. The Gamecocks know how to play tough man-to-man defense, and teams like JSU tend to play their best in conference tournament play.
Don’t overlook Austin Peay (6-2/14-7). The Governors can fill it up from outside, and a hot streak in March could send this team to its first NCAA Tournament berth in four years. Coach Matt Figgers comes from the Frank Martin coaching tree, and Martin’s teams always peak at the right time. If this APSU team peaks in March, they are just talented enough to win the conference tournament.

 

Patriot League

It’s a down year in the Patriot League this season, but there could be something exciting that comes from the lack of having that one rather good team. Army (6-2/11-10) is tied for first with Lehigh (6-2/13-6) and perennial champion Bucknell (6-2/12-8). The Black Knights have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament, even when Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski coached the Academy. In 29 years in the Patriot League, Army has finished with a winning conference record just one time, so if Coach Jimmy Allen can guide his roster of 20 players (yes, you read that correctly) to the Big Dance this year, it will be quite a milestone. Army’s two conference losses were by one and two points, and in their current four-game winning streak, they have outscore their conference rivals by 11.5 points per game.

 

Southern Conference

The Socon has four teams this year strong enough to do damage in the NCAA Tournament, possibly even contend for a Sweet 16 berth. The league will most likely get just one bid, but there could be a second team that sneaks into the Dance. The problem is that with four really good teams, the second best team is going to lose too many games, or all four teams will see their won-loss records affected by the parity.
Wofford (9-0/17-4) has been to four NCAA Tournaments during Coach Mike Young’s tenure, with the Terriers coming close twice against power conference teams. This is Young’s best team in Spartanburg, and the Terriers haven’t lost since Christmas. In their eight-game winning streak, Wofford has a scoring margin of 84-66. Three of their four losses were to top 25 teams.
UNC-Greensboro (8-1/19-3) and East Tennessee State (7-2/17-5) might be better NCAA Tournament representatives than Wofford due to unique playing styles and the makeup of their rosters. UNCG’s one conference loss was a devastating one, as Wofford beat them by 29 points. On the other hand, the Spartans played SEC powers Kentucky and LSU rather closely before losing.
ETSU has won nine of their last 10 games, and the Buccaneers still have a home game with Wofford. Coach Steve Forbes took the 2016 Bucs to the NCAA Tournament after losing to UNCG and Wofford in the regular season, so don’t discount the chance that the Bucs can repeat the feat in 2019.
As good as these three teams are, one other team actually has a top 25 win this year. Furman (5-4/16-5) won at Villanova and began the season with a 12-0 record. They are just 4-5 in their last nine games, including losses to the other three top teams.

 

Southland Conference

This league has fallen back near the bottom of the conference pack the last couple of years, and unless there are some really bad teams pulling off upsets to get to the Big Dance, the league’s qualifier will most likely be placed in Dayton in the First Four.
Sam Houston State (7-0/12-8) has emerged from the shadows of Abilene Christian (6-2/17-4) to take command of the conference race, but the Bearkats have road games to play against the top contenders and could relinquish their game and a half lead over ACU.

 

Southwestern Athletic Conference

In recent years, this has been the lowest ranked conference in Division 1, but this league has a storied history with teams that have outperformed their expectations. Almost every team must play “paycheck” road games in November and December to fund their programs, so usually every single team begins conference play with a winning percentage under 30%.
Prairie View (7-0/9-11) played its first 12 games on the road and began the season 1-11. The Panthers have since won eight games in a row by better than 10 points per game. Alabama State (6-1/8-10) played two home games early, but they were against two non-scholarship Division 3 teams. The Hornets will get a chance to sting Prairie View on the Panthers’ home floor a week from tonight.
Texas Southern (4-3/9-11) has a history of getting hot at the right time and winning the SWAC Tournament. The Tigers might be the potential most competitive league team in the NCAA Tournament, as they own a win at Baylor, at Oregon, and at Georgia, as well as competitive losses at Iowa State and Arizona State. Coach Johnny Jones has taken LSU and North Texas to past NCAA Tournaments.

 

Summit League

South Dakota State (7-1/17-6) has become one of those teams that the nation knows about because they seem to win their conference every year. The Jackrabbits have won five of the last seven conference tournaments, but they have yet to put a mark on the left side of the won-loss ledger once they arrived at the Dance. They have come close in the first round against two Big Ten teams in recent years, and this year might give SDSU a third try against a Michigan, Michigan State, or Purdue as a 15-seed against a 2-seed.
SDSU’s chief rivals this year are Omaha (6-2/12-9) and Purdue Fort Wayne (5-3/13-10). Both teams have the potential to run off 100 points on a given night, but neither has the defense to win three games in three days, unless SDSU falters, and their path to the automatic bid comes against weak opponents.

 

Sun Belt Conference

This may be the most balanced league in college basketball as seven teams are not that different from each other. Georgia State (6-2/15-6) and Texas State (6-2/17-4) lead the rest of the pack, but neither team is strong enough to dominate the rest of the league.
Texas-Arlington (5-3/9-12), Georgia Southern (5-3/13-8), UL-Monroe (4-3/11-8), Louisiana (4-3/13-7), and Coastal Carolina (4-3/10-9) could just as easily get hot and win the SBC Tournament, but whoever wins is likely to quickly exit as a 14 or 15-seed.
Georgia State has won the automatic bid two of the last four seasons, and Coach Ron Hunter has the one of the league’s two most recent NCAA Tournament victories, knocking off 3-seed Baylor in 2015. Texas State has the best defense of the top contenders, but the Bobcats have the weakest offense of the contenders.

Georgia Southern Coach Mark Byington comes from the Bobby Cremins coaching tree, which makes him a branch of the Frank McGuire tree. The Eagles can pick teams apart with steal after steal and get out and run in transition. Many times, teams like this begin to gel in February and early March, so watch out for Georgia Southern come SBC Tournament time. The only possible pitfall is that sometimes teams like this get to March very fatigued.

 

Western Athletic Conference

In recent years, New Mexico State (5-1/16-4) has enjoyed a dynasty in the WAC with NCAA Tournament berths six out of the last seven seasons and eight in the last dozen years. NMSU has done this with four different head coaches, but the best of the quartet might be current head man Chris Jans. The Aggies could have a team capable of breaking through in the NCAA Tournament this year, as they scared the daylights out of Kansas, leading the Jayhawks into the second half.
NMSU will not be handed the conference championship of tournament championship, as there are two or three other teams that can knock them off. In recent years, Grand Canyon (6-1/13-7) has been the Aggies’ chief nemesis. Former NBA Mr. Hustle Dan Majerle has built GCU in his own image, and the Antelopes “hit the dirt” as often as Vince Coleman and Maury Wills used to do on the diamond. Teams that don’t hustle pay the price against the Antelopes, and now Majerle has enough talent to get to the Big Dance.

The team that has emerged as the surprise leader in the league is Cal State Bakersfield (6-1/14-6). Coach Rod Barnes has experience taking teams picked to finish in the middle of the pack to the conference penthouse in the past. He won an SEC championship at Ole Miss and took three Rebel teams to the NCAA Tournament. He has already upset New Mexico State in the WAC Championship Game to earn a bid at Bakersfield.

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August 14, 2018

2018 FBS Independents Preview

Note: The preseason ratings you see in the previews may not be the same as the ratings you see for the first game. We update every team’s rating based on player injuries, changes to the depth charts, and other factors that may change during preseason practice.

Some of our Group of 5 Conference won-loss predictions were figured before the beginning of August preseason practices. Thus, it could be that a player or players on some teams have already suffered season-ending or multiple game injuries or have left their teams, and these won-loss predictions no longer accurately reflect our ratings. We hope that by the time we preview the Power 5 conferences, we will know who is not going to be available (players and head coaches).

The number of FBS Independents has ballooned by 50% as Liberty moves up to FBS football and New Mexico State returns to this group after spending four years in the Sun Belt Conference.

There is no real affiliation between the six teams in the independent ranks. The top program, Notre Dame, is all but a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Irish play five ACC teams every year. In the past, Notre Dame may have been hurt by not being affiliated with a conference. That is no longer the case. Notre Dame has an easier path to the FBS Playoffs now that the top 4 teams qualify. With no conference championship game to play and the ability to arrange their schedule in the most convenient way, Notre Dame is a serious contender this year to make their first appearance in the playoffs.
If the Irish run the table or finish a strong 11-1, it will be the defense that carries them to the promised land. After surrendering 21.5 points per game and 369 yards per game in 2017, the outlook for 2018 looks better. A solid linebacking corps ranks among the nation’s elite. Middle linebacker Te’von Coney and outside linebacker Drue Tranquill may be the best duo in the nation in ruining enemy drives. Julian Love has a chance to be named an All-American from his cornerback position. The Irish are deep and talented on the back line of defense. The front four is the weakness of the defense, but in this case, the weakness means they are maybe the 30th best defensive line in the nation.

Look for an improved pass rush this year. Road games against Northwestern and Southern Cal are the two toughest on the schedule, and the Irish are strong enough this year to win both and should at least split these two games.

Brigham Young was one of the perennial best passing teams for decades during the Lavell Edwards days. A who’s who of quarterbacks including Ty Detmer, Jim McMahon, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielsen, and Virgil Carter gave the Cougars the necessary tools to make the offense click. In recent years, not only has BYU not had a dangerous passer, passing has become a liability in Provo. Coach Kalani Sitake may have just one more year to turn things around before finding himself on another mission. The season may depend on whether the offensive line can keep senior Tanner Mangum upright and out of the hospital, something it has failed doing the previous two seasons. He is recovering from an Achilles’ injury and will lack a lot of mobility.

Speaking of passing, that word is not in the dictionary in West Point, NY. Army attempted just five passes per game last year, and completed just over 1 1/2 of those attempts per game. Still, with only 28 passing yards per game, the Black Knights averaged almost 31 points per game by leading the nation in rushing yardage. The 10-3 season was the best at West Point since 1996. The Cadets will take a small backward step this year with a decimated offense needing to rebuild, but the defense could limit opponents to 330 yards and 20 points per game this year.

Mark Whipple is a quarterback whisperer. He has a long history of getting the most out of his passers. Throughout his career, Whipple has helped tutor Greg Landry during his USFL stint, Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers (including a Super Bowl Championship season), and Donovan McNabb when he threw for the most yards in his career and led the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game. As offensive coordinator at Miami in 2009, he got the most out of Jacory Harris. So, it should be no surprise that the man that took Massachusetts to a I-AA championship his first go around in Amherst, is on the verge of making the FBS version of the Minutemen into a bowl-eligible team. UMass finished 4-8 last year with enough near misses to make a bowl game if they had gone the other way. This year, with experienced quarterback Andrew Ford, we expect the Minutemen to crash through the barrier and enjoy a won-loss record on the plus side of .500. If Ford stays healthy for 12 games, he should crash through the 3,500 passing yard barrier and make a run at 4,000. He has talented and experienced receivers returning as well as the most experienced and talented offensive line protecting him since he arrived on campus. UMass should score around 35-38 points per game, and while the defense is still quite suspect, the Minutemen should win seven games and receive their first bowl bid since they played in the 1972 Boardwalk Bowl.

New Mexico State left the Sun Belt on good footing, as the Aggies finished with a bowl win and winning season in their SBC swan song. The Sun Belt was never a good fit for this team; this school would be an excellent addition to the Mountain West, where rival New Mexico already plays, or Conference USA, where rival UTEP plays. Coach Doug Martin has enough key talent returning on both sides of the ball to return to a bowl in 2018, but they will have to stay healthy in the back half of their schedule after facing a brutal beginning. NMSU will play on August 25 against Wyoming and a short five days later, play at Minnesota. Then, on September 8, the Aggies have another tough road game at Utah State.  They could 0-3 to start the season.

Liberty finished 6-5 in their final year in FCS football last season. The Flames beat Baylor, so they will not be intimidated this year when they line up against teams like Old Dominion, North Texas, and New Mexico. Coach Turner Gill’s team won last year with a brilliant passing attack, as they frequently outscored their opponents in their wins. They gave up more than 40 points in two of those wins! In Liberty’s favor, most of their brilliant offense returns in 2018, but the schedule is about 20 points stronger per game this year than last. Don’t expect Liberty to contend for a winning season in year one in the FBS.

There is no FBS Independents media group that meets and hears speeches from the coaches and then interviews players before voting in a preseason poll. Rather than leave this section empty, I will show you how a conglomerate of 10 of my peers believe the teams will finish.

Independents 1st Place Votes
1. Notre Dame 10 60
2. Army 0 47
3. BYU 0 43
4. New Mexico State 0 26
5. Massachusetts 0 24
6. Liberty 0 10

The PiRate Ratings mostly agree with these other 10 very successful computer geniuses, and where we don’t it is probably because they are correct, and we are not.

FBS Independents
Team Overall PiRate Mean Bias Average
Notre Dame 0-0 125.6 121.5 123.7 123.6
BYU 0-0 95.9 97.0 96.3 96.4
Army 0-0 95.6 96.4 95.5 95.9
Massachusetts 0-0 89.8 92.4 92.0 91.4
N. Mexico St. 0-0 82.0 85.3 82.5 83.3
Liberty 0-0 75.2 73.9 74.2 74.5
Independents Averages 94.0 94.4 94.0 94.2

New Coaches
There are no new coaches among the six independents. Sitake is most definitely on the hot seat at BYU, and if something were to happen in South Bend, and the Irish terribly under-perform, Brian Kelly might be in trouble. However, we cannot see a scenario happening with Notre Dame this year, and the Irish have a better chance of going 12-0 than 6-6.

Predicted Won-Loss Records

Independents Record
Notre Dame 12-0
Army 8-4
New Mexico State 7-5
Massachusetts 7-5
BYU 6-6
Liberty 2-10

Bowl Tie-ins
This year, no Independents have a definite bowl contract. Notre Dame counts toward the ACC when bowls pick representative, and they can be selected ahead of any ACC rival if they have at least one win fewer than the ACC alternative. In other words, if Duke is 9-3 and the Irish are 8-4, bowls can take Notre Dame ahead of Wake Forest. If Duke is 10-2 and Notre Dame is 8-4, then Duke must be selected before Notre Dame.
BYU has an agreement with ESPN that if the Cougars become bowl eligible, ESPN will place them in one of their televised bowls as an at-large opponent.

Liberty is not eligible for a bowl this season, but there are technicalities involved that could send the Flames to the Cure Bowl.
New Mexico State has a secondary bowl tie-in with the New Mexico Bowl.

Coming Tomorrow–The American Athletic Conference

August 14, 2010

2010 Western Athletic Conference Preview

Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Western Athletic Conference Preview

 

No team has dominated a conference for an entire decade the way Boise State has dominated the WAC since Alabama toyed with the SEC for 10 years after Bear Bryant went to the wishbone.  The Broncos last eight years in conference play have produced a league mark of 62-2!  Things will change next year, when BSU moves to the Mountain West.  It appears impossible for the Broncos to top last year’s 14-0 record, but this year’s team might be considerably stronger.

Nevada is the clear-cut second best team, and Fresno State is the clear-cut third best team.  After those two, there are three teams that are equally mediocre and three teams that will be fodder for the top six.  With Boise primed to make a run for a National Championship, there is a legitimate possibility that there will not be enough bowl eligible teams for the allotted bowl spots.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos Team WAC Overall
1 Boise State 8-0 12-0
2 Nevada 7-1 10-3
3 Fresno State 6-2 9-3
4 Utah State 4-4 5-7
5 Hawaii 4-4 6-7
6 Louisiana Tech 4-4 5-7
7 Idaho 2-6 3-10
8 New Mexico State 1-7 2-10
9 San Jose State 0-8 2-11

 

BCS Bowl: Boise State (possible National Championship Game)

Humanitarian Bowl: Fresno State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: Nevada

Hawaii Bowl: Will need an at-large team

New Mexico Bowl: Will need and at-large team

 

Hawaii is guaranteed a spot in the Hawaii Bowl if they have seven or more wins.  If not, this bowl gets the third choice after the Humanitarian and Kraft Bowls select.

 

Team By Team Breakdown

 

Team Boise State Broncos
               
Head Coach Chris Petersen
               
Colors Blue and Orange
               
City Boise, ID
               
2009 Record              
Conference 8-0
Overall 14-0
               
PiRate Rating 121.7
               
National Rating 8
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 8-0
Overall 12-0

 

Offense: Better?  You betcha.  The Broncos return 10 starters on this side of the ball as well as every player that ran the ball and every receiver that caught a pass!

Let’s start with the nation’s number two quarterback in passing efficiency in 2009, trailing only some guy named Tebow.  Kellen Moore made 3rd Team All-American last year, and he could move up two spots if his team runs the table this year.  We expect him to be making a trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan in December.  Moore completed 64.3% of his passes for 3,536 yards.  His TD/Int ration was an astonishing 39/3.  He was a down-the-field passer, so those stats were not inflated by having some speedster frequently turning a two-yard pass into a 65-yard touchdown.

Moore’s only problem may be trying to decide which open receiver to throw the ball.  His top two options are 2009 1st Team All-WAC Austin Pettus and Titus Young.  Those two combined for 142 receptions and 24 touchdowns.  Tyler Shoemaker is the bruiser of this group, and he can go across the middle and make the tough catch in a sea of defenders.

When Boise runs the ball, they will have a trio of special backs toting the pigskin.  Jeremy Avery ran for more than 1,150 yards, and Doug Martin added 765.  Martin led the ground contingent with 15 touchdowns.  Third back D. J. Harper accounted for just 285 yards, but he is the best breakaway threat of the three.  He averaged 6.5 yards per rush a year ago.

The offensive line returns four starters a year after allowing just five QB sacks, only three after the first game.  The entire second team has some starting experience, so Coach Chris Petersen can feel confident relieving his starters for a series.

Boise State averaged 42.2 points and 450 total yards last year, and those numbers should be eclipsed by this veteran squad.  Look for 45-50 points and 450-475 yards per game this season.

Defense: Now the bad news: Uh, the only bad news is for the rest of the league, because Boise State will be more improved on this side of the ball than on offense!

The Broncos gave up 17 points and 300 yards per game last year, and 10 starters also return on this side of the ball.  Almost the entire second team returns as well, and it would not surprise us to see BSU finish in the top five in both total offense and total defense.  We’re talking 1997 Nebraska-type dominance if that happens.

If there is a liability of any kind with this defense, it is at linebacker.  Boise uses a 4-2-5 defense, and the two linebackers get lost among all the stars on the stop side.  Aaron Tevis and Daron Mackey combined for just 90 stops a year ago, and they were merely above-average players in the WAC.

In the trenches, the Broncos can rely on four experienced upperclassmen, including a sure future NFL (assuming the NFL plays in 2011 or 2012) end.  Ryan Winterswyk made 17 tackles on the other team’s side of the line—nine sacks and eight tackles of runners.  Tackle Billy Wynn is just as potent at causing teams to lose yardage.

The secondary is even stronger this year.  Nickel back Winston Venable is a monster against both the run and the pass, and when he is on the field, opposing teams may think there is more than one #17 running around.  Cornerback Brandyn Thompson and strong safety Jeron Johnson should both make 1st Team All-WAC after teaming for 10 interceptions last year.

Schedule: It all comes down to the first game of the season.  Boise travels over 2,000 miles across two time zones to face Virginia Tech at the Washington Redskins’ stadium on Monday night, September 6.  The Broncos proved they could beat a BCS conference champion last year when they completely shut down Oregon in the opener.  That game was at home.  If the Broncos beat the Hokies, we don’t see anybody else threatening them.  A home game with Oregon State and a road game against Nevada might be the only other games where they cannot win by three touchdowns or more.  It will be either 1-0 on the way to 12-0 or 0-1 on the way to maybe 10-2.  At 12-0, they would be riding a 26-game winning streak and deserve to go to Glendale, Arizona, on January 10.

Team Fresno State Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Pat Hill
               
Colors Cardinal and White
               
City Fresno, CA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 6-2
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 99.6
               
National Rating 60
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-2
Overall 9-3

 

Offense: Fresno State has always fielded exciting, well-balanced offenses under Coach Pat Hill.  This year will be no different.  The Bulldogs may have lost their top player on this side of the ball, but they return eight starters and should have another successful season moving the ball.

It will be hard to replace running back Ryan Mathews after he led the league with more than 1,800 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns.  We expect Robbie Rouse to step in and rush for 1,000+ yards in his first year as a starter.  He showed flashes of brilliance last year in a backup role.

In a league of outstanding quarterbacks, Ryan Colburn rarely gets a mention in the press outside of Fresno.  Colburn is a capable, but not flashy passer.  He completed 61% of his tosses for 2,459 yards last year, but he needs to cut down on his 3.7% interception rate.

The Bulldogs lost three of their top four receivers, but there is good talent left.  Jamel Hamler and Devon Wylie can turn a short pass into a long gain.

The offensive line welcomes back all five starters.  This unit could be a little better than Boise State’s interior line.  Best among this quintet are center Joe Bernardi and tackle Kenny Wiggins, two seniors that should have a chance to play professionally (maybe in Canada).

Fresno State may take a small step backward on this side of the ball, but the Bulldogs will still be an offensive threat in every game.  Look for about 28 points and 400 yards per game.

Defense: FSU surrendered 214 rushing and 200 passing yards last year, and we see that problem continuing in 2010.  The Bulldogs return the majority of their contributors from 2009, but we see only three really good players on this side of the ball.

One of those three is end Chris Carter.  The 1st Team All-WAC performer accounted for almost half of the team’s sacks (5 out of FSU’s poor 11) and added eight other tackles for loss.  He’s the only star player in the trenches, and he will see double teams on most plays this year.  The Bulldogs gave up a profane six yards per rush last year, so teams will run the ball at them until they can prove they can slow it down.

The second line of defense is much better than the first and considerably better than the unit behind them.  Linebacker Ben Jacobs led FSU with 106 tackles last year, but too many were five or more yards down the field.  Neither he, nor outside linebacker Kyle Knox recorded a sack.

The secondary is pedestrian, but it was hard to cover the WAC’s receivers when there was no pass rush.  Strong safety Lorne Bell earned 2nd Team All-WAC honors, but he is better in run support than in pass coverage.

Fresno State will give up a lot of points again this season, and it will prevent the Bulldogs from contending with the big two in the league.  Look for 26-30 points and 400-425 yards allowed—about the same as last year.

Schedule: Outside of the WAC, Fresno plays its usual contingent of BCS schools.  This year, they host Cincinnati and Illinois and visit Ole Miss.  They get a breather with FCS member Cal Poly.  Boise State is a road game, and they have no chance in that one.  They get Nevada at home and could sneak up on the Wolf Pack.  6-2 in the league is a strong possibility, and we believe the Bulldogs can upend two of the three BCS conference teams they play.  Call it nine wins and a bowl in 2010.

Team Hawaii Warriors
               
Head Coach Greg McMackin
               
Colors Green, Black, and White
               
City Honolulu, HI
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 6-7
               
PiRate Rating 85.0
               
National Rating 97
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 6-7

 

Offense: Hawaii has once again become a great vacation trip for BCS schools.  Since June Jones left for SMU three years ago, the Warriors have fallen on hard times.  The UH offense went from a 40+ per game juggernaut to a 20-point per game patsy.

Don’t look for any improvement on this side of the ball in 2010.  Coach Greg McMackin has too many holes to fill to expect a better showing.  In fact, things could get worse.  Only five starters return, but only one of them is from the offensive line.  Tackles Austin Hansen and Laupepa Letuli give the Warrior a good couple of anchors.

Quarterback Brian Moniz returns to pilot the attack after starting eight times last year.  He is a good runner as well as passer, but he won’t be confused with Colin Kaepernick.

Moniz will benefit from the return of receivers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares.  The two combined for 172 receptions and 2,280 yards.  Speedy Rodney Bradley gives Moniz a third good option.

The running game has not been much of a factor in recent years.  As long as the back in the game can block for the quarterback, run a good safety valve route and cut on a draw play, he has done his job.  Alex Green should fit the bill nicely, and he should catch 25-30 passes this year.

With the troubles up front, we just cannot see Hawaii topping 24 points per game this season.  Look for 21-24 points and 375-400 yards.  The Warriors turned the ball over a lot last year, and that trend may continue in 2010. 

Defense: There should be improvement on this side of the ball, but it may not show up that much in the stats.  If the offense gives up the ball quickly due to incompetence, the defense will stay on the field longer.

Seven starters return on this side of the ball, but the top two tacklers from a year ago are gone.  One area that should not be a problem is the secondary.  All four starters return after giving up just 203 passing yards per game (low for this league).  All four (corners Jeramy Bryant and Lametrius Davis and safeties Mana Silva and Spencer Smith) proved to be excellent pass defenders, combining for 10 interceptions and 24 passes batted away.

The front seven is more of a problem.  Hawaii did a poor job against the run last year, and it could continue this season.  Two starters must be replaced up front, and two starters must be replaced at linebacker.  None of this year’s front seven will contend for even honorable mention all-conference.

Hawaii will give up 30-35 points and 400-425 yards per game.  

Schedule: The opener should draw a lot of national attention.  UH entertains bad boy Lane Kiffin and his Southern Cal Trojans on Thursday night, September 2.  They follow it up with a trips to West Point to face Army on 9/11 and to Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes on 9/18.  It could actually be snowing in the Front Range on that date.  The Warriors return home to face Charleston Southern, which should be their first win.  UH concludes the season with UNLV.  The Rebels could possibly be playing for bowl eligibility in that game.  In league play, UH has road games with Fresno State and Boise State and will come home with their tails beneath their legs. 

We believe the Warriors will break even in league play, but they will fall one game short of bowl eligibility again.

Team Idaho Vandals
               
Head Coach Robb Akey
               
Colors Black and Gold
               
City Moscow, ID
               
2009 Record              
Conference 4-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 90.3
               
National Rating 88
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-6
Overall 3-10

 

Offense: 2009 was one of those years when the stars aligned just right for Coach Robb Akey’s Vandals.  Idaho won five close games, including a 43-42 Humanitarian Bowl thriller over Bowling Green, on its way to its first winning season of the century.  With the graduation of most of their offensive line, their top running back, and their top receiver, it looks like the one year recovery will be an anomaly. 

The one bright spot on this side of the ball is the return of quarterback Nathan Enderle.  After the big two, he may be the third best QB in the WAC.  Last year, he passed for 2,906 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Enderle’s top target has graduated, and Max Komar was vital to this team’s success.  Maurice Shaw returns after averaging more than 20 yards on his 32 receptions.  He should form a solid trio with Preston Davis and tight end Daniel Hardy, but Komar will be sorely missed.

Idaho used a platoon at tailback, and two of the three principle members of that platoon return.  Princeton McCarty and Deonte Jackson combined for 1,108 yards, so the Vandals’ running game is in good hands this year.

Because the rebuilding blocking wall will be a liability this year, expect both the rushing and passing yardage to fall back in 2010.  Call it about 23-26 points and 380-420 yards per game.  

Defense: Idaho didn’t win because of great defensive play in 2009.  They gave up 36 points and 433 yards per game!  With 10 starters returning, there should be some improvement, but we don’t see enough improvement to justify picking Idaho to return to a bowl.

The entire front seven returns intact.  They were not particularly strong against the run or the pass.  While the Vandals gave up just a tad over 150 rushing yards per game, opponents averaged 4.7 yards per rush.  They were too busy picking the secondary to shreds to run the ball much more than 30 times per game.

The strength of the front seven is on the outside where end Aaron Lavarais and outside linebacker Jo Jo Dickson will contend for all-conference honors.

The secondary will not fare much better than their dismal performance last year after giving up 278 passing yards per game and allowing better than 66% completions.  Without a much better pass rush, look for the Vandals to maybe give up 300 yards per game through the air.

Idaho will once again give up 30+ points per game, but maybe it will be less than last year’s 36.  Let’s go with 32-35 points and 425-450 yards allowed.

Schedule: The Vandals should start off the season on a winning note when they open with North Dakota at home.  Then, they must play at Nebraska, where they could lose by six touchdowns.  A home game with UNLV should tell the fans whether they have any reason to remain optimistic, and we believe the Rebels will leave Moscow with a win.  A trip to Colorado State the following week will either put the nail in the coffin for the 2010 season or give the Vandal hope.  The Rams will treat that game as a must-win contest.  A final non-conference game at Western Michigan won’t give them a win.  Idaho hosts both Nevada and Boise State, which should be considered a curse this year.  They cannot compete with either, and it would be better for the Vandals to have two other home games.  At least, UI gets New Mexico State and San Jose State at home—those are their two conference wins for 2010.

Team Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
               
Head Coach Sonny Dykes
               
Colors Red and Blue
               
City Ruston, LA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 96.5
               
National Rating 66
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7

 

Offense: After half of the coaches in FBS football turned down the Tennessee job last year, Tech coach Derek Dooley took the job.  Welcome new coach Sonny Dykes.  Dykes turned around the Arizona Wildcats’ offense after learning the “Air Raid” Spread offense at Texas Tech under Mike Leach.  Expect a complete overhaul of the offense this year, as the Bulldogs return to a wide open offense like teams of yesteryear in Ruston.

Unfortunately, Tech won’t have Tim Rattay, Luke McCown, or Terry Bradshaw lining up at quarterback.  Actually, neither Dooley nor offensive coordinator Tony Franklin know who will be lining up at quarterback in the opener.  As August practices began, it was a four-way race between incumbent Ross Jenkins, Auburn transfer Steven Ensminger, last year’s backup Colby Cameron, and junior college transfer Tarik Hakim.  Whoever wins the battle will be throwing the ball anywhere from 40 to 60 times a game.

Tech has a fine stable of pass receivers thanks to the school that stole their prior coach.  Tennessee transfer Ahmad Paige left Orangeville last year to escape the tornado known as Lane Kiffin.  Paige will join holdovers Cruz Williams and Phillip Livas to form a solid first team.  In this offense, expect at least five other receivers to catch more than 25 passes. 

Another escapee from the Kiffin asylum is tailback Lennon Creer.  We expect Creer to step in and start from day one, but the Bulldogs backs will not match the production of graduated star Daniel Porter.

The offensive line returns four starters, but there could be some rough times in the transition from a predominantly running attack to an offense that will pass the ball at least 60% of the time and as much as 80-85% of the time.

LT averaged 29 points per game last year, and we think the Bulldogs will shatter that mark this season.  Look for 31-35 points and 400-425 yards per game in year one of the “air raid.”

Defense: This is the reason Dykes won’t turn things around in year one.  Tech gave up 26 points per game last year, and the defense is noticeably weaker this season.

The problems start up front where only one starter returns to the four-man trench.  Included in the graduation losses was two-time All-WAC star D’Anthony Smith.

The three-man linebacking corps returns two starters, including 2009 1st Team All-WAC Mike linebacker Adrien Cole.  Cole led the Techsters with 93 tackles last year.

The secondary is better than average and returns three starters, but they may have trouble matching last year’s numbers due to the weaker pass rush. 

We expect LT to give up more than 28 points and maybe as much as 33 points per game to go along with 375-400 yards per game.

Schedule: Finally it will happen!  Louisiana Tech will play Grambling for the first time ever to kick off the 2010 season.  The schools are within walking distance, but they have been separated by mountains of Southern philosophical opinion for years.  It should be an interesting game, but any chance for Grambling to pull off the upset disappeared when they weren’t able to gain approval for a medical hardship redshirt for their starting quarterback.  Tech will be 1-0 when they venture to Aggieland to take on Texas A&M, and that game should be a shootout.  Ditto the following two weeks’ games with Navy and Southern Miss.  When Tech enters WAC play, they may be just 1-3, but they could be averaging 40 points per game.  We see them splitting their league games, coming up one win short of bowl eligibility.

Team Nevada Wolf Pack
               
Head Coach Chris Ault
               
Colors Blue and Silver
               
City Reno, NV
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-1
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 102.6
               
National Rating 51
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 7-1
Overall 10-3

 

Offense: Coaltown, Alydar, Sham, the 1961 Detroit Tigers, the 1962 Detroit Lions—what do these have in common?  Coaltown, Alydar, and Sham were great horses that might have won the Triple Crown in their three-year old campaigns, but they happened to race against Citation, Affirmed, and Secretariat.  The 1961 Tigers won more than 100 games and was probably better than the 1968 World Champions.  The 1962 Lions were probably the best ever in the Motor City.  Those Tigers played second fiddle to the Maris and Mantle Yankees.  Those Lions played second fiddle to the greatest NFL team in history—the 1962 Green Bay Packers.

Nevada is this year’s Coaltown.  The Wolf Pack is clearly the second best team in the WAC and one of the best teams in WAC history (in the current alignment) not wearing an orange and blue uniform.

Coach Chris Ault’s team ran the pistol offense to near perfection a year ago.  Nevada outpaced Georgia Tech and the three service academies that run triple option and averaged a nation’s best 345 yards rushing per game.  They had three players top 1,000 rushing yards.  Not even the great Oklahoma teams of the 1970’s that rushed for more than 400 yards a game had such a trio.

Two of those three stars return this season.  One is quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  He rushed for almost 1,200 yards (actually well over 1,300 when you factor out sacks) and 16 touchdowns.  He tossed another 20 touchdown passes on his way to 2,052 yards passing.

Joining Kaepernick in the pistol backfield will be Vai Taua, the other 1,000 yard back.  He totaled 1,345 yards with 10 touchdowns.  Backup Mike Ball will take over as the number two running back.  He averaged almost 10 yards per try in limited action last year, so he could replace Luke Lippincott as the third 1,000-yard rusher this year.

The receiving corps isn’t exactly chopped liver.  The four main receivers return after combining for 130 receptions and 14 touchdowns.  Brandon Wimberly was the WAC Freshman of the Year after grabbing 53 passes for 733 yards.

The offensive line lost two All-WAC performer, but we think this unit will be close to last year’s unit in blocking ability. 

Unless one of the option teams has an incredible season, there is no reason not to believe that Nevada will top the rushing charts again this season.  Look for another 325-350 effort on the ground with an additional 175-200 yards through the air.  The Wolf Pack should top 40 points per game after threatening that mark the last two seasons.

Defense: This side of the ball is missing just enough to prevent Nevada from competing with Boise State for the title.  As it is, the Wolf Pack is still the second best team by far.  Three of the top four tacklers must be replaced, so it is likely that Nevada will have to outscore opponents this season.

Up front, one of the returning starters is end Dontay Moch, who earned WAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.  Moch registered 20 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including  6 ½ sacks.  At 6-1, he may be on the small side to be a star at the next level.

Brandon Marshall gives Nevada an outstanding strong-side linebacker.  Marshall dumped defenders for loss 9 ½ times in 2009, and he batted away four passes as well.

It is the secondary where Nevada cannot stop Boise State and thus cannot win the WAC this year.  The ‘Pack surrendered almost 300 yards through the air and 61.5% completions in 2009, and no starter had more than one interception.  Former Utah quarterback Corbin Louks has been brought to Reno to anchor the secondary at free safety. 

Nevada will once again give up more than four touchdowns per game.  Look for about 30 points and 425 yards allowed per contest.

Schedule: Nevada gets two breathers to open the season.  They host Eastern Washington and Colorado State.  A third consecutive home game against California could give the Wolf Pack a good chance to pull off the minor upset and crack the polls.  The following week finds them venturing to BYU for a potentially great shootout.  A week later, Nevada plays at UNLV.  They could be 5-0 when WAC play starts, and they will be no worse than 3-2.  They should be 4-0 in conference play when they go to Fresno State on November 13.  After a breather with New Mexico State, they host Boise State on Friday, November 26.  It isn’t impossible, but highly improbable they will win this game unless Boise State falls apart with numerous injuries.  Still, this should be Ault’s best team in Reno since he returned for the third time in 2004.  Call if a double-digit winning year.

Team New Mexico State Aggies
               
Head Coach DeWayne Walker
               
Colors Crimson and White
               
City Las Cruces, NM
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 3-10
               
PiRate Rating 78.4
               
National Rating 109
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10

 

Offense: One word can best sum up the Aggies’ offense—offensive.  NMSU scored just 11.5 points per game and tallied just 229 total yards per game.  That looks like stats you would see from a college team in the days when players went both ways.  The Aggies had no passing game whatsoever, and they were not an option team.  They averaged just 88 yards per game and completed less than half of their passes.

Quarterback Jeff Fleming might do better if he could throw to himself.  He just doesn’t have much talent in which to throw the ball.

Things are much better with the running game.  Seth Smith ran for more than 1,000 yards even though defenses placed an extra defender and sometimes two extra defenders up close to stop the run.

The offensive line returns three starters, but the Aggies pick up a plum in former Texas Longhorn tackle Aundre McGaskey.

With stats like last year, there is only one way to go for Coach DeWayne Walker’s offense, but we don’t expect State to fool many defenses this year.  Look for a slight improvement to 14-17 points and 250-275 yards per game. 

Defense: When your offense cannot sustain many drives and convert first downs, your defense will be on the field much longer than average.  Opponents ran an average of eight more plays per game against the Aggies last year, and more of the same will happen this season.

One unit that will be better is the back line.  All four starters return to the secondary.  This quartet of Stephon Hatchett, Alphonso House, Jonte Green, and Davon House teamed up for 32 batted passes and five picks.

The defensive line will be a little better this year, and that will make the secondary that much better.  Ends Pierre Fils and Donte Savage teamed up to make 13 QB sacks.

It’s at linebacker where there will be difficulties this year.  The Aggies must break in three new starters, only one of whom saw any real action last year.

The Aggies will give up 28-32 points and 400-425 yards again this season.  They are still a long way from competing for bowl eligibility.

Schedule: The one plus for New Mexico State is that as weak as they are, their in-state rival is weaker.  The Aggies should beat New Mexico.  They won’t be so lucky with San Diego State, UTEP, or Kansas.  NMSU gets upstart San Jose State at home, so we believe they will win twice this season.  That is one less than last year.

Team San Jose State Spartans
               
Head Coach Mike MacIntyre
               
Colors Dark Blue and Gold
               
City San Jose, CA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-7
Overall 2-10
               
PiRate Rating 82.7
               
National Rating 101
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-8
Overall 2-11

 

Offense: New Spartan head coach Mike MacIntyre takes over at San Jose after earning the national Assistant Coach of the Year award as the defensive coordinator at Duke.  Too bad he won’t get to defend against his own offense.  The Spartans scored just 13.8 points and produced 284 yards of total offense in 2009. 

Quarterback Jordan La Secla returns after passing for 1,926 yards at a 60% completion rate.  He tossed more interceptions than touchdown passes.

La Secla will have to make do without the top two receivers from last year.  Kevin Jurovich graduated, while Marquis Avery was declared academically ineligible.  Throw in the sudden departure of offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to Arkansas State, and it looks like another long season on this side of the ball.

The running game was abysmal last year; don’t expect much improvement, after the Spartans averaged a meager 77 yards per game.

The offensive line is probably the strongest component of the offense, but it is still below average in the WAC. 

If MacIntyre can squeeze 17 points and 300 yards out of this offense, it will be a huge success.

Defense: San Jose State must replace four of their front seven defenders, so there won’t be much improvement on this side of the ball.  The Spartans didn’t fare much better on defense than offense last year. 

SJSU surrendered 259 rushing yards (6.1 yds./rush) last year, and with three of the front four having to be replaced against a slate of teams that can pound the ball down the field, the Spartans might actually fare worse this year.

All four starters return to the secondary.  Unfortunately, this quartet had to stop a lot of running plays last year and didn’t face many passing plays, as opponents ran the ball almost 65% of the time.

After giving up 35 points and 443 yards per game last year, the numbers could actually head south this year.  Look for maybe 36-40 points and 450-475 yards allowed.

Schedule:  By the time San Jose State faces a team they can beat, their players will be demoralized after beginning the season on the road with Alabama and Wisconsin. The Spartans will be 0-2, nursing a lot of bumps and bruises, and facing a scoring deficit of about 90-10!  They should find a way to beat Southern Utah in game three.  The following week finds them heading to Utah, where the Utes will remember the scare this team gave them last year.  Look for another blowout loss.  Then, SJSU faces UC Davis.  They should get a nice win in that one, but that will be their last of the season.  We see them losing all eight league games.

Team Utah State Aggies
               
Head Coach Gary Andersen
               
Colors Navy and White
               
City Logan, UT
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-5
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 95.3
               
National Rating 72
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-4
Overall 5-7

 

Offense: Coach Gary Andersen was a defensive genius as Utah’s defensive coordinator.  In his first year in Logan, he looked more like Urban Meyer.  If it wasn’t for a couple of key injuries, Utah State might have been looking at a winning season and bowl bid this year for the first time since 1997.

Running back Robert Turpin tore his ACL earlier this year and appears to be out for the season.  He led the Aggies with close to 1,300 rushing yards.  In his place, Michael Smith will carry the load.  Don’t expect 1,300 yards, but Smith has breakaway speed and can turn a small hole into a big gain.

Quarterback Diondre Borel ranks with Nathan Enderle as one of the WAC’s two best passers not named Moore or Kaepernick.  Borel had a splendid junior season in 2009 passing for 2,885 yards with 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions. 

The Aggies had a lot of options in the passing game, but they have been henpecked with injuries.  Turpin was a great receiver out of the backfield.  2009’s top receiver, Stanley Morrison, caught 33 passed and averaged 19 yards per catch.  He is gone for the season with a broken foot.  Then, just before practice began, wide out Eric Moats dropped a refrigerator on his foot.  He needed stitches, and as of this writing, he has yet to practice.  Junior college star Matt Austin was supposed to be a starter last year, but he missed the entire season.  He returns and will have to live up to his potential immediately.

The offensive line returns four starters, so if Borel has any talent running routes, he will have time to find them. 

Even with all the injuries, we believe USU will move the ball and score points this year, just not enough to move from middle of the pack to within shouting distance of Fresno State.  Look for 25-30 points and 400-425 yards per game.

Defense: Defense was a major problem last year, as USU gave up 34 points and 455 yards per game.  They could not stop the run or the pass.  With eight starters returning, expect some form of improvement.

The three linebackers are as good as any other WAC unit short of Boise State.  Bobby Wagner, Kyle Gallagher, and Junior Keiaho should team for more than 200 tackles.  Hopefully, not too many will be more than five yards downfield.

The defensive line returns three starters, but there is nothing special up front.  Actually, new starter Levi Koskan recorded more three more sacks than the three returning starters, who recorded ZERO SACKS!

The secondary had no chance last year with no pass rush.  Two starters return, and the two new starters saw considerable action last year.

If the Aggies can trim a touchdown off their defensive scoring average, they have a shot to emerge as the fourth bowl eligible WAC team.  Look for the defense to yield 26-31 points and 425-450 yards.

Schedule: The Aggies start the season at Oklahoma.  Assuming they have any depth left after that game, they should slaughter Idaho State.  If they are relatively healthy, game three could determine whether or not they can get over the hump and become the Idaho of 2009.  The Fresno State game in Logan is a make or break game.

Following that game, USU plays at San Diego State and then hosts BYU on Friday, October 1.  They should go 1-3 out of league play, so they will need five WAC wins to become bowl eligible.  They will have to beat either Fresno State or Louisiana Tech plus Hawaii to get there.  We believe they will come up one win short.

 

Coming Tomorrow: The Mountain West Conference—Can anybody beat TCU?  Are there six bowl eligible teams?

March 17, 2010

Brackets, Brackets, Brackets & A Preview Of The First Round

Question:  How many of you reading this are beginning to come down with some symptoms that will force you to call in sick for work the next two days?  Big Dance Fever seems to strike hard every year at this time.

Now that you are in your pajamas in bed with your TV set to CBS, your computer set to March Madness on Demand, and your brackets as your bed partner, you can begin your two day miraculous recovery.

Before you send off your bracket picks, take a look at the PiRate method for picking teams to advance.  You should re-read the Sunday, March 14, 2010 blog to better understand this method.

Without further adieu, let’s dig in.

1. Which teams meet the upper range criteria in every category?  That means they outscored their opponents by eight or more per game; their field goal percentage was greater than 7.5% better than their opponents; they outrebounded their opponents by five or more per game; they forced at least three more turnovers per game than they committed; and they stole the ball 7.5 or more times per game.

ANSWER—Only two teams met this criteria this year, and neither are members of a big six conference.  Murray State not only met all criteria, they met the upper limits.  The Racers outscored opponents by 17 points per game.  They had a field goal percentage margin of 11.7%.  They outrebounded opponents by six per game and forced 2.7 more turnover per game than they committed.  Best of all, Murray averaged 10 steals per game.  Their R+T was an outstanding 12.48.  Alas, Murray’s schedule strength was just 46.02, and that is too low to consider the Racers a threat to make it to the Elite 8.  Sweet 16 is not totally out of the question.

The second team that met this criteria, but not as well as Murray State, was Brigham Young.  The Cougars outscored opponents by 17.8 points per game.  They shot 7.9% from the field better than their opponents.  They outrebounded the opposition by 5.1.  Their turnover margin was 4.1.  They averaged 8.5 steals per game, and their R+T was an amazing 13.46.  BYU’s schedule strength was 52.52, which is adequate enough to see the Cougars as a serious threat to advance to the second week in this tournament.

2. Which teams can be immediately eliminated due to a negative R+T rating?

ANSWER—Usually upwards of 8-10 teams can be eliminated every season due to poor R+T ratings.  In the Big Dance, this rating, which measures the number of extra scoring opportunities, is vital to winning.  Only two teams can be eliminated right off the bat, and not many people would think of picking them to win any way.  Those two teams are New Mexico State and UC-Santa Barbara.

Several teams just barely qualified with R+T ratings just above zero.  Two of those that just qualified are top 20 teams.  Georgetown and Vanderbilt could be ripe for upset bids in either the first or second round. 

The Hoyas face Ohio U in the first round, and the Bobcats don’t have the merits to pull the upset.  In a second round match, Tennessee definitely meets the criteria to advance to the Sweet 16, so the Volunteers could be a strong pick to knock off Georgetown and advance to St. Louis.

Vanderbilt draws Murray State in the first round, and the Racers could easily pull off the first upset by a double-digit seed.  Murray would then face either Butler or UTEP in a second round game, and the Racers would have a legitimate chance to advance to the second week.

3. Forget all this talk of first round upsets.  Which teams are capable of winning it all?

ANSWER—We thought you’d never ask.  Every year when we compose these ratings, we apply the PiRate formula and look for teams scoring 15 or above to find the real contenders.  Because we have added won-loss record away from home this year, we have elevated that real contender number to 18.  17 teams met that criteria this year.  Before we list them in order, we must clarify something.  After the first two rounds, and after the second two rounds, we recalculate these ratings.  Some teams still alive will cease to meet the minimum score and no longer be considered a serious threat, while one or two teams might move into this elite group.

This year, one team fared much better than all the others.  Thus, that team becomes our favorite to win all the marbles in Indianapolis.

Is that team Kansas or Kentucky?  Guess what?  It is neither.  The one team that scores almost six points better than any other is none other than Duke.  Could Coach K be on his way to title number three in Durham?  We love his seeding, and we definitely see the Blue Devils winning their first four to earn a ticket to Indianapolis.  As a matter of fact, as we see it, the selection committee did several huge favors for the Blue Devils.  First, they get the winner of the play-in game, so they will have a great scouting report.  Of course, this game will be a breather.  On Sunday, Duke will play either Cal or Louisville, and it could actually be the toughest of their four games on the way to the Final Four.  Because Villanova and Purdue are fading as fast as the sun in Barrow, Alaska, in October, there’s a chance that both could be gone before the Sweet 16.

After Duke, six other teams scored 20 or more points in the criteria rating.  They are Kansas, Kansas State, BYU, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Baylor in that order.

Kentucky comes in at number eight, followed closely by New Mexico, Villanova, Michigan State, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, Old Dominion, Murray State, and Georgetown.  Yes, the Hoyas still qualify as one of the real contenders, but just by a razor’s edge.  Their R+T score is rather low.

The best of the rest (those that just barely missed the 18-point score) are: Siena, Utah State, Washington, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.  These 22 teams are the ones that you should consider for your Sweet 16.

Here is a look at the 32 first round games.  The number in (parentheses) represents the PiRate Bracketnomics criteria number.

First-Round Games

 

East Regional

 

#1 Kentucky (19.8) vs. #16 East Tennessee (1.6)

This is your typical one vs. 16 mismatch.  Kentucky will not win by 50 like they might have in the days of Rick Pitino; they might outscore the Buccaneers by 20 points in two separate segments in this game and yet win by only 20 points.

The Wildcats will dominate the glass, and ETSU won’t be able to force enough turnovers to make this a game.  We see UK holding the Bucs to about 35% shooting and 60 or fewer points.

Prediction: Kentucky 74  East Tennessee 53

 

#8 Texas (19.0) vs. #9 Wake Forest (4.9)

The Longhorns were a big disappointment after being ranked at the top at 17-0 earlier in the year.  Looking at their stats, it’s definitely hard to see how they lost nine times in their final 16 games.

Texas just barely misses qualifying as superior in every PiRate Bracketnomics’ category.  They outscored opponents by 11.5 points per game, shot 6.7% from the field better than their opponents, finished +6.8 in rebounding and +1.1 in turnover margin, and they averaged 7.8 steals per game.  They compiled these stats playing in one of the two toughest leagues.

Wake Forest lost five of their final six games and fell several places in their seeding.  The Demon Deacons have a negative turnover margin, which is always a tough thing to overcome in the Big Dance.

This game should be interesting due to the fact that neither team is playing as well as they could.  We think Texas will play a little more cohesively in the opening round and survive and advance. 

Prediction: Texas 77  Wake Forest 72

 

#5 Temple (14.5) vs. #12 Cornell (10.2)

A lot of prognosticators are going with Cornell to become yet another 12-seed upset winner and even advance to the Sweet 16, becoming the first Ivy League team to make it that far since Penn lost to Duke in the Sweet 16 in 1980.

The Big Red earned the respect of the nation when they played at Kansas and lost by just five points.

This was Temple’s best team in years—maybe the best since 1988.  The Owls, as they have for decades, play tough defense on the perimeter, denying the ball from being passed inside and getting tight on three-point shooters.  They don’t force many turnovers, but they commit less than 11 per game. 

Cornell coach Steve Donahue was an assistant to Temple coach Fran Dunphy, so these coaches know what to expect in this game.  We’re going with this five-seed to avoid the upset.

Prediction: Temple 68  Cornell 60

 

#4 Wisconsin (16.1) vs. #13 Wofford (5.3)

The Badgers cannot take the Terriers lightly.  Wofford is another 13-seed team capable of pulling off an upset.  Expect 40 minutes of half-court offense with less than 130 total points scored.

Both teams tend to rely on one player to bear the scoring burden.  For Wisconsin, guard Trevon Hughes is the go-to guy.  For Wofford, forward Noah Dahlman is the key offensive threat.

It will be easier for Wisconsin to shut down Dahlman than Wofford to shut down Hughes, and Hughes has a little better quartet of teammates. 

Prediction: Wisconsin 63  Wofford 56

 

#6 Marquette (12.2) vs. #11 Washington (16.9)

This will be one game you will want to tune in if you have March Madness on Demand.  We think it will be very entertaining.

Marquette will move the ball around the perimeter and take a lot of threes.  If they hit 35% or better, they will be tough to beat.  However, the Golden Eagles are weak on the boards, and if those treys don’t fall, they cannot win.

Washington is not getting much respect coming out of the weak Pac-10.  The Huskies won their final seven games including the league tournament to earn an automatic berth here.  They can score points in bunches, and even though they are on the small side, they are the best rebounding team in the Pac-10.  That happens to be Marquette’s weakness.  That happens to be why UW will still be playing Sunday.

Prediction: Washington 82  Marquette 75

 

#3 New Mexico (19.6) vs. #14 Montana (3.2)

At first glance, this looks like another blowout that you see when a number three takes on a number 14.  However, Montana is not to be disregarded without a fight.  The Grizzlies found themselves down by more than 20 points to Weber State in the Big Sky Championship Game and came back to win.

Montana plays tough defense and works patiently for intelligent shots.  This style of play may be a bit boring, but it can be quite effective if the players stay within the frame of the philosophy.

New Mexico wins games through tough hustle.  The Lobos are tough on the boards, and they seldom turn the ball over more than a dozen times per game.  They can pose tough matchup problems for a lot of teams, because they can post up their guards and bring their forwards out high to shoot the three.  We’ll go with the Lobos to win, but it may be a lot more difficult than most people expect.

Prediction: New Mexico 72  Montana 63

 

#7 Clemson (12.3) vs. #10 Missouri (14.7)

This will be a helter-skelter game from start to finish.  These teams are both reliant upon forcing turnovers and converting them into fast break points.  We expect a lot of physical play with the referees letting a lot of contact go.

Missouri relies a little too much on its outside game, while Clemson has some inside presence.  In the Big Dance, the teams that can get offensive putbacks are usually the teams that survive and advance.  We don’t think Missouri will have an answer for Clemson forward Trevor Booker.

Prediction: Clemson 77  Missouri 72

 

#2 West Virginia (23.5) vs. #15 Morgan State (-0.2)

Morgan State has been here before.  The Bears lost to Oklahoma in the first round last year.  Coach Todd Bozeman likes for his team to move the ball up the floor quickly and bang it inside.  That might work in the MEAC, but this is not the MEAC.

West Virginia looks a little sloppy at times, and the Mountaineers don’t shoot the ball all too well, but they play tough defense and dominate on the boards.  WVU enters this tournament with a chip on its shoulder after flopping in the first round against Dayton last year.  Coach Bob Huggins’ squad has played in several nail-biters this year, and they should be ready to play.

Prediction: West Virginia 69  Morgan State 52

 

South Regional

#1 Duke (34.4) vs. #16 Arkansas Pine Bluff (-11.5)

Well, we blew the play-in game, but luckily that’s a Mulligan in bracket picking.

Duke will get a breather game in their opener.  The Blue Devils will apply pressure man-to-man defense and force the Golden Lions to commit numerous turnovers.  Duke’s big guys will repeatedly get offensive rebounds when the Blue Devils miss shots, and those players will clean the defensive glass as well.

UAPB should be fortunate that they won the play-in game.  They will give up more points in the first half of this game than they did in the entire game Tuesday night.

Prediction: Duke 87 Arkansas Pine Bluff 59

 

#8 California (11.4) vs. #9 Louisville (9.5)

Louisville beat Syracuse twice this year, but the Cardinals are not nearly as good this year as they were last year.   This UL team lacks the little something extra to advance very far in this tournament.

Cal won their first outright Pac-10 regular season title since Darrall Imhoff led the Bears to the National Championship Game against Ohio State in the 1959-60 season.  This edition of Bears is the polar opposite to that earlier version.  Cal is strictly a perimeter-oriented team that must shoot the ball well in order to win.

This one is a true tossup game.  It will be a contest of better offense vs. better defense.  Cal has to travel almost 3,200 miles, and the long trip could be their undoing.

Prediction: Louisville 72  California 68

 

#5 Texas A&M (12.7) vs. #12 Utah State (17.3)

This is one of those 5-12 games where the PiRate system shows the underdog to be the better team.  Utah State would be the outright favorite in this game if they played a little better defensively, especially on the perimeter.

Texas A&M played one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and the Aggies showed they could go head-to-head with them.  Their defense is tough, and the Aggies from Texas should hold the Aggies from Utah well below their scoring and shooting averages.  A&M doesn’t shoot the ball all that well, and this should be a close game.  We’ll go against the PiRate chalk and take the Big 12 team.

Prediction: Texas A&M 70  Utah State 66

 

#4 Purdue (15.4) vs. #13 Siena (17.8)

This year, we like the 13-seeds better than the 12-seeds as upset possibilities.  Purdue would probably have been a 10-seed or even missed the tournament altogether had Robbie Hummel been injured all season.  Without Hummel, the Boilermakers are not much better than your average NIT team.

Siena defeated Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament and Ohio State in the first round last year.  The Saints may be a little better this year thanks to a balanced team.  Siena has four starters that can score 20 points on any given night.  They have an inside presence with Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter combining for more than 19 rebounds per game.  Throw in a +3 turnover margin, and the Saints get seven more scoring opportunities per game than their opposition. 

We will call the upset in this game, but we give a warning.  Star players have missed NCAA Tournament games in the past, and those starless teams found a way to win.  Loyola Marymount won three games in the Big Dance after Hank Gathers died.  Going back several years to 1965, Wichita State made it to the Final Four after losing their top two players to eligibility.

Prediction: Siena 70  Purdue 65

 

#6 Notre Dame (6.5) vs. #11 Old Dominion (18.8)

This should be an entertaining game with a lot of inside action.  Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody missed multiple games due to injury in February, and the Irish defense stepped up and did the job.  With the big forward back, the Irish are playing their best ball of the season.  While they finished the season winning just eight of their final 13 games, those five losses came by a combined nine points.

Old Dominion is one of those teams like Butler and St. Mary’s that big-six conference teams don’t want to play.  The Monarchs dominate on the boards and seldom give up a high-percentage shot. 

We look for this one to stay close throughout, and the difference could be which team has the better outside shooting day.  If one team has a decent enough outside shooting day to force defenses to stretch, their inside game will become too strong to lose.

While ODU has much better total numbers, we think Notre Dame will get the job done.

Prediction: Notre Dame 71  Old Dominion 66

 

#3 Baylor (21.39) vs. #14 Sam Houston St. (10.33)

Watch out for Baylor!  The Bears rate in that elite group of teams capable of getting to Indianapolis.  In the Bracketnomics Class blog, we mentioned that you needed to be alert for a team that shoots 48% from the field and allows only 38%.  Baylor is one of two teams that meet this criteria.

The Bears also dominate on the glass, and if it weren’t for a negative turnover margin, we would pick them as a Final Four team.  Some future opponent will exploit this liability and defeat them, but it won’t be Sam Houston.

The Bearkats are an interesting and fun team to watch play.  They begin firing threes the moment they enter the gym.  It won’t get the job done in this game.

Prediction: Baylor 81  Sam Houston 67

 

#7 Richmond (10.0) vs. #10 St. Mary’s (10.1)

This game could come down to pace.  If Richmond presses the tempo and makes this a maximum possession game, the Spiders will have a decided advantage.  Richmond needs to speed the game up to force St. Mary’s into unforced errors.

Seldom in the opening round of the tournament do we ever see a team consciously trying to speed up the game.  Nerves and uncertainty usually slow these games down until midway through the second half.

St. Mary’s will win this game if the total number of field goal attempts is 115 or less.  If the pace is average to below average, their seven-man rotation will be able to avoid fatigue.  Center Omar Samhan can control the lane in this game and give the Gaels a strong advantage inside.

Prediction: St. Mary’s 73  Richmond 67

 

#2 Villanova (19.5) vs. #15 Robert Morris(-2.9)

This game should be a mismatch, but it could take some time before the Wildcats pull away.  VU finished the regular season on a 4-6 slide, but the Wildcats lost five of those games to NCAA Tournament teams from their conference.

Once this game begins, we look for the Colonials to keep it within striking distance for a couple of time outs before Villanova slowly pulls away.

Prediction: Villanova 78  Robert Morris 63

 

Midwest Regional

 

#1 Kansas (28.7) vs. #16 Lehigh (0.22)

If there is a chance that one team will top 100 points in the first round without going into multiple overtimes, this game is the one.  Kansas will begin its march to the Final Four with a tune-up game. 

Lehigh will take 25 or more three-pointers in this game, but we believe the Jayhawk defense will force many bad shots from the outside.  KU will then score 1.3-1.5 points per possession.  We’re sorry if you get stuck with this game and cannot get another.

Prediction: Kansas 94  Lehigh 61

 

#8 UNLV (11.7) vs. #9 Northern Iowa (11.7)

How about this for tossup game status?  Not only is this an eight-nine game, their criteria scores are equal.

This game comes down to how well the Panthers can stop the Runnin’ Rebels outside shooting game.  We think UNI will be able to hold the UNLV backcourt of Tre’Von Willis, Oscar Bellfield, Anthony Marshall, and reserve Kendall Wallace under their norms.  At the same time, look for UNI brute center Jordan Eglseder and forward Adam Koch to dominate on the inside.  Combine that with a defense that fits the opponents’ offense like a glove, and we see the Missouri Valley team advancing.

Prediction: Northern Iowa 58  UNLV 53

 

#5 Michigan State (19.5) vs. #12 New Mexico St. (3.4)

We cannot see a 12-seed upset in this game.  The Aggies have a negative R+T rating, which means they typically allow more scoring opportunities than they create.  Against a seasoned NCAA Tournament team, one coming off a visit to the national title game, that won’t be the winning recipe.

Michigan State will win the rebounding battle by 10 or more in this game.  If the Spartans don’t turn the ball over 18 or more times, they will be comfortably ahead by the first TV timeout of the second half.

Guard Chris Allen is expected to return to action after serving a one-game suspension for arguing with the coaching staff.

Prediction: Michigan State 75  New Mexico State 62

 

#4 Maryland (19.5) vs. #13 Houston (1.9)

Houston got hot and won the CUSA tournament after being picked to contend for the conference championship and finishing in the middle of the pack.  The Cougars cannot rebound.  While Maryland is only so-so on the boards, the Terps will win this battle by at least five caroms.

Houston relies on putting pressure on the ball and trying to play in the passing lanes to get steals and force turnovers.  Maryland takes care of the ball and can exploit this type of defense.

Throw in the fact that the Terps play tough defense, and this one looks like a huge mismatch.  Maryland comes mighty close to qualifying for the special field goal percentage criteria.  They connect on 47.2% of their shots and hold opponents to 38.8%.

Prediction: Maryland 83  Houston 70

 

#6 Tennessee (18.9) vs. #11 San Diego State (15.6)

This has the makings of a good game between similar styles.  Tennessee likes to force turnovers and run the break for quick baskets.  In the half-court offense, they try to work the ball inside.  The Volunteers aren’t the best outside shooting team.

San Diego State plays like your typical Steve Fisher-coached team.  The Aztecs have a dominating inside game and hold a +6.7 rebounding edge over their opposition.  The Aztecs aren’t great three-point shooters either, but inside the arc, they shoot almost 55%.

Tennessee is mad at being lowered to a number six seed in a year where they knocked off Kansas and Kentucky, but the Vols went only 10-7 away from home.  They are primed to make a run to the Sweet 16 if the team has enough gas in the tank.

Prediction: Tennessee 72  San Diego State 65

 

#3 Georgetown (18.0) vs. #14 Ohio U (0.7)

This game is a mismatch similar to your typical 1-seed vs. 16-seed game.  Ohio should have been a lower seed.  The Bobcats finished below .500 in a weak MAC this year, and they have no chance against the Hoyas.

Georgetown is not as complete this year as in past seasons.  They are a definite upset possibility, but it won’t happen in this round.  The key to the Hoyas advancing to the Sweet 16 will be how much the regulars can rest in this one. 

Prediction: Georgetown 72  Ohio 59

 

#7 Oklahoma State (6.2) vs. #10 Georgia Tech (9.5)

A very strong Big 12 allowed the Cowboys to move up to a seven-seed, when their performance looks more like a 10-seed.  Georgia Tech belongs as a 10-seed, so this game should be close and exciting.

OSU is a hot and cold team that won’t be around next week.  They either hit from behind the arc or get beat. 

Georgia Tech isn’t a world-beater, but the Yellow Jackets play somewhat consistently.  They will control the boards in this game, but they are turnover prone.  OSU’s shot at winning hinges on how many times they can force Tech into floor mistakes.  We think they will come up a bit short, but this game should be 40 minutes of entertaining ball.

Prediction: Georgia Tech 72  Oklahoma State 68

 

#2 Ohio State (16.8) vs. #15 UCSB (-4.5)

The Buckeyes won 16 of their final 18 games including the regular season and tournament championship in the Big Ten.  Evan Turner is a mini-Magic Johnson.  He can do it all, and he deserves serious consideration for national player of the year.  He isn’t a one-man team, but the Buckeyes’ only liability is a lack of depth.  They go only seven deep, and the two key reserves don’t contribute all that much.

UCSB is one of the two teams that must be immediately eliminated due to a negative R+T rating.  Their stay in the Dance will last just one number, and they will feel like their rival cut in on them in the middle of the song.

Prediction: Ohio State 76  UCSB 54

 

West Regional

 

#1 Syracuse (23.6) vs. #16 Vermont (-3.8)

The ‘Cuse is primed for another run to the Final Four.  Except for a lack of depth, this team would be even with Duke and Kansas.  It won’t bother them in the first two rounds, as the Orange won’t be extended by pressure defense.

This is not the Vermont team of 2005 that actually won an opening round game.  This version of Catamounts is just happy to be here, and they will put up no fuss and wave bye-bye after 40 minutes of tournament action.

We expect Vermont to keep it close for maybe 8-12 minutes before Syracuse goes on a big run and puts this one away before the intermission.

Prediction: Syracuse 90  Vermont 64

 

#8 Gonzaga (13.4) vs. #9 Florida State (14.4)

We don’t believe this will be Gonzaga’s year to advance to the Sweet 16.  The Bulldogs don’t dominate on the glass and pick up nothing in turnover margin. 

This Florida State team reminds us a lot of the Seminole teams of Hugh Durham.  They play aggressive man-to-man defense and work the ball for intelligent shots. 

Gonzaga needs a good shooting effort every time in order to win, and the Seminoles hold opponents to just 37.4% from the field. 

Prediction: Florida State 67  Gonzaga 63

 

#5 Butler (14.2) vs. #12 UTEP (15.8)

This is a game that all five of us here would like to attend.  We think it will be the best of the 5-12 games, and it won’t be an upset if UTEP wins.  These teams are fairly even, and both are talented enough to advance to the second week.

If the question were, “which game has the best chance of going to overtime?” this game would receive strong consideration. 

We will go with the Miners to win a great game and become the favorite in the next round in a possible second classic matchup against another double-digit seed.  This is the 12-seed that has the best chance of pulling off the “upset.”  We don’t call a 50-50 game an upset.

Prediction: UTEP 79  Butler 77 in overtime

 

#4 Vanderbilt (11.2) vs. #13 Murray State (18.0)

Murray State rates as one of four teams not from a big six conference that we believe has the talent to make it to the Sweet 16.  The Racers are actually the most complete team in the tournament and best fit the criteria to go to the Final Four, but their schedule strength lowers their criteria out of that rarified air.

Murray outscores their opponents by 17 points per game.  They shoot better than 50% from the field, and they allow only 38.6% shooting on defense.  They control the boards with a +6.0 margin, and they force more than 17 turnovers per game with 10 steals per game.

Vanderbilt was a fatigued team down the stretch, closing 8-5 after opening 16-3.  In that last 13 games, they outscored their opponents by just two per game.  The Commodores just barely avoid being eliminated from consideration with an R+T of 0.6.  They outrebound their opponents by 0.7 per game and have a slightly negative turnover margin.  They rely too much on free throw shooting, and fouls are not called as frequently in the Big Dance.

We look for this to be a great game, but we’re going with another #13 seed to pull off the upset.

Prediction: Murray State 75  Vanderbilt 69

 

#6 Xavier (15.1) vs. #11 Minnesota (10.4)

Morgan State, Butler, Ohio State, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Purdue are a good list of teams in the Big Dance.  Minnesota owns wins over these seven Samurais.  Xavier doesn’t have a showcase win this year, and the Musketeers are not as tough as they have been in recent seasons.

Tubby Smith’s teams always play well in the Big Dance, while this is the first go around for Xavier coach Chris Mack.  In yet another mild upset, we believe Minnesota will advance to the second round.

Prediction: Minnesota 69  Xavier 66

 

#3 Pittsburgh (8.7) vs. #14 Oakland (4.3)

For those of you who believe the Selection Committee tries to put certain teams together, you might not see the irony in the pairing of these two teams.  First, Oakland is not from California.  The Golden Grizzlies are from Rochester, Michigan.  Pittsburgh is located in the Oakland suburb of the Steel City.  So, when we say the team from Oakland will win the game, we aren’t talking about the Golden State Warriors, and we’re not talking about the team with the word “Oakland” on their jerseys.

This is not the year for the Panthers.  Their numbers aren’t all that good, and they will not advance to the Elite 8 this year.  However, they will cruise in the opening round after maybe facing a struggle through the first couple of TV timeouts.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 67  Oakland 58

 

#7 BYU (24.5) vs. #10 Florida (10.5)

Many prognosticators are calling for the Gators to pull the small upset in the opening round, but we cannot see it happening.

BYU ranks along with Murray State as having the most complete criteria components in the tournament.  The Cougars outscore their opposition by nearly 18 per game.  They do tend to rely on a lot of foul shooting and three-point shots, but BYU also gets a lot of easy baskets via the fast break and secondary offense.  Their R+T rating is a whopping 13.5, as they own a +5.1 rebounding margin, +4.1 turnover margin, and pick off 8.5 passes per game.  Since they have a shooting percentage of 48.6%, they will score a lot of points.

Florida returns to the Big Dance for the first time since they won their second consecutive national title in 2007.  This team is lacking what those two champions had—a dominating inside game.  Center Vernon Macklin is capable of putting up decent numbers, but the Gators rely on perimeter players Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton to get the job done.  Walker is just 5-8, and he will have a tough time against the tall and lanky BYU guards.

Look for Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery to outduel the Florida guards, and the Cougars will prevail in a fast-paced game.

Prediction: BYU 85  Florida 77

 

#2 Kansas State (25.9) vs. #15 North Texas (-3.22)

After Duke, Kansas State may have drawn the best possible bracket.  The Wildcats have the talent to win this regional and possibly set up a fourth game with their in-state rival in the National Semifinal. 

This will be a fun team to watch.  Kansas State coach Frank Martin is a combination of Al McGuire and Bobby Knight with a little Bob Huggins thrown in.  He’s the coach most likely to implode or spontaneous combust during a game.  His antics are working this year, and his players respond by playing like their life is on the line.

North Texas will get killed on the boards in this game, and they don’t have a ball-hawking defense to even it out with a great turnover margin.  Unlike conference rival Western Kentucky, the Mean Green will not carry on the Sunbelt Conference’s recent success in the tourney.

Prediction: Kansas State 82  North Texas 65

 

Our Bracket

 

You have seen the 32 teams we believe will win the first round games.  Here is how we fill out the rest of our bracket.

Second Round Winners

 

Kentucky over Texas in a close game

Wisconsin over Temple

New Mexico over Washington

West Virginia over Clemson

Duke over Louisville

Texas A&M over Siena

Baylor over Notre Dame

Villanova over St. Mary’s

Kansas over Northern Iowa

Michigan State over Maryland in a great game

Tennessee over Georgetown

Ohio State over Georgia Tech

Syracuse over Florida State

UTEP over Murray State

Minnesota over Pittsburgh

Kansas State over BYU in a thriller

Sweet 16 Winners

Kentucky over Wisconsin

West Virginia over New Mexico

Duke over Texas A&M

Baylor over Villanova

Kansas over Michigan State but a fantastic upset bid

Ohio State over Tennessee

Syracuse over UTEP

Kansas State over Minnesota

Elite 8 Winners

West Virginia over Kentucky

Duke over Baylor

Kansas over Ohio State

Kansas State over Syracuse

Semifinal Winners

 

Duke over West Virginia

Kansas State over Kansas (The Wildcats finally beat KU in their fourth try)

National Championship

 

Duke over Kansas State

Might Coach K pull a John Wooden and announce his retirement after winning the semifinal game?  Might he be tempted to take a very large pay raise to coach the Nets for a year or two and then enjoy real retirement like his mentor The General is enjoying?

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