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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