Bracket Prep: North Carolina Central, Western Michigan, Cal Poly, Stephen F. Austin, Weber State

Posted by Adam Stillman & Tommy Lemoine on March 16th, 2014

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As we move through the final stages of Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. Here’s what you need to know about the most recent bid winners. 

North Carolina Central

North Carolina Central is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. (ETHAN HYMAN/News Observer)

North Carolina Central is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. (ETHAN HYMAN/News Observer)

  • MEAC Champion (28-5, 18-1)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #104/#78/#84
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +8.9
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #14

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Head coach LeVelle Moton began shedding tears in the waning minutes of North Carolina Central’s MEAC Championship victory over Morgan State on Saturday, and why not? The former NCCU player had just clinched his alma mater’s first NCAA Tournament birth in school history, capping off an outstanding 28-win campaign that has the chance to get even better. It was the Eagles’ 20th win in a row, a 71-62 outcome that featured many of the same components that made them so tough throughout the regular season: great defense, lots of free throws and lots of Jeremy Ingram.
  2. NCCU dominated the MEAC this season and its defense is a big reason why. The Eagles hold opponents to the fifth-lowest effective field goal percentage in the country and force a bunch of mishaps – their 24.0 defensive turnover rate trails only VCU, Louisville, Stephen F. Austin and Eastern Kentucky. They make life difficult for ball-handlers, rarely find themselves out of position and crowd the paint when opponents try dumping the ball inside. In fact, aside from some sub-par defensive rebounding numbers – due in part because of their limited size, in part because they force a lot of outside shots (and thus long rebounds) – NCCU is well above average in most other defensive categories.
  3. The Eagles start three seniors and two juniors and their top reserves are both upperclassmen, altogether making up a roster that’s the fourth-most experienced in America. The leader among them is Jeremy Ingram, a 6’3’’ guard who averages 20 points per game and just about always gets his fill, even on off-nights. He scored at least 14 points in 27 of 33 games this season, including six 30-plus point outings, and does large chunk of his damage from the free throw line. Ingram attacks the basket and draws fouls when he doesn’t finish – he shoots 76 percent from the stripe – but he’s also the best outside shooting threat on a team that doesn’t shoot many threes. Still, NCCU might be at its best when other guys step up alongside Ingram. He scored 37 in the team’s nonconference loss to Wichita State, but no other player reached double figures. In the Eagles’ upset of North Carolina State? Ingram dropped 29, but there were strong offensive contributions across the board. Undersized big men Jay Copeland and Jordan Parks are also crucial for NCCU – they each rank among the better offensive rebounders in the nation and will need to continue generating second-chances if the Eagles are going to do damage next week.

Best Case Scenario: Sweet Sixteen. A MEAC school to the Sweet Sixteen?!? Well, if MEAC schools have taught us anything over the years, it’s to never count them out. Coppin State in 1997, Hampton in 2001, Norfolk State in 2012 – each of those teams pulled off first-round shockers as 15-seeds. This NCCU team is probably better than all three of those previous representatives, plus it will occupy a higher seed line. The Eagles’ vast experience, stingy defense and go-to scorer should enable them to compete in their opening game – remember, they beat the Wolfpack in November – and if they manage to get the job done, a six or 11-seed matchup in the following round will also be winnable.

Western Michigan

Can the MAC Champs pull off an upset or two next week? (MAC Sports)

Can the MAC Champs pull off an upset or two next week? (MAC Sports)

  • MAC Champion (23-5, 16-4)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #81/#112/#129
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +2.4
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #13

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Western Michigan earned the MAC’s top seed and a triple-bye to the conference tournament semifinals, rallied big to beat Akron and then handled Toledo in championship game on Saturday. The Broncos now enter the NCAA Tournament having won 12 of their last 13, an impressive stretch that was not devoid of dramatic moments – seven of the games were within two possessions at the end of regulation, and three of the final six contests went to overtime. The victory over the Rockets, however, came relatively easily, and now WMU goes dancing for the first time since 2003-2004 – Steve Hawkins’ first year as head coach.
  2. If the past two games are any indication, Hawkins’ club is capable of winning regardless of the pace of play. The Broncos eked out a 62-possession, overtime grinder against the Zips on Friday, then scored 98 points and out-ran the speedy Rockets on Saturday. Balance might be key to that versatility: on the season, WMU ranks 128th in offensive efficiency, 118th in defensive efficiency and sits middle of the pack in adjusted tempo. Hawkins’ guys shoot a lot of free throws and are very efficient inside the painted area, but do have issues with turnovers – they once turned it over 26 times in a game against Eastern Michigan – and don’t shoot particularly well from behind the arc. Defensively, the Broncos hustle and are fundamentally sound but won’t overwhelm anyone with their athleticism.
  3. Saturday’s title game perfectly embodied the importance of inside-out combination Shayne Whittington and David Brown. Whittington, a skilled 6’11’’ center with professional aspirations, scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, while Brown, an aggressive shooting guard who led the league in scoring, lit fire and dropped 32. When both guys produce like that, the Broncos are very difficult to upend – the former demands extra attention down low, which opens up looks for guys like super-efficient forward Connar Tava, and the latter can burn you from anywhere on the floor. Problem arise for Hawkins’ crew when Brown gets cold – mostly because he keeps hoisting instead of looking for other options – and when they don’t pound the ball inside to Whittington regularly enough.

Best Case Scenario: Round of 32. The MAC has yielded numerous Cinderellas over the past two decades, and Western Michigan is certainly no slouch. Whittington will likely be a matchup problem for whatever team the Broncos face next week, and if Brown keeps nailing outside shots – in addition to attacking the basket – they will have an excellent chance to win a game. Realistically, if they can beat a four-seed they can beat a five-seed (or 12-seed) in the next round, but it’s difficult to envision them lucking into back-to-back good matchups or putting together back-to-back hot performances.

Cal Poly

Cal Poly is dancing for the first time ever. (Richard Mackson-US Presswire)

Cal Poly is dancing for the first time ever. (Richard Mackson-US Presswire)

  • Big West Champion (13-19, 6-10)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #232/#172/#173
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = -1.1
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16 (First Four)

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Cal Poly won what turned out to be the craziest conference tournament of them all. The seventh-seeded Mustangs topped fifth-seeded Cal State Northridge 61-59 on a 3-pointer from freshman Ridge Shipley with 13.7 seconds to play. Not only were the Mustangs the lowest-seeded team to win the title in the tournament’s 39-year history, Cal Poly will head to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. The Mustangs blasted second-seeded UC-Santa Barbara 69-38 in the first round before taking down top-seeded UC Irvine 61-58 in the semifinals. Cal Poly became just the sixth team in history to enter the NCAA Tournament with a losing record.
  2. The player to know is 6-foot-7 senior forward Chris Eversley. He leads the Mustangs by averaging 13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals. Dave Nwaba, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard is the only other Mustang who averages in double figures, adding 11.7 ppg. The pair carried the load in Cal Poly’s championship-winning performance, going for 18 and 17 points, respectively. The Mustangs don’t exactly light up the scoreboard, scoring just 103.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 194th in the nation. The defense isn’t much better, allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions (170th).
  3. If there’s one thing Cal Poly does well, it’s take care of the basketball. The Mustangs turn the ball over on just 14.9 percent of their possessions, good for 19th in the country. Opponents steal the ball just 7.6 percent of the time, a mark that ranks 35th. Cal Poly also did a tremendous job of taking the ball away in Big West Conference play, leading the league by stealing the ball 9.8 percent of the time.

Best Case Scenario. Cal Poly is just happy to be there. The Mustangs will undoubtedly be sent to Dayton for the First Four and should be ecstatic if they can advance to take on a #1 seed and lose by 40. They’ll be able to tell their kids they played in the NCAA Tournament. That should be enough.

Stephen F. Austin

Stephen F. Austin has won 28 games in a row. (USATSI)

Stephen F. Austin has won 28 games in a row. (USATSI)

  • Southland Conference Champion (31-2, 18-0)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #64/#60/#87
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = +10.8
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #12/#13

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Any conversation about Stephen F. Austin has to begin with its astonishing 28-game winning streak. After losing 66-58 to East Tennessee State on November 23, the Lumberjacks went undefeated the rest of the way. Stephen F. Austin could have found itself in the at-large conversation with a loss in the Southland Conference Tournament, but the Lumberjacks settled the debate by squeezing out an 85-78 victory against Northwestern State in Friday’s semifinals before blasting Sam Houston State 68-49 in Saturday’s league final. It would have been a shame to see Stephen F. Austin miss out on the Big Dance, especially with the widespread carnage in one-bid league tournaments, but that fear has been quelled. The Lumberjacks — in their first appearance since 2009 — will be a threat to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. It’s hard to grasp just how dominating Stephen F. Austin was in league play. Until you look at the Lumberjacks’ Ken Pomeroy numbers. Holy cow. They scored 118.8 points per 100 possessions in league play, nearly four points better than the second-best offense (Oral Roberts, 115.0). If that’s not enough, consider the Lumberjacks limited league opponents to just 95.3 points per 100 possessions. The next best defense? Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 100.7 points per 100 possessions. The numbers stack up nationally, too. A cursory glance shows quality across the board. Stephen F. Austin boasts a top-50 offense and top-100 defense. The Lumberjacks excel on the offensive glass, rebounding a whopping 38.5 percent of their missed shots, good for 11th in the country. They also force turnovers on 24.4 percent of their opponents’ possessions, the third-best mark in the land. A high seed does not want to face these guys in the first couple rounds.
  3. Pick your poison with Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks don’t have one go-to scorer. Balance is the name of the game. Desmond Haymond paces four Lumberjacks in double figures with 14.6 ppg. Jacob Parker, the Southland Conference Player of the Year, is next at 14.3 ppg while also averaging 6.9 rebounds per game. Parker, a junior, only uses 22.6 percent of his team’s possessions but boasts a 128.1 offensive rating, the 29th-best mark in the country. Thomas Walkup adds 12.7 ppg, Deshaunt Walker chips in 12.0 ppg and Nikola Gajic is next at 9.7 ppg.

Best Case Scenario. Sweet Sixteen. Sure, that’s a long stretch, but we’re talking best case scenario. At the very least, Stephen F. Austin is a threat to pull off an upset in the Round of 64. With the Lumberjacks set to get a solid seed, it’s not out of the question for them to make the second weekend. They’re that good.

Weber State

Weber State is headed to the NCAA Tournament. (Deseret News)

Weber State is headed to the NCAA Tournament. (Deseret News)

  • Big Sky Conference Champion (19-11, 14-6)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #166/#169/#170
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = -0.8
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #15

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. Weber State must be happy to be done playing Big Sky teams. After playing 20 of its 30 regular-season games against league foes en route to the league title, the Wildcats survived two more games in the postseason tournament. Weber State snuck past Northern Colorado 66-63 in overtime in the semifinals before annihilating North Dakota 88-67 in the final. Weber State won a parity-filled league with a 14-6 league mark despite losing four of its last seven games. But the homecourt advantage in the postseason tournament proved to be enough to earn the Wildcats’ first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.
  2. The Wildcats are a bit of an enigma on offense. Despite scoring just 105.6 points per 100 possessions (150th), Weber State ranks among the nation’s best in several offensive categories. The Wildcats connect on 39.4 percent of their 3-point attempts (14th), boast a strong effective field goal percentage (54.8 percent, 14th), get to the free-throw line (50 free-throw attempts per 100 field-goal attempts, 23rd) and only get 5.9 percent of their shots blocked (3rd). Wow. But Weber State ranked just third in offensive efficiency during Big Sky play at 112.4 points per 100 possessions. Northern Colorado (117.9) and Montana (113.4) ranked higher. The Wildcats, however, only allowed 103.3 points per 100 possessions in conference play to lead the league by 2.4 points.
  3. Davion Berry is the go-to guy for Weber State. The 6-foot-4 senior tosses in 19.1 points while pulling down 4.4 rebounds per game.
  4. He connects on 38 percent of his 3s and boasts a 77.1 free-throw rate. Jeremy Senglin adds 11.1 ppg but hits 40.4 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Kyle Tresnak is the only other Wildcat in double figures at 11.2 ppg. Joel Bolomboy adds 8.6 ppg but grabs 10.8 rebounds per contest. He ranks in the top-10 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.

Best Case Scenario. With their live by the three, die by the three approach, the Wildcats can make things interesting for a half in the Round of 64. But the Wildcats just aren’t good enough this season to pull off an upset. Harold “The Show” Arceneaux isn’t walking through that door.

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