Checking In On Likely One-Bid Leagues

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on January 15th, 2016

When the Ivy League tipped off last Friday night, it was official: Conference play was underway everywhere, in power conferences and low majors alike. While only a handful of games in March will ultimately matter for those teams in leagues without legitimate at-large candidates, the regular season will still define the favorites to win automatic tournament bids in the smaller conferences. Some leagues have a clearly defined top dog, while others have a handful of teams battling for that status. Either way, if you like March chaos, there are low major teams out there you should absolutely be rooting for to hold serve and earn their way into the field. Here are a few of the team you should be getting familiar with now — whether because of star players, a proven core of seniors, or a collection of “red line” upsets against Power Five schools.

With the dynamic Dallas Moore at the helm, North Florida is looking pretty good for the Big Dance. (AP)

With the dynamic Dallas Moore at the helm, North Florida is in good shape. (AP)

  • America East  You probably already know about Jameel Warney, the unquestioned Stony Brook leader, but the rest of Seawolves also have a nice veteran core around Warney (30th in the nation in experience per KenPom). Stony Brook has also been close to scoring a signature victory for the league, leading much of the way at Vanderbilt in November before succumbing in overtime. Unbelievably, the Seawolves have either won the regular season title and/or been in the conference tournament final for six straight seasons, but they are still seeking the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance. Albany has been the most frequent tormentor, and the Great Danes have matched Stony Brook’s 3-0 start to league play so far this season. Looking for pole position in the America East? The two teams’ first meeting is next Friday on Long Island.
  • Atlantic Sun – You probably heard about Ben Simmons’ destruction of North Floridabut did you know the Ospreys had two players (Dallas Moore and Beau Beech) score 31 apiece that night? As a team UNF hit NINETEEN threes against LSU; on the season they’ve connected on 43.4% of their triples, good for 8th in the country. They scorched Illinois in a 12-point season opening victory and legitimately own one of the best offenses in all of college basketball. They lost in a play-in game last March, but a return trip to the Dance may include a spot in the field of 64 for the Ospreys and their dangerous offense.

  • Big Sky – Weber State’s inside-outside duo of Jeremy Senglin and Joel Bolomboy is averaging a combined 36 points per game. The 6’9″ Bolomboy also averages 13.8 rebounds per game and shoots 37 percent from long-range. The Wildcats lost by only five to BYU in Salt Lake City and are unbeaten in league play, but they have company at the top of the conference. Perennial powerhouse Montana, who took Gonzaga to the limit in Spokane and has a star big man of its own (Washington transfer Martin Breunig), is 4-0 in the Big Sky.
  • Big South – Speaking of star big men, High Point has a pretty good one in John Brown. The Panthers lost by just four at Texas Tech in the season opener and by three at Georgia.
  • Big West – This looks to be a three-team race. Hawaii had its second straight excellent Diamond Head Classic on its home floor, beating Northern Iowa and Auburn and losing by just three to Oklahoma. UC Irvine is the defending tournament champion and is 13-5 with five KenPom top 75 losses. Long Beach State has wins over BYU and Seton Hall and may have the best all-around player in the conference in Maryland transfer Nick Faust (16.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.4 SPG.) All three of these teams are 2-0 in Big West play.
Mamadou N'diaye continues to led UC Irvine towards another run at the Big Dance. (Getty)

Mamadou N’diaye continues to led UC Irvine towards another run at the Big Dance. (Getty)

  • CAA – Defending tournament champion Northeasterndefending regular season champion William & Mary and Hofstra are all 3-1 in conference play. The three teams are also separated by only 11 spots in the KenPom ratings. Each also owns a win over a Power Five opponent. The Tribe destroyed NC State on opening day, Hofstra beat Florida State in the Virgin Islands, and the Huskies stunned Miami (FL) at the buzzer.
  • Conference USA – UAB has just about everybody back from last year’s 20-win team that won the conference tournament on its home floor and then shocked Iowa State as a 14 seed. The Blazers are 13-3 this season, winners of 10 straight.
  • Horizon – Valpariso has the most efficient defense in the country (per KenPom) and showed it last Friday, holding Kay Felder to eight of 28 from the floor in an easy win at Oakland. The Crusaders have EVERYBODY back from last season’s 28-6 group that nearly beat Maryland in the Tournament. This year they’re 13-3 and own a win at Oregon State.
  • Ivy – This is the most wide open the Ivy League has been in a long time. Yale, who came agonizingly close to making its first NCAA tournament since 1962 last season is probably the favorite, but Princeton (who played Miami very tough), Harvard (who has won six of eight after a 2-6 start) or Columbia (near misses at Kansas State and Northwestern) could take the title.
  • MAAC – Despite all the headlines Monmouth has grabbed, they’re still not the favorite to win the MAAC. That being said, the Hawks can make a claim to the title this Friday at 6-0 Iona, who is still scoring points in bunches under Tim Cluess and behind guard A.J. English (23.3 PPG, 6.5 APG).
  • MAC – As usual, this league is wide open. Northern Illinois is 14-2 and the league’s lone unbeaten at 3-0, but the best team in the conference is probably Akron, who is 13-3 and one of six MAC teams at 2-1 in the league. The Zips won at Arkansas and are the only MAC team inside the top 100 of KenPom (No. 77).
  • MEAC – Hampton is the lone unbeaten (8-6, 4-0) in the nation’s worst league in both conference RPI and KenPom ratings.
Rick Byrd Has One of the Most Consistently Good Mid-Major Programs Going

Rick Byrd Has One of the Most Consistently Good Mid-Major Programs Going

  • NEC – Wagner is the only team above .500 overall (10-5, 3-1) in the nation’s second worst league in conference RPI.
  • Ohio ValleyBelmont won at Marquette on opening night and is doing its typical absurdly efficient offense thing under Rick Byrd. The Bruins are the nation’s leaders in two-point percentage (a whopping 61.2%)
  • Patriot – Navy is the only team in the league who plays defense; they’re 52nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, the only Patriot team in the top 200. This has helped the Midshipmen become one of the nation’s most surprising teams at 13-5 (4-1).
  • Southern – Despite losing coach Will Wade to VCU, Chattanooga is 14-3 (3-1) with wins at Georgia, Illinois and Dayton. If they keep winning regular season games, they’re a possible at-large candidate if they stumble in the SoCon tournament.
  • SWAC – Southern won at Mississippi State and is 10-7 overall, though just 2-2 inside the conference.
  • Summit – Omaha is 12-6 (4-0) with near misses at Colorado (lost by five), Minnesota (three) and Missouri (seven).
  • Sun Belt – Arkansas-Little Rock and its first year coach Chris Beard, previously discussed here, are 14-1 (4-0). One of the nation’s best stories.
  • WAC – They are not NCAA tournament eligible, but 15-2 Grand Canyon just toppled WAC power New Mexico State on Saturday. Will Leitch wrote a lot of words on them last year, but regardless of your feelings about for profit universities, this is an exciting low major program on the rise under former Phoenix Suns great Dan Majerle. The Antelopes are off to a terrific beginning this season.
Andrew Gripshover (15 Posts)

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