In Hoops We Trust: Small Fries Eye Big Prize

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 25th, 2017

This week, let’s take a break from discussions of the nation’s top 15 teams and all their tribulations. They get enough coverage already. Each year, there’s a bevy of small conference schools that threaten to upend the postseason hopes of middle-tier power conference teams with resumes that are, frankly, often more deserving. For now, they toil away in relative obscurity, their only chance at an appearance on any of the ESPN networks generally as a for-pay beatdown victim or in the finals of their conference tournament.

UNC-Wilmington and Several Other Mids Have Work to Do to Go Dancing Again (USA Today Images)

When a team from a small league can escape the non-conference season with a few wins over the Alabamas, Colorados, Seton Halls and DePauls of the college hoops world, they set themselves up for a chance at a low NCAA seed. More importantly, these schools must dominate their conferences to have any shot at an at-large bid. At season’s midpoint, here’s a quick look at several of them. All records are through Tuesday, January 24.

With a strength of schedule ranking in the 130s, UNC-Wilmington (17-2 (8-0 CAA), KenPom rank: 45, RPI rank: 26) does not have a shoo-in resume, but the Seahawks could end up with more than 25 wins and a credible at-large case. The current leader of the Colonial Athletic Association lost close games to Clemson and Middle Tennessee State, another mid-major contender, but there really aren’t any bad losses on its resume to speak of. But this is the perfect example of a team that cannot afford to lose more than one or two more games this season — and road losses might not kill them, but home losses surely will. College of Charleston sits one game back of UNC-Wilmington in the CAA but and owns an RPI of 67 and really has nothing to speak of from the non-conference schedule. Rather, the conference’s best non-conference wins came from third place Northeastern, which shocked Michigan State and beat Connecticut but has not been consistent enough to be taken seriously.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing Conference USA contender Middle Tennessee State (17-3 (7-0), KenPom rank: 46, RPI rank: 34) mentioned among the best mid-major teams in the country, and this year is no different. The Blue Raiders took down Michigan State as a #15 seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament, and it seems clear that their seeding was not a reflection of the overall strength. They’ve already beaten two SEC schools (Ole Miss, Vanderbilt) this year and fellow would-like-to-be NCAA teams UNC-Wilmington and Belmont. With nine juniors and seniors on the roster, Middle Tennessee State isn’t going to be rattled in a big game. Its computer numbers are strong, but as with every team on this list, the margin for error is slim. A loss in the conference tournament would probably doom their chances at a repeat performance as NCAA first weekend darlings.

Also look out for the Southern Conference’s Chattanooga (14–4, 5–1, KenPom rank: 56, RPI rank: 64). The Moccasins are hanging their hats on a win at Tennessee to open the season, and with a non-competitive RPI, they will need some help if they are to have any shot. For now, Chattanooga will challenge UNC-Greensboro for the SoCon regular season title, but with only one bid coming out of that league, it has no wiggle room.

A few other schools are also worth keeping an eye on: UT-Arlington (15-5 (5-2 Sun Belt), KenPom rank: 73, RPI rank: 54) owns a win over Texas but its losses in the Sun Belt are probably deal-breakers. Winthrop (15-4, (7-1 Big South), KenPom rank: 122, RPI rank: 85) has wins over Illinois, UNC-Greensboro and St. Louis, but their computer numbers don’t hold up. Monmouth (16-5 (8-2 MAAC), KenPom rank: 86, RPI rank: 58) picked off Memphis on the road; Vermont (16-5, (6-0 America East) KenPom rank: 70, RPI rank: 65) has decent computer numbers for an America East school but few bona fide wins; and New Mexico State (18-2 (5-0 WAC) KenPom rank: 90, RPI rank: 56) has 18 wins and an RPI within striking distance of reasonable, but its wins are over rival New Mexico and a horrible Arizona State team.

All of this is to say that if you’re a school that exists outside the six basketball power conferences, you need to win and keep winning all the way into mid-March. Pretty simple stuff. But don’t be surprised if several of these teams—whether at-large or, more likely, automatic bids—make a few mediocre big conference team sweat a couple months from now.

JWeill (27 Posts)

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