No two words strike fear into the hearts of college basketball’s bubble-dwelling teams like “bid thieves.” The aptly named conference tournament crashers have a ripple effect on the rest of the landscape, impacting teams from leagues far beyond their own. When a team with no legitimate at-large aspirations wills their way into the field, another program’s season is suddenly viewed through a dramatically sadder lens (such is life in the NIT). A bid thief, like any good bandit, is sneaky and unsuspecting. If we all knew who they were at the outset of the conference tournaments, they wouldn’t be very effective thieves. Still, there are signs and symbols to look for. First and foremost, the pool of suspects all hail from a conference that has a team that owns a resume strong enough to merit an at-large bid. That means the potential bid thief population comprises second tier mid-major clubs and the also-rans of power conferences. From that group, at least one or two teams will almost definitely rise and dash the hopes of those on the bubble. Let’s take a closer look to see if we can spot some a caper before they become one.
The Panthers are the perfect place to start, as they boast a textbook bid thief background. UNI has beaten North Carolina, Stephen F. Austin, Iowa State, and Wichita State. Sounds like the beginning of an at-large case? Not exactly. Ben Jacobson’s club also had a stretch this season where they lost 10 of 15, including duds against Missouri State (KenPom #241) and Loyola (KenPom #185). They’ve been utterly inconsistent throughout the season, despite the aforementioned flashes of impressiveness. If the team that’s 4-1 against the KenPom top 50 shows up to Arch Madness, the Panthers are absolutely a threat to knock off Wichita State and steal the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid. UNI has won eight of its last nine (which includes a victory in Wichita), so everything could be breaking right for this thief to emerge in St. Louis.
If Monmouth fails to win the MAAC tournament, the Hawks would find themselves squarely on the bubble, even with that tidy list of non-conference wins (most notably UCLA, Notre Dame, USC, and Georgetown). The MAAC tournament will be far from a cakewalk for Monmouth, with second seeded Iona looming as its toughest test. The Gaels and Hawks split the season series, each winning on the other’s home floor. Monmouth came out on top in a wild, 200+ total point, trash-talking, slap-fight-inspiring battle in mid-January, while Iona returned the favor by beating Monmouth by 16 in a less remarkable affair. If the basketball gods are good to us, we’ll see these two square off again in Albany. Both play at a breakneck pace (each are in the top 30 nationally in possessions per game), as Iona is able to run with Monmouth in a way most teams can’t. They also may have the best player you don’t know about. Iona senior AJ English is averaging 22 points, five rebounds, and six assists per game and has multiple 40+ point games this season. An English-dominated conference tournament could mean a two-bid MAAC – a scary proposition for bubble teams everywhere else. Read the rest of this entry »