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 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 Florida, but 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.
We’re in the midst of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the continuing action by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.
Dates: March 10-14
Site: Toyota Center (Houston, TX)
What to expect: Second-seeded Alabama State and third-seeded Southern are both ineligible for postseason play this year, so should one of those two win the event – a distinct possibility – the next-highest finisher will claim the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Then again, it might not matter. Texas Southern, which beat Michigan State and Kansas State back in non-conference play, looks poised to reach the Big Dance for a second straight year after winning the league title with relative ease. The transfer-laden Tigers are experienced, talented and have the benefit of playing in their own backyard (the Toyota Center is located just three miles from the Texas Southern campus). It’s hard to see Mike Davis’ club losing prior to the championship game, where it would likely meet the Hornets or Jaguars.
Favorite: Texas Southern. You don’t beat NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents like the Spartans and Wildcats without having quality talent on your roster, and that certainly holds true for Texas Southern. Marshall transfer Chris Thomas (12.3 PPG) is a former five-star recruit, Deverell Biggs (11.8 PPG) nearly averaged double-figures in his time at Nebraska. And Madarious Gibbs (14.1 PPG) is the SWAC Player of the Year. The Tigers have a lot to work with.
Championship Fortnight continues with yet 10 more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the final push of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the O26 tourneys starting are the Southland, SWAC, Mountain West and Atlantic 10.
Dates: March 12-15 Site: Toyota Center (Houston)
What to expect: The most bizarre conference tournament you’ve ever seen. Four of the league’s 10 teams are ineligible for postseason play due to low APR scores yet the SWAC is allowing that quartet to compete in the conference tourney. That means that the eligible team that advances the furthest in the bracket will win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In case of a tie — multiple eligible teams advancing to the same round but no further — the highest-seeded team — second-seeded Texas Southern is the leader in the clubhouse — would advance to the Big Dance. Crazy, right? Just imagine how weird it will feel if a team loses in the tournament championship game and still gets to celebrate an NCAA Tournament bid. The SWAC hasn’t won a non-play-in game in the NCAA Tournament since Southern beat Georgia Tech in 1993.
Favorite:Texas Southern. I guess I’ll go with the favorite to make the NCAA Tournament. This is all so confusing. Top-seeded Southern, the team that won a game by 104 points earlier this year, should actually win the SWAC Tournament. But thanks to APR issues, the Jaguars aren’t eligible for the Big Dance. So Texas Southern is the favorite to go dancing.
In Part III of our three-part series (click here for Part I and Part II), we pass out 2013-14 superlatives to the best teams, performers and performances from six different O26 conferences: Big Sky, Big West, Southland, SWAC, Sun Belt and WAC. In alphabetical order:
Davion Berry and Weber State finally edged Montana and won the Big Sky. (Photo by Weber State)
Team of the Year – Weber State (17-11, 14-6). After winning 55 games in the previous two seasons, this was the year – the most parity-driven in recent memory – that Weber State outlasted Montana and won the Big Sky. The Wildcats now host the conference tournament, which could mean a return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2007.
Player of the Year – Davion Berry – Weber State. Narrowly edging out Montana’s Kareem Jamar and North Dakota’s Troy Huff for our Player of the Year, Berry averaged 19 points per contest, distributed the ball effectively, shot almost 40 percent from long range, and led his team to a title.
Coach of the Year – Tyler Geving – Portland State. Portland State was picked to finish ninth in the conference, an outlook that became even worse when senior Aaron Moore, averaging nearly 12 points per game, was dismissed from the team in early January. After the Vikings lost four straight close games in the middle of the Big Sky season, Geving deserves credit for leading his guys to a 5-1 finish and a fifth-place tie in the league.
Upset of the Year – Northern Colorado over Kansas State, 60-58. Until last Saturday, Kansas State was pretty much unbeatable at home this season: Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State, and George Washington — all these teams left Manhattan without a win. But you know who did manage to leave Manhattan with a win (aside from Baylor)? BJ Hill’s Bears. Gotta love early November.
Dunk (or Dunker) of the Year – Jaron Nash – North Dakota. Nash goes baseline, emphatically stuffs it with one hand, then salutes the home crowd. Great stuff.
It has been relatively quiet in terms of news around the Ed O’Bannon case, but yesterday the plaintiffs picked up a significant victory as a federal judge gave the ok for the class action suit to go to federal court. It will still be a very long time before we get a verdict in the case, but this is a big step in that direction. Having said that with all of the legal maneuvering that the NCAA can do here they will probably try to stall this case as long as possible because it appears that the only thing that can stop this case from being decided by a verdict is if the two sides reach an agreement.
Luke Winn’s Weekly Power Rankings are already probably one of the most challenging columns to write under normal circumstances (part of why we link it almost every week), but after Wednesday night’s craziness it was made even tougher. Luke still produced some interesting stats, but our favorite one this week might be his comparison of Big Ten Win-Loss records against efficiency margins. It is essentially a graphical version of John Gasway’s Tuesday Truths, but the direct comparison seems to make it much more illustrative of how records can sometimes be deceiving.
It seemed inevitable that once Rick Pitino (ok, and Tom Izzo too) spoke out against his players using social media that John Calipari would come out defending social media. The fact that Calipari supports social media should not be a surprise since he uses it better than any other major coach. The best part of Calipari’s appearance on Mike and Mike outside of making fun of the hosts for their performance in the celebrity game during NBA All-Star weekend was him saying that Pitino and Izzo ” know nothing about social media.” Say what you will about Calipari, but he knows how to cater to his target audience. Pitino and Izzo can target the donors and administrators who might not be into social media. Calipari will just target the teenagers who will become NBA lottery picks in a few years.
Tomorrow’s game between Dukeand Syracuse may have lost some of its luster with both teams losing the game leading into their showdown, but don’t tell that to fans trying to get tickets on the secondary market. According to TiqIQ the upcoming Duke-Syracuse game will be the most expensive ticket this season with an average price of $2,125 on the secondary market. Now these figures are from before Duke’s loss at UNC so that number might have come down a little bit, but the biggest factor in what makes Duke games so expensive (outside of Duke usually being very good) is how small Cameron Indoor is.
With March approaching most programs are focused on their on-court performance. For Southern their performance off the court and in the classroom might be more important than what they do on the court as they are hoping be able to avoid a postseason ban over its APR. If Southern, which leads the SWAC, is ineligible for the postseason it would mark the second consecutive season that the SWAC regular season champ was ineligible for postseason play. Interestingly, Southern was a beneficiary of the ban last season as they earned the SWAC’s automatic bid after Texas Southern was ineligible to compete in the postseason.
2013 did not end well for Oklahoma State with the loss of Michael Cobbins to a ruptured Achilles tendon. 2014 is not starting off much better as backup point guard Stevie Clark was arrested just ten hours into the New Year for possession of marijuana. This is not the first time that Clark has dealt with disciplinary issues while in Stillwater as he was suspended at the start of his freshman year for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Given the way these type of issues are dealt with we doubt that Clark will miss a substantial amount of time. And we would certainly expect him to be back by January 18 when the Cowboys welcome Kansas to Stillwater.
This has not been the type of season that we have come to expect of Temple and things may have taken a turn for the worse as sophomore Daniel Dinglecould miss the rest of the season with a tear in his right meniscus. Dingle, 6’7″ forward, had been averaging 6.7 point and 2.3 rebounds per game this season. Without him, the Owls are down to just nine scholarship players. With their AAC schedule starting on January 9, the Owls are in a precarious position and at this point can probably forget about getting into any kind of postseason tournament.
Texas A&M picked up a big transfer yesterday as they landed SMU transfer Jalen Jones. You may remember that Jones announced that he would be transferring from SMU just as the season started. Jones, who led the Mustangs in scoring (14 per game) and rebounding (7 per game) last season, has two more years of eligibility remaining. Although there are reports that the Aggies will be applying for a waiver so Jones can play immediately we cannot imagine a scenario in which the NCAA would grant it although as we have said before they seem to granting waivers for everything else.
Looking for a more “scientific” preview of the upcoming conference races? As usual, Ken Pomeroy has you covered. In Part 1 and Part 2 of his three-part conference race preview (we assume Part 3 will be coming later today), Pomeroy ran Monte Carlo simulations of each conference race to predict the likelihood that each team will win their conference regular season. These races are ranked in order of competitiveness so do not wait for Part 3 to see where your power conference team is projected to finish. The Big 12 and Big Ten (arguably the two best conferences in the country) are ranked 17th and 14th respectively in terms of competitiveness.
Was one 116-12 game not enough for you? If you answered yes, then you may in luck as it appears that Southern and Champion Baptist appear to want to continue their “rivalry”. For those of you who missed the game on Monday, Southern scored the first 44 points of the game to set a NCAA record and continued to press well after the game was decided, which was probably in warm-ups. There is a possibility that next year’s match-up could be more competitive as Southern only beat Christian Baptist 90-36 last season so maybe Monday night was an aberration.
Bennet Hayes is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @HoopsTraveler. Periodically throughout the preseason, RTC will take an in-depth look at the schedules of some of the more prominent teams in college basketball.
Sean Miller’s fifth season in Tuscon could easily turn out to be his best. Despite the graduation of key seniors Solomon Hill (a first round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft), Mark Lyons, and Kevin Parrom – in addition to the surprising departure of freshman Grant Jerrett to the professional ranks, Miller has assembled the most talented roster that Arizona has seen in quite some time. A solid Pac-12 conference and challenging non-conference schedule will challenge the Cats’, but a nice blend of returnees and newcomers should give the man at the helm ample leeway to steer this storied program deep into March.
Nick Johnson will be asked to do more — both on and off the court — for this young but talented Wildcat team
Team Outlook: This will be a new-look Arizona team, as last year’s squad was built around departed seniors Lyons and Hill. Some familiar faces will be back and poised to fill leadership roles this time around, with junior Nick Johnson (11.5 PPG, 3.2 APG, 1.9 SPG) most prominent among them. The athletic two-guard shot the ball better from three-point range as a sophomore (39% after 32% as a freshman), and should also serve as the Cats’ best perimeter defender in 2013-14. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski (6.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 22.2 MPG) and Brandon Ashley (7.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 20.5 MPG) return to anchor the frontcourt, with each likely seeing a slight minutes increase, despite the arrival of a duo of freshman studs in the same frontcourt. Both Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were McDonald’s All-Americans last spring, and immense immediate contributions from both freshmen would surprise no one. Gordon especially shapes up as a good candidate for a jump to the NBA after a season of stardom in Tuscon, as he is currently projected as a Top-20 pick in the 2014 draft on NBADraft.net. Gordon’s production will be one of the keys to this Wildcat season, but he may not be Sean Miller’s most important player. Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell (11.4 PPG, 5.5 APG, 2.8 SPG in 2011-12) will be filling Lyons’ shoes and running the show in Tucson this season. McConnell was an efficient lead guard in the Atlantic-10 and should quickly acclimate to the Pac-12, but the absence of proven ball-handlers elsewhere on the roster means his transition has to be a smooth one for Arizona to be successful. He will be a welcomed change-of-pace for teammates used to the shoot-first Lyons dominating the ball, and his steal % of 4.7 (12th best in the nation in 2012) is ample indication of a dedication to both ends. The talented youngsters around him will keep expectations low for McConnell individually, but don’t be shocked if he emerges as the leader of this club. Read the rest of this entry »
Tonight’s Lede. Tournament Commencement. Day one of the NCAA Tournament proper, the field of 64, is officially in the books. Games were won, upsets were wrought, careers ended and through it all, bracket hope springs eternal for those who survived their first big test. The second half of “second round” competition will tip off in just a few hours, followed by a weekend of further elimination and refinement. There is no mistaking it: the NCAA Tournament is here and we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the drama to come in later rounds.
Your Watercooler Moment. What? Harvard?
The most shocking result of the day came as an almost unthinkable late-night surprise (Getty Images).
Next year was going to be the year I picked Harvard to not only win its opening round game, but – depending on how the matchups shook out – quite possibly rip off a sweet-16 or even Elite 8 run. The Crimson get seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, snagged this offseason in a sweeping academic scandal, back for 2013-14, along with another solid recruiting class and a promising young backcourt in Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. The Crimson have all the pieces to crash the field next season. It is from this backdrop that you can understand why what Harvard pulled off Thursday night at EnergySolutions Arena was a year ahead of schedule. The Crimson downed three-seed New Mexico in the biggest upset of the Tournament’s first day. It was also Harvard’s first ever NCAA Tournament win, and it came thanks to a depleted roster holding one of the nation’s best backcourt duos, Tony Snell and Kendall Williams, to a combined 17 points and two assists. The Lobos were a trendy Final Four pick. They had size and experience and a skilled seven-foot big man to anchor their offensive attack. They had the considerable weight of being the Mountain West’s Tournament entrepreneur. Harvard has its first Tournament win in school history and maybe the most remarkable upset we’ll see this March.
Also Worth Chatting About. A12-5 Upset Double. You Saw it Coming.
A seeding mismatch left Oklahoma State with a brutal first-round matchup (AP Photo).
Because there was so little immediate uproar about teams actually getting in/left out of the Tournament, people channeled their anger towards the bracket itself. Two of the biggest points of contention within were Oregon’s mystifying 12 seed following a Pac-12 conference Tournament championship and Cal’s comfy opening-round location (San Jose). The Ducks deserved more respect than a 12-seed and the Bears, for all their success in conference play, did not deserve the benefit of playing so close to their Berkeley Campus. Oregon’s underseed wasn’t just a slight to Dana Altman’s team, it was a menacing first-round predicament for Oklahoma State, a five-seed criminally burdened with a Ducks team that was in contention for a Pac-12 regular season crown for much of the season. Oregon dominated Marcus Smart and company from start to finish; an innocent observer would have suggested Oregon was the five seed, and OSU the 12. A few hours later, fellow Pac-12 12-seed Cal did not disappoint the hometown crowd in avenging a regular season home loss to UNLV. Neither of these P-12 squads belonged in their respective bracket locations. Oregon is not a 12 seed; it’s just not! And the Rebels, with their putative seeding advantage, never should have had to play what amounted to a road game in their opening-round matchup. None of it was very fair, and all of it confirmed what most instinctively believed upon bracket reveal Sunday afternoon: the committee screwed up.
Tonigh’s Quick Hits…
Two One Seeds. Two Totally Different Stories. There are big expectations for Gonzaga this season. The questions aren’t about the Zags’ worthiness as a No. 1 seed so much as they are what follows: can Mark Few’s team finally break through into the deep rounds? Judging by their-opening round game against 16-seed Southern, the answer is an emphatic no. The Jaguars pushed Gonzaga to the brink in Salt Lake City, and were it not for a couple of clutch deep jumpers from point guard Kevin Pangos, Thursday may have brought the first-ever 16-1 toppling. Phew. Louisville’s first-round game was far less interesting. The Cardinals whipped North Carolina A&T, holding the Aggies to 48 points and validating their overall No. 1 seed in every which way.
Memphis! Whenever Josh Pastner’s name cropped up in conversation, the impulsive reaction was to spew out the following statistic: 0. As in, tournament wins since Pastner took over the Tigers’ head coaching job in 2009. No longer will Pastner be juxtaposed with Tournament ignominy so immediately – Memphis fans will very much want another win or two before Pastner is off the hook – not after the Tigers fought off Matthew Dellavadova and Saint Mary’s in a highly anticipated 6-11 matchup Thursday. With Memphis headlong into a round-of-32 date with Michigan State this weekend, Pastner’s Tournament run is probably over. But the first one is always the toughest, or so they say, and Pastner and his team managed to accomplish that much in a year where first-round failure would have triggered an unrelenting stream of local fan venom throughout the long offseason.
Three Trendy Upset Picks Fall Short. In any given year, there are a few matchups where you feel confident enough, matchup-wise, to pull the trigger on a brave and courageous high seed victory. I heard a wide selection of suggested first-round knock offs in the lead up to Thursday, and three of the most frequent were (11) Bucknell over (6) Butler, (14) Davidson over (3) Marquette and (11) Belmont over (6) Arizona. All of which seemed very reasonable for different reasons: Mike Muscala can really work the paint; Davidson boasts one of the better frontlines in the country along with an elite in-game coach; Belmont is almost perennially Tournament-worthy under Rick Byrd. I wouldn’t have been shocked in the least to see any of those dominoes fall. None of them did, only Davidson really came close and now those doubted favorites (Butler, Marquette, Arizona) can press forward without the burden of potential first-round upset embarrassment.
Not So Efficient Now, Pitt. According to Ken Pomeroy’s win prediction formula, Pittsburgh went into Thursday’s 8-9 game against Wichita State with a 73 percent chance of advancing. Pomeroy’s efficiency ranks have recommended the Panthers all season (they ranked eighth as of Thursday in his per-possession database), and many data-savvy bracketeerists took that as a cue to simply and heedlessly push Pitt on through to a third-round matchup with Gonzaga, where Jamie Dixon’s team would give the Zags all kinds of physicality matchup issues. The only problem? The Shockers, ranked 34th in Pomeroy’s system, were more efficient than Pitt in every conceivable way throughout their 40-minute second-round tussle, and after an 18-point win it is Wichita, not the Panthers, who will get a clean shot at dropping the Zags this weekend.
The Point Guard Duel That Wasn’t. More than a genuine interest in seeing whether South Dakota State could pull off an unlikely upset of three-seed Michigan Thursday night, there was considerable buzz about what Nate Wolters – a semi-nationally known lead guard with an alluring all-around game – could conjure up against consensus First Team All-American and projected first-round draft pick Trey Burke. Fans were expecting a back-and-forth, individual, put-the-team-on-my-back kind of PG battle; this was Wolters’ night. It never materialized. Burke finished with just six points on 2-of-12 shooting and Wolters dropped 10 while making just three of 14 field goal attempts. The game itself was competitive going into the half, but without Wolters doing crazy, Wolters-like, 53-point things, the Jackrabbits never really stood a chance. The point guard battle of the Tournament was a dud and the game wasn’t much better.
Game-Winner of the Night. Everyone’s confident Davidson upset pick looked really convincing for about 35 minutes. Then Marquette shifted gears, found its three-point stroke late and Vander Blue did the rest.
Derrick Nix, Michigan State (NPOY) – The first game on Thursday was not what anyone would call competitive: Nix poured in 23 points and 15 rebounds as the Spartans controlled Valpo throughout.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis – A lot of people like Saint Louis as an Elite 8-Final Four-range team. Evans (24 points, six rebounds) gave you no reason to reconsider in Thursday’s stomping of New Mexico State.
Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon – Scoring touch aside, Kazemi affects the game exclusively with his defense and rebounding more than perhaps any other player in this Tournament. His 11-17 double-double Thursday is standard issue evidence.
Dorian Green, Colorado State – Not all of the Mountain West flopped Thursday. UNLV and New Mexico are good as gone, but CSU, thanks in part to Green’s 26 points against Missouri, are gearing up for an intriguing third-round fixure with Louisville.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – I can’t ignore Olynyk’s 21 points and 10 rebounds – Olynyk has been consistently awesome all season. Whether he can lift the Zags to a win Saturday over Wichita State, I’m not so sure.
Tweet of the night. Beating a rugged three-seed like New Mexico, who many believed actually merited deserved a two-seed, is a huge feat in the moment. It’s even bigger for Harvard in a historical context.
New Mexico just became the Land of Disenchantment. And brackets implode nationwide. Like everybody else on Twitter right now #Harvard
Andrew Murawa is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game between #1 Gonzaga and #16 Southern in Salt Lake City.
Three Key Takeaways.
Kelly Olynyk and His Troops Sure Had to Sweat on Thursday
Keeping It Close. After keeping it tight for the better part of 30 minutes, it looked like Gonzaga was ready to pull away and ease to victory. Kelly Olynyk had scored 15 of the Zags first 18 points in the second half and with Southern having no one with the size and quickness to match him, we were ready for the inevitable double-digit win. But then something funny happened. Some of the Bulldog jumpers stopped going down, they turned it over a few times and the next thing you know, following some key blocks and increasingly improbable three-point shots going down for the Jaguars, we were all tied up with under four to go. But down the stretch, the Gonzaga guards took the baton from Olynyk and between Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., scored the final ten points for the Zags to seal the game.
So That’s A Number One Seed? There was plenty of talk since the brackets were announced about the long-term viability of the Bulldogs after earning their first-ever one-seed. And, the early returns are not promising. Certainly, the Jaguars needed to hit some insane three-pointers to stick around, and Olynyk looked at times like a guy capable of overpowering his smaller opponents, but this was not an impressive performance by the Zags. Elias Harris turned in a 2-for-10 outing and got rejected at the rim twice by smaller Southern defenders and the Bulldog backcourt caused absolutely no problems for the quick Southern backcourt. With a tough and talented Wichita State team awaiting in the next round, Gonzaga is going to have to play much better. One area where the Zags do deserve credit thought: down the stretch as the game tightened up where it could have been really easy for them to feel the pressure, they played with poise in the final few minutes.
Southern Celebrations. We’ll have hazy memories of these guys years in the future, so let’s take some time right now to recognize some of the great performances turned in by Jaguar players today. Off-guard Derick Beltran time and time again hit big shots, knocking down four threes as well as a pair of late two-point jumpers in his defender’s face; point guard Jameel Grace was nails throughout, getting into the lane in order to create opportunities, even if he hit just one of his eight field goal attempts; Brandon Moore and Javan Mitchell patrolled the paint, racking up seven blocks between them against taller opponents. And all told, the Jaguars got terrific performances by guys up and down the roster.
Star of the Game. Southern University. I could pick somebody from the winning team here (Olynyk’s 21/10 or Pangos’ 16 and big shots down the stretch are good candidates), but really, the star here was Southern University from start to finish. And I can’t even single out one of the players. From head coach Roman Banks on down the line, the Jaguars all deserve credit.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Oh, well. What’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful. — Cinderella
It’s time for college basketball’s annual ball, which means it’s time for America to fall in love with Cinderella all over again. There are 36 teams from the 26 non-power-conferences who have been invited to this year’s Big Dance, and while the slipper no longer fits for some of the more prominent of these schools, for the bulk of them, this is a rare opportunity to make a name for themselves on the grandest of stages.
This is the first of a two-part series taking a look at the NCAA Tournament prospects for all 36 teams hailing from The Other 26. We focus today on the TO26 teams in the South and West regions, grouping them into five rough categories, and, within each category, ordering them by their likelihood of advancing.
These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?
Gonzaga (#1, West) — It’s been five years since a TO26 team reached the top seed line. In 2008, Memphis rode its #1 seed all the way to the brink of a national championship, and Zags fans are hoping for the same — and perhaps more — this year. Gonzaga has no glaring weaknesses. They are led by an athletic, skilled frontcourt, the centerpiece of which is NPOY candidate Kelly Olynyk. They get steady guard play from Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and David Stockton. If they’re to run into any trouble, it will likely be against a team that (1) sports a strong, athletic interior defense that can contain Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower and pound the glass, and (2) can hit the three-point shot consistently, as Illinois did in beating them (Gonzaga’s defense allows a lot of three-point attempts). There are a fair number of teams that meet the first criteria in the West bracket, but not many with a lot offensive firepower from the three-point line or otherwise. In short, this is as good a shot as Gonzaga has ever had to make the Final Four. The eyes of the nation will be watching to see if they can make good on their promise.
Virginia Commonwealth (#5, South) — VCU is a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four, and there’s some merit to that notion, but here is the most important thing you need to know about them: They are 25-2 on the year (and 14-0 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate over 18 percent. And they are 1-6 (and 0-5 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate under 18 percent. The Rams’ first-round opponent, Akron, falls squarely in the former camp (20.8 percent), a problem for the Zips that will be exacerbated by the absence of their legally-troubled starting point guard, Alex Abreu. After that, things get a bit trickier for the Rams. Their two potential Third Round opponents, Michigan and South Dakota State, rank in the top 10 in the country in turnover rate. Those stats are perhaps somewhat inflated by the fact that both teams play in conferences that don’t feature a lot of pressure defenses, but if you’re looking for a point guard to lead you against such a defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Trey Burke or Nate Wolters. It’s true that Michigan has struggled lately in general, and that if you look ahead to a potential match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, Havoc’s odds of success improve, but I’d caution against over-exuberance at the Rams’ chances given a potentially dicey Third Round contest.
Championship Week reached a crescendo on the eve of Selection Sunday, as thirteen automatic bids were handed out. As each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets this week.
How About A Court Storming On An Opponent’s Home Floor? Completely Legal, Especially If A Trip To The Big Dance Is On The Line. Congratulations Albany.
America East Champion (24-10, 12-7)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #143/#152/#172
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +2.0
Likely NCAA Seed: #16
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year for Albany, but Saturday’s ticket-punching win at Vermont means the ride will roll on to the Big Dance. The America East champs put together an impressive 11-3 non-conference campaign that included a win at Washington, but conference play proved trying for Will Brown’s team, as a 9-7 finish left them as the fourth seed in the America East tournament. Albany lived the familiar March mantra “survive and advance” to the fullest this week, winning three games by a total of eight points to earn the bid.
In a fashion quite typical for these Great Danes, Albany won games this week in which they scored 50, 61 and 53 points, respectively – not exactly “grab some popcorn and take in the show” territory here. The tempo is predictably slow (279th nationally), and with national ranks of 170th offensively and 144th defensively, Albany is very much middle of the road on both ends of the floor. Where the Great Danes do excel is on the glass. They are an above average offensive rebounding team and rank 40th nationally in collecting caroms on the defensive end, aided in part by a relatively big lineup, especially for the America East.
The Albany offensive blueprint is not especially refined, but they rely heavily on a small senior duo of three-point shooters. 6’0” Mike Black leads the Danes in scoring at 15 a contest and towers over his backcourt mate, 5’10” Jacob Iati, who chips in 12.2 PPG. The two have combined to make 139 threes this season, and they would be well served to keep chucking come next week, because unless Albany gets slotted for the First Four in Dayton, it will take a hot shooting night and then some (and then some more, and some more…) to keep the Danes surviving and advancing.
Rulers Of Conference USA For The Final Time, Memphis Is Dancing Again