NCAA TOURNAMENT WATCH – MID-MAJORS
A staggering seven out of the top ten ranked teams in the country lost Saturday during an unprecedented armageddon of college basketball’s elite this year. This day of reckoning only a few short weeks before Selection Sunday on March 13 has given a window of opportunity for every underdog, longshot, hundred-to-ones flukes, or glitches in the system the most dangerous thing any team can have during these clashes of titans. Hope.
The glass slippers are ready to be fitted and while not all of these smaller schools are strangers to the NCAA tournament it still feels good when they stick it to the man. You see the passion burns just as bubbling hot in arenas like the CFSB Center at Murray State as they do in Rupp Arena, or at Cameron Indoor, or Allen Fieldhouse. Fans flock, frothing at the mouth for a chance for that glimmering second in the sun and the nylon swishing as their no-name team takes down a giant.
Let’s dive in and take a closer look towards the teams across America that may not make the primetime TV slot, or in a market where all can see it, but play on the same-size court, with the exact same rules.
The cradle of our nation is nestled within the boundaries of rolling wooded hills and rocky picturesque harbors of New England. Folks around here are used to cold unforgiving winters that give way to warm extended summers, and this change in weather signifies the arrival of basketball season. The Catamounts of Vermont hold the top spot here and are likely to earn a seeding similar to 11-16 come mid-March, they also own a highly commendable 1.53 assist to turnover ratio. They rank almost 200 spots above their closest competition in NET rankings with a 23-5 overall record to this point and only one loss in conference. Safe to say the Cats in the cradle here are destined for a shot at college basketball’s biggest crown. UMBC is best known fr their historic upset of #1 seed Virginia back in 2018, but that has been their climactic moment in the years since. They have muscled out a 14-13 record this year and a 9-7 mark in the conference, their program experience could help the Retrievers propel their talents and make a run during the conference tournament.
In the AAC reincarnations of Phi Slamma Jamma replay in Cougars fans’ heads as Kelvin Sampson has Houston up to #4 in the NET poll. The Cougars are 24-4 with only two losses in the AAC, a defensively stellar unit, Houston claims the nation’s 14th best rate of blocks per game at 5.4, the eighth-best defensive scoring measurement, and the top spot in opponent field-goal percentage. Houston has also won four straight matchups.
Southern Methodist and Memphis fall in line closely behind the red and white with the Mustangs (20-7) having dispatched of both the big cats in this conference (The Bearcats actually have the upper hand in this one, they are the only cat not conquered by SMU) and have put together a respectable season.
Memphis (17-9) was chosen to be a factor in the Top 25 this season but Penny Hardaway’s squad hasn’t quite finished games on the road at the best pace. The Tigers have earned a spot at #45 in the NET, with SMU directly following them at #46. Southern Methodist has a better record against teams in the top two quadrants (6-4 for SMU and 6-7 for Memphis), and in conference play as compared to Memphis. Yet signature victories over Houston and Alabama help the cause for the Memphis Tigers, a team desperately needing a return to glory.
The A-10 is an electric basketball factory. With none of the schools competing in Football the basketball programs take center stage, and boy do they show up and show out. Davidson (254-4), Dayton (20-9), VCU (20-7), Saint Louis (19-10), and St. Bonaventure (19-7) all stand within three games of each other in league play and are all looking for that guaranteed bid with a regular-season championship. Davidson beat the Crimson Tide earlier this season and has fought off the other conference suitors substantially. #44 in the NET, Davidson as a program has made 14 NCAA tournaments and expects to make a deep run.
Richmond (19-10) sits at #88 in the NET and the Spiders have won two straight to help their cause, and they also have wins against four projected tournament teams. Chris Mooney and his team may leave the rest of the A10 with a crippling case of arachniphobia by the time the fat lady sings. The Bonnies have won seven straight, as well as the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth. Both the Rams and Davidson should get the edge here for playing great basketball on the road with packed houses every night. Don’t count out the Flyers of Dayton either, they have kept opponents to only 60 points per game, and storied history of their own in the tournament. Old habits die hard, and it takes a lot to kill Dayton, who has 7 wins in the top two quads including Kansas, Miami, and Belmont. Davidson has been known to bust a few brackets, but this year the Wildcats are busting nets off the rims, shooting 39.5% beyond the arc, tied for fourth in the nation. Come March, the A10 could send two to four teams to the tournament.
Lots of basketball is being played near the Atlantic Ocean, and some very tough basketball is being played in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Flames of Liberty University (21-10) burn red hot as they own the highest spot in the ASUN in terms of NET rankings and are currently fifth in the country in 3PT field goal percentage at an outstanding clip of 39.4%. They are also one of the few teams in the country to have played 30 games to this point. Bellarmine (17-13), and Jacksonville University (19-9) sit within two games of a top conference record. The Dolphins from Jacksonville University rattled off 5 straight W’s in February, and can’t be forgotten either. The Jacksonville State Gamecocks (20-9) have 13 conference wins, but check-in at a very low #138 in NET rankings. The cost of a weaker schedule, despite their top marks in the league. The ASUN tournament will be concluded on March 8th, as for which squad takes the hardware home is up to interpretive speculation. The winner is likely the only selection from the ASUN.
A conference of class and institutional pride, the Big East remains as storied as it has been. The Friars of Providence keep their faith near and dear to their cause as they try to fend off Jay Wright and Villanova for the conference crown. Providence (24-3) has played fewer games in conference play than Nova (21-7) and the Friars dropped their first matchup against the Wildcats at home on February 15. Most college basketball fans sleep on two things: a warm bed, and the Providence Friars. They have a solid rotation and head coach Ed Cooley could likely start his own religion in Rhode Island with a little civil complaint. Free throw shooting and game planning have helped the Friars turn heads this year and possibly land a role in a #2 or #3 seed. The Friars make 15.8 shots from the charity stripe per contest on an average of 21.6 attempts. Both of those metrics are within the top 25 for teams across the country.
Villanova claims the highest NET ranking in this conference at #7 and has also played well at home, the Wildcats have had the most recent success in the tournament, claiming two titles since 2016. Jay Wright and the Wildcats certainly can’t be counted out. UConn (21-7), Xavier (17-9), Creighton (19-9), Marquette (18-10), and Seton Hall (18-9) are still battling with their reputations as “Basketball Schools” on the line to make another tournament appearance and maybe play the second weekend. UConn has racked up seven wins out of their last ten games and block shots at the second-highest rate in the NCAA. The Huskies own the third most offensive rebounds per contest this season and average over 14. The Blue Jays won six straight in February contests and look to be peaking at just the right time. Seven teams from the Big East are likely to hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
Out on the frontier, the Big Sky Conference churns out football powerhouses at the Division II level, and on the hardwood, the action is just as intense. With only a lone projected bid to the NCAA tournament, Montana State (21-6) and Weber State (20-10) are battling it out for a shot at eternal remembrance every March. Montana State is the projected team from the last remaining American frontier. The Bobcats have a combined shooting percentage that is top 50 in the nation, and make a living at the free-throw line, much like the team trying to topple them.
The Wildcats of Weber State claim one of the conference’s three wins over a Quad 1 or Quad 2 opponent. Yet, they check in 32 spots lower than the Bobcats who are leading the conference, at #128 in the NET. Southern Utah has racked up 18 victories this year and sits at number two in the league rankings. Their game plan includes getting to the free-throw line where they have the 25th most attempts on the year and shoot just over a respectable 70% from the line.
The schools in the Big South are no strangers to March Madness and the clash for one projected bid from the conference has Winthrop (21-8) and Longwood (23-6) in a close race to the finish. The Lancers of Longwood and Winthrop are listed back to back at #142 and #143 in NET rankings, with only the Eagles earning a Q1 or Q2 win. Longwood looks to be the projected whipping boy from the Big South, but don’t count out Winthrop squeaking into position.
The bookend of the “Big Directional” conferences, these west coast squads lack notoriety but make up for it in tenacity. UC Irvine (16-8) resuscitated their season reeling off seven consecutive notches in the win column earlier this month. The Anteaters (just a fantastic moniker) of Irvine earned two Q1 wins over Boise State and Santa Clara, and have the highest distinguishment in the NET rankings at #116. Long Beach State (17-12), Cal State Fullerton (18-10), and Hawaii (16-10) all have higher marks in conference play, but they lack any substance in Quad 1 or Quad 2 games. The winner of this conference is a projected 14-16 seed.
As the Revolutionary War drum beat subsides, and the smoke clears the Colonial Athletic Association is hoping to send more than just their champion to the big dance. The Towson Tigers (23-7) strive to hold off the Hofstra Pride (20-10) in the NET rankings to claim a regular-season conference title. UNCW (21-8) owns the best conference record but is miles behind in NET rankings. The Pride has a nice win over a red-hot Arkansas squad earlier this season, and they boast a free throw percentage rate of 80.2%, good for fifth in the NCAA. Both Drexel (15-13) and Delaware (19-11) have higher NET rankings than the league leader in conference, look for these two schools with eclectic mascots (Dragons and Blue Hens, respectively, and with my most sincere admiration). Look for Towson to continue winning and lock the bid for this conference.
The Mean Green of North Texas (22-4) allow the lowest PPG of any team in the NCAA at 56.3 per game and have a stellar defense to thank for their #38 slot in the NET, as well as their 8-0 record away from their Denton, Texas home court. Middle Tennessee State (20-7) is in the runner-up position as of now, with Western Kentucky (17-11) who has the fewest fouls per game of anyone in Division 1, UAB (19-7), and Louisiana Tech (19-7) all trail the Blue Raiders and Mean Green in NET rankings. The Blazers of Alabama-Birmingham have the most wins amongst Q1 opponents in the conference, and score the 20th most points per game in Divison 1 with 78.1. A #12 seed or #13 seed is likely for this conference’s champ.
No sunsets here, the battle for this conference chalice is far from over. The Vikings of Cleveland State have a 19-9 overall record and hold a tie with the Mastodons of Purdue-Fort Wayne (20-10). With the Horizon League only projecting one team into the tournament, these two teams will likely battle for the top spot. Cleveland State got the better of Fort Wayne in back-to-back games earlier this month, but the ancient mammoths won the rubber match to keep chugging along in conference. The Mastodons have pilfered 264 steals on the season, good for 11th best in the NCAA. However, neither of the top two teams own the highest NET rankings. That belongs to the Oakland Golden Grizzlies (18-10), who sit at #153 with the conference’s only Quad 1 win against Oklahoma State in early November. The conference tournament winner will be the only school making the trip from the Horizon.
With their world-renowned educational value taking center stage, basketball falls a little lower on the priority list for most Ivy League institutions, but that doesn’t take away the fire these teams have to earn a storybook run in the tournament. Princeton (21-5) is the likely choice from this conference, although Yale (16-11) owns the better conference mark, with only one more victory and equal losses. This conference is a combined 0-12 against first quadrant teams, and 3-20 against Q2. Princeton shoots beyond the arc at a very commendable rate, averaging double-digit three-point makes per game with 10.8, while they shoot 38.1% from deep. Once again, this is a mid-major conference that doesn’t have the depth to send more than 1 school, but that one selection will be fought for until the final buzzer.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC
The MAA could have a pair of 20-win teams when the fat lady sings, yet the Iona Gaels (24-5) stand out above the rest. The Gaels lost by seven points to Alabama in the opening round of last year’s tournament. This past November at the ESPN Events Invitational the Gaels use that chip on their shoulder to avenge their loss last year and beat Alabama by four. Iona possesses a four-win lead in conference standings, followed closely by Monmouth University in New Jersey (18-9). The Hawks picked up the other Q1 win from this conference with a narrow edging of the Towson Tigers. Siena College and the Saints claim the runner-up position so far in the MAAC, but likely won’t get an at-large bid with a very soft schedule. Iona has won five consecutively. and six out of the last ten conference crowns, averages 6.2 blocks per game, (3rd in NCAA D-1), and looks to be the clear favorite to go dancing again.
The intensity of “MACtion” can truly not be understated. While the heavy bets go toward only one school from the MAC earning a bid, there is a well-coached and talented group of teams amongst the top of the league that does not deserve to be robbed of March basketball. Both Toldeo and Ohio share a 23-5 record while Toledo has picked up 15 conference victories, with the Rockets having the edge of defeating the Bobcats at OU in both matchups this season. Toledo grabs on average 40.6 rebounds per game, which is only nine spots behind the country’s highest; they are the highest-ranked team in the NET at #79. Kent State (19-9) and Buffalo (19-8) are on ten-game and nine-game winning streaks respectively. The Bulls pull down 14.4 offensive boards each contest, second-best in Divison 1. Both of these two teams might make a run at the conference title, Buffalo owns the only Q1 win in the conference with their victory over North Texas. The likely singular team from this conference is not likely to be determined until they hoist their hardware on March 12th at the Rocket Mortgage Center in Cleveland, Ohio on March 12th.
Norfolk State and the Spartans (19-6) are 2 games ahead of Howard University, which sits in third place in the conference, and has the only Q1 or Q2 win in the conference against Bradley back in November. The Spartans have played technical defensive basketball to outlast their conference foes, with an emphasis on perimeter protection and rebounding on the defensive glass. Norfolk ranks 27th in opponent field goal percentage and twelfth in defensive rebounding.
North Carolina Central (14-13) had a fighting wrap up their automatic bid with their play earlier this month but dropped significantly. The rankings here could change within the next few weeks as all three teams mentioned get a chance to play each other before the regular season concludes. This team will likely be a 16 seed or a part of the play-in games in the field of 68.
MVC play has been neck and neck with Loyola-Chicago (22-7) retaining a first-place tie with Northern Iowa (18-10)in conference standings. The Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago sit at # 31 in the NET and have picked up five Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins combined. The Ramblers’ statistical measures can be misleading, but opposing coaches need to be getting their players to close out on the water boy, because the whole team can shoot. A nice reliable tool to have in the bag come tournament time UNI sits just inside the top 100 in the NET at #97 and has played great basketball outside of Cedar Falls, and might have a chance to make a run within the league tournament with their 4-5 record in Q1 and Q2 matchups. Drake (21-9) and Missouri State (21-9) have played 30 games and are the next ahead of the Panthers in the NET rankings from the MVC. MSU is 5-4 versus the top two quadrants. If the top two teams in this conference can continue winning, the Missouri Valley might send more than just their conference champion to the tournament.
Nestled in the foothills of the rugged Rocky Mountain range is a distinct brand of Basketball. The MWC currently has three 20-win teams who stand within 2 games of each other in their conference. Boise State (23-6) has an impressive record in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games with double-digit victories. The Broncos sit at #29 in the NET rankings and have done well away from their home court. They own the best record in conference play and have allowed an average of only 60.3 points per game all season, good for ninth-best in college basketball. Shortly behind them is the Wyoming Cowboys at 23-5. The Cowboys make a living off of stingy defense that limits opposing teams to less than 30% beyond the arc and has amassed a respectable win-loss ratio against top competition in the higher quadrants, yet they sit behind others in NET rankings at #39. Colorado State (23-4) relies on their shooting prowess from the field where they hold the 14th best field-goal percentage in Divison 1 at 48.2%. The Rams put their heads down to barge through their games recently, and also hold an 11-3 record against competitors in the top two quadrants and are #27in the NET. The Aztecs of San Diego State are 18-7 and only a handful of W’s away from an outright regular-season championship. The Aztecs sit at #30 in NET rankings and have limited their opponents to an abysmal 56.9 points per game and have an excellent defense to thank for their success this year. Along with the MAC, this conference has the potential and depth to send up to four teams to the tournament, and a chance for basketball in April.
Wagner (19-5) and Bryant (19-9) have both had an impressive season with Wagner claiming the conference’s only Q1 win against VCU in mid-November, but have struggled against quality competition since. Bryant has suffered from the cost of a weaker schedule but plays good team ball nonetheless. Yet, they remain 0-5 versus Q1 and Q2 teams, with no other opportunities left to correct that path this season. Wagner has shown themselves to be the likely heir to the conference throne and if they can hold on in their conference tournament, they are likely to get the bid. A 14-seed is likely for the winner of this conference.
The Racers of Murray State(28-2) have had essentially 17 cups of coffee in their appearances at the NCAA tournament, so have the Belmont Bruins (25-6) during their eight trips in program history. Both schools look to claw the monkey off their back by surviving and advancing. Belmont has the highest NET ranking at #62 and has 4 wins in the top two quads. The Bruins control the ball on offense and share the rock efficiently with the fourth-most assists per game of any team eligible for the big dance. The Racers sped away from all of their opponents in conference play this year and finished at 18-0 in league play. Murray State is ranked in the AP Top 25 at #19 and they sit at #24 in the NET with a .833 win percentage against Q1 and Q2 opponents, and an unblemished home record. Murray State might lock up a 12 seed, and pull a favorable matchup. The Racers are the likely pick from this conference unless they drop a costly game to an inferior school in league tournament play.
Tricorn hats and muskets aside, the Patriot League features some talented squads as well some of whom have played a part in the tournament’s grittiest upsets. This conference, centered around the cradle of our great nation, is projected to produce a singular team for a bid this year. Colgate was heralded for their outstanding shooting last year, and that clip hasn’t slowed an inch. The Raiders are 20-11 and would like to make it back to the Tournament as they did last year, with hopefully a more favorable opponent. The Naval Academy Midshipmen (19-10) and Boston University (20-11) are some games behind the conference and will likely need to knock off Colgate in their conference tournament to warrant a bid from the committee. Colgate ranks #137 in the NET.
In the heart of “Dixie”, the battle for the Southern Conference championship features a fight between snakes and knights with the Chattanooga Mocs (24-7) and the Furman Paladins (20-11). Chattanooga has been flying under the radar with scoring surges coming in key moments late in games since the beginning of the season. Checking in at #69 in the NET, Chattanooga is 3-2 against Q1 and Q2 teams and has not waivered outside of their home confines. Furman has done damage to some noted institutions of hoops this year and can certainly attribute stellar perimeter shooting. The Paladins shoot a lot of threes and make a lot too, this can make for an exciting run if Furman’s streaky shooters all sync up. The winner of the SoCon is a projected #14 seed.
Elsewhere in the Bible Belt within the Southland Conference Nichols State (19-10), New Orleans (16-11), and Southeastern Louisiana stand together with only one game in the win-loss column determining the leader. Nichols State is the favorite but has not beaten the other top schools consistently. At #193 in the NET, Nichols State is ranked the highest in this league and 1 win against the top two quads in 5 attempts. No other team has a win against that level of competition. Edge goes to Colonels from Nichols. The Southland Champion will likely have to pay for the right to play in the tournament as a #16 seed.
Also a conference likely to send their lamb to slaughter with a “win-and-in” game the SWAC is likely to send Texas Southern (14-11) or Southern University (15-12). Texas Southern has won three straight and Southern has lost back-to-back matchups, the Tigers are no strangers to Windex and clean the glass remarkably efficiently, average over 35 a game. Southern limits teams from shooting sprees outside the three-point line and has the fourth most steals per game of any school in Divison 1 with ten each contest. This conference has no shot to send two, so the sole survivor is likely to be who gets the ball last during the league championship.
Back again to beautiful and spacious mid-America, where the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (27-4) have thumped their competition in conference all season. Pun unapologetically intended. The Jackrabbits are second in the NCAA in points per game, first in the NCAA in three-point percentage at 44.3%, and top 20 in free-throw shots made per matchup. A culmination of precision on offense might be worth breaking out the Sharpie to solidify SD State and their amazing products. South Dakota State is 18-0 against schools in the Summit League and undefeated in Brookings, South Dakota. While the competition has not always been fierce, the Jackrabbits own a .500 record against Quad 1 and Quad 2 and have held their own against some projected tournament teams. The Summit League champion is likely to hold a #13 seed.
After #1 Gonzaga (24-3) lost to Saint Mary’s (24-6), the WCC became suddenly more interesting. Saint Mary’s has had a phenomenal season thanks to a steadfast defense that limits opponents’ penetration and scoring lanes. These Gaels recorded twelve conference wins, only one short of Gonzaga, and sit at #20 in the NET, they are 10-6 in games against Q1 and Q2 opponents. Gonzaga will be Gonzaga, but maybe this year they can get it done during the final. The Zags have been highly ranked all season long coming off an incredible run during last season all the way to the championship game. The Bulldogs are #1 in the NET rankings and score nearly 90 points a game. A team loaded with star power and poised to be amongst the final giants standing when April comes to town. The Zags, sparing a poor showing during the league tournament, have all but locked up a #1 seed and Saint Mary’s could be a #7 seed. San Francisco (23-8) and Santa Clara (20-10) sit behind the two league leaders and have also faired better than average this year in tough games. One of those two could squeak into a lower seed with success in the WCC tournament.
The WAC has four 20-win schools in their midst and New Mexico State (23-5) has claimed the best conference mark with 13 wins. The Aggies are at #87 in the NET polls but have peaked as high as #75 and are a projected #12 seed in the NCAA tournament. New Mexico State has made it a season-long mission to limit the efficiency of opposing teams and do so by force quite effectively. The Aggies need to fend off Seattle (22-8), Stephen F. Austin (20-8), and Grand Canyon (20-7) during the WAC tournament.
It’s like Fleetwood Mac sang, hauntingly in their seminal hit “Gypsy” from 1982; “Lightning strikes maybe once, maybe twice.” With so many top teams losing this weekend there is a sliver of that dangerous drug of hope within these teams yearning for just a crumb to feed on for the strength to keep fighting during such a long season. Chaos in this realm of college basketball is a comforting aspect of solace during the cold, harsh winter and dreary early spring, and as the faithful fans clamber towards their monuments of sporting prowess and revelry we must remember that the name of the game is to survive, and advance. Lighting strikes once or twice, but when it does, you better try and get that bottle ready.
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