Here we are in the second week of December and we’re going to talk about NCAA tournament scenarios for a mid-major conference. We’re doing it because the Missouri Valley, without the assistance of Wichita St, is having a helluva pre-conference season.
Northern Iowa currently sits with a RPI of 20. The Panthers also have the 12th rated strength of schedule (SOS) in the country and a projected non-conference SOS of 6. They made it to the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis where they beat SMU and NC State while losing to Villanova. After that, they beat UNLV and UT-Arlington. They’re in really good shape barring a meltdown.
Valparaiso just took it’s first loss last night to Purdue. The Crusaders’ RPI is 52, but their SOS is 183 and their projected non-conference SOS is 247. They have games left at Ball St, Northwestern, Santa Clara and UC Riverside before conference play starts. They’ll probably have to win all those games and finish in at least second to have a chance.
Missouri St’s current RPI is 60. The Bears’ best win by the numbers thus far was over South Dakota St. They’re current SOS is 119 and their projected non-conference SOS is 199. There are really no other opportunities left for the Bears to make any headway before conference play.
Loyola-Chicago. This is the most intriguing one. The Ramblers are coming off a huge win at No. 5 Florida on Wednesday. Their lone loss came at Boise St by 34. Their current RPI is 70 with a SOS of a horrible 270 and a projected non-conference SOS of 263. Those numbers are ugly but they beat Florida and are 4-1 in road/neutral games.
Overall, the league is the 7th in RPI with the 10th best SOS. That’s ahead of the American, Mountain West and Atlantic-10.
I’m not sure any of the teams have an at-large profile outside of Northern Iowa right now. It’s certainly possible that more than one of these clubs will go dancing, but they’re going to have to go on major win streaks during conference play.
This is still an impressive run by a league that has lost it’s two best programs to realignment in the past 5 years.
AMERICA EAST: Albany was by far the most dominant team in the league this season. The Great Danes didn’t lose their first conference game until Feb. 17. With all games being at campus sites its going to take a lot to keep Albany from repeating.
MISSOURI VALLEY: This certainly was a top heavy league this year as Wichita St and Northern Iowa ran away and hid from the rest of the conference. That’s why it is expected that those will be the two teams playing for the championship on Sunday. In the rubber match, expect Wichita St, the team with the superior experience and talent, to cut down the nets.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: A loss on the last day of the regular season is the only thing that kept Iona from winning the league by three games. The Gaels’ misstep doesn’t scare me too much as they’ve been to the tournament recently and will be tough prep on short rest. The tournament will be competitive as always, but expect Iona to go dancing.
SOUTHERN: As good as Wofford has been over the course of the year, Chattanooga has been right there all along. The two squads were far and away the class of this conference and appear to be on a collision course for a Monday night showdown. The teams won on each other’s home floor so this creates a bit of intrigue. Wofford is the favorite here, but not by much.
COLONIAL: The regular season in the CAA finished in a four-way tie for first place. If there’s anyone out there who’ll tell you they have this league pegged than than call that person’s bluff. On a true neutral court in Baltimore anything can happen. Given the disappointment from last season and performing well against the other top teams in the league, I’m going with William & Mary.
WEST COAST: There may be many people wondering if there’s a major kink in the armor of Gonzaga after losing to BYU in it’s last regular season home game. I am not one of those people. BYU played fantastic and could very well be a tournament team itself, but Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country and it’ll have motivation. The Zags will win in Vegas.
SUMMIT: South Dakota St and North Dakota St went back and forth this season vying for the Summit League’s No. 1 spot. At the end of the day, both teams finished with 12-4 records with South Dakota St winning the tiebreaker. Playing the tournament in the state of South Dakota gives the Jackrabbits a bit of a chance. Despite that, there’s a team on their side of bracket who’s beaten them and is even closer to the site where the tournament will be played. That’s the South Dakota Coyotes and they’re my upset pick to win the Summit League.
The country has been so enamored with Wichita St over the past three years that it overlooked a program that has been among the most successful in the Missouri Valley in the past decade. That is no longer an issue as Northern Iowa has staked its claim as the team to beat in the MVC.
As in most years, the Panthers are doing it with defense as they lead the league in points allowed, field goal percentage defense, and three-point field goal percentage defense. In fact, when Wichita St made the trip up to Cedar Falls it only shot 35.4 percent for the game.
Defense can carry a team a long way in March and the Panthers, who’ve only allowed one opponent to score 60 since December 13, have the tools to get to the second weekend.
Stock Up: Oklahoma and Oklahoma St. The arch rivals are having quite the run in recent weeks. Both are climbing the Big XII standings and posting impressive wins while they do it.
Stock Down: Georgetown. There’s a lot of talent on the team, but it’s just not coming together as of yet. The Hoyas have plenty of time to climb out of their current funk, but getting swept by Xavier and Providence won’t look good on Selection Sunday.
Stock Up: Harvard. Hasn’t been the prettiest start, but it looks like the Crimson has found its groove. Harvard is beginning to resemble the team everyone thought it would before the season started.
Stock Down: USC. The Trojans are 1-10 in conference play and this is a down year in the Pac-12. Andy Enfield has yet to get Dunk City to move to Los Angeles.
On to the Bracket.
Last Four In: Miami(FL), Stanford, Purdue, Texas A&M
Last Four Out: Colorado St, Michigan St, Boise St, Rhode Island
This bracket is good for games thru 2/8
Quick Note: Virginia is on the No. 2 line because of Justin Anderson’s injury. We’ll see how this week plays out.
1. Kansas Jayhawks Location: Lawrence, Kan. Record: 32-2 Automatic Bid: Big XII Conference Champions Key Players: Sherron Collins (15.6 ppg), Xavier Henry (13.6 ppg), Marcus Morris (12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Cole Aldrich (11.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) Strength: The Jayhawks are talented and deep. Led by Sherron Collins, the No. 1 team in the nation can do multiple things right. Now that coach Bill Self has settled on a rotation, it has just made them even more dangerous. It is just simply going to take an out-of-this-world performance to defeat the Jayhawks. They’re great offensively, defensively, and their best is just downright better than anyone else. Weakness: Team chemistry has been an underlying issue for the Jayhawks this season. They seem to have solve those issues down the stretch, but it’s still has to be a concern for Self. This is still a young team for the most part so it can be unpredictable at times. If they come out with the focus to win a national championship, they’ll be difficult to beat. However, if they’re worried about other things, they might be in trouble.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes Location: Columbus, Ohio Record: 27-7 Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference Champions Key Players: Evan Turner (20.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 5.9 apg), William Buford (14.5 ppg 5.6 rpg), Jon Diebler (12.8 ppg), David Lighty (12.7 ppg), Dallas Lauderdale (5 rpg) Strength: There’s no doubt what (who) the strength of the Buckeyes is. National player of the year candidate Evan Turner does it all for Ohio St. He’s a 6’7” point guard who scores, rebounds, runs the offense and defends. Basically, he does everything for the Buckeyes. He leads them in every major statistical category and can will them to a national championship all by himself. Weakness: The Buckeyes have virtually no depth. There have been games when coach Thad Matta has only trotted four players out on the floor. If someone gets in foul trouble, they may be toast. They just don’t have the bodies to come in off of the bench to produce. If any of Ohio St’s tournament games are called tightly, they might have a shorter stay in the Big Dance then they’d like.
3. Georgetown Hoyas Location: Washington, D.C. Record: 23-10 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Austin Freeman (16.7 ppg), Greg Monroe (16.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Chris Wright (14.8 ppg), Jason Clark (10.6 ppg) Strength: The “Georgetown” (with Princeton principles) offense is already one of the most difficult offenses to defend. Georgetown throws three McDonald’s All-Americans into it and it becomes almost unstoppable. Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman, and Chris Wright are 3/5 or what many to be perhaps the best starting five in all of college basketball. When all three are playing well, the offense can’t be defended. If they play like they did in the Big East tournament, they can cut the nets down. Weakness: The Hoyas have been inconsistent all year long. They have big wins against Duke, Villanova, Syracuse and Temple and have had bad losses against South Florida and Rutgers. It appears that they may have corrected that issue, but if it rears its ugly head again, they could make an early exit from the Big Dance. That’s not a situation Hoya fans look forward to.
4. Maryland Terrapins Location: College Park, Md. Record: 23-8 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Greivis Vasquez (19.5 ppg, 6.3 apg), Landon Milbourne (12.5 ppg), Eric Hayes (11.1ppg), Sean Mosley (10.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Jordan Williams (9.2 ppg, 8.3) Strength: While everyone knows about Greivis Vasquez, its Maryland’s presence in the paint that has given them an edge this season. Jordan Williams has arrived on campus and has joined with Landon Milbourne to give the Terps one of the most underrated frontlines in the ACC. They’re outstanding on the boards and Williams is an absolute load to guard in the post. The Terps have balance now and that makes them a legitimate threat to make a run in this year’s tournament. Weakness: Maryland is only as good as its star, Greivis Vasquez. When he’s on, the Terps are very good. When he’s off, the Terps are very mortal. Vasquez can be explosive, but he can also shoot them out of the game. He’s streaky and if he gets on a cold streak at the wrong time, it makes them very easy to guard. Maryland better hope that Vasquez is able to put up huge numbers.
5. Michigan State Spartans Location: East Lansing, Mich. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Kalin Lucas (14.9 ppg), Raymar Morgan (11.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Durrell Summers (10.1 ppg), Draymond Green (10.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Chris Allen (9.1 ppg), Delvon Roe (5.2 rpg) Strength: As with all Tom Izzo-coached teams, this edition of the Spartans really crash the boards. Michigan St is the best rebounding team in a conference that values the art of owning the backboard. By out-rebounding their opponents by nine per game, the Spartans are once again showing the kind of toughness Izzo loves. It’ll take a special team to be able to compete with them on the boards. Weakness: Kalin Lucas is a great player, but the Spartans showed what kind team they were without him. Most teams depend on a great player, but even the Spartans secondary players like Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers struggled without Lucas. This is not an explosive offensive team as it is so any dip in Lucas’ production could be the death of the Spartans.
6. Tennessee Volunteers Location: Knoxville, Tenn. Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Wayne Chism (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Scotty Hopson (12.5 ppg), Bobby Maze (9.6 ppg), J.P. Prince (9.3 ppg), Brian Williams (5.7 rpg) Strength: Tennessee is one of the best transition teams in the country. Triggered by their full-court press defense, the Volunteers love to get out on the fast break. Bobby Maze expertly controls this team finding many of the great athletes he has at his disposal. They have guys who can finish at the basket and they have guys who can pull up on the wings and knock down threes. If the Volunteers are able to play at their pace, they’ll be tough for anyone to deal with. Weakness: The free-throw line has been rough on the Volunteers all year long. At a little under 67 percent, they’re among the worst free-throw shooting teams in the SEC. This team is very talented, but they leave too many points at the line. It’s part of the reason why they only score 73.6 points per game. We saw Memphis lose a title game at the free-throw line two years ago and it could kill Tennessee’s chances for a deep run this year.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys Location: Stillwater, Okla. Record: 22-10 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: James Anderson (22.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Obi Muonelo (13.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Keiton Page (10.7 ppg), Marshall Moses (8.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Matt Pilgrim (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) Strength: Led by James Anderson, the Cowboys have one of the best backcourts in the country. Anderson, the Big XII player of the year, along with Obi Muenelo and Keiton Page combine for close to 47 points per game. They are explosive and can put up big numbers in a hurry. The team goes as they go and fortunately for Oklahoma St, they’ve been going pretty well all year. Weakness: Shooting under 69 percent, free-throw shooting has been an issue for the Cowboys all year. Muonelo, Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim all shoot in the low-60’s in terms of percentage. Oklahoma St relies on those three players too much for them not to deliver at the line. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again, if the Cowboys don’t convert from the charity stripe, it will have a short stay in the tournament.
8. UNLV Rebels Location: Las Vegas, Nev. Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference Key Players: Tre’Von Willis (17.3 ppg), Chace Stanback (10.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Oscar Bellfield (9.2 ppg) Strength: UNLV is one of the most efficient teams in America. The Rebels lead the Mountain West in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. They also shoot a respectable 46.2 percent from the field. They like to control the tempo and make their possessions count. They can frustrate teams with their patience and precision on offense and that could help the Rebels make some noise in the tournament. Weakness: The Rebels are not a good rebounding team. Fortunately for UNLV, the Mountain West doesn’t have solid rebounding across the board or it could’ve been in real trouble. It won’t have that luxury in the Big Dance as it is highly likely that no Mountain West foes will be in the Rebels’ path. If UNLV does play a team that is solid on the boards, than it is really going to have to fight on the boards because it leaves itself little margin for error.
9. Northern Iowa Panthers Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa Record: 28-4 Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions Key Players: Jordan Eglseder (12 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Adam Koch (11.8 ppg), Kwadzo Ahelegbe (10.7 ppg), Ali Farokhmanesh (9.3 ppg) Strength: UNI’s opponents are only averaging 54.3 points per game. Any team that is playing defense like that is doing something right. Part of that low number is the slow pace the Panthers like to play, but another part of it is the 40.3 percent field goal percentage they’re holding their opponents to. They switch on everything and don’t let opponents get clean looks at the basket. This is one team that will frustrate whoever it plays. Weakness: This is a team that might be susceptible to an athletic opponent. The Panthers play great position and help defense but there aren’t many guys in the MVC like they’ll be facing in the NCAA tournament. They’ll not only have to face teams that’ll be able to take them off the dribble, but they’ll be facing teams that can defend them better than any team in the MVC. This may be an Achilles heel for the Panthers.
10. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Location: Atlanta, Ga. Record: 22-12 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Gani Lawal (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Derrick Favors (12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Iman Shumpert (10.1 ppg), Zachery Peacock (8.7 ppg) Strength: The Yellow Jackets may have the best frontcourt in the nation. Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors are quite possibly NBA lottery picks. Zach Peacock gives them another complementary piece up front. When Georgia Tech gets the ball down low, they look like world beaters. In the tournament, great players carry teams to great results and the Yellow Jackets have two players who can do that. Weakness: Georgia Tech’s guards are nowhere near where their frontcourt is. as a matter of fact, they actually hurt the team. Georgia Tech turns the ball over 16.4 times per game which is the second most in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets are 11th in the conference in turnover margin and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio. There’s too much talent in the paint for Georgia Tech for its guards to hurt it this much.
11. San Diego State Aztecs Location: San Diego, Calif. Record: 25-8 Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Malcolm Thomas (11 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Billy White (11.2 ppg), D.J. Gay (10.3 ppg) Strength: On a toughness scale, the Aztecs may be No. 1 in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are one of the conference’s best defensive teams; holding its opponents to 40.4 percent shooting from the floor. In addition to that, the Aztecs lead the conference in rebounding margin as well by out-rebounding their opponents by 6.7 boards per game. This team has taken on an identity that it will be the bad guy on the block and it has paid dividends for it. Weakness: San Diego St is one of the worst free-throw teams in the tournament. At just 61.7 percent, the Aztecs will be very vulnerable in late-game situations. There some key players in their rotation who aren’t even shooting 60 percent. When the best free-throw shooter on the team is shooting just 72.2 percent, there’s a serious issue there. If Aztecs expect to be successful, they have to shoot a respectable percentage from the charity stripe.
12. New Mexico State Aggies Location: Las Cruces, N.M. Record: 22-11 Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Jahmar Young (20.5 ppg), Jonathan Gibson (17.5 ppg), Troy Gillenwater (14.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Wendell McKines (10.8 ppg 9.9 rpg), Hamidu Rahman (10.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) Strength: Across the board, this is one talented team. The Aggies have put up over 78 points per game this season and that’s because they have a lineup loaded with scorers. Five guys average in double figures led by Jahmar Young. Young along with his backcourt mate Jonathan Gibson are the main options for the Aggies, but there’s plenty of other scorers to worry about. This team is going to be a real problem for opponents this March. Weakness: Defensively, New Mexico St is one of the worst teams in the WAC. Teams are scoring a staggering 77.8 points per game on the Aggies. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to have this level of success given those numbers. There’s no doubt that they have some outstanding scorers. However, in this tournament, teams that defend are successful. The Aggies don’t and that might doom them.
13. Houston Cougars Location: Houston, Texas Record: 19-15 Automatic Bid: Conference USA Champions Key Players: Aubrey Coleman (25.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Kelvin Lewis (15.3 ppg), Maurice McNeil (8.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) Strength: The Cougars have the luxury having the nation’s leading scorer in Aubrey Coleman. Coleman is an outstanding scorer who can hit the occasional three, slash and get to the free-throw line. The Cougars showed they could win without him having a banner game in their C-USA title game victory over UTEP. However when he’s on, they’re very good and could cause a lot of trouble. Weakness: The Cougars have been pounded on the boards all year. They’re dead last in C-USA in rebounding margin getting out-rebounded by over eight boards per game. What compounds the problem is their poor shooting numbers. They’re only shooting 42 percent from the field. The fact that they only rebound 30.6 percent of their misses only exacerbates the issue. They have to attack the backboard to be competitive this March.
14. Ohio Bobcats Location: Athens, Ohio Record: 21-14 Automatic Bid: Mid-American Conference Champions Key Players: Armon Bassett (16.9 ppg), D.J. Cooper (13.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.9 apg) , DeVaughn Washington (11.2 ppg), Tommy Freeman (10.1 ppg), Kenneth van Kempen (6.9 rpg) Strength: Indiana transfer Armon Bassett is one of the most underrated mid-major players in America. Many forgot about him after he had to sit out last season, but he’s got plenty of talent. He started the year slow but has it going now. He averaged over 29 points during the MAC tournament carrying the No. 9 seeded Bobcats to the title. He’s explosive and capable of winning a game all by himself. Weakness: The Bobcats are one of the worst rebounding teams in the MAC. Their opponents are out-rebounding on the year by close to half a rebound per game. The fact that this is a poor shooting team makes matters even worse as they’re in the bottom half of the conference in offensive rebounds. They need to sure this up against the big, athletic teams in the tournament or they may get punished on the boards in the Big Dance.
15. UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos Location: Santa Barbara, Calif. Record: 20-9 Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions Key Players: Orlando Johnson (17.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), James Nunnally (15 ppg, 5.7 rpg), James Powell (9.4 ppg), Jaime Serna (8 ppg) Strength: The Gauchos are the best three-point shooting team in the Big West and it’s not even close. They’re shooting 37.9 percent on the year from downtown which really makes them dangerous. They’re a team that likes to control tempo, so they’re scores are lower, but that just magnifies the importance of the team’s overall range. They’re going make teams guard them for long stretches and then knock down outside shots. Weakness: The Gauchos are the worst team in the Big West on the Backboards. The Gauchos are being out-rebounded by over two boards per game. They don’t have quality size inside and that’s a huge part of the problem. Teams in the tournament see that weakness and they will exploit it to the fullest. If they’re not able to find a way to rebound the basketball, they’ll be one-and-done.
16. Lehigh Mountain Hawks Location: Bethlehem, Pa. Record: 22-10 Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions Key Players: C.J. McCollum (18.9 ppg), Marquis Hall (11 ppg, 5.7 apg), Zahir Carrington (10.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Gabe Knutson (9.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) Strength: Shooting 40 percent, the Mountain Hawks are the best three-point shooting team in the Patriot League. They were able to stretch defenses all year with their long-range shooting. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh’s best player, along with Marquis Hall are the primary threats shooting 46.6 and 37.3 percent respectively. If they’re able to continue this kind of shooting in the tournament, they may be able to give a team a scare. Weakness: While they’re not the worst defensive team, Lehigh allows teams to score over 70 points per game. Given up that kind of number might be ok against the Colgate’s and Navy’s of the world, but the Mountain Hawks will be facing a totally different caliber of competition in the NCAA tournament. They have to keep those numbers down if they expect to compete this March.
There’s a team in the ACC that may be a legitimate Final Four contender and I’m not talking about Duke. Wake Forest is quietly having an outstanding year sitting in second in the ACC with an 8-3 league record. Throw in four RPI top-25 wins and it’s easy to see why the Demon Deacons sit with a RPI of 11.
Wake Forest is led by Al-Farouq Aminu and Ishmael Smith. The two players combine for almost 30 points per game and are one of the best inside-out combos in the country. They’re incredibly athletic and are load for anyone to guard.
Many have already anointed Duke as the ACC champions, but I’d hold off on that prediction. While they might not have the name cache, they’re seem ready to remove the bad taste left from last season’s disappointing finish.
If you’re looking for a sleeper Final Four team this year, you’d better keep an eye on the Deacons.
Stock Up: Gonzaga. Outside of a mystifying loss to San Francisco, Gonzaga is rolling. The Bulldogs have followed their Maui Invitational championship with wins at Illinois and Memphis in conjunction with a regular season sweep of St. Mary’s. Freshman Elias Harris has provided a huge presence in the post and with their typical guard play, Gonzaga is a tough out once again.
Stock Down: Georgetown. Talk about schizophrenic. Georgetown has beaten Duke, Villanova, Pittsburgh, Temple and Butler. They’ve also lost to Rutgers and South Florida. The Hoyas seem to go as Chris Wright goes. Wright needs to be as consistent as his All-American co-horts if Georgetown expects to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Stock Up: Texas A&M. The Aggies are quietly moving up the charts in the Big 12. Some thought the Aggies would fold after the season-ending knee injury to Derrick Roland, but they’re just rolling along. After posting their fourth win in a row on Saturday, the Aggies appear to be the only left that can put a dent in Kansas’ undefeated conference record.
Stock Down: Jordan Eglseder and Northern Iowa. Eglseder, in a lapse of judgement was arrested and charged with DUI with his team having one of the best years in school history. Northern Iowa’s response was to suspend him for 3 games. He basically got a week and a half off. Way to enforce the law Ben Jacobsen (Northern Iowa’s Head Coach).
This week’s bracket projections:
Last Four In: Cincinnati, Mississippi, Dayton, Florida St
Last Four Out: Maryland, San Diego St, Florida, Northwestern