With the Steelers elimination from playoff contention and the NHL still mired in the craphole of negotiations, we turn our attention to college hoops. The beginning of January marks the start of conference play when teams start jockeying for position for the NCAA tournament. There has been some great action over the early part of the season from exciting early-season tournaments, particularly the Battle For Atlantis that saw Duke top Louisville in the title game to the toppling of #1 Indiana by Butler in overtime. The December slate of games didn't bring many top-tier matchups but the schedule heats up now that the calendar has turned to January.
At this point in time, it's hard to put trust in quantitative rankings like the RPI due to teams playing non-Division 1 opponents (which do not count towards the RPI) early in the season. Case in point here is Northwestern St who holds a 7-4 record and has an RPI of 44. However, they are only 3-4 against D-1 opponents and their best win is over Louisiana Tech who has an RPI of 71. As the season moves on, quantitative measures like RPI become better measures of performance (even though the RPI isn't a perfect metric).
Major Conference teams still have plenty of time to jockey for position and make a run for the tournament by building their at-large resume. However, for schools from smaller conferences, time has just about run out on the opportunity to land another quality win and improve their resume. Here's a brief look at some teams you'll be hearing a lot more about as we head toward Selection Sunday and are discussing the Tournament Bubble. Last season, Iona was awarded the last spot in the field despite 4 losses in the MAAC and 2 losses to teams with 200+ RPIs, mostly thanks to a Top-40 non-conference Strength of Schedule. The committee has in the past awarded Mid-Major teams that play a difficult slate, including giving Long Beach St a #12 seed last season after LBSU played a brutally tough non-conference schedule.
Outside of the Big Six conferences, only the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and West Coast conferences have averaged at least 1 at-large bid per year over the last 5 years. This season, those three conferences should be right in the thick of things for multiple bids as well. The Atlantic 10, with the addition of VCU and Butler, is on the verge of being considered a Major Conference. The A-10 currently has 4 teams in the RPI Top 40 (Butler, Temple, VCU, and UMass) with 3 more (La Salle, St Louis, St Joe's) in the top 68. The A-10 could be in line for 4 or 5 bids to the tournament barring an epic collapse from one of the top teams.
The Mountain West might be the best mid-major league in College Basketball with 6 teams who have 2 or less losses. Wyoming is still undefeated but is largely unproven aside from their win over Colorado. New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego St, Colorado St, and Boise St all have 2 losses and are well positioned to make a run for the tournament entering conference play. The West Coast Conference earned 3 bids last year with Gonzaga, St Mary's and BYU and all three of those teams have looked strong in non-conference play.
As things currently stand, there are three other Mid-Major leagues with enough depth to warrant multiple bids. This may change as we progress towards March, but there are leagues out there like the MEAC (no teams with winning records), Atlantic Sun (1 team with a winning record), SWAC (1 team with a winning record) and Big South (1 team with a winning record) that will certainly only get one bid to the Dance. The Mid-Major leagues with a legitimate chance to field an at-large team are the Missouri Valley Conference, the Ohio Valley Conference and the Patriot League.
If you take the Atlantic 10 teams out of the equation, the discussion over the best Mid-Major school in the country comes down to Gonzaga and Creighton. The Blue Jays have a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott and have the 7th most efficient offense in the country according to KenPom.com. Creighton is the clear front-runner in the MVC, but there are two other teams currently lurking in the Top 30 of the RPI - Wichita St (RPI 18) and Indiana St (RPI 26) with Illinois St (RPI 54) hanging around the Top 60. The Shockers high ranking at this point is mostly based on their 13-1 record with the only loss coming on the road to a Top 50 team (Tennessee). Wichita St also boasts a road win over VCU and a neutral court win over Iowa. However, their non-conference strength of schedule is currently in the 120s, which is not a good sign. Indiana St, on the other hand, has an excellent non-conference SOS (29) and 3 of their 4 losses have come to teams in the Top 50 of the RPI. If their non-conference SOS can stay high and the Sycamores perform well in conference play, they should be in the mix for an at-large bid. Illinois St has a non-conference strength of schedule hovering in the low 80s and has some work to do to improve their resume and will have to avoid suffering any bad losses in the MVC.
The Patriot League has been known for pulling shocking upsets in the Big Dance, with 14th seeded Bucknell toppling 3rd seeded Kansas in 2005 and 15th seeded Lehigh beating Duke last year. You'll be hearing those names often as the season rolls on. Bucknell is led by senior Center Mike Muscala who is averaging 19 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. The Bison have a solid RPI (31) but a horrendous non-conference SOS (192) that could be their downfall if they don't win the Patriot League. Lehigh's resume looks even worse than Bucknell's. The Mountain Hawks dropped a home game to Bryant (RPI 116) just before New Year's and their non-conference SOS is a vomit-inducing 247. Lehigh will not get an at-large bid if their RPI stays in the 80s and will need to go on a big run through the conference if they want to go dancing. Lehigh does have one more opportunity to land a big win when they face VCU this weekend.
Much like the Patriot League, the Ohio Valley Conference has two good teams that have less-than-impressive resumes heading into conference play. Murray St held the distinction as the last undefeated team last season but have already dropped 3 games this year, including a home loss to Valparaiso (RPI 131). The Racers have battled through injuries but their borderline-top 50 RPI could set them back if they drop more than 2 games in conference play. Their non-conference SOS is currently 65 and includes neutral court wins over St John's and Auburn. Belmont left the Atlantic Sun and moved to the OVC this year and certainly has the paper resume of a team worthy of an at-large bid. The Bruins have a Top-25 RPI and a non-conference SOS of 33 despite two losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs (UCF and Northeastern). The Racers and Bruins only face off once in the regular season and any losses between now and February 7th could spell at-large doom for either team. Right now, Belmont seems more likely of garnering an at-large bid than Murray St, but if both teams run through the conference and meet in the OVC Championship game, we could see both of them dancing in March.