Friday, February 1, 2013

Mid-Major Conference Rundown

Yesterday I looked at the current standings in the Major Conferences that are likely to land multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. Amongst the Mid-Major leagues, only a few have an outside chance of landing more than their conference champion in the Big Dance. I'll look at them first then briefly overview the conferences where only the conference champion will be dancing. Since every conference except the Ivy League has a tournament, most of  these teams are just playing for seeding in their conference tournaments at this point. However, since some tournaments award "Double Byes" to the top two seeds, conference positioning is very important heading down the stretch.

Conference Leader: Southern Miss, Memphis

Keep an Eye On: UCF, UTEP

Memphis and Southern Miss are both currently undefeated in conference play and have two games before a head-to-head showdown on February 9. Both the Tigers and Golden Eagles have RPIs around 40 but neither team has any Top 50 wins. Memphis has a slight edge in the bubble conversation right now with 3 wins over Top 100 teams, though none of them are ranked in the Top 75. Neither team has lost a game outside the Top 100, leaving both in Bubble purgatory with no good wins and no bad losses. UCF and UTEP are both within 2 games of the conference lead, but neither of them are a serious threat for an At-Large bid at this point.

Conference Leader: Akron, Ohio

MAC-tion took the nation by storm in football this season, after Ohio made a run to the Sweet 16 last March and almost knocked off top-seeded North Carolina. The Bobcats returned their top 9 scorers from last year's team but struggled in December, dropping 5 of 7 games. Akron has a marginally better computer profile, but neither team challenged themselves in non-conference play and both will have an uphill battle to get an At-Large bid. In all likelihood, these two teams will battle it out for the MAC crown and one will go Dancing while the other goes to the NIT. Their first of two showdowns is on Saturday.

Conference Leader: Belmont

Keep an Eye On: Murray St, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee St

Belmont has made the most of their first year in the Ohio Valley Conference, storming out to an 8-0 mark in conference play, holding a 2 game lead over Eastern Kentucky and Murray St. The Racers made headlines last season as the last remaining undefeated team and earned a 6-seed in the Tournament. Despite returning much of their team they have struggled with injuries this year and have virtually no chance at an At-Large bid at this point. Despite a non-conference slate in the 300s, Eastern Kentucky has an RPI that is hanging in the Top 75 and their only conference losses are to Belmont, which could make them a threat in the OVC Tournament. Tennessee St is on the list because despite their 6-3 conference record, forward Robert Covington, the best player in the conference, is scheduled to return from a knee injury this week. Covington was averaging 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game before his injury and will give Tennessee St the firepower they need to make a run in the OVC tournament. For now, this is Belmont's conference to lose, but if they do they have the resume (RPI 14, SOS 32, NCSOS 3, 1-2 vs Top 50, 5-3 vs Top 100, only 1 loss to 100+) to make a case for an At-Large bid.

Conference Leader: Lehigh, Bucknell

If this sounds like deja vu, then you shouldn't be surprised. Bucknell and Lehigh are once again the cream of the crop in the Patriot League. The Bison, led by Mike Muscala's 19.4 PPG and 11.1 RPG, have the better computer profile (RPI 53, SOS 164, NCSOS 170) and a Top 30 win over La Salle. Lehigh has been without star guard CJ McCollum who was leading the nation in scoring when he broke his foot in early January. McCollum was scheduled to be out 8-10 weeks and it's unknown if he can make it back in time for the Patriot League Tournament in March. The Mountain Hawks have played well without him, including a victory over Bucknell that put them atop the conference (only to go out and drop their next game to Lafayette). Like Bucknell, Lehigh did not play a challenging non-conference schedule and their resume lacks any Top 50 wins and features two losses to teams outside the top 150. In all likelihood, only the conference champion will get a bid to the Tournament, but if Lehigh wins the tournament Bucknell could garner consideration as an At-Large team.

Conference Leader: Gonzaga

Keep an Eye On: St Mary's, BYU

Not only is Gonzaga the best team in the WCC, they might be the best team in the whole Pacific Time Zone. The Bulldogs have an incredible computer profile (RPI 8, SOS 17, NCSOS 12) and their only two losses were to Top-35 teams (Butler and Illinois). They also have 5 wins over Top 50 teams including a near sweep of the Big XII (Oklahoma, Kansas St, Oklahoma St, Baylor). St Mary's and BYU are hanging around the bubble but really don't have a chance at winning the conference. BYU is a bit of an enigma with decent computer numbers (RPI 47, SOS 69, NCSOS 57) yet they lack any good wins (their only Top 100 win is over #88 Santa Clara). The flip side for BYU is that they don't have any losses to teams outside the Top 60, making them 0-6 against the Top 60 but 15-0 against everyone else. This puts them in Bubble Purgatory with no good wins and no bad losses. St Mary's does not have as strong a computer profile (RPI 58, SOS 161, NCSOS 244) but they have two Top 100 wins, including a win over BYU. The Gaels downfall is their 3 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs.

Conference Leader: Stony Brook

Stony Brook has picked up where they left off last year, running out to a 7-1 conference record with their only loss to Vermont, who currently sits in second place. Vermont beat Stony Brook in the America East Championship Game last year after Stony Brook beat the Catamounts in the semi-finals the year before. The two are once again positioned to battle it out down the stretch and will meet for a rematch on February 15 that will likely decide the regular season conference title.

Conference Leader: Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer, Jacksonville, USC Upstate

Since Belmont departed for the Ohio Valley Conference, the Atlantic Sun has been wide open this year. Florida Gulf Coast, USC Upstate and Jacksonville are all 7-3 in conference play with Mercer a half game behind at 6-3. FGCU is probably the best of the bunch with an early-season win over Miami on their resume. Mercer has the stingiest defense of the group, giving up only 58 points per game, is 7-0 at home this season and will be hosting the Atlantic Sun Tournament. The Conference Tournament features only the Top 8 teams in the conference with no byes, so there won't be any advantages to the top teams.

Conference Leader: Montana

Montana is running away with the Big Sky for the second straight year coming off a 2-point win over Weber St last week. Montana and Weber St have clearly been the dominant teams in the conference over the last decade and the Grizzlies seem to have the inside track to the regular season title at this point with a 2 game lead on Weber St.

Conference Leader: Charleston Southern

If you want to pencil a team in for one of the play-in games, write "Big South Champion" on one of those lines. Currently, only 3 teams in the conference have winning records after only 1 team (Gardner-Webb) made it through their non-conference schedule with a winning record. Charleston Southern is leading the pack with a 7-1 record but defending champion UNC Asheville is keeping things interesting staying a game behind. The Big South does have some offensive firepower with 4 teams averaging over 70 points per game.

Conference Leader: Long Beach St

Much like the Big South, the Big West took a whipping in non-conference play. After a 5-8 start to the season, Long Beach St has turned things around with a 7-game winning streak that has propelled them to the top of the league standings. On the flip side, Cal State Northridge started the season 9-3 in non-conference play but has lost 8 of 10 in their conference slate and fallen to the bottom of the standings. The top 8 teams make the tournament and no one is even remotely close to At-Large consideration here. UC Riverside is ineligible for postseason play due to academic penalties, so one of the remaining 9 teams will not make the Big West Tournament.

Conference Leader: Northeastern

With the departure of VCU, the CAA has bottomed out this year. After being one of the top 15 conferences each of the last decade, the CAA currently ranks 25th. Northeastern has a 2-game lead after suffering their first conference loss to Georgia State this week. This will be a one-bid league, but there is value in winning the conference as the regular season champion will get a bye in the tournament which will only include 7 teams due to ineligibilities.

Conference Leader: Valparaiso

Much like the CAA without VCU, the Horizon League has taken a big hit without Butler. Valparaiso is currently leading the field, but there are 5 teams within two games of the Crusaders. With only 9 teams in the conference this year, the top two teams will get "double byes" in the conference tournament to the semi-finals and the 3rd place team will get a bye to the quarterfinals. At one point or another this season, Valpo, Detroit, Youngstown St, Illinois-Chicago and Wright St have all head at least a share of the conference lead. This is a wide open league down the stretch and the race for byes makes finishing in the top 3 all the more important.

Conference Leader: Harvard

Conference Leader: Niagara

Niagara beat Iona in overtime on Thursday night to secure their lead in the MAAC. With a 2 game lead on Iona and a 3-game lead over the rest of the league it would take a collapse by the Purple Eagles to not win the conference, particularly considering they will not face Iona again until the conference tournament. Iona has one of the best offenses in the country, averaging over 82 points a game but they have holes on the defensive end. Niagara is riding a 7-game winning streak and have 4 of their remaining 7 games at home where they haven't lost since November.

Conference Leader: Norfolk St

The MEAC might be one of the strangest Mid-Major conferences in the nation. The conference is rated among the 5 worst in the NCAA this year and has perennially received 15 and 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. However, of the six 15-seeds that have upset 2-seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the MEAC has produced 3 of them, including Norfolk St last season. The Spartans have run through the conference once again this year, streaking out to a 7-0 conference record holding a half game lead over 6-0 North Carolina Central. Strangely enough, the two teams don't face each other in the regular season which could set up an epic showdown in the conference tournament.

Conference Leader: Bryant

Bryant has been a streaky team all season, rattling off an 8-game winning streak from mid-December to mid-January when they turned around and dropped back-to-back games to Sacred Heart and Long Island. The Bulldogs lead in the conference is hardly secure, with 4 teams all sitting within a game of first place. Sacred Heart and Long Island already have wins over Bryant and Robert Morris and Wagner both face the Bulldogs again down the stretch. The bigger battle in the NEC will be at the bottom. Only the top 8 teams in the conference make the post-season tournament. Qunnipiac currently sits in 8th with a 4-5 conference record, with Mount St Mary's and Monmouth only a game behind.

Conference Leader: Davidson

Davidson returned the top 8 scorers from their team that won the conference title last year and has cruised to a 9-1 record in conference play. The Wildcats have a two game lead in the South Division of the SoCon with their only loss to Georgia Southern. Their 9 conference wins have come by an average of 18 points per game. Elon currently leads the North Division and the two will play in what could be a preview of the SoCon championship in late February. The Phoenix are riding a 6-game win streak during which they haven't given up over 67 points in any game. Davidson, Elon and Charleston are currently the only 3 SoCon teams with winning records.

Conference Leader: Stephen F Austin, Oral Roberts

Stephen F Austin has put together an impressive season so far with a 17-2 overall record. However, their computer numbers aren't nearly good enough to put them in the conversation for an at-large bid (RPI 71, SOS 302, NCSOS 157) so they will have to win the conference tournament if they want to make their second trip to the Dance. The Lumberjacks have one of the top defenses in the nation, allowing only 49 points per game. Oral Roberts has been successful in their first year in the Southland Conference and the only blemish on their conference record is a loss to Stephen F Austin. The top two teams in the conference get "double byes" to the Semi-Finals of the conference tournament, and it looks to be a 3-way fight between SFA, ORU and Northwestern St who has the 2nd best offense in the nation averaging 83.7 points per game.

Conference Leader: Southern

This year is more of the same from the SWAC, a conference whose champion has received a 16-seed each of the last 10 years. The SWAC has the lowest ranking of any conference in the NCAA again this season and appears to be heading for a 16-seed once again. Due to NCAA sanctions and violations, 3 of the 10 teams are ineligible for postseason play. Southern is currently leading the pack with an 8-1 conference record and is the only team in the conference with a winning record overall. Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Texas Southern are currently tied for second but are ineligible for postseason play. The story of the year in the SWAC might be Grambling's winless season. The Tigers are currently 0-18 with the least efficient offense and defense in the nation.

Conference Leader: North Dakota St, Western Illinois, South Dakota St

The 3-way tie atop the Summit League might be one of the most exciting Mid-Major races down the stretch. Both North Dakota St and South Dakota St have RPIs in the 60s though neither has much of a chance for an at-large bid due to multiple losses to teams with RPIs well over 100. South Dakota St features the best player in the league in senior guard Nate Wolters who is averaging 21 points per game, good for 9th in the nation in scoring. While South Dakota St has won with offense, North Dakota St and Western Illinois have done it with defense, both allowing less than 56 points per game. SDSU and NDSU have already split their head-to-head games. Western Illinois beat NDSU at home and lost to SDSU. The Summit League should sort itself out around Valentine's Day when Western Illinois plays at North Dakota St and at South Dakota St on Thursday and Saturday.

Conference Leader: Middle Tennessee St

Of all the Mid-Major schools not named Belmont, Middle Tennessee St might have the best chance of getting an At-Large bid should they fail to win their conference tournament. The Blue Raiders have plowed through the Sun Belt to the tune of an 11-1 conference record with their only loss coming on the road in overtime against Arkansas St. That loss is the only real blemish on their record that features surprisingly good computer numbers (RPI 28, SOS 103, NCSOS 17), a win over Ole Miss, and a 3-3 mark against the Top 100. The problem for Middle Tennessee St will be that their remaining schedule features no teams in the Top 100 so any loss they would suffer would be brutal to their resume. If MTSU is going to get an At-Large bid, they will likely have to run the table the rest of the way in conference play and at least make the semi-finals in the Sun Belt Tournament.

Conference Leader: Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech has roared to a 9-0 record in WAC play and an 18-3 mark overall. However, their non-conference slate was downright awful (NCSOS 208) and their losses to McNeese St (RPI 243) and Northwestern St (RPI 106) could be the downfall of their hopes for an at-large bid should they fail to win the WAC. Unlike Middle Tennessee St, Louisiana Tech will have another opportunity to bolster their resume when they play at New Mexico St (RPI 74) in early March. The Bulldogs are currently 2-1 against the Top 100 with a win over Southern Miss (RPI 36) and their only loss coming to Texas A&M in the first game of the season. If Louisiana Tech runs the table in conference play and enters the WAC Tournament with an 18-0 conference record (and likely a top 40 RPI by that point) they will certainly be in the discussion for an At-Large bid should they falter in the tournament. However, even though their 2-game lead in the conference appears safe, should they lose to anyone other than New Mexico St, they can kiss their At-Large hopes goodbye.

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