Conference tournaments beckon, and with that being the case the lobbying for NCAA Tournament bids is about to ramp up from all directions. Naturally, coaches will do a lot of that, both for their team and teams they play against in their conference, but some in the media will as well. This year, the field is ripe for that perhaps more than ever. In fact, you have to wonder if some of the “traditional” ways teams are evaluated by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will not be followed so much this year.
For one unconventional case, I give you Conference USA regular season champion Middle Tennessee, who clinched that title with a 66-64 win at UAB on Sunday.
Forget that Middle Tennessee pulled off the stunner of all stunners last year in a first round filled with them, knocking off No. 2 seed Michigan State as a No. 15 seed. That’s irrelevant. This year is what matters, and the Blue Raiders are sure to be talked about quite a bit in the next couple of weeks in the event they don’t leave Birmingham as Conference USA Tournament champions.
Let’s look at their resume. First, the bad: three losses to teams outside the top 100 in Tennessee State, Georgia State and UTEP, with only the last one being on the road. Home losses are not looked upon kindly by the committee. Next, the good: two top 50 wins and two more from 51-100, giving them four top 100 wins. None of the top 100 wins came over teams sure to be in the NCAA Tournament; if UNCW does not win a week from Monday in North Charleston, it is far from a given that they will go as they have a similar resume. Middle Tennessee’s RPI is 33 with two home games and the conference tournament remaining; UNCW is 39 and has the best RPI of a team that Middle Tennessee beat.
At this point, the first question that comes to mind is whether or not the top 100 wins are enough to overcome the losses to teams in the three-digit range. History suggests it is not. And looking at Conference USA, the Blue Raiders are the only team whose RPI has two digits, so the conference tournament almost certainly will not present another quality win opportunity.
In other words, the deck appears stacked against the Blue Raiders. The same can be said for a few others sure to be discussed quite often in the next two weeks, such as Wichita State (2-4 vs. the top 100, no wins over a lock NCAA Tournament team), fellow Missouri Valley team Illinois State (2-3 vs. the top 100, no wins over a lock NCAA Tournament team and two losses to teams outside the top 100, one of them outside the top 200) and Rhode Island, who actually has two top 25 wins (Cincinnati and VCU), both of whom are at least borderline NCAA Tournament locks. You could even toss the aforementioned UNCW into that discussion with their top 40 RPI and five wins over the bottom half of the top 100 (none of them close to NCAA Tournament locks), but also two losses outside the top 100 (both on the road in CAA play). UT Arlington merits some attention as well, especially since the Mavericks went to Moraga and convincingly bear Saint Mary’s back in December, though they have three sub-150 losses.
Some of these teams will have over 25 wins if they reach their conference title game and lose. Wichita State would be 29-5 if they get to The Valley title game and lose; UNCW would be 28-6 (albeit with two non-Division I wins) should they lose in the CAA final.
But what are the alternatives? Do you instead take Georgia Tech, who is 7-9 in the ACC entering the last week and has 13 losses overall, plus an RPI not far from 100, but has wins over VCU (road), North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, as well as Syracuse? Do you take Wake Forest, also 7-9 in the ACC but with a much better RPI despite just one top 50 win (Miami) but no really bad losses? (They lost twice to hard-luck Clemson and at Syracuse, who should be in.) Do you take Georgia, a tough luck team that has 12 losses – all but one against the top 100 and the one outside coming to Horizon League regular season champion Oakland – but just one top 50 win, against a Vanderbilt team that is highly unlikely to go?
This is what the committee is charged with considering this time around. The cynic will believe that the mediocre high-majors will rule the field when it is announced, blowing past the number of teams with losing conference records. The cynic will have a lot to base that on. The cynic will be thinking about teams like Middle Tennessee.
The shocker of the day came in Orlando, where UCF knocked off Cincinnati 53-49, which now puts SMU in the driver’s seat for the regular season title in the American Athletic Conference. Not too far off was Arizona State rallying from six points down in the final 30 seconds to beat USC 83-82 in Tempe, while Michigan State beat visiting Wisconsin 84-74 to make the Big Ten a bit more interesting heading into the final week. Wisconsin could have moved into a tie for first with Purdue with a win, while Michigan State makes it a three-way tie for third two games back.
Oakland will be the top seed in the Horizon League Tournament after they won 86-75 at Milwaukee and Northern Kentucky beat Valparaiso 82-78. Oakland and Valparaiso finish the regular season tied at 14-4 in league play, but the Golden Grizzlies swept the Crusaders head-to-head.
- The Atlantic Sun Tournament gets going with its quarterfinals tonight: No. 8 Stetson at No. 1 Florida Gulf Coast, No. 6 Jacksonville at No. 3 North Florida and No. 5 Kennesaw State at No. 4 USC Upstate all tip at 7 p.m., and No. 7 NJIT at No. 2 Lipscomb tips at 8 p.m.
- North Carolina visits Virginia and West Virginia visits Baylor (7 p.m.) in what should be a good start to the evening’s TV slate.
- UT Arlington tries to clinch its first Sun Belt title as they host Troy (8 p.m.)
- The later TV slate features Miami at Virginia Tech and Oklahoma at Kansas (9 p.m.), while the sleeper is a good MEAC matchup with Norfolk State heading west on I-64 to visit Hampton (9 p.m.)