With about three weeks until conference tournaments begin it is time to start looking at the bubble situation for the NCAA Tournament. The tournament selection committee must decide on 37 teams worthy of at-large invitations to the big dance. Usually a large majority of those teams come from the Power-6 conferences; ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, SEC and PAC-12 and that may be the case this season, but then again it may not.
A quick glance at the standings show there are a dwindling number of teams separating themselves from the pack, less so than in recent years it seems. In the ACC you’ve got North Carolina, Duke then who?
The Big East has Syracuse and a bunch of teams with gawdy records but not anyone who sticks out to make you say, “they’ll be a tough out in March.” Second place Marquette lost big man Chris Otule for the season and recently lost forward Davante Gardner to injury, three of their next four games are against Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Connecticut. How the conference looks behind Syracuse after that stretch is anyone’s guess.
The Big Ten has Jared Sullinger and Ohio State, behind them a Wisconsin team that won 6 straight but 4 of those wins came at the hands of Purdue, Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State not exactly the cream of the crop in the league. Behind them is a Michigan team with a very good Freshman point guard Trey Burke but had losses to Iowa and Arkansas in January. The team thought to be playing
the 2nd best behind Ohio State, Michigan State just saw its leader, Draymond Green go down with a sprained knee, luckily he could be available Saturday when they host Michigan.
The Big 12 may be the best Power-6 conference in the country. With Kansas and Player of the Year Thomas Robinson leading Baylor and Missouri by a game, with all three in the top 8 in the country.
The SEC may have the most talented team in the nation, Kentucky is currently the #1 team in the country. Behind them? Florida is second but they struggle if Billy Donovan’s guard heavy offense isn’t knocking down shots. The Gators still have to battle Kentucky and Vanderbilt twice, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.
The PAC-12 is with out a doubt the most disappointing conference in terms of meeting expectations and it isn’t even close. It probably won’t happen because the at-large teams have to come somewhere, but if this were a different year it is quite possible this would be a 1 bid league. Throw the top seven teams (California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA) on a dartboard and take your best shot, seriously.
The inability of 2nd tier major conference teams to separate themselves has given mid-majors more of a spotlight this season, and as a result four “middies” are currently in the top 25.
Murray State out of the Ohio Valley leads the group at #9. The Racers are the lone undefeated team in the country (21-0) and led by a veteran group, only three freshman on the team. Senior Ivan Aska anchors the middle while Junior Isaiah Canaan is the Racers go-to-guy.
Creighton leads the Missouri Valley at 20-2 and is currently ranked 12th in the country. Greg McDermott’s squad is led by his son Doug who has found himself in the Player of the Year conversation averaging 25 points and 8 rebounds a game.
St. Mary’s out of the West Coast Conference is ranked #16 and has a strangle hold on the top spot, with a 2 game lead over Gonzaga and hold a 21-point win over the Bulldogs in their back pockets. The Gaels like to get up and down the floor with a balanced inside, center Rob Jones, and outside game with guard Matthew D.
The 23rd ranked team in the country is Harvard out of the Ivy League. The Crimson hold wins over teams from the ACC (Florida State), PAC 12 (Utah), Atlantic 10 (St. Joseph’s, George Washington) and Conference USA (Central Florida) this season. Tommy Ammaker’s team looks destined for the NCAA tournament (perhaps even if they fail to secure the automatic berth).
In addition to those 4 teams, there are five more who could find their way into the bracket without an automatic bid.
Wichita State is the Missouri Valley’s 2nd place team behind Creighton, the Shockers have an RPI of 27 and are 3-3 against the RPI’s top 100 and wins over #13 UNLV and Colorado, that’s a pretty good resume to get the committee’s attention.
The last 4 teams are currently undefeated in conference and if they were to stay that way and then hiccup in their conference tournaments, would get a great deal of consideration from the committee.
Nevada 7-0 in WAC have an RPI of 58 and have a win over Washington while currently riding a 15-game winning streak.
Oral Roberts is are 12-0 in the Summit League, have one of the most exciting players in the nation in Dominique Morrison and a 22-point win over Xavier on their resume.
Middle Tennessee State is 9-0 in the Sun Belt Conference and 44th in the RPI with wins over UCLA, Loyola Marymount and Akron this season.
Long Beach State is 9-0 in the Big West and has played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country; beating Pittsburgh and Xavier, losing to San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, and Kansas State. With an RPI of 32, that kind of schedule and the probability of having 23-25 wins, should Dan Monson’s team slip up they will most certainly get heavy consideration for an at-large.
The point of all of this is to say that outside of the leaders in the power-6 there isn’t anyone these mid major teams shouldn’t feel they have a legitimate shot at beating in the NCAA Tournament. One of the things that people enjoy the tournament so much is its unpredictability, and with the mediocrity of the high majors and a strong crop of mid majors the March Madness could live up to its name more than ever in 2012.