College Basketball Update: It’s That Time of Year Again

Want to hear something crazy?  There are only nine days until the 2017 March Madness field is announced.  I know, I can’t believe it either.  Conference tournaments are already in full swing, and tomorrow, the Ohio Valley champion will become the first team to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.  I’ll be posting my bracketology on Sunday along with frequent updates during Championship Week, but here’s a good overview on where things stand at the moment.

1) Top Seeds and Title Contenders: Gonzaga was 29-0, a game away from a perfect regular season, and well on their way to becoming perhaps the #1 overall seed in the tournament before falling 79-71 to BYU on Feb. 25.  It was a combination of the usual suspects – turnovers and poor free throw shooting – plus a huge performance from the Cougars’ Eric Mika.  While Kansas now takes over as the top team in the nation, Gonzaga should not be underestimated.  Winning the WCC tournament would assure the Bulldogs stay on the 1-line, but they might stay there regardless.

No team will enter March Madness a huge favorite, but Kansas, led by Wooden Award finalist Frank Mason III and freshman Josh Jackson, are playing the best ball in the country right now.  The 27-3 Jayhawks have a staggering 17 wins over the RPI top-100 and have won seven straight games in the Big 12, including a road win over Baylor.  I believe Kansas, alongside defending National champions Villanova, are near locks to be #1 seeds.

The final top seed currently belongs to North Carolina, regular-season champions of an ACC that might get double-digit teams into the Big Dance.  This is an experienced team, looking for revenge after losing the title game to Villanova a year ago.  A win over Duke to close out the regular season could cement their #1 seed status.

Baylor, Louisville, Oregon, and Kentucky are also contenders to end up on the top line.  As far as additional contenders to win it all, look no further than the Pac-12.  Somehow, the conference hasn’t had a Final Four participant since Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love accomplished the feat for UCLA in 2008, but that could easily change this year.  UCLA and Arizona join the aforementioned Oregon as teams who will finish as no worse than #3 seeds.

2) This Year’s Bubble: I’m pretty sure we say this every year, but the bubble really does feel much weaker than usual this time around.  Naturally, at-large bids became a bit easier to come by when the tournament field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, but even still, the committee has never given an at-large to a team with more than 14 losses.  With teams like Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, and possibly even Iowa in the mix, it’ll be interesting to see how the committee evaluates teams that could easily finish with 15 losses.

These teams have benefitted from playing in major conferences which allow them to play top competition, bolstering their RPI and Strength of Schedule numbers while getting plenty of opportunities to pick up quality wins.  On the other hand, there aren’t many mid-major at-large bid candidates this year.   The American, Atlantic-10, and Mountain West conferences are kind of in a group of their own, in between the major and mid-major leagues.  These conferences in particular, which usually have several teams in the bubble mix, have largely been non-factors this season.

As things stand right now, depending on whether you consider a few teams locks, there are roughly 12 teams fighting for around 20 spots.  Let’s take a quick look at each of the six major conferences plus the three tweeners.

3) Major Conference Breakdown: 

For full breakdowns evaluating each individual bubble team from other perspectives, I’d recommend the bubble watches from ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan and Assembly Call’s Andy Bottoms, who is currently the #1 ranked Bracketologist.

ACC: This year’s ACC reminds me a lot of the 2011 Big East which saw 11 of its 16 members make the tournament.  A few of those teams migrated from the Big East to the ACC after the conference disbanded in 2013, which a new conference of the same name taking its place.  Essentially, there are eight locks: North Carolina, Louisville, Florida State, Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami, and Virginia Tech.  Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Georgia Tech are on the bubble, and I’d say the former two have solid chances right now, while Georgia Tech (and its ugly 91 RPI) have some work to do.  None are safe by any means.

Big 12: It’s pretty simple.  Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State are in.  Kansas State is the only real bubble team, as TCU has fallen just short of some much-needed victories recently.  Kansas State has decent chances, but they need to beat Texas Tech in their regular-season finale to avoid going 7-11 in conference play.  Of course, they’ll need a couple conference tournament wins as well to feel anything like confident heading into Selection Sunday.

Big East: Villanova, Butler, and Creighton are in, and Butler (having swept Villanova) might be one the most dangerous teams not many are talking about.  Xavier was once among these three and as high as #7 in the rankings at the end of November.  They were a lock as recently as a few weeks ago.  Then, the Musketeers took an arrow to the knee- an arrow in the form of injuries to their two leading scorers.  Trevon Blueitt is back now, but Edmond Sumner is out for the season.  Long story short, Xavier has lost six straight, throwing them in the bubble mix with Seton Hall, Marquette, and Providence, who all might be in better bubble shape by this point.  Right now, I think all four are barely in the tournament, but I doubt all of them make it come Selection Sunday.

Big Ten: NORTHWESTERN IS IN!!!!!  The only original major conference team to never go dancing, this is finally the Wildcats’ year.  They aren’t title contenders or anything like that – most likely, they’ll play in an 8/9 matchup.  Still, what an incredible moment for the school.  Honestly, this year’s Big Ten looks flat-out weird.  Purdue and Wisconsin are the best the conference has to offer, but Purdue will finish no higher than a #3-seed.  Minnesota, Maryland, and Northwestern are also safely in, but underwhelming.  What happened to the Michigans, Michigan States, and Indianas of the world?  The former two are likely in, but Indiana’s season has gone down the drain.  I’d say Illinois and Iowa are on the wrong side of the bubble, but Illinois is much closer.

Pac-12: The main three (Oregon, UCLA, Arizona) are obviously in great shape.  USC and California are bubble teams, and maybe, just maybe, Utah can work their way into the conversation.  Just kidding.  Utah has just a 2-9 record against the RPI top-100, and quality wins are the issue for all Pac-12 bubble teams.  USC looks better than Cal, but both have work to do.

SEC: Four locks – Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas.  Georgia has decent numbers but no quality wins, and Vandy has the wins, but a 16-14 record.  Both have top-15 strength of schedules (Vandy is #2), but I doubt either’s tourney hopes.

American: Cincinnati and SMU are in.  If another team wants in, I have a suggestion: win the conference tourney.

A10: Dayton and VCU are in.  Rhode Island is as bubble as bubble gets.

Mountain West: What on Earth happened to this once interesting conference?  Nevada is a fringe bubble team, and that’s it.  Seriously, what happened?

4) Mid-Majors to Look Out For: First, the locks.  Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are in from the West Coast Conference.  In the Missouri Valley, I’m calling Wichita State a lock.  Some people aren’t so sure, but the Shockers are #21 in the AP poll, #10 in KenPom’s rankings and #13 according to Sagarin.  Yes, their resume should be better, but many of the teams they played during non-conference season had disappointing years.  This is Wichita State we’re talking about – they’re in.  I’ll divide the remaining mid-majors into two categories: those with an actual chance at-large bid, and the scary mid-major 12s and 13s that have Cinderella potential if they can win their way into the NCAA tournament.

Legit At-Large Bid Threats: The immediate one that comes to mind is Middle Tennessee.  These guys pulled off one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history last year, defeating #2 Michigan State, thought to be the tournament favorite by many, in the first round of the tournament as a #15 seed.  I think the Blue Raiders should be in regardless of whether they win the Conference USA, but you never know with the selection committee, who typically favor mediocre major conference teams over seemingly equal mid-majors.  I think Middle Tennessee are different, though.  At 26-4, they have a RPI of 39 and a 4-1 record against the RPI top-100.  Their non-conference strength of schedule, a huge metric for aspiring mid-majors, ranks 27th.

Illinois State has the next best chance.  The Redbirds actually won the Missouri Valley by finishing in a tie with Wichita State at 17-1 and winning the tiebreaker.  I’ll get more into this on Sunday,  but with a 33 RPI, I think they have a good chance at a bid if they lose in the Missouri Valley “Arch Madness” Championship to Wichita State.  UNC Wilmington and UT Arlington are also technically contenders, although they’re pretty unlikely and each have their flaws.

Don’t Sleep on Them Tourney Time: No need to talk about at-large chances, so here’s a small list.  Vermont, Princeton, Monmouth, Belmont.

Of course, I’d love all the teams mentioned in the last few paragraphs to win their conference tournaments.  It makes the overall March Madness field stronger, increases the chance of upsets, and gives the little guys who’ve had great seasons a chance to shock the world.  For instance, in the Conference USA, I’d much rather see Middle Tennessee than Old Dominion, for example.  It’s always a risk asking the committee for two bids in a league like the C-USA.

5) What to Watch this Weekend: Really, just watch as much basketball as possible.  It’s all important.  Even for the leagues that don’t necessarily have any great teams, it’s conference championship season – everyone has a chance at March Madness if they get hot for a few games.  These are the biggest games of these players’ lives, and it shows.

For the bubble teams from major conferences, this weekend marks the end of the regular season – it’s one last chance to earn a big win, or perhaps, avoid a bad loss.  Should Xavier lose their seventh straight to DePaul, it might just do them in.  The same goes for Iowa against Penn State, and Illinois vs. Rutgers.  It’s even tougher for Vanderbilt, fighting for their life against Florida, a projected #3 or 4-seed.  I mean, Vandy’s not getting in with 16 losses for sure, right?

As for the mid-majors, they all need to win their conference tournaments in order to feel safe, and most of them need the title just to make the field at all.  It’s definitely worth tuning in to see who can get the job done.

Overall, this weekend and the week will follow are all you can really ask for – hundreds of teams laying it all on the line in order to play in the most exciting tournament in sports.  And that’s just to make March Madness – the Big Dance is another animal entirely.  Take it all in.  It’s March, and things are about to get MAD.

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