With the final weeks of the season upon us, it is time to turn attention toward the NCAA Tournament, and who could possibly be joining the big dance.
Similar to last season, there are some definite locks for making the NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, and VCU. Those teams could have the most embarrassing conference tournaments you have ever seen and still be playing in March.
But past those four, it becomes a little more murky.
Dayton (20-6, 10-3, RPI: 35, SOS: 118) seems to have done enough to be safe. The Flyers hold good wins over Texas A&M and Mississippi out of conference, and all of their losses come against teams in the Top 100 of the RPI save the last misstep over the weekend against Duquesne (RPI 236). One bad loss usually doesn't derail a team, and as long as they take care of things against George Mason, they will avoid that fate the rest of the way. They do finish the season against a juggernaut of VCU, Rhode Island (who needs the wins), and La Salle. It would help to win two of those final three games, especially so if they can beat the duo of Rams. Then they just need to look good in the A-10 Tournament and avoid another 200-plus loss.
Outside of Dayton, most of the teams that we routinely cover need to do some major work in order to get into the discussion in a couple of weeks. It is either going to be win the conference tournament, or get ready for the NIT.
Rhode Island (18-6, 11-3, RPI: 64, SOS: 146) never really challenged itself during the nonconference season. The Rams played just two teams in the Top 100 of the RPI and lost both of those games. It didn't help that Nebraska and Georgia Tech have slipped during the season, which Rhode Island couldn't control. But the school could have avoided a schedule that featured UMass-Lowell, Santa Clara, Southern Miss, Delaware State, Detroit and Brown. As Rhode Island really seemed to get hot, it came during a stretch when the Rams won six in a row against teams with RPIs over 200. They still have opportunities to score some big wins against Davidson, La Salle, and Dayton, but it is hard to see the committee looking favorably on the nonconference schedule, and that all of the good wins have come within the league. Better get ready for the A-10 tournament, Rhode Island.
Massachusetts (16-11, 7-5, RPI: 39, SOS: 27) did challenge themselves in nonconference, unlike Rhode Island. That challenge seemed to be too much though for the Minutemen. They played six teams in the top 100 and three more just outside of the top 100. They won two of the three against the outsiders, but just one in the top 100, an 87-82 win over Iona (RPI 46). The sticky problem with Massachusetts is that it has been way too inconsistent in the conference. They Minutemen have good wins over La Salle, Dayton, and Rhode Island, but They added losses to St. Bonaventure and St. Joe's (probably the most devastating. After winning six straight, UMass also failed to take down Rhode Island for a second time, or VCU. With just Fordham and George Washington left, it looks like their minute of hope is up.
George Washington (17-10, 7-6, RPI: 94, SOS: 133) has missed its opportunity. The Colonials hold a nice win over Wichita State, only one of three teams that can say that this season. They just ran out of steam in the conference. At one point this season, it looked like GW could be the team we should watch out for come March, but the Colonials have now lost six of their last seven games, the oddity being a win over Dayton. George Washington might make a run in the next two weeks, and should win three of its last four, but the Colonials are out.
West Coast Conference:
For more on the West Coast Conference and its tournament chances, I will point you to Will Maupin's piece from last week. The reasoning is sound, and given that St. Mary's couldn't finish its upset against Gonzaga, it still holds true.
Let's say we have no idea who will win the conference tournament in Conference USA, and it is likely that the winner will be the only team in the NCAA Tournament. The three best teams right now are UTEP, Louisiana Tech, and Old Dominion, and given the Monarchs' win over the Bulldogs in their last meeting, it is anyone's guess. Of course, UAB (11-4 in conference, just 15-13 overall) could throw a wrench into all of that and we could be looking at a very disappointing season for CUSA in terms of representation. The league seemed headed for multiple bids but there has just been too much cannibalism in the league.
Old Dominion (20-6, 9-5, RPI: 45, SOS: 129) has the best resume for an at-large bid of the three contenders -- Louisiana Tech has just a single good win, and UTEP was similarly unimpressive out of conference. The Monarchs went 5-for-6 against the top 100 in the nonconference season with a nice win over VCU. But Conference USA has really worn them down. It doesn't help that the league is so bottom heavy with the imports from the Sun Belt and elsewhere. Old Dominion has managed just a single good win in the conference, the one over Louisiana Tech, and has four bad losses. The end of the schedule is not kind, with three more teams with plus-200 RPI numbers and just Western Kentucky as a decent squad, but a real trap game. ODU probably has to win out and then get to the finals of the tournament to even be considered for Selection Sunday.
Unfortunately for Valparaiso and Green Bay, only Cleveland State and Oakland have league RPIs better than 150, but neither reach into the top 100. That means that Valpo's loss to Oakland is technically considered a bad loss, and Valpo has two other questionable losses coming from Missouri and New Mexico. The Crusaders do have a good win over Murray State (one of just four teams who can claim that), but there is nothing else to boost their at-large chances. Green Bay had a little better run out of conference, beating Georgia State and Miami, but the Phoenix have two losses to Cleveland State and one to Oakland which don't help them. The conference tournament in the Horizon League is always wacky, and you could hope that it comes down to the Crusaders and Phoenix for the title, because they are the most deserving teams. But neither one will be heading to the NCAA Tournament with a loss, especially so if it comes outside of that tournament final.
MAC fans may want to have a shot at two teams in the NCAA Tournament, but it seems very unlikely. No team has a good win out of conference. Bowling Green's nonconference schedule was atrocious. Kent State did better at scheduling, but didn't score any wins against Yale, UTEP, or Kansas. Central Michigan's nonconference slate was even worse than the Falcons (347 out of 351, no teams in the top 100). Toledo missed its chances against VCU, Oregon and Duke, and tripped up against Detroit and Oakland (beware the Horizon).
And then there is Buffalo, which gave everyone some thrills during the nonconference season by challenging both Kentucky and Wisconsin, but ultimately losing to both. The Bulls also somehow lost to Ohio in conference which drags on that feel-good trend.
Cleveland looms large for the MAC, because only one team from the traffic jam at the top is going to make the NCAA Tournament.