We are now inside of 50 days until Selection Sunday. Most teams haven’t even hit the halfway point in their conference schedules, but the good teams are already starting to rise to the top. Its easy to follow the major conferences, their games are shown on a daily basis on ESPN and other major networks. The trick is identifying the mid-major programs. Why? Well, for one, look at Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, Davidson, and Butler. What do these teams have in common? They all have been in the Elite Eight in the past decade, with three of the four making the Final Four; Butler even made the Final Four twice! Secondly, out of the 68 bids to the NCAA tournament, 31 of the bids are automatic bids, with 25 of those 31 bids coming from mid-major conferences. So without further delay, BVTSB unveils our top ten mid-major teams, thus far, for the 2011-2012 season:
10. Davidson (14-4) (8-0 Southern)
Quality Wins: at Kansas (80-74).
Bad Losses: Charlotte (84-61).
Remaining Key Games: Chattanooga (February 4); Wofford (February 6); at Charleston (February 11); at Georgia Southern (February 25).
Davidson’s last appearance in the NCAA Tournament was in 2008, led by Stephen Curry, who led the Wildcats to the Midwest Regional Final, before falling to Kansas, by two. Along the way, Davidson knocked off household names like Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin. Davidson doesn’t have the star power to go as deep in the tournament this year, but they are a more balanced team. The Wildcats have five players averaging at least 9 points per game – So. De’Mon Brooks (15.5 ppg), Jr. Jake Cohen (14.9 ppg), Jr. Nik Cochran (11.8 ppg), Jr. J.P. Kuhlman (11.2 ppg), and So. Chris Czerapowicz (9.2 ppg). Davidson will need to win the Southern Conference Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament, despite a solid win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. A 23-point loss at Charlotte is ugly, but a 13-point loss at Duke, a four-point loss to Vanderbilt, and an eight point loss at Massachusetts is respectable. The Wildcats will likely have a Bracket Buster game; Bracket Busters will be unveiled on January 30th.
9. Harvard (16-2) (2-0 Ivy)
Quality Wins: vs. Florida State (46-41); vs. UCF (59-49); St. Joseph’s (74-69).
Bad Losses: at Fordham (60-54).
Remaining Key Games: at Yale (January 27); at Pennsylvania (February 10); Yale (February 18); Pennsylvania (February 25).
Harvard’s last, and only, NCAA tournament appearance came in 1946. At that time, the NCAA Tournament was comprised of eight teams and Harvard was in the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League. Further, New York University was playing Division I basketball, Oklahoma State was Oklahoma A&M, and North Carolina and Colorado were in the Southern and Skyline Conferences, respectively. Harvard’s head coach, Tommy Amaker, played under Coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, serving as a point guard. After serving as a long time assistant to Coach K, Coach Amaker was head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan for a combined ten years, with a Sweet 16 appearance, prior to becoming head coach at Harvard. He is 82-52 at Harvard, 60-16 since the beginning of the 2009 season (24-6 in Ivy since beginning of 2009 season). Three players are averaging double figures for Harvard – Sr. Keith Wright (10.8 ppg), Jr. Kyle Casey (10.8 ppg), and So. Laurent Rivard (10.4 ppg). The regular season is all the more important for the Crimson, as the Ivy League has no conference tournament; the Ivy League has never had more than one bid into the NCAA Tournament.
8. Long Beach State (14-6) (7-0 Big West)
Quality Wins: vs. Xavier (68-58).
Bad Losses: at Montana (73-71).
Remaining Key Games: at UC Riverside (January 26); Cal State Fullerton (January 28); UC Santa Barbara (February 22); UC Riverside (February 25); at Cal State Fullerton (March 3).
As is typical with a Dan Monson coached team, the 49ers played a grueling non-conference schedule, which included six non-conference games away from home, not including a holiday tournament. Long Beach State has played the likes of San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Xavier, and Kansas State. Only two of the losses were by double digits. While Long Beach State only won one of those games, the clearly have been tested and show they can compete with the top teams. Five players are averaging 9 points or more per game for the 49ers – Sr. Casper Ware (17.0 ppg), Sr. Larry Anderson (15.2 ppg), Sr. T.J. Robinson (12.4 ppg), Jr. James Ennis (9.6 ppg), and Sr. Eugene Phelps (9.2 ppg). The 49ers look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Like Davidson, the 49ers will likely have a Bracket Buster game.
7. Dayton (14-5) (4-1 Atlantic 10)
Quality Wins: vs. Minnesota (86-70); Alabama (74-62); Mississippi (62-50); Saint Luis (79-72); at Temple (87-77); Xavier (87-72).
Bad Losses: at Miami (OH) (72-67).
Remaining Key Games: at St. Joseph’s (January 25); at Saint Louis (February 4); at Xavier (February 18); at Duquesne (February 22); at Richmond (February 29).
The Flyers could very well be higher on this list, but their propensity for late season slides keeps them down a bit. Prior to the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, the Flyers were 4-6 in their last ten games for the 2010-2011 season, including losers of three straight. For the 2009-2010 season, the Flyers finished the regular season 5-5 in their last ten, including losing four of their last five. Their last tournament appearance, the 2008-2009 season, Dayton was 6-4 in their last ten regular season games, even then, they cam in losing three of their last five. Besides a road loss to Miami (OH), Dayton has lost at home to Buffalo, getting drilled by 29, and lost at St. Bonaventure by 12. The Flyers also lost to two solid teams – at Murray State (by 17) and Seton Hall (by 5). The biggest problem for Dayton is inconsistency, and that point couldn’t be proven more true when Dayton defeated Minnesota on a neutral floor by double digits then followed that up by laying an egg at home against Buffalo. Need further proof? Look at the Temple and St. Bonaventure games. Sox of the Flyers are contributing between 9 and 12 points per game – Jr. Kevin Dillard (12.3 ppg), Sr. Josh Benson (10.9 ppg), Sr. Chris Johnson (10.0 ppg), Sr. Josh Parker (9.5 ppg), Sr. Paul Williams (9.4 ppg), and Jr. Matt Kavanaugh (9.2 ppg). The Flyers have a good shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament, but they need to avoid a late season slide and they must pick up some road wins (1-3 on the road).
6. Gonzaga (16-3) (6-1 WCC)
Quality Wins: Oral Roberts (67-61); vs. Arizona (71-60); at Xavier (72-65).
Bad Losses: None.
Remaining Key Games: at Brigham Young (February 2); Saint Mary’s (February 9); Brigham Young (February 23).
Since Dan Monson’s arrival in Spokane, Gonzaga has been built into an elite program. The Bulldogs have been in the NCAA Tournament each year since 1999, advancing at least to the second round in 10 of the 13 years, including five Sweet 16 appearances. As is typical with Gonzaga, the program schedules a tough non-conference schedule, hoping to prepare themselves for the rigors of an improving West Coast Conference as well as NCAA Tournament play. The Zags three losses have come against likely tournament teams – at Illinois (82-75); Michigan State (74-67); at Saint Mary’s (83-62). Coach Mark Few and his Bulldogs will be out for revenge on February 9, hoping to make up for that 21-point blowout in Moraga. Five of the Gonzaga players average near ten points per game – Jr. Elias Harris (13.5 ppg), Fr. Kevin Pangos (13.4 ppg), Sr. Robert Sacre (11.4 ppg), Fr. Gary Bell (9.4 ppg), and So. Sam Dower (9.1 ppg). Gonzaga fans may remember John Stockton, his son, David, a sophomore, as been contributing for the Zags, averaging 4.9 points per game. Gonzaga will likely be in their 14th straight NCAA tournament, barring a collapse down the stretch.
5. Saint Mary’s (19-2) (8-0 WCC)
Quality Wins: Northern Iowa (57-41); Weber State (87-70); Brigham Young (98-82); Gonzaga (83-62).
Bad Losses: None.
Remaining Key Games: at Loyola Marymount (January 26); at Brigham Young (January 28); at Gonzaga (February 9).
The Gaels have made the NCAA tournament two of the last four years. After an absence last season, Saint Mary’s is poised to return to the Big Dance. As is typical with the Gaels and Coach Randy Bennett, they run up high win totals but play very few quality teams in non-conference play. Since the 2007-2008 season, the Gaels have averaged 26.5 wins per season under Coach Bennett. So why are the Gaels in front of West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga? For one, Saint Mary’s leads the conference. Even if they were tied with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s would get the nod, by virtue of a 21-point thrashing of Gonzaga. Jr. Matthew Dellavedova (15.8 ppg), Sr. Rob Jones (14.5 ppg), and So. Stephen Holt (10.4 ppg) lead the Gaels. Like Long Beach State, the Jays will likely have a Bracket Buster game.
4. San Diego State (17-2) (3-0 Mountain West)
Quality Wins: Long Beach State (77-73); at Arizona (61-57); California (64-63); UNLV (69-67).
Bad Losses: None.
Remaining Key Games: Boise State (February 1); at UNLV (February 11); New Mexico (February 15); at Boise State (February 29).
Last season, the Aztecs drew a number two seed, en route to a regional final matchup with eventual champion Connecticut. San Diego State has a tougher road this year, especially in the Mountain West, with UNLV and New Mexico providing tough competition. Even the weaker teams in the Mountain West are better; the Mountain West could have as many as three bids into the NCAA tournament. Despite the fact that San Diego State is tops in the Mountain West, and having knocked off UNLV, they are fourth due to their relatively weak non-conference schedule (best win is at Arizona, then a home win over Long Beach State), despite having two losses to two solid teams (Baylor and Creighton). Four players are averaging double digits for San Diego State – Jr. Chase Tapley (16.6 ppg), So. Jamaal Franklin (15.4 ppg), So. Xavier Thames (11.3 ppg), and Jr. James Rahon (10.2 ppg). Assuming San Diego State wins their remaining home games, splits the UNLV and Boise State games on the road, and wins the remaining road games, the Aztecs have a great shot at another high seed in the NCAA tournament.
3. Creighton (18-2) (8-1 Missouri Valley)
Quality Wins: at San Diego State (85-83); Northwestern (87-79); at Wichita State (68-61); Northern Iowa (63-60).
Bad Losses: None.
Remaining Key Games: at Northern Iowa (February 4); Wichita State (February 11).
The last time the Missouri Valley Conference had multiple bids, it was the 2007 NCAA Tournament. That year, Creighton and Southern Illinois represented the conference, with the Salukis making Sweet 16 before falling by three to Kansas. The Missouri Valley Conference has a great shot at sewing up an at large bid, thanks to the play of the top half of the conference, especially Wichita State, as well as the Jays. The Jays did well to avenge a home loss to Missouri State, beating the Bears in Springfield by a point on January 18th. Coach Greg McDermott knows Midwest basketball well, having coached Division II Wayne State from 1994-2000, Northern Iowa from 2001-2006, and Iowa State from 2006-2010, prior to accepting the job in Omaha in 2010. The Jays are led by Coach McDermott’s son, Doug, a sophomore, who is averaging 23.2 ppg. Sr. Antoine Young (11.9 ppg) and Jr. Gregory Echenique (9.2 ppg) have also led the Jays. Like the Gaels, the Jays will likely have a Bracket Buster game.
2. Murray State (20-0) (8-0 OVC)
Quality Wins: vs. Southern Miss (90-81); Dayton (75-58); at Memphis (76-72).
Bad Losses: None.
Remaining Key Games: Austin Peay (February 11); at SE Missouri State (February 15); at Tennessee Tech (February 25).
The Racers are the last unbeaten team, with Syracuse falling at Notre Dame over the weekend. The last team to finish the regular season unbeaten was the 2003-2004 St. Joseph’s Hawks. The Hawks lost in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament and would make it to the Regional Final of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Oklahoma State. Why isn’t Murray State the top team? Simply put, they don’t have the quality wins UNLV does and hasn’t played against as tough competition in non-conference play, let alone conference play. The Racers have been a fairly balanced scoring team, led by Jr. Isaiah Canaan (18.7 ppg), Sr. Donte Poole (14.6 ppg), and Sr. Ivan Aska (12.6 ppg). Aska hasn’t played since December 30th, due to injury. Like the Jays, the Racers will likely have a Bracket Buster game.
1. UNLV (18-3) (2-1 Mountain West)
Quality Wins: Nevada (71-67); North Carolina (90-80); at Illinois (64-48); California (85-68); New Mexico (80-63).
Bad Losses: None.
Remaining Key Games: San Diego State (February 11); at New Mexico (February 18).
You’re probably wondering how a team who isn’t even in first place in their conference can be the top mid-major program currently. First year coach Dave Rice, who played on the 1990 NCAA Champion UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, has his alma mater playing extremely well. Wins against North Carolina and Illinois help, a lot. Even the losses aren’t bad – at Wichita State, at Wisconsin, and at San Diego State. UNLV has an excellent shot at being a protected seed in the NCAA tournament, especially with the Mountain West Conference tournament, again, being in Las Vegas. Three Rebels are averaging double digits in points – Sr. Chace Stanback (14.7 ppg), So. Mike Moser (14.0 ppg), and Jr. Anthony Marshall (12.3 ppg). The Rebels last missed the NCAA tournament in 2009. Don’t sleep on the Rebels come March; their up-tempo game will give opponents fits.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
Cleveland State (17-4) (7-2 Horizon)
George Mason (15-5) (7-1 CAA)
Iona (15-4) (7-1 MAAC)
Middle Tennessee (19-2) (8-0 Sun Belt)
Nevada (16-3) (5-0 WAC)
Norfolk State (15-5) (7-0 MEAC)
Oral Roberts (18-4) (10-0 Summit)
UCF (15-4) (5-1 C-USA)
Weber State (15-3) (7-0 Big Sky)
Wichita State (17-3) (8-1 Missouri Valley)