There were some games with major bubble implications last night, and in most cases they've moved teams closer towards the good. Both Cincinnati (over Marquette) and South Florida (over Louisville) picked up major, major victories against top level RPI teams (Marquette = 7, L'Ville = 28) which, fortunately, is exactly what both teams needed. You can also add Colorado State to the "doin' good things" list, because by beating UNLV at home that gives them another huge win (UNLV RPI = 11). You can probably move all three teams to locks, or at least pretty close to it. Speaking of locks, Alabama and Purdue move into that territory, if the weren't already there, with wins over Auburn and Penn State (thus avoiding a late bad loss). Southern Miss also avoided a bad loss by taking down SMU. With just Marshall left the Eagles are in good shape as long as they don't drop one too early in the C-USA Tournament, and Mississippi State (win over South Carolina in OT) and Texas (win over Oklahoma) stayed alive.
It wasn't all sunshine and puppy dogs, however, with the biggest heartbreak coming from Evanston, where Northwestern made a furious comeback to tie the game only to have Ohio State score with 3 seconds left to steal back the victory. The loss doesn't crush the Wildcats NCAA bid hopes and hopefully doesn't crush their spirit, because getting that win would have all but guaranteed them a bid. Miami also picked up a hurtful loss, losing at NC State. It hurts more than the Wildcats loss to Ohio State, even if it doesn't feel like it
AMERICA EAST (Thurs):
One of the worst conferences in the country (kenpom.com ranks it 29th out of 32), but that's mainly due to the deadweight at the bottom (including 1-28 Binghampton). The top couple of teams are decent, and this conference has given us some memorable March moments over the years like Vermont's win over Syacuse in the first round and Albany's near upset of #1 seed UCONN.
Favorite: Stony Brook. The Seawolves ended Vermont's three-year run as regular season champions (which resulted in only one NCAA Tournament appearance). They rank as team #122 on kenpom, which puts them in the same class as Penn State, for whatever that's worth.
Sleeper: Albany. The Greyhounds (great nicknames in this conference, seriously) finished fourth and boast the leagues best offense, including two of the top-5 scorers in the league. Teams like that can get hot and light things up in a short tournament.
W's Pick: Vermont. It would be kind of poetic to see the 2nd place Catamounts beat Stony Brook for the bid, since the same scenario happened last year with the team's flip-flopped. Plus Vermont finished the season out
MISSOURI VALLEY (Thurs):
Remember back when the MVC was the darlings of the NCAA and then became incredibly overrated and then just plain sucked? Well they're back with a couple of sweet 16 caliber teams including one team I think could make a Final Four run, and a whole bunch of decent teams who could surprise. Wichita State and Creighton are both locks to get at-large bids if they fall, but everybody else is going to need to win in St. Louis to make the dance.
Favorite: Wichita State. I have to be honest, I've come to love this team and seriously think they have Final four potential. Super efficient on offense, great defensively, with a very balanced team featuring seven big-time contributors, all of whom are juniors or seniors. And look at their four losses this year: Alabama, Temple (in OT), Creighton, and Drake (3 OT). Not a bad loss among them even if Drake is a little iffy. Love this team.
Sleeper: Northern Iowa. There are a whole mess of teams at 9-9 and you could pick any one of them here, but since nobody beat both Wichita and Creighton I'm going to just pick Northern Iowa here, solely because they shoot a ton of threes and they shoot them well - always a good combo for a sleeper run.
W's Pick: Creighton. Even though I think Wichita is the better team I have a feeling about Creighton for this tournament. Doug McDermott is a beast and Antoine Young can change a game all by himself. Plus I'd rather see Wichita with a lower seed because then when I put them in the Elite 8 I'll be the only one in the country who does. Sucka MC!
NORTHEAST CONFERENCE (Thurs):
A bit of an up year for the NEC, due to some decent out of conference wins (not good wins as we define them for bubble teams, but good for the NEC) with Wagner beating Pitt, Princeton, and Penn, Long Island knocking off Vermont, and Robert Morris beating LaSalle, Duquesne, and Ohio. So, you know, good for them.
Favorite: LIU-Brooklyn. The Blackbirds, who are also Miles Tarver's favorite team, didn't have as good a non-conference schedule as fellow top of the leaguers Wagner and RMU, but they did roll through league play and finished 16-2. And they're doing it by getting to line, as they have taken 49.5% as many free throws as they have field goal attempts, which is surprising 2nd in the nation, and they make them at a 73% clip, good for 55th. Such a weird stat.
Sleeper: Central Connecticut State. I don't know if they're any good, but I wanted to talk about them here simply because they have three players in the top 4 in the league in scoring: Kyle Horton is second in the league at 18.7ppg, Kyle Vinales is third at 18.0, and Robby Ptacek is fourth at 17.6. So weird. Those three score 78% of their team's points. I've never seen anything like that before.
W's Pick: Central Connecticut State. I can't get over it. It's incredible. They're all guards and two of them are seniors so a run is possible, plus it's just so cool. The three of them have combined to take 1,211 shots this season. The rest of the team has taken just 419, which is less than the Vinales guy and slightly more than either of the other two. This is the coolest thing I've ever heard of.
Super interesting conference this year, at least if you ask a nerd like me, because there are two teams here fighting for bids: Drexel and VCU. If either team makes it to the final and loses they'll probably make it in (or if they win it, of course) but if either loses prior to that they're probably out. And in a deep league like the CAA with five teams among kenpom's top 110, it's going to take a very good team to make it to the final.
Favorite: Drexel. The Dragons won the league thanks to a 17-game win streak. They win because of their defense, which is absolutely stifling and the 7th hardest in the country to make shots against (the rest of the top 7 are all tournament locks). They don't turn you over, but they don't give up many good looks and don't allow second chances.
Sleeper: Georgia State. Old Dominion, George Mason, and Delaware are all probably more likely to win than Georgia State, but the Panthers were the only team this year to beat both VCU and Drexel, and that's gotta count for something.
W's Pick: Drexel. I already talked about their defense, but in a league with a heavy emphasis on that side of the ball (five teams in the CAA rank in the top 40 toughest defenses to make shots against), the Dragons sport the most effective offense and can score against these other squads. In fact, only Drexel and VCU rank in kenpom's top 150 in offensive efficiency. So really the CAA is a lot like the Big 10.
METRO ATLANTIC (friday):
Iona is the new Manhattan, which instantly reminds me of how much fun it was to have Luis Flores leading the Jaspers around. There was a time not so long ago when the only conferences that played Friday nights were the MAAC and the Ivy, and since the Ivy was boring what were a couple of gambling degenerates supposed to do but play the MAAC games. Man, Bogart and I knew just about everything there was to know about that conference back then. The glory days, I like to call them.
Favorite: Iona. The Gaels are in pretty solid shape to grab an NCAA at-large bid even if they don't win the tournament, but they'd be better off getting to the final because a loss prior to that is a loss against a RPI sub-100 team, and that could put just enough doubt in the committee's mind that they'll screw it up and leave Iona out.
Sleeper: Fairfield. The Stags were supposed to be right with Iona at the top of the conference with a shot at securing at at-large. It hasn't quite worked out with Fairfield finishing fourth in the conference at 12-6 and an overall record of just 17-13, but they still have a good enough backcourt to be dangerous.
W's Pick: Iona. I have to pick the Gaels because it would just be a shame to have them not make the tournament. I mean, Scott Machado leads the country with 10.1 assists per game! You know the last time somebody finished the year with double-digit assists per game? Well I don't because ESPN's stat archive thing only goes back to 2001, but it's been at least that long.
This conference is pretty bad these days. Davidson is solid again after a few post-Curry down years, but teams like Charleston and Wofford are significantly worse than last year (losing Noah Dahlman and Andrew Goudelock will do that), and the bottom of the conference is the pits. Despite Wofford and Charleston's step backs, they're still the clear #2 and #3 in the league.
Favorite: Davidson. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, two losses in a league this down is bad, and one of those losses coming to Samford (RPI 266) is a killer, particularly with too many questionable losses and not enough good wins outside of that stunner at Kansas. Hard to believe a team that won in Kansas City needs to win their conference tournament to get into the NCAAs, but here we are.
Sleeper: UNC-Greensboro. Davidson is head and shoulders above everybody else so it's hard to pin down any other team with a chance to beat them, but how about the Spartans? After starting the season 2-14, they went on a 10-1 tear to win the North Division. Of course, they're now on a 3-game losing streak, but hey, I gotta pick somebody.
W's Pick: Davidson. Yep, another favorite. They're just so much better than everyone else. I mean, Kansas's losses this year are against Kentucky, Duke, Missouri, Iowa State, and Davidson.
In a really weird scenario I can never remember seeing before this close to selection Sunday there's almost nothing tonight that affects the bubble. The only two games that matter are Washington @ USC and Colorado @ Oregon, and that last one barely does. Every other game tonight involves teams that are already solidly in or are completely out. I guess you could toss the Michigan @ Illinois game in there and say if Illinois wins they still have a very outside shot, so I guess we'll do that and call it three games of note.