This is the first installment of a four-part series on scouting the 2009 NCAA Tournament. See the introduction here.
Before we begin, let me define what I mean by “small” conferences. Basketball analysts throw around the term “mid-major” all the time without defining it particularly well. Some would consider any team in a non-BCS conference to be a mid-major, while others might refer to a specific set of middle-of-the-road conferences as mid-majors. I will tend to follow the latter (Wikipedia) definition, except that I will consider Memphis and Gonzaga to be power conference teams. For this exercise, I will break down D-I conferences as follows.
Power conferences (6): ACC, Big 12, SEC, Big East, Big 10, Pac-10 + Memphis & Gonzaga
Middle-of-the-road or mid-major conferences (9): A-10, C-USA (- Memphis), MAC, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Horizon, WAC, West Coast (- Gonzaga), Colonial
Small conferences & independents (16): MAAC, Summit, Big West, Southland, Big Sky, Sun Belt, Ohio Valley, America East, Southern, A-Sun, Big South, Patriot, Ivy, Northeast, MEAC, SWAC
For what it’s worth, the “power” conferences are currently rated #1-6 by KenPom, and the mid-majors are #7-14, with only the MAC faltering at #18.
With the possible exception of Davidson if they lose the SoCon, none of the smaller conferences are g0ing to receive multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. So, before we begin looking for tournament sleepers, we need to consider who might win each conference. I’ll start with the highest-rated small conference (according to KenPom) and work my way down.
#15 Metro Atlantic: Siena (#77) and Niagara (81) are the favorites by far, and if one of these teams wins, they’re probably looking at a 13-seed.
#16 Summit: North Dakota State (56) stands out at the top, but Oral Roberts (86) and Oakland (118) have also been solid. NDSU split with Oakland this year and won at home against Oral Roberts. They could go as high as a 12-seed, while no one else would do better than a 14 or 15.
#17 Big West: Cal State Northridge (106) is the current leader in the standings, but Pacific (110) is also rated highly. The winner is probably getting no better than a 15-seed.
#19 Southland: Stephen F. Austin (100) is rated as the best team here, but there are other contenders here, including Sam Houston State (113), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (173), and UT-Arlington (111). The winner could get a 14- or 15-seed.
#20 Sun Belt: Western Kentucky (124) has the best record and the best rating in the Sun Belt, the latter thanks to a November win over Louisville. UALR (156) leads the other division by four games, and MTSU (136) lingers as a possible tourney spoiler. WKU could get anything from a 12- to a 14-seed if they win, with UALR a notch below that. Any other winner is looking at a 15- or 16-seed.
#21 Big Sky: Weber State (141) is leading in the standings and is playing well right now, but the stats give Portland State (97) an edge overall because they beat Gonzaga and played a close game at Washington. Montana (169) is also a contender. The winner is looking at a 14- or 15-seed.
#22 Ohio Valley: Morehead State (192) is 10-3 and the current leader, but four other OVC teams are rated higher due to their 0-6 start and a couple of other bad losses. UT-Martin (139) is playing well (14-1 in their last 15), but they still have some tough conference games left. Murray State (119) is in the middle of the conference standings, but they have a decent rating, and all five of their conference losses have been close. UT-Martin is probably looking at the best seed with if they win, but that might only be a 14 or 15.
#23 America East: Conference leader Vermont (82) has looked good all year, aside from a blowout loss at Pitt, and they could get a 13- or 14-seed with an automatic berth. Boston U (146) is currently tied for second place with Binghamton (180) The latter has beaten the Catamounts twice, so they are worth considering, at least as a spoiler.
#24 Southern: Davidson (43) will keep the SoCon relevant nationally as long as Stephen Curry is there, but they recently lost their first conference game in years to a College of Charleston (170) team that has given them fits in both of this year’s games. No other SoCon team has fewer than 10 losses this year, and Chattanooga (195) is the only other top-200 team. I’m expecting an 8-to-10 seed for Davidson if they win out. If they don’t, the winner will get a 15- or 16-seed.
#25 Atlantic Sun: Jacksonville (112, not to be confused with the OVC’s Jacksonville State), Belmont (126), and ETSU (142) are clearly the top three teams in the A-Sun. ETSU has played a much weaker schedule than the other two, although they beat both at home. The winner here is probably a 14-or-15 seed.
#26 Big South: VMI (199) has the gaudy 20-4 record and the flashy fast-paced style (they’re the only team that plays faster than UNC), but co-leader Radford (160) and Liberty (151) are the conference’s highest-rated teams. The latter features freshman star Seth Curry, who has only been slightly less efficient than his more famous brother was as a freshman. Liberty’s no Davidson, but they did win at Virginia and came up 5 points short at Clemson. Looking at seeds, there’s no telling what VMI will get if they win out – maybe a 12 or something. The others are probably 15-seeds, although I guess Liberty could do better if Curry is on fire through the Big South tourney.
#27 Patriot: Holy Cross (154) is the current leader, but American (117) is more highly rated. Both have a three-game lead on the rest of the conference. HC still has to play at American a week from Saturday. Perhaps Navy (215) or Lehigh (218) could make some noise in the conference tourney, but I’d expect one of the co-leaders to pull it out and grab a 14- or 15-seed.
#28 Ivy: Princeton (179) is undefeated in-conference, and even though Cornell (98) has the highest rating, Princeton looks like the best team. They beat the Big Red at home by 20 and own a seven-game win streak at the moment. The winner is getting a 15- or 16-seed.
#29 Northeast: Robert Morris (105) has a three-game lead on the field and has won their last 11 conference games. They lost by 20 at Pitt and 21 at Xavier, but they’ll be worthy of a 15-seed if they win. Should a spoiler like Mount St. Mary’s (134) win the tournament, that team will almost certainly get a 16-seed.
#30 Mid-Eastern: No one in this conference would be in the top half nationally if Morgan State (163) hadn’t beaten Maryland last month. If they don’t win the MEAC tourney, the winner is going to the play-in game. Morgan State could escape that fate by running the table, perhaps.
#31 Southwestern: The best non-conference win for anyone in the SWAC this year was Grambling’s (342) neutral-site win over #192 Morehead State. The conference as a whole can claim only five wins total this season against other D-I schools, and they have lost the same number of games to non-D-I teams this year. The winner, barring multiple miracle tourney runs should go to the play-in game. (I say “should” because 2008 SWAC champ Mississippi Valley State absolutely should have been sent to Dayton last year, but the Selection Committee probably thought it would look racist to send two HBCUs, so they sent Mount St. Mary’s instead of MVSU to face Coppin State.)
After all that, the question remains: can any of these teams win a first-round NCAA tournament game? To me, these are the five most likely to do so:
- Davidson (43, SoCon): Davidson is, of course, a special case. Not only are they easily the best small-conference team, but by virtue of everyone knowing they’re the best, they’ll actually get the best seed, and thus, the easiest first-round opponent. I won’t predict a win today without knowing that opponent’s identity, but I can’t imagine the Wildcats not being competitive in that game. The real question for them might be: as a possible 8- or 9-seed, can they win a second-round game against a team like Pitt or UConn?
- Siena (77, MAAC): The Saints are not a difficult pick, since they returned every major contributor from the team that beat Vandy in the first round a year ago. They have no terribly bad losses and hung with Pitt and Kansas, for the most part. They’re 13-1 in-conference and poised to get one of the better seeds from the small conferences. A decent matchup against a vulnerable 4- or 5-seed may be all they need to duplicate last year’s upset. My main worry about Siena against a power conference team would be that they like to push the tempo of the game, which is going to give a better team more chances to prove as much.
- North Dakota State (56, Summit): There aren’t a lot of small conference teams with big wins this year, and NDSU has exactly none against good non-conference opponents. On the bright side, they stayed competitive in their games against top-50 teams Minnesota and USC, and two of their three other losses were by one point. NDSU is also an experienced team (avg. 2.28 years, ranked #20) with a balanced offensive attack. All five starters maintain an offensive rating of at least 119, so their opponent won’t be able to key in on one player.
- Portland State (97, Big Sky): I’ll admit that Portland State has some bad losses (Hampton, Cal Poly, Montana State), but they’ve beaten some decent teams, including a shocking win over Gonzaga. They also hung with Washington in another road game. As I’ll note later, this was a tough decision, along with Vermont, compared to several other teams.
- Vermont (82, America East): The Catamounts don’t have anyone like Taylor Coppenrath anymore, but they did send games against George Mason and Maryland to overtime early this season. Pitt blew them out, and for some reason Binghamton has their number in conference play, but they’ve blown away almost everyone else in the America East.
The fourth and fifth spots were tough for me. I had to think hard about Western Kentucky (124), which knocked off Louisville early this season after losing two key players from last year’s Sweet 16 team. I’m not trusting Liberty (151) yet because they’re smaller than pretty much any other team they might face. Unlike Davidson, they don’ t have anyone to take the focus off the younger Curry. VMI (199) looks like a team that’s going to go out and set a record for most points allowed, although they might get a decent seed if they win the Big South. American (117) is a very experienced team, and they will slow the game to a halt, which will give them a chance against anyone, but they just haven’t beaten any good teams (and they were blown out by several).
So are there any other glaring omissions? Thoughts on the teams I included?