In the first installment in this series, I mentioned that a lot of basketball analysts throw around the term “mid-major” and use it to refer to different sets of teams. For the purpose of this analysis, a mid-major is a team from one of nine “middle of the road” basketball conferences: the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Horizon, Western Athletic, West Coast, and Colonial. I said before that I was going to exclude Memphis (CUSA) and Gonzaga (WCC) from this grouping because they receive such broad national attention, but now I think it makes more sense to go ahead and discuss them here.
I’ll start by doing the same thing I did with the small conferences, going conference by conference to predict a winner, and noting teams that could play the role of spoiler in the conference tournament. With only one possible exception, the small conferences were all one-bid conferences, but that won’t be the case with these conferences. I’ll try to note which teams have a shot at an at-large bid if they fail to win their conference tournament.
The numbers below are based on KenPom’s ratings through games of Thursday, February 19.
#7 Mountain West
Over half the conference is rated in KenPom’s top 51 teams nationally. Utah (27) would be a lock for an at-large bid right now, and they have a 1.5-game lead over BYU (15) and San Diego State (29) for first place. The latter two, while rated similarly by KenPom, do not have the strong RPI rank that Utah does (#9) and would not be considered locks at this point.
New Mexico (42) and UNLV (49) are also rated in the top 50, and they should be considered contenders at the conference tournament. TCU (127) and Wyoming (148) would be considered longshots.
Utah played four non-conference games against KenPom’s top 50 and went 2-2 in those games, beating Gonzaga and LSU while losing to Cal and Oklahoma. They’re one of the tallest teams in the country, thanks to 7’2″ senior Luke Nevill, who is very efficient around the basket. They’re also very experienced, with sophomore slasher Carlon Brown the only underclassman getting significant minutes. The Utes got off to a rocky start, but they have won seven in a row.
BYU, which has the best overall record in the conference at 20-5, is a little tougher to gauge. They have zero bad losses and played both Arizona State and Wake Forest down to the wire, but they did lose both of those games. Their best win was a conference home game against San Diego State.
UNLV beat both Louisville and Arizona in non-conference games, but they have a few bad conference losses bringing them down.
San Diego State is a notch farther down for me, with one bad loss to Wyoming. Like BYU, their best win has been a conference home game, but they beat Utah.
I would expect one of the conference’s big three to win the tournament and grab as high as a four-seed in the NCAAs. Utah and possibly BYU would have cases for at-large bids if they fell to a team like San Diego State in the tournament.
#8 Conference USA
There is probably no other conference with such a wide range of good and bad teams as Conference USA.
Memphis has KenPom’s #1 overall rating at this point and hasn’t lost a conference game in three years. They’re on a 17-game winning streak and have only been seriously challenged twice over that span, which included four top-50 opponents and four more in the 51-100 range. They have tons of size and athleticism and one of the country’s best freshmen in Tyreke Evans. Their defense is rated #1 overall, and all three of their losses were close games against teams rated no lower than #31. Expect them to be a heavy favorite in the CUSA tournament and get a 1- or 2-seed in March (1 if they run the table and win it, 2 if they don’t).
The next best contender overall in the conference is UAB (40), which played a solid non-conference schedule but only managed one big win, against Arizona. They’re a small, but experienced team whose main problem is that they don’t match up well against Memphis. Rated only #39 in the RPI, that’s enough to keep them from dancing if they can’t beat the Tigers.
The team that Memphis really has to watch out for, though, is Tulsa (56), which has already beaten them twice this year (63-37 at Memphis). It’s entirely possible that they will get a four-seed and a semifinal draw against the Tigers, which would be a fun game to watch.
Houston is rated #48, but I think they’re a notch below these teams. UTEP (81) is a big team that could create matchup problems depending on the team, but they haven’t played Memphis yet this year. Central Florida is the only other CUSA team rated in the top 100, at #97.
#9 Atlantic 10
Xavier (24) was the class of the conference and a highly ranked team nationally before a tough road stretch against Duquesne, Dayton, and Charlotte. The Musketeers beat Missouri and Memphis in November and lost to Duke and Butler in December, so they didn’t have any bad losses until two weeks ago.
The Musketeers have some size, but they really need to figure out what they’re doing on offense. Two players with efficiency ratings under 100 have taken a quarter of the team’s possessions (C.J. Anderson and 7′ freshman Kenny Frease). Donte Jackson and Terrell Holloway are nearly as bad. Derrick Brown, B.J. Raymond, and Jason Love all boast efficiency ratings over 115, on the other hand. Despite this, Xavier is still ranked #36 on offense.
Dayton (76) is now the conference leader with a gaudy overall record of 23-3, but they’ve played a lot of awful teams this year and will be a tough team to rate heading into the tourney. The Flyers have beaten Marquette and Xavier, as well as a few other top-100 teams, and they do play good defense, which is a plus.
Also present are Temple (39, wins over Tennessee & Penn State), Rhode Island (63, beat Penn State & lost a close one to Duke), Saint Joe’s (94), Duquesne (98), and a handful of other teams in the top half of the national rankings.
Xavier should be in line for a 4- or 5-seed if they can right the ship soon; maybe they’d even get a 3 if they ran the table. Dayton’s currently in the RPI top 25, so they may get an at-large bid if they don’t win the conference tournament.
#10 Missouri Valley
The MVC has usually had a nationally strong team each year, even if it was a different team every time. Drake was stong in 2008, Southern Illinois in ’07 and a few other years, and others like Creighton have had strong seasons here and there.
No one stands out this year. Creighton is ranked #60 and has an outstanding shooter named Booker Woodfox, but at 6’1″, he’s not going to be able to get shots off against a first-round power conference opponent. Northern Iowa (94) got off to a hot 11-1 start in the MVC but has faltered lately. Illinois State (74) hasn’t played anyone and will only get a moderate test out of Niagara tonight in their Bracket Buster game.
Everyone but Indiana State and Missouri State is in the nation’s top half, but I wouldn’t count on anyone getting out of the first round of the NCAAs. Only the winner will get into the tourney in the first place, probably somewhere in the 10- to 12-seed range.
#11 Horizon League
Butler (41) started out the season on a roll, and they might make the tournament without winning the conference, but they haven’t looked great lately. They’re a very, very young team, and Matt Howard has looked fantastic at times. The Bulldogs have beaten both of their top 50 opponents thus far (Xavier and UAB), and they’ll play at Davidson tomorrow.
Cleveland State (66), Wisconsin-Green Bay (83) and Wright State (91) are possible spoilers. CSU has beaten Syracuse, but there aren’t a lot of signature non-conference wins to be found here. Expect a non-Butler winner to be seeded in the 11-13 range, while Butler could get as high as a 6.
Utah State looks tremendous at 25-2, but they’re only 1-1 against opponents in KenPom’s top 100 (win over Utah, loss to BYU). Before a V-Day loss to Boise State, it looked like they might go undefeated in the WAC. 6’9″ senior Gary Wilkinson is among the nation’s 20 most efficient offensive players.
Not a single other team is in the top 100 (Nevada is the closest at #109), so I would expect to see Utah State dancing with an 8-seed or so.
#13 West Coast Conference
It’s feast or famine on the west coast. Gonzaga is ranked #14, but two teams are in the nation’s bottom 50 (Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount). The Zags are 4-4 against top 50 teams (all non-conference), but there’s been little doubt that they’re the best the WCC has to offer nationally. They are one of the nation’s biggest teams, starting two 6’11” players, so they’ll match up with anyone. I would expect about a 4- or 5-seed for them, but a low RPI (#36) may drag them down.
St. Mary’s (59) could spoil things for Gonzaga if Patrick Mills returns to full strength this year after breaking his hand last month. The Gaels are just 3-3 without him, 18-2 otherwise. Portland (96) has overtaken them in the conference during that time, but their only respectable win was the season opener against Washington.
There are no nationally strong teams in the CAA this year, although it’s a competitive league. Seven of 12 teams are in the nation’s top half, led by VCU (77) and George Mason (78). The winner could get anything from an 11-seed down to a 14- or 15-seed.
All of the other “mid-major” conferences ranked between #7 and #14 except the MAC, which has an entire division (the West) rated below 200 by KenPom.
The result is an intensely competitive East division: 9-3 Buffalo (#104) leads the way, with four 8-4 teams trailing. Miami (#74) has the highest rating of those teams because of a win over Temple and close losses to UCLA and Dayton. Akron (84) and Kent State (102) are other contenders for the title, but only one is likely to make the NCAA tourney.
Looking past Memphis and Gonzaga, who are obvious national contenders, which of these teams has a chance to go deep into the NCAA Tournament?
- Utah – Luke Nevill will create a mismatch against pretty much anyone not named Thabeet, and he’s not the only big Ute. With a possible high seed, they could avoid one of the top seeds until the Sweet Sixteen.
- BYU – Their first game against Utah went into OT, but they’re probably not as likely to receive an at-large bid, so I put them a notch below. The Cougars play a balanced offensive game and hit their shots, and they have the size to compete with power conference schools.
- Xavier – I don’t really know what to make of Xavier after their recent slide. They beat Missouri and Memphis early on but can’t by an A-10 road win of late. Their overall resume is tough to ignore, and like the two MWC teams up here so far, they make their 3-point shots count while not taking too many of them.
- Butler – As I mentioned, they’re a young team, and if they can shake the tourney jitters in the first round (where they will likely face an inferior team), I like one other thing about their chances to advance: their slow pace. Against a superior power conference team, Butler’s slow style of play will limit their opponents’ chances to shine and keep them in the game against virtually anyone. That their worst loss this year was by 9 is a testament to that. (This also makes them a bit of a first round liability, but that’s a different story.)
- Dayton – The Flyers play great defense and have been consistently strong all year. They beat Xavier at home and still have to play them (as well as a few others) on the road, but they’re looking at a high enough seed if they survive those games that they will get some good tourney matchups.
Digging a little deeper, these are a few teams that could slide into the tourney field and possibly surprise someone:
- Miami (OH) – The upset ingredients are in place: A pretty solid team that’s not going to get a great seed because of a few bad losses. Grinding offensive pace (bottom 40 in the nation). Lock-down defense (top 25). If they win the MAC, they won’t have a great seed, but their first round opponent had better watch out.
- Cleveland State – They’re on a roll, but their last three Horizon League games are on the road. Defense is the name of the game for them and for several other Horizon teams, so they’ll grind out some low-scoring wins. There’s not a lot of firepower on this team offensively, meaning they’re not likely to be able to ride hot shooting to a first-round win, so that’s their main limitation.
- Central Florida – Let’s call this the one-man-wrecking-crew theory. If Stephen Curry can do it, perhaps Jermaine Taylor can too. No one in the country (Curry included) takes a higher percentage of his team’s shots (41.9) when he’s on the floor, and he does it efficiently, both inside and outside. The problem with this pick is that UCF will have to beat Memphis (or benefit from someone else beating them) if they’re going to make the tourney.
- Wright State – See #2 above, except that they play better defense and at a slower pace. They just haven’t had the offense to take advantage of it. Bonus: Junior forward Cory Cooperwood went to Riverview HS in Searcy. He was pretty highly touted coming out of Riverview but had to spend some JC time to iron things out before heading to Wright State.
- Rhode Island – They don’t really have any great wins, but they also only have one double-digit loss. If they sneak into the tourney, they have what it takes to put together a hot-shooting game and knock off a big-name team.
Any glaring omissions? I figure there will be some as the conferences and teams become more prominent, but I also tried to paint a pretty comprehensive picture.