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The National: A Look at Mid-Major Autobids (Part Three)

I skipped finishing this yesterday because I wanted to wait on the Saturday results, which only seemed prudent since everyone was playing. (Also, I had to leave the house in order to try and cause the 'Cats to come back from that awful first half. Sorry, guys; I should have left 20 minutes earlier. MY BAD.)

That out of the way, we continue on with our final look at the state of the mid-major conferences heading toward Championship Fortnight, with everyone alphabetically from the Northeast to the WAC.

But first: some old business involving the conferences I covered in part one and part two.

Earlier this afternoon, Stony Brook secured the top seed by taking care of Maine. Vermont crushed Maryland-Baltimore County, but after their shocking loss to Binghamtom earlier in the week, it was too little, too late. They'll have to settle for the second seed, and hope someone upends Stony Brook in order to get the championship game at home.

Belmont squeaked past Mercer 62-61, securing the regular season title in their final year in the league. South Carolina-Upstate thrashed Stetson 90-72 to move into a tie for second place with Mercer, but Mercer retains the #2 seed, having swept the Spartans.

Drexel survived a nail-biter on the road, edging Old Dominion 73-72 for their 15th straight win, won the CAA regular-season title in the process, and helped their bubble chances significantly. Virginia Commonwealth handled George Mason 89-77 to secure second place and give their bubble hopes a boost. Mason's only hope now is to win the conference tournament.

Friday night, Valparaiso completed the season sweep of Butler with a 71-59 win at home. Cleveland State's still on the bubble after slapping down Wright State 77-55 yesterday. Wisconsin-Milwaukee took care of Loyola 78-69, while Detroit squeaked past Youngstown State on the road 76-74. The end result: a three-way tie for third; Detroit gets the third seed, Milwaukee the fourth, and Butler the fifth.

Let me reiterate this: the two-time NCAA Tournament runner-up is the fifth seed in the Horizon League post-season tournament. Let that sink in.

As I'm sure you're all already aware, Harvard got tripped up at home by Pennsylvania last night, 55-54. This makes the Ivy League very, very, VERY interesting now, as if both teams win out (which would almost certainly ensure that Harvard gets an at-large bid), they'd have to play a one-game playoff to determine the Ivy League's automatic bid. They could get two in, guys. Keep an eye on developments.

Now, with that out of the way, on to the rest of the conferences.

The NEC's got three teams that look pretty good superficially; each of them has one quality win away from home in the non-conference, and they've all hit the 20-win mark. The problem is they've also got some clunkers. Even Wagner's in no danger of an unexpected at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament despite a resume which included absolutely no bad losses... until last night, when they played their worst game of the season. That loss handed LIU the regular season title and, at worst, a trip to the NIT. Those two teams will be the favorites when the NEC tournament kicks off, and Robert Morris (beneficiary of only having had to play LIU and Wagner once each this year) is also a minor threat.

Long Island-Brooklyn
22-8, 16-2
best win: 80-75 over Vermont at Hall of Fame Tio-Off (Springfield)
worst losses: several worth noting. 89-71 at Hofstra; 100-84 at Iona; 63-53 at Columbia; 73-62 at Norfolk State; last night's 106-78 debacle at Monmouth.
interesting losses: 77-69 at Old Dominion, 77-68 at Penn State

24-5, 15-3
best win: 59-54 at Pittsburgh
worst loss: last night, 78-61 at Central Connecticut State
the other losses: 78-66 at Connecticut; 70-69 to Lehigh at home; swept by LIU-Brooklyn 78-73 and 73-66

Robert Morris (PA)
22-9, 13-5
best win: probably 70-67 at Ohio
worst loss: 64-47 at Memphis
interesting losses: 81-71 at Pittsburgh; 62-58 to Cleveland State at home

Murray State is, of course, a lock for the tournament. The OVC tournament is a double-bye, so both Murray and Tennessee State will get a pass to the semifinals, and the most likely outcome will be the rubber match between the two. The expectation here will be that Murray sets aside any questions and earns the auto-bid, but let's not sell Tennessee State too short here either: besides handing Murray their only loss of the season, they beat South Carolina on the road and lost by a point in overtime to the SWAC regular-season champion. On the other hand, they've had some howlers in the loss column.

Murray State
28-1, 15-1
best wins: 90-81 in 2OT over Southern Mississippi at Alaska; 75-58 over Dayton at home; 76-72 at Memphis; 65-51 over Saint Mary's at home
the loss: 72-68 to Tennessee State at home (avenged Thursday night on the road, 80-62)

Tennessee State
19-11, 11-5
best wins: 64-63 at South Carolina; 72-68 at Murray State
worst losses: 71-37 at Saint Louis; 102-69 at North Carolina
interesting loss: 90-89 in 2OT to Mississippi Valley State at Las Vegas Invitational

It's probably a two-team race, but we'll include American here as a potential chaos agent despite their inability to beat any serious competition in the non-conference slate. Bucknell and Lehigh both have a decent non-conference win over teams that should at least reach the NIT; they also both have a litany of decent losses to quality opponents. Lehigh, in particular, performed fairly well on the road against major conference competition. All three teams should skate in the first round, which is why American becomes relevant: they'd meet Lehigh in the second round, and they're the ones responsible for Lehigh's worst loss of the year. (Lehigh lost two other games by nine points, but losing by nine on the road to either Iowa State or Michigan State qualifies as more of a moral victory than a bad loss.)

22-8, 12-2
best wins: 79-65 over Richmond at home; 75-61 at Boston University
worst loss: 78-52 at La Salle
interesting losses: 80-68 at Vanderbilt; 61-57 at George Mason

23-7, 11-3
best wins: 70-69 at Wagner, 56-53 at Bucknell
worst loss: 71-62 at American
interesting losses: 78-73 at Saint John's; 86-77 at Iowa State; 81-79 in OT at Cornell; 90-81 at Michigan State

19-10, 10-4
best wins: 66-60 at home over Saint Joseph's; 71-62 at home over Lehigh
worst losses: 81-55 at Georgetown; 73-52 at Villanova
interesting losses: none, really

I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that anyone other than Davidson is going to win the conference tournament. That's not to suggest nobody will; it's merely a recognition that if it happens, it's going to involve someone pulling off a huge upset, and there's nobody to really point at as the likely culprit. Davidson has a bye in the first round, of course; their second-round foe could be Samford, one of the two teams that knocked them off in the regular season. The other, College of Charleston, could not meet Davidson until the final as they're the 4th seed in the South.

Well, okay, I guess I will offer a profile of Charleston, as they're the only other team besides Davidson with a solid non-conference record. (In fact, Wofford's the only other conference team with a winning record.) Indeed, coming into the conference schedule, CoC was 10-3, coming off a rough home loss to George Mason. The wheels fell off at that point, and Charleston suffered through an absolutely brutal January, but they've mostly righted the ship in February. Can you ever really rule out CoC anyway? Besides, a look at the two team's profiles side-by-side is very revealing...

22-7, 16-2
best win: 80-74 at Kansas, of course
worst loss: 84-61 at North Carolina-Charlotte... or maybe 91-74 at home to Wichita State in Bracketbusters
interesting losses: 82-69 at Duke; 87-83 to Vanderbilt at home; 73-65 at Massachusetts

College of Charleston
19-11, 10-8
best wins: 72-69 at Clemson; 68-66 over Big South regular-season champion UNC-Asheville and 85-61 shellacking of Massachusetts, both at the Paradise Jam; 87-85 in 2OT over Tennessee-Chattanooga at home; 71-65 over Tennessee at home; 80-73 at Kent State in Bracketbusters
worst loss: 75-58 at Wofford
interesting losses: 74-63 to Central Florida at Paradise Jam; 69-62 at Louisville; 84-76 to George Mason at home

Texas-Arlington, who have quietly compiled one of the most underrated resumes among the low-mid-major ranks and if seeded correctly will be a serious threat to pull off a first-round upset, is almost certainly going to be the Southland's NCAA representative. There are a few other teams with enough of a resume to at least be considered spoilers, however.

22-6, 14-0
best win: 74-73 over Kent State at the Athletes in Action Holiday Classic
worst loss: 80-62 at Texas
interesting losses (i.e., the rest): 75-65 at Baylor; 71-69 to Samford at home; 80-75 in OT at Tulsa; 73-69 at Utah State; 72-70 at Weber State in Bracketbusters

Stephen F. Austin
17-11, 10-4
best win: 53-35 at Texas-El Paso
worst loss: the only reason we can call these "worst" loss candidates is because the teams in question just aren't that good, but they were all losses to major-conference teams on the road: 66-54 at Texas Tech; 55-42 at Texas A&M; 55-45 at Oregon
interesting losses: the same list, really

18-11, 9-5
best win: 72-54 over North Carolina-Charlotte at home
worst losses: 68-48 at Louisville; 70-50 at Ohio State; 86-64 at Kentucky
interesting losses: 85-78 in OT at Ohio, 77-72 at TCU

I wouldn't even bother worrying about the SWAC. There is only one team other than Mississippi Valley State with a winning record. MVSU is this year's UAPB; they started conference play at 1-11, then shrugged their shoulders and ran the table in conference.

Mississippi Valley State
17-11, 16-0
best win: 90-89 in 2OT over Tennessee State at the Las Vegas Invitational
worst losses: well, a bunch. They suffered 25+ point losses at North Carolina, Arkansas, Northwestern, Mississippi, Florida, and Wisconsin.
interesting losses: 80-67 at Notre Dame, 61-57 at South Carolina, 67-65 at Iowa State (which probably qualifies as their best game of the year)

15-14, 11-5
best win: Mmmm... well, 64-61 over Florida A&M at the South Padre Island Invitation, by default
worst losses: 25+ point blowouts at Texas A&M, New Mexico State, and Texas-El Paso
interesting losses: their best loss of the year was 59-53 at Providence.

It's really a two team race, but Oakland is always a credible threat to win the conference tournament (and has an interesting profile which belies their record, having dropped four games by fewer than five points). The more interesting thing here, however, is that while Oral Roberts seems to be getting all the attention, South Dakota State has quietly put together a very nice season for themselves as well, and are just as much a threat to win the conference title as ORU.

Oral Roberts
26-5, 17-1
best wins: 62-56 over Southern Methodist at home; 64-42 at Xavier; 72-56 over Texas Tech at home; 67-61 over Akron at home in Bracketbusters
worst losses: 73-59 at Oklahoma; 75-60 at South Dakota State
interesting losses: 78-71 at West Virginia; 78-77 to Texas-San Antonio at NIT Season Tip-Off; 67-61 at Gonzaga

South Dakota State
24-7, 15-3
best wins: 74-61 at Mercer; 92-73 at Washington; 75-60 over Oral Roberts at home
worst losses: 71-55 at Minnesota; 89-70 at North Dakota
interesting losses: 72-61 at Georgia; 76-64 at Nebraska

17-14, 11-7
best wins: 76-74 at Houston; 89-81 at Tennessee; 82-80 at Valparaiso
worst losses: 74-57 at Alabama; 91-68 at Arkansas; 96-69 at North Dakota State
interesting losses: 84-82 to Ohio at home; 90-80 to Michigan at home; 79-75 at Illinois State in Bracketbusters

Both Middle Tennessee State and Denver have been in bubble discussions most of the year. Denver fell off after a series of heartbreaking conference losses; Middle Tennessee State probably fell off once and for all after last night's loss to Western Kentucky, but they may still be vaguely in the picture. Either of the two teams is in good shape to grab the automatic bid, and should get a non-insulting seed for their efforts. I include Arkansas-Little Rock below because (a) they won the West Division title by (b) sweeping Denver, and (c) have some interesting losses, but I don't expect them to steal the auto-bid.

Middle Tennessee State
25-5, 14-2
best wins: 58-51 at Loyola Marymount; 86-66 at UCLA; 77-62 at Tennessee State; 77-53 over Akron at home; 68-56 over Mississippi (neutral)
worst loss: 75-60 at Denver, or maybe 66-56 at Alabama-Birmingham
the other losses: 87-84 in 2OT to Belmont at home (avenged a month later); 84-77 at Vanderbilt; 73-67 to Western Kentucky last night

20-8, 10-5
best wins: 59-52 over Southern Mississippi at home; 70-58 over Saint Mary's at home; 75-60 over Middle Tennessee State at home
worst loss: 80-59 at California
interesting losses: 80-78 in OT to Iona at home; 79-75 at Colorado State, three one-point road losses in conference play (North Texas in OT, Louisiana-Lafayette in OT, Florida Atlantic)

Arkansas-Little Rock
15-15, 12-4
best wins: swept Denver
worst losses: 65-49 at Tulsa; 69-47 at Michigan State; 73-51 to Kentucky (at Louisville)
interesting losses: 59-54 to Wisconsin-Milwaukee at home; 69-63 in OT to Southern Methodist at home; 58-55 to Oral Roberts at home

I hesitate to even include them in this article, but they're still viewed as a mid-major, so I suppose I must. Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are near-locks. Brigham Young is on the right side of the bubble. Loyola Marymount would, if the conference was viewed properly by everyone, be on the soft side of the bubble. Any of them could win this thing (though it's not unreasonable to expect SMC or Gonzaga to earn the auto-bid). This is a good conference, people, and the sooner I can ignore them when writing things like this the better.

Saint Mary's
25-5, 14-2
best wins: 87-70 over Weber State at home; swept BYU
the losses (all ugly): 70-58 at Denver; 72-59 to Baylor at home; 73-59 at Gonzaga; 75-60 to Loyola Marymount at home; 65-51 at Murray State in Bracketbusters

23-5, 13-3
best wins: 73-53 over Notre Dame at home; 67-61 over Oral Roberts at home; 71-60 over Arizona (neutral); 71-55 over Butler at home; 72-65 at Xavier
worst loss: 83-62 at Saint Mary's
the other losses: 82-75 at Illinois before they tanked; 74-67 to Michigan State at home; 83-73 at Brigham Young; 66-65 at San Francisco

Brigham Young
24-7, 12-4
best wins: 76-55 over Nevada at Chicago Invitational; 79-65 over Oregon at Salt Lake City; 94-66 over Weber State at home; 61-42 at Utah; 70-68 at Virginia Tech
worst loss: 73-56 to Wisconsin at Chicago Invitational
interesting loss: 86-83 to Baylor at home

Loyola Marymount
19-11, 11-5
best wins: 69-58 at UCLA; 75-68 over Saint Louis at home; 61-53 over Valparaiso at home in Bracketbusters
worst losses: 77-61 at Florida State; 69-45 at Morgan State!?
interesting losses: 58-51 to Middle Tennessee State at home; 77-67 to Harvard at home

Nevada is still bouncing around the bubble, but lack a serious marquee win. These two teams are the clear class of the WAC, and one of them is almost sure to get through the tournament.

23-5, 11-1
best wins: 76-73 in OT over Washington at home; 70-64 at Montana
worst losses: 68-46 to Missouri State at home in season opener; 76-55 to Brigham Young at Chicago Invitational
interesting losses (the rest): 71-67 at Nevada-Las Vegas; 72-68 to Idaho at home; 90-84 at Iona in Bracketbusters

New Mexico State
22-8, 9-3
best wins: 62-53 at New Mexico; 89-73 over Texas-El Paso at home; 71-55 over Drake at home in Bracketbusters
worst loss: 89-69 to Mew Mexico at home
interesting losses: 80-72 to Southern Mississippi at Alaska; 74-66 at Southern Mississippi; 73-69 at Texas-El Paso; 68-60 to Nevada at home