A Look At The Conferences

January 20, is much too early to speculate on which 65 teams will get invitations to the cotillion known as the "Big Dance." However, it isn't too early to start looking at each conference to see who the contenders are. Looking at the RPI and records against top 50 opponents, we can begin to make assumptions about the number of teams each conference can expect to place into the tournament. And, in the conferences with just the automatic qualifier going, we can see which teams have the leg up.

Note: Records and RPI Ratings are through games of January 18.
 
America East: 1 bid
 
Vermont has rented the tux for the dance the last few years, but the Catamounts face stiff competition this year from Albany.  The Great Danes fell at Vermont by 12 points earlier this week, but they lead the league by one-half game over Binghamton and one full game over Vermont.  This is a league where offense does not exist.  Albany leads with an average of just 66.2 points per game.
 
Atlantic Coast: 6 or 7 bids
 
Duke is a lock, while Miami, North Carolina, and North Carolina State are headed in the right direction.  There is a logjam between seven additional teams, and at least three should succeed in getting their reward.  The seven include: Florida State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia, Boston College, and Wake Forest.  The surprising Hurricanes own wins over Maryland and North Carolina (at the Dean Dome).
 
Atlantic Sun: 1 bid
 
Nashville's two entries in this league are two of the hottest teams in the circuit.  Lipscomb and Belmont share third place with identical 6-2 league marks.  Florida Atlantic and Kennesaw State share the lead at 7-1.  One of these four should win the post-season tournament.  Belmont is torching the nets for 82 points per game.
 
Atlantic 10: 1 or 2 bids
 
George Washington is 3-0 in the league and 13-1 overall, but their RPI is in the 60's, even with a win over Maryland.  Xavier is also 3-0 in the league and 11-2 overall with an RPI in the teens.  Both of these teams could do damage in the NCAA tournament.  The Colonials have won five straight games and outscore their opponents by 15.3, while the Musketeers have a six game winning streak and outscore their opponents by 17.4 per game.
 
Big East: At least 7 bids
 
A league with 16 quality teams has a chance to set a record for the number of bids awarded to one conference.  When Louisville is in a three-way tie for 11th place, you know this is a tough league.
 
Pittsburgh is still undefeated at 15-0, 4-0 in league play.  West Virginia is 5-0 in the conference and 13-3 overall.  Connecticut 3-1/15-1, Villanova 3-1/12-2, and Syracuse 3-1/15-3 look to be close to locks already.  Throw in Georgetown 3-2/11-4, Marquette 3-2/13-5, Cincinnati 2-2/13-4, Rutgers 2-2/12-5, and Louisville 1-3/13-4, and you have 10 teams that have a chance to go to the dance.  At least seven will receive bids, and don't be surprised if eight or nine are picked.
 
Big Sky: 1 bid
 
Three teams appear to be the cream of the crop out west.  Sacramento State, Northern Arizona, and Montana have yet to lose in the conference.  The Grizzlies (Montana) have the most impressive showing to date with a 13-2 overall mark.
 
Big South: 1 bid
 
Winthrop remains the class of this league, having won 22 straight regular season conference games.  The Eagles are 4-0 and 10-4 overall.  Birmingham Southern and High Point are the two top contenders, but Winthrop appears to be headed to another NCAA tournament.
 
Big 10:  6 or 7 bids
 
This is the league with the top RPI as of January 18.  Six teams rate in the top 15, and a seventh is in the mid-30's.  Wisconsin 14-3, Indiana 11-3, Iowa 14-4, Ohio State 13-2, Illinois 16-2, Michigan 12-3, and Michigan State 14-4 are separated by just one in the loss column.  Five teams (Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan) average double-digit scoring margins, while Michigan State has beaten three Top 25 teams.  It should be quite an interesting Big 10 Tournament.
 
Big 12: 6 bids
 
Six bids could be a stretch this year for the Big 12, especially since neither Kansas nor Oklahoma may be one of them.  The Jayhawks and Sooners rest in a ninth place tie with Texas A&M just one-half game behind.
 
Texas has recovered from the home loss to Tennessee and has proceeded to win their last seven ball games.  Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State each have one league loss, while Colorado, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Texas Tech share 2-2 league marks.  Baylor has lost only three games overall; wait, they have played only three games.
 
Big West: 1 bid
 
UC-Irvine is alone in first with a 4-0 conference record, but just an 8-8 overall mark.  The Anteaters hold a game and a half lead over Cal State Fullerton.  Sitting at 2-2 is Pacific, the probable top contender to UCI.  The Tigers have the top big man in the league in Christian Maraker.
 
Colonial: 1 or 2 bids
 
The Mid-major conferences may find it a bit more difficult to get a second team in this year, but the Colonial has a fighting chance at two.  Both Old Dominion 6-1/13-4 and George Mason 6-1/12-4 reside in the top 40 of the RPI.  ODU has won six straight, while GMU has won their last five and owns an average victory margin of 12.5 points per game.
 
Conference USA: 1 or 2 bids
 
Conference re-alignment has destroyed the clout of C-USA.  Memphis is a legitimate top 10 team with realistic Elite Eight chances, but the Tigers may fail to get a one or two-seed even if they win every remaining game.  Their RPI, which is now number two, will drop in a free-fall once they start playing the bottom-feeders of the league.
 
UAB and UTEP offer the only real competition.  The Blazers own wins over Nebraska and Oklahoma State, while the Miners have sentiment on their side with a hit movie playing about their history.
 
Horizon: 1 bid
 
Bruce Pearl left behind enough talent to keep Wisconsin-Milwaukee competitive.  UW-M is 6-1 in league play and 13-4 overall with an RPI in the teens.  The Panthers actually trail Wright State, which is 4-0.  Butler is in the picture as well.
 
Independents: No bids
 
Texas A&M Corpus Christie is the top Indy team, but they will be lucky to receive an NIT bid.  The Islanders took Missouri and Houston to the final buzzer.
 
Ivy League: 1 bid
 
With Princeton on the skids scoring just 45.8 points per game, "The Big Two and Brainy Six" are now "Penn and the seven dwarfs."  The Quakers are 2-0 and could run the table in the Ivy this year.  Harvard and Yale pose the only minor threats to Penn's unblemished record hopes.
 
Metro Atlantic: 1 bid
 
Manhattan is the class of the MAAC once again, and the Jaspers could possibly earn an at-large bid if they run the table in the regular season and lost in the MAAC Title game.  Currently, the Jaspers are tied with Iona at 6-1. 
 
Mid-American: 2 bids
 
This league consistently receives two bids per year, so figure on more of the same this year.  Five teams rate above the rest in the MAC this season.  Miami (O) 6-0/9-5 has won five in a row.  Akron 5-0/12-3 has won their last seven games and holds a scoring margin of 11.0 points per game.  Kent State is also undefeated in league play at 5-0 and 11-5 overall; the Flashes have won their last five.  Ohio 4-1/10-3 and Buffalo 3-2/13-3 are capable of knocking off the three unbeaten teams.
 
Mid-Continent: 1 bid
 
Valparaiso headlines a group of four evenly matched teams.  Valpo is in a three-way tie for first at 4-1 with IUPUI and Oral Roberts.  Missouri-Kansas City is 5-2.
 
Mid-Eastern Athletic: 1 bid
 
All 11 members currently hold losing records, but Delaware State has won their last five games.  Coppin State and Florida A&M will make this a three team race.  The automatic qualifier could very well head to the play-in game.
 
Missouri Valley: 4 bids
 
The Valley can no longer be considered a mid-major conference.  It is a big-time league once again like it was when Cincinnati went to five consecutive Final Fours and won consecutive national titles, narrowly missing a third, and Bradley simultaneously won the NIT (when it meant something).
 
The MVC may deserve five bids this year, but that may be pushing things a bit too much, even if five teams rank in the top 32 of the RPI.
 
The five contenders are: Southern Illinois 6-1/13-4 with an RPI in the 20's; Northern Iowa 6-2/16-3 with a top 15 RPI, Creighton 6-2/12-4 with an RPI in the 20's; Wichita State 5-2/14-4 with an RPI in the 20's; and Missouri State 4-3/11-4 with an RPI in the 30's. 
 
Drake and Bradley are quite good for lower division teams.
 
Mountain West: 1 or 2 bids
 
This league has lost its shine in recent years.  Former Denver Nuggets head coach Jeff Bzdelik has kept the Air Force Academy's newfound winning tradition  alive.  The Falcons are 3-1/15-2 and hold 14.4 points per game victory margin.
 
He won't remind Coach Steve Fisher of Glen Rice, but Marcus Slaughter is dominating the MWC at San Diego State.  The Aztecs lead AFA by a half game at 4-1/11-6.
 
UNLV 3-1/9-7 with Lon Kruger coaching is playing disciplined ball and could challenge the Falcons and Aztecs.
 
Wyoming, Brigham Young, Colorado State, and New Mexico can beat anyone on their home floor, but they won't win many on the road.  Utah doesn't have much this season, while TCU may be searching for a new coach in March.
 
Northeast: 1 bid
 
Call for Robert Morrrisss!  The Colonials sit atop of the NEC with a 5-0 league mark, just a little ahead of Monmouth and Mt. St. Mary's.  One of these three should win the conference tournament, but they better keep an eye on Sacred Heart and Central Connecticut.
 
Ohio Valley: 1 bid
 
Tennessee Tech 7-2/12-5 and Murray State 7-2/10-5 lead Samford by a half game.  Five other schools are mediocre, and the bottom three are quite weak.  Look for one of the three above-mentioned to earn the automatic bid.
 
Pacific 10: 3 bids
 
This league is definitely down a bit this season, but UCLA and Washington can compete with all but the best three or four teams in the nation.  The Bruins lead the Pac-10 at 5-2/15-3 with the Huskies in a second place tie at 3-2/14-2.  Sharing second place with UW are California, Stanford, and Oregon.  Arizona and Southern Cal are within striking distance.  The post-season tournament will be an exciting one, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the bottom five won it this year.
 
Washington outscores their opponents by 18.2 points per game, so the Huskies could run the table or lose just once more and make the league race a runaway.
 
Patriot: 1 bid
 
There is an outside chance this league could garner an extra bid, if Bucknell goes 14-0 in the conference and loses to Lehigh in the finals of the tournament.  The Bison currently reside at 4-0/13-3, while Lehigh remains tied with them at 4-0/11-8.  The Mountain Hawks have won six straight.
 
Southeastern: 5 bids
 
Florida and LSU have the inside track on winning their respective divisions.  In the East, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky will contend with the West's Alabama, Ole Miss, and Arkansas for three additional bids. 
 
The Gators lead the nation with a scoring margin of +23.2, while LSU owns a +14 margin.  Surprising Ole Miss has won seven games in a row, but they have yet to play a top 25 team.  The Rebels fate will be decided in their next five games when they play at Georgia, at Arkansas, at home against LSU and Florida, and at Tennessee.  If they come out of that with a 6-2 league record, at 16-5, they would be sitting pretty on the top side of the bubble.
 
Southern: 1 bid
 
Davidson 4-1/10-6 finally lost a regular season conference game, but the Wildcats are still the odds-on favorite to take league honors.  Elon is 4-0 in the league while Western Carolina, Furman, and Georgia Southern each have just one conference loss.  These five are miles ahead of the rest of the league.
 
Southland: 1 bid
 
Northwestern State (La.), Lamar, McNeese State, and Nicholls State share the conference lead with 3-1 marks.  Except for Texas State, any of the top 10 schools has the capability of getting hot for four days and earning the automatic bid.
 
Southwestern Athletic: 1 bid
 
This is the other conference that currently has no team with an overall winning record.  Southern and Mississippi Valley each have one league loss, while Grambling, Jackson State, and Alabama A&M each have two conference defeats.  Any one of these five could win the automatic bid and become a favorite for heading to the play-in game.
 
Sunbelt: 1 bid
 
This league might deserve two bids, but I don't expect it to happen.  Four teams have separated themselves from the pack.  Western Kentucky 4-0/12-4 has won six in a row.  They own a two-game lead in the East.  In the West, South Alabama 2-0/12-3 holds a slim lead over North Texas 3-1/10-5 and Denver 3-1/10-7.  One of these four should emerge with the automatic bid.
 
West Coast: 1 bid (unless the unexpected happens)
 
Here's where the bubble watchers have to worry.  Gonzaga 4-0/14-3 is going to get a bid regardless of whether they earn an automatic one.  The Zags have an excellent shot at going 14-0 in the conference and making a shambles of the WCC race.  However, they have holes, and on the perfect night, Loyola Marymount, San Francisco, and San Diego could upset them.  Of the three, I give USD the best shot at pulling it off, but that shot is about one chance in 10.
 
Western Athletic:  1 bid
 
In past years, the WAC has received two or three bids, but I think the numbers are against them this season.  Four teams will fight it out for supremacy in the league.  Louisiana Tech 4-1/11-7 leads by a half-game over New Mexico State 3-1/7-8.  Coming on like gangbusters is Utah State 4-2/12-4 with a victory margin of 11.4 points per game.  Nevada completes the first division quartet at 3-2/13-4.
 
Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State
 
Saturday's game with Mississippi State has become a must-win affair for Vanderbilt.  A home loss to another rebuilding team would take Vanderbilt completely off the bubble and more than likely continue to a five-game losing streak.  After this game, the schedule gets much tougher with road tilts at Florida and Tennessee.  This team can still recover and win eight conference games, but if they cannot come up with a better team defensive effort and cannot get more movement in the offense, this team is capable of slumping to a 12 or 13-conference loss season.  The margin of error in the SEC is razor thin, and a five-point swing can mean the difference in most games.
 
Vanderbilt and Mississippi State—The Past
 
There was a time when Mississippi State couldn't win in Nashville.  Actually, it was a very long time.  The Bulldogs played their first game here in 1922, and it took them 44 years to pick up their first win.  Unfortunately, that upset victory occurred on Clyde Lee day (his final game for Vanderbilt).
 
Vanderbilt pulled off one of the biggest upsets in school history, when they trounced Mississippi State on January 13, 1962.  The Bulldogs came to Nashville as prohibitive favorites, sporting a 10-0 record and number one ranking in the polls.  The Commodores defeated the Bulldog zone before it could get situated time and time again in running to a 100-86 victory.  It was State's only blemish in a 24-1 season.  Stars of the game that night were John Russell with 23 points and Jerry Hall with 21 points and 13 rebounds.
 
One of the more lob-sided Commodore home victories over the Bulldogs came in 1964.  Clyde Lee tallied 17 points and 17 rebounds, Wayne Calvert came off the bench for 18 points, and Roger Schurig added 17 points in a quick burst of scoring; the Commodores won the battle of the boards by the tune of 67-24 and forced numerous turnovers with their devastating zone press en route to a 90-56 slaughter.
 
There also was an outstanding doubleheader of triple digit wins over Mississippi State on December 14, 1968.  In the opening game, the Vanderbilt Freshman team, the one that had been rated the number one recruiting class in the nation, thumped the Baby Bulldogs 107-95.  Tom Arnholt tallied 31 points; Jimmy Conn tossed in 23; Chris Schweer was good for 19 with 13 rebounds; Steve Tuner hit for 12; and Glen Butler made it five double figure scorers with 10. 
 
In the varsity game, Bob Bundy and Perry Wallace dominated on the inside, while Tom Hagan casually burned the maroon and white from the outside and at the foul line.  The Commodores won 102-87.  Hagan scored 33 points, while Wallace and Bundy each recorded double-doubles.  Wallace registered 23 points and 15 rebounds, while Bundy scored 14 points and pulled down a career best 21 boards.
 
According To The Computers
 
The Florida Gators continue to lead the SEC in every computer rating available to me.  LSU has moved ahead of Tennessee into second place, while Tennessee holds the third spot.  Only nine points separate the number three Vols and number 12 Mississippi State.
 
EAST
 
 Florida              100
Tennessee               92
Kentucky                  88
Vanderbilt           88
South Carolina      87
Georgia                   85
 
WEST
 
L S U                   94
Arkansas                    90
Ole Miss               86
Alabama                     86
Auburn                 84
Mississippi State   83
 
Saturday's Predicted Scores
 
Kentucky 69  South Carolina 63
Arkansas 76  Auburn 74
L S U  78  Alabama 65
Georgia  71  Ole Miss 68
Florida  89  Tennessee 86
Vanderbilt  70  Mississippi State 60
 
 

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