And Doowwwn The Stretch They Come

It's that time of year again when college basketball junkies start to experience the symptoms. Yes, it's that racing pulse and beating heart telling them that their annual bout of March Magicitis is about to strike. Millions of hard-courtaholics will soon be "sick" for consecutive Thursdays and Fridays and will just not be able to go to work those four days. Dr. Peiser prescribes bed rest for all of you who might become ill with this unfortunate affliction.

You'll just have to stay inside and watch TV—boo hoo.

Here is my bi-weekly dose of contagions for you to absorb. Let's look at the conference-by-conference breakdown for the last time until the week of Selection Sunday. There has been quite a bit of movement as some teams have begun to swoon like the Chicago Cubs, while other teams pretend they are the next 1951 New York Giants. 

Note: Records are through games of Wednesday, February 22.

America East: 1 bid

Albany 12-2/17-9 and Binghamton 11-4/14-12 have proven to be the class of the league this year, but only one team is going from the Am East, and that's whoever wins the conference tournament. I wouldn't count out Vermont 7-7/11-14 until someone actually ends their season in the conference tourney. The Catamounts have the talent to pull it off, as rebounding becomes even more important in the post-season. Vermont is the best rebounding team in the league. The conference tournament is at Binghamton until the final round; the championship game is on the higher seed's home court. Binghamton closes at Vermont, while Albany goes on the road to New Hampshire and Maryland-Baltimore County. Give the Great Danes the advantage here with two weaker closing games. Albany is going to take the regular season crown and guarantee themselves no worse than an NIT bid.

Atlantic Coast: 6 bids

The ACC is the third best conference in the RPI ratings, so there is no way I can justify putting seven teams in the Big Dance. Six looks like the maximum number that can get invitations.

Duke 14-0/26-1, North Carolina State 10-4/21-6, North Carolina 9-4/18-6, and Boston College 8-5/21-6 are safe. There will be a dogfight for the remaining two bids. Florida State 7-6/17-7, Virginia 7-6/14-10, Miami 7-7/15-12, and Maryland 6-7/16-10 are the four contenders. The Seminoles have the talent to make a run in the conference tournament and get to the semifinals. They were not expected to finish above ninth place. Virginia wasn't supposed to be in the mix either, but the Cavaliers have responded well to new coach Dave Leitao. Both teams are the co-favorites to fill out the predicted allotment.

Atlantic Sun: 1 bid

How about Lipscomb 13-5/17-9 and Belmont 13-5/15-10 being tied for the league lead this late in the season? The two teams may not be able to sell out a game at Memorial Gym nowadays, but they have a chance to play each other with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.

There's a mighty big fly in the locals' ointment though. East Tennessee State 12-6/15-10 gets to host the A-Sun Tournament this year, and the Buccaneers are tough on their home floor. 

Keep an eye on Gardner-Webb 12-6/15-10. The Bulldogs won at ETSU, and they beat Minnesota in Minneapolis earlier in the season. They also extended North Carolina to the buzzer.

I'll give Belmont a slight edge to become the only Nashville area team to advance to the dance.

Atlantic 10: 1 or 2 bids

The A-10 is down a bit this year, failing to crack the RPI's top 10 conference list. George Washington 13-0/23-1 is a top 10 team, but the Colonials have an RPI down in the 30's. If GW loses in the A-10 Tournament, I think they will still get a bid. When has a top 10 team been excluded from the dance?

Charlotte 10-3/17-9 is one of those teams on the rise, having won six consecutive conference games. The 49ers need to polish their dance shoes, as they may be the team to beat in the conference tournament. We should get a preview of the finals on March 4; Charlotte ventures to GW.

St. Louis 9-4/15-10 and La Salle 9-5/17-8 are two more teams trying to come home first from well off the pace; neither was expected to contend. The Billikens are well-balanced, while the Explorers have the top player in the league in Steven Smith.

Big East: 7, 8, or 9 bids

Have you heard that the NCAA is adding a fifth regional this year? It's called the Big East Tournament. This could be a year where two Big East teams make the Final Four and three make the Elite Eight.

Villanova 11-1/21-2, Connecticut 11-2/24-2, Pittsburgh 9-4/20-4, West Virginia 9-4/18-8, Georgetown 9-5/18-7, and Marquette 8-5/18-8 have already qualified based on record and RPI. Syracuse 7-6/19-8 and Cincinnati 7-6/18-9 (Andy Kennedy deserves the job full-time) are on the good side of the bubble, while Seton Hall 7-6/16-9 is right behind them.

Louisville 5-8/17-9 still has a lot of work to do and may have to get to the conference finals to secure a bid. I think they will be a number one seed in the NIT.

Big Sky: 1 bid

Two teams are clearly better than the rest in this league. Northern Arizona 11-1/19-8 didn't fare so well in last week's Bracket Buster, but the Lumberjacks from Flagstaff can wrap up the regular season title and guaranteed minimum of the NIT with a win over Sacramento State Saturday.

Montana 8-3/19-5 has the better chance of upsetting someone in the NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies own a blowout win over Stanford. Montana closes out the regular season hosting NAU. I believe the Grizzlies will win that one and then win the rubber game when the bid is on the line.

Keep an eye on Montana State 6-5/14-12 as a dark horse. The Bobcats have the experience and talent to pull off the upset.

Big South: 1 bid

Birmingham Southern 12-3/19-7 and Winthrop 11-3/18-7 have fought it out tooth and nail all season. Winthrop won the first battle between the two by 41 points to open up conference play. The two teams close out in the season in Birmingham.

Buzz Peterson has recovered nicely since he was shown the big orange door. His Coastal Carolina team 10-4/16-9 has won eight conference games in a row, including a sweep over Winthrop and a win over B'ham Sou.

Big 10: 6 or 7 bids

The RPI ratings say this is the top league in the land. I think the Big 10 edges out the Big East because last place Purdue, 10th place Northwestern, and ninth place Penn State are better than South Florida, DePaul, and St. John's.

Ohio State 9-4/20-4, Iowa 9-4/20-7, Wisconsin 8-4/18-7, Illinois 8-5/22-5, Michigan 8-6/18-7, and Michigan State 7-6/19-8 can figure on needing hotel reservations in mid-March. 

Indiana 6-7/14-10 absolutely must win at Purdue and beat one of the Michigan teams and then win their first conference tournament game to be seriously considered. 17-12 should put them on the good side of the bubble.

Minnesota 5-8/14-10 started league play at 0-6 and has since won five of seven. I think it's too little too late, but the Gophers could be ready to make a deep NIT run.

Big 12: 3, 4, or 5 bids

No longer are seven or eight teams competing for six spots. The Big 12 has two very good teams, two fairly good teams, and two decent teams. Texas 11-2/23-4 and Kansas 11-2/20-6 are already in. Oklahoma 9-4/18-6 is probably already in. 

Colorado 7-6/17-7, Texas A&M 7-6/17-7, and Nebraska 7-6/17-9 are competing for the remaining one definite bid. I like A&M's chances to finish 9-7 with an upset at home over Texas. That could propel the Aggies over the top.

It looks like Knight School graduates to the NIT. Texas Tech 6-7/14-13 doesn't have the talent to win twice in the conference tourney.

Big West: 1 bid

Pacific 9-2/19-7 isn't as good as last year, but the Tigers still have a thoroughbred to rely on in Christian Maraker, the league's best player. 

UC-Irvine 10-3/15-11 owns a split with Pacific and must be considered the top contender to dethrone the Tigers.

I have a suspicion here that sixth place Cal. St. Fullerton 4-8/12-11 may be poised to make a surprise run to the finals of the Big West Tournament. The Titans have the second and third best players in the league in Bobby Brown and Jamaal Brown. Most of their losses have been by six points or less.

Colonial: 1 or 2 bids

Both George Mason 14-2/21-5 and UNC-Wilmington 13-3/20-7 have high enough RPIs to qualify for the Big Dance. GMU probably clinched an at-large berth last week with an impressive win at Wichita State in the Bracket Buster.

Should UNCW falter in the CAA Tournament, it opens the door for Hofstra 12-4/20-5 and Old Dominion 11-5/19-8. Virginia Commonwealth 10-6/17-8 could play themselves into the mix with a season-ending sweep of UNCW and William & Mary.

Conference USA: 1 or 2 bids

Memphis 11-0/25-2 is a lock. Alabama-Birmingham 9-2/19-5 can jump up to the top of the bubble by winning out (that would include a home upset over Memphis). Texas-El Paso 9-2/17-7 and Houston 8-3/18-6 have the talent to threaten in the conference tournament, but for either to go dancing, they would have to win the automatic bid.

Horizon: 1 bid

Wisconsin-Milwaukee 12-4/19-8 is clearly weaker this season than last and highly susceptible to an upset loss in the conference tournament. Butler 11-4/18-10 is the leading contender in that battle. Also in the hunt are Wright State 8-7/13-13, Loyola of Chicago 7-8/16-10, Illinois-Chicago 7-8/14-14, UW-Green Bay 7-8/13-15 and Detroit 7-8/14-15. This should be a fairly competitive post-season tango. Illinois-Chicago has a trio of excellent rebounders, so the Flames are my dark horse team to challenge UWM.

Independents: 0 bids

Texas A&M Corpus Christie is 19-8, so they deserve a spot in the NIT. North Dakota State is the only other independent who will finish above .500, but they will be staying home this year.

Ivy League: 1 bid

Penn 8-1/16-7 has a two game lead in the conference race. This is the lone remaining league without a postseason get-together.

Metro Atlantic: 1 or 2 bids

Has Iona 13-3/20-5 done enough to guarantee themselves an at-large spot? I tend to think not. The Gaels have an RPI just above 70, and that's not adequate.

Manhattan 12-4/16-9 and Marist 10-6/16-9 are the two key contenders for the automatic bid. 

Mid-American: 1 bid

The MAC usually gets two or more bids, but this year finds them caught in a numbers' game. Too many mid-major teams from other leagues are getting all the attention this season.

Kent State 13-2/20-7 may change coaches as frequently as the changes in Nashville's weather, but the Golden Flash continue to impress in the MAC. Akron 12-3/19-7, Miami of Ohio 12-3/16-8, and Ohio U. 10-6/16-8 make the East Division the overwhelming dominant division in the league.

Mid-Continent: 1 bid

IUPUI 13-1/18-7 has two difficult MCC road games left to play in the regular season (Chicago State and Southern Utah). Oral Roberts 11-3/16-11 travels to last place Centenary and hosts Valparaiso 8-6/16-9. While IUPUI is the favorite to return to the NCAA Tournament, you can never discount Homer Drew and Valpo.

Mid-Eastern Athletic: 1 bid

Obviously when a league is rated low in the RPI, only the conference's automatic qualifier will get a mention on Selection Sunday. Delaware State 14-1/16-11 has the best shot at earning a spot in the playoff round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Missouri Valley: 3 or 4 bids

Six teams are now in the mix in the MVC. Bradley 10-7/17-9 went to the Uni-dome and not only upset Northern Iowa 11-6/22-7, they won by 22 points.

Wichita State 13-4/22-7 has clinched a share of the league crown. The Shockers lead Creighton 12-5/19-7 by one game. Missouri State 11-6/19-7 and Southern Illinois 11-6/18-10 round out the contender list. I favor Missouri State in the conference tournament, but trying to figure out the other two or three invitees is anyone's guess. All six teams reside in the RPI top 50.

Mountain West: 1 or 2 bids

The 10th best conference is never a guarantee to pick up two NCAA bids, and the MWC is this year's number 10 league. San Diego State 11-3/18-8 has led the conference for most of the year with Air Force 10-4/22-5 trailing close behind. Brigham Young 9-4/17-7 has won six of seven games including victories over both SDSU and AFA. UNLV 9-4/15-10 has tough road games remaining at Air Force and New Mexico, but the Runnin' Rebels must be considered one of the top contenders. The league tournament is in Denver, so no team has any real advantage.

Northeast: 1 bid

Fairleigh Dickinson 13-4/17-10, Central Connecticut 11-5/15-10, and Monmouth 11-5/14-13 are the top three NEC teams, but none of the three are dominant enough that someone else cannot come from the back of the pack and claim the automatic bid. I give a slight edge to Central Connecticut.

Ohio Valley: 1 bid

Murray State 16-2/20-5 ran away from the rest of the field, but the Racers don't have a high enough RPI to secure an at-large bid. They should romp through the OVC tournament and get the automatic bid. Then, Racer fans will have to sweat it out during coaching carousel season. Mick Cronin will eventually move on to a higher profile school.

Pac-10: 3 or 4 bids

This league is only the seventh best this year. The seventh best team usually gets no more than three bids. UCLA 10-4/20-6 and Washington 9-5/20-5 are the two safe teams. California 10-4/16-7 leads a group of three more teams on the bubble. Stanford 9-5/13-10, Arizona 9-6/16-10, and Southern Cal 7-7/16-9 still have work to do. Lute Olsen's Wildcats have a fat RPI and should get in the dance with their tradition.

Patriot League: 1 or 2 teams

If Bucknell 13-0/22-4 wins the Patriot League Tournament, then only one team will go from this league. Lehigh 11-2/18-10 has the talent to pull off the upset and force the Selection Committee to take two from this conference.

Southeastern: 5 bids

In the last two weeks, the SEC has moved well ahead of the Big 12 for fourth best league. With Kentucky 8-5/15-9 beginning to play like they were supposed to play, expect five teams to be happy come Selection Sunday. The Wildcats now have a chance to get a first round bye in the SEC Tournament.

Tennessee 11-2/20-4, LSU 11-2/19-7, and Florida 8-5/22-5 are sure things. Alabama 8-5/15-10 and Arkansas 7-6/18-8 are competing for the final spot. I cannot envision any of the other teams winning four games in four days and upsetting the apple cart. Look for one of the four teams not playing on Thursday to win the tournament.

Southern: 1 bid

The SoCon should enjoy one of the most exciting conference tournaments in division one this year. Seven teams are bunched together with very little room between first and seventh. Those teams are: Elon 9-4/13-13, Chattanooga 7-6/16-12, Western Carolina 7-6/13-15, Georgia Southern 10-4/19-8, Charleston 9-5/17-9, Davidson 9-5/16-10, and Furman 8-6/15-11. 

I give the slight edge to Charleston, as they host the tournament. Their home town advantage is not all that strong, but it may be worth two or three points.

Southland: 1 bid

Northwestern State 11-1/18-7 holds a commanding three game lead in the Southland, and it would be terrible for any other school to upset them in the conference tournament. The Demons actually have a chance to win a game in the NCAA Tournament with the talent on this team. They took Utah State to the wire in the Bracket Buster.

Southwestern Athletic: 1 bid

The SWAC is the consensus last place league in the NCAA, even behind the Independents. The winner of this league's automatic bid is almost certain to advance to Dayton for the play-in game.

Southern 12-3/13-12 and Grambling 10-4/12-9 are the leading contenders, with Alabama State 9-5/11-14 just behind. Alabama A&M 7-7/9-12 has the firepower to win three straight games and take the bid.

Sunbelt: 1 bid

Western Kentucky 11-1/20-5 has inched closer towards at-large status. The Hilltoppers have moved up to the low 40's of the RPI. I just cannot see two teams going from this league, as the Sunbelt is rated as the 18th best league.

South Alabama 10-3/19-6 is the second best team in the league. Middle Tennessee 6-6/14-11 hosts the tournament, but the Blue Raiders are too inconsistent to win it.

West Coast: 1 or 2 bids

Gonzaga 12-0/23-3 is obviously in already. If someone can upset them in the WCC Tournament, then this league must get two teams. San Diego 6-6/16-9 or St. Mary's 6-6/14-11 should be the opponent in the finals (whichever team gets the number three seed).

Western Athletic Conference: 1 or 2 bids

Nevada 10-3/21-5 has earned an at-large bid with an RPI in the 20's. If they don't get an automatic bid, it will be because one of three teams beat them. They are: Louisiana Tech 9-4/17-10, Utah State 8-4/18-6, or Hawaii 8-5/15-9. I give Louisiana Tech with Paul Millsap the best shot at dethroning the Wolf Pack.

The Computer Picks For Saturday's and Sunday's SEC Games

L S U 76
Kentucky 68
   
Ole Miss 69
Auburn 67
   
Mississippi State 73
Georgia 72
   
Tennessee 90
Arkansas 80
   
South Carolina 66
Vanderbilt 60
   
Sunday  
Florida 80
Alabama 69

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