As the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament opens in St. Louis, unbeaten Wichita State is a heavy favorite to win both the MVC tourney title and capture a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Here’s what else we believe: the Shockers are the only Valley team in position to earn an at-large berth. Which means if someone other than WSU wins the title game on Sunday, one less at-large bid will be available on Selection Sunday.
The most obvious challenger is Indiana State. Before losing ground in league play, the Sycamores put together wins over Notre Dame and Belmont. Belmont has been solid. Notre Dame has struggled. But at the time, the Irish were an NCAA-caliber squad. Just below the Sycamores sits Northern Iowa. The Panthers beat VCU in December. There’s also No. 4-seed Missouri State, which managed victories over Tulsa and Texas AM in non-conference play.
Last year, No. 1 seed Creighton pushed through to claim the league’s automatic bid. The two years prior? Creighton (No. 2 seed) and Indiana State (No. 3 seed) garnered the invitation. By this time you know that Creighton has moved to the Big East, so there’s one less nemesis in Wichita State’s path. But this is March and nothing is guaranteed. Friday, the Shockers take on the winner of Thursday’s game between Drake and Evansville.
Bubble teams everywhere hope there’s nothing shocking under the Arch.
Let’s go Inside the Bracket for a look at which non-majors have put themselves in a position to be in the at-large discussion next March. There is, of course, a lot of basketball yet to be played, so things may look a bit different when we launch Bubble Banter in February. We’ll call this Stocking Stuffer Part I. Part II will feature a look at major conference teams that could be on or near the bubble come March. Note: For this discussion, Atlantic 10, Mountain West, and Conference USA teams will be featured in Part II.
At-Large Picture – Part I: Teams to watch …
Murray State - The Racers have beaten Southern Mississippi at the Great Alaska Shootout, Dayton at home, and Memphis on the road. Those were the three biggest challenges on Murray’s non-conference slate. The victory at Memphis figures to hold the most weight, although the Tigers have not looked much like a Top 20 team this season. Road Bumps: The Ohio Valley Conference isn’t very strong and will certainly be an anchor to Murray’s RPI and overall strength-of-schedule. The Racers have also played three non-Division I opponents – two of those scheduled at home. If Murray can finish its non-conference slate unbeaten, the Racers should be able to absorb a loss or two in the OVC. Any more than that, plus a loss in the OVC tournament, would make it interesting. How Southern Miss, Dayton, and Memphis finish the season will also be a factor.
Creighton – The Bluejays’ victory at San Diego State could pay big dividends in March. Beating Northwestern (Dec. 22) will be important, too. That would leave Creighton 2-1 against its best non-conference opponents (CU lost at St. Joseph’s). Given the Bluejays status as Missouri Valley favorite, the outlook for an at-large bid is favorable if the scenario above unfolds. Road Bumps: Playing on the road in the Valley is never easy, but it will be important for Creighton to avoid “bad losses” along the way. It will also help if CU separates itself with or above Northern Iowa and Wichita State at the top of the standings.
Northern Iowa – While the Panthers are off to a strong start – including a 4-1 record away from home, they lack a marquee victory. UNI’s win at Old Dominion was solid but the Panthers followed it up with a double-digit loss at St. Mary’s – another potential bubble team. The game with Ohio (Dec. 20) figures to be huge for both schools. Road Bumps: Northern Iowa will need to keep pace – and beat – both Creighton and Wichita State during the Missouri Valley season. Much like Creighton, UNI will need to avoid “bad losses” to those at the bottom of the league standings. Read more…
In our January 10 Bracket Projection you’ll find ten (10) Big East teams. That would be a record for any conference – even one as deep as the Big East. Marquette is also a legitimate at-large contender. So the question is … will we see 10 or 11 Big East teams in the actual bracket on Selection Sunday?
Given the additional three at-large spots and the current landscape in the SEC, Pac-10, and even Atlantic 10, the idea is reasonable. Still, the odds are against a double-digit Big East number. Foremost, there’s the brutal Big East schedule – which means a lot of teams will compile losses. Second, there’s bound to be a couple of BCS teams - say Maryland - who could move into the bracket – much like the Terrapins did last season. The examples below further illustrate how dynamics can change.
Example A: Cincinnati. The Bearcats play Providence, Rutgers and South Florida only once in their Big East rotation (two are at home). While that will help the potential for notable wins, it also means UC will have a more challenging time finishing .500 or better in league play. Given the Bearcats’ poor non-conference schedule (ranked No. 322 at CollegeRPI.com), there’s a chance – much like Virginia Tech last season – that Cincinnati could be left home if bids get squeezed through conference tournament upsets, etc.
Example B: Power outage. Two years ago, Georgetown opened Big East play with a win at UConn and then beat Syracuse to post an early 3-2 mark in league play. The Hoyas then lost five straight and seven of eight on their way to a 7-11 Big East finish (16-14 overall). We’re not suggesting that this Georgetown team (1-3 in Big East play through Jan. 10) is headed down the same path. Rather, we’re suggesting that post-season potential can change a lot between mid-January and mid-February. Read more…
Our first in-season bracket projection is due out Monday evening (Dec. 6). With it will come a lot of debate (and some complaints). Time to fire away with some notes and observations from a great first month of college hoops.
The first note is to remind ourselves that a lot of meaningful basketball remains. Things don’t necessarily end like they start. Flashback: Georgetown opened the ’08-’09 season 11-1, including a win at Connecticut – an eventual No. 1 seed. From there, the Hoyas stumbled through the Big East – finishing 7-11 in conference play and 16-14 overall – missing the NCAAs. With that, here we go …
- San Diego State and UNLV lead a quadrant of teams (BYU and New Mexico) from the Mountain West that could impact our final bracket in March. SDSU opened with three true road games and two neutral-court affairs – including a win at Gonzaga. It’s the type of schedule that should pay big dividends. UNLV has already beaten Wisconsin (home) and Virginia Tech (neutral court). BYU has victories over WAC-favorite Utah State and St. Mary’s. If there’s a bubble team, it’s likely New Mexico. The Lobos beat Arizona State, but lost a lopsided tilt at Cal.
- If Connecticut continues to get production from Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and others, the Huskies are in line for a very good season. Kemba Walker is a front-runner for Player-of-the-Year, and UConn already has three wins over NCAA-level teams: Wichita State, Michigan State, and Kentucky (Maui Invitational).
- Who thought Notre Dame would win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando? While beating Georgia, California, and Wisconsin isn’t quite like UConn’s feat in Maui, the Irish have certainly improved expectations – at least outside South Bend.
- Georgetown is also off to a great start. The Hoyas 111-102 OT win over Missouri ranks as the season’s best game to date. The season-opening road win at Old Dominion is looking better all the time.
- Pittsburgh is solid again – beating Maryland and Texas in New York. A No. 1-seed hopeful, the Panthers’ real questions won’t begin until March. Can they reach a Final Four?
- Overall, the Big East is 17-6 vs. fellow BCS teams.
- The Big Ten – fresh off its second straight ACC-Big Ten title – is 14-10 vs. BCS teams and 9-5 vs. the ACC overall. In our preseason Power 24, we suggested that Ohio State would challenge Michigan State for league supremacy. No team has two bigger true road wins (Florida, Florida State) than the Buckeyes. That said, MSU was 4-2 at this juncture last season and the Spartans ended up in the Final Four. Don’t quit on Tom Izzo’s bunch just because they lost to UConn and at Duke. Read more…
If you look at our preseason bracket projection, you’ll notice two teams from the Missouri Valley. Looked good a month ago. Now, not so much. It hasn’t been a November to Remember for the MVC.
Through Tuesday (Nov. 23) Missouri Valley teams are 1-7 versus BCS conference opponents. The lone win was Bradley over Southern Cal. And while USC was a sleeper pick to sneak into the field – which isn’t looking good, either – the Braves’ one-point win over the Trojans is not the type of victory that figures to elevate how MVC teams are viewed next spring.
Wichita State and Missouri State – the MVC’s highest projected teams – have yet to win an NCAA-level game. The Shockers blew a late lead against Connecticut in Maui and Missouri State lost at Tennessee. Neither was a bad loss, but both were missed chances. And Missouri Valley teams don’t get that many chances for marquee out-of-conference wins. Missouri State also lost at Tulsa – a potential bubble team from Conference USA. Two other top-half MVC teams – Northern Iowa and Bradley – have lost games to TCU and Milwaukee. Creighton lost Sunday to Iowa State, and the Cyclones aren’t projected to finish in the top half of the Big 12.
It’s still early and teams do not earn at-large bids in November and December. But bids can be lost. There are limited chances to make good impressions.
Those remaining chances? Wichita State heads to San Diego State (Dec. 4); Missouri State visits Oklahoma State (Dec. 11); Bradley hosts Utah (Dec. 4) and visits Duke (Dec. 8); Northern Iowa heads to Indiana (Dec. 22); and Creighton goes to Northwestern (Nov. 28) and hosts BYU (Dec. 1).
If the Missouri Valley hopes to send more than one team Dancing in March, the next three weeks are critical. Have a different opinion? Rebounds are always welcome.