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Inside the Bracket: At-large Picture – Part I

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.

Wichita State –  After missing chances against Alabama and Temple in Puerto Rico, the Shockers posted a strong win over UNLV at home.  Without that, WSU’s profile is much less inviting.  Thus, the Shockers’ margin for error is a smaller than it might appear.   Last year, Wichita State missed its chances against Connecticut (Maui) and San Diego State (road) and headed to the NIT.  Will the victory over UNLV hold enough weight?  Depends on how the Rebels finish the season.  Road Bumps: See Creighton and Northern Iowa above.  The three frontrunners in the MVC need to stay above the fray and beat each other along the way.

Harvard – Without a conference tournament, Harvard doesn’t have the option of winning a regular-season title and then losing in its tournament final.  It’s all or nothing.  So the question becomes, could Harvard make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team by finishing second in a conference currently ranked 18th in the RPI?  Wins over Florida State and Central Florida in the Bahamas will help – even though Harvard was outmatched at Connecticut.  The Crimson’s game with St. Joseph’s is their last chance to make a strong impression.  Road Bumps: Other than St. Joe’s, there are no teams ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI remaining on Harvard’s schedule.  Any league losses will be to non-NCAA teams.  Finishing behind one of those teams during the course of the regular season could make an at-large bid hard to find.

Belmont – The Bruins are team many believe can win a game (or two) in the NCAAs.  But Belmont has to make the field first.  Right now, the Bruins’ best victory is a double-overtime win at Middle Tennessee State – a team the Bruins played on the road again this past week (and lost).  Saturday’s loss at Miami-OH is the one that could sting the Bruins, though.  If close counts, then Belmont’s one-point loss at Duke to open the season may help.  But there’s no question that Duke and Memphis were Belmont’s best chances to make a splash, and the Bruins missed both opportunities.  Beating Marshall (Dec.19) is now critical.  It’s the Bruins’ last chance against an NCAA-caliber team. Road Bumps: Atlantic Sun play will offer little help, so Belmont will need to win its league (again) in impressive fashion.  Do that and the Bruins can stay in the at-large discussion.  Whether it’s enough depends on how the rest of the national landscape looks on Selection Sunday.

Iona – The Gaels’ resume is pretty solid at this point.  Iona has wins over Maryland (neutral), St. Joseph’s (home), Denver (road), and Richmond (road).  Losses are to Purdue (one point – neutral) and at Marshall.  The Gaels are currently in a stretch of eight straight road games have gone 6-1 in the first seven.  Those are numbers and schedule benefits that will compare favorably in March.  Road Bumps: Fairfield will challenge Iona for the MAAC title.  A regular-season title would certainly help the Gaels’ at-large chances.  We saw that with UAB last year.

Denver – The Pioneers have wins over Southern Mississippi and St. Mary’s at home.  Both could be fellow bubble teams.  Losses are at California and to Iona at home.  The latter could prove important if those two are compared.  That said, Denver has positioned itself as an at-large candidate if it can win a regular-season Sun Belt title and avoid many more losses along the way.  Road Bumps: Middle Tennessee State has proven it can beat quality teams, so the road to a Sun Belt title won’t be easy.  If both of those teams dominate the conference and play each other in the conference tournament final, it’ll be interesting to see if the loser garners an at-large bid.

Middle Tennessee State – An early win at UCLA is not helping the Blue Raiders much right now.  But a split with Belmont (both at home) is worthy of consideration.  MTSU’s other loss is at UAB – which hurts.  Up next is Mississippi (Dec. 21).  It’s MTSU’s last chance to put something of note on its non-conference resume.  Road Bumps: The Raiders will have to keep pace with Denver in the Sun Belt and split games with the Pioneers to have any realistic shot at an at-large bid.  If that happens, and both teams play in the Sun Belt final, MTSU will likely be on the at-large board.  It may not be enough, but they will be in the discussion.

Long Beach State – Few teams have played a tougher slate than the 49ers.  A victory at Pittsburgh will help, but there was also a miscue at Montana. To date, LBSU has lost at San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.  Those are all good losses in close games.  The question is whether LBSU can compile enough quality wins.  It may come down to the 49ers game with Xavier on December 22.  Road Bumps: The Big West isn’t very strong so the conference road has the potential for a host of bad losses.  LBSU doesn’t have to be perfect in conference play, but pretty close.  If the 49ers can avoid more than one or two losses, they should be in the at-large picture.

St. Mary’s – In its toughest games to date, the Gaels beat Northern Iowa at home and lost at Denver. A road trip to Baylor (Dec. 22) and a date with Missouri State are St. Mary’s last chances to do anything outside the West Coast Conference.  A split is important – especially if the Gaels can pull off the upset in Waco. Then it’ll come down to St. Mary’s performance against BYU and Gonzaga in the WCC.  Road Bumps: Playing two non-DI games won’t help the Gaels and the WCC is stronger top to bottom than most people think.

BYU – The Cougars are behind the curve after opening with a loss at Utah State and falling easily at Wisconsin.  Saturday, the Cougars missed a golden chance to upset Baylor at the Marriott Center.  The rest of BYU’s non-conference slate isn’t much to talk about.  Beating Oregon at home is okay, but not the type of victory that will earn many NCAA points.  Road Bumps: At this point, BYU needs to finish with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s at the top of the West Coast Conference.  Finishing third and losing early in the WCC tourney probably won’t be enough.

Ohio – A close loss at Louisville and a victory at Marshall have the Bobcats in contention.  Ohio’s game at Northern Iowa (Dec. 20) is huge.  It would give the Bobcats another notable non-conference victory and position them ahead of UNI heading into conference play.  Road Bumps: Kent State, and a few others, will make the Mid-American Conference journey a bit challenging.  If Ohio can pile up MAC wins, avoid “bad losses”, and reach the conference title game against Kent State, an at-large bid is possible.

Kent State – The Flashes are many people’s favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.  A season-opening victory at West Virginia will help and Kent’s loss to Cleveland State won’t hurt the flashes – even though it was home.  KSU’s biggest issue is that its remaining conference slate has been pretty light, and the Flashes won’t play another Top 100 RPI team until they travel to Ohio on January 18.  Road Bumps: Kent will need a strong run in the MAC season to keep the door open.  That won’t be easy with teams like Ohio, Akron, and Bowling Green to contend with – especially on the road.

Cleveland State – The Vikings have played just two home games.  That will help CSU’s power numbers.  So will victories at Vanderbilt – although the Commodores have sputtered – and Kent State.  The dent in the armor is a “bad loss” at Hofstra.  Whether or not that plays a role depends on CSU’s performance in the Horizon League.  At this point, Horizon foes Butler and Detroit will not provide a significant resume boost Milwaukee is a wildcard.  That could change, of course, but it’s something to note.  Road Bumps: Conference play is never easy.  How the Vikings navigate the Horizon landscape will be telling.  A strong showing and regular-season title will keep CSU in the at-large picture.

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