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Preseason: Mid-Major quests for elusive NCAA bids

Dave2015Peering through the rearview mirror, we can still see Sister Jean and her Loyola Ramblers crashing the NCAA’s Final Four ballroom.  What a ride it was!  And yet, we are left to wonder: Had Illinois State won the Missouri Valley title game, would the Ramblers have made the NCAA tournament?

That is the dubious question so often faced by teams affectionately known as Mid-Majors.  Quite simply, there are no guarantees.  We’ll have to wait and see how the NCAA’s new metric – the NET – ranks and correlates results, but the most tried and true method of predictability remains: who did you play, where did you play, and who did you beat.

Thus, for teams in leagues like the Valley, non-conference scheduling and results against non-league competition are critical come Selection Sunday.  Note: For this post, teams in the Atlantic 10, American, and Mountain West are not included as those leagues (as currently constructed) have routinely sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament.

Below are sneak peaks at some of this year’s most promising mid-major at-large hopefuls as we begin another college hoops season:

Missouri Valley



ILLINOIS STATE

The Redbirds return a host of key personnel, and one could make a solid case that ISU is the Missouri Valley’s most talented team.
Key NC games: Georgia, BYU, San Diego State, Ole Miss, Central Florida (UCF)
Takeaway: UCF is the headliner; the Knights should challenge Cincinnati for the American title.  BYU and San Diego State are potential NCAA contenders, too.  Although projected as lower-tier SEC squads, Georgia and Ole Miss are still Power 5 squads.  Can the Redbirds finish those five at 3-2?  A 4-1 finish would be even more noteworthy.

LOYOLA-CHICAGO
The Ramblers return Clayton Custer, the league’s MVP, but will need a few new faces to step-up if they want to repeat last year’s success.
Key NC games: Richmond, Nevada, Ball State, Maryland, Saint Joseph’s
Takeaway: The obvious game-changer is Nevada.  Next in line are Maryland and Saint Joseph’s, both of whom figure to be at-large contenders.  While Richmond and Ball State may not move the needle, the outcomes remain important pieces of the team’s overall profile.  Assuming there are limited potholes, a 3-2 mark against this slate appears important.  Then again, more is better.

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS
Be careful about sleeping on the Salukis, who quietly finished second in the Valley a year ago. SIU is a veteran squad with some overlooked talent.
Key NC games: Kentucky, Buffalo (twice), Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Murray State
Takeaway: In the first week of the season, SIU travels to Kentucky and plays Buffalo, the favorite to win another Mid-American title.  In between a second date with the Bulls, the Salukis’ best opportunity comes against Saint Louis, an early contender for the Atlantic 10 crown.  Massachusetts and Murray State are noteworthy but neither figures to be a deciding factor.  Beating UK in Lexington seems unlikely, so the question becomes: can the Salukis split with Buffalo and take out Saint Louis?

Mid-American



BUFFALO

The Bulls return much of a team that won last year’s MAC title and knocked off Arizona in the NCAA tournament. They are favored to repeat as league champion.
Key NC games: West Virginia, Southern Illinois (twice), St. Bonaventure, Syracuse, Marquette
Takeaway: Three huge tilts await against West Virginia, Syracuse, and Marquette.  A win over any of those would look really good next March.  But don’t overlook the two meetings with Southern Illinois and a match-up with Saint Bonaventure from the Atlantic 10.  Sweeping those three plus an upset of a power conference team?  That’s a profile that could turn a few heads.

EASTERN MICHIGAN
The Eagles are a sneaky contender as much of their production returns for another run at the league title.
Key NC games: Duke, Rutgers, TCU, Kansas
Takeaway: There are too many non-factors on the schedule for my liking, but those could be overlooked with a combination of victories over a stretch that includes two potential No. 1 seeds and a solid TCU squad.  If the Eagles finish the above stretch 2-2 they will have some staying power with a strong MAC showing. Going 3-1 would really make people take notice.

BALL STATE
The Cardinals were in the MAC mix until late in the season, and several key pieces return.  Experience will be a plus.
Key NC games: Purdue, Virginia Tech, Loyola-Chicago
Takeaway: Much like EMU, the Cardinals’ non-conference opportunities aren’t deep, but Purdue and Virginia Tech both present opportunities against expected NCAA opponents. Loyola is a favorite again in the Valley, so like-minded, comparison wins can be beneficial.  Realistically, the Cardinals probably need to go 2-1 against these three.

Conference USA



MARSHALL

The Thundering Herd return their dynamic guard duo of Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks and play at one of the fastest paces in college hoops under coach Dan D’Antoni
Key NC games: Maryland, Texas AM, Virginia
Takeaway: While there are some other noted non-conference options – such as Akron, Toledo, and even Duquesne, the heavy-hitters are Maryland and Virginia.  Truth is, Marshall needs to root for fellow C-USA programs like Western Kentucky (below), Old Dominion, and UT-San Antonio to have solid years within the league.  Beyond that, a win over the Terrapins or Cavaliers might well end up making a difference in post-season destination.

WESTERN KENTUCKY
If five-star recruit Charles Bassey and some other fresh faces meld together, coach Rick Stansbury could have a Cinderella story of his own unfolding in Bowling Green.
Key NC games: Washington, Arkansas, Saint Mary’s, Wisconsin
Takeaway: Give Stansbury credit for scheduling aggressively; the Hilltoppers play five true road games before conference play – two of those are trips are to Washington on opening night and an early December rendezvous at Arkansas.  They also get Saint Mary’s and Wisconsin.  There’s also a tricky trip to Belmont on the calendar. Assuming the Hilltoppers navigate their conference campaign okay, two or three wins among the group above would be ideal – especially one over either Washington or Wisconsin.

West Coast Conference (WCC)


 

Note: Gonzaga has established itself as a national contender almost every year.  The Bulldogs are a potential No. 1 seed again and thus not posted here.

BYU
Nick Emery will return after BYU’s first nine games to join T.J. Haws and Yoeli Childs, forming a solid nucleus for coach Dave Rose.
Key NC games: Nevada, Houston, Illinois State, Utah, San Diego State, Mississippi State
Takeaway: Coach Rose has put together a much improved non-conference slate in hopes of giving the Cougars a better chance at competing for an at-large bid.  The question now: How do they navigate the journey?  It’s easy to point to Nevada and Mississippi State as the prize jewels.  But don’t skip over Houston, Illinois State, and San Diego State – all three of which should be in the NCAA conversation.  How Emery’s absence and presence impacts the Cougars’ success will be intriguing, as will the manner in which the Selection Committee evaluates BYU with and without him on the floor.

SAINT MARY’S
The Gaels will miss lot of key pieces from last year’s group that just missed an NCAA bid. Two key returnees are Jordan Ford and Tanner Krebs.
Key NC games: Harvard, California, New Mexico, LSU, Western Kentucky
Takeaway: It’s no secret that last year’s non-conference schedule hurt the Gael’s profile on Selection Sunday.  This year’s trek is a little better, but remains well behind that of BYU (above) – at least based on preseason projections.  LSU and Western Kentucky appear to be the biggest opportunities.  Coach Randy Bennett has won a lot of games so it would be a mistake to count his Gaels out.  But the road ahead won’t be easy.

 

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