Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Six Mid-Majors to Watch Come March
With the constantly switching conference alignments, defining a mid-major isn't the easiest thing to do anymore. Other than the ACC and the Big Ten, who can we say deserves to be called a power conference? Has the entirety of Division I basketball become a mid-major? Can we really say that the SEC is better than the Atlantic 10? Can we really say that the Big East is better than the Mountain West? And if we can, how long will we be able to say that?
But for now, we'll take a look at teams who have been traditionally looked at as mid-majors (though that may be changing for some of them in the very near future) and look at their chances to make some serious noise come March.
It's not terribly difficult to point out that the Shockers are a true contender for the 2014 NCAA men's basketball tournament. In 2013, Wichita State smashed Pittsburgh in their opening game, then upset top-seeded Gonzaga. The wound up in the Final Four and lost to the eventual champion Louisville Cardinals. The Shockers don't have a terribly difficult schedule. The Missouri Valley conference obviously isn't the best conference, but there are some tough teams for Wichita State to face in Indiana State, Drake, and Missouri State.
The Shockers have already defeated St. Louis and face Tennessee and Alabama in their next two games. If they come out of those two games with wins, an undefeated regular season is already in sight for the Shockers. Already ranked 11 in the Associated Press week five poll, more wins means they could climb as high as No. 2 or 3 by season's end. A No. 1 ranking and another Final Four are not outlandish for the Shockers.
San Diego State
Unlike Wichita State, who has zero ranked teams on their schedule, the Aztecs have already played three ranked teams, defeating Creighton and Marquette and losing by 9 points to Arizona. They also have Kansas on the schedule in early January. I'm not sure how serious voters will take the Aztecs if they don't defeat Kansas, probably only a 5 or a 6 seed — even if they win every other game, which I doubt they will. The Mountain West is hardly mid-major anymore with New Mexico, Boise State, Fresno State, and others who have had success in the past such as UNLV.
If the Aztecs were to beat Kansas, could they find themselves as high as a 3 seed? I guess, but I think they'll be more of a 6 or 7 come tournament time, but that doesn't mean ignore them. Senior guard Xavier Thames has had arguably his best three games against ranked opponents. If he can gather an extra gear for the tournament, he could lead this team deep into the tournament.
I don't really know what to call the new Atlantic 10. They are one of those conferences, like the Mountain West, that might end up with more teams in the tournament than "power conferences" such as the Pac-12. If voters took the Atlantic 10 seriously enough, six teams could make the tournament. My guess is they'll be limited to three or four, but it looks like UMass will certainly be one of those. They are currently 8-0 with notable wins over Boston College, LSU, Nebraska, New Mexico, Clemson, and BYU. While they have a tough conference schedule with Richmond, Saint Louis, Dayton, and VCU, I think UMass could fight their way to a three or four loss season and end up with a 3 or 4 seed. Their wins thus far have proven they can play with tough teams and win close games, a valuable thing to have learned for the tournament.
I don't know what to do with the new Big East, either. Villanova, Georgetown, and Marquette can't be considered mid-majors. Arguments could be made to say Butler is no longer a mid-major. But everybody else in the Big East has been less than dominant for more than a decade. When we look at Creighton, I think we see a team that is certainly still in mid-major phase. With Doug McDermott, this team could be something special. This is McDermott's third year of dominance, but the last two seasons in the Bluejays have run into North Carolina and then Duke in the NCAA tournament.
While plenty of ink will be spilled on McDermott's NBA potential, I wonder if he can conjure enough determination to win a few games in the tournament and make a run. An interesting statistic about Creighton is that they currently are ranked seventh in the country in assists. Perhaps this is the year they manage as a team to do some damage.
Harvard has been developing into an intriguing team. After making the NCAA tournament in 1946 (when there were only eight teams and they lost both games they played), they went on a bit of a drought, not making the tournament again until 2012. In 2013, they got their first NCAA tournament victory upsetting New Mexico. Can 2014 bring about a continuation of this success? Thus far, Harvard hasn't been terribly dominant. They beat TCU, but lost to Colorado. Their schedule also contains Boston College and UConn. If they can win even one of those games, I think we can count on Harvard being a team that might win a game or two in the tournament. They probably won't manage much better than an 11 or 12 seed, but that's plenty high to win a couple of games in this era's NCAA tournament.
While they may not even make the tournament, the Toledo Rockets have an interesting opportunity to make some noise. Their 95-92 win at Boston College makes me wonder how many other schools of a similar quality they could beat. Boston College is no powerhouse, but they should be able to beat teams like Toledo at home without too much difficulty. Toledo's real test is at Kansas on December 30. If they can keep it close, keep an eye on them come tournament time. It should also be noted that Toledo is a scoring machine. They are currently averaging 90.5 points per game which is third in the nation. They are shooting over 52% from the field, good for fifth in the nation. If they can score 90 points in a tournament game, chances are pretty good they'll win.