In my first Friday post, I took a look at how the race for bids among the mid-majors was shaping up in the East. Now, it's time to see which teams have started well in the Midwest and South, and which conference races may bring the most drama in the coming months. Right now, two of this region's mid-majors have made a decent case for selection, or at least respectable seeding, while there is one conference that you can already pencil in for the First Four.
Western mid-major fans, your post is coming up at 2 p.m. Mountain/1 p.m. Pacific.
For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.
Records are accurate as of 12/17/2011. NCAA bracket 2012 is here.
Legitimate At-Large Hopes
Murray State Racers (11-0, 8-0 vs. Division I, Lips. Thu.)
Last season, Murray State was one of my Intriguing Bracket Teams, thanks to a 2010 NCAA Tournament run that saw the Racers nearly end Butler's first run to the National Championship game on the first weekend. It was a poor decision on my part, as Murray was upstaged by Kenneth Faried and in-state rival Morehead State, who stunned another Commonwealth squad, Louisville, in the NCAA
First Second Round in Denver. Based on the first month of the 2011-12 season, I was a year early in hyping up the Racers, as they've rattled off 11 wins on the trot to get Steve Prohm's tenure off to a great start. While you may not be too impressed with Murray State's Great Alaska Shootout crown, thanks to the problems the Anchorage tournament has encountered in building competitive fields, you should take notice of a dominating home win over Dayton and Sunday's four-point upset victory at Memphis. Those are the types of victories that can provide a serious seed boost on Selection Sunday, and depending on what else happens nationally, a case for an at-large bid.
The Racers will be the prohibitive favorites in the final Ohio Valley Conference race before Belmont's 2012-13 arrival, especially with the rest of the conference struggling against Division I competition. Currently, Eastern Illinois (6-3, 4-3 vs. Division I) is the only OVC team other than the Racers with a winning record against the top flight, while Eastern Kentucky (6-5, 5-5 vs. Division I) and Tennessee Tech (5-4, 3-4 vs. Division I) are the only others with a winning record period. You may want to keep an eye on Austin Peay though. The Govs started the season with nine straight losses, thanks to senior center John Fraley's departure in their opener due to a concussion. Since his return, the Governors have won two in a row, highlighted by their first ever win over Tennessee.
Cleveland State Vikings (10-1, 9-1 vs. Division I)
It looks like Butler's reign over the Horizon League may be coming to an end after an unprecedented five seasons, and the Vikings, who won an NCAA game in 2009 themselves, appear to be the team in best position to take advantage. Gary Waters' team made headlines on Opening Weekend by grabbing a surprisingly easy 13-point win at Vanderbilt. Since then, they've won nine of ten, though the loss is a bit of a headscratcher, as this year's Hofstra squad isn't anywhere near as good as last year's edition. They've also mastered the close win, as a 22-point victory at Rhode Island is their only Division I win since the Vandy game that they claimed by more than five points. While one has to wonder if Cleveland State's luck will hold up during the Horizon season, it's also important to note that the Vikings have only played three home games, meaning they've gone a staggering 7-1 in road and neutral site games so far, a stat that definitely boosts their at-large case.
Plenty of the teams who will battle the Vikings for the Horizon auto bid, though. Milwaukee (8-3, 7-3 vs. Division I) and Green Bay (5-6, 3-6 vs. Division I) join the Vikings at the top of the Horizon, with all three having won both of their preview-window games in early December. However, the Panthers, top seed in the 2011 Horizon Tournament, look more likely to stay near the top. Milwaukee missed an opportunity Tuesday night, when they couldn't quite complete a comeback against Wisconsin at home. Valparaiso (7-3, 5-3 vs. Division I), who opened the conference season with an overtime win over Butler, is another title threat.
On the negative side, preseason favorite Detroit (5-7, 3-7 vs. Division I, 0-2 Horizon) has yet to live up to the hype, even if they did beat St. John's at home last Monday. As for Butler (4-6, 3-6 vs. Division I, 0-1 Horizon), they'll need to make a miraculous over the final months of the season (for example, a sweep of Purdue, Gonzaga, and Stanford over the next week) to get back in the conversation. Of course, they could always claim a bid via the Horizon League Tournament title.
Potential Upset Picks For March
The Mid-American Conference's quest to earn multiple bids for the first time since 1999 looks like it will continue for yet another year. Kent State (7-1) is the MAC's best at-large hope, thanks to Tip-Off Marathon win at West Virginia, but that may not be enough, especially considering how ruthless the conference season is. The Golden Flashes' Northeast Ohio rivals Akron had hope after opening its season with a 10-point win at Mississippi State. But those evaporated after the Zips couldn't build on the upset, as they've won just three of the eight games that followed (with just two of those wins against Division I opposition). However, Ohio (8-1, 7-1 vs. Division I), who lost a heartbreaker at Louisville and won at Marshall, looks ready to challenge Kent State in the East Division, as does Buffalo (6-2), which owns a 29-point win at Dayton. Keep an eye on the Bobcats' December 20th trip to Northern Iowa, while the Bulls visit both BYU and Temple before league play starts. Another East team, Bowling Green (5-4, 4-4 vs. Division I) defeated the Owls, who were playing without forward Micheal Eric, on November 27th. On the other side of the conference, Ball State (6-2, 5-2 vs. Division I) and Toledo (6-3, 5-3 vs. Division I) appear to be the class of the West, which again looks like the weaker of the MAC's two halves.
The Central One-Bid Leagues
UT San Antonio (5-4, 4-4 vs. Division I) nearly put the Southland on the map early, until they gave away a spot in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals to Oklahoma State. Since then, Lamar (7-3, 6-3 vs. Division I) has emerged as the early favorite, as Pat Knight's team is the only conference team with a winning record against Division I competition, with a home win over Charlotte the highlight of half a dozen D1 victories. The West looks to be the stronger of the two divisions, as future WAC members UTSA, UT Arlington (4-3, 3-3 vs. Division I) and Texas State (6-3, 3-3 vs. Division I) all sit at .500 in Division I games.
Based on early returns, it looks once again like the SWAC's champion will be traveling to Dayton for the sixth time in 12 years. Currently, the conference's 10 members are a combined 6-66 against Division I competition, with no school winning more than one game so far.
Oral Roberts (7-4), which is departing for the more geographically-convenient Southland after this season, is one of three Summit League teams to open league play unbeaten, defeating Southern Utah in the December preview game. They sit a half-game behind Oakland (7-4, 6-4 vs. Division I) and South Dakota State (9-4, 7-4 vs. Division I), two teams that have gained a bit of early season respect. The Golden Grizzlies won at Houston and defeated Tennessee for the second year in a row, while the Jackrabbits swept through Mercer's CBE Classic subregional. Both teams will have one last chance at grabbing a name win before Summit play resumes, both against Pac-12 opponents. South Dakota State visits Washington on December 18th, while Oakland travels to Arizona two nights later. Meanwhile, Oral Roberts, fresh off a trip to Gonzaga last night, plays at Xavier on Sunday, a game that four Musketeers, including Tu Hollowary will sit out because of last Saturday's brawl. Meanwhile, North Dakota State (7-2), which opened its season by winning three at San Francisco's round-robin event, hosts Minnesota on December 22nd as its final non-conference warmup.