The final post of this series wraps up both the mid-major and overall national picture, as it's a look at the teams and league races out West. If you haven't been paying attention, realignment is affecting the region significantly this season (and even moreso in 2012-13 and beyond), and Gonzaga is no longer the only mid-major power in the region.
For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.
Records are accurate as of 12/17/2011.
Legitimate At-Large Hopes
The West Coast Conference race will be even more competitive than usual, thanks to the arrival of BYU (8-2, 7-2 vs. Division I). Dave Rose's squad has won eight of nine since dropping its opener at Utah State; however, the Cougars were smashed in the single loss in that span, a 73-56 defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in the Chicago Invitational Challenge final. With their best wins coming against Nevada, Oregon, and Weber State, the Cougars can't yet be considered an at-large lock, though they can improve their case with wins against Baylor at home on Saturday and at Virginia Tech on January 25th. Plus, home games next week against Buffalo and UC Santa Barbara next week will also provide a challenge.
The Cougars have to be considered the most significant hurdle that Gonzaga (6-2) will face in its quest to win an astonishing 12th consecutive West Coast Conference regular season title. The trouble for the Bulldogs is that they've struggled to impress in the first month of the season, particularly in consecutive seven-point losses at Illinois and back in the McCarthey Athletic Center against Michigan State. At the moment, the Zags' best wins have come against Washington State and Notre Dame, both in Spokane. With those teams unlikely to be in the NCAA selection frame, Gonzaga will need to take advantage of its final two non-conference games of significance, Saturday's "Battle In Seattle" against Arizona and New Year's Eve visit to Xavier. If the Bulldogs (and Cougars for that matter) fail, they'll need to make a run through the conference. In that case, the WCC's improvement is a double-edged sword.
The team the Bulldogs have had their most memorable battles against during their WCC run, St. Mary's (7-1, 5-1 vs. Division I), is another team that has to win some games to get back into the at-large picture. Currently, the Gaels' best victory came at home against Northern Iowa during the Tip-Off Marathon. Given that the Panthers look likely to contend in a strong Missouri Valley, that win should have mileage come March. However, the Gaels' profile is mighty thin beyond that victory, with only a game against Baylor in the Las Vegas Classic on December 22nd looking like a quality win chance (though the following night's game with Missouri State has some potential). In other words, St. Mary's is another team that needs to take advantage of the league's sudden improvement between now and March.
As I've been stressing, the WCC appears to be even deeper than it was last year, when Gonzaga and St. Mary's each lost three conference games (including a 1-1 series split). One of the teams that defeated the Bulldogs last season, Santa Clara (6-3, 4-3 vs. Division I), finished third at the 76 Classic by topping New Mexico in the quarterfinals by three and Villanova by a single point in the third-place game. The other, San Francisco (8-3, 7-3 vs. Division I), has picked up eight wins over generally mediocre competition, along with losses to New Mexico State and Murray State in Alaska. Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount (6-4) isn't back to the days of Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, but the Lions do own wins over Saint Louis and UCLA.
In summary, don't expect BYU, Gonzaga, or St. Mary's to win the WCC title with anything less than three league losses.
Potential Upset Picks For March (The Western One-Bid Leagues)
Long Beach State (4-5, 3-5 vs. Division I) has gained a lot of national attention for its aggressive scheduling. However, the 49ers have been unable to build on their November 16th win at Pittsburgh, meaning they'll likely need to win the Big West's automatic bid to earn an NCAA spot, barring a run through the Diamond Head Classic, which they'll open up with a huge game against Xavier. The bad news for the rest of the conference is that Dan Monson's time will be tested in time for league play and, more importantly, the Big West Tournament in Anaheim. Plus, all of those games against high-major opponents will provide the 49ers some inspiration come NCAA time, if they make it.
Among the 49ers primary challengers, UC Santa Barbara (5-2, 3-2 vs. Division I) looks to be the most capable of stopping them, and for good reason, as the Gauchos have won the last two conference tournament championships. UCSB's schedule has featured some of the best of the West, as they've dropped a pair of home games against Mountain West powers San Diego State (overtime) and UNLV (double OT), while road trips to Washington, Cal, and BYU remain on the December slate. Cal Poly (6-3) has started strong too, with a 42-36 win at USC serving as the Mustangs' highlight. Meanwhile, Cal State Fullerton (6-3, 5-3 vs. Division I) has been streaky--winning three, losing three (including a game against Houston Baptist at Louisiana-Lafayette's tournament), then winning three again.
Thanks to Utah State's (4-5) early struggles, this season's WAC race looks to be the most wide open in years, just in time for next season's wholesale membership changes. While the Aggies opened their season with a seven-point home win over BYU, they've been searching for consistency ever since, losing to both good teams (Denver, Weber State, Wichita State) and bad (Pacific, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi). Plus, it's likely that senior forward Brady Jardine will miss the season with a foot injury. Stew Morrill's team still has two quality win opportunities to come before the conference season begins, as they host Kent State in the final game of an on-campus round-robin event on December 22nd and visit Mississippi State on New Year's Eve.
Utah State's issues open the door for a variety of teams. The WAC's other set of Aggies, New Mexico State (6-4, 5-4 vs. Division I) started off red-hot, winning four straight, including their trip to New Mexico. However, they've struggled since, dropping four of their last six games against Division I competition, including two losses to Southern Mississippi (one in the Great Alaska Shootout semifinals and the other in Hattiesburg) and a four-point loss at UTEP, a team the Aggies beat by 16 at home three weeks earlier. NMSU has four winnable non-conference games left and a visit from New Mexico, who's sure to be hungry for revenge, set for December 28th. Nevada (7-3) has won seven of eight after opening with disappointing losses to Missouri State and UNLV. They've defeated Pac-12 strugglers Washington and Arizona State (in Tempe) and lost to BYU (in the Chicago Invitational Challenge semifinals) in that eight-game span.
Idaho (6-4, 4-4 vs. Division I) won at Oregon State Friday night, on an emotional night for the Beavers, though their results so far have been rather pedestrian otherwise. Meanwhile, Hawai'i (3-4) will hope to put together a run at the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas week that they can use as a springboard to conference success. The Warriors open the tournament with SEC bottom-feeder Auburn, and they'll face either Xavier or future Big West rival Long Beach State on day two. Plus, UNLV visits Honolulu on New Year's Eve.
While the Sun Belt is predominantly a Southern conference, and will entirely be one next season, Western outpost Denver (7-2) is looking like a favorite to claim its first conference title and NCAA bid in its final season before departing for the reconfigured WAC. The Pioneers only losses so far are a defeat at Cal and a home overtime loss to Iona last Wednesday, while they've defeated Southern Miss. and St. Mary's at home and won at Utah State, granted that win may not have as much impact as in recent seasons. Plus, Joe Scott's team has two more chances in the coming days to grab wins over Mountain West opponents, as they welcome Boise State and Wyoming to Magness Arena on December 17th and 19th. They'll get one more on January 11th, when they travel to Colorado State.
As things stand right now, the Pioneers' main competition for the Sun Belt crown looks like it will come from the conference's East Division in the form of Middle Tennessee (10-2, 9-2 vs. Division I). On Tuesday night, the Blue Raiders may have dealt Belmont's at-large hopes a fatal blow, as they defeated the Bruins in their second meeting in Murfreesboro in the span of a month. The first was a 87-84 double overtime win for Belmont in the Maui on the Mainland final on November 20th. Kermit Davis, Jr.'s team also won at Loyola Marymount and UCLA in mid-November; however, their other loss came at UAB. (The struggling Blazers' only other victory this season came against another Sun Belt squad, Troy.) MTSU has only two non-league games left, both against SEC opponents. They take on Mississippi in the Memphis suburb of Southaven, Miss. on Wednesday and visit neighbors Vanderbilt on January 28th.
Denver and Middle Tennessee meet just once during the regular season, Saturday, February 4th at DU's Magness Arena.
Damian Lillard is back from a broken foot and leading the nation in scoring (26.9 ppg), pushing Weber State (6-2, 5-2 vs. Division I) to the forefront of the Big Sky race in the early season. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they'll need to play without senior forward Kyle Bullinger for the next three to five weeks as he recovers from a dislocated elbow. So far, Weber has only lost at St. Mary's and BYU, with a trip to California on the slate for tonight and a home game with woeful Utah coming up on Thursday night. Montana (5-5, 3-5 vs. Division I) looks like a probable contender, thanks to home wins over Idaho and Long Beach State, as does Eastern Washington (5-5, 4-5 vs. Division I), which was the only Big Sky team other than Weber State to have a record of .500 or better heading into Wednesday, when they promptly lost at UCLA.