We've finally reached the Friday of exam week, which means that action is about to get going again, thanks to a very full Saturday slate. It's also time to close this particular series, and over these final three posts, I'm going to take a very early look at the races in the remaining conferences. While most of these conferences will likely earn just a single bid to the NCAA Tournament, I'm going to pay special attention to a few mid-majors who have a great chance of securing either an unexpected at-large or surprisingly high seed. This first entry will focus on teams and conferences that are primarily along the Eastern Seaboard, with looks at the Central part of the country and the West to come.
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
Harvard Crimson (9-1, 8-1 vs. Division I)
So far, the Crimson have claimed an early season tournament and landed in the AP poll for the first time ever. Yet, Harvard still has a long way to go to guarantee its first NCAA bid since 1946. Wins over Florida State and UCF in the Battle 4 Atlantis are the highlights of a profile that is only blemished by a loss at Connecticut. The biggest remaining challenges on the non-conference portion of the schedule are a visit to Boston College, who will surely want to rain on their rival's parade, and a home game against St. Joseph's on New Year's Eve. Then, it will be a matter of taking care of business in the Ivy League, where the Crimson's biggest challengers this year appear to be ancient rival Yale (7-2, 6-2 vs. Division I) and Columbia (7-4, 5-4 vs. Division I), which has won seven in a row after starting the season with a four-game skid. Obviously, Tommy Amaker's team runs the table, or comes close, they'll earn the outright Ivy crown and an NCAA trip, but league losses will be doubly-costly this season, as they'll both damage the Crimson's title chances and at-large hopes.
Potential Upset Picks For March
Belmont Bruins (6-3, 5-3 vs. Division I)
Thanks to early, and honestly expected, losses to Duke and Memphis and Tuesday's setback at Middle Tennessee, Belmont's at-large chances are practically non-existent, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Bruins won't make noise come March. The Blue Devils, who defeated Rick Byrd's team by a single point in the "Maui on the Mainland" opener for both teams, and the Tigers, a team that had to stave off furious Belmont rallies to earn a home win four days later, can testify that the defending Atlantic Sun champions are a team that can compete nationally. The Bruins' competitiveness isn't necessarily apparent in their profile, as their best win at the moment is a victory at neighbors Middle Tennessee in the Maui on the Mainland final (though they did lose their second visit to Murfreesboro). The highlight of Belmont's remaining non-league schedule is a home-and-home series with C-USA contender Marshall coming up on December 19th and 29th.
As for Belmont's main competition in its final Atlantic Sun season, pay attention to Mercer (7-3, 6-3 vs. Division I), who will once against host the league tournament, and North Florida (5-5), who the Bruins crushed in last season's conference final and who just took Kansas State to overtime in Manhattan.
Iona Gaels (8-2)
Like Belmont, Iona likely won't earn an at-large bid should it fail to win the Metro Atlantic tournament this March. However, like the Bruins, the Gaels have hope for a respectable seed and the opportunity to win a game (or two) if they find themselves in the field of 68. Just ask Purdue, who defeated Iona by a solitary point in the first Puerto Rico Tip-Off quarterfinal, how tough of an out Tim Cluess' team is. In between that loss and a 19-point loss at Marshall on Sunday, Iona won seventh straight, highlighted by a 26-point victory over Maryland which allowed them to leave San Juan at 2-1 and overtime victories over St. Joseph's (at home) and at Sun Belt sensation Denver. On Wednesday, the Gaels got back on track by topping Richmond.
When MAAC play resumes in January, expect Iona's championship rovals to come from the following group: Loyola (Md.) (8-1), winners of eight in a row and five of six on the road; Fairfield, the preseason conference co-favorite which has gone 7-4 against a pretty stout schedule, highlighted by a win a week ago over Old Dominion at the Hall of Fame Showcase in Springfield; and Manhattan (7-4), which is 4-0 in the month of December.
One Disappointing Conference
This award/demerit goes to the Colonial Athletic Association, which was supposed to receive a separate entry in this series. Then, I looked at how each team played during the November and early December. Let's just say that a month into the season, it's unlikely that the CAA will repeat its three-bid performance of 2011, thanks to a combination of injuries and poorly-timed losses.
- George Mason is 7-3, but without any standout wins, and losses to Florida Atlantic, Florida International, and Virginia, though Sherrod Wright didn't play against the Owls.
- Georgia State dropped its first three contests at a round-robin multi-team event at Washington, and has since rattled off seven in a row, but the best of those wins looks to be over Liberty.
- Old Dominion, sitting at 5-4, may need to pull a three-peat at the Richmond Coliseum in March, though they at least have non-conference games at Richmond, UCF, and in Norfolk against Missouri remaining. Wins in those would certainly resuscitate the Monarchs' at-large hopes.
- Final Four participant VCU may be finally hitting its stride after starting out 3-3. The Rams, a younger group than last year's version, have won three in a row by an average margin of 20, thanks in no small part to the fact Bradford Burgess is finally healthy after dealing with an ankle injury for much of the first month of the season. VCU's biggest remaining non-conference game is a trip to Akron on December 29th.
- Drexel (4-4) enters Saturday's game with Bradley at .500, with the team perhaps finally hitting its stride after Chris Fouch's return from knee surgery. James Madison (4-3) and Delaware (4-4) are the only other CAA teams that currently own a record of break-even or better.
With that in mind, I think two CAA bids is still a possibility, especially if the Selection Committee takes gives the conference some respect for landing two Final Four spots in six years; however, it's going to take a lot of shuffling nationally for three bids to happen again.
The Eastern One-Bid Leagues
Albany (5-4) is the only America East team that has a winning record at this point of the season. They'll battle with defending champ Boston University (4-7), Vermont (4-6), Stony Brook (3-5, 2-5 vs. Division I), Maine (3-4, 2-4 vs. Division I), and New Hampshire (3-4, 2-4 vs. Division I) for the bid and, at this rate, a likely spot in the First Four. Note that the league's bottom three have combined to win once in 27 games, UMBC's win Saturday at Towson, meaning they'll be RPI killers as the season goes on.
Campbell (8-2, 7-2 vs. Division I) and Coastal Carolina (8-1, 5-1 vs. Division I), who share the Big South lead with Charleston Southern (6-3, 4-3 vs. Division I), both own Red Line Upsets already this season. The Camels won at Iowa before losing at Creighton two nights later (Virginia Tech, you're on notice, since you host the Camels on Saturday), while the Chanticleers topped both LSU and Clemson. Defending tourney champ UNC Asheville (6-4, 3-4 vs. Division I), who sits a half-game back at 1-0, also has one, over walking Red Line Upset victim Utah.
The MEAC looks once again to be the conference composed of HBCUs that is likely to avoid a trip to the First Four, though a 16 seed is still a good possibility. Norfolk State (7-4, 6-3 vs. Division I) made some early ripples by advancing to and nearly winning the Paradise Jam final. Plus, they've gone 4-2 since returning Stateside, even if one of the losses came against Division II Elizabeth City State. The Spartans are the only team that sits at 2-0 in the conference at this early stage, and they grabbed a nice win over NEC contender Long Island on Wednesday. North Carolina Central (5-5. 1-5 vs. Division I) and Bethune-Cookman (3-7, 1-7 vs. Division I) are 1-0, while defending MEAC tournament champ Hampton (4-6) heads up a group of four 1-1 teams. Baltimore rivals Coppin State (3-5, 0-5 vs. Division I) and Morgan State (1-7) have yet to begin their respective conference slates.
Robert Morris (7-3) looks like the early favorite in the Northeast Conference after grabbing wins at Duquesne, James Madison, and La Salle--and falling by just 10 at Pittsburgh, though defending champ Long Island (5-6), Wagner (7-3), Quinnipiac (5-4), Sacred Heart (6-6), Central Connecticut State (5-4) can't be discounted in the race. Neither can 3-7 St. Francis, Pa., which is currently tied for the early conference lead with the Colonials, Blackbirds, and Blue Devils.
The road to a Bucknell (6-4, 5-4 vs. Division I) repeat in the Patriot League will be a rough one if American (8-3) and Lehigh (9-3, 8-3 vs. Division I) continue their stellar early play when the conference schedule opens in January.
College of Charleston (8-1) opened Southern Conference play with wins over crosstown rivals The Citadel and Tennessee. Out of the league, the Cougars have a wins over Clemson and Tennessee (for the second straight season), and claimed a 2-1 record during their trip to the Bahamas, defeating UNC Asheville and UMass after falling to UCF on Day 1. Bobby Cremins' team looks to be challenged the most by Davidson (6-3, 5-3 vs. Division I) and Elon (7-2, 5-2 vs, Division I), though Georgia Southern (3-5, 2-5 vs. Division I) and Western Carolina (5-6, 4-6 vs. Division I) joined those three in opening SoCon play with a pair of wins.