TGS HOOPS UPDATE...WHERE ARE THE MID-MAJORS THIS SEASON?
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Where are the mid-majors this season?
While Gonzaga, as usual, appears to be an exception (indeed, the Zags look to have a legitimate chance to run the table in the regular season and get to the top line on Selection Sunday, not to mention the fact that it is almost folly to continue referring to Mark Few's perennial powerhouse as a "mid-major" entry), this could be one of the driest years in recent memory for the mid-majors in the Big Dance. Outside of the Zags, we are having a hard time coming up with more than a few other mid-majors who have a solid Big Dance at-large case.
Within the next couple of weeks a new TGS Bracketology will be presented on these pages, but, as in our first such update in late December, the mid-major entries into the Dance look mostly to be limited to conference tourney champs.
Aside from Gonzaga, there are not many of these types with the look of a Big Dance at-large bid invitee. Following is a quick look at the higher-profile mid-major conferences and their chances of sending multiple teams to the Dance.
American...Right now the best hope for the mid-majors to get more than two Dance bids might be in the American, where a handful of entries seem to have legit shots for at-large slots. Both SMU (RPI 22 and eligible once again for the Dance) and Cincinnati (RPI 26) appear to be well-positioned for March consideration by the Selection Committee, but beyond the Mustangs and Bearcats, it begins to look dicey. Temple's RPI (48) looks better than its 9-7 SU record. Kelvin Sampson's Houston (RPI 60) and Johnny Dawkins' UCF (RPI 61) have the look of bubble teams, and Tubby Smith's Memphis (RPI 111) might have time to get back into the mix. Surprisingly, one of the pre-season favorites, UConn, has been one of the nation's major disappointments and doesn't look like it might qualify for any postseason event, much less the Big Dance.
Atlantic 10...By early January the A-10 usually has five or six entries that look like possible Big Dance at-large contenders. This season, we count three, with Virginia Commonwealth (RPI 30), Dayton (RPI 31), and Rhode Island (RPI 35, and recently getting some good news with the return of top scorer F Hassan Martin from injury) looking like they could wventually have compelling at-large cases on Selection Sunday. The next-highest RPI rating belongs to Saint Joseph's (67), but now that the Hawks are minus top scorer G Shavar Newkirk, their already remote at-large case appears to be almost non-existent. The A-10 is likely to be well-represented in the NIT and other lower-tier postseason tourneys, with Davidson (RPI 77) UMass (RPI 92), St. Bonaventure (RPI 92), La Salle (RPI 93), and George Mason (RPI 111) likely to land somewhere, but not close to the Big Dance.
Conference USA...C-USA has now been a one-bid league for several years, even in the final years of Memphis' membership when the Tigers were a ranked powerhouse. This season, Middle Tennessee (RPI 36), conqueror of Michigan State in the Dance last March, would likely have a decent at-large case. But unless the Blue Raiders get knocked off in the conference tourney, C-USA appears a one-bid league once again.
Horizon...Unlikely to be a multi-bid league, though Valparaiso (RPI 57) is hanging out at the fringe of bubble territory. Oakland (RPI 103) will likely play somewhere in the postseason, but not in the Dance unless the Golden Grizzlies can win the Horizon tourney.
Metro-Atlantic...Monmouth (RPI 83) does not have the profile it did a year ago when many believed the Hawks had at-large credentials. With five losses already and not owning the signature non-league wins of last season, King Rice's team is best advised to win the MAAC tourney if it wants to Dance in March.
Missouri Valley...The Valley has struggled to get multiple Dance entries in recent seasons (last year Wichita State barely squeezed out an extra bid in the at-large play-in game vs. Vanderbilt) and not sure this year is going to be any different. Gregg Marshall's Shockers (RPI 100) would seem to have a better at-large chance than their RPI would indicate, but only have one win over an RPI Top 100 team (LSU). Wichita can still make an at-large case, but it has little room for error. Illinois State (RPI 38) will likely see its RPI drop the deeper it gets into Valley play. One team that does not have an at-large case this season is last year's "Arch Madness" winner Northern Iowa, like UConn from the American, a disappointment, as the Panthers are sub-.500 into January.
Mountain West...This loop recently sent as many as five teams into the Dance (2013) but dipped to just one last season, and that troubling trend continues into 2017, as the Mountain looks like a one-bid league once more. Recent league power San Diego State (RPI 114) damaged itself a year ago with some bad non-league losses and isn't even within range of the bubble after starting 0-2 in conference play. Nevada (RPI 50) is the only Mountain West team even on the bubble entering January.
Southern...The SoCon usually doesn't even enter into the at-large discussion, though some believe Chattanooga (RPI 85) and East Tennessee State (RPI 136) could get a look in March, though their current RPIs would appear to have them far off of the bubble. In all likelihood the So Con is a one-bid league once more.
Sun Belt...The Belt has been a multi-bid league in conscious memory, but it's more than 20 years ago. Still, a couple of entries look like they might be able to hang onto the bubble into March, with both UT-Arlington (RPI 42) and Arkansas State (RPI 56) on the edge entering January. This still looks like a one-bid league in March, however.
West Coast...As mentioned, the only Big Dance lock among mid-majors is Gonzaga, and the Zags probably carry the flag for this entire collection in March. The WCC is likely a two-bid league again this season, as Saint Mary's (RPI 40) looks well-positioned. The Gaels can solidify their candidacy with just one win over the hated Zags sometime between now and Selection Sunday
What concerns the mid-major community is leagues such as the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West usually still have multiples of teams who would, in early January at least, appear headed for the "bubble" on Selection Sunday. But both of those loops look a bit barren this term. The RPI ratings for the mid-majors usually take a hit the deeper the teams get in their conference schedule, too.
So, the handwriting is on the wall for the college hoops 2016-17 campaign. For this season, at least, quality mid-majors are on the endangered species list.
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