At CBB Review, it’s time to start keeping an eye on mid-major basketball teams with legitimate chances for at-large bids on Selection Sunday.
March is just as much about Cinderella teams as it championship ones. You know the story. A team you’ve never heard of starts to look like it’s going to knock out your Final Four sleeper three hours into March Madness. The crowd starts to rally behind the Saint Peter’s and UMBC’s of the world. At the final media timeout, that team holds a slim lead and the entire arena is enthralled with every play. This is what college basketball fans live for.
Here at CBB Review’s mid-major basketball watch, we love those stories too. However, we’re here to identify teams that are threats to go beyond a single-game upset (we mean that respectfully, Peacocks and Golden Eagles). The following teams are in the running for at-large bids and will also have the talent to make a run to the second weekend (and beyond?)
Mid-Major Basketball At-Large Watch
Dayton Flyers (NET: 62, KenPom: 52, ESPN’s BPI: 43)
Dayton looked down and out after the Battle 4 Atlantis. All of those high pre-season expectations sank after an 0-3 tournament and many missed opportunities. The Flyers have gone 9-2 since and are currently atop the A-10 standings. The metrics like them, but their 0-5 record in Quad 1 and 2 games is an ugly blemish. Dayton has to keep making a run through their league to keep themselves around, especially in an Atlantic 10 that hasn’t been this weak in years.
UC Irvine Anteaters (NET: 86, KenPom: 96, ESPN’s BPI: 87)
UC Irvine is definitely more of a long shot in this category, but it’s not inconceivable. The Anteaters are the last remaining unbeaten team in the Big West, and running through a league that has respectable members in UCSB and Hawai’i would catch some eyes on the selection committee. That would also slowly push those metrics where they would need to be for at-large consideration. One other thing to consider: UCI does have a Q1 win on the road at Oregon.
Charleston Cougars (NET: 50, KenPom: 80, ESPN’s BPI: 82)
The Charleston Cougars will be a very interesting case to monitor over the last few weeks of the season. They haven’t lost since a 16-point defeat at North Carolina on November 11. They have conquered some of their biggest threats in the league thus far and have a win over Virginia Tech to their name. However, those metrics don’t seem to match the caliber of ball the Cougars are playing. Furthermore, the VT win is a Q2 now, and the CAA is full of more pitfalls than opportunities. Having to play near perfect every night is tough, but a few slip-ups the rest of the way could be devastating.
Florida Atlantic Owls (NET: 13, KenPom: 40, ESPN’s BPI: 55)
Florida Atlantic is poised to have their best season in school history. The Owls have only lost to Ole Miss (a Q2 blemish at the moment), but sit at 4-1 in Q1/Q2 games on the season, including a road victory over Florida that looks better now than it did a few weeks ago. FAU does benefit from playing in one of the tougher mid-major basketball leagues and already owns a sweep over North Texas on the season. The path to going undefeated in C-USA play is there, though will be tough. Still, the Owls have positioned themselves nicely. It’s time for bracketologists (and AP voters) to adjust accordingly.
North Texas Mean Green (NET: 47, KenPom: 63, ESPN’s BPI: 88)
North Texas feels like they’ve been sitting in this position for a few years now. The Mean Green have consistently been near the top of this league and are a trendy pick for at-large discussions each time. UNT is 2-3 in Q1/Q2 games (0-3 in Q1), with two of those losses attributed to Florida Atlantic. If the Mean Green can win out from here on out before the C-USA Tournament, they’ll hang around here. However, the lack of eye-popping wins will be a tough sell if put against power conference teams.
UAB Blazers (NET 74: KenPom: 68, ESPN’s BPI: 56)
UAB feels like it has the metrics of a team all the computers feel should be playing better than they are. The Blazers’ 3-3 record in Q3 is the biggest thing that makes me apprehensive including them here. However, opportunities for wins over FAU and North Texas remain, and the C-USA will give some weight to their profile this season. Furthermore, the Blazers have an All-American candidate in Jordan Walker who can single-handedly put this group on his back. UAB won’t go away quietly.
Kent State Golden Flashes (NET: 38, KenPom: 69, ESPN’s BPI: 73)
Kent State is another team that looks like a dangerous group, but has a profile that doesn’t help. The Golden Flashes are 0-3 in Q1 and have amassed their 12 wins in the Q3/Q4 range. Granted, those three losses were respectable (by 2 at Charleston, by 5 at Houston, by 7 at Gonzaga). Kent State looks like another team that will be highly touted but will need to be near perfect in the MAC to stay in serious consideration. Furthermore, the Golden Flashes only get one game against Toledo in the regular season, and that’s already happened (a 12-point victory at home).
Boise State Broncos (NET: 20, KenPom: 27, ESPN’s BPI: 39)
Boise State once again seems to have come out of nowhere to be a major player in the Mountain West this season. Perhaps that was a bit disrespectful considering the Broncos did make the NCAA Tournament last season. Boise is 6-3 in Q1/Q2 games, including 6-2 in Q2 opportunities. That’s in large part thanks to their league, but they also possess wins over Washington State, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Saint Louis. If the Broncos win the games they’re supposed to in the MWC and split the rest, they should be in decent shape.
Nevada Wolf Pack (NET: 28, KenPom: 49, ESPN’s BPI: 63)
Nevada is definitely the biggest surprise thus far in the Mountain West. However, Steve Alford is working his magic once more in Reno. Nevada is only 1-3 in Q1 games, but sits at 4-4 when you add in Q2 as well. The Wolf Pack lack a true quality non-conference win (Tulane is arguably their best), so they’ll have to build their profile during conference play. Road games at Boise State, New Mexico, and Utah State remain, providing the opportunities to do just that.
New Mexico Lobos (NET: 36, KenPom: 60, ESPN’s BPI: 80)
The fluctuation in metrics tells you a lot about New Mexico at this point in the season. The Lobos were the last remaining undefeated team in the country, but are just 2-2 in their last four games. New Mexico is 4-0 in Q1/Q2 games, but their 2 losses are in Q3 games. The relatively weak non-conference schedule (outside of a road win at Saint Mary’s) makes this a curious case to monitor. Still, reaching something around 11+ wins in league play will make it hard to deny New Mexico a spot in the bracket.
San Diego State Aztecs (NET: 31, KenPom: 31, ESPN’s BPI: 34)
One constant in the Mountain West has always been the success of San Diego State. The Aztecs returned to the Top 25 last week before falling at home to New Mexico. They sit at 3-4 in Q1/Q2 games, but have no bad losses to their name. A neutral-court win over Ohio State is their best, and the rigor of the league will continue to give them a chance to build a profile. SDSU finds a way year in and year out to make March Madness, but, as always, they’ll have to work for it over the final two months.
UNLV Rebels (NET: 79, KenPom, 82, ESPN’s BPI: 79)
Let’s be clear: UNLV is here because of the opportunities that await them. The Rebels started off 10-0 and looked like they were going to be a great story. They’ve gone just 2-5 since then. They do sit at 1-1 in Q1, and 5-3 when you add that to Q2 games. The Rebels have destiny in their own hands to get key wins in Mountain West play. However, a 1-4 start there hasn’t inspired any confidence either. A road opportunity at Utah State awaits tomorrow.
Utah State Aggies (NET: 34, KenPom: 46, ESPN’s BPI: 64)
Utah State is another Mountain West group that has fluctuated wildly of late. The Aggies snuck their way into bracket predictions by piling up wins, but their 3-2 start in league play doesn’t include a quality win yet. Furthermore, many of their key wins in non-conference play are against other quality mid-major basketball teams. We recognize that here, but the selection committee will look at them differently than wins over power conference foes. The Aggies have work to do over the next month.
Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (NET: 61, KenPom: 75, ESPN’s BPI: 117)
Oral Roberts is no stranger to shaking things up in March. The Golden Eagles are not far off from a run to the Sweet 16 and still possess their best player from that squad in Max Abmas. ORU’s biggest challenge to at-large consideration is a 1-4 record in Q1/Q2 games and the weakness of the league they play in. Oral Roberts SHOULD win the Summit League and avoid this decision, but dropping a game in the league tournament and still getting at-large consideration will require entering the league tournament undefeated in Summit League play.
Marshall Thundering Herd (NET: 70, KenPom: 73, ESPN’s BPI: 75)
The metrics are pretty consistent on what they think about Marshall: they’re a solid team but not worthy of being in the at-large conversation yet. The Thundering Herd have no Q1 games to their name, sit at a respectable 2-1 in Q2, but a not as respectable 4-3 in Q3. Their best wins are over Duquesne, Toledo, and Southern Miss, which are names that won’t garner much fanfare in the selection committee room. Marshall may not ever get to serious at-large consideration, but winning out in Sun Belt play will put them in the conversation.
Sam Houston State Bearkats (NET: 45, KenPom: 77, ESPN’s BPI: 32)
So you want to talk about the most interesting at-large case? Look no further than Sam Houston. The Bearkats possess a fantastic road win over Oklahoma and a road win over Utah that holds water as well. All these strong metrics must mean SHSU is undefeated in the WAC, right? Wrong! The Bearkats are just 3-3 in league play. While the WAC is a strong mid-major basketball league, it’s not strong enough to survive many more losses. Win out from this point forward and then we can have more serious conversations.
Saint Mary’s Gaels (NET: 8, KenPom: 8, ESPN’s BPI: 19)
Saint Mary’s actually has a NET and KenPom rating better than Gonzaga at the moment. However, the Gaels aren’t getting nearly as much love. It’s true that this team doesn’t have as quality of wins in the non-conference, but Vanderbilt and San Diego State are no slouches. The bottom line is that Saint Mary’s is a good basketball team and could realistically push Gonzaga for a regular-season title in the WCC. As long as they do what they’re supposed to, it’ll be a matter of seeding and not inclusion for this bunch.
Santa Clara Broncos (NET: 80, KenPom: 85, ESPN’s BPI: 105)
Santa Clara isn’t quite there yet. The Broncos are shaping up to be the WCC’s third-best team and were so close to getting a marquee wins over Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga over the past few weeks. A win over Boise State will stand out, but the Broncos need to get a road win over at least one, if not both, of the aforementioned WCC foes. This is a good team and one that could win a game in March, but the profile has to be there in order for that to become a reality.