College Basketball Power Rankings From Non-Power Conference Tournament Winners
All of the automatic bids have officially been doled out for the NCAA Tournament. Even the Ivy League, which typically doesn't have a conference tournament, had a one-game playoff between regular-season champions Harvard and Yale in a battle of the smart kids this weekend, where the winner, Harvard, made the big dance.
We'll be highlighting potential upsets and doing all kinds of bracket analysis this week, but while the conference tournament champions have our semi-divided attention, let's take a look at who has punched their tickets so far via automatic bids in the non-power conferences (don't expect to see the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or SEC in this article).
For this analysis, we'll use numberFire's power rankings and offer up some commentary on compelling NCAA Tournament teams. The rankings are driven by our nERD metric, which is a predictive statistic that shows how well a team would fare against an average opponent on a neutral court.
27. Hampton (nERD: -6.00, Record: 16-17)
26. Texas Southern (nERD: -2.23, Record: 22-12)
25. Robert Morris (nERD: -1.34, Record: 19-14)
24. Lafayette (nERD: -0.94, Record: 20-12)
23. North Dakota St. (nERD: -0.28, Record: 23-9)
In spite of a very pedestrian nERD, we dive into North Dakota St. by virtue of their 2014 first-round overtime upset (12 versus 5) of the Oklahoma Sooners, 80-75. The good news is that senior guard Lawrence Alexander, who scored 28 points in that game (scored only 3 in a second-round loss), remains on the Bison and is their leading scorer this season at 18.9 points a game and 44.1% three-point shooting. The bad news is not much else returned, with the exception of starting guard Kory Brown. Against the two opponents with potential NCAA credentials they played early in the season (Texas and Iowa), the Bison lost by over 30 points in each game.
According to sports-reference.com, the Bison don't turn the ball over much (ninth in the NCAA in fewest turnovers) and are best in the country at limiting their opponents offensive rebounds. They're scoring 64.5 points per game (251st in the country, but they're only allowing 61.6 points per game (54th), which points to the fact that they get opponents to play at their pace (only 8.7% of teams play slower than them according to our metrics). The Bison certainly have the ability to pull an upset again if they can draw the right opponent and slow the game down.
22. Manhattan (nERD: 0.24, Record: 19-13)
21. Coastal Carolina (nERD: 0.71, Record: 24-9)
20. Belmont (nERD: 1.26, Record: 22-10)
19. UAB (nERD: 1.33, Record: 19-15)
18. Albany (nERD: 1.51, Record: 24-8)
17. North Florida (nERD: 1.6, Record: 23-11)
16. Eastern Washington (nERD: 2.19, Record: 26-8)
15. Northeastern (nERD: 2.86, Record: 23-11)
14. Wyoming (nERD: 3.46, Record: 25-9)
The Wyoming Cowboys stole a bid yesterday in the Mountain West conference by beating San Diego State in a 45-43 slugfest, but are pretty solid overall. Senior Larry Nance Jr. is the son of a former NBA All-Star and leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 16.1 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game (18.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per 40 minutes), while his 2.6 defensive Win Shares rank 18th in the country.
They have five wins versus the RPI top 50 (all in-conference), and unsurprisingly, based on yesterday's final score, play a slow game, averaging 61.7 points per game (308th) while allowing the ninth-fewest points per game (56.0). The Cowboys shoot 55.2% on two point shots (12th), which means most of their action is at the basket (they shoot poorly from three point range). According to our offensive pace numbers, only 1.2% of teams play slower than the Cowboys, so if you're picking them for the upset, you may want to watch with one hand over your eyes.13. Wofford (nERD: 3.67, Record: 28-6)
As a team returning to the NCAA Tournament (lost 57-40 to Michigan as a 15 seed last year) with an away win over NC State under their belt this season, the Terriers are a popular potential sleeper pick that figures to land near the upset-minded 12 seed line. They narrowly escaped the Southern conference championship over an 11-22 Furman team, 67-64.
The Terriers don't do anything that stands out offensively, scoring 67.0 points per game. However, they do hold their opponents to the 27th ranked overall total at 59.8 points per game and defend the three-pointer well, as opponents shoot 30.9% (29th worst in NCAA). On a team with no rotation players over 6'7", their strong perimeter defense makes sense, and the Terriers would hope to avoid a team with a talented frontcourt. They are led by 6'1" senior guard Karl Cochran (14.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game), who is tied for 13th nationally with 2.7 defensive Win Shares. Wofford's offensive pace of .169 means that most teams play faster than them as well.
12. New Mexico St. (nERD: 3.8, Record: 23-10)
11. UC Irvine (nERD: 3.86, Record: 21-12)
A 3.86 nERD doesn't necessarily scream sleeper in the NCAA Tournament. However, on sheer intrigue of the Anteaters 7'6", 300-pound Senegalese sophomore center Mamadou Ndiaye (10.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in 19.1 minutes per game in only 14 games played), UC Irvine could be an interesting first round matchup and a team that people will definitely have fun watching. The Big West Conference champions lost to Arizona by 17 and Oregon by only two in overtime in a game Ndiaye did not play.
Not surprisingly, with Ndiaye and 7'2" Greek teammate Ioannis Dimakopoulos, the Anteaters rank 23rd in the nation in blocked shots and allow opponents to shoot only 41.4% (10th lowest) from two-point range and are 22nd in three-point percentage at 39.0%. They average 67.9 points per game and give up 62.3 points per game. Senior forward Will Davis leads their three players who average in double figures at 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
10. Harvard (nERD: 5.23, Record: 22-7)
The Crimson won the Ivy League in a one-game playoff against rival Yale. The smart kids will certainly be a trendy upset pick after pulling the 12 over 5 seed upset over Cincinnati last season before losing a close game to Michigan State. However, while they returned three starters from last years team and were ranked early in the season, they were humbled badly by Virginia in December in a 76-27 loss (yes, 27 points).
If Harvard is going to pull another upset, the key will be their experienced guards (Harvard turns the ball over very little) and defense. They have a 95.4% defensive percentile and allow 57.2 points per game, 12th lowest among all college teams. 6'5" senior guard Wesley Saunders is the star, averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
9. Georgia St. (nERD: 5.99, Record: 24-9)
8. Valparaiso (nERD: 6.51, Record: 28-5)
7. Buffalo (nERD: 8.23, Record: 23-9)
While your watching ESPN's I Hate Christian Laettner tonight to get your NCAA Tournament mojo going, remember one of Laettner's championship teammates, Bobby Hurley. He's the coach of the Buffalo Bulls, the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament champion. The Bulls have no big wins, but played Kentucky and Wisconsin within 19 and 12, respectively, including having a 38-33 lead at Rupp Arena at halftime and a 27-26 lead on Wisconsin at halftime.
The Bulls are 28th in the nation in scoring at 75.0 points per game and have an offensive pace percentile of 89.4%, which will make them fairly fun to watch and fast-paced. They have two good scorers in 6'7" junior forward Justin Moss (17.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game) and 6'1" sophomore guard Shannon Evans (15.4 points and 4.7 assists per game) and an athletic team making their first NCAA appearance as a likely 12 or 13 seed with upset potential like several of their MAC predecessors.6. Stephen F. Austin (nERD: 8.77, Record: 29-4)
Wrestling fans hear the name and dig the "Stone Cold" reference and in 2014's first round the Lumberjacks, did indeed pull an overtime stunner on 5 seed Virginia Commonwealth last season. A close early season loss to Northern Iowa in overtime signals this year the Lumberjacks can repeat its 2014 performance.
Offensively they are very strong, ranking in the 99.5th percentile in offensive ranking while averaging 79.5 points per game (ninth in country). They've scored over 100 points three times for those clamoring for a high-scoring team, and rank second nationally in assists and fifth in field goal percentage at 49.1%. On the defensive end, they are third in the country in forcing turnovers and rank near the 93rd percentile in our defensive rankings.
The Lumberjacks have a deep nine man rotation with balanced minutes. In fact, they have four rotation players who average over 20 points per 40 minutes. 6'4" junior guard Thomas Walkup ranks 14th nationally with 6.5 win shares and 6'6" forward Jacob Parker isn't far behind with 5.6 win shares. These guys can make some serious noise in the tournament and should be fun to watch again.
5. Virginia Commonwealth (nERD: 10.4, Record: 26-9) 4. Southern Methodist (nERD: 10.84, Record: 27-6)
Larry Brown's Mustangs won the American conference tournament by defeating defending National Champion UConn, and they won the America regular season title as well. They have four players who average in double figures, and they're in the 87th percentile in offense and 91st in defense. They average 69.7 points a game, but give up only 59.9 points per game (30th) as their strong defense limits opponents to shooting a dismal 38.1% from the floor (eighth best).
The Mustangs lost to Minnesota in last year's NIT final, which often causes teams to be hungry for the following season's NCAA Tournament, so they should definitely be a team to watch this week.3. Northern Iowa (nERD: 11.47, Record: 30-3)
We'll cover Northern Iowa a lot this week, but if you don't know 6'8" senior forward Seth Tuttle, get familiar with him quickly, as he's the key to a Sweet 16 run for this senior-laden team. The Panthers won the Missouri Valley conference tournament and are in the 93rd and 94th percentiles in offensive and defensive ranking, respectively.2. Gonzaga (nERD: 18.19, Record: 32-2)
A few weeks later, in terms of nERD, this Gonzaga team is still the best we've seen. They figure to be a strong two seed that has an experienced backcourt and a versatile frontcourt that causes all sorts of matchup issues. How far they'll go will determine how they end up in terms of being viewed in Gonzaga's history.1. Villanova (nERD: 19.16, Record: 28-6)
While the Big East is no longer an elite basketball conference, the Wildcats proved Nas' classic It Ain't Hard to Tell wrong, as nobody from the non-power conferences nERD-wise can "groove even smoother than moves by Villanova." We investigated them deeply earlier in the season, and all they've done since is continue to play well.
Strap on your seatbelts folks, because the Madness is about to start!