I reference Power 5 plus 3 (Big East, American and A-10) pretty frequently as having an elevated significance and I think that’s accurate. However, every year we see stories develop from “other” conferences. Some are familar names (Gonzaga, Wichita State) and some less so, but in an age of increasing parity, and perhaps especially this year where we seem to lack any obviously dominant teams, it’s a good idea for those who want to be well-informed in March to be paying some attention to these other conferences. Here’s some thoughts on the teams emerging early on as perhaps the best of the bunch, and some thoughts about disappointments as well.
Gonzaga – I thought the Zags were overrated a bit as a preseason top 10 team but I think they’ve even been a little bit worse than I’d expected. There was a lot of hype around their frontcourt and by and large, those guys have played mostly up to expectations, though the absence of the big kid Karnowski has been a negative factor of late. It’s the backcourt which has been lacking and I’m not sure that’s getting fixed this year. I think people just sort of forgot how good Pangos and Bell were for them, and for four years as well. No good argument for the Zags being the best of the West this year, not after homecourt losses to both Arizona and UCLA.
The other thing which hurts a bit is that the WCC is down. According to Real Time RPI, the WCC is currently sitting 18th out of 33 leagues nationally. That’s not horrendous but given that it puts them behind leagues like the Big West, Southern and MAC, it gets harder to assume that the WCC is a two bid conference, which has sort of been the default assumption lately (the league was 9th a year ago). St. Mary’s looks solid and BYU always has talent…is there a chance Gonzaga could miss the Tournament altogether if they don’t win the WCC Tournament? Unlikely, at least for now…but worth keeping an eye on.
Wichita State – Another team which hasn’t lived up to advance notice, but there’s some justification for it here. WSU finally has Fred VanVleet back and that’s a huge, huge deal for this team. For as much as I think Ron Baker is a bit overrated, I think VanVleet doesn’t get quite the type of credit he deserves…I think he’s one of the top handful of point guards in America. Word out this morning that they don’t think they’ll get Anton Grady back this season, which is a blow…he was a really nice addition to that frontcourt. However, I think with VanVleet back, we’re going to see the Shockers be something a bit closer to what we’ve come to expect. To me, they’re still the team to beat in the MVC. Returning to conference RPI though…the MVC is currently 15th nationally. Is that a two bid league? The MVC was 12th last year, so it’s in roughly the same range. Northern Iowa is expected to be a contender and they do have that Paige-less UNC win in their back pocket. Again, as with the Zags, something to watch for if Wichita doesn’t win the MVC Tournament.
The Mountain West – This has quietly been a good league for a long time…it’s essentially the successor to the old WAC, which was always a better conference than most people realized. Last year it was the 11th best conference by RPI and this year it sits at 9th, a notch ahead of the American. It was a 3 bid league in 2015 and I would suspect there’s a good chance for at least that many spots this time around…but who exactly those teams will be is open to discussion at this stage.
I can’t quite figure UNLV out just yet. They have a couple of decent wins over IU and Oregon…the two losses were competitive ones to UCLA and WIchita, so hardly big negatives there. They kind of look the part, but somehow I haven’t bought in completely yet. Still, definitely a solid pick to emerge.
I liked Boise when MSU played them…thought they could be a very tough team to guard with all the skilled guys they have on that roster. They finally got a needed good win the other day when they beat Oregon. They’re going to likely need to be a top 2-ish type team in the MWC standings to have a shot at an at-large bid, though…two losses to Arizona, the loss to MSU and a loss to Montana are hardly bad ones to have but they also don’t have a ton of resume wins either, though Oregon will help.
I liked New Mexico when I saw them lose to Purdue on the road…that was a game closer than the final 12 point margin. The other loss was to USC, so not so good. They did just beat Northern Iowa by 19, so that’s a solid win.
San Diego State’s been a perennial NCAA team in recent years. Not sure about this season, though. Lots of talent but a 7-4 start without any impressive wins isn’t a solid platform to build from.
Arkansas Little Rock – Out of the Sun Belt, a Southern equivalent of the old WAC in some ways back in the 80s but a league which lost most of its heavyweights to Conference USA a long time ago…but now the Trojans look like a team capable of making some noise. They’re unbeaten and though they don’t have any top 25 wins, they have beaten San Diego State, Tulsa, Idaho and DePaul all on the road. They’ll get one more crack at a road win later this month when they travel to Texas Tech. KenPom currently has them 79th in the country…is that good enough to withstand a conference Tournament loss? They’re also not a lock to win the regular season crown either, as Texas Arlington has beaten Ohio State, Memphis, UTEP and Rice on the road and their two losses (to LaTech and Texas) were competitive and also on the road.
South Dakota State – The Jackrabbits have been a good program for many years now. They’re 9-1 at the moment, with a loss to Missouri-KC being offset by road wins over Minnesota, TCU and Illinois State. KenPom has them 46th nationally, so this is a much more likely situation than UALR of a team which could perhaps withstand a conference tournament upset.
Monmouth – They’re 80th in KenPom right now. 6-3 but with wins over UCLA, USC and Notre Dame. The losses are to USC (played them twice and split), Dayton and Canisus. They were not the preseason favorite in the MAAC…Iona and Rider were picked ahead of them but Monmouth’s resume looks far better than either to date. They have shots later this month against Georgetown and Rutgers to further strengthen their case.
Horizon – 14th best league right now, up a tick from last season’s 16th. Valpo is the favorite and they haven’t done much to damage their standing. They’re 9-2 with losses to Oregon and Ball State on the road and wins over Rhode Island, Iona and Oregon State. KenPom has them 29th, so they’re in a great spot to be able to withstand a Horizon tournament meltdown, provided they do the job in the regular season. The question is, can this be a two bid league even without that kind of upset? Milwaukee is 8-3 with a road win over Wisconsin and 3 competitive losses. Oakland is a team I like a lot. 6-3 thus far without a resume win but they have chances coming soon…Washington, MSU and Virginia looming before the month is out. Neither of these teams is currently in KenPom’s top 100, though, so probably far fetched to see either in the field unless they win that Tournament in March.