2014 Cinderella Casting: America East, Atlantic 10, Big Sky, Big West, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Mountain West, Southland, Southwestern Athletic, Sun Belt, Western Athletic Auto Bids

March 16, 2014
By K. Becks

Saturday was a huge day for automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament.

In all, 14 bids were punched to the Big Dance on Saturday and two more on Sunday. But in this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the 12 from small or mid-major conferences.

This is the last post in the Casting Cinderella segment. And, it comes just in time for Selection Sunday.

Here are the ten who felt the relief of knowing they’re in before the fact.

America East

Automatic Bid: Albany

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

At some point you have to feel bad for the Stony Brook, who missed out on yet another chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament by losing to the Great Danes, the third time in four years that the Seawolves have lost in the America East finals. But taking advantage is Albany, who will be making its second consecutive trip to the Big Dance. Will Brown’s team is experienced (three seniors, one junior in the starting lineup) and gets things done on the defensive end, which excluding Florida Gulf Coast a year ago is generally the recipe for a small conference team to give one of the big boys a scare.

Unfortunately for Albany, its 18-14 overall record with literally nothing to show for with regard to key victories likely means a No. 16 seed. This probably isn’t the year for the America East to make noise in the NCAA Tournament.

Atlantic 10

Automatic Bid: Saint Joseph’s

Projected Seed: Anywhere from 8 to 10

Probability of being a Cinderella: N/A

Other teams from the conference that will probably get in: Dayton, George Washington, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, VCU

Can we just talk a bit about the strength of the Atlantic 10 Conference? For a mid-major, I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed a conference with more depth and potential in consecutive tournaments. At the very least, this conference will get four teams in. But more than likely, six teams from the A-10 will have a spot in the Big Dance, which will probably put it on the same level as the Big Ten and Pac-12.

Saint Joseph’s might be the most intriguing of the bunch, because the Hawks are playing as well as any team in the nation right now. This sounds confusing, considering the two losses to George Washington and La Salle right before the A-10 tournament, but it’s true. Langston Galloway, who is a special player, has come alive and the Hawks had to beat some very motivated teams in order to win their conference tournament. I expect big things from this conference as a whole.

Big Sky

Automatic Bid: Weber State

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

For a team from a small conference, Weber State is one of the better examples of consistency. The school is making its 15th NCAA Tournament appearance, which is on the same level as teams such as Iowa State and Providence (16 appearances each). Although it has been seven years since the Wildcats have been to the Big Dance, the school is mentioned in passing by NBA fans who point out that Weber State is the alma mater of current Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. Fans who follow the team, however, understand that there is a current Wildcat who is very similar to Lillard and makes Weber State a fun team to watch.

Senior guard Davion Berry leads the Wildcats in points and assists per game and is the team’s best free throw shooter. He is also one of the top 50 scorers in the country and is getting some NBA looks. In addition to being able to handle the ball, the 6’4″ 185 pound Berry is also comfortable in the forward role, making him extremely versatile and difficult to guard. While Weber State probably won’t see more than one game of action, Berry could be one of the more exciting players of the second round.

Big West

Automatic Bid: Cal Poly

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

At 13-19 overall, the Cal Poly Mustangs are already guaranteed to have the worst record of any team in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs’ 3-10 slide before an unexpected three game run in the Big West Conference tournament would suggest that the team isn’t exactly playing its best basketball, either. And with a field goal percentage that ranks No. 319 in the country and points per game output that ranks No. 327, the opponent Cal Poly plays could probably put its reserves on the floor and still hold the Mustangs to under 50 points.

But this is the moment that all the players on Joe Callero’s team have been dreaming about since they were kids. No, the Mustangs are unlikely to move on, even from the play-in game they’ll almost surely be dealt. But they’ll have fun while they’re playing and remind the country why the One Shining Moment video at the end of the tournament is still worth showing.

Conference USA

Automatic Bid: Tulsa

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Golden Hurricane ended atop the Conference USA regular season standings in a four way tie with Louisiana Tech, Southern Mississippi and Middle Tennessee State, so to say that Tulsa ruined the chances of a better team from the conference getting into the Big Dance is hardy objective. In fact, in the midst of an eleven game winning streak in which they dispatched all but one of those teams, the Golden Hurricane might have been the best squad the conference could have sent if it had a choice.

Tulsa is balanced on both ends of the court, and has good bench depth which should allow the team to avoid becoming tired against stronger squads. In addition, the Golden Hurricane are coached by someone that has a bit of experience with success in the NCAA Tournament: second-year head man Danny Manning lead Kansas to a national title in 1988. Tulsa should hang around with whoever it is matched up against.

Mid-American

Automatic Bid: Western Michigan

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Broncos are an interesting team, who could be a legitimate candidate for most unlikely team to advance if it wins its first game. Due to the relative strength of the MAC, Western Michigan will likely have to overcome a low seed in the tournament. However, it has happened in the recent past, with Ohio upsetting third seeded Georgetown in 2010.

Steve Hawkins’s squad is led by senior point guard David Brown, who leads the team averaging 19.4 points per game and poured in 32 points in a lopsided victory over Toledo to clinch a tournament ticket. Brown is a tough player who isn’t afraid to get knocked around in the post, and can ultimately get opposing big men into foul trouble. If Brown goes off and the rest of the Broncos shoot above the 46.6 percent field goal percentage the team averages, Western Michigan could be a pest for a high seed. Despite not playing elite competition, the Broncos took care of business and didn’t suffer any huge defeats.

Mid-Eastern

Automatic Bid: North Carolina Central

Projected Seed: 14 or 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Eagles are making their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and lack of prior results isn’t the only reason that the team is nearly a complete mystery. At 28-5 and currently riding a 20-game win streak, North Carolina Central’s vitals would suggest this is a really solid mid-major. But the Eagles also come from generally one of the weakest conferences in college basketball and consequently racking up a bunch of victories isn’t as impressive.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that statistically LeVelle Moton’s team is one of the best defensively in the nation, or that the Eagles have a clear cut go-to scorer when they need points (in senior guard Jeremy Ingram). Without much else to go off of, it would seem as though North Carolina Central’s opponent best be prepared for anything. With an opportunistic defense that averages nearly eight steals per game, the Eagles could sneak up on someone looking ahead to the third round.

Mountain West

Automatic Bid: New Mexico

Projected Seed: Anywhere from 4 to 6

Probability of being a Cinderella: N/A

Other teams from the conference that will probably get in: San Diego State

With the exception of freshman Cullen Neal, the entire starting five from New Mexico remembers how it feels to be upset by a Cinderella. This year’s team is ready to assure that it does not happen in consecutive seasons. The Lobos are much more balanced on offense, finding production from senior forward Cameron Bairstow to complement Kendall Williams. The team that beats New Mexico will have to find an answer for both of them, because either one can carry the scoring load on any given night.

The Lobos are playing their best basketball at the right time, and the argument can be made that this team is similarly poised to make a run compared with last year’s squad. The only difference is, the nucleus of this year’s team knows the sting of losing in its first tournament game. New Mexico is no Cinderella, but it won’t be losing to one in the Big Dance, either.

Southland

Automatic Bid: Stephen F. Austin

Projected Seed: 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Over the past two seasons, no team has won more games yet received less attention than the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. In 2013, Danny Kaspar’s team was 27-3 when it lost in the Southland Conference finals. This year, the Lumberjacks are 31-2 and haven’t lost since November 26. Of course, one look at the team’s schedule will leave you a bit less impressed, but a 27-game win streak is hard to do regardless of competition (just ask Wichita State).

The Lumberjacks are extremely unselfish with the ball and are much better on the offensive end than last season. But Stephen F. Austin is likely to hit a brick wall, literally and figuratively. The tallest player on the team who averages more than five minutes per contest is Tanner Clayton, who is 6’9″. The Lumberjacks have had trouble on the boards all season, and it will be tough to compete in that area against stronger competition. Unless Stephen F. Austin puts up uncharacteristic numbers from behind the arc, it could be one and done for the Southland’s representative.

Southwestern Athletic

Automatic Bid: Texas Southern

Projected Seed: 15 or 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

I was pleased to see the Tigers capture their first NCAA Tournament berth since I guided the team to back-to-back appearances in College Hoops 2k5 (honest fact: it’s been since 2003). But I have a hard time 1) seeing them receive a No. 6 or 11 seed, as I was able to earn and 2) give a team like Duke a run for its money.

Texas Southern does a decent job on the offensive end, but allows a lot of points to be scored as well. On top of that, the Tigers were soundly beaten by nearly every team that resembled the caliber of team they’ll have to play outside of a play-in game. I don’t like the chances of this team moving on, but for old time’s sake I’ll be rooting for the school that gave me my start in video game coaching.

Sun Belt

Automatic Bid: UL-Lafayette

Projected Seed: 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Per usual in the Sun Belt, a team that was not the top seed in the conference tournament found a way to survive in New Orleans. This year, UL-Lafayette is the lucky winner, finding a way to oust top seeded Georgia State in overtime in the tournament final. While this definitely is a blow the conference with regard to the quality of team it is sending to the Big Dance, the Ragin’ Cajun will likely not go down without providing some excitement.

As one of the highest scoring teams in the country (No. 13 averaging 81.4 PPG), the UL-Lafayette’s opponent isn’t going to simply be able to dispatch the Ragin’ Cajuns with a barrage of quick possessions and garbage baskets. Bob Marlin’s team will hang around if you do that, and they might even win. No, to beat this team, you must actually play strong defense and score a decent amount of points. While a high seed facing this team probably won’t lose, it might not be a fun first game to play.

Western Athletic

Automatic Bid: New Mexico State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

When you have a 7’5″, 355 pound center that nearly averages a double-double, you’re automatically going to be elevated to the “decent” category of being a Cinderella. However, Sim Bhullar is just the face of an overall daunting frontcourt for the New Mexico State Aggies. Tshilidzi Nephawe is 6’10″ and is also a major contributor for a team that gets both minutes and offensive production from a multitude of players. In all, 10 players average at least 10 minutes per contest, and six players average at least eight points per game.

This is the third consecutive season that the Aggies have made the NCAA Tournament, so the upperclassmen are both ready and hungry for a victory that has eluded their tournament experience. Given that almost no team New Mexico State will face will have a size advantage, the Aggies need to go to Bhullar and Nephawe early and often. If there is one thing that limits this team, it is stamina, and that isn’t going to change in the Big Dance. If New Mexico State is to win a game or two, it will need to get out to an early lead and hang on tight.

- K. Becks

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