2014 Cinderella Casting: Horizon, Northeast, Summit, West Coast Auto Bids

March 12, 2014
By K. Becks

For better or worse, today is the day that the smaller conferences begin to compete for the attention of the casual college basketball fan. Up to this point, the major conferences had not yet begun their conferences tournaments, and it was the little guy or nothing for those that wanted college hoops action.

The American, ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC all begin first round play today. But for those that love championship basketball, there are still options.

The Patriot League will crown a champion on Wednesday night. Ten small or mid-major conferences will join some of the big boys in naming their automatic representative to the Big Dance. And the Atlantic 10 and Sun Belt conferences keep things interesting on Selection Sunday.

So while you’re watching the big names to see if a middle of the pack team from the major conferences can sneak in, don’t completely forget about the little guy. Sure, they may be used to it, but I’ll still be here writing about them.

Let’s take a look at several teams that punched their ticket to the Dance last night.

Horizon

Automatic Bid: UW-Milwaukee

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

To say that the Panthers are one of the most surprising teams to make the NCAA Tournament this year would not be an understatement. Coming off of an 8-24 campaign last season in which Rob Jeter’s team finished dead last in the Horizon League, UW-Milwaukee turned things around but not entirely. The Panthers posted a 7-9 conference record this season and entered the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed. But thanks to a gritty four game stretch in which UW-Milwaukee dispatched top seeded Green Bay then beat Wright State at the Raiders’ home gym, the Panthers are dancing for the first time since 2006.

The word gritty was used in the previous paragraph, and it’s a perfect word to describe the Panthers as a whole. Toughness down low from forwards Kyle Kelm and Austin Arians are the reason UW-Milwaukee isn’t done playing, and it will be the only way it stays in a game against a top seed. This wasn’t the best the Horizon League had to offer all season, and based on marks of inconsistency (the Panthers had lost four straight before ending on a five game winning streak) we might not even see the best UW-Milwaukee has to offer in the Big Dance. I wouldn’t bet on this team, but hey, they’re in.

Northeast

Automatic Bid: Mount St. Mary’s

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Based on Mount St. Mary’s 16-16 record, you may have thought that I made a mistake in calling UW-Milwaukee one of the most surprising teams to make the tournament. That was not a mistake, however, because records like the Mountaineers’ are not that uncommon from the Northeast Conference’s representative to the NCAA Tournament. In years past I have given the conference a considerable amount of flak for being a conference that routinely earns a very low seed and is bounced from the tournament fairly easily. And that isn’t going to change in 2014.

Like LIU-Brooklyn last season, the Mountaineers bring to the table a very entertaining offense. However, there is nearly no defense to speak of when it comes to playing quality competition. Mount St. Mary’s allowed at least 90 points in seven games this season, and consequently was 1-6 in those contests. When you average fewer points than you allow, it’s usually a red flag. I’m sorry to burst the bubble of anyone who thought this team was going to make some noise in the Big Dance, but it just isn’t going to happen.

Summit

Automatic Bid: North Dakota State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

While it would have been nice to see IPFW clinch its first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, mid-major fans can take solace in the fact that with North Dakota State you’re getting a quality basketball team that could very realistically do some damage in the Big Dance. A quality non-conference schedule prepared the Bison well for conference play, where Saul Phillips’s team won all but two games. The impressive nine game winning streak that the team is currently riding is no fluke, either. No squad in the country shoots the ball from inside the arc better than the Bison, who connect on an astounding 50.9 percent of field goals.

Leading the charge on the offense is forward Marshall Bjorklund, who likely would have become a household name in last year’s tournament had South Dakota State not captured the Summit League crown. Bjorklund’s touch in the paint is essentially unmatched at his position and he will be a problem for even the most adept defensive big men. North Dakota State is one of the rare teams that can score quickly, but prefers to slow things down and can win close, tight games relying on defense. Throw in a team three point shooting percentage that can be characterized as “good enough”, and the Bison look like a sturdy choice to be this year’s darlings.

West Coast

Automatic Bid: Gonzaga

Projected Seed: Anywhere from 7 to 9

Probability of being a Cinderella: N/A

Other teams from the conference that will probably get in: BYU

Gonzaga won’t be surprising anyone in the NCAA Tournament this year, and Mark Few’s team hasn’t done so for a long time. But that’s what happens when you build an exceptionally strong program in a mid-major conference. The Bulldogs will be more appropriately seeded in 2014 after going 28-6 and 15-3 in the West Coast Conference, but that doesn’t mean that they are a whole lot worse than the team that received a No. 1 seed last season. This team is similarly balanced, with a couple of guards who are accurate from behind the arc and forwards who contribute favorably to the team’s 49.8 percent field goal mark (good for fourth best in the country).

The question for Few’s squad will be whether the team will be able to close out what will most likely be close games against quality competition. Gonzaga’s best wins come against BYU (twice) and Arkansas, both bubble teams at this point. The Bulldogs failed to notch a win over a Top 25 opponent and was suffered losses to Dayton and Kansas State, a couple of the only other tournament bound teams on the schedule. The ‘Zags will definitely give any team it faces trouble, but obviously the goal for this mid-major is to come away with something to show for its efforts.

- K. Becks

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