2019 Cinderella Casting: Atlantic Sun, Big South, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley and Southern Auto Bids

March 12, 2019
By K. Becks

I don’t know if it’s possible to make the argument that day basketball is the best basketball, but it sure as hell feel like it on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-March.

Conference tournament action has been fully underway for over a week now, and those that don’t count the games going on this week as part of the “madness” are crazy themselves. The madness before the Madness is absolutely part of what makes this time of year second to none.

As always, I’m having a difficult time balancing the actual, professional responsibilities that I have at work with my desire to daydream about the NCAA Tournament and study the teams that have already booked their ticket to the Big Dance. But for you all, the fans that somehow keep coming back despite my extended absences from the blog, I’m willing to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure you’re getting the coverage of the small and mid-major conference champions you need to be the guy (or gal) no one wants to hear from once the action gets underway next Tuesday.

In the case you’re new to this site, here’s how the Cinderella Casting series works: I’ll break down the chances of each automatic bid to the men’s NCAA Tournament from the small and mid-major conferences, from projected seeding to their chances of being a bracket buster. Additionally, you’ll get Bubble Watch thoughts – teams I think have an at-large shot from these leagues.

To start, we’ll take a look at the teams that clinched a bid over the past weekend and on Monday night.

Atlantic Sun

Automatic Bid: Liberty

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Along with Lipscomb, the Flames created some buzz by just being in the recent conversation for an at-large bid in the event they didn’t win the A-Sun tournament. Although those chances were slim, it speaks volumes about the perception of this Liberty team. Defensively stout, the Flames are the country’s sixth best in terms of points allowed per game. Paired with a 49 percent field goal percentage as a team, good for 13th best in the nation, Liberty could be a tough out for a team that is haphazard with its offensive opportunities.

A trio of guards lead the team in minutes, but forward Scottie James is the go-to guy offensively. James is 6’8” and will be the tallest player on the court for the A-Sun regular season and tournament champs. A smaller lineup employed by the Flames could spell trouble against a bigger, more physical team, but Richie McKay’s squad is scrappy and will surprise you defensively. Matchups are everything in basketball and Liberty’s chances at a Cinderella likely depend on whether they are outmatched in the paint, but good shooting will allow the Flames to keep things close.

Big South

Automatic Bid: Gardner-Webb

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Runnin’ Bulldogs are going to be thrilled just to be in the Big Dance, as Gardner-Webb will be making its first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2019. True to their name, the Runnin’ Bulldogs will try to dictate the pace of the game and mask their inefficiencies on defense with loads of points. A number of players can go off for this team, including leading scorer David Efianayi (18.4 PPG) and DJ Laster, the hero of the Big South title game who poured in 32 points against Radford.

While Tim Craft’s team might go on an early run to wake up whatever top seed they’ll play, the chances that Gardner-Webb will be able to put together a full 40 minutes of solid basketball against one of the heavy hitters is unlikely. Expect the Runnin’ Bulldogs to be done in by their lack of defense, barring an exceptional shooting performance from the floor and a good bit of luck.

Missouri Valley

Automatic Bid: Bradley

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

A crazy Missouri Valley Conference tournament ended up seeing the No. 5 and 6 seeds duelling it out for an automatic bid to the Big Dance, ultimately the only way a team from this conference will make the Tournament in 2019. The Braves have shown heart all season, rebounding from a tough 2-9 stretch in the middle of the year and coming from 18 down in the aforementioned title game against Northern Iowa, the conference’s gold standard of consistency. And while Brian Wardle’s team isn’t going to run you out of the gym, it’s hard-nosed style will be tough to score against.

Sophomore forward Elijah Childs is a solid scorer and can be a monster on the boards. Darrell Brown leads the team in scoring and along with Childs averages nearly half of Bradley’s team average per game. The Braves employ a style of play that would lend itself to just a couple of heavy lifters offensively, but the likelihood is that a top seed will be able to weather the storm brought on by Brown and Childs.

Ohio Valley

Automatic Bid: Murray State

Projected Seed: 11 or 12

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

Potential at-large bids: Belmont

Those who haven’t seen the Racers play this season are in for a treat next week. The highlights of Ja Morant dunking this season only tell a fraction of his story – likely to be one of the top picks in this year’s NBA Draft, Morant is also the nation’s leader in assists for a team that is sixth in the country in that category. Four players on this team average double-digits in scoring, so it’s not surprising that the Racers are also in the top 15 in points per game scored.

Unfortunately for potential opponents of the Racers, stopping Morant will far from guarantee smooth sailing. His fluidity with the ball makes it so difficult to guess what he is going to do and his supporting cast is more than capable of taking advantage of easy opportunities created by a focus on Morant. Throw in 295 pound beast Darnell Cowart down low, and Murray State has all the making of a real threat to make it to the second week of the Big Dance.

Southern

Automatic Bid: Wofford

Projected Seed: 7

Probability of being a Cinderella: N/A

Potential at-large bids: UNC-Greensboro, Furman

Let’s be clear – the Wofford Terriers aren’t sneaking up on anyone in this year’s Tournament, and they are not going to be considered a Cinderella by winning one or even two games. The Southern Conference was a hidden gem amongst the college basketball landscape this season, which is why Wofford’s perfect conference record and three victories over the league’s second best team should not be a statistic taken lightly. Mid-major label aside, the Terriers are battle-tested and ready for whatever they’ll face in the Big Dance.

Do-it-all senior guard Fletcher Magee is bound to become a Tournament darling if the Terriers manage to win at least one game and will be a bear to deal with both on the perimeter and when he drives to the basket. But Fletcher is not alone offensively, with Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover providing additional support from the outside for a squad that shoots over 41 percent from behind the arc (No. 2 in the country). Wofford’s ability to stretch the floor offensively and clamp down against it defensively are indicative of a strong Power 5 conference team. KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ranking puts Wofford in the top 20 nationally, currently sandwiched between Kansas and Maryland. The country is about to find out that despite the lack of affiliation with a major conference, Wofford plays like a team from one. If UNC-Greensboro or Furman is lucky enough, the Southern Conference could have a banner year in 2019.

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