Cinderella Casting 2017: America East, Atlantic 10, Big Sky, Big West, Conference USA, Ivy, Mid-American, Mid-Eastern, Mountain West, Southland, Sun Belt, Southwestern Athletic and Western Athletic Auto Bids

March 12, 2017
By K. Becks

Today is the day.

When I began writing this article, there were less than three hours until the Selection Show would kick off on CBS. It has been like Christmas Day for me, reviewing all of these automatic bids that were punched either yesterday or earlier today, knowing that the wait is almost over.

Because of the number of bids that have been claimed recently, we’re going to hit it hard, and we’re going to hit it fast on Around The Corn.

Here’s a look at the rest of the mid-major automatic bids for the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

America East

Automatic Bid: Vermont

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

Although it has been 12 years, diehard college basketball fans haven’t forgotten when the Catamounts shocked the Syracuse Orange as a No. 12 seed in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. That was the last time Vermont came into the Big Dance as anything higher than a No. 16 seed, but 2017 should change that. The America East champion will be a tough out for whomever it plays.

Vermont did not lose a single game in its conference this season and are currently riding the country’s longest winning streak at 21 games. The Catamounts aren’t the flashiest team, but they play lockdown defense, allowing just over 61 points per contest. As of the time this article was published, the Catamounts were a No. 12 seed in Joe Lunardi’s bracket matched up against Cincinnati. That would be a battle between two of the country’s best defensive teams and one in which Vermont could definitely win.

Atlantic 10

Automatic Bid: Rhode Island

Projected Seed: 10 or 11

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

Team(s) that could earn an at-large bid: Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth

When Rhode Island held on to win the A-10 tournament, it essentially guaranteed that the conference would become a three bid league in the NCAA Tournament. The Atlantic 10 is consistently one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the Big Dance and the teams set to earn a spot have a great chance of continuing that trend. The Rams haven’t been to the tournament in 18 seasons but were on the bubble heading into the conference tournament and appear to have hit their stride at precisely the right time.

As a program that narrowly missed the Tournament the a couple of years ago and was competitive against teams like Duke and Cincinnati this season, Rhode Island is both deserving of and ready for this opportunity. Forwards Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson average 15 rebounds per game between the two and bring toughness inside that will keep the Rams in every game they play. Bobby Hurley’s kid brother could end up making a real name for himself by the time the Rams are finished playing this season.

Big Sky

Automatic Bid: North Dakota

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Fighting Hawks are making their first every NCAA Tournament appearance and assure that both Dakotas will have a representative in the Big Dance in 2017. North Dakota is exciting offensively and will look to keep pace with their opponent on that end, which may end up being the team’s undoing as it is likely that the Fighting Hawks will be at a No. 15 seed.

Guards Quinton Hooker and Geno Crandall average over 35 and 32 minutes per game each, a throwback to fitness that isn’t usually seen at the Division 1 level these days. While the offense flows through these two players, North Dakota will need to give these two help to avoid being knocked out in its first game.

Big West

Automatic Bid: UC-Davis

Projected Seed: 15 or 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Several teams will be making their inaugural appearance in the NCAA Tournament and the Aggies are one of them. UC Davis put together a string of victories in the Big West tournament when it mattered most, but the Aggies weren’t exactly coming into March hot. The team is just 7-3 in their last 10 games.

A slower tempo offense may help keep the Aggies in a game they would otherwise have trouble being competitive in. But in order for that to happen, a lot of luck will be required. The good news for UC-Davis is that according to KenPom’s luck rating, which basically factors in how well you have done in close games with respect to overall record, the Aggies are No. 4 in the country. The old adage is that you’d rather be lucky than good, so perhaps Jim Les’s team will shock the world later this week.

Conference USA

Automatic Bid: Middle Tennessee State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Good

The Blue Raiders are making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in school history and hoping to build upon the tournament success they experienced last season, when as a No. 15 seed they completed perhaps the upset of the tournament by knocking off Michigan State, one of the favorites to win it all in 2016. When taking a look at Kemit Davis’s current squad, there is reason to believe another successful tournament is definitely possible.

Middle Tennessee State doesn’t push the tempo, but is balanced on both ends of the floor. JaCorey Williams, who redshirted last season, joins Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw as the pulse of this team and the bulk of the offensive production. Potts and Upshaw were contributors on last season’s Cinderella squad and have pushed this team to achieve greater things this season, including reaching 30 victories. Since everyone will remember last year’s Michigan State game, it may not be easy, but the Blue Raiders are good enough to again play multiple games in the Big Dance.

Ivy

Automatic Bid: Princeton

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Tigers finished their Ivy League conference slate at a perfect 14-0, which in prior years would have been enough to send Princeton to the NCAA Tournament. But thanks to the league instituting a four team conference tournament to determine its automatic bid, Mitch Henderson’s team had to extend the nation’s second longest winning streak to 19 games to assure its spot in the Big Dance. The Ivy League representative has long been regarded as a tough out in the NCAA Tournament and this one appears to be no different.

This is a quintessential Princeton basketball team. Solid ball movement, slow offensive tempo, strong shooting and bench depth that rivals any team in the country. No one player carries the Tigers, which is exactly how Henderson would prefer it. In a potentially foreboding coincidence, Henderson played on the 1998 Princeton squad, which entered the Tournament on a 19-game winning streak as well. That team went on to beat UNLV before bowing out to Michigan State in the second round.

Mid-American

Automatic Bid: Kent State

Projected Seed: 14 or 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Golden Flashes are essentially already wearing the glass slipper this March, winning the MAC tournament as a six seed and taking out the top three teams in the conference to do so. Kent State has been up and down this season, but defends the glass well and won’t lose in the Big Dance as a result of being outmuscled inside.

If forward Jimmy Hall and guard Jaylin Walker are on, the Golden Flashes will be competitive. But if they are having trouble finding their rhythm, the offensive production will stagnate. Walker had 30 points in the title game against Akron and did a good job of creating his own shot, something that no one else on the team really has the ability to do. This isn’t the type of team you can look at overall record and get excited about, but they have already shown the ability to survive this month which is the ultimate goal.

Mid-Eastern

Automatic Bid: North Carolina Central

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Without disrespecting a team that deserves to make the NCAA Tournament just like every other conference tournament winner, North Carolina Central just doesn’t have a very good chance of being a Cinderella. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is one of the weakest in Division 1 men’s college basketball, which explains why a team that has 25 regular season victories will most likely still earn a No. 16 seed.

Patrick Cole, a senior guard that leads the team in points, rebounds and assists per game, is a player to watch for the Eagles and could give the opposition fits with his versatility. But suggesting that North Carolina Central is anything but a one-and-done team is suggesting that this will be the first time a No. 16 beats a top seeded team. While I am a firm believer it will happen eventually, I won’t try to correctly predict what team will break through and actually do it.

Mountain West

Automatic Bid: Nevada

Projected Seed: 12

Probability of being a Cinderella: Good

The Wolfpack are a legitimately solid basketball team and not one that even the top seeds would enjoy seeing later on in the tournament. Nevada shoots well from behind the arc (38.5 percent as a team) and takes good care of the basketball (11.15 turnovers per game), making them a dangerous threat to go on quick runs. As a team that already possess the 35th best adjusted offense in the country according to KenPom, the Wolfpack can bury you in a hurry.

Eric Musselman’s team isn’t particularly deep, but the guys getting the top minutes are a big reason why. Five players average double-digits in scoring and two (sophomores Cameron Oliver and Jordan Caroline) average nearly a double-double. Defending this team will not be easy, both because of the ability for multiple players to handle the scoring load but also because of the size of Nevada. The Mountain West may have been down this year, but its conference champion should represent the league very well.

Southland

Automatic Bid: New Orleans

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Five years ago, the prospect of New Orleans making it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996 seemed like a dream at best. The university was going through the steps to reclassify as a Division 2 program for all sports, but decided to stay a Division 1 member and switch from the Sun Belt to Southland Conference. Head coach Mark Slessinger was at the school when this was all going on, which is a testament to his commitment to this program.

The Privateers are most likely going to be a 16 seed, giving them little chance of being one of the Tournament’s Cinderella teams. However, as a former head coach of UNO in Legacy Mode on NCAA College Basketball 2k6 for Playstation 2, I’m going to be rooting for the Privateers to shock the world. I just wouldn’t recommend anyone put any money on that happening.

Sun Belt

Automatic Bid: Troy

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

Troy joined the automatic bid party late, becoming the next to last team to secure its berth via a conference tournament title. Unlike the Big Ten’s champion (the other late addition to the list), the chances of the Trojans playing beyond its first game of the NCAA Tournament, save a play-in game slot, seem highly improbable.

In order to play multiple games, the Trojans will need to shoot well from behind the arc. Jordon Varnado, Wesley Person and Jeremy Hollimon, Troy’s top three scorers, all can do that, but the Trojans were 1 for 17 in the Sun Belt title game and still ended up winning. Phil Cunningham’s team won’t be so fortunate later this week if it shoots that poorly from the three point line.

Southwestern Athletic

Automatic Bid: Texas Southern

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Tigers are becoming somewhat of a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament, having made three of the last four. However, Texas Southern is still looking for its first ever victory in the Big Dance. While the opportunity may be there this year in the form of a play-in game matchup in Dayton, no one will be looking at Mike Davis’s team to continue that success when the tournament is in full swing later in the week.

Experience against top competition this season will be one of Texas Southern’s greatest assets. The Tigers faced Arizona, Baylor, Louisville and Cincinnati earlier in the year. None of those games were particularly close, but it is unlikely that any other low seed will be as well prepared for what they will face against a potential one or two seed.

Western Athletic

Automatic Bid: New Mexico State

Projected Seed: 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

In a conference that has been decimated by conference realignment over the past decade, New Mexico State has been the gold standard and a beacon of consistency. For the fifth time in six years the Aggies will be dancing, this time under first year head coach Paul Weir. Despite all the success of the previous leadership, Weir may be in control of New Mexico State’s most talented team in this run of recent success for the program.

Although there is only one senior on this squad, the Aggies play great team basketball and can get offensive productivity from anyone on the court at a particular time. The question for this squad will be whether its defense can handle opposition that is capable of matching its own offensive production. New Mexico State was 324th in opponent’s adjusted offensive efficiency, meaning that the teams they played, on average, couldn’t score. If the Aggies get the right matchup, they will be competitive.

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