Cinderella Casting 2016: Big Sky, Big West, Mid-American, Mountain West, Southland, Summit, Southwestern Athletic, Western Athletic and West Coast Auto Bids

March 13, 2016

Today is the day!

At approximately 6 PM ET tonight, CBS will begin releasing the 2016 Men’s Division 1 NCAA Tournament bracket by region.

There are still several automatic bids to be earned on Sunday afternoon, but let’s take a look at a host of tickets that have already been punched. Depending on the finish time of Sunday’s games, this may be the last Cinderella Casting article that needs to guess at teams’ projected seeding.

Big Sky

Automatic Bid: Weber State

Projected Seed: 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Wildcats are back in the tournament after a one year absence, and this is a squad that you may have to get used to seeing in the coming years. Weber State is a young squad, with only one senior on the roster and big minutes coming from freshmen McKay Cannon, Dusty Baker and Zach Braxton. Inexperience is an issue that affects many teams in the NCAA Tournament, so it may actually be a benefit that the Wildcats are almost too young to know any better.

Guard Jeremy Senglin and forward Joel Bolomboy, the elder statesman for Weber State, make up a solid inside-out combination and are responsible for nearly half of the Wildcats’ average scoring output. Bolomboy is also third in the country in rebounding. If Senglin can find Bolomboy inside the paint often and also hit from outside, this team can hang around for an entire 40 minutes against a title contender.

Big West

Automatic Bid: Hawaii

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

It has been 14 years since the Warriors have played in the NCAA Tournament, which is notable because Hawaii coach Eran Ganot was still finishing his undergraduate degree at Swarthmore College at the time. The young Ganot will be leading his team to the Big Dance in his first year as a head coach after spending the last five seasons under the tutelage of Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s. Ganot’s team does not resemble the one he used to coach, however, as the Warriors prefer to win with defense rather than simply outgunning their opponents.

Early in the year Hawaii challenged itself, beating Northern Iowa and playing competitively against Texas Tech and Oklahoma. They will not be intimidated by their opponent and have the personnel to shut down star players. If Aaron Valdez, a former walk-on and the Big West tournament MVP, can get going then the Warriors will have a fighting chance.


Automatic Bid: Buffalo

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Bulls are back in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, but there has been a change in the guard since the last time you saw them. Bobby Hurley has been replaced with Nate Oats at head coach, and Justin Moss has been replaced with Blake Hamiton as the team’s leader and tone setter. To say that the departures across the board have resulted in a whirlwind season for Buffalo is an understatement – it is as much of a surprise to the team as anyone else that they are back for another shot.

Moss was a beast in the post and supposed to play this year, but his dismissal for a violation of team rules forced Coach Oats to rely more on guard play to win games. Hamilton, a JUCO transfer, has stepped up in a big way. The 6’6″ guard is extremely athletic and leads the team in rebounding as well as being second in points per game. Hitting big shots like he did in the MAC title game is no issue for him, but unfortunately he may not get that chance in the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo’s suspect defense could see them have a hard time keeping up with their second round opponent.

Mountain West

Automatic Bid: Fresno State

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

Team(s) that could earn an at-large bid: San Diego State

The Bulldogs have not been to the NCAA Tournament since the Jerry Tarkanian era, but a strong run by this year’s team and a down year for several of the usual suspects in the Mountain West Conference have Fresno State dancing just a year after Tarkanian’s passing. The Bulldogs have one of the country’s more dangerous scoring threats in guard Marvelle Harris who at 20.4 PPG is No. 22 in the country in that category. If Fresno State ends up being a Cinderella, fans across the country will be familiar with Harris.

Fresno State went on the road to play Pac-12 powers Arizona and Oregon earlier in the season and were competitive, suggesting that the talent is there to hang with any opponent. The Bulldogs also have the ability to play at any tempo, winning games with scoring outputs in the 60s and 90s. But for as good as Harris could be, it remains to be seen whether Fresno State can beat a tournament team if he has an off day or is hounded by two defenders, the latter of which seems likely.


Automatic Bid: Stephen F. Austin

Projected Seed: 12

Probability of being a Cinderella: Good

The Lumberjacks have absolutely owned the Southland Conference the past three seasons and are making their third straight trip to the Big Dance. Thomas Walkup, a senior that has experienced all of the success Stephen F. Austin has enjoyed over the last three seasons, is the core of this team and the reason they are so rock solid. He leads the Lumberjacks in nearly every major offensive category and is an extremely versatile player.

In prior years, there have been questions about the Lumberjacks heading into the tournament because of their strength of schedule. However, the team has silenced those critics before and is primed to be a handful for whomever they play once again. A trio of seniors that have been the drivers of the most successful four years in program history are unlikely to go out with a wimper. No 12 seed beat a 5 in last year’s tournament, but if the Jacks are indeed slotted as a 12, watch out.


Automatic Bid: South Dakota State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Unlikely

The Jackrabbits are not the most green team already in the tournament (four seniors on the roster), but the team is led by a 6’9″ freshman in Mike Daum. At least, in points per game. Daum only averages 20 minutes per game, so the real leader on this team is senior George Marshall, who consequently is the team’s second leading scorer and the only real threat as a ball distributor.

In fact, that lack of ball distribution is one of the reasons why South Dakota State is not a chic pick to be this year’s Cinderella as they were a few seasons ago. They run an old-school offense that could actually benefit from more ball movement. Will this team be able to find open shots against a power conference school that sticks to their man like glue? That’s the biggest question for the Jackrabbits and its answer will dictate how long this team survives.

Southwestern Athletic

Automatic Bid: Southern

Projected Seed: 15 or 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The conference RPI rankings place the SWAC at No. 31 across the Division 1 landscape, ahead of just the MEAC. What that means for conference tournament winner Southern is that the Jaguars will more than likely end up with one of the six No. 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

In reality, conference RPI is just a guide and is not indicative of individual teams or their future success. However, it gives us a basis for which to evaluate these teams and their likelihood of being a Cinderella. The chances for the Jaguars are understandably not good. As a 16 seed, they will be up against the greatest of odds and a single half of good basketball is often times considered an achievement. Southern did that back in 2013 when they gave No. 1 seed Gonzaga a real scare, and if this year’s team can do that again, we’ll all be talking about it.

Western Athletic

Automatic Bid: Cal State Bakersfield

Projected Seed: 14 or 15

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

It took a buzzer beater in the WAC title game to send the Roadrunners to the Big Dance, but you can now check another school off the list that has at least one NCAA Tournament appearance to its name. CSU Bakersfield plays good defense (25th best according to KenPom’s adjusted rankings) and is patient offensively, meaning that the Roadrunners will try to keep the score low and limit their opponent’s chances at all costs. A word to describe this team is pesky – they are also No. 20 in the country in steals.

Defensively minded myself, this is a team that I could definitely get behind. The problem is that basketball is a game of matchups, and the fate of the Roadrunners depends largely on whether their opponent is able to take advantage of a clear lack of size (the tallest player for the Roadrunners is 6’9″). If CSU Bakersfield can affect this, then they could keep things interesting. But it’s probably not worth betting a lot of money on.

West Coast

Automatic Bid: Gonzaga

Projected Seed: 10 or 11

Probability of being a Cinderella: Good

Team(s) that could earn at at-large bid: Saint Mary’s

After winning the West Coast Conference championship game, assuring that the ‘Zags would compete in an 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament, head coach Mark Few said that this was the hardest one of his teams has ever had to work to achieve what this Gonzaga squad has. The Bulldogs did not even become a top 50 RPI team until after they beat Saint Mary’s in the title game and it was unclear whether they would have made the Big Dance without a victory.

The aforementioned grittiness of this team is met with plenty of talent, both in the post and out on the perimeter. Domantas Sabonis has stepped up in a big way down low since Przemek Karnowski’s injury, and if you hadn’t been following this team until now you’d never know that Gonzaga is missing their best post player. Kyle Wiltjer is the scoring threat and Eric McClellan provides senior leadership with Wiltjer along with a perimeter option. With the tournament looking like it will be wide open, expect teams like Gonzaga that know how to win high pressure games to play a part in the madness.

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