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NCAA Tournament mid-major breakdown: Colonial, Conference USA, Horizon, Mountain West

Hofstra Pride guard Juan'ya Green in the first

Hofstra Pride guard Juan'ya Green in the first half of the Canisius Golden Griffins at the Hofstra Pride on Nov.13, 2015. Credit: Lee S. Weissman

As Selection Sunday approaches on March 13, the mid-major conferences in Division I men’s basketball start to gain attention.

Here’s a primer on four such conferences as the regular season winds down for the Colonial, Conference USA, Horizon League and Mountain West conferences.


The favorite: UNC Wilmington

Record: 21-6, 13-3 CAA

RPI: 63

Best wins: Vs. William & Mary, James Madison (twice), at Hofstra

Worst loss: At East Carolina

UNC Wilmington currently hold a one-game lead over Hofstra, which could vanish as soon as tonight, when the Seahawks host the Pride.

The Seahawks were able to climb past Hofstra in the standings thanks in part to a high-powered offense that is scoring 80.7 points per game, 22nd in the country. They’ve won 12 out of their last 13 games and have only been held under 70 points three times in that span.

A win tonight would clinch the CAA regular-season title, but aside from a slightly easier draw in the early rounds, that won’t mean much: the entire tournament is being played in Baltimore.

The contender: Hofstra

Record: 20-8, 12-4 CAA

RPI: 68

Best wins: At St. Bonaventure, vs. Florida State (neutral site), William & Mary (twice)

Worst loss: Vs. Indiana State (neutral site)

If not for a collapse at home against UNC Wilmington (Hofstra led by as many as 20 points before losing on a late three- pointer, 70-67), the Pride would be able to clinch the CAA regular season tonight.

Even if Hofstra winds up with the second seed in the conference tournament, it still boasts a roster that’s more than capable of winning the title and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

Senior guard Juan’ya Green (17.7 points per game, 7.3 assists) should be in the conversation for CAA player of the year, while sophomore center Rokas Gustys (13.7 ppg, 12.4 rpg) has emerged as an elite big man. He’s recorded double-doubles in 13 of his last 14 games.

Dark horses: James Madison (20-9, 10-6 CAA) swept Hofstra this year. William & Mary (18-9, 10-6 CAA) beat N.C. State by 17 points on the road and nearly toppled RPI No. 17 Dayton.

Conference USA

The favorite: UAB

Record: 22-5, 12-2 C-USA

RPI: 81

Best wins: Middle Tennessee (twice), vs. Stephen F. Austin, at Illinois State

Worst loss: At Western Kentucky

UAB, which returned just about everybody from the team that stunned Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament last year, has been in control of Conference USA all season.

Sophomore forward William Lee, who hit the game-winning shot against the Cyclones in 2015, has developed into an elite shot-blocker. He’s averaging 3.2 rejections per game, third-most in Division I.

The Blazers’ offense scores in bunches and — most important— shares the ball. They are averaging 18.7 assists per game, fourth-most in the country.

The Bracket Matrix (which collects data from dozens of bracket predictions across various media outlets) currently has UAB as a 14 seed, just like 2015.

The contender: Middle Tennessee

Record: 18-8, 10-4 C-USA

RPI: 80

Best wins: Vs. Belmont, vs. Toledo, vs. Auburn (neutral site)

Worst loss: At Georgia State

The Blue Raiders had a chance to pull into a tie with UAB for the conference lead on Sunday but fell to the Blazers on their own floor, 77-67. Middle Tennessee allowed UAB to shoot 61.4 percent from the floor that evening.

Middle Tennessee’s best offensive weapon is sophomore guard Giddy Potts, who is averaging 14.8 ppg and is shooting 49.6 percent from beyond the arc, second-best in the country among players who average at least four three-point attempts per game.

Potts missed the first matchup with UAB due to academic issues and only made four of his 10 shots in Sunday’s rematch. The Blue Raiders’ fate in the conference tournament will likely rest on Potts’ shooting stroke.

Dark horses: Marshall (15-12, 11-3 C-USA) has won four in a row to pull within a game of UAB for the conference lead. The Thundering Herd has a road matchup with the Blazers tonight. Louisiana Tech (20-7, 9-5 RPI) hasn’t fallen off since coach Mike White left for Florida. The Bulldogs own a road victory over Ohio State and home wins over Middle Tennessee and UAB.

Horizon League

The favorite: Valparaiso

Record: 22-5, 14-2 Horizon

RPI: 59

Best wins: At Oregon State, vs. IPFW, vs. Belmont, vs. Iona, Oakland (twice)

Worst loss: Wright State (twice)

Valparaiso may be the mid-major most equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, ruining hundreds of thousands of brackets along the way.

Ranked 32nd on, the Crusaders are surrendering 91.1 points per 100 possessions. That figure is adjusted to reflect the strength of Valparaiso’s schedule but is still the fourth-best in the entire country.

A punishing interior makes Valparaiso’s defense a nightmare for any opponent. Vashil Fernandez, a 6-10 senior, is averaging 3.1 blocks per game, tied with Stony Brook’s Jameel Warney for the fourth-best average in Division I. His frontcourt mate, 6-9 power forward Alec Peters, adds punch on the offensive end. Peters is averaging 17.1 points per game.

If the Crusaders slip up in the Horizon League Tournament, they could easily steal an at-large bid into the NCAAs.

The contender: Oakland

Record: 20-10, 12-5 Horizon

RPI: 121

Best wins: At Washington, at Toledo, vs. Eastern Michigan

Worst loss: Northern Kentucky

If anyone could single-handedly halt Valparaiso’s march to the Horizon League title, it’s Oakland junior guard Kay Felder.

Felder does it all for the Golden Grizzlies. He’s averaging 24.3 points (fourth-most in Division I) and 9.2 assists (most in Division I). Against then-No. 1 Michigan State, Felder scored 37 points on 22 shots in a 99-93 loss in overtime.

The Crusaders, though, have managed to limit Felder in their two matchups this season when he shot a combined 17-for-49.

A third matchup in the Horizon League Tournament finals would be must-see TV.

Dark horses: Wright State (17-12, 11-5 Horizon) is the only team in the conference that’s managed to figure out how to beat Valparaiso this season. Wisconsin-Green Bay (18-11, 10-6 Horizon) has won four in a row and hosts Valparaiso in the regular-season finale.

Mountain West

The favorite: San Diego State

Record: 21-7, 14-1 MWC

RPI: 49

Best wins: Vs. California (neutral site), at Boise State, vs. Fresno State, at Long Beach State

Worst loss: Vs. San Diego (neutral site)

It’s been an uncharacteristically down year for the Mountain West Conference, which usually send two or three teams to the NCAA Tournament each year but only has three teams in the RPI top 100.

This season, San Diego State (the overwhelming conference leader) is the only team in the conference that could make a legitimate claim to an at-large bid, and even the Aztecs are on shaky ground.

As usual, the Aztecs are playing stellar defense under coach Steve Fisher. They’re surrendering only 60.1 points per game, best in the Mountain West. However, they’re only scoring 67 points a game, the worst mark in the conference.

San Diego State has already clinched the conference’s regular-season title, but bad nonconference losses to postseason-ineligible Grand Canyon (RPI: 102) and San Diego (RPI: 299) could count against it on Selection Sunday if it doesn’t win the tournament, too.

The contender: Fresno State

Record: 19-9, 10-5 MWC

Best wins: Vs. San Diego State, UNLV (twice)

The Bulldogs are the only team to have upset SDSU in conference play this season, picking up a 58-57 win on their home floor on Feb. 10. Senior guard Marvelle Harris led the way that evening with 20 points, right in line with his season average.

Fresno State currently holds a one-game lead over three teams (Boise State, Nevada, New Mexico) for second place in the conference with three games to play.

A sweep (which would need to include a win over New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque, no small feat) would leave it as the team in the best position to knock off San Diego State.

Dark horses: Boise State (18-10, 9-6 MWC) is the only other Mountain West team in the RPI top 100 and owns a key home win over Oregon. UNLV (16-13, 7-9 MWC) has been middling in conference play but boasts a talented roster that includes freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman, a McDonald’s All-American.


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