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NCAA Tournament mid-major breakdown: NEC, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Ohio Valley

Wagner forward Henry Brooks (3) reacts after

Wagner forward Henry Brooks (3) reacts after a basket against St. John's at Carnesecca Arena in Queens on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Credit: Steven Ryan

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 begins to wind down for the NEC, Atlantic Sun, Big South and Ohio Valley conferences.


The favorite: Wagner

Record: 16-9 (9-5 NEC)

RPI: 204

Best wins: None against a team in RPI top 150.

Worst loss: Vs. Sacred Heart.

It’s been an uncharacteristically down season in the NEC, as no team has a top 200 RPI ranking. Four teams are tied for first place, with three others within two games in the standings. Whichever team wins the conference is probably bound for a play-in game in Dayton.

Right now, Wagner appears to be the favorite, if only because it can at least play defense at a level reasonably comparable to the nationwide average. Per, Wagner is allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions, 140th in the country.

If the Staten Island school can qualify, it will be their second NCAA Tournament appearance. In 2003, 15-seed Wagner was bounced by No. 2 Pittsburgh.

The contender: Fairleigh Dickinson

Record: 13-12 (9-5 NEC)

RPI: 233

Best wins: None against a team in RPI top 150.

Worst loss: Vs. Bryant.

Another tri-state area school with a long NCAA Tournament drought, the Teaneck, New Jersey-based Knights haven’t appeared in the Big Dance since 2005.

Fairleigh Dickinson at least gets credit for playing a slightly tougher non-conference schedule than many of its NEC counterparts. It played Princeton, Temple, Rutgers and top-ranked Villanova, all on the road.

If the Knights qualify, their smaller lineup will probably be their undoing. Their only player taller than 6-7 has played in four games all season, and the team ranks 304th in the country in total rebounds per game (33.2).

Dark Horses: St. Francis (Pa.) (13-12, 9-5 NEC, RPI-245) and Mount St. Mary’s (12-15, 9-5 NEC, RPI-243) could easily capture the top seed in the conference tournament. Local squad LIU-Brooklyn (13-12, 7-7 NEC, RPI-268) has one of the more underrated guards in the country in sophomore Martin Hermannsson, an Iceland native averaging 15.8 points and 4.4 assists per game.

Atlantic Sun

The favorite: NJIT

Record: 16-11 (7-4 A-Sun)

RPI: 187

Best wins: At South Florida.

Worst loss: South Carolina Upstate.

The rise of NJIT has been one of the more remarkable stories in college basketball. Coach Jim Engles has taken a team that lost a record 51 straight games when it moved up to Division I and successfully navigated it into a conference that has an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, picking up a win against Michigan last year along the way.

By any measure, NJIT is trending upward: a $102-million new arena/multipurpose facility is under construction. Now, the Highlanders may be able to reach the NCAA Tournament in their very first opportunity.

NJIT has won five straight games, pulling itself into a tie with North Florida in part due to the backcourt combination of Damon Lynn (18.4 ppg) and Ky Howard (13.5 ppg).

The Highlanders face North Florida on the road Thursday night. A win could help propel them to the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and the easiest path to an NCAA bid.

Not bad for a tiny engineering school based out of Newark.

The contender: North Florida

Record: 18-10, 7-4 A-Sun

RPI: 178

Best wins: Vs. Illinois (neutral site), at Eastern Michigan.

Worst loss: Stetson.

The defending conference champions, North Florida has lost four straight games to sink into a three-way tie for first with NJIT and Jacksonville.

Coach Matthew Driscoll has orchestrated one of the more effective offenses of any mid-major team. The Ospreys score 113.4 points per 100 possessions, per, 26th in the country.

On Twitter, North Florida calls itself the “Birds of Trey” — and with good reason. The Ospreys have six players shooting at least 34 percent from beyond the arc. Senior guard Trent Mackey leads the way with a .471 three-point percentage.

Dark horses: Jacksonville (15-13, 7-4, RPI 269) is in a three-way tie for the conference lead but has dropped two consecutive games on the road. Florida Gulf Coast (15-12, 6-5, RPI 220) isn’t the same team that made the Sweet 16 in 2013, but is well-coached by former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley.

Big South

The favorite: UNC-Asheville

Record: 17-9, 10-4 Big South

RPI: 159

Best wins: At Georgetown, East Tennessee State, Winthrop.

Worst loss: At Western Carolina.

UNC-Asheville caught a little attention early when it thoroughly outplayed Georgetown, 79-73, in its own building on Dec. 19. Five Bulldogs scored in double figures that night.

The Bulldogs are a solid defensive team — they surrender only 98.9 points per 100 possessions, per — but will be tested down the stretch. Their remaining schedule includes on the road against conference co-leader Winthrop and at home against Coastal Carolina in the regular-season finale.

If UNC-Asheville makes the tournament, it has historically been a tough out under coach Eddie Biedenbach. In the 2012 tournament, the 16-seed Bulldogs took No. 1 Syracuse down to the wire before submitting, 72-65.

The contender: High Point

Record: 16-9, 9-5 Big South

RPI: 199

Best wins: High Point has not defeated a team in the RPI top 150.

Worst loss: Liberty (twice)

High Point isn’t the second-best team in the Big South (that honor goes to Winthrop), but the Panthers have the conference’s best player.

Senior forward John Brown has dominated the conference this season, averaging 19.8 ppg. He’s only been held to single digits in scoring once all season.

The 6-8 Brown’s hops are a sight to behold.

In a single-elimination tournament, a dominant player such as Brown can make all the difference.

Dark horses: Winthrop (18-7, 10-4 Big South, RPI-150) has won nine of its last 10 games to surge into a tie for the conference lead. Coastal Carolina (16-9, 10-5 Big South, RPI-177) has made two straight NCAA Tournament appearances under veteran coach Cliff Ellis and has won eight out of nine.

Ohio Valley Conference

The favorite: Belmont

Record: 18-9, 10-3 OVC

RPI: 99

Best wins: Valparaiso, at Marquette, Tennessee State.

Worst loss: At Cleveland State.

Perennial contenders, Belmont is still in search of its first NCAA Tournament win under longtime coach Rick Byrd.

This year’s edition of the Bruins is led by junior forward Evan Bradds, who leads Division I in field-goal percentage (.717). Bradds has only shot seven three-pointers all year, something of an anomaly given Belmont’s historical tendency to rely primarily on long-distance shooting.

Belmont’s best high-volume three-point shooter remains Craig Bradshaw, who delivered an electrifying performance in defeat against Virginia in last year’s tournament. This season, Bradshaw is shooting 38.8 percent on 196 three-point attempts.

If Belmont can emerge from the OVC tournament unscathed, then it will probably be seeded somewhere in the 12 to 14 range.

The contender: Tennessee Tech

Record: 18-8, 10-3 OVC

RPI: 112

Best wins: Belmont, East Tennessee State, Tennessee State.

Worst loss: At Tennessee-Martin.

Currently deadlocked atop the OVC’s East Division with Belmont, Tennessee Tech has won five of its last six games, including a home win over the Bruins.

The battle between the two for seeding likely will be decided Saturday when the Golden Eagles travel to Nashville to play Belmont.

Despite a solid RPI and conference record, doesn’t look kindly upon Tennessee Tech. Its defense is ranked 276th on the website, surrendering 108.5 points per 100 possessions.

Dark horses: Murray State (14-12, 8-5, RPI 184) survived a brutal non-conference schedule (23rd strongest in the country, per ESPN) and historically has been a constant thorn in Belmont’s side. Tennessee State (18-7, 9-3, RPI 145) has avoided bad losses (only one to a team outside the RPI top 150) and closes the season at home against Belmont.

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