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Monday, March 11, 2013
Small schools ranked near the top of the UPS Team Performance Index set to fight for NCAA tournament berths

Associated Press

While the team atop the UPS Team Performance Index no doubt has its sight set on a long run through the NCAA tournament, there are three other small schools in the top 10 still trying to fight their way into the Big Dance.

For the second straight week, Gonzaga sits atop both the AP poll and the UPS Index. The Bulldogs hold a 2.96-point lead in the index over Stephen F. Austin, which flipped spots with third-place Indiana. Florida remained fourth amidst a top 10 that features the same teams and little movement from the week before.

In conjunction with STATS LLC, UPS has created a proprietary algorithm that gauges six major statistics covering the spectrum of a team's on-court performance: effective field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency, miscues and winning percentage.

From there, the data is normalized and an overall index is created for all 345 NCAA Division I teams. The scores are not meant to reflect a traditional power poll, per se, but measure a broad range of inside-the-lines excellence and overall balance.

At 30-2, Gonzaga ranks in the top 10 in two of the index's six major categories, but is No. 1 in the most important -- winning percentage (.938). The Bulldogs are hoping to celebrate their first top tournament seed if they can knock off Saint Mary's in Monday night's West Coast Conference tournament championship game.

"Over this great run with great players, (a No. 1 national ranking and a 30-win season) are things that we have not been able to accomplish," said coach Mark Few, whose team has won 13 in a row. "They are both special because it is a culmination of an entire year of work, not just a week or two of being hot."

But while the Bulldogs are no doubt headed to their 15th straight NCAA tournament, other successful programs without the name-brand of Gonzaga will have to sweat it out. Middle Tennessee is one of the schools that will go into Selection Sunday wondering if it's headed to the event for the first time since 1989.

The Blue Raiders (28-5) rolled to a 19-1 record in the Sun Belt, but their 17-game winning streak ended with a 61-57 loss to fourth-seeded Florida International in Sunday's conference semifinals. That dropped them two spots in the index to seventh.

Though MTSU's 11 road wins are tied for third in the nation and its has an RPI of 29, its most significant victory came in December by three points at home over Mississippi, another bubble team.

Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis believes his team has done enough.

"We can't do any more than we did to schedule the toughest non-conference schedule, and we did it," he said after the semifinal loss. "We had some great wins and are disappointed tonight, but I don't think there's any question we'll be in on Sunday."

Stephen F. Austin likely needs to win this week's Southland Conference tournament to join the field of 68 for the first time since 2009. The 26-3 Lumberjacks lead the nation in scoring defense (50.2 points) and rank second in winning percentage, third in defense, sixth in ball-handling and 10th in miscue percentage in the UPS index. However, they hardly have the resume to earn an at-large bid.

What they do have, though, is the league tournament's No. 1 seed and a double-bye to Friday's semifinals.

"I'm so proud of this team," said coach Danny Kaspar, whose squad tied a school record for victories in its Division I era.

Riding an 11-game winning streak, Weber State moved up two spots to fifth, but also has some work left if it's to earn its first NCAA berth since 2007. The Wildcats are 24-5 and went 18-2 in the Big Sky, but finished second to Montana, whose only league loss came by 24 at Weber State on Feb. 14.

The league tournament will be played at Montana, where the Wildcats lost 76-74 in January.

Weber State, however, continues to display tremendous balance -- at least in terms of the index. Its 15.1 percent gap between effective offensive and defensive field-goal percentage remains the largest in the nation, and is one reason coach Randy Rahe has to be excited about his team's chances this week.

"I'm glad we're going up (to Montana) to play," he said. "I love the challenge, it's a big challenge."

No school will face a greater challenge in the NCAA tournament than Liberty, which was not only index's biggest riser from 245 to 210, but punched its ticket to the field of 68 while sporting a 15-20 record. The Flames joined the 2008 Coppin State team as the only schools to earn an NCAA berth with at least 20 losses. They capped a run of four wins in six days with an 87-76 victory over top-seeded Charleston Southern in the Big South tournament final to earn its first NCAA appearance since 2004.

"Talk about peaking at the exact right time," said guard John Caleb Sanders, who matched a career-high with 27 points in the title game.

Liberty's .429 winning percentage is tied for 232nd in Division I, and is currently the lowest for an NCAA tournament team since Oakland (Mich.) was 12-18 (.400) in 2005.

Last in the rankings at 0-27, Grambling State has one more chance to avoid a winless season Wednesday against Alabama A&M in the first round of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.