- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's been a while since we've looked at the mid-major conference races. But with the NCAA tournament just a month away, it's time to take the pulse of the mid-major scene once again.
Stony Brook lost at Vermont 68-49 on Sunday, which added some drama to the America East's finish. The Seawolves enters the week on top of the league with a 12-2 record, Vermont possesses an 11-2 tally and Boston U, which split with Stony Brook this season, is 10-3.
Entering the season, many believed Belmont would run away with this one, especially after the Bruins nearly upset Duke in the season opener. But Belmont (11-2) entered Monday a half-game behind Mercer (12-2). A 106-93 win at Stetson on Monday locked Mercer and Belmont, a team that Joe Lunardi picked as one of his first four out in his latest Bracketology report, in a tie for first place. Their Feb. 25 meeting at Mercer could decide the conference's title.
Another tight battle. Damian Lillard (25.1 ppg) has taken Weber State to the top of the conference, but the Wildcats are not alone. Montana has matched their 12-1 record in conference play. Expect a battle during their Feb. 28 encounter in Missoula.
This one is not tight. With three Big South games left, UNC Asheville entered the week with a 14-1 record in conference play. They're the regular season champs (contenders Campbell and Coastal Carolina both have five losses each) and they're on a six-game winning streak. The Bulldogs' mark of 82.8 ppg is third in the country.
At 12-0, Long Beach State is one win away from clinching its conference's title. Its only real competition (Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara) entered the week with three losses each. Dan Monson hopes his team can earn some at-large consideration (No. 45 RPI), after losing back-to-back Big West tourney championship games to UCSB. A win at Creighton on Saturday in their BracketBusters matchup would help the 49ers' cause.
On Monday, the CAA announced a new partnership with NBC Sports. Makes sense. This league has been must-see TV for a long time. Three squads (Drexel, George Mason and VCU) entered the week locked in a three-way tie for first at 13-2. Perennial contender Old Dominion is still in the hunt at 11-4. George Mason will host VCU Tuesday night. The two teams, who've both lost to Drexel, will meet again in Richmond Feb. 25.
Valparaiso leads the league with an 11-4 record. And the Crusaders' last three conference games are at home. Cleveland State is a half game back at 10-4. Youngstown State, Detroit and Butler are all tied for third place at 9-6. Still, the conference tourney will ultimately dictate who represents this league in March.
Most figured Harvard would dominate this league without much of a fight. But the Crimson's weekend loss to Princeton at least made things interesting. While Tommy Amaker's squad has the luxury of a 7-1 record (first place) and four straight home games, it still has to face some of its top competitors for the Ivy League crown (both Yale and Penn entered the week with two losses apiece). Harvard (No. 37 RPI), however, has at-large material too.
Loyola (Md.) scored a major victory Friday when it defeated Iona at home. A loss to Fairfield on Sunday, however, snatched the Greyhounds' chance to seize sole possession of first place. So they entered the week in a tie for first with the Gaels. Both teams are 12-3. But Manhattan (11-4) and Fairfield (10-4) are in the mix, too. Iona (83.2 ppg, No. 55 RPI) has been a popular NCAA tournament sleeper pick for weeks due to its high-powered offense. But if the Gaels stumble down the stretch, they might not get there.
Akron entered the week in control of the East division with a 10-1 record. But the Zips will face Buffalo (second at 9-2) and Kent State (third at 8-3) in their last two games of the regular season. Akron (No. 61 RPI), which has wins at Mississippi State and Marshall, should be the favorite to win the MAC tourney, especially with Zeke Marshall (3.2 bpg) inside. Eastern Michigan leads the weaker West division at 6-5. The rest of the West possesses a sub-.500 conference records.
Kyle O'Quinn is averaging a double-double (16.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg) for a Norfolk State squad that's in first place in the MEAC at 10-2. Savannah State is second with an 9-2 record, but lost their only meeting of the season with Norfolk. Delaware State and Bethune-Cookman are tied at 8-3, but this appears to be the Spartans' conference to lose.
One bad stretch by Creighton changed the makeup of the entire league. Wichita State (13-2) is in command after Saturday's road thrashing of the Bluejays (11-4), who've lost three in a row. That 89-68 whipping was additional proof that Wichita State is one of the 15 or so best teams in the country, not just an NCAA tourney sleeper. With three games to play, the regular season title is the Shockers' to lose. Only Creighton can rebound and catch them. But in this competitive league, I think three or four teams are capable of winning the postseason tournament, which is always a wild affair in St. Louis.
LIU Brooklyn entered the week on top of the conference with a 13-1 record. And only one team on its remaining slate has a record above .500. Wagner (12-2), which was swept by the Blackbirds this season, could still surpass them in the final four games. Both Robert Morris and St. Francis (NY) are 10-4.
At 12-1 and in first place, Murray State still controls the Ohio Valley. But its at-large hopes were jeopardized when the Racers suffered their first loss of the season last week, a 72-68 home setback against Tennessee State (10-4). The Racers play at Tennessee State Feb. 25. Despite their early success, Murray -- without a win over Saint Mary's on Saturday -- might need a conference tourney title to earn an invite to the Big Dance.
Led by Mike Muscala (16.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg), Bucknell is undefeated in Patriot League play (10-0). The Bison have won 12 in a row. They'd have to suffer a major collapse for Lehigh and American University (both 7-3) to catch them. Won't happen. A team that shoots 47 percent from the field and boasts a talented 6-11 center in the middle could pull off an upset next month, assuming they earn their league's auto bid.
After Davidson (13-2) beat Kansas in December, it was hard to envision the Wildcats losing -- even one game -- in conference play. They've lost two, both on the road. But they won't face much danger in their last four conference games, especially with only one more road game. They'll win the South unless Georgia Southern (11-4) catches them down the stretch. Beyond the regular season, however, Davidson has proven to be a mature team with the poise to score an upset in March Madness. UNC-Greensboro (9-5) is on top in the North. But Elon (8-6) and Samford (7-7) are in the mix.
Texas-Arlington is making the most of its last season in the Southland Conference before making a move to the WAC next year. The Mavericks lead the West division with an 11-0 record and are 19-5 overall. McNeese State is on top of the East with an 9-2 record.
Mississippi Valley State went 1-11 in the nonconference season but is a perfect 13-0 in conference play and has the title virtually locked up with five games to go. Southern and Texas Southern offer the closest competition, but both have four losses apiece.
Oral Roberts (15-1) has lost one conference game. Led by Dominique Morrison (20.5 ppg), the Golden Eagles are the best squad in the Summit League and certainly a team worth watching down the stretch. They'll win the league over South Dakota State (12-3) with one more victory. And if they crack the field of 68, the Golden Eagles might make some noise.
Middle Tennessee State certainly has at-large swagger (No. 43 RPI). The 12-1 Blue Raiders have been dominant in conference play. And earlier this month, they showcased their upset potential when they challenged Vanderbilt in Nashville. Arkansas-Little Rock leads the West division with a 9-3 record.
Had Saint Mary's defeated Gonzaga last week and completed a season sweep of both the Bulldogs and BYU, chances are that the Gaels would have run away with the WCC title. But Gonzaga's victory over SMC on Thursday set up an intriguing final stretch for the WCC. Saint Mary's leads the conference at 12-1, but Gonzaga is in second at 10-2 and BYU is third at 9-3. All three squads look like NCAA tournament teams.
Nevada has quietly put together one of the most impressive seasons among the mid-majors. The Wolf Pack have lost just one game since Nov. 25 (72-68 to Idaho Feb. 4). They lead the league with a 10-1 record, while New Mexico State is second at 7-3. Nevada will host NMSU March 1. But first, the Pack will play at Iona in a BracketBusters game that could raise their national profile.
Five games you don't want to miss
Northern Iowa at VCU (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET, Friday): The Panthers have won three of their last four games. They'll travel to Richmond to play a VCU squad that had won 11 in a row entering the week. But the Rams face George Mason in a battle for first place in the CAA before they meet UNI in this BracketBusters matchup.
No. 16 Saint Mary's at No. 14 Murray State (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET, Saturday): Perhaps last week's losses (Saint Mary's at Gonzaga, Murray State against Tennessee State), may have taken a little luster off this game. But with Murray's at-large profile taking a major hit last week, this could be a true Bracket Busters matchup for the Racers.
Akron at Oral Roberts (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET, Saturday): The best in the MAC against the best in the Summit League. Dominique Morrison (20.5 ppg) could create problems for the Zips' defense. But they have one of the best defensive players in the country in Zeke Marshall (3.2 bpg).
Nevada at Iona (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET, Saturday): One of the fastest teams in the country (Iona has the No. 18 adjusted tempo in Ken Pomeroy's ratings) against one of the slowest (Nevada has the No. 236 adjusted tempo on KenPom.com). But Nevada is the kind of squad that's baffled Iona in the past.
Long Beach State at Creighton (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET, Saturday): Dan Monson's team is on top of the Big West (12-0). But the 49ers are still hoping to boost their at-large resume (they've missed the last two NCAA tournaments after losing in the Big West tourney final). Creighton has lost three in a row and has to recover quickly. The Bluejays aren't locks for the NCAA tourney given the tough slate in the Missouri Valley and their recent string of losses. Given the stakes, this could be the most exciting BracketBusters matchup this weekend.
Five individual performances you might have missed
Casper Ware (Long Beach State): The 49ers' senior guard scored 38 points in Long Beach State's 74-66 win at Pacific Thursday. He went 12-for-23 from the field.
Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State): The 6-9 forward scored 18 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in Illinois State's 64-53 victory over Drake Wednesday. He was 10-for-12 from the field.
Dylan Garrity (Sacramento State): The freshman guard recorded 14 points and 16 assists in his team's 86-76 win over Montana State. The entire Bobcats squad recorded 14 assists in the loss.
Chris Udofia (Denver): The 6-6 forward finished with this fabulous stat line, albeit in a 72-71 road loss to Florida Atlantic Thursday: 20 points, six rebounds, four assists, six blocks and a steal. He followed that performance with 17 points, seven steals and two blocks in a 77-63 win at Florida International Saturday.
Will Cherry (Montana): The 6-1 guard scored 30 points and finished with eight steals in a 75-68 road win over Northern Colorado on Thursday. He also had four assists.
Five scores you might have missed
Tennessee St. 72, Murray State 68 (Thursday): The Racers suffered their first loss of the season Thursday after winning their first 23 games. Despite Isaiah Canaan's 31 points, the Racers couldn't squeeze out the victory at home after committing 18 turnovers. Robert Covington (17 points) led four Tigers in double figures.
Gonzaga 73, Saint Mary's 59 (Thursday): This was a huge victory for the Bulldogs, who avoided being swept by the Gaels by handing them their first WCC loss of the year. Kevin Pangos (27 points, 5-for-6 from beyond the arc) led all scorers. The Bulldogs shot 53 percent from the field and held the Gaels to a 5-for-21 clip from the 3-point line.
Loyola (Md.) 87, Iona 81 (Friday): A crazy weekend for the MAAC. Iona lost its hold on first place with a loss to the Greyhounds on Friday. Erik Etherly and Dylon Cormier each scored 22 points in the victory. The Greyhounds, however, fell back into a first-place tie with the Gaels (12-3) with a Sunday loss to Fairfield.
Wichita State 89, Creighton 68 (Saturday): The Shockers crushed a 12th-ranked Creighton squad that's now lost three consecutive games. They connected on 58 percent of their shot attempts in a tough road atmosphere. It was the team's 12th win in 13 games. But they failed to crack Monday's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. Mississippi State remained in the Top 25, even though it lost at home to Georgia Saturday. Huh?
Princeton 70, Harvard 62 (Saturday): The same Princeton squad that defeated the Crimson in a one-game playoff last season to seize the Ivy League's auto bid to the Big Dance handed Amaker's squad its first conference loss this year. But Harvard will play four of its last six games at home.
The Mid-major Power 15
(MWC, A-10 and C-USA are not included)
1. Wichita State: Can't understand how this team failed to crack the latest coaches' poll.
2. Saint Mary's: Loss at Gonzaga stopped Gaels from running away with WCC title.
3. Long Beach State: Monson's squad is 12-0 in the Big West and faces Creighton this week.
4. BYU: New kid on the block still in WCC fight with 9-3 record and second matchup versus Zags coming.
5. Gonzaga: Bulldogs' reign over WCC ending? Not so fast.
6. Murray State: It was bound to happen at some point. First loss might take pressure off.
7. VCU: Shaka Smart's team has won 11 in a row but has a tough week ahead.
8. George Mason: Paul Hewitt's new team entered the week in a three-way tie for first in CAA.
9. Drexel: This CAA squad has won 13 in a row. Forgive me for overlooking Dragons in past polls.
10. Harvard: Amaker's squad suffered its first Ivy League loss against nemesis Princeton.
11.Creighton: The Bluejays' success story has taken a hit with three straight losses.
12. Valparaiso: The Crusaders beat Cleveland State on the road last week and sit atop the Horizon.
13. Oral Roberts: The Golden Eagles are in complete control of the Summitt League.
14. Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders have gotten back on track since a loss to Denver.
15. Loyola (Md.): Missed chance to seize first place in MAAC with Sunday loss to Fairfield.
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN
Tournament spots and winning records are on the line for mid-major teams as the league races enter their final weeks.