The Lowdown on Early Automatic Bids
by Robert Ferringo - 03/12/2008
It's March. Madness. Mayhem. Mania. Monomania. Mob scene. Say what you will about this month, it's truly a dizzying exercise in gambling acumen. And the only way to keep your head above water is to do your homework, not listen to anyone who hasn't mentioned anything pertaining to college basketball prior to Valentine's Day, and catch a break or two.
One of my least favorite things about March is the All-Of-A-Sudden Experts. Those are the guys who don't watch any college basketball from November through mid-February, then start watching at the end of the year and all-of-a-sudden are experts on the scene. Beware the advice of these clowns. They are the squares. They are the sheep. They are the ones who "can't believe it" when USC beats Kevin Durant and Texas by 20 in the second round or when VCU takes down Duke. They are talk radio shock jocks and Justin Timberlake fans.
But the only way to not find yourself at the whim of the AOASE's is to be educated. A lot of people have only seen the mid-major teams that have already punched their tickets to the Big Dance once, if at all, this year. Well, I've been tracking them since October so I can try to shed a little light on them for you. So here is a 30-second breakdown on the key information and general vibe of the teams that, as of end of business on Tuesday, March 11, had clinched an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament:
Belmont (Atlantic Sun) - 25-8
The Bruins are making a third consecutive trip to the Big Dance after going one-and-done as a No. 15 seed in each of the past two tournaments. They got dumped by Georgetown by 25 last year and were hammered by 34 against UCLA the season before. They brought back three starters from last season's squad and guard Jordan Hare started in each of the last two tourney games. Belmont played a challenging schedule this season, with impressive wins coming at Cincinnati and at Alabama. They got hammered by 41 at Xavier (not so respectable) and were swept by Austin Peay (tournament team). I think they'll be catching around 20 points as a No. 15 seed again this year and could be an appealing wager based on their experience, their scoring ability (No. 17 in the nation) and their 3-pont shooting.
Winthrop (Big South) - 22-11
Despite a coaching change, the loss of several key players off last year's mini-Cinderella, and a sluggish start to conference play the Eagles secured their eighth trip to The Tournament in the last 10 years. They may seem like old news but the Eagles are still a live dog with a legit D-I go-to guy in Michael Jenkins. They have key neutral court wins against Georgia Tech and Miami, home wins over Akron and Old Dominion, and close losses to Mississippi (by five) and Baylor (by eight). The are ranked No. 8 in the country in points allowed and are in the top 25 in both FG and 3-point field goal defense. If they get matched up with some squirrelly team like Michigan State then they could go two-for-two in first-round upsets.
George Mason (Colonial) - 23-10
You know them, you love them: they are the Patriots. Mason is one of the four or five teams I've bet on the most this year, with decent results. It's tough to find value on them as a sleeper since everyone remembers the miracle run to the Final Four just two short years ago. But this Mason team is legit. They execute magnificently, they have size and a go-to guy that played on that Final Four squad (Will Thomas), they brought back all five starters from a team that was two minutes away from the tournament last year, and if they are hitting from deep they can beat anyone - anyone - in the country. They have big wins over Dayton (when the Flyers were legit), Kansas State, and VCU. They also have respectable losses to Villanova (when they were playing well), at Kent State, and at Ohio. Again, it will be tough to catch a good number on them. But this team has a legitimate shot at another Sweet 16 run.
Cornell (Ivy League) - 22-5
The Big Red are representing the Brains this year. And there's a good chance they'll get theirs bashed in. Of course, that could give them a bit of value. They are the No. 6 shooting team in the country, hitting an unreal 49.3 percent of their shots, and the No. 5 3-point shooting team in the nation (41.3 percent). They make their free throws (76.3 percent), they have three frontcourt players at 6-7 or taller, and they have a win over another tournament representative (Siena). Also, Cornell only lost at Syracuse by 16 and at Duke by 14 so they can compete with elite competition.
Siena (Metro Atlantic) - 22-10
This team reminds me an awful lot of Virginia Commonwealth from last season. From the up-tempo style to the lightning-quick, go-to point guard to the underrated coach, the Saints have some upset potential. They are also playing their best ball at the right time. They have beaten Stanford and notched a solid win at Boise State, and they have a pair of quality losses at Syracuse and against St. Joseph's. Yeah, they got beat by 42 at Memphis, but as long as they don't run into them again in the first round they could be OK.
Drake (Missouri Valley) - 28-4
Legit. This is the best mid-Major team in the nation and the Bulldogs are going to be a nightmare matchup for some Big Six school if they make it out of the first round. Southern Illinois was a No. 4 seed last year but Wichita State was a No. 7 as the top MVC rep in 2006. I think Drake splits the difference and bags a No. 6 seed. Their most impressive nonconference win was at Butler. That's no joke. But in a down year in the MVC and with next to nothing in the nonconference to speak of I am curious to see how the Bulldogs are handled. These guys execute. They finish games and catching a small number either for or against they should be a solid value play.
Austin Peay (Ohio Valley) - 24-10
The OVC is one of the weakest conferences in the country, but Austin Peay isn't a bad team. They are on a 7-3 ATS run but are just 12-21 ATS dating back to last year. The thing I love about the Govs: five returning starters from a 20-win team last year. They have three senior starters, a solid, veteran backcourt, a streak shooter from deep, and they know how to finish close games. Trouble is, they likely won't be playing a close game. They are No. 298 in field goal defense and could get run out of the gym by a No. 1 seed like Memphis. Oh wait, they already did this year - getting dumped (but covering) against the Tigers in a 104-82 loss. They have respectable losses at Vandy (by 14), at Utah State (by three), at Valpo (by 14), and against Akron (by nine).
Davidson (Southern) - 26-6
The Wildcats are this year's Winthrop: the school that every yahoo, square, Johnny-come-lately, wannabe will pick as their "sleeper" in a first-round upset. The thing is, just like that Winthrop team the Wildcats should pull it off. Davidson lost to UNC, Duke, and UCLA - three Top 10 teams - by an average of seven points per. They will likely be anywhere from a No. 7 to No. 10 seed, meaning they may get a rematch with one of those clubs in Round 2. I think they would be better served as a lower seed (11 or 12) and would be able to do more damage in the inside of a bracket. But with electric SG Stephen Curry, stud PG Jason Richards, some athletes on the wing and a solid big man in the middle this team will be a handful. They have the nation's longest winning streak (22 games) and are 13-6 ATS over their L19. Cha-ching.
San Diego (West Coast) - 21-13
Well, well, well - these are the party crashers. San Diego caught fire on its home court and was able to steal a third bid for the WCC. Now, can the magic carpet ride continue? Well, if they can beat two Top 25 teams in back-to-back nights, as well as notch a win in Lexington against Kentucky, they you can play some ball. San Diego has a sweet guard in Brandon Johnson and a go-to post in Gyno Pomere. They execute their sets wonderfully and have a little swagger. The trouble is that they won't be on their home court and they have gotten torn up on the road by athletic, run-and-gun clubs. That said, they are 13-3 ATS since mid-January and are wielding the hubris of youth.
Butler (Horizon League) - (29-3)
The Bulldogs are a serious Final Four threat. Over the past two seasons this core group has gone toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country and either won or gone down fighting tooth-and-nail. They execute as well or better than any team in the country, and when they are hitting shots from the outside (which is always) they are truly one of the best 20 teams in the nation. Now, they don't have the marquee wins this season that they boasted last year. And A.J. Graves has been mired in a two-month funk. But these guys are going to be a very, very tough out.
Oral Roberts (Summit League) - 24-8
This makes three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament for Oral Roberts so Scott Sutton knows what this is all about. They beat Oklahoma State in Stillwater this year but lost to Texas A&M (by 14), Arkansas (by 11) and at Texas (by 10). Mix in losses to other middies like Utah State (by 19) and Creighton (at home, by one) and I don't think this team is a threat. They lost by 16 points to Washington State last year and Memphis in 2006, and I don 't think this team is nearly as talented as those two were.