Let's go dancing.
Making the NCAA Tournament is really the measuring stick of success and failure for most college basketball programs. Every one of the more than 350 teams in the country begins the season dreaming of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. There can be only one national champion, and that elite status is reserved for only a select few teams. But for everyone else an invitation to The Big Dance is a major victory in and of itself.
Below is my preseason NCAA Tournament predictions and projections for the Field of 68. Obviously, these things are fluid and will change significantly over the next four months. But this season will be exactly as all that came before it, with about a dozen teams still alive for at-large bids in late February and then about four teams fighting for the final two slots on Selection Sunday.
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I have long said that Joe Lunardi is the biggest fraud in sports. And, as a matter of fact, I have outperformed him with midseason (January) projections each of the past three years. Lunardi's predictions are currently posted and, honestly, most of our picks are quite similar. (Neither of us is reaching when we say that Duke, Kentucky and Kansas will be in the field.)
However, I want to point out that of his last eight teams in, he has Syracuse, Marquette, Arkansas and Georgia in the field. He also has SMU in the field because his first projection came before their postseason ban. If we take his "next team out" that would be Mississippi State. I can tell you right now that there is no chance in hell that Arkansas makes the NCAA Tournament, and it's kind of ridiculous that he would even have them in the discussion. Also, at least three of those other four are going to miss the field. Some of his seeding is just plain ridiculous, but I admit that's a really tough task at this point.
For my initial projection, I basically put every team on the bubble because there are no true "locks". There are 21 conferences that are clear-cut one-bid leagues. The Horizon League (Valparaiso) and Missouri Valley Conference (Wichita State) have overwhelming favorites to win their respective titles. Wichita State will make The Big Dance no matter what and Valpo could construct a case, so those will be the "bid stealing" conference tournaments to watch.
My last six projected teams in are Tulsa, BYU, Northwestern, Iowa, Louisville and UNLV. (I am being overly optimistic with UNLV and Northwestern, but preseason is the time for dreaming!) I think that there are 10 other teams - George Washington, Dayton, N.C. State, Syracuse, Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Providence, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and South Carolina - that will be fighting with the previous six for those last remaining slots.
Here are my preseason 2015-2016 NCAA tournament projections:
American Athletic (Projected Teams: 3)
Bubble: Connecticut*, Cincinnati*, Tulsa*
Skinny: It is a damn shame that the NCAA decided to beat SMU with the ban stick. The Mustangs were clearly the best team in the AAC and one of the best 10 or 12 teams in the country. The NCAA is the absolute worst. Connecticut will need to find some cohesion. Cincinnati has plenty of that but has to avoid a letdown after last year's overachieving season. Tulsa is one of the most experienced teams in the nation, and this is the end of a four-year journey for most of the guys on this roster.
Atlantic-10 (Projected Teams: 3)
Bubble: Davidson*, Dayton, Rhode Island*, VCU,* George Washington
Skinny: I don't know that the Atlantic 10 is quite as loaded from top to bottom as it was last season, when it sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament and had six teams finish the year rated in the Top 75 in the country. Rhode Island is legit and should be fondling a Top 25 slot most of the year. Dayton is the preseason favorite. But I think people are underselling the losses of Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre. George Washington is desperate to make it back to the dance (they made the 2014 field). And the team to keep an eye on is VCU, which is adjusting to life after Shaka Smart.
ACC (Projected Teams: 8)
Bubble: Virginia*, Duke*, Notre Dame*, Louisville*, North Carolina*, Miami*, N.C. State, Syracuse, Pittsburgh*, Florida State*
Skinny: There isn't much to say about the ACC other than it is absolutely loaded. However, that could work to its detriment come selection time as these teams cannibalize one another during league play. I have eight teams listed in the field. But it truly wouldn't surprise me if all 10 made it into the dance. Be wary of the flameout potential of Louisville and Syracuse.
Big 12 (Projected Teams: 6)
Bubble: Kansas*, Iowa State*, Oklahoma*, Texas*, Baylor*, West Virginia*, Oklahoma State
Skinny: The Big 12 won't be the best league in the country this year after holding that title in 2014-15. But it is still the most concentrated, with seven of its 10 teams possessing realistic goals of making it to the dance. There just aren't many "gimme" games in this conference. I think Baylor and West Virginia will be a bit worse this year. Texas should have a nice bounce-back season. The team on the fringe is Oklahoma State. They lost a lot of experience and talent from last year. And if they miss the NCAA Tournament it could cost Travis Ford his job so I would expect to see some urgency out of this rebuilding group.
Big East (Projected Teams:3)
Bubble: Villanova*, Butler*, Georgetown, Providence, Xavier*, Seton Hall
Skinny: The Big East doesn't get nearly the respect nationally that it used to . And there's good reason for that in this retooled league. But there are still some strong programs playing good basketball here. While I think the Beast may deserve more come March, I don't think they'll get it. Georgetown (D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera), Providence (Kris Dunn) and Seton Hall (Isaiah Whitehead) each have one of the 20 best point guards in the country. And any one of those stars could will their team into the postseason. But all three suffer from feeble support, and I won't be stunned if two of the three get shutout. (Lunardi has Georgetown as a No. 6 seed in his initial projections, which is ludicrous.)
Big Ten (Projected Teams: 7)
Bubble: Maryland*, Michigan State*, Indiana*, Iowa*, Purdue*, Ohio State, Michigan*, Northwestern*, Wisconsin
Skinny: I usually rag on the Big Ten, which is consistently the most overrated of the major leagues. But this season the Big Ten is absolutely phenomenal and for my money it is the clear-cut No. 1 basketball conference in the country . There are probably four teams in this league with legit Final Four potential. I had to put Northwestern in the field in my first prediction! Maybe it is wishful thinking. But the Wildcats have never been to the Big Dance, and I really think that they have a legit shot. Their biggest problem isn't talent - it is that they picked the worst possible time to have their best team due to the fact that the Big Ten is so stacked. Also, keep an eye on Wisconsin. They are really overrated coming into the season. If they are on the bubble in March it will be interesting to see what the committee does with them given that it could be Bo Ryan's final season.
Missouri Valley (Projected Teams: 1)
Bubble: Wichita State*, Evansville
Skinny: Wichita State is going to make it into the field. They will win the MVC regular season title with ease and will be a Top 10 staple once again. But Evansville is no joke. They absolutely have the talent and system to spring an upset at Arch Madness. Evansville won't be able to hold it together long enough to build a tournament resume. But I truly think that they are talented enough to warrant discussion among the top 80 teams in the land, so I'll give them some love.
Mountain West (Projected Teams: 3)
Bubble: Boise State*, New Mexico, San Diego State*, UNLV*, Fresno State, Utah State
Skinny: The Mountain West has been shuffling the deck the past two seasons after their high-water mark in 2013. That year they sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament and finished the season as the No. 6 rated conference in the country, ahead of both the Big 12 and the SEC. They've fallen pretty hard, though, and enter the season projected at just No. 11 (which is absurdly low). Boise State is still very dangerous. San Diego State is still very large (although this is a team that could take a step back). UNLV has a lot of talent but, to this point, no chemistry. And New Mexico, Fresno State and Utah State each boast a lot of experience and are capable sleeper teams.
Pac-12 (Projected Teams: 6)
Bubble: Arizona*, Utah*, Oregon*, UCLA*, California*, Oregon State*, Arizona State
Skinny: The East Coast bias (which would just call the ESPN bias at this point) is alive and well when it comes to West Coast basketball. And that's a shame, because there's some outstanding ball being played in the Pac-12 while most of the country is asleep. Arizona is a powerhouse. Utah has most of the key pieces back from a team that gave Duke all it could handle last year in the Sweet 16. And if you are looking for NBA-caliber backcourt play then look no further than this league. Cal has one of the best backcourts in the nation and UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State have some fearless, fun-to-watch guards leading the way. Some bottom-ticket teams like USC, Arizona State and Stanford could also find themselves overachieving. It will be another great season out on the Left Coast.
SEC (Projected Teams: 5)
Bubble: Kentucky*, LSU*, Georgia, Texas A&M*, Vanderbilt*, Florida*, South Carolina, Mississippi
Skinny: The SEC is a god-awful college basketball conference . It just is. But this season it could be a little less horrendous than it has been the past few years. Kentucky has re-loaded in the way that Kentucky does. LSU has made waves by signing the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Ben Simmons. A&M and Vanderbilt are both stocked with tough, experienced, capable players. And Georgia, Florida and South Carolina all have enough talent to make a run at a dance invitation. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are also good enough to spring an upset or two, so look for a very competitive league race down south.
WCC (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: Gonzaga*, BYU*, St. Mary's,
Skinny: Gonzaga enters the season with a Top-10 ranking and the same question dogging the program that has been there the past 15 seasons: is THIS the year that the Bulldogs FINALLY make the Final Four? My short answer: no way. In fact, BYU really could take Gonzaga to the limit for the league title. Gonzaga will win the regular-season crown because BYU is shaky enough to lose one or two games it shouldn't. But BYU also has an excellent backcourt, a rebuilt frontcourt, and is focused on making it back to into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large berth. BYU better take care of business in the nonconference, though. That could mean having to beat Utah in Salt Lake City, because the Cougars have a weak nonconference schedule that could really come back to bite them on Selection Sunday.
Automatic Bid Leagues (Projected Teams: 21):
America East - Stony Brook* or Vermont
Atlantic Sun - North Florida* or Florida-Gulf Coast
Big Sky - Weber State* or Montana
Big South - Coastal Carolina* or High Point
Big West - UC-Santa Barbara* or Long Beach State
Colonial - James Madison* or Hofstra
Conference USA - UAB* or Old Dominion
Horizon - Valparaiso* (Potential at-large team)
Ivy League - Princeton* or Yale
Metro - Iona*
Mid-American - Akron* or Central Michigan
MEAC - Norfolk State* or Hampton
Northeast - Robert Morris* or Bryant
Ohio Valley - Belmont* or Murray State
Patriot League - Bucknell* or Lehigh or Boston U.
Southern - Chattanooga* or East Tennessee State
Southland - Stephen F. Austin* or Northwestern State
SWAC -Southern* or Alabama A&M
Summit - South Dakota State* or North Dakota State
Sun Belt - Louisiana* or Georgia State
WAC - Missouri-Kansas City* or New Mexico State
*Denotes team projected for the NCAA Tournament.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has an unmatched streak of nine straight winning nonconference seasons and nine straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $12,130 in profit with his sides and totals the last two years alone and he has raked in a remarkable $60,600 in the last nine years with his nonconference picks (November and December) alone. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing season. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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