Football is all but over. College football is done. The NFL has just three games left in its campaign. And that means that bettors around the country, if they haven't already, are turning all of their attention to the hardwood. And while the NBA is technically more popular than college basketball, the sportsbooks know that the college kids are going to be paying the bills for the next two months.
Conference play is heating up in college basketball and the chess pieces are starting, ever so slightly, to arrange themselves as the NCAA Tournament field starts to take shape. It's never too early to make predictions or projections on who will earn - or win- an invite to The Big Dance. Over the past five years I have been more accurate at predicting the NCAA Tournament field than phony/fraud/bobblehead Joe Lunardi. I expect that to be the case again this year.
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Selection Sunday is March 12, and the NCAA Tournament begins with the play-in games set for Tuesday, March 14 in Dayton. This will be the first year in which every conference will have an automatic bid determined via tournament champion as the Ivy League will hold its first-ever conference tourney. The first round begins on Thursday, March 16 and the Final Four will take place on April 1 in Phoenix.
Here are my midseason2016-2017 NCAA tournament projections:
* = Projected tournament team
# = Primary teams competing for final at-large bids
American Athletic (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: Cincinnati*, SMU*, Houston#, Memphis#, Central Florida
Skinny: Tim Jankovich has done an outstanding job steering the SMU ship after Larry Brown's unceremonious exit this offseason. They should close the regular season with at least 24 wins, and a strong showing in the conference tournament will almost guarantee a second bid for this league. Houston has a big week coming up with games against Memphis and SMU. The Cougars have a lot of work to do but will be one of the last four or five teams scrapping for the 68th spot in the dance. Well, that is unless Memphis (which took a bad loss at Tulsa last week) or Central Florida (which took a bad loss at Connecticut) can go on a major rush. UCF threw its hat in the ring by taking down Houston over the weekend. But they have a lot more work to do.
Atlantic-10 (Projected Teams: 3)
Bubble: Dayton*, Rhode Island*, VCU*
Skinny: The Atlantic 10 peaked in 2013-14 when the second-tier league earned six bids to the NCAA Tournament. The last two seasons they have managed three bids, and it appears that they are on track for that number this season. VCU and Dayton are essentially locks to make the field. Rhode Island has the talent and experience to make the field as well as a crucial nonconference win over Cincinnati. But the Rams are just 10-6 right now. The A-10 may not have as much talent in the top tier as in recent seasons - and it doesn't - but this is still a parity-driven league with plenty of pitfalls. Rhode Island needs to get to 20 wins (very doable) and make it to at least the semifinals in the league tournament to sow up their bid. I think they'll get there.
ACC (Projected Teams: 9)
Bubble: Virginia*, Duke*, Notre Dame*, Louisville*, North Carolina*, Miami#, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Florida State*, Clemson#, Virginia Tech*
Skinny: Basically, every team in the league except Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest has at least a slim shot at making the NCAA Tournament. There has been talk of as many as 11 teams securing bids. But I think that most of these clubs are going to cannibalize themselves through a brutal league schedule. There are seven teams that are currently locks to make the tournament. But that still leaves Miami, Pitt, Clemson and (generously) N.C. State fighting for what I believe will be the eighth and final spot from this league. However, most of those teams are currently in the midst of multiple-game losing streaks - with Miami only able to snap theirs by playing Pitt - so someone will need to get it going sooner rather than later for this league to live up to the hype it has been receiving.
Big 12 (Projected Teams: 7)
Bubble: Kansas*, Iowa State*, Baylor*, West Virginia*, Kansas State*, Texas Tech*, TCU#
Skinny: The Big 12 is still, top to bottom, the best basketball conference in the country. There are no easy outs in this league. The league has earned seven spots in the last three tournaments, so if they "only" got six out of the 10-team league then that would actually be a bit of a "down" season. Kansas State and Texas Tech simply need to avoid going into the tank and they will likely have done enough to work their way back into The Big Dance. For Texas Tech, that would mean rare back-to-back appearances. For K-State it would be their first appearance in three years. The fly in the ointment will be TCU. Jamie Dixon's squad navigated a cupcake nonconference schedule - which may come back to bite them. But their early success, and a big win over Iowa State on Saturday, has given them a lot of confidence. The best part about the Big 12 is that it offers a lot of chances to pick up marquee wins.
Big East (Projected Teams: 6)
Bubble: Villanova*, Butler*, Creighton*, Xavier*, Seton Hall*, Marquette#
Skinny: Home of the defending national champions, the Big East has reasserted itself as a League of Force in college basketball. Villanova, Creighton, Butler and Xavier are all Top 25 teams and Seton Hall has been in and out of the rankings. The first four teams are locks for the tournament and Seton Hall, barring a total collapse, will get there. Marquette has enough talent to be a tourney team. And they don't have any bad losses. But the team can be a bit erratic. And they will have to earn at least a couple wins over the top four teams if they want to show that they belong with the big boys.
Big Ten (Projected Teams: 7)
Bubble: Purdue*, Minnesota*, Michigan State*, Maryland*, Wisconsin*, Northwestern#, Indiana*, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois
Skinny: The ACC has the most potential national champions in it. (Although the Pac-12 might disagree.) The Big 12 is the densest, talent-wise, of any league. But top to bottom you could also make a case that the Big Ten is the nation's top conference. Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Maryland are all locks. Indiana is wobbling lately, dumping four of six. But wins over Kansas and North Carolina are impossible to ignore as long as they can finish around .500 in league play. Minnesota is 15-4 right now and playing great. They look like they are on pace for their first bid since 2013. But the Gophers were left out of the 2014 dance with 20 wins they won't want to leave anything to chance. I am also projecting that Northwestern will make their first NCAA Tournament ever. The Wildcats absolutely have work to do. But I think that this team is good enough to punch through and they will be right there around the cut-off line on Selection Sunday.
Missouri Valley (Projected Teams: 1)
Bubble: Wichita State*, Illinois State
Skinny: The Valley has become a perpetual one-bid league. Illinois State is, I feel, good enough to be in the field. And they proved that by taking down Wichita State over the weekend. Unfortunately they blew any chance they had at an at-large bid with some bad nonconference losses. That said, the Redbirds actually have a shot if they can upset Wichita State at Arch Madness to earn the automatic bid. I don't know that Wichita State did enough in the nonconference to earn an at-large bid on their own. Of course, if they run the table from here then Wichita State will be tough to leave out with nearly 30 wins. So this could be a bid-stealing league come tourney time.
Mountain West (Projected Teams: 1)
Bubble: Nevada*, Boise State
Skinny: I'm not entirely sure when it happened, but the Mountain West has been relegated to one-bid status. Last year San Diego State got screwed out of a bid after winning the league's regular season, 25 games, and making the conference tournament title game. This year the Aztecs aren't a factor. Nevada is clearly the best team in the league. But they didn't earn any big nonconference wins. Nevada could be in a similar situation as Wichita State. If Nevada wins its remaining 13 regular season games - which they will not do - and makes the conference tournament finals they would have 30 wins and be impossible to ignore.
Pac-12 (Projected Teams: 6)
Bubble: Arizona*, Oregon*, UCLA*, California#, Utah#, USC*, Colorado
Skinny: I don't care what the rankings say, which currently have the Pac-12 as the No. 6 league in the country: the Pac-12 is as powerful as I've ever seen it in the past decade. Arizona, Oregon and UCLA are all legitimate Final Four contenders and I will be stunned if one of them doesn't make it to Phoenix. Beyond that, no one is solidly in at this point. However, I have a feeling that the profile of the top teams will drag everyone else up rather than the other way around. USC will end up with a gaudy win total. Utah is hot since adding two key midseason transfers and I expect that to continue. And Cal has come too close to getting big wins this year for them to not pull off an upset or two to beef up their resume. Colorado should be a tourney team. But short a major run, their recent five-game losing streak, albeit against a tough slate, has likely sunk their chances.
SEC (Projected Teams: 3)
Bubble: Kentucky*, Florida*, South Carolina*, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Auburn
Skinny: Despite all the plaudits and optimism that have come out of the SEC over the last two seasons this league is still a joke when it comes to basketball. Kentucky has free reign and is an Elite Eight-caliber squad. Florida and South Carolina are both legit and they will do enough to punch their tickets. However, anyone after those three would be a long shot. Arkansas is 13-4 but they've neither played nor beaten anyone. Beyond that the only hope for a fourth bid out of this league would be an upset in the conference tournament. That is not out of the question. But it is unlikely.
WCC (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: Gonzaga*, St. Mary's*, BYU
Skinny: Gonzaga is an absolute juggernaut. They are the last remaining undefeated team and they will be in the mix for a No. 1 seed. St. Mary's has been a frequent snub from the field in the past several seasons. They didn't do much to beef up their nonconference schedule, however, and that will again be a huge drain on their resume. But the Gaels are definitely one of the better teams in the country and they should earn their way into the field either by taking out Gonzaga in the WCC tourney or scoring an at-large bid.
Automatic Bid Leagues (Projected Teams: 21):
America East -Vermont*
Atlantic Sun - Florida-Gulf Coast*
Big Sky - Weber State* or Montana
Big South - UNC-Asheville* or Winthrop
Big West - UC-Irvine*
Colonial - UNC-Wilmington* or Charleston
Conference USA - Middle Tennessee State* or Marshall
Horizon - Oakland* or Valparaiso
Ivy League - Princeton* or Harvard
Metro - Monmouth* or Iona
Mid-American - Akron* or Ohio
MEAC - N.C. Central*
Northeast - Robert Morris* or Bryant
Ohio Valley - Belmont* or Murray State
Patriot League - Bucknell* or Lehigh
Southern -East Tennessee State* or Chattanooga
Southland - Sam Houston State*
SWAC - Texas Southern*
Summit - Fort Wayne* or North Dakota State
Sun Belt - UT-Arlington* or UL-Lafayette or Georgia Southern
WAC -New Mexico State* or Cal St. Bakersfield
*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 a streak of 10 straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $16,900 in profit last year alone and there is no better moneymaker in the nation.
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