First 12 Tickets Punched
March 14, 2019
By Joe Nelson
Twelve teams have punched their NCAA Tournament tickets with automatic bids in the last few days and can sit back and enjoy the madness this week around the country during the remaining conference tournament games. Here is a look at those confirmed teams and what to expect in the Big Dance next week.
Murray State – Ohio Valley (27-4)
Projected #12 Seed
The Racers were a popular #12 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament but wound up with an ugly 85-68 defeat against West Virginia as a 10-point underdog. Sophomore Ja Morant is an expected NBA lottery pick scoring nearly 25 points per game and the Racers didn’t look out of place in close losses on the road vs. Alabama and Auburn in non-conference play early this season.
Murray State beat Belmont by 12 in the OVC Final last weekend and while Belmont is a bubble team for an at-large bid, the conference as a whole did not rate as strong as in past seasons with a big gap between the top four teams and the bottom eight teams. Turnovers were a big problem for Murray State in last season’s game against West Virginia’s pressure defense and a more favorable matchup could make the Racers a threat to advance this season. This squad won’t likely present great underdog value as they will surely be considered a popular Cinderella choice as one of the most well-known small conference squads.
Gardner-Webb – Big South (23-11)
Projected #16 Seed
Gardner-Webb went from a third-place regular season finish in the Big South to punching a ticket to the Big Dance with wins over the top two teams in the conference in succession in a pair of true road games. The Runnin’ Bulldogs are likely to face a tough opening matchup and could be considered for one of the First Four games as they will likely be one of the worst rated teams in the field by some measures.
In November opportunities playing up, Gardner-Webb lost by 12 at VCU and by 28 at Virginia Tech but did take Furman to overtime on the road. With an 11-2 run to close the season, the team is playing its best down the stretch, but has also benefitted from four overtime wins on the season. Size will be an issue in most potential matchups with the entire roster 6’6” or shorter. Radford from the Big South won its First Four game by 10 points last season before being blown out by eventual national champion Villanova.
Bradley – Missouri Valley (20-14)
Projected #14 Seed
Loyola-Chicago was a Final Four team out of the Missouri Valley last season as while the conference has lost a few heavyweights in recent years this league has a great postseason track record over the past two decades. Bradley started the Valley season at 0-5 before a great turnaround and ultimately winning three games in St. Louis in three days by a combined total of eight points.
Bradley plays gritty defense and is a strong outside shooting team and they will not be an appealing draw for a top contender with Bradley a better team right now than they will be seeded, likely in the 14-15 range based on the marginal season record. Bradley beat SMU and Penn State in Mexico in November and a slow deliberate pace of play could make the Bears an upset threat in the right matchup.
Liberty – Atlantic Sun (28-6)
Projected #13 Seed
Liberty jumped from the Big South to the Atlantic Sun this season and finished tied with Lipscomb for the regular season title, besting the Bisons in the conference tournament final. The Flames won at UCLA in December and played competitively in three other major conference losses in the non-conference season. This veteran lineup will enter the tournament on an 18-2 run and will be a threat to make some noise.
Liberty deploys one of the slowest tempos in the nation on offense and excels in getting quality shots, featuring the 13th best effective field goal rate in the entire nation. The Flames are a 78 percent free throw shooting team and the team’s top players Caleb Homesley and Scottie James have enough size to compete with major conference opposition.
Wofford – Southern (29-4)
Projected #7 Seed
Wofford was pushed in a tight Southern Conference final against UNC Greensboro but has now won 20 straight games. Wofford beat South Carolina in non-conference play and the only four losses came against major conference teams in NCAA Tournament consideration including misses against North Carolina and Kansas. The Southern will be deserving of more than one bid this season, ranking as the 11th-best conference in the nation, ahead of the A-10, Conference USA, and Sun Belt, though many suspect deserving candidates UNC-Greensboro and Furman will be left out.
Wofford shoots a ton of 3-point shots and has four players hitting above 41 percent from 3-point range. The Wofford defense could have some problems in certain matchups, allowing 77 points per game in the five non-conference games vs. SEC, ACC, and Big XII teams however. Mike Young’s team made the tournament in 2014 and 2015 with first round exits but this could be the program’s best team ever and the Terriers figure to be in a tight first round pairing in a 7/10 or 8/9 draw.
Iona – Metro Atlantic (17-15)
Projected #16 Seed
Once 7-15 on the season, Iona won the final 10 games of the season to win the Metro Atlantic regular season title and tournament title, now making a fourth straight NCAA Tournament trip. The Gaels are going to be more of a threat to win a game this season as they seem destined for a First Four matchup to start the tournament against a fellow #16 seed instead of a national power.
Iona didn’t hold up particularly well in any of the recent NCAA Tournament appearances nor did they stay within double-digits in three top 100 non-conference games this season, but Tim Cluess will get another shot in the Big Dance with his up-tempo offense and a Gaels squad that shoots well from all over the floor. The starting five is all upperclassmen from a team that lost by 22 to Duke last March in the Round of 64 as a 15 seed.
Northern Kentucky – Horizon (26-8)
Projected #14 Seed
The Norse made the 2017 NCAA Tournament and gave Kentucky a scare in a 79-70 defeat in a 2/15 matchup. This year’s team could climb to the #14 line with a strong record even with no top-100 caliber wins. The Norse competed respectably in road losses to UCF and Cincinnati and held a very tough home court with just one home defeat all season.
This team has pretty good size for a smaller conference program and statistically was one of the better interior scoring teams in the nation. Free throw shooting is a concern at just 67 percent on the season but this team could be a threat to keep a tournament game tight as they also played Louisville to an eight-point game in the NIT last season. John Brannen figures to get some looks for around the nation after three straight strong seasons with this program following a 9-21 first year in 2015-16.
Fairleigh Dickinson – Northeast (20-13)
Projected #16 Seed
The Knights started the season 6-11 including going 1-4 in the first five conference games before catching fire to the tune of a 14-4 run culminating with a Northeast Championship win at St. Francis. While the overall profile isn’t a strong one for FDU ranking outside the nation’s top 200 by most measures, they had respectable losses to Providence and South Florida in the non-conference season. As an over 40 percent 3-point shooting team, this squad could shoot its way into advancing if they wind up in a First Four contest.
The Knights earned this spot despite a late season injury to Xzavier Malone-Key as a team with a very limited bench had to make some late season adjustments. With a defensive efficiency ranking near 300 nationally, this could be a favorable draw for a top seed to find its offensive rhythm early in the tournament. Last year’s Northeast representative LIU-Brooklyn lost by 10 in the First Four, though the 2017 representative Mount St. Mary’s was victorious in its 16/16 game.
Northeastern – Colonial (22-10)
Projected #13 Seed
The Huskies beat Alabama by 16 in November but lost badly vs. Virginia Tech, Davidson, and Syracuse in other big non-conference tests. The Colonial did not grade as a strong league this season but Northeastern was one of three quality teams and the Huskies are in the tournament for the first time since 2015. That team lost by only four to Notre Dame in a 3/14 contest in that appearance and the Huskies are on a 16-1 run since early January with only an overtime loss.
This is an experienced team led by its offense, featuring the fifth rated effective field goal rate nationally, while a nearly 39 percent 3-point shooting team and a strong shooting team at the line that commits few turnovers. Coupled with a deliberate pace of play the Huskies have the potential to be a sleeper for an upset next week in the right draw with a roster full of upperclassmen ready for this opportunity.
North Dakota State – Summit (17-15)
Projected #16 Seed
The Bison finished just fourth in the Summit League but navigated the conference tournament to earn this spot with league champion South Dakota State upset by the league’s #8 team Western Illinois. North Dakota State could conceivably draw the Gonzaga team they lost to by 42 in November while the Bison also lost badly in three other top 100 non-conference tests on the season.
Size will be an issue in a likely 1/16 matchup for North Dakota State but this squad has good offensive shooting numbers while featuring a very low turnover rate despite a roster without a senior. The Bison also faced Gonzaga in the 2015 NCAA Tournament with a respectable 10-point loss in a 2/15 contest. Defensively it is hard to see North Dakota State competing well against a top contender, but this squad will hit some shots.
Saint Mary’s – West Coast (22-11)
Projected #12 Seed
The Gaels would have been an interesting bubble discussion case but they didn’t leave their Tournament inclusion to the committee, turning in a stunning 60-47 upset over Gonzaga in the WCC Final. That was the only top 50 win of the season for Saint Mary’s who looked the part in close losses vs. Mississippi State and LSU, but ultimately didn’t have a lot of weight in the win column.
Saint Mary’s plays at an incredibly slow pace and works for quality shots with strong shooting numbers all over the floor, led by Jordan Ford who has scored over 21 points per game this season while a 42 percent 3-point shooter. Saint Mary’s beat VCU in a 7/10 matchup two years ago in the Big Dance and the Gaels won two NIT games last season. This squad has good size, but limited depth and the roster includes only one senior. Expect Randy Bennett’s team to control the pace of play in whatever matchup they pull.
Colgate – Patriot (23-10)
Projected #15 Seed
The Raiders will take an 11-gmae winning streak into the NCAA Tournament after winning by double-digits in all three Patriot Tournament games, which were played on their home court. Colgate didn’t look too out of place in non-conference defeats at Syracuse, South Florida, Penn State, and Pittsburgh including two 10-point losses. The Patriot is also an underrated league and last year’s representative Bucknell lost by just four to Michigan State in a 3/14 contest while Bucknell lost by just six to West Virginia in the 2017 tournament.
Like many of the teams on this list, Colgate plays at a slow pace and can shoot as a 39 percent 3-point shooting team and a strong free throw converting team. This squad has enough size to compete with larger programs as 6’10” Rapolas Ivanauskas leads the team in scoring. This could be one of the more dangerous #15 draws and even could get #14 seed consideration depending on how the remaining automatic bids fall.
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