Wolverines lead early NCAA bids

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NCAA Tournament: First 12 Tickets Punched

12 teams have punched their NCAA Tournament tickets in the last few days and can sit back and enjoy the madness this week around the country during the remaining conference tournaments. Here is a look at those teams and what to expect in the Big Dance next week.

Murray State – Ohio Valley (26-5) Projected #13 Seed

The Racers were a NCAA Tournament staple in the 1990s and Murray State has won tournament games in the past two appearances, beating Vanderbilt in 2010 and Colorado State in 2012. The OVC was a two-team contest this season and Murray State edge out Belmont for the regular season title and won 68-51 last weekend in the conference tournament final.

Size and depth could be an issue is several matchups with only one starter taller than 6’3” but the Racers held their own in a few quality tests this season, beating two of the better Missouri Valley teams in non-conference play while losing by just five against Middle Tennessee State and by just four hosting Auburn. The Racers are riding a 13-game winning streak into the Big Dance and this is an efficient shooting team that takes care of the ball.

Radford – Big South (22-12) Projected #16 Seed

Radford hit a 3-point shot at the buzzer in the Big South final for a dramatic entrance into the NCAA Tournament field. This is the third appearance for Radford, last losing 101-58 to North Carolina in the 2009 tournament. The Highlanders had a knack for winning close games to emerge from a tightly-packed Big South conference though they didn’t have to face regular season champion UNC-Asheville in the tournament path.

Size will be a big problem playing against a potential #1 seed in the tournament for Radford, though the Highlanders could be placed in a First Four matchup. Radford plays at one of the slowest paces in the nation as they would have a shot to disrupt the rhythm of a power conference team and they did compete reasonably well in respectable losses against Ohio State and Vanderbilt in non-conference tests.

Loyola-Chicago – Missouri Valley (28-5) Projected #12 Seed

The Ramblers would have received consideration for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid had they lost the conference final but ultimately would have likely been left out like many other Missouri Valley contenders in recent years. Loyola-Chicago won convincingly over Illinois-State in that final with the help of a 17-5 edge in fouls called to now enter the tournament on a 10-game winning streak.

Wins over Horizon Champion Wright State as well as a win at Florida in non-conference play stand out and this team a 2-point road loss is the only setback in the last 18 games. On the season Loyola-Chicago has shot 40 percent from 3-point range as this will be a team that could be pegged as an upset threat in the right matchup with the slow-paced Ramblers also ranking 25th nationally in defensive efficiency.

Lipscomb – Atlantic Sun (23-9) Projected #15 Seed

Lipscomb lost by double-digits in all four games vs. major conference foes but they did beat Belmont twice and after starting the season just 11-8 the Bisons have won 12 of the past 13 games, claiming the A-Sun tournament title with a 108-96 win over Florida Gulf Coast for the first ever NCAA Tournament berth for the program.

This team could be a threat against a top seed as few teams in the nation play as fast and the defense has been able to force a lot of turnovers. The starting lineup features no seniors as this group has played its best ball down the stretch and the Atlantic Sun has made some noise in the NCAA Tournament in recent years including Florida Gulf Coast losing by just six to Florida State last season. Junior Garrison Mathews sits 13th nationally in scoring this season posting more than 22 points per game.

Michigan – Big Ten (28-7) Projected #4 Seed

Usually the Big Ten tournament wraps up the college season leading into the selection show but this season Michigan will sit and wait week after winning the Big Ten tournament for the second straight season. This is a squad that might not want a break after winning four games in four days to close the season on a nine-game winning streak featuring wins over the top three other teams in the Big Ten. Expect the Wolverines to be a popular team to be projected to make a run to the second weekend of the tournament or further.

This year’s team has John Beilein’s best ever defense by the numbers since he took in Ann Arbor and the Wolverines do a lot of things right on offense by committing few fouls or turnovers, even though this is one of the nation’s worst free throw shooting teams. Mo Wagner could again emerge as a postseason star and senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has carried the team down the stretch scoring nearly 17 points per game on the winning streak. Michigan’s non-conference profile lacks a top 40 win however and ultimately this team might be at risk to be over-seeded and overvalued.

Iona – Metro Atlantic (20-13) Projected #15 Seed

The Gaels haven’t won a NCAA Tournament game since 1980 but they will be in the field for the fifth time in seven seasons including the third straight trip. Iona was a #13 seed two years ago losing by 13 to Iowa State and a #14 seed last season losing by 16 to Oregon. This year’s team finished fourth in the MAAC regular season but once again found life in the tournament without having to play any of the top three teams.

Iona is one of the most experienced teams in the field and making the trip the past two seasons could help the team prepare for the next opportunity. The Gaels lost by 10 or fewer points vs. Syracuse, St. John’s, and Rhode Island as they held their own against the best teams they faced in non-conference play and hot shooting from a team that takes a great deal of 3-point shots could key an upset threat with Iona’s offense often playing up-tempo but with a very low turnover rate.

UNC-Greensboro – Southern (27-7) Projected #13 Seed

The Spartans beat NC State back in December in Raleigh while losing by six against Wake Forest and just 12 against top ranked Virginia to hold their own in three tests against the ACC. The Southern Conference featured three top 100 caliber teams as this was one of the stronger small conferences and UNC-Greensboro won both the regular season and tournament titles.

A high turnover rate is a bit of a concern for the Spartans but this is a quality defensive team that has very good size for a small conference program. The Spartans play at a slow pace and could give a favored squad a big test although closing out a game with poor free throw shooting numbers could be a recipe for heartbreak. This will still be one of the draws that teams in the #3-4 seed range will not want to be paired with.

Wright State – Horizon League (25-9) Projected #15 Seed

Wright State started the season 0-3 but has gone 25-6 since with a win over Georgia Tech on the road on the resume. Wright State didn’t have to play Oakland, Illinois-Chicago, or Northern Kentucky in the Horizon Tournament run but they actually went 6-0 against those three quality teams in league play but had four conference losses against lesser squads. The Raiders are led by a defense that has national top 50 rankings in several categories.

This is the first NCAA Tournament appearance for Wright State since 2007 with the program 0-2 in two previous appearances. The Horizon League has a pretty strong NCAA Tournament track record in the past two decades but several teams have left the conference in recent years. This year’s run for the Raiders has been even more impressive considering senior Justin Mitchell left the team in January.

College of Charleston – Colonial (26-7) Projected #14 Seed

College of Charleston has won 14 of the last 15 with the only loss an overtime loss in the regular season finale. The Cougars needed overtime to top Northeastern in the conference tournament final in a game between teams that shared the regular season title in the CAA. This is only the fifth season for College of Charleston in the conference since moving up from the Southern Conference with the Cougars last in the NCAA Tournament in 1999.

The only top 100 wins of the season for College of Charleston came in going 3-0 vs. Northeastern and the Cougars lost by 18 against Wichita State in the toughest test they faced, though also playing to within six against Rhode Island. This team will be a threat for an upset with a deliberate pace, one of the lowest turnover rates in the nation and nearly 77 percent free throw shooting as the Cougars won’t beat themselves with mistakes.

LIU-Brooklyn – Northeast (18-16) Projected #16 Seed

The Blackbirds can start planning to play Tuesday or Wednesday in Dayton as they look certain to be one of the worst rated teams to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. LIU-Brooklyn was just 10-8 to finish fourth in a Northeast Conference that ranks as the nation’s fourth weakest. The program made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2011-13 but this year’s run was unexpected.

LIU-Brooklyn didn’t even play a top 150 team this season with NEC regular season champion Wagner providing the best two wins of the season for the Blackbirds. This team plays up-tempo and can have some success scoring inside with a pair of imposing upperclassmen forwards while a pair of sharpshooting guards sits on the perimeter. There isn’t a lot to like on the resume for LIU-Brooklyn but former UMass head coach Derek Kellogg’s team has some momentum.

Gonzaga – West Coast (30-4) Projected #3 Seed

The Bulldogs don’t have last season’s record or NBA talent as matching last season’s run to the NCAA Championship game looks unlikely. However it is hard to discount a team that has come together to win the last 14 games mostly in blowouts while posting a number of quality non-conference wins including beating Ohio State, Texas, and Creighton.

This is one of the few teams nationally to be in the nation’s top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency with this year’s offense actually out-pacing last season’s Gonzaga offense. The roster has great size and scores effectively inside and out with the defensive numbers excellent inside the paint. In a fairly wide open national picture Gonzaga is a viable threat especially if they can grab opening weekend pod in relatively nearby Boise.

South Dakota State – Summit League (28-6) Projected #13 Seed

Two years ago South Dakota State had a similar record and played Maryland very tough in a 5/12 matchup, losing 79-74. With a coaching change last season the Jackrabbits had a lesser season but still won the Summit Tournament but drew Gonzaga playing as a #16 seed and were quickly eliminated. This could be South Dakota State’s best chance to win its first NCAA Tournament game with a veteran group that proved itself in November with wins over Iowa, Buffalo, and Ole Miss, while also playing right with Wichita State and Colorado.

Junior Mike Daum is one of the nation’s top scorers with 6’9” size while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and 86 percent at the line. Depth is a bit of a concern with the Jackrabbits losing two contributors late in the season but the starting lineup features four upperclassmen and standout freshman David Jenkins. Few teams shoot as well as South Dakota State from 3-point range or at the line and SDSU had the second lowest turnover rate in the nation for a strong recipe for an upset.