Some non-BCS schools sitting pretty for at-large NCAA bids

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Which non-majors have put themselves in a position to be in the at-large discussion next March?

There is, of course, a lot of basketball yet to be played, so things may look a bit different when we launch Bubble Banter in February.  We’ll call this Stocking Stuffer Part I.  Part II will feature a look at major conference teams that could be on or near the bubble come March.

(Note: For this discussion, Atlantic 10, Mountain West, and Conference USA teams will be featured in Part II.)

Teams to watch

Murray State
The Racers have beaten Southern Mississippi at the Great Alaska Shootout, Dayton at home, and Memphis on the road.  Those were the three biggest challenges on Murray’s non-conference slate.  The victory at Memphis figures to hold the most weight, although the Tigers have not looked much like a Top 20 team this season.

Road Bumps: The Ohio Valley Conference isn’t very strong and will certainly be an anchor to Murray’s RPI and overall strength-of-schedule.  The Racers have also played three non-Division I opponents – two of those scheduled at home.  If Murray can finish its non-conference slate unbeaten, the Racers should be able to absorb a loss or two in the OVC.  Any more than that, plus a loss in the OVC tournament, would make it interesting.  How Southern Miss, Dayton, and Memphis finish the season will also be a factor.

The Bluejays’ victory at San Diego State could pay big dividends.  Beating Northwestern (Dec. 22) will be important, too.  That would leave Creighton 2-1 against its best non-conference opponents (CU lost at St. Joseph’s).  Given the Bluejays status as Missouri Valley favorite, the outlook for an at-large bid is favorable if the scenario above unfolds.

Road Bumps: Playing on the road in the Valley is never easy, but it will be important for Creighton to avoid “bad losses” along the way.  It will also help if CU separates itself with or above Northern Iowa and Wichita State at the top of the standings.

Northern Iowa
While the Panthers are off to a strong start – including a 4-1 record away from home, they lack a marquee victory.  UNI’s win at Old Dominion was solid but the Panthers followed it up with a double-digit loss at St. Mary’s – another potential bubble team.  The game with Ohio (Dec. 20) figures to be huge for both schools.

Road Bumps: Northern Iowa will need to keep pace – and beat – both Creighton and Wichita State during the Missouri Valley season.  Much like Creighton, UNI will need to avoid “bad losses” to those at the bottom of the league standings.

Wichita State
After missing chances against Alabama and Temple in Puerto Rico, the Shockers posted a strong win over UNLV at home.  Without that, WSU’s profile is much less inviting.  Thus, the Shockers’ margin for error is a smaller than it might appear.   Last year, Wichita State missed its chances against Connecticut (Maui) and San Diego State (road) and headed to the NIT.  Will the victory over UNLV hold enough weight?  Depends on how the Rebels finish the season.

Road Bumps: See Creighton and Northern Iowa above.  The three frontrunners in the MVC need to stay above the fray and beat each other along the way.

Without a conference tournament, Harvard doesn’t have the option of winning a regular-season title and then losing in its tournament final.  It’s all or nothing.  So the question becomes, could Harvard make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team by finishing second in a conference currently ranked 18th in the RPI?  Wins over Florida State and Central Florida in the Bahamas will help – even though Harvard was outmatched at Connecticut.  The Crimson’s game with St. Joseph’s is their last chance to make a strong impression.

Road Bumps: Other than St. Joe’s, there are no teams ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI remaining on Harvard’s schedule.  Any league losses will be to non-NCAA teams.  Finishing behind one of those teams during the course of the regular season could make an at-large bid hard to find.

The Bruins are team many believe can win a game (or two) in the NCAAs.  But Belmont has to make the field first.  Right now, the Bruins’ best victory is a double-overtime win at Middle Tennessee State – a team the Bruins played on the road again this past week (and lost).  Saturday’s loss at Miami-OH is the one that could sting the Bruins, though.  If close counts, then Belmont’s one-point loss at Duke to open the season may help.  But there’s no question that Duke and Memphis were Belmont’s best chances to make a splash, and the Bruins missed both opportunities.  Beating Marshall (Dec.19) is now critical.  It’s the Bruins’ last chance against an NCAA-caliber team.

Road Bumps: Atlantic Sun play will offer little help, so Belmont will need to win its league (again) in impressive fashion.  Do that and the Bruins can stay in the at-large discussion.  Whether it’s enough depends on how the rest of the national landscape looks on Selection Sunday.

The Gaels’ resume is pretty solid at this point.  Iona has wins over Maryland (neutral), St. Joseph’s (home), Denver (road), and Richmond (road).  Losses are to Purdue (one point – neutral) and at Marshall.  The Gaels are currently in a stretch of eight straight road games have gone 6-1 in the first seven.  Those are numbers and schedule benefits that will compare favorably in March.

Road Bumps: Fairfield will challenge Iona for the MAAC title.  A regular-season title would certainly help the Gaels’ at-large chances.  We saw that with UAB last year.

The Pioneers have wins over Southern Mississippi and St. Mary’s at home.  Both could be fellow bubble teams.  Losses are at California and to Iona at home.  The latter could prove important if those two are compared.  That said, Denver has positioned itself as an at-large candidate if it can win a regular-season Sun Belt title and avoid many more losses along the way.

Road Bumps: Middle Tennessee State has proven it can beat quality teams, so the road to a Sun Belt title won’t be easy.  If both of those teams dominate the conference and play each other in the conference tournament final, it’ll be interesting to see if the loser garners an at-large bid.

Middle Tennessee State
An early win at UCLA is not helping the Blue Raiders much right now.  But a split with Belmont (both at home) is worthy of consideration.  MTSU’s other loss is at UAB – which hurts.  Up next is Mississippi (Dec. 21).  It’s MTSU’s last chance to put something of note on its non-conference resume.

Road Bumps: The Raiders will have to keep pace with Denver in the Sun Belt and split games with the Pioneers to have any realistic shot at an at-large bid.  If that happens, and both teams play in the Sun Belt final, MTSU will likely be on the at-large board.  It may not be enough, but they will be in the discussion.

Long Beach State – Few teams have played a tougher slate.  A victory at Pittsburgh will help, but there was also a miscue at Montana. To date, LBSU has lost at San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.  Those are all good losses in close games.  The question is whether LBSU can compile enough quality wins.  It may come down to the 49ers game with Xavier on Dec. 22. 

Road Bumps: The Big West isn’t very strong so the conference road has the potential for a host of bad losses.  LBSU doesn’t have to be perfect in conference play, but pretty close.  If the 49ers can avoid more than one or two losses, they should be in the at-large picture.

St. Mary’s
In its toughest games to date, the Gaels beat Northern Iowa at home and lost at Denver. A road trip to Baylor (Dec. 22) and a date with Missouri State are St. Mary’s last chances to do anything outside the West Coast Conference.  A split is important – especially if the Gaels can pull off the upset in Waco. Then it’ll come down to St. Mary’s performance against BYU and Gonzaga in the WCC.

Road Bumps: Playing two non-DI games won’t help the Gaels and the WCC is stronger top to bottom than most people think.

The Cougars are behind the curve after opening with a loss at Utah State and falling easily at Wisconsin.  Saturday, the Cougars missed a golden chance to upset Baylor.  The rest of BYU’s non-conference slate isn’t much to talk about.  Beating Oregon at home is OK, but not the type of victory that will earn many NCAA points.

Road Bumps: At this point, BYU needs to finish with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s at the top of the West Coast Conference.  Finishing third and losing early in the WCC tourney probably won’t be enough.

Ohio – A close loss at Louisville and a victory at Marshall have the Bobcats in contention.  Ohio’s game at Northern Iowa (Dec. 20) is huge.  It would give the Bobcats another notable non-conference victory and position them ahead of UNI heading into conference play.

Road Bumps: Kent State, and a few others, will make the Mid-American Conference journey a bit challenging.  If Ohio can pile up MAC wins, avoid “bad losses”, and reach the conference title game against Kent State, an at-large bid is possible.

Kent State – The Flashes are many people’s favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.  A season-opening victory at West Virginia will help and Kent’s loss to Cleveland State won’t hurt the flashes – even though it was home.  KSU’s biggest issue is that its remaining conference slate has been pretty light, and the Flashes won’t play another Top 100 RPI team until they travel to Ohio on January 18.

Road Bumps: Kent will need a strong run in the MAC season to keep the door open.  That won’t be easy with teams like Ohio, Akron, and Bowling Green to contend with – especially on the road.

Cleveland State – The Vikings have played just two home games.  That will help CSU’s power numbers.  So will victories at Vanderbilt – although the Commodores have sputtered – and Kent State.  The dent in the armor is a “bad loss” at Hofstra.  Whether or not that plays a role depends on CSU’s performance in the Horizon League.  At this point, Horizon foes Butler and Detroit will not provide a significant resume boost Milwaukee is a wildcard.  That could change, of course, but it’s something to note.

Road Bumps: Conference play is never easy.  How the Vikings navigate the Horizon landscape will be telling.  A strong showing and regular-season title will keep CSU in the at-large picture.

Dave Ommen is one of college basketball’s premier bracketologists. You can read more of his work at Bracketville or follow him on Twitter @BracketguyDave.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.