Monday, January 26, 2009

This Week in Mid-majordom, 1/26

It's not perfect, but "Runaway" ...

... seems like a pretty appropriate theme for mid-majordom at the moment, because:

Runaways are everywhere. It's not the sort of thing that's going to make a stickler for competitiveness like K-Dub happy, but an awful lot of regular-season league races look over already.

Start with the two obvious candidates: the Horizon and SoCon. Butler and Davidson were expected to dominate, with the Bulldogs maybe getting a bit of a challenge from Cleveland St. (preseason view) or UW-Milwaukee (view until Butler destroyed them by 30 at Hinkle). So far, guess what, Butler and Davidson have dominated. The only question is whether they go undefeated in league play and how high an NCAA seed they can snag.

But the top-heaviness of mid-major leagues go way past those two. Siena has made a mockery of the MAAC race, blowing out alleged challenger Niagara by 17 Saturday; they're three games up already. Utah St. made one of the toughest road trips in D-I this weekend, traveling to the islands, and came back with a 16-point beatdown of the Warriors. A win over second-place Nevada on Thursday, and the Aggies probably wrap up the WAC before they even make the return trip to Reno on Feb. 28. After winning at Missouri State, Northern Iowa could put three full games between themselves and second-place Illinois St. with a home win. Robert Morris (two games up on two chasers they've already defeated) ... VMI (effectively two games up on second-place Radford, who they've beaten already, and three ahead of likely tournament challenger Liberty) ... Long Beach St. (two games up, though they did suffer their first league defeat this weekend). Whether you're in the Northeast, (Big) South, or (Big) West, there's a good chance your conference is already one lead dog and a whole bunch of stragglers just trying to keep up.

So, yeah, Down-to-the-last-Saturday races are so 2009. Yawners decided in mid-February are totally the new black.

The good side. There's been a good bit of talk--as there has been every year since 2006--about how the mid-majors are, once again, "down." Not as many at-large candidates, they say. Not as many upsets, they say.

Well, that latter part is true, but the former I'm not as sure about. It's true the Mountain West isn't quite what it has been in years past with all three of BYU, Utah, and UNLV squarely on the bubble, but who cares--they're not mid-major. The same holds (at least, where yours truly is concerned) for the A-10, which is getting Xavier and maybe Dayton in and no one else, pending the tourney outcome. But everyone else? Doin' OK.

Not great, because the MoVal revolution of 2006 and 2007 looks pretty well kaput and if last year's VCU team got the snub, no one in this year's Colonial's is getting in at-large, either. But everywhere else, things are fine.

The Horizon could easily be a two-bid league if Butler slips up in the tourney, as they did two years ago. The same goes for Davidson and the SoCon, which hasn't had a second bid in absolutely forever. Utah St.'s roll through the WAC and gaudy overall record (19-1) have them well in at-large position if they can avoid dropping a second WAC contest. All St. Mary's really needs is the home win over Gonzaga, and maybe a BracketBusters scalp. (And, of course, the Zags are good to go as always.) Even Siena has a reasonable shot if they can run the MAAC table--the Wichita St. loss is the only one that looks less than understandable and the RPI of 15 is hella impressive; while the Saints went 0-5 against the RPI top 50, they've gone a perfect 7-0 against teams 50-100.

That's three leagues that are all but locks to have an at-large-quality candidate, one more that'll have an excellent shot at it, and one more that's going to be in the mix if everything goes according to plan (as it has so far) for the favorite. It's not 2006, but I don't think it's really far off what we might consider "normal" over the past 25 years, either.

Don't underestimate the rivalry. For all the front-running that's taken place in the leagues above, it still doesn't mean mid-majordom doesn't see more than its fair shares of stunners. Drake came into Saturday's game at Creighton having lost three straight by major margins and generally looking like a shell of the 2008 world-beaters--check out the confidence oozing from this Bluejay blog post--and left having a 12-point can on the one-time Valley favorites. The Citadel is the Citadel, the original home of the Losing Season and winners of 6 games a year ago, but they downed Bobby Cremins' cross-town College of Charleston team (the SoCon's second-best squad by a mile) by 9. And up in West Point, Army--poor, poor Army, No. 329 in the RPI, same as they always are--got it together just long enough to shock Navy, a team more than 100 places above them in the Pomeroy ratings and with three times the wins.

So here's to you, Bulldogs, Bulldogs, and Black Knights, for proving once again that if the regular season in mid-major basketball doesn't always mean as much as it should, when two teams don't particularly like each other it's still going to mean something.

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