Picking a Potential NCAA Tournament Bid Stealer for College Basketball’s Top Conferences

Eight of college basketball’s 32 conferences are projected to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, according to Stadium’s latest tournament projections. For any conference with at least one at-large team, but especially those eight conferences, if a school that isn’t projected to earn an at-large bid wins the conference tournament, that will qualify as a “stolen” NCAA Tournament bid.

Presumably, the school that was favored to win that conference tournament has a resume that’s worthy of an at-large bid, so it creates a situation where one less bubble team will make the NCAA Tournament because of the “bid-stealer.”

In a conference like the ACC (nine projected NCAA Tournament teams) or the Big Ten (eight), it’s highly unlikely there will be a stolen bid.

In the ACC, it would require one of the six worst teams in the ACC (Miami, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Notre Dame or Pittsburgh, which have 25 combined conference wins entering Saturday) to win five consecutive games.

In the case of the Big Ten, it would take at least four wins in four days for a bid-stealer to claim the auto-bid in Chicago at the Big Ten Tournament.

But never say never. It’s March, the month of madness, and stranger things have happened.

We picked a potential bid-stealer for every conference that’s projected to have multiple NCAA Tournament teams.

 

ACC

Our pick: Boston College

Notre Dame was a prime candidate as a potential ACC bid-stealer last season with the return of All-ACC forward Bonzie Colson, who missed roughly two months of the regular season with an injury before returning on February 28, 2018. The Fighting Irish won their first two ACC Tournament games before falling to Duke and just missing out on an at-large bid.

There’s a clear bottom tier of ACC teams this season and it would require one of them to essentially match their regular season conference win total in the span of five consecutive days in a tournament setting, which is unlikely to say the least.

As referenced earlier, the six teams that are the only potential bid-stealers in the ACC are Miami, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Notre Dame or Pittsburgh.

Seventeen of their 25 wins in ACC play have come against each other.

We’re going with Boston College. Junior guard Ky Bowman (19.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 4.0 apg) is talented enough to win one game, maybe two, on his own. He leads the country in percent of minutes played at 96.9 percent, so he’s always on the floor. He’s a 38 percent 3-point shooter, 78 percent free throw shooter, remarkable defensive rebounder (18.8 percent defensive rebounding rate) for his size and position and he has a 22.5 percent assist rate.

The Eagles picked off Florida State and Louisville at home. They took NC State to overtime on the road and lost a competitive game to Syracuse. Boston College ranks 10th in offensive efficiency in ACC play and 12th defensively, so the Eagles are a long shot to win the ACC Tournament, but the same goes for any other potential ACC bid-stealer.

[RELATED: Stadium’s Latest NCAA Tournament Projections]

Big Ten

Our pick: Illinois

The bid-stealing options in the Big Ten are Illinois, Rutgers, Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern. The Nittany Lions rank the highest on kenpom.com at No. 43. Indiana is the closest to earning at at-large bid, sitting among the First Four Out in Stadium’s latest NCAA Tournament projections.

Nebraska has a veteran core of James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby.

But we’re going with the Fighting Illini, which had a three-week stretch where they played like a top-25 team, beating Maryland on a neutral court, Michigan State at home and Ohio State on the road.

It was a significant turnaround for a team that was 4-12 overall (0-5 Big Ten) after losing to Michigan on January 10.

Illinois has embraced Coach Brad Underwood’s high-intensity, turnover-forcing defense. The Fighting Illini are forcing a turnover on a Big Ten-best 21.4 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions. They play at the highest tempo of any team in the conference.

Offensively, Illinois is better-than-average at taking care of the ball and rebounding its missed shots.

Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu (14.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.2 apg) is likely a future NBA player, Aaron Jordan (40.5 3P%) and Trent Frazier (39.8 3P%) provide the team with enough 3-point shooting to get by, and freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishili (11.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has been a revelation for a recruit who was ranked No. 370 nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

Illinois has somewhat recently won four games in a row in the Big Ten and no other bid-stealing candidate in the conference can say the same.

 

Big 12

Our pick: Oklahoma State

The Big 12 makes this choice pretty easy, considering Stadium’s latest NCAA Tournament projections have eight of the conference’s 10 teams in the tournament field. That leaves only Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

The Big 12 might be the most competitive conference from top to bottom and it ranks second nationally, according to kenpom.com, but it’s almost impossible to imagine one of the two teams that have won just three conference games all season cutting down the nets in Kansas City.

But if one does, we’ll take Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range this season, which ranks 25th nationally, and 41.7 percent of their shots come from behind the arc (97th-most nationally). So Oklahoma State likes to chuck from deep and those shots often go in.

Junior Lindy Waters is shooting 46.3 percent on 4.1 attempts per game and his classmate Thomas Dziagwa is making 44.4 percent of his threes on 7.4 attempts per game.

On February 27, the Cowboys made 17 threes (!) at a 53 percent clip (!!) against Texas Tech’s No. 1-ranked defense (!!!) on the road (!!!!). Sure, they lost 84-80 in overtime but it was an incredible performance from deep that’s worth highlighting.

That’s a recipe for an upset or two in a tournament setting. The problem is that it would take four upsets for Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 Tournament.

 

SEC

Our pick: Arkansas

The Razorbacks are two games over .500 and 7-10 in the SEC, so while they’re not on the NCAA Tournament bubble, they’re still a competitive basketball team in a deep conference. They’ve beaten LSU (on the road), Ole Miss and Indiana. They took Texas to overtime, just like they did in their first meeting with LSU. They lost at Texas Tech by three and at Kentucky by four.

So Arkansas is a few bounces away from being a projected No. 10/11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Six-foot-11 sophomore Daniel Gafford is an absolute beast inside. He’s shooting 66 percent on twos, averaging 16.5 points per game, he ranks in the top six in the conference in offensive and defensive rebounding, and he’s among the SEC’s leaders in blocks and fouls drawn.

If Arkansas gets enough 3-point shooting from Isaiah Joe (42.4 3P%) and Mason Jones (35.3 3P%) to complement Gafford and the team’s high-pressure defense, the Razorbacks will be a tough out in the SEC Tournament.

 

American Athletic Conference

Our pick: Memphis

Not only is Memphis in fifth place in the AAC standings, behind the four conference teams that are projected to make the NCAA Tournament, but the AAC Tournament will be played on the Tigers’ home floor inside FedExForum. Yes, you read that correctly.

Memphis is 18-12 overall (10-7 AAC), ranked in the top 70 on kenpom.com and in the top 55 in the NET.

The Tigers split their two games against UCF and lost to Cincinnati twice by a combined seven points. They didn’t have the chance to host Houston in the regular season.

So Memphis, which has beaten or played competitive games against the rest of the AAC’s upper tier teams that it has hosted, will now play postseason games on its home floor, in front of a hometown crowd with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line in Coach Penny Hardaway’s first season.

That’s a lot of momentum right there.

Throw in senior guard Jeremiah Martin, who’s averaging a team-best 19.7 points and has scored 40-plus twice and 30-plus five times in his last nine games, and Memphis arguably has the best scorer on the floor in any AAC Tournament game it plays.

The Tigers are shooting an AAC-best 53.7 percent on twos in conference play, they’re limiting opponents to 30 percent 3-point shooting and they play at the fastest tempo in the league. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Memphis makes a run in, well, Memphis.

 

Big East

Our pick: Xavier

Stadium’s latest NCAA Tournament projections only included Marquette, Villanova and St. John’s, so there are potentially seven bid-stealers in the Big East. Only two games separate third-place St. John’s and last-place Providence, so generally speaking, any team in the conference can beat anyone else on any given night. That sounds cliche to say, but it actually feels true in the Big East in 2019.

If you want proof, take a look at this Reddit post, which shows all 10 Big East teams in a circle, each having beaten and lost to at least two other teams in the conference.

The 2019 Big East and its conference tournament might be the Shrek The Third of conference trajectories. You really enjoyed the original, whether it was the nostalgia old Big East and the magic of UConn’s 2011 Big East Tournament run or the unlikely friendship of a grumpy, lonely ogre and high-energy, talking donkey.

Even the second version was entertaining, with Villanova’s uber-efficient offense that led to a pair of national championships, Seton Hall’s 2016 Big East Tournament title inside of Madison Square Garden that was won by a roster full of kids from the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey, and Xavier earning the first No. 1 seed in school history. Prince Charming trying to split up Shrek and Fiona in Shrek 2 wasn’t going to match the instant classic that was Shrek but it still grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide and it was a worthy encore.

The next version clearly isn’t as good but you’re still intrigued. It might be a guilty pleasure to watch the No. 8/9 game in the first round of the Big East Tournament, even if not a single team in the conference ranks in the top 25 on kenpom.com, or to flip channels to Shrek The Third on a Thursday night when nothing else is on TV. The product has taken a step back from previous versions but in a weird way, maybe that makes you more invested in the drama.

There’s not a single outcome that would surprise you.

Maybe DePaul beats Seton Hall, Villanova, St. John’s and Marquette to win the Big East Tournament.

Maybe Shrek drinks a mysterious potion and turns into a dragon.

Who knows what will happen? But that’s why you’re watching.

Xavier just had a five-game winning streak with wins over Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Creighton and Providence. Maybe the Musketeers can do it again.

 

Pac-12

Our pick: UCLA

Many bubble teams are rooting for Washington to win the Pac-12 Tournament for the chance that #OneBidPac12 materializes and a few more at-large bids are available compared to normal years.

UCLA has won three of its last four, it’s a game over .500 in conference play and at the end of the day, it still has more talent on its roster than almost any team in the Pac-12.

The Bruins have the fastest tempo in the conference, they crash the offensive glass hard (a 32.4 percent offensive rebounding rate), they defend without fouling (27.2 percent opponent free throw rate) and they have the third-highest effective field goal percentage (53.6%) in the conference.

The guard play of Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, plus the presence of 7-1 freshman center Moses Brown, is still an intriguing combination despite the team’s lackluster record.

 

Mountain West

Our pick: San Diego State

The Aztecs are the only Mountain West team that’s beaten Nevada and Utah State, and that’s what it would likely require for a bid-stealer to win the Mountain West Tournament.

Sophomore Jalen McDaniels is a six-percent boost in his 3-point percentage (29.2%) and block rate (1.8 percent) from being a really interesting forward. He leads the Aztecs in scoring (16.4 ppg), rebounding (8.2 rpg), he’s second among the team’s rotation players with a 16.2 percent assist rate and he draws 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes. At 6-10, there are few players who can match up with him.

San Diego State has the second-most efficient defense in Mountain West play, it forces a turnover on more than 19 percent of opponents’ possessions and it rebounds nearly 30 percent of its missed shots.

There’s a strong likelihood there will be a Nevada-Utah State rematch in the Mountain West Tournament championship but if there’s another team capable of making it there, it’s San Diego State.

 

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