Last night, Charlotte beat A-10 leader Temple at home, New Mexico knocked off MWC leader BYU at the Pit, and Memphis hung on against Marshall a night after UAB slayed Tulsa in a battle of C-USA unbeatens.
What does that mean?
Simply put, the three best conferences outside the big six are as unpredictable as ever. Unpredictability in sports means excitement, and when you are dealing with conferences where 40% of the league has a real shot at winning the regular season title and/or earning a trip to the dance, you will rarely come across a more unpredictable situation.
Haven't had a chance to watch much A-10 hoops this season? Don't get the Mountain West's channel? Stopped caring about C-USA when Coach Cal left?
Don't worry. We're here to help you parse through it all. Be sure to check back in the next few days as we help you sort out the best leagues outside of the Big Six.
Standings (strictly teams that are still within reach of the bubble)
Led by the best player in the MWC, the Cougars have rolled to a 20-2 mark, having a 15 game winning streak snapped Wednesday night at New Mexico, a place where road losses have become perfectly acceptable. If you haven't seen Jimmer Fredette play, you're really missing out. Reminiscent of Steve Nash, Fredette isn't overly quick or athletic, but his has a great handle, is shifty with the ball, has a knack for the crafty finish around the rim, and has the stones to knock down a big shot. He's got a few scorers around him on the perimeter (Tyler Haws, Jackson Emery, Jonathon Tavernari) and capable big men on the interior (Chris Miles, Noah Hartsock, Brandon Davies). As good as Jimmer Fredette is, and as good as the MWC as a whole is, the talent surrounding BYU's all-american is what sets them apart from the rest of the pack.
Having said that, its tough to judge the Cougars on a national scale as they don't exactly have a treasure trove of tournament caliber wins. Their 30 point win at Arizona isn't as impressive as it would have been five years ago. Beating Arizona State and UNLV at home are nice wins, but they are at home against teams that aren't guaranteed to be in the tournament. BYU is supposed to win those games.
I know the facts: the Cougars are rated 4th by Kenpom and 19th in the RPI; they've gone 9-1 in true road games and have played more games away from the Marriott Center (12) than they have at home; they won at UTEP and snapped SDSU's 14 game home court winning streak; their two losses are at two of the toughest places to play in the country (Utah State and New Mexico). There's no denying that this is a good team. But when having played the 101st toughest schedule and have beaten just two teams in the RPI top 50, I'm left wondering whether BYU is one of the best in the country, or just simply the best of the country's second tier teams.
And if they lose: New Mexico
The Lobos are lead by the uber-versatile Darington Hobson. Hobson, a 6'7" lefty combo forward, took an interesting path to New Mexico, but after landing there its become obvious he is a player. 22 games into the season, he's averaging 14.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and 4.1 apg, and while he has struggled a bit of late (he's shooting just 35% over his last 10 games), one thing that is clear about Hobson is that he is a match-up nightmare. He's got an excellent handle, can create his own shot, is a solid three-point shooter with his feet set, and while he has a tendency to make a few head-scratching decisions, his 4.1 apg proves he is a capable playmaker.
(photo credit: ESPN)
Like the Cougars, the Lobos have a solid supporting cast surrounding Hobson. Roman Martinez, another 6'6" lefty forward, can score and is a knock-down shooter, Dairese Gray is one of the more underrated point guards in the country (anyone that saw him put 25 on BYU Wednesday will agree), Phil McDonald is a capable scorer, and the Lobos have a couple of big bodies to throw in the mix as well.
New Mexico probably has the best non-conference resume, as they have gathered wins over Cal, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Dayton. The Lobos still have to play five of their nine league games on the road, including trips to BYU and UNLV (who beat them at the Pit), but if they can beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and pull out a win against the Cougars or the Rebels, New Mexico has a shot to win the regular season title.
- BYU: 20-2, 5-1, RPI: 19, Kenpom: 4, SOS: 101, vs. RPI top-50: 2-1, vs. RPI top-100: 7-2, Best wins: UNLV, @ SDSU, Bad losses: none
Barring a collapse, the Cougars should be in. The question will be where they get seeded. Their computer numbers are great, and they don't have any bad losses (like I said, there is no shame in losing at Utah State). Assuming they go 9-1 down the stretch (they still have five road games, including UNLV, and get New Mexico and SDSU at home), I think the Cougars are destined for a spot in the 4-5 range. So long as they avoid Texas A&M, BYU should get a win this year.
- New Mexico: 19-3, 5-2, RPI: 12; Kenpom: 41; SOS: 37; vs. RPI top-50: 5-2; vs. RPI top-100: 6-2; Best wins: Cal, BYU, Texas A&M, Texas Tech; Bad losses: @ Oral Roberts
Like BYU, the Lobos are all but a lock to get a bid. They've got quite a few impressive wins over power conference schools, and even picked off Louisiana Tech and Dayton earlier in the season. The Lobos have a good shot at winning the league, and if they do, don't be surprised to see them in the 4-5 range.
- UNLV: 17-4, 5-2; RPI: 35; Kenpom: 53; SOS: 77; vs. RPI top-50: 3-2; vs. RPI top-100: 6-3; Best wins: Louisville, @ New Mexico, SDSU; Bad losses: Utah
If today was Selection Sunday, UNLV would probably be in the tournament. They wouldn't be one of the last few teams in, but they certainly would be in the group right before that. If I'm a Rebels fan, now is when I start getting worried. UNLV is good, but they don't quite have the talent level of New Mexico or BYU, especially now that Derrick Jasper is out with an MCL sprain. UNLV plays BYU, New Mexico, and at San Diego State in the span of a week in early February. If they can get a win against either BYU or UNM at home and take care of business against the five teams towards the bottom of the league, UNLV will almost assuredly get a bid with a 14-4 record in conference.
- San Diego State: 14-6, 3-3, RPI: 43, Kenpom: 65; SOS: 55; vs. RPI top-50: 1-3; vs. RPI top-100: 2-5; Best wins: New Mexico; Bad losses: @ Wyoming, @ Pacific
SDSU is in dire straits, and may almost be at the point that they need to win out to get a bid. They're 5-5 on the road this season, including losses to Wyoming and Pacific. Their best road win: Utah, who is 158th in the RPI. They do own a win over New Mexico, which is good, but their only other top-RPI win came against Arizona. The good news is that the Aztecs get another chance to knock off New Mexico and BYU to help their resume. The bad news is they have to do it on the road. Barring a miraculous turnaround, the Aztecs are probably out.