March Madness: Power Ranking Creighton, Murray State and the Automatic Bids

Ari Kramer@Ari_KramerSenior Analyst IIMarch 6, 2012

March Madness: Power Ranking Creighton, Murray State and the Automatic Bids

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    The 2012 NCAA Tournament field accepted eight teams over the past few days. Murray State, Creighton, VCU and Saint Mary's all won their respective conference tournaments, earning their league's automatic bids.

    Rather than shifting all our attention to teams still competing for tournament berths, let's devote at least a little bit to these squads, seeing how they rank among each other and the other four auto-bids.

8. UNC Asheville Bulldogs

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    What They've Done

    UNC Asheville has gone 18-3 over its last 21 games, en route to a 24-9 finish. The Bulldogs dominated the Big South, but they lacked a key win in non-conference play.

    In fact, their 8-7 non-conference record is somewhat deceiving—the Bulldogs played and beat three non-Division I opponents. In other words, they really went 5-7 against fellow Division I programs.

    Losses to UNC, UConn and NC State are acceptable. However, in order to earn elite mid-major status, Asheville would have needed to take care of business against Charleston, Western Carolina, Ohio and, preferably, Tennessee pre-Jarnell Stokes.


    How They've Done It

    The Bulldogs rank No. 5 nationally in points per game, but only No. 67 in Kenpom's adjusted offensive efficiency. Featuring five double-digit scorers, UNC Asheville has a few guys who can pour in buckets.

    Most notably, seniors Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm have combined for 18 outings of 20-plus points. You might remember Dickey for this heroic shot, which appeared on ESPN's Top 10 plays.

    Dickey, Primm and the other Bulldog scorers could make a first-round game interesting, but their defense probably won't be able to shut down a top seed—they're currently projected by Joe Lunardi to face Syracuse.

    They can outscore Big South teams, but allowing 71.3 points per game on 44.4 percent field-goal defense and 35.3 percent three-point defense won't beat the Orange or any other top seed.

    If the Bulldogs can take their first-round opponent to the wire, however, they could have a distinct advantage: foul shooting. They rank No. 14 nationally with a 76.2 percent clip from the stripe. Dickey and Primm are each well over 80 percent.

    Rotation: 6 upperclassmen, 1 sophomore, 1 freshman

7. Loyola Maryland Greyhounds

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    What They've Done

    Loyola's non-conference slate included two highlights: winning at Bucknell and hanging with Kentucky for one half. Yes, you have to search hard to find anything noteworthy.

    Despite their resume's lack of pizzazz, the Greyhounds went on to win the MAAC tournament, topping Fairfield in the championship. They also upset conference favorite Iona on Feb. 10.


    How They've Done It

    With a little luck—Fairfield beating Iona and Derek Needham missing the championship—Loyola's path through the conference tournament was made a bit easier. 

    The Greyhounds are very mediocre statistically, ranking below No. 100 in nearly every category.

    They pride themselves on their defense and their ability to slow games down, and they rank in the top 65 in steals and blocks. However, their adjusted defensive efficiency ranks No. 140.

    Offensively, they rank No. 175 in scoring and No. 195 in field-goal percentage, but Kenpom has their adjusted offensive efficiency at No. 127. 

    Erik Etherly, a well-rounded forward, is Loyola's most valuable player. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding and also gets the job done defensively. 

    If you have the opportunity to watch Loyola's first-round game, you should tune in for at least a few minutes to see one of the biggest characters in Division I coaching: Jimmy Patsos. This is the same guy who double-teamed Stephen Curry for the entire game, even though Curry destroyed the game plan by standing on the periphery and letting his teammates play four-on-three.

    Rotation: 4 upperclassmen, 3 sophomores, 1 freshman

6. Davidson Wildcats

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    What They've Done

    Davidson caught our attention by sticking with Vanderbilt in December. Less than two weeks later, the Wildcats upset Kansas on the road.

    Those are their two highlights of the season.

    Certainly being embarrassed by Charlotte and Wichita State wouldn't make the cut. Neither would their epic collapse in last night's SoCon championship game—Davidson held a 10-point lead with just over a minute left but a Western Carolina comeback forced the Wildcats to win in double overtime.

    This team clearly can compete with top teams. But it can also struggle with anyone.


    How They've Done It

    Davidson's offense runs through its big men, Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks. The two combined to average 30 points per game this season, and their offensive versatility can lead to mismatches.

    However, when they struggle, Davidson struggles. Look no further than the Wichita State game. Brooks scored just 10 points while Cohen finished with 25, though he could have done more if not for foul trouble, which limited him to 19 minutes.

    The Shockers routed the Wildcats, 91-74.

    Davidson does have some solid support in J.P. Kuhlman, Nik Cochran and Chris Czerapowicz, but the Wildcats need their bigs to perform in order to win.

    As a team, Davidson is stronger offensively than it is defensively. The Wildcats rank No. 36 in adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 17 in scoring offense and No. 13 in free-throw shooting. Their three-point percentage and field-goal percentage are mediocre.

    On the other side, they are No. 124 in adjusted defensive efficiency, No. 161 in field-goal defense, No. 156 in three-point defense and No. 259 in steals.

    Rotation: 4 upperclassmen, 3 sophomores, 1 freshman

5. Belmont Bruins

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    What They've Done

    After returning a large portion of its scoring from a season ago, Belmont was a trendy preseason Cinderella pick. However, the Bruins couldn't bring the hype to fruition, going just 11-5 in non-conference play before rolling over the Atlantic Sun.

    Still, though, no top seed would want to face Belmont. We've seen Duke have shortcomings of its own, but the Bruins fell one point shy of winning at Cameron on the season's opening night. They have also reeled off 14 consecutive victories, making them the third-hottest team in the country behind Kentucky and Drexel.

    You can't overlook losses to Miami (Ohio), Lipscomb and SC-Upstate, but Belmont has clearly hit its stride at the right time.


    How They've Done It

    This year's Belmont team is slightly different than last year's squad, which lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament.

    Ranking fourth nationally in points per game and ninth in Kenpom's adjusted offensive efficiency, the 2011-12 Bruins boast one of the country's best offenses. Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg) leads four double-digit scorers, and two more Bruins average more than eight points per game.

    Though the offense could sustain a first-round upset, the Bruins defense could leave them susceptible.

    They rank No. 82 in adjusted defensive efficiency, while their 42.4 percent field-goal defense and 33.8 percent three-point defense are not promising.

    Rotation: 7 upperclassmen, 2 sophomores

4. Virginia Commonwealth Rams

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    What They've Done

    After losing four of their five starters, the VCU Rams started the season in the exact opposite manner of how they ended 2010-11: cold. They barely beat St. Francis (Pa.) to open the season and then fell to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech.

    Then, however, VCU reeled off 27 wins in their next 31 games.

    At the same time, though, the Rams only picked up one non-conference win over a possible tournament team—South Florida—so their resume isn't great. In fact, as a result, their RPI is practically identical to last year's despite losing five fewer 2011-12 games.

    Either way, VCU barely skipped a beat even though Bradford Burgess was the team's only returning starter.


    How They've Done It

    Burgess hasn't even played close to his 2010-11 level, but last season's reserves have deftly transitioned to the rotation. Most notably, Juvonte Reddic tripled his averages to 10.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.

    Interestingly, the Rams' adjusted efficiencies have reversed. Whereas last year's team ranked No. 32 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 86 in adjusted defensive efficiency, this year's squad comes in at No. 81 and No. 31, respectively. 

    Until last year, seven straight Final Fours didn't include a single team ranking worse than No. 30 in defense. The Rams are on the cusp of that spot right now, and they lead the country with 10.7 steals per game.

    Rotation: 3 juniors, 3 sophomores, 2 freshmen

3. Saint Mary's Gaels

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    What They've Done

    Saint Mary's couldn't capitalize on its two non-conference tests, falling to Baylor and Murray State, but the Gaels still had a great season. They swept BYU and toppled Gonzaga twice in three meetings, most recently in the WCC championship. 

    Since losing their first game without Stephen Holt, the Gaels have reeled off four straight. The better news, though, is that Holt is nearing a return. In fact, he considered playing in the conference championship.

    Saint Mary's started the season 22-2 and ranked in the top 25 for a solid chunk of the year.


    How They've Done It

    Mickey McConnell graduated, but Matthew Dellavedova has done an admirable job in his first year as the Gaels' primary point guard. The junior leads the team in scoring and assists, and his toughness and will to win are manifested in his relentless style of play.

    The Gaels have also benefited from the improved play of Rob Jones, a double-double machine, and Stephen Holt. Jones ranks fourth nationally with 19 double-doubles while Holt is a do-it-all guard who can score and defend.

    As a team, Saint Mary's is very capable offensively, ranking No. 23 in adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 35 in scoring offense and No. 24 in field-goal percentage. Though the Gaels rank No. 138 in three-point shooting at 35 percent, Dellavedova, Holt and, especially, Clint Steindl can burn opponents from behind the arc.

    Defensively, the Gaels are mediocre.

    Having a healthy Holt would certainly bolster their perimeter defense, but the Gaels are a team that's more likely to win via scoring. They rank No. 103 in adjusted defensive efficiency, No. 153 in field-goal defense, No. 285 in three-point defense and No. 114 in steals.

    Rotation: 5 upperclassmen, 3 sophomores, 1 freshman

2. Murray State Racers

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    What They've Done

    More like: What haven't they done? If that's the question, the answer would be simple: go undefeated.

    The Racers won all but one game, posting the same 30-1 record that Syracuse and Kentucky currently hold.

    Murray State didn't amass any "great" wins, but the Racers' Dec. 11 victory at Memphis certainly cued us in on their talent. The Racers also beat Southern Miss, Dayton and San Francisco in non-conference play before toppling a hobbled Saint Mary's in ESPN's BracketBuster weekend.

    As for the Ohio Valley Conference, Murray State fell to Tennessee State—the only other top-115 RPI squad in the conference. The Racers had a few other close calls but ultimately emerged victorious.


    How They've Done It

    With a little bit of luck and the outstanding play of Isaiah Canaan, Murray State had its dominant season. Canaan had several jaw-dropping performances and moments that left audiences incredulous. The junior averaged 19.2 points per game while shooting 47.3 percent from long range.

    He also had 14 outings of 20-plus points.

    As for the rest of the team, Donte Poole's potency and Ivan Aska's rebounding are most important. However, Ed Daniel and Jewuan Long have also stepped up at various points in the season.

    As a team, Murray State is solid offensively. The Racers rank No. 65 in adjusted offensive efficiency, No. 41 in points per game, No. 23 in field-goal percentage and No. 6 in three-point percentage.

    Though the latter three stats are rather impressive, it's somewhat naive to evaluate Murray State based on that because of their level of competition. Instead, the adjusted offensive efficiency gives us a better idea of the Racers' offensive potential.

    Defensively, the stats tell a similar story. With the exception of field -oal percentage defense (No. 126), the Racers rank in the top 40 in steals (No. 24), scoring defense (No. 38) and three-point defense (No. 16). However, they are No. 48 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

    We won't know how this Murray State team will fare against top competition until they face it, but several players on this team were on the team that upset Vanderbilt two seasons ago.

    Rotation: 8 upperclassmen, 1 freshman

1. Creighton Bluejays

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    What They've Done

    By now, you've probably heard of the McDermotts and the Creighton Bluejays.

    Father Greg McDermott and son Doug McDermott have led Creighton to a scintillating season, winning 28 games and ranking in the top 25 for the majority of the year.

    The Bluejays have beaten Iowa, Northwestern and Wichita State, but their signature win came at San Diego State, one of the nation's toughest road venues. In that game, Creighton battled back from a 17-point deficit to win 85-83.

    The Bluejays hit a three-game skid in early February, but they've won seven straight since.


    How They've Done It

    Doug McDermott is one of the country's best players, and if Creighton hadn't lost three straight in February, he'd probably still be in the discussion for National Player of the Year. Just a sophomore, McDermott enters the NCAA tournament averaging 23.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. He's also shooting 61 percent from the floor and 49.5 percent from deep.

    Antoine Young is the only other Bluejay in double figures, but as a team, Creighton ranked sixth in points per game, first in field-goal percentage, third in three-point shooting and fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency.

    Not in the MVC—nationally.

    Defensively, the Blue Jays aren't nearly as formidable, though Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique is a solid presence down low. They rank No. 186 in adjusted defensive efficiency, No. 215 in field-goal defense, No. 236 in three-point defense and No. 323 in steals.

    Rotation: 4 upperclassmen, 3 sophomores, 3 freshmen