Memphis, You're Still the (No.) 1: Top 25 Mid-Majors (Post Bracket-Busting)

Nathan BitnerSenior Analyst IFebruary 22, 2009

This weekend's games, which included several upsets not only of top teams but also of mid-majors, have shuffled up the mid-major rankings significantly. Not much has changed at the top, but just about everything below No. 2 is up for grabs.

Dayton suffered yet another embarrassment with a 57-49 loss to St. Louis, while Xavier joined them by losing to an even worse Charlotte team.

During a week in which UNC and Oklahoma went down on the road, some mid-majors helped separate themselves from the pack, while others may have found a bubble bursting.

The first rankings had the Memphis Tigers on top by a wide margin, with Gonzaga at No. 2 and the rest of the field a significant step behind them.

Keep in mind that this is not so much a "Power Poll" of who is hot at the moment, but more of an AP-style ranking system that includes a body of work but rewards current play more heavily than games in November and December.

As a bonus, each team will be rated on the likelihood that they would be in the tournament if today were Selection Sunday, with a projected seed if appropriate.

The categories are "Virtual Lock" (since nothing is ever a sure thing in the NCAA), "Bubble In," "Bubble Out," and "Must Win Conference Tournament."

Biggest Gainers:  New Mexico Lobos (NR to No. 15) and Utah Utes (No. 9 to No. 3)

Biggest Drop: Boise State Broncos (No. 15 to NR)

Leading off once again are the ...

1. Memphis Tigers (24-3, 12-0 Conference USA)  LAST WEEK: 1

There are critics that feel that Memphis doesn't deserve to be ranked among the nation's elite (currently No. 5 AP and No. 6 ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll and likely to move up even higher tomorrow), as they clearly benefit from a soft schedule in a conference they continue to utterly dominate.

After hammering Gonzaga on the road, however, they obliterated three straight CUSA foes, by an average score of 75-44. It was a much tougher game at UTEP, and Memphis did not look dazzling, but they pulled out a seven-point win on the road.

Memphis is playing their best ball of the season, and only one difficult game is upcoming—at UAB next Thursday. If the Tigers' three-year conference winning streak is going to come to an end this year, this may be the most likely opponent to pull off the upset.

You can remove the word "virtual" from their lock status. I just don't happen to have that category.

Status:  Virtual Lock     Current Seed:  No. 2

2. Gonzaga Bulldogs (21-5, 12-0 West Coast Conference)  LAST WEEK: 2

Since breaking St. Mary's heart (and perhaps the Gaels' tournament chances) in a 72-70 road win, the Bulldogs have played inconsistently, with a relatively poor showing at San Francisco followed by blowouts of WCC cellar dwellers Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.

There are simply no challenges left on the schedule, so the Zags are virtually guaranteed a 24-5 record heading into the WCC tournament. Only St. Mary's can play with them, and they would likely not meet until the conference finals. That game would be far more interesting if the Gaels' star PG Patrick Mills returns.

Status: Virtual Lock     Current Seed: No. 4

3. Utah Utes (19-7, 10-2 Mountain West Conference)  LAST WEEK: 9

I wanted to place Utah higher last week and losses by Dayton, Utah State, Davidson, Butler and Xavier have opened the door for the current MWC leader.

The Utes' whole season hinges on the next week and a half, with a home game against UNLV and road matchups against BYU and New Mexico. If they come out on top of the Mountain West after the music stops playing, they will earn a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament as champions of the best mid-major conference this year.

As they could potentially lose all four remaining conference games, I'm not ready to place them in the "Virtual Lock" category until they win at least one of them.

STATUS: Bubble In    CURRENT SEED: No. 6

4. Siena Saints (22-6, 15-1 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference)  LAST WEEK: 8

Siena isn't playing the most difficult competition at the moment in the MAAC, but they did decimate their best conference opponent of the last two weeks, Manhattan, in an impressive 93-69 rout.

A bracket buster game in which the Saints hosted current Missouri Valley leader Northern Iowa provided a slightly better test than Siena has been getting in MAAC play, where they are a two point loss at Rider from being undefeated. The Saints passed the test with flying colors, earning an 81-75 win.

With a rather weak bubble this year, that win may very well be enough to get the Saints into the Big Dance, regardless of whether or not they win their conference tourney. Siena is 20-3 since November, with two of those losses being to Pittsburgh and Kansas.

This may be too high of a ranking for Siena, but they are certainly improved from earlier in the year. It is hard to know just where they fall without more games against better competition. With everyone else losing, they get to move up in this particular poll.

STATUS: Bubble In     Current Seed: No. 9

5. Utah State Aggies (25-3, 9-1 Western Athletic Conference)  LAST WEEK: 7

The Aggies do have a two-point win over Utah on their resume, but Utah has without a doubt played the tougher schedule and has garnered a greater number of quality wins. Utah State can't be penalized too much for a loss on the road to St. Mary's, a team that is definitely learning to adapt to the loss of PG Patrick Mills.

In addition to their gaudy record and win over the Utes, the Aggies have recorded wins over Weber State, the same Idaho State team that defeated Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Boise State, and own a sweep of New Mexico State.  The only teams to have taken down the Aggies were St. Mary's, BYU (by just five points) and Boise State in a season split, none of which can be considered "bad losses."

The loss to St. Mary's may very well be the difference between a seven seed and a 10 seed come NCAA Tournament time.

If the Aggies win against underrated Nevada, you can move them to virtual lock status.

STATUS: Bubble In     Current Seed: No. 10

6. Xavier Musketeers (22-5, 10-3 Atlantic 10)  LAST WEEK: 5

Xavier garners the No. 6 spot more or less by default as just about every mid-major below them suffered untimely losses. The Musketeers at least managed to handle George Washington today. Xavier has still lost three of five, and their tournament seed is plummeting.

Xavier is fortunate to have early-season wins over teams such as Virginia Tech, Auburn, Missouri, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Virginia to balance out their late collapse. The injury bug has bit them at point guard and if they don't adapt soon, they may quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the tournament bubble.

The remaining conference schedule is relatively easy (that and their quality wins explaining the "Virtual Lock" status), with only a home matchup at Dayton presenting a significant challenge. Of course, few thought the 49ers or Dukes would beat Xavier, either.

STATUS: Virtual Lock     CURRENT SEED:  No. 7

7. Dayton Flyers (23-4, 9-3 Atlantic 10)  LAST WEEK: 4

Oops, they did it again.

Dayton was poised to move to No. 3 in this poll before laying yet another egg against a much weaker conference opponent, losing by eight at St. Louis.

Positions four through 13 are all pretty tight, and another win over Xavier would certainly improve the Flyers' position. Of course, their remaining conference schedule doesn't have any "gimme"s, and a couple more losses (outside of Xavier) could potentially send Dayton to the NIT.

Status: Bubble In     Current Seed: No. 9

8. Butler Bulldogs (23-4, 13-3 Horizon League)  LAST WEEK: 6

The Bulldogs pulled out a critical road win at Davidson when they needed it, but let's be honest. Stephen Curry clearly wasn't at 100% and probably shouldn't have even been playing in the game.

The Bulldogs wouldn't even be ranked this high if BYU hadn't fell to UNLV last night while San Diego State was getting a beat down at the hands of New Mexico.

Two more conference losses to a mediocre team (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and a poor (Loyola, Chicago) team had the Bulldogs reeling before the crucial game with Davidson.

The win over Davidson has likely given Butler the breathing room they need with a tough matchup against Cleveland State still looming in the regular-season finale. They would have to lose both conference games and again in the tournament to fall off the bubble at this point.

STATUS: Virtual Lock     Current Seed: No. 10

9. Brigham Young Cougars (20-6, 8-4 Mountain West)  LAST WEEK: 12

Brigham Young, UNLV, San Diego State, and Utah all have a virtual round-robin coming up in the next two weeks against each other. It will certainly sort out the top of the best mid-major conference in 2009, but it also may leave at least one of those four teams on the outside looking in when it comes to Selection Sunday.

New Mexico has an outside chance at landing a berth as well, but BYU impressively shot down the Lobos 73-62 on Tuesday. New Mexico responded by drubbing San Diego State last night.

BYU has four very tough games in a row (three on the road) and their schedule does not allow for "lock" status. They need at least a split with UNLV, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming to assure themselves of an at-large bid.

The swing got off to rough start last night with a one-point loss to UNLV on the road.

STATUS: Bubble In     Current Seed: No. 9

10 (tie). St. Mary Gaels (22-5, 8-4 West Coast Conference)  LAST WEEK: 13

The Gaels may have just saved their season with a timely win over Utah State. With each passing game, it looks like St. Mary's is getting better at adapting to being without their star, Patrick Mills.

If he can return in time for the WCC tournament (which looks like a good possibility) and the Gaels can win their last two against the worst of the WCC, then the Selection Committee is likely to grant them a ticket to the Dance, as injuries are considered (if the player has returned and can contribute).

The move from "Bubble Out" to "Bubble In" with three straight wins over Portland, San Diego, and Utah State.

STATUS: Bubble In     Current Seed: No. 11

10 (tie). San Diego State (18-7, 8-4 Mountain West)  LAST WEEK: 10

Like many of their MWC brethren, San Diego State has just one relatively easy game left on the schedule (Colorado State) and will need to split the other four (at New Mexico, BYU, at TCU, UNLV) to assure themselves an at-large bid.

They were beaten like a rug (or a drum, or a red-headed step-child, take your pick) by New Mexico last night, not exactly a good start.

STATUS: Bubble In     Current Seed: No. 12

12. Davidson (22-6, 15-2 Southern Conference)  LAST WEEK: 3

As goes Stephen Curry's ankle, so go the Wildcats. Without him, they were trounced by conference contender Citadel 64-46, causing them to plummet in this poll.

Curry was back for the Butler loss, but it's doubtful that his ankle was at 100 percent.

The Wildcats' best non-conference win remains a December victory at West Virginia, and they are helped by wins over N.C. State and James Madison (to a much smaller degree) as well. None of their losses are terrible, and they could potentially sneak in if today were Selection Sunday.

Their hopes fully hinge on the progress of Curry's healing ankle.

STATUS: Bubble Out     Current Seed: Out

13. UNLV Runnin' Rebels (20-7, 8-5 Mountain West)  LAST WEEK: 11

They have won three of four (including a victory over BYU last night, but still face Utah and San Diego St. on the road). They may have just taken Davidson's at-large bid. Their ranking dropped here due to the devastating mid-week loss at Wyoming.

STATUS: Bubble In, by a hair     Current Seed: No. 12, last at-large team in

14. Creighton Blue Jays (23-6, 12-4 Missouri Valley)  LAST WEEK: 14

They are starting to make a strong case for an at-large bid, with early-season wins over Dayton and New Mexico and a weekend win over the CAA's George Mason. Still, with a generally weak non-conference schedule, they remain one of the first teams out at the moment.

STATUS: Bubble Out, by a hair     Current Seed: Out

15. New Mexico Lobos (17-10, 8-4 MWC)  LAST WEEK: NR

The Lobos have won four of five, including victories over UNLV and San Diego St. (75-49). New Mexico's only loss during that span was to BYU.

STATUS: Bubble Out     Current Seed: Out

16. UAB Blazers (19-8, 9-3 Conference USA)  LAST WEEK: 17

They've won nine of 10, their last loss by just one point to Tulsa. A win over Memphis easily puts this team on the right side of the bubble. Their only decent non-conference win is over Arizona.

STATUS: Bubble Out     Current Seed: Out

17. Niagara Purple Eagles (22-7, 12-4 MAAC)  LAST WEEK: 18

The mid-week loss to a resurgent Rider team hurt, but the drubbing of Illinois State was impressive. A win over Siena is not likely to be enough to earn an at-large bid.

STATUS: Must win MAAC Tourney

18. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (19-8, 13-3 Sun Belt)  LAST WEEK: 22

They have now won six of seven and impressively defeated Arkansas-Little Rock.

STATUS: Must win Sun Belt Tourney

19. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (18-9, 8-4 Conference USA)  LAST WEEK: 19

STATUS: Must win CUSA Tourney

20. Houston Cougars (17-8, 8-4 Conference USA)  LAST WEEK: 16

An embarrassing loss to Marshall drops the Cougars, even if they did rebound to beat Central Florida.

STATUS: Must win Conference USA Tourney

21. Vermont Catamounts (22-7, 12-3 America East)  LAST WEEK: 24

Vermont looked impressive in beating MAC leader Buffalo over the weekend.

STATUS: Must win America East Tourney

22. Illinois State Redbirds (22-6, 11-5 Missouri Valley)  LAST WEEK: 21

Niagara humbled the Redbirds to end their three-game winning streak.

STATUS: Must win Missouri Valley Tourney

23. Temple Owls (16-9, 8-3 Atlantic 10)  LAST WEEK: NR

The Owls have won six of seven, but they have done so against mediocre A-10 competition.

STATUS: Must win Atlantic 10 Tourney

24. Binghamton Bearcats (18-8, 11-3 America East)  LAST WEEK: 25

The highlight of their resume is two wins over America East leader Vermont.

STATUS: Must win America East Tourney

25. North Dakota State Bison (21-6, 14-2 Summit)  LAST WEEK: NR

Their win on the road at Wisconsin-Milwaukee during bracket buster weekend allows them to slip past Virginia Commonwealth and Eric Maynor for the final spot in this week's poll. The Bison have won 13 of 14. VCU has lost two of three and three of six.

STATUS: Must win Summit Conference Tourney

Just Missed: VCU, Wyoming, Weber State, Northern Iowa, Buffalo, Radford

Dropped Out: No. 15 Boise State, No. 20 VCU, No. 23 Buffalo


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