Eagles, and Buccaneers, and Big Red, Oh My!: Seeding the Automatic Qualifiers
You might be wondering why this particular picture graces the top of this article.
It might bring back memories of a boycotted Olympics, back when the U.S.S.R. had missiles pointed directly at the largest city near you.
For followers of Morehead State University, it may even bring back a college basketball memory; 1984 was the last year that the Eagles clawed their way into the NCAA tournament.
Shocking UT-Martin, Austin Peay, and the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference, Morehead State will dance with the big boys for the first time in a quarter-century.
Though only a few qualifiers have been decided, I wanted to take a brief look at the schools that are in so far and their probable seeding. When you only get "40 minutes of fame" every 25 years, it can't hurt to have your name mentioned as often as possible.
1. Morehead State Eagles (19-15, 12-6 Ohio Valley)
The Eagles beat two of the OVC's best in UT-Martin and Austin Peay after taking care of Eastern Kentucky in the first round. Their almost-certain reward? A matchup with a No. 1 seed, and they will be fortunate if they don't have to deal with a play-in game in Dayton first.
Not only has Morehead State been locked out since 1984, they have only been to the NCAA Tournament once since the 1950s, in 1983. That year, as a No. 11 seed, they were taken out by the Orangemen of Syracuse 74-59, back when the Orange were still men.
In 1984, their seed was a No. 12, and the tournament worked a bit differently. There were four "play-in" games that resulted in a 48-team field. Morehead St. won the play-in game by defeating Greensboro's North Carolina A&T in a 70-69 thriller.
They then faced the No. 5 seed Louisville Cardinals and lost 72-59. So, how off could I be if I predict that they draw a Big East No. 1 seed and score 59 points against them?
MSU's motto is Lux (Latin for light), but the light at the end of their NCAA tunnel is likely to be an oncoming freight train. There is one little bragging point for this Kentucky team located near Lexington. They are now the most likely "Big Blue" to be dancing this year.
Projected Seed: No. 16, Play-in game
2. Cornell Big Red (21-9, 11-3 Ivy League)
As one of the few remaining conferences without a season-ending tournament, Cornell earned their bid by winning the Ivy League regular season title. Until last year, they too had not been to the NCAA tournament in over 20 years, last seeing the Big Dance in 1988 and 2008.
Their first dance partner was an unkind No. 1 seed, Arizona, who crushed (chewed?) the Red 90-50. By 1988, there was a 64-team field, so no play-in game was necessary.
Last year, it was another Pac-10 team, Stanford, that dropped the hammer and spit out the Big Red.
Like Morehead St., Cornell's only other NCAA appearance came during the 1950s.
Cornell shouldn't have it quite as bad as Morehead St. in terms of seeding, though they are unlikely to inspire the fear that past Ivy League champions Princeton and Penn have throughout much of the last 20 years.
The Big Red actually played an extraordinarly challenging non-conference slate and notched a couple of mildly impressive wins over La Salle and Boston University.
Still, if you're looking to find that rare No. 15 to take out a No. 2, I advise continuing to scan the bracket, as Cornell was drilled by every quality opponent they faced.
Projected Seed: No. 15
3. East Tennessee State Buccaneers (23-10, 14-6 Atlantic Sun)
"Eagles, and Buccaneers, and Big Red, oh my!" just doesn't seem to have the right ring to it, but here we are. ETSU is the most dangerous of the teams listed thus far, having taken out Belmont and Jacksonville on their way to the Atlantic Sun championship.
The Bucs last danced in both 2003 and 2004, losing thrillers to Wake Forest 76-73 and Cincinnati 80-77, respectively. Their greatest tournament moment came in 1992, when they shocked No. 3 seed Arizona before falling by just 12 to a Michigan Wolverines squad that made it to the National Championship game.
ETSU is never an easy out, and the 2009 version has more raw talent than the 2004 team. The duo of F Kevin Tiggs and sharpshooting G Mike Smith may very well cause a giant headache for an unsuspecting No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
Projected Seed: No. 15
4. Chattanooga Mocs (19-16, 11-9 Southern Conference)
This one is a double-shocker. This was supposed to be "Davidson's Conference."
First, Davidson got knocked off by College of Charleston, sending Stephen Curry to the NIT, barring a drug-induced pick by the Selection Committee. Then, in almost equally shocking fashion, the Mocs knocked off Charleston to secure their second bid of the decade (the last was in 2005).
Keep in mind that this is a team that had lost its last three regular season SoCon games, including one to Charleston at home, giving up an average of 87 points in the process.
The Mocs barely escaped the first round of the SoCon Tourney, beating Elon by just one, but now they have landed in the NCAAs.
Many aficionados still remember the stunners pulled off by Chattanooga in the 1997 tournament. They took out Tubby Smith's No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs and sent No. 6 seed Illinois packing, though Lon Kruger's hair did not move in the loss. When faced with a far lower seed in the Sweet 16, the Mocs lost a close one to Pete Gillen's No. 10 Providence Friars.
This year's team bears little resemblance to the 1997 squad that scored Chattanooga's only NCAA tournament wins in history outside of a 1982 victory over Jim Valvano's N.C. State Wolfpack.
That's quite a lineup of coaches they've taken out over the years, but the Mocs are an almost certain No. 16 seed unless the lower-tier conference upsets continue.
They can thank a home win over Niagara for avoiding the play-in game. A loss at ETSU may actually be important in seeding this team, as they will almost certainly be within one seed line of the Bucs. I don't know if it makes them feel any better, but they may very well be the best of the No. 16 seeds.
Projected Seed: No. 16
5. Northern Iowa Panthers (23-10, 14-4 Missouri Valley Conference)
Northern Iowa surprised many of the preseason prognosticators by taking a share of the regular-season title and winning the MVC Tourney.
The Panthers missed a golden opportunity to improve their seeding when they lost a close game at Siena (part of a devastating three-game losing streak in late February), but still should fare decently and present some significant challenges in a first-round game.
UNI is no stranger to the NCAA tournament in this decade, making the field (and losing in the first round) in three consecutive seasons (2004-2006). Their highest seed in that span was a No. 10 in 2006, when Georgetown fought them off. Oddly enough, in each of their three appearances this decade, they have lost the game by five points.
In their only NCAA tournament win, the No. 14 seeded Panthers shocked Missouri by three in 1990 before losing (by three, of course) to Minnesota. The numerologists should have a field day with this team.
An early-season home win over Auburn and a road win over Creighton pads their resume, but some bracketologists are being overly optimistic when projecting this team as a No. 12 seed.
Projected Seed: No. 13
6. Radford Highlanders (21-11, 15-3 Big South)
This is also not much of a surprise, as Radford dominated the regular season in one of the weakest conferences in the nation. Only VMI was expected to pose a challenge with their high-octane offense, and the title game didn't disappoint. Radford outran VMI and won 108-94.
The reward will be a certain meeting with a No. 1 seed, and Radford may become a fashionable choice to be the first No. 16 to beat a No. 1. Although the Highlanders have won 12 of 13 and 17 of 19, I wouldn't drink the Kool-Aid.
Radford was competitive at Virginia early in the year (when the Cavaliers were doing their best impression of a high school team) but were easily handled by every other decent team they faced.
Radford's only previous NCAA bid was in 1998, when they were hammered by No. 1 seed Duke 99-63.
Projected Seed: No. 16
7. Virginia Commonwealth Rams (24-9, 14-4 Colonial Athletic Association)
VCU got it together just in time and hammered George Mason to take the CAA title. This team is all about PG Eric Maynor and will go as far as he can carry them. He has the potential to be "this year's Stephen Curry," but the fact that I will probably hear that at least 50 times in the next two weeks leads me to believe it won't come to fruition.
The Rams managed home wins against the Citadel and New Mexico, though their most impressive road win was at Richmond. They did hang tough at Rhode Island and Vanderbilt, but have been inconsistent late in the season.
VCU lost 81-70 at Oklahoma, so if Maynor is on, the Rams could certainly be a tough out.
The Rams have won an impressive five first-round games since 1981, the most recent being an upset that humbled Duke in 2007. They have never made it to the Sweet 16, though Maynor will make them a trendy pick.
The CAA's relative strength in comparison to other low-major conferences, coupled with VCU's regular season and tournament championships, should result in a decent seed.
Projected Seed: No. 13
Already, even before the NCAA tournament has begun, some great story lines have begun to develop. The next two weeks will only continue to stoke the "Madness" that takes hold of so many this time of year.
[Editor's note: Since the writing of this article, Gonzaga has also qualified by winning the West Coast Conference Tourney. Their projected seed is a No. 4.]
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