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Tracking the smaller conferences

With the Big Ten Tournament getting underway today I wanted to take a brief look at possible first round opponents. One of the things I love about Championship Week is watching the smaller schools fight their way into the tournament. Sure, many of these guys don't stand a chance since nine of them will be 15, 16, or play-in game seeds, but it is fun to watch their jubilation anyway.

We can pay particular attention to these teams too because we're going to be a top 3 seed as long as we don't crap the bed tomorrow against Indiana or Northwestern. Anything less would be a crime against humanity. As a result, we'll probably be looking at the one of following teams as our first round opponent.

East Tennessee State (20-14) - The Bucs won a wild Atlantic Sun Tournament where four teams tied for first place with 14-6 conference records. ETSU was a game back at 13-7, but won on Mercer's home floor in the title game. Their 123 RPI might bump them up to a 15 because the champions of the MEAC and SWAC are usually pretty dreadful. Tommy Hubbard, a 6'4" forward is their top player at better than 14 points and 8 rebounds per game.

Robert Morris (23-11) - RMU won on Quinnipiac's home floor last night to clinch their second straight NCAA bid from the Northeast Conference. Last year they lost by 15 to Michigan State in round one. This is a team that has some NCAA experience from that game, so they won't shy away from playing another Big Ten team. They had balanced scoring with 10 different players notching a basket against MSU in last year's game. Getting a seed better than last year's #15 will be difficult, as this is a play-in game team possibly. A 127 RPI will likely help them avoid a trip to Dayton. Karon Abraham is their lone double figures scorer at over 13 per game. He is a 5'9" freshman guard.

Murray State (30-4) - Honestly, this team scares the bejesus out of me, but with 30 wins and an RPI of 58 the Ohio Valley champs should get a decent seed for once. This is a team that regularly makes the tournament and challenges bigger teams, but they have just one win in 13 trips to the NCAA's. Their four losses were to Morehead State within their conference, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, and California. Bear in mind, Cal won the Pac-10 and Murray State only lost to them by 5 in the season opener. Cal is probably the only team with a pulse they have played though. If you want balance though, this is your team. Ivan Aska, B.J. Jenkins, Danero Thomas, Tony Easley, and Isaiah Canaan all average between 10.3 and 10.6 points per game. This team also regularly throws down 80 per night. I expect them to be at least a 13 seed.

Winthrop (19-13) - The Eagles are the dominant team from the Big South, but knocked off heavily favored Coastal Carolina to win the auto-bid. Less than 20 wins and a 162 RPI, however, likely means a 16 seed at best. This is Winthrop's 9th NCAA bid and Reggie Middleton leads them in scoring at 10.3 points per game.

Montana (22-9) - This is another dangerous team that used a huge second half to return to the NCAA's last night. The Grizzlies are led by Anthony Johnson, who basically said, "I'll do it my damn self," last night by scoring 42 points and 34 in the second half to erase a 22 point deficit on Weber State's home floor. That is how you steal a bid!

Wofford (26-8) - So we may meet again, Terriers. Wofford earned its first ever NCAA bid by winning the Southern Conference this week. They would probably love a chance to meet Purdue as well. Leading scorer Noah Dahlman (over 16 per game) was part of the team that shocked Purdue 69-66 in Mackey Arena two years ago. He had five points in that game, while leading scorer Junior Salters from that contest is still on the team as well. Wofford's RPI of 69 might get them a higher seed.

Oakland (26-8) - The Golden Grizzlies come from the Summit League, which traditionally is in the 14-16 range in seeding, but this is a great club. They lost just once in league play, to IUPUI. They avenged that loss in the conference title game by beating the Hoosiermakers easily. Keith Benson is a human double-double, but three other players also average in double figures. They also have a white guy with a state of Wisconsin tattooed on his arm. That's just high comedy, folks.

North Texas (24-8) - Joe Lunardi currently projects us as playing the Sun Belt Champion Mean Green. They have for scorers who average double figures led by Josh White, who hit the winning basket in the Sun Belt title game. NTU is 0-2 all-time in the NCAA's, but they most recently made the tournament in 2007 and challenged Memphis in round 1 as a 15 seed. Their RPI of 99 puts them in the 14-15 range again.

Other possible conference champs that haven't been decided:

America East - Vermont vs. Boston University - The Catamounts had never been to the NCAA's before 2003, but they upset Syracuse in 2005. Both teams have 100+ RPI's, putting them in the 15-16 range.

Patriot League - Lafayette vs. Lehigh - The winner of this conference title game tomorrow will be lucky to avoid the play-in game. Lehigh has the best RPI at 158.

MAC - If anyone other than Kent State or Akron wins the tournament they will likely be a 15 seed at best.

MEAC - Anyone but Morgan State will be in the play-in game.

SWAC - With Jackson State getting upset by Grambling State last night we have one guaranteed play-in game participant from whoever wins this conference. It could be second seeded Arkansas Pine Bluff, whom we dominated last year at home.

Big West - UC Santa Barbara and Pacific are the favorites, but both will be hard pressed to rise above a 15 seed.