The start of a new year means the beginning of conference play for college basketball teams around the nation. As teams begin facing their familiar foes, we've begun to get an idea of who could be making an impact in March and who is beginning to think about next year. Bracket projections are beginning to take shape, and give us a clearer picture of who is headed where.
At this point we have to bid adieu to George Washington, Howard and Navy, who won't be headed to the NCAA tournament this season, barring a miracle in their respective conference tournaments. The good news is there are still four teams in the area who have legitimate shots at tournament this season. As each team begins their all-important conference play, let's take a look at what each team needs to do to get in the field of 68.
Don't let the Hoyas' recent struggles worry you, they'll be in the tourney this March. They've got the top RPI in the nation. They've got the second-best strength of schedule in the nation. They've already gone on the road and knocked off Missouri, Memphis and Old Dominion. Even if they went .500 for the rest of the season, they would still make the tournament with ease.
The question now is where the Hoyas will land. Right now, they should be in line for a 2-4 seed, even with their losses at Notre Dame and St. John's. Can they earn a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1989? It would be tough, but they'll have of chances to make their case throughout the rest of their Big East schedule. They still get to play undefeated Syracuse twice, host Pittsburgh and go on the road to face Villanova and Connecticut. If they're serious about getting a No. 1 seed, they'll need to win at least three of those games and win the games they should win the rest of the way. If they can do that and put together a solid showing at the Big East tournament, they have a good shot at a top seed.
The Patriot League has always been a one-bid conference, and there's no reason to expect things to be any different this season. That means American is going to have to win their conference championship to make it to the dance, plain and simple. The Eagles' two biggest threats will be last season's conference champion, Lehigh and Bucknell, who has the highest RPI of any team in the Patriot League this season.
At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter where these three end up at the end of the season, since it all comes down to how everything plays out in the Patriot League Tournament, but the Eagles should still focus on trying to get the top seed. If they finish second or third, that means they would likely have to beat either Lehigh or Bucknell in the semifinals and the other team in championship. If they get the top seed, they should be able to avoid both of them until the championship game.
Unlike Maryland or George Mason, American can't fall back on an at-large bid, but I still think they have a better shot because they have a better shot of coming out on top. They've won the Patriot League two of the last three years. Although most of the players from those years have left, coach Jeff Jones is still there, and he has one of the better big men duos you'll find in a mid-major conference with Vlad Moldoveanu and Stephen Lumpkins. Plus, they've been seasoned well by a tough non-conference schedule, which will pay dividends when everything is put on the line in the Patriot League tournament.
The Terrapins picked a good time to be in a developing year. Even though they lack leadership, they still have a chance to finish high in the ACC standings because so many teams are struggling this season. The Terps, who were predicted to finish sixth in the ACC's preseason poll, are now projected to finish third in the ACC, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Problem is, the underwhelming ACC field this season will make it harder for the Terrapins to make their case, even if they do well in conference play. Duke is the only team from the ACC in the top 25. After that, the rest of conference has been bad, which is a big problem. Right now, Maryland's best wins of the season are against Penn State and College of Charleston. Sure, they played well in their close losses, but moral victories don't help you get a spot in the field of 68. If they don't get a win against Duke or Villanova, they'll have to be nearly flawless against everyone else to have a high enough volume of wins to get in the tournament.
The Patriots enter conference play in a five-way battle for a conference that's unlikely to get more than two bids this year. Old Dominion, James Madison, VCU and Drexel are all in a better position for those two spots right now thanks to tougher non-conference schedules. Three of those teams have big wins on their profile. ODU beat Clemson and Richmond, VCU beat UCLA in Madison Square Garden and Drexel beat Louisville on the road. Mason's double-overtime win against Duquense was nice, but not quite in the same ballpark as the other three.
Right now, they're on the outside looking in, but they still have six games against ODU, VCU, JMU and Drexel. If they can win four of those six and make it to the CAA title game, they should be in decent position to get an at-large bid if they don't win the tournament. Still, in a conference that struggles to get more than one bid in the NCAA tournament (the CAA has only sent multiple teams to tournament twice since 1990) the Patriots shouldn't leave anything to chance.