Just two more Pyramids left, and then we enter conference tournament season. Like always, the season breezes by us. And as expected, this structure is almost completely removed from candidates just outside of it. We've got one or two teams knocking on the door, but by this point there is clear separation between the good and the average-or-below.
Once again I've included where our Jerry Palm is currently seeding/not seeding these teams. And for reference, I had where he slotted all of them a week ago, when all 15 were in his bracket. Not one team is in the same spot as it was seven days prior.
Despite the late-February calendar, we still have a lot of shifting in the rankings, even if nobody new entered the Pyramid this week. Let's take a look.
1. Gonzaga (27-2)
Why it's here: At this point, I consider Gonzaga -- clearly -- the best team available to Pyramid evaluation. And that would be regardless of losses going forward, too. Honestly, it could lose three straight to head into the NCAAs 27-5 (worst-case scenario) and I'd still consider it the best team.
Something you should know: The WCC regular season wraps up this week, ahead of schedule from all the other big leagues. Gonzaga gets two more games, then it's off to Vegas for the WCC tournament, which spans March 6-11.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 1 seed in the West. (Last week: same)
Up next: Thursday at BYU; Saturday vs. Portland.
2. New Mexico (23-4)
Why it's here: Big-time credit to the Lobos for winning two of their past three games on the road, basically locking up the MWC regular-season title in the process. Unless losses come at Nevada and Air Force next week, Steve Alford will have coached his team to a third league regular-season title in his six years there.
Something you should know: If you missed it Saturday around dinnertime, Kendall Williams went absolutely off, giving the performance of the weekend. He had 46 points in UNM's road win against Colorado State, and 30 of those came off 3s. The 10 triples set a Mountain West and New Mexico record. It was quite a watershed performance. Via Lobos Athletic, here's what it meant:
--Williams set a school and Mountain West record with 10 3-pointers (old UNM record 9 by Ruben Douglas vs. Pacific on Nov. 23, 2001, and 9 by Javin Tindall at UNLV on Jan. 31, 2004).
-- The 46 points ties for the third-highest scoring total in school history. The record is 50 by Marvin Johnson vs. Colorado State on March 2, 1978.
-- 46 points is the fifth-highest total in Mountain West Conference history
-- UNM trailed 70-64 with 6:40 left, but finished the game on a 27-12 run. Williams had 18 of those 27 points, and actually, 18 of the Lobos' final 22 points over the final 4:45
--Williams moved from 25th to 20th place on UNM's career scoring chart with 1,190 points; passed David Chiotti, Phillip McDonald, Johnny Brown, Charlie Thomas and Roman Martinez.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 2 seed in the South. (Last week: No. 3 in the West)
Up next: Wednesday vs. San Diego State; Saturday vs. Wyoming.
3. Memphis (24-3)
Why it's here: Tigers have three road games in the next eight days. Probably too much to ask for this group to keep the 18-game winning streak going to 21, but regardless, Memphis is now just about secured for an NCAA bid. Would take three losses (and not making the C-USA title game) to put March in doubt.
Something you should know: Memphis officially wrapped up a share of the regular-season Conference USA title Saturday with its sweep of Southern Mississippi. This means Memphis has won seven regular-season titles in the past 10 seasons, as dominant a performance by one program in one league this side of Kansas in the Big 12.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 8 seed in the West. (Last week: No. 8 in the Midwest)
Up next: Tuesday at Xavier; Saturday at Central Florida.
A Cut Below
4. Akron (22-4).
Why it's here: BracketBusters provided almost no drama for the Zips' nation-best winning streak. Keith Dambrot's team beat decent North Dakota State 68-53, and so now the streak goes to 18 and the pressure actually starts to build. I think a loss has to come in the next two games.
Something you should know: In its charge up the rankings, I've not yet pointed out what Akron does best. The Zips are more defensive-minded than offensively exceptional, though they aren't truly great on D, either. Their highest tempo-free rank is 2-point defense, where opponents are shooting 40.9 percent from the field. That's No. 3 in the country, behind Kansas and Maryland.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 12 seed in the East. (Last week: No. 13 in the South)
Up next: Wednesday at Ohio; Saturday at Buffalo.
5. Colorado State (21-6).
Why it's here: Though it has lost two straight, I remain optimistic about CSU's chances come NCAA tournament time. The Rams fell by two at UNLV last Wednesday, then got Kendall-bombed with those 10 3-pointers two days ago. The D lets 'em down sometimes, but the rebounding continues to be outstanding at both ends despite a relative lack of tall boys.
Something you should know: At. 2.55 years of average experience (via KenPom.com), Colorado State is the third-oldest team in the country. I also trust CSU because I trust age as a general rule. It's part of why Miami's so good this year; that team's as old as your average YMCA men's league pickup squad.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 6 seed in the East. (Last week: No. 5 in the Midwest)
Up next: Wednesday vs. Fresno State; Saturday at Boise State.
6. Wichita State (24-5).
Why it's here: After hitting a typical lull, losing three straight as we turned into February, WSU has won five in a row and at 12-4 in the Valley has a one-game lead on Creighton.
Something you should know: The 5.5 percentage point difference in offensive rebounding rate between Wichita State (first) and Creighton (second) is basically the same gap between Creighton and Drake -- teams second through eighth in Missouri Valley rebounding. The Shockers have the league's best D and stick around for seconds on the glass. That's why they are now the best in this conference.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 10 seed in the Midwest. (Last week: No. 10 in the East)
Up next: Wednesday vs. Evansville; Saturday at Creighton.
7. UNLV (21-7).
Why it's here: I still say UNLV's underachieved; if it played up to its talent, it could be No. 2 in this Pyramid by now. Nevertheless, a run has begun and should continue here. The Rebs have reeled off three straight victories and are looking at three very winnable games (at Nevada, vs. Boise State and vs. Fresno State) to close out their conference slate.
Something you should know: ICYMI last week, I'll reiterate, because I get a feeling we could have this situation unfold: UNLV could be on its way to being a poor man's Gonzaga. What I mean by that: regular season brings signs of a good team, and in fact they make the NCAA tournament. But once there, a bit of a flop. UNLV has been to all but one tournament since 2007 after hitting a dry spell in the early aughts. But its only Sweet 16 came in the '07 tourney. This team has the ability to make the second weekend. If it doesn't, criticism can be had, certainly.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 5 seed in the Midwest. (Last week: No. 6 in the East)
Up next: Saturday at Nevada.
Why it's here: After a random, regrettably scheduled game against an NAIA team last week, La. Tech gets back into the swing this week with two home games that can lock up a WAC title if it wins both.
Something you should know: Raheem Appleby is the star of this team -- and by a wide margin. Using "star" is misleading, though. He merely takes on more than others. He's the only Bulldog averaging double figures, and he's the only player on the team who's taken more than 200 field goal attempts (383). Because of that, he's not exactly efficient. He's a volume performance. The next six players after him have tossed up between 122 and 189 shots. Balance? It seems a good insurance policy, should Appleby's 14.7 PPG fail him.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 13 seed in the West. (Last week: No. 13 in the Midwest)
Up next: Thursday vs. Utah State; Saturday vs. San Jose State.
9. Middle Tennessee State (25-4).
Why it's here: The climb continues for an MTSU team that's got one of the longest winning streaks in the country and has had only one of its past six games decided by double digits. The Blue Raiders might be so good, should they go undefeated in the Sun Belt, a case can and will be made to put them as high as a No. 11 seed.
Something you should know: It's the quirkiest, most uncontrollable/often irrelevant stat. But I love it. Free throw defense. Yes, you heard me. How do teams shoot their foul shots against you? And do low rates forbade good records? MTSU's opponents sink 63.2 percent of their freebies, the second-worst percentage in the country. Let's glance at the top five.
1. Northwestern State -- 62.9
2. Middle Tennessee State -- 63.2
3. Binghamton -- 63.4
4. Hampton -- 63.6
5. Mississippi Valley State -- 63.9
Combined record: 62-72, and that includes MTSU's stellar mark. So, no, it doesn't mean much, other than you're playing a lot of bad teams, i.e. playing in a bad league. But it does help, nonetheless.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 13 seed in the South. (Last week: No. 12 in the East)
Up next: Thursday at Troy; Saturday at Western Kentucky.
10. San Diego State (20-7).
Why it's here: Got two home wins to keep above water and assure itself that it won't drift to bubble/bad seed territory. Now comes a good test Wednesday against the Lobos. This would actually do wonders for SDSU, because it would mean a league sweep of likely MWC champ New Mexico, and tack that onto wins over UCLA, Indiana State, Colorado State -- and at least the Aztecs will be in the 8/9 game at come Selection Sunday. At least.
Something you should know: SDSU is again a 20-win team, a regularity in the Steve Fisher era, but a reminder: This program was pretty much nothing before Fisher got there. And now it's earned eight straight 20-win campaigns. The team's also assured itself of an eighth straight year at .500 or better in league play. Prior to Fisher, San Diego State went 14 seasons without getting to even.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 6 seed in the Midwest. (Last week: No. 7 in the South)
Up next: Wednesday at New Mexico.
Why it's here: Big, big, big week for the Gaels, who trounced BYU and Creighton, meaning SMC should make the NCAAs if it can not lose again in the WCC finals -- and if that loss is a third one to Gonzaga. There will be a case for/against SMC either way, but it's hard to argue this team isn't tournament-looking, let alone worthy.
Something you should know: Wipe away all the gunk from SMC's just-OK resume, and what do you see? A 12-3 mark outside, in the non-con. For a WCC team that's not named Gonzaga -- or even for Gonzaga -- that's a really good mark. An .800 win percentage against non-league foes will get most teams into the tournament, if said teams are also winning 25 or more games.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 11 seed in the Midwest. (Last week: A First Four team)
Up next: Thursday at Pepperdine; Saturday vs. Santa Clara.
12. Creighton (22-7).
Why it's here: The tumble continues. Had to slot Creighton below SMC after the Gaels looked better. For more thoughts on all things Creighton right now, you should head over here.
Something you should know: This is an extremely narrow view of what's played out, and each year is different. Each team is different, as are the scenarios around them. But if you're wondering what the Valley's recent history says about where Creighton could get seeded, here's how teams have been slotted on average over the past seven seasons in accordance with their loss totals.
Five overall losses: 7 seed
Six: 8 seed
Seven: 4 seed
Nine: 8 seed
10: 10 seed
11: 11 seed
14: 14 seed
Yep, intriguing to seed the losses parallel the seed so much, with exception of No. 4 Southern Illinois back in '07. The Salukis were good but only had one top-50 RPI win outside of league play. And the Valley only sent SIU and Creighton to the Dance that year.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 11 seed in the South. (Last week: No. 10 in the South)
Up next: Wednesday at Bradley; Saturday vs. Wichita State.
13. Belmont (22-6).
Why it's here: Beat Ohio for Pyramid supremacy. The Bruins got a scare when Ian Clark -- the team's best player -- went down in that game, but he returned and shook off a leg injury. It was an 81-62 final, and Belmont made Ohio look extremely average. Or, in other words, like a conference opponent.
Something you should know: Belmont's 18-game home winning streak is the longest of any Pyramid team and the fourth-longest in the nation.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 12 seed in the Midwest. (Last week: No. 12 in the West)
Up Next: Wednesday at SIU Edwardsville; Saturday vs. Jacksonville State.
14. Bucknell (23-5).
Why it's here: With a 10-2 conference record and two relatively easy league games remaining, Bucknell should win the Patriot League regular-season title, its third straight and fifth in eight years.
Something you should know: Mike Muscala -- arguably the most efficient player in college hoops, no lie -- is a guy I've touted all season. And he's one of two players to be top 25 in scoring and top 25 in rebounding, nationally. Better than that: He's top 10 in rebounding. He and Augustine Rubit of South Alabama are aggressive players who help their teams in the most needed of ways: with points and grabs.
Jerry Palm says: A No. 13 seed in the East. (Last week: No. 14 in the East)
Up next: Wednesday vs. American; Saturday at Navy.
15. Stephen F. Austin (23-3).
Why it's here: I hope you took an opportunity to peek at SFA with its only nationally televised game of the regular season, over the weekend. The Lumberjacks played at LBSU Friday night and held very strong. If by any chance this team got slotted on the 16 line, then yeah, I'd entertain the thought a No. 1 could go down this year. But SFA's headed right toward a No. 14 at worst if the committee's paying attention.
Something you should know: The D and tempo remain vital to the Lumberjacks' success. This team has gone 58 straight games without allowing an opponent to hit 70 points. That streak will definitely hit 60, and I'd love to see SFA in the NCAAs against a high-scoring team, see how it plays out. SFA-Kansas, anyone?
Jerry Palm says: A No. 13 seed in the Midwest. (Last week: No. 13 in the West)
Up next: Saturday vs. Northwestern State.
Outside the Pyramid:
-- Weber State's Randy Rahe probably doesn't read the Pyramid, but the coach is doing a fantastic job in the post-Lillard era. The team's now 20-5 and can/should take the Big Sky because ...
-- With Montana losing at Davidson and losing Will Cherry to a broken foot, the Grizzlies' hopes for pretty much anything of note take a massive hit. Too bad. Fun team. Almost won on the road Saturday.
-- That brings us to 21-7 Davidson, which all of a sudden has won 12 straight and is knocking on the door. I watched a lot of the Wildcats' game vs. Montana. They look like typical Davidson. Well-rounded, efficient, extremely well-coached. Can win a game in a few weeks, yes.
-- At 20-6 Stony Brook is in the solar system but not entering the orbit. Doesn't nearly have the offense and hasn't beaten anyone of consequence.
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