The Full 353: The First Place Files [PART I]

Over the course of this season at Palestra Back, the Full 353 will cover every ounce of college basketball with one clear and stated goal:

We’re going to try to mention every single men’s Division I basketball team.

This is a lofty goal that I’m certain I will struggle to meet. If we don’t get there by March, we’ll scratch and claw as far as we can. In the end, no matter the final number, I hope that this effort brings you a deeper, more complete, and more enjoyable experience here at the blog. We’ll count along in (bold) to track our progress through the season.


With a few blog more posts on the site since our last check-in with this project, we added five more teams to the ledger: Virginia Tech, Oregon, Pitt, Baylor, and UNC-Asheville (66-70).

For this edition of The Full 353, we’ll be ditching the format from our previous entries and trying something new instead. With the postseason on the horizon, how about we check in on the current first place team in all 32 Division I conferences? That should help check plenty of names off the list and prepare you for some NCAA Tournament in March. We’ll go in reverse ranking of KenPom’s conference ratings. So that’s worst conference to best. Sound good? Let’s go!

(all stats and standings current through the games of Tuesday, Feb 11)


Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC)

North Carolina A&T (71), Norfolk State (72), and North Carolina Central (73)

A&T was in first place in the conference at 8-1, but fell behind NCCU and Norfolk State after two straight losses. All three teams, I should mention, are under .500 for the season and rank outside the top 240 teams in the nation in adjusted efficiency. This is the worst conference in the country for a reason.

The most notable thing about any of these teams is probably A&T ranking 17th in the nation in tempo. If you’re looking to root for one of these three to make the First Four in Dayton a little more fun, the Aggies are probably the team to support in the MEAC Tournament. They’ll at least make the game into a track meet and that’s fun. Plus, A&T only has two more years in the MEAC before they jump ship and head to the Big South during the summer of 2021.

Norfolk State probably has the best chance to actually compete in a postseason game, though. The Spartans have the best offense in the conference and their overtime, neutral site win over Bowling Green passes as a quality victory in the MEAC.

NC Central, meanwhile, is a bit of a paper tiger atop the standings. Three of the Eagles wins this season came over non-DI competition and they’ve beaten just one team outside of the bottom 50 in the nation.


Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC)

Prairie View A&M (74)

The Panther defense is winning games in the SWAC, thanks to pressure-packed full-court defense. Prairie View turns its opponents over at the 9th highest rate in the nation. In order to play that level of defense, coach Byron Smith needs to go deeper into his bench than almost any other coach in college basketball. Smith plays 12 players more than 11 minutes per game and the Panthers rank 5th in the nation in the percentage of total minutes played coming from reserves.

The good news for teams playing Prairie View? That pressure defense borders on reckless. The Panthers rank bottom ten in America in free throw rate allowed and percentage of points allowed from the free throw line. Forty minutes of run-and-jump pressure defense is great if you can keep your hands out of the cookie jar and avoid bail out fouls. Against teams with confident ball-handlers, that likely isn’t the case for PVAM.


Big South Conference

Winthrop (75)

This is the first team mentioned here that could actually threaten to win a game in the tournament. The Eagles are 113th in the nation in adjusted efficiency, beat Saint Mary’s (on the road), and only lost to Duke by 13! Not bad!

Winthrop is 5th in the nation in offensive rebounds and they attack the glass on both ends. Those extra possessions could be huge in a tournament game. If the Eagles grab 15 offensive rebounds and their opponent shoots 20 percent from long range, could Winthrop win a game as a 14 seed? I’m not going to say no!


Ohio Valley Conference

Murray State (76)

This spot was held by Austin Peay until recently, as the Governors started OVC play with 10 straight wins. This week, however, Austin Peay dropped two road games to Tennessee State (77) (not good!) and Belmont (78). 

Those losses opened up a spot for Murray State to slide up to the top of the standings, sitting at 11-1 in league play. Their lone loss came at Belmont. So if you’re keeping track, that means the two top teams in the league have both lost to Belmont in Nashville. But Belmont lost on the road at Murray State and Austin Peay. It’s  a game of home court rock-paper-scissors so far, though Peay and Belmont both slipped up to lesser competition.

That gives the Racers the advantage in the fight for the top seed in the conference tournament. That could be huge, as the drop off to fourth seed in the OVC is drastic. The top team only needs to play one of the top three, presumably in the conference tournament title game, while the other two will need to square off in a semi-final match-up first.

Murray State still has home and away dates with Austin Peay, starting Thursday in Clarksville (that’s where Austin Peay is, for those of you not nerdy enough to know that).


Southland Conference

Stephen F. Austin

They beat Duke in Durham! The Lumberjacks are very good, but we’ve also already covered them. Moving on!


Atlantic Sun Conference

Liberty

We’ve covered them too! The Flames are very good, play one of the slowest tempos in college basketball, and Liberty is a problematic University. Moving on!


Northeastern Conference (NEC)

Robert Morris (79) and Merrimack (80)

There’s a tie atop the NEC standings, between two very different programs. Robert Morris has made the NCAA Tournament seven times since 1990. That’s not an avalanche of tourney bids, but it is compared to Merrimack. This is the program’s first season at the Division I level!

Sadly, that means the Warriors aren’t tournament eligible. Add this to the list of bad NCAA rules: a program needs to wait four years to play in the postseason after rising a level of play.

So let’s focus on the boys from Bobby Mo. The Colonials are one of the most generous offensive teams in college hoops, ranking in top ten in total assists (9th) and assist rate (2nd).


America East Conference

Vermont (81)

I could write, conservatively, a few hundred thousand words about this Vermont team. When they led in the second half of a mid-November game at Virginia, I had visions of an undefeated regular season for the Catamounts. It was a brief fantasy that was never going to happen, but the fact that it crossed my mind is notable. At worst, I thought Vermont would lose three or four games all year and wipe the floor with the America East.

Instead, despite an early season win at St. John’s and competitive game in Charlottesville, Vermont sputtered a bit. First, they lost to Rider. Then the Catamounts dropped road games at Yale and Cincinnati. Both of those teams should be in the NCAA Tournament and a road win against either would be an accomplishment, but a three game losing streak (not counting a game against a non-DI opponent) was alarming. In the following weeks, Vermont lost a home game to UNC Greensboro and fell to Stony Brook to open the America East schedule.

To many of you, none of this sounds crazy. Vermont lost a few games? Big deal.

To those of us following this team closely, that was a big deal! Vermont returned three starters, including the conference player of the year Anthony Lamb, from a team that went 14-2 in league play and was a competitive 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Lamb was considered one of the best mid-major players in the country, with a real shot to be an All-American. Plus, John Becker added a power conference transfer in former Ohio State and Alabama forward Daniel Giddens. Players with Giddens talent and size don’t find their way to the America East often. Expectations in Burlington were sky high. After looking impressive in November, dreams of a better seed than last year and run in the tournament were not far fetched. By early January, Vermont fans were scratching their heads.

Since that loss to Stony Brook, however, the Catamounts have rifled off nine straight wins, seemingly straightening things out. Yet those wins have come at the expense of the America East’s less competitive clubs. Only one other America East team resides in KenPom’s top 225, and that team is Stony Brook, who won at Vermont.

The Catamounts can earn a little respect by winning at Stony Brook on February 20, yet even that won’t restore Vermont’s ceiling to the heights it reached early this season. Anthony Lamb is a great player and makes Vermont a scary team to face in the first round, yet dreams of a Sweet Sixteen run feel more far-fetched than realistic at this juncture of the season.


Horizon League

Wright State (82)

The Raiders play a fast-paced tempo, score the 4th most points per game in the nation, and are led in scoring by two guys with totally fake sounding names (Billy Wampler and Loudon Love??).

None of that really concerns me. I’m more worried about Wright State’s schedule. The Raiders have played the 344th ranked schedule in college basketball per KenPom and did not face a power conference team all season. According to the NCAA’s NET metric, Wright State has not played a Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 level game. Don’t blame their placement in the Horizon League for this. Second place Northern Kentucky (83) played Missouri and Arkansas. Third place Youngstown State (84) faced Louisville and West Virginia!

I’m not sure how a team with eyes on a league championship and the ensuing tournament bid can have its first NCAA Tournament game be its toughest competition of the season, by a laughable margin, and feel ready to win that game. Prove me wrong, Raiders!


Patriot League

Colgate

I’ll be brief because we’ve covered Colgate previously and I’ll just add two things:

1. The Patriot League Tournament is going to be wild

2. Colgate has six players who have attempted more than 88 threes this season. Let it fly, fellas.


Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC)

oh boy where do we begin

There is no first place team in the MAAC. If you think the Big Ten standings are jumbled, wait until you see this mess. Five teams are tied in the loss column atop the conference, with five losses. Last place is just 3.5 games behind. That’s 11 teams with only 3.5 games separating them!

BartTorvik.com places Siena (85) as the favorite to win the conference tournament, but gives the Saints only a 26 percent chance to do so. Those same metrics give eight of the MAAC’s eleven schools a better than 3.5 percent chance to go dancing in March, including current cellar dweller Canisius (86).

Those standings made my brain hurt, so I’m counting all eleven MAAC schools (87-95). I will not apologize for this!


Western Athletic Conference (WAC)

New Mexico State (96)

The Aggies have quietly become a top tier program among the lesser mid-majors. New Mexico State has won seven of the last eight WAC Tournaments, yet has not won an NCAA Tournament game in any of its seven recent appearances in the Big Dance. This year’s Aggies could be the team to change things, currently sitting undefeated at 10-0 in WAC play. New Mexico State also holds non-conference wins over South Florida, Colorado State, and Mississippi State. The Aggies’ defense is special (7th fewest points per game allowed in the nation) and they clean the defensive glass at the 8th best rate in Division I. Stops and rebounds win games in March.


Big West Conference

UC-Irvine (97)

The Anteaters are led in scoring by perhaps college basketball’s least expected star. If you were choosing teams for a pick-up game, how badly would you avoid taking sophomore Collin Welp on your team?

OK, sure he’s 6-foot-9, but that does not look like a playmaker. Welp shoots 43 percent from long range and hits double-figure scoring nearly every time he touches the floor, with a career high 31 points versus Eastern Michigan this season.


Summit League

South Dakota State (98) and North Dakota State (99)

Each of the last four years, South Dakota State won either the Summit League regular season crown or the conference tournament, thanks in large part to do-everything forward Mike Daum.

Daum finished his career with 3,067 points, the 7th most in college basketball history. He has a very valid claim as the best college basketball player of the 2010s.

Life without Daum won’t be easy, at least not as easy as it was with the big man at the center of every game plan. The program’s future grew even murkier with the departures of head coach TJ Otzelberger (who left for UNLV) and point guard David Jenkins (who transferred to….UNLV).

Surprisingly, the Jackrabbits have barely missed a beat, with freshman Doug Wilson providing the necessary lift to keep the program rolling. Wilson is scoring 18 points per game and failed to score in double-figures just twice in his young career. He needs just 68 points to surpass Daum’s freshman total, a perfect signal that one era has given way to a new age in Brookings.

Meanwhile, up the road, the Jackrabbits have plenty of competition from their rival North Dakota State. The Bison mean business, dominating the glass better than any team in the country. NDSU leads Division I in defensive rebounding rate, which has helped the Bison win some key games and has them tied atop the standings.

No game will matter more than when these two teams collide in Fargo on February 27. The winner of that contest should be the top seed in the Summit League Tournament, yet if we’re lucky, these two will square off again in that tournament with a bid to the Big Dance on the line.


Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)

Hofstra (100!)

The Pride know exactly what South Dakota State is going through this year. This is Hofstra’s first season following the stellar career of Justin Wright-Foreman, who scored more than 2,300 points in his four seasons in Hempstead. In Wright-Foreman’s absence, senior Desure Buie has stepped up. As a junior, Buie averaged 10.7 points per game and shot 32 percent outside the arc (on 93 attempts). This year, Buie is posting 18.7 points per game and 44 percent shooting from long range (on 117 attempts already).

Buie, by the way, is just 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. He has to lead the nation in points per pound.


Big Sky Conference

Montana (101)

The Grizzlies were just 4-7 entering conference play, after a treacherous non-conference schedule. They’ve bounced back, soaring to a 10-3 Big Sky record. How have they made that turnaround so smoothly?

Sometimes it’s just about making shots. Montana made 29.6 percent from outside the arc in its eleven non-conference games. In thirteen games against Big Sky foes, Montana is sinking 41 percent from long range. Sure, the level of defense changed. It’s not hard to imagine how they shot a combined 6 for 36 against Arkansas and Oregon, unlike their 11 for 19 (60 perecent!) versus Montana State.


Ok, deep breath. There’s 16 conferences, a boatload of teams, and 2,500+ words. The next 16 will come next week, with the top conferences and top teams still in play. I’ve got a thousand words each about Yale and Akron, which we don’t have time for right now.

Final Tally: 31

Season to Date: 101

We’re over 100! Almost a third of the way to the final goal and the best basketball of the season (plus Part 2 of this theme) still to come.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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