With a sparkling won/loss record and some solid computer rankings to back it up, Sun Belt favorite Middle Tennessee believes it should be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of how it fares in the Sun Belt Tournament. It's better to be safe than sorry in March though, and the Blue Raiders will be looking to cut down the nets next weekend to secure an automatic bid.
Who, What, When
The Sun Belt Tournament takes place at the Summit Arena and the Convention Center Court in Hot Springs, Ark., March 8-11.
All 11 teams from the conference get a shot at the NCAA Tournament bid up for grabs. The top five teams have a bye for the first round, while teams ranked six through 11 have to play the opening day.
Friday: No. 6 Western Kentucky vs. No. 11 Louisiana-Monroe (Game 1); No. 8 Louisiana-Lafayette vs. No. 9 North Texas (Game 2); No. 7 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 10 Troy (Game 3)
Saturday: No. 4 Florida International vs. Arkansas-Little Rock (Game 4); No. 1 Middle Tennessee vs. Game 2 Winner (Game 5); No. 3 South Alabama vs. Game 1 Winner (Game 6); No. 2 Arkansas State vs. Game 3 Winner (Game 7)
Sunday: Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner; Game 6 Winner vs. Game 7 Winner
Who The Numbers Like
Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders will be the heavy favorites to cut down the nets. They are ranked No. 27 in Kenpom's efficiency ratings, with no other Sun Belt teams ranked in the top 120. They went 19-1 in conference play to finish the regular season with a 27-4 overall record. If Middle Tennessee doesn't win, it will be a big upset.
Who The Eyeballs Like
Middle Tennessee. Again, the Blue Raiders do just about everything well on the court. They can become a bit stagnant at times on the offensive end, but a stellar defense will keep them in just about every game they play. Outside of their overtime loss to Arkansas State back in January, few teams in the conference have been able to give Middle Tennessee much of a scare.
Arkansas State. For the very reason listed above, the Red Wolves are the only team to beat Middle Tennessee since the calendar turned to 2013. Arkansas State is the second-best team in the tournament according to Kenpom, ranked 123rd in the nation. ASU is the two seed this week, meaning they won't have a chance to meet the Blue Raiders until the championship game.
Best Possible Title Game
Middle Tennessee vs. Arkansas State. It's to the point where we're beating a dead horse, but Arkansas State is the only Sun Belt team to really challenge Middle Tennessee this year. With no other conference foes ranked in the top 180, this is undoubtedly the best potential championship game.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
No teams other than Middle Tennessee have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament without winning the conference tournament. Should the Blue Raiders get upset, they will have a nervous wait come Selection Sunday. Their 27-4 record is impressive, but they lack signature victories on their resume and lost to the lone ranked team they played, Florida, by 21.
Players To Watch
Greg Gantt: One of the leading scorers in the nation with 21.2 points per game, Florida Atlantic's Gantt dropped 34 points earlier this season. When his shot is falling, Florida Atlantic can be a tough team to beat despite their lack of other scoring options.
Augustine Rubit: Just like Gantt, Rubit also dropped 34 points this season. The 6'7 junior averaged a double-double for South Alabama, scoring 19 points and bringing down 11 rebounds per game. He can be a matchup nightmare for opponents.