Let's start with the mid-major that's catapulted to national prominence because of its flashy performances on the court and on the sidelines.
Monmouth Hawks (10-4, 2-1 Metro Atlantic)
During the preseason, I wrote a series of posts analyzing the non-conference schedules of all power league teams and a few selected mid-major squads that looked to have NCAA potential. In the mid-major post in that series, I selected Iona to represent the MAAC, given its history -- it earned an at-large in 2012 thanks to a schedule that massaged the Gaels' RPI. I didn't select the Hawks, despite their ambitious schedule that featured three games at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, along with road trips to UCLA, USC (as their fourth Advocare game) and Georgetown. What were the chances King Rice's team would win even one of those games? Maybe they'd beat USC?
But Monmouth served notice of its intentions on the first night of the season -- with an overtime win at Pauley Pavilion. Yes, the Hawks lost their game on the Trojans' home floor three nights later, but they got revenge on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, with a victory over Andy Enfield's squad in the third-place game in Orlando -- which followed a Thanksgiving night win over Notre Dame and a three-point semifinal loss to Dayton, currently ranked 25th in the AP poll. Plus, the team with America's flashiest, most entertaining bench won at Georgetown, though it seemed like that was the thing for mid-majors to do back in November and December.
Yet Monmouth is not a lock. For starters, the game after their Advocare Invitational experience was a rude awakening on conference play -- a 10-point loss at Canisius. They've righted the ship since then, but dangers lurk in a 20-game MAAC slate, especially with Je`lon Hornbeak suspended indefinitely for unspecified reasons. Plus, the Hawks lost their non-conference finale to Army, a team that looks to be a contender in the Patriot League (as long as they shut down Bucknell's Chris Hass next time), but not an RPI standout. Plus, with Georgetown, Notre Dame and UCLA all struggling and USC an unknown, Monmouth's record against the Top 50 is only 1-2, with the win (and one loss) coming against the Trojans.
For starters, the Hawks cannot pick up the dreaded bad loss in conference, which is going to be a bit more difficult this season in the MAAC since only two other teams (Siena and Iona) rank in the RPI Top 150. Otherwise, Monmouth fans will have to be Georgetown/Notre Dame/UCLA/USC fans the rest of the way. All four of those teams will get plenty of opportunities to bolster their computer numbers between now and Selection Sunday. That, in turn, will make Monmouth's November and December mean that much more if things go wrong in league play or in Albany at the MAAC Tournament.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Iona (Jan. 15 away, Feb. 19 home)
Saint Mary's Gaels (13-1, 5-0 West Coast)
The Gaels last made the NCAAs in 2013, and they've almost become the West Coast Conference's forgotten team since then, despite a pair of NIT bids. Part of that is due to NCAA sanctions that kept Randy Bennett's team out of an exempt tournament last season. Part of it is due to BYU's emergence as Gonzaga's primary challenger in the conference. But with the Cougars sliding this season, Saint Mary's is poised to return to its longtime position at the top of the league.
The Gaels have won 13 of their first 14 games, including their first four WCC contests. One of those wins came over BYU at home. Saint Mary's has established itself as at least deserving of second place, and with Gonzaga not as strong as anticipated, they might even be considered the favorite.
While the Gaels are 2-0 against the RPI Top 50, neither UC Irvine nor Stanford are guaranteed to stay there. That means there will be more pressure during the two, and perhaps three, meetings with Gonzaga. A four-point road loss at California, currently just outside the Top 50, might end up being a huge missed opportunity.
Making matters worse, the WCC appears to be a bit down this season, and it's possible that four squads could be ranked 300th or worse in the RPI table when all is said and done. Factoring in the WCC Tournament, the Gaels could then have nine games against some of the worst Division I has to offer. And the top of the league isn't all that strong, either, with only Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in the Top 50 and BYU and Pepperdine in the Top 150 right now.
Wins, with preferably one against Gonzaga. Of course, if the Gaels can knock off the Bulldogs in a hypothetical third meeting in Las Vegas during Selection Week, none of these words will really matter (though the scheduling could hurt Saint Mary's seed).
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Gonzaga (Jan. 21 home, Feb. 20 away)
Little Rock Trojans (11-1, 3-0 Sun Belt)
You probably first heard about the Trojans way back on Nov. 21, when they won an ugly 49-43 game at San Diego.
DePaul is, well, DePaul, and the Golden Hurricane and Aztecs have been disappointing, to put things kindly. Plus, the Trojans lost their only game against a Top-50 opponent, at what appears to be an improved Texas Tech. In terms of conference play, the Sun Belt currently features three teams in the RPI Top 100 -- UT Arlington, the Trojans themselves and Georgia State -- but the rest of the conference ranks around 200th or worse.
While Tulsa and San Diego State could conceivably turn into quality wins, Little Rock's best hope will be to win the conference title in New Orleans on Selection Sunday.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: UT Arlington (Jan. 23 away, Feb. 25 home); Georgia State (Jan. 30 home, Feb. 18 away)
UT Arlington Mavericks (11-2, 3-0 Sun Belt)
It's rare that multiple Sun Belt teams are in the at-large picture -- Middle Tennessee, now in Conference USA, made the First Four in 2013, while South Alabama earned a 10th seed back in 2008. Otherwise, you'd have to go back to the 80s, when a league that featured the Jaguars, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Old Dominion, UAB, USF and Western Kentucky, and a VCU program that earned high seeds in 1981, 1983 and 1985. Most of those teams have moved on, mainly for football reasons.
Now the Sun Belt has football, but its two non-football members are the ones leading the way in hoops -- aforementioned Little Rock and the University of Texas at Arlington.
The Mavericks actually aren't new to this rodeo -- they came close to a bid in 2012, when they went 15-1 as a member of the Southland Conference. But this time around, they played a far better non-conference schedule, winning HoopHall Invitational road games at Ohio State and Memphis. Their only two losses came on the road to Texas and Conference USA contender Louisiana Tech. Plus, they've already defeated a Top-50 foe in conference play, Georgia State.
The same warnings about conference play that apply to Little Rock apply to the Mavericks, especially since the Sun Belt plays a full 20-game, double round-robin schedule like the MAAC. That provides for plenty of potential bumps in the road.
Ohio State's continued improvement is surely earning rave reviews in the Metroplex. UTA fans would also like to see Memphis make a similar jump. But avoiding pratfalls in the Sun Belt, while picking up wins over Georgia State (on the road) and Little Rock (both meetings remain), is the best course of action for Scott Cross' team.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Little Rock (Jan. 23 home, Feb. 25 away); Georgia State (Feb. 6 away)
Valparaiso Crusaders (9-3, 1-0 Horizon)
The first game I went to this season was the Crusaders' opener, an 83-58 romp over Iona. A game that looked to be the mid-major showcase of the 2015-16 campaign was over for all intents and purposes at the second media timeout of the first half. It felt like Valpo had launched a historic season.
From there, Bryce Drew's team continued its ambitious early-season schedule with a trip to Rhode Island, who had just lost E.C. Matthews for the season to a knee injury. The Crusaders earned a hard-fought road win, but not one with the RPI value expected. After a pair of home wins over non-Division I foes, Valparaiso headed west, falling at Oregon, but winning at Oregon State. That split leaves the Horizon League favorite's record against the RPI Top 50 at 1-1.
After returning from the Beaver State, Valparaiso lost at Ball State by three -- the Cardinals currently sit outside of the RPI Top 200. Four wins in a row followed before the Crusaders lost the road trip of a rare non-conference home-and-home series with Ohio Valley Tournament champion Belmont. Conference play began with an easy win over UIC, the worst Horizon team in the RPI table (343rd). Unfortunately for Valpo, none of the other nine members of the league join them in either the Top 50 or 100. That means the dreaded bad loss will be lurking a bit more frequently than in past seasons.
Given the lack of high quality opposition in the Horizon this season, Valparaiso must be extra careful during its remaining 17 league games, with this weekend's Oakland/Detroit road swing looking particularly dangerous. (On the plus side, the Golden Grizzlies and Titans follow Valpo in the RPI rankings.) This is especially true with the Horizon League Tournament switching from an on-campus affair to one hosted on a neutral court in Detroit, in both of those schools' backyards. Oregon and Oregon State jumping into Pac-12 contention will also do wonders for the Crusaders' national profile.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Oakland (Jan. 8 away, Feb. 19 home)
Wichita State Shockers (8-5, 3-0 Missouri Valley)
After last March's run to the Sweet Sixteen, big things were expected out of the Shockers this season. But a hamstring injury to Fred VanVleet led to the guard missing the Advocare Invitational. As a result, Gregg Marshall's team looked rudderless without their point guard and stumbled to three straight losses, though a scary injury to Anton Grady during Wichita State's second game against Alabama didn't help.
After VanVleet's return, the Shockers defeated Utah at home, a result that boosted their record against the Top 50 to 1-4. The Missouri Valley is also experiencing a bit of an RPI resurgence, with Northern Iowa, Evansville and Southern Illinois all currently in the Top 100, along with the Shockers.
As you'll read below, the Panthers have faded, and might not count as a potential quality win for much longer. A home win over UNLV may not count for much, as the Runnin' Rebels have struggled at times, and their computer numbers reflect that. A road loss at Tulsa might turn into a bad one if the Golden Hurricane keep struggling.
Winning Arch Madness wasn't forecast to be a necessity back in November, but that's the surest way for Wichita State to book a place in the field of 68. Otherwise, the Shockers had better hope the Committee takes VanVleet's injury into consideration when deliberating their at-large picks.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Southern Illinois (Jan. 9 away, Feb. 3 home); Evansville (Jan. 31 away)
Northern Iowa Panthers (8-6, 1-2 Missouri Valley)
For a few weeks, it looked like the Panthers would provide the Selection Committee with an interesting case. However, some recent losses have knocked UNI down the pecking order.
Not many teams in the country, particularly from the mid-major ranks, will have a profile with wins over teams of such quality as North Carolina (albeit without Marcus Paige) and Iowa State (on a neutral floor no less).
The Panthers could have bolstered their profile with a fruitful trip to the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, but a quarterfinal loss to host Hawaii dropped Northern Iowa into the consolation bracket where a win over Washington State and loss to a down BYU squad followed. UNI also picked a bad year to lose to Colorado State and New Mexico out of the Mountain West. Two losses in the first three games of the conference season -- including one at Missouri State, not one of the league's shining lights -- on Wednesday night put the Panthers into an even deeper hole.
The Panthers need the Valley auto bid even more badly than Wichita State does. Only a perfect run through their remaining 15 league games might change that fact. Maybe.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Wichita State (Jan. 20 home, Feb. 13 away)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits (11-4, 2-1)
You might know that Maryland won the Cancun Challenge before Thanksgiving. But did you know that the Jackrabbits also finished the event with a perfect four wins in four games?
The Jackrabbits won on the road at TCU and Illinois State before topping Houston Baptist and Cleveland State to win the mid-major bracket in Cancun. Thanks to the split bracket format and the scheduling assignments, Scott Nagy's team didn't get a chance at the Terps or Rhode Island. That's a shame. South Dakota State also has a pair of Top 100 home wins, over UC Santa Barbara and Middle Tennessee.
The Summit is a little stronger than it usually is, with four squads in the RPI Top 150 and no team currently ranking outside of the Top 250.
Like Little Rock, the Jackrabbits' Waterloo came in Lubbock, where they dropped a 12-point decision to Texas Tech on Dec. 16. Making matters worse, none of SDSU's wins in their exempt event came against a team that will make the committee's eyes collectively light up. Losing in conference, like they did last night at 6-12 IUPUI, would also be a bad move.
While it's possible for South Dakota State's computer numbers to stay in the range for at-large consideration, the Jackrabbits won't want to sweat it out. They would be best served by taking care of business in their own backyard -- by claiming the Summit auto bid in Sioux Falls.
Biggest regular season game(s) left: Omaha (Jan. 28 home, Feb. 10 away); North Dakota State (Jan. 16 away, Feb. 25 home)
Now, it's your turn. Which of these teams do you think have the best chance of sneaking in as an at-large should things go wrong during Championship Week?