The teams I most want to make the NCAA Tournament from each conference

These next 12 days or so are among the most fun days of the season. Conference Tournament Week(s) are exciting, sad, happy, and a wild ball of emotions all rolled into a two-week cycle. Some of your faves don’t get to make the Tournament, while others come out of nowhere to become nationally beloved squads. As best as I can, I’ve tried to find the most interesting or exciting team from all 32 NCAA conferences that people should be rooting for to make the NCAA Tournament. Several of these from the Big Six + high-end mid-major conferences are already locks to make the field, but others need to win their tournament to get in. Consider it a rooting guide of sorts.

The teams are listed in alphabetical order by conference. The number in parentheses next to a team is their odds of making the Field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s website. I know it’s not a perfect metric, obviously, but it’s reasonable and worth working with.

Atlantic 10: Dayton (100%)

Like some other teams on this list, I wrote about Dayton back in mid-February, and most of what I wrote still holds true. However, the Flyers have somehow been even better offensively lately. They had a mild hiccup at George Mason last Tuesday, posting their first sub-1 PPP game of the season, which is insane. Other than that, it’s been smooth sailing. Dayton is now shooting 63.1% from two, which would be a Division I record, and hasn’t lost since before Christmas. The A-10 has a couple other fun offenses, namely Davidson, but Dayton stands far, far ahead of the rest of the pack. If you like basketball, you should root for them to make the Final Four.

ACC: Duke (100%)

I’ll admit that this one has become tough to defend lately. The Duke offense has struggled as of late, posting 0.794 PPP against Virginia and 0.866 PPP against NCSU. However, those efforts were interspersed with games like a 1.245 PPP against Notre Dame and 1.213 PPP over Virginia Tech. The fact of the matter is that there’s no runaway great offense in the ACC this year. I considered Louisville for this slot, and they may yet overtake Duke…but no Louisville player is as singularly thrilling as Vernon Carey, Jr.

America East: UMass Lowell (0.5%)

This one requires explanation. Like any lover of 12/13 seeds, I want Vermont to win the America East conference tournament with ease. I’m not that silly. But, in the event Vermont doesn’t win it, I’d love for UMass Lowell to be there in their place.

Pat Duquette, despite coaching at a school with just about zero positive athletics history outside of hockey, has crafted an offense that’s finished in the top 50 of 2PT% in three of the last four years with a great shot at a fourth year in five. Few teams out there get more of their points at the rim. If only they could play defense – they gave up 92 and 94 to Vermont.

American: SMU (4.2%)

There’s no super-lovable AAC offenses this year, but SMU comes fairly close. This isn’t a great team, but they take a lot of threes, get off a lot of good passes, and knock down nearly 55% of their twos. For no reason at all, here’s them dropping eleven threes and a 67% hit rate on twos on the Memphis Tigers:

Atlantic Sun: North Florida (18.4%)

I think this is the single most fun offense that literally no one has seen in 2020. North Florida operates out of Jacksonville, and head coach Matthew Driscoll has stayed the course there for eleven seasons, making the NCAA Tournament once in 2015. For most of his tenure, they’ve been well ahead of the curve on three-point attempts, but this edition of the Ospreys is unhinged: 52.3% of their shots are from three. The Ospreys make 38% of these shots, meaning that almost 46% of their offense comes from the three-point line. Here’s my North Florida sell: on any given night, they could lose to anyone (Ls to #250 Tennessee State, #304 NJIT). Also, on any given night, they can shoot their way to a victory (win over #69 Liberty).

Big Ten: Iowa (100%)

Has Luka Garza, plays fast, everyone shoots threes and passes the ball effectively. What more do you need?

Big 12: Kansas (100%)

The best team in America is also the Big 12’s most enjoyable offering this year. In general, major-conference basketball is a bit more restrictive and on-the-whole less enjoyable than, say, the Ohio Valley, but Kansas has two of the best players in the nation in Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. They’re also flawed in a fascinating way, struggling to hit free throws to put away easy victories and having turnover issues that lost them games against Duke and Baylor. A very talented, interestingly flawed squad.

Big East: Creighton (100%)

Prior to a horrifying beatdown at the hands of St. John’s this past Sunday, this was the fastest-rising high-major team in the nation. This is the best Creighton squad since Doug McDermott was running off of screens for open threes, and this group hits threes and twos at fairly similar rates. Ty-Shon Alexander (39.3% from three), Marcus Zegarowski (39.1%), and Mitch Ballock (43.3%) are all a blast to watch, and when this offense is cooking, as it was in an 81-59 win over Butler on February 23, it seems particularly hard to slow down.

Big Sky: Northern Colorado (37%)

This could be a stretch, but hear me out: this is maybe the most fascinating mid-major offering of the year. Northern Colorado does the following things:

  • Ranks 20th in eFG% and 11th in TO%
  • Makes 36.8% of threes (33rd), 53.7% of twos (28th), and takes 45.2% of their shots from downtown (26th)
  • Takes fewer non-rim twos (13.4% of all shots) than all but three D-1 teams
  • Opponents have taken just 23.7% of their shots from three against Northern Colorado, the lowest rate in America…
  • …and have also posted an Assist Rate of just 33.2%, easily the lowest rate in America.

They offer such an intoxicating combination of pros for analytically-minded viewers that I can’t imagine not rooting for them to go as far as possible.

Big South: Radford (50.1%)

This one was between Radford and Winthrop, the two best teams in the Big South, but I ended up riding with Radford. The Highlanders have the 36th-best eFG%, the 6th-lowest offensive Steal%, own a Quadrant 1 win over Richmond, and have a coach named Mike Jones.

Big West: Cal State Northridge (4.4%)

If you haven’t heard of Lamine Diane, you have got to hear of him immediately:

Affectionately named Cocaine Diane by NBA Twitter user @Cosmis. Diane averages 25.5 PPG and 10.1 RPG, owns a usage rate of nearly 37%and plays 36 minutes a night. He is a long-lost article of a different era: a high-usage shooter that takes lots of long twos, is recklessly fun to watch, and single-handedly propels a team’s fortunes either upward or downward. CSU Northridge is tracking for a 3/4 seed in the Big West conference tournament, but you really should watch every Lamine Diane game you possibly can.

Colonial: Hofstra (28%)

There are so many options to pick from in what’s quietly been the most enjoyable conference across the board this season. 2 seed William & Mary offers Nathan Knight, who is like East Coast Diane, and has never been to the NCAA Tournament. 3 seed Towson has plenty of good shooters and hasn’t made the Big Dance in 29 years. 4 seed Charleston offers Grant Riller, a future NBA player. 5 seed Delaware made 56.5% of their twos in conference play. Even 6 seed Northeastern has Jordan Roland, a hilarious volume shooter that makes 40% of his threes and scored 42, 39, and 38 points in games this year.

Even keeping my personal bias aside, I sided with Hofstra, who offers up easily the best offense in the conference. The Pride made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play, and star Desure Buie averaged a line of 20/4/6 in conference play. Also, Hofstra hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2001 and owns zero Tournament victories. Basically everyone in this conference is easy to root for, but Hofstra reigns supreme.

Conference USA: North Texas (38.9%)

Along with Northern Colorado, one of my pet teams for the back half of this basketball season. The Mean Green haven’t been to the NCAAT since 2010, but this edition is a blast. North Texas makes 38% of their threes (14th) and 55.2% of their twos (13th) for a 55.9% eFG% (6th!). They’re quietly a great bet for a potential upset, as they limit possessions to an extreme (350th in tempo), make 77.1% of their free throws, and force turnovers on 20.8% of opponent possessions. Per Bart Torvik, North Texas owns the 11th-best offense in the nation in 2020. They’re currently tracking for a 13 seed. Depending on the matchup, they look to be as good a March value as exists at that seed line.

Horizon: Green Bay (8.2%)

Green Bay is the 3 seed in the Horizon League, but due to the Horizon League’s conference tournament structure, they’re at a disadvantage by not finishing in the top two. They’ll have to win three games instead of just two to make the NCAA Tournament. Still, I’ve admired Linc Darner’s strategy since he took over in 2015-16. The Phoenix will push the pace at all costs (#1 in Avg. Poss. Length in 2019-20), limiting turnovers, and don’t care at all if they give up buckets on the other end. They’ve won games 102-92, 92-89, and 94-90…and lost games 92-88, 98-94, and 90-84. They are insane, and they are a blast. (Also considered: Wright State, who had the actual best offense in conference play and are pretty enjoyable in their own right.)

Ivy: Yale (38.3%)

This one is easy. Yale has the best player in the Ivy League (Paul Atkinson, 17.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG), leads the league in 2PT%, 3PT%, and eFG%, takes lots of threes, and is oddly dominating on the defensive boards (4th nationally in DREB%). They’ve still got to win their league, but they’re better set up to pull off a March surprise this year than they were last time out.

MAAC: Siena (31.2%)

This is a wild turn. For most of the last six years, Siena was a brutal watch. In particular, the last two seasons have been awful. Siena offered up extremely slow basketball with lots of missed shots and a pair of offenses that ranked 316th and 251st. This year, under first-year head coach Carm Maciarello, they’ve sped things up a bit. They hit 37.4% of their threes in conference play, rank #1 in the conference in offense, and have the conference’s best player in Jalen Pickett. None of the MAAC teams are all that exciting to watch, honestly, especially in years where Iona is down, but I’ve got to give Siena credit for a watchable product.

MAC: Akron (36.5%)

Loren Cristian Jackson:

LCJ makes an absurd 45.1% of his threes and offers up a 125.4 Offensive Rating, which is the best I could find for someone with a 26% Usage Rate or higher. The team also has a player named Tyler Cheese (TYLER CHEESE!), gets 37% of their points from threes, plays fast, and hung with both Louisville and West Virginia well into the second halves of each game. Currently tracking for a 13 seed or thereabouts if they win the MAC.

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman (15.2%)

To be honest, this is the worst conference in basketball, largely because these universities simply do not have the level of funding necessary to compete with everyone else. It sucks, and I feel terrible for them. But I do think Bethune-Cookman would be a fun story. Daytona Beach’s premier basketball program has never made the NCAA Tournament and plays a fast, loose brand of basketball built on getting to the free throw line and forcing opponents into bad mistakes. Very nearly beat Georgia Tech in early December, losing 68-65 on a late three.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa (58.5%)

Already wrote about these guys, but they ended up hitting 40.9% of their threes in conference play and posted a 56.1% eFG%. Behind BYU, they’re the second-best deep-shooting team in the nation. They slumped a bit to end conference play, but did recover to blast both Evansville and Drake. Will be a great value pick at the 11/12 seed line if they make the field.

Mountain West: San Diego State (100%)

This one was pretty easy. Malachi Flynn is one of the most exciting players out there, regardless of conference. If there’s a shooting category in existence, SDSU ranks in the top 35 of it nationally. I recommend watching this past Saturday’s Nevada game, where the Aztecs had an unusually weak defensive performance (by their standards, mind you) and Malachi Flynn’s 36 points on 20 shots covered it all up.

Northeast: St. Francis (PA) (28.2%)

A bit out of left field, this one – few outside of the Northeast are paying attention to Northeast Conference happenings, especially when the conference has never won a non-First Four NCAA Tournament game. St. Francis (PA) will be worth your time on a Tuesday/Wednesday evening if they win the NEC, at least. The Red Flash operate easily the best offense in the NEC, play a faster-than-normal pace, have a great volume of shots, and probably should’ve beaten Richmond in early November in an overtime loss.

Ohio Valley: Belmont (50.7%)

Same as it ever was. Like basically every Belmont team before it, this one takes a lot of threes, makes a lot of twos, plays fast and loose, and wins a lot of basketball games.

Pacific 12: Oregon (100%)

Oregon has risen all the way to 7th in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency on the back of some outstanding three-point shooting (38.4%, 9th) and high-level shot volume (68th in TO%, 43rd in OREB%; one of only nine teams in America to rank top 75 in both). There are points of games where it feels like Oregon’s had the ball for ten minutes straight, and it seems like a potentially devastating offense for March opponents to stop if they can’t beat them on the boards.

Patriot: Colgate (53.4%)

These guys again! Matt Langel’s Raiders are the class of the Patriot League once again, with an offense that generates tons of great looks from downtown and sustains its shot volume by rarely turning the ball over. Every member of the main rotation, including 6’10” center Rapolas Ivanauskas, has hit at least 13 threes this season. They beat Cincinnati in December by way of a bizarre ending, but this is a super-fun offense that could reasonably give a high seed trouble for a while for the second straight Tournament.

Sun Belt: Little Rock (15.4%)

Admittedly, I haven’t thought much about Little Rock since their defeat of Purdue in the 2015 NCAA Tournament damaged the bracket I had with Purdue in the Elite Eight, but hey, here they are. I find this group pretty interesting. They rank 35th in eFG%, get a ton of points at the free throw line (#4 in Free Throw Rate), and are good on the boards. They aren’t the best team in the Sun Belt (Texas State) and might not even be the second-best (Georgia State), but they do have the best offense in the conference.

Southern: Furman (25.5%)

Full disclosure: as a resident of East Tennessee for 8.5 years now, I will not be rooting for Furman to win the Southern Conference. Really, I find myself even more attracted to UNC Greensboro, a team that should have made last year’s NCAA Tournament as an at-large, over Furman. But I’m not going to deny how nice it would be to see this Furman offense on a national stage. The Paladins take over 46% of their attempts from three, making around 35% of them. They make 57% of their twos because of Bob Richey’s creative offense that takes very few bad shots. Most notably, I actually do think they could give a March opponent real trouble. Furman is one of just four teams in the nation to rank in the top 45 in both offensive and defensive Turnover Rate. They’re aggressive and wise – a deadly combo!

SEC: LSU (93.8%)

Talked about these guys back in February, but nothing meaningful has changed – still a top-three offense in America that is an absolute monster on the offensive boards and at the rim. If Skylar Mays was a tiny bit more consistent from downtown and the Tigers bothered to play defense more than one out of every five games, I would trust this team far more in the NCAA Tournament than I do…but it does admittedly make for a super-watchable combination. Certainly worth your time to watch them in an 8/9 game on a Thursday evening as they lose 83-82 to Oklahoma or Xavier.

Southland: McNeese State (0.9%)

The only truly good team in the Southland is Stephen F. Austin, and I am obviously rooting for them to go far. That said: McNeese State has had the marginally better offense in conference play. Most importantly, they have Dru Kuxhausen, maybe the single best three-point shooter in the nation. Kuxhausen is 92-for-197 (46.7%) this season as a JUCO product; in McNeese’s last two games, both wins, he made 14 total threes. All the guy does when he’s on the floor is toss up threes, and a lot of them go in.

Summit: South Dakota State (32.2%)

As I wrote last month, these Jackrabbits are both young (#341 in experience) and a total blast. They ended up making 57.4% of their twos on the season, second-best behind Dayton, and made nearly 40% of their threes in conference play. They’re the best team in the Summit League with the best offense in an absurdly deep offensive conference. We’ve got to get these guys in the Big Dance, though I will accept South Dakota or Oral Roberts as replacements.

SWAC: Texas Southern (13.8%)

Similar to the MEAC in that these teams, sadly, don’t have the funding to compete with many on the big stage. That said, you can always get behind Texas Southern, a team that puts up absurd non-conference schedules every year and almost always puts a serious scare into an opponent or two. This year, it was Wichita State and Oregon, two teams the Tigers were massive underdogs against but hung with to the very end. Plus, they play fast and get to the free throw line a lot, which could reasonably keep them in a game with a 1 seed for a little while. More of a First Four curiosity, if I’m being honest.

Western Athletic: New Mexico State (64.8%)

I love that, no matter who the coach is or what stage of life this program is at, they will basically always be there for me in March to bet on again and lose. New Mexico State’s potential in March has haunted me for a full decade now, starting with them nearly toppling 5-seed Michigan State in 2010 and pushing all the way to last year’s extreme near-upset of 5-seed Auburn. Yet again, despite numerous injuries in non-conference play, NMSU is rounding into a terrifying whole. They’ve won 18 straight games, hit a lot of threes, get a ton of rebounds, force lots of turnovers, are senior-heavy, and will almost certainly lose by six points to 4-seed Oregon in the Round of 64.

West Coast: Gonzaga and BYU (both 100%)

This was the only conference I allowed a quote-unquote “tie” for, because this is the only conference that offers up two of the three most watchable teams in 2019-20 college basketball. For 35 minutes or so, the game between these two at BYU last weekend was as fun a game as any I’ve watched this year; I really wish they played five times this season instead of the maximum of three. Nothing I can say at this point sells these teams better than their own product can. It’s a massive win for basketball if we get a WCC tournament championship between these two.

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