Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Five Risers, Five Fallers A Week In

The opening week of the season is in the books and already there have been some shakeups. There has been some movement that could definitely affect our NIT outlook by the end of the season. Here is a quick look at 10 of the most surprising teams (five up and five down).

Five Up:

James Madison: The Dukes have risen 51 spots in KenPom through the first eight days of the season, second only to Purdue Fort Wayne. JMU already has wins at Michigan St. and Kent St., which is quite the combination. KenPom currently predicts that Mark Byington's team will go 23-6 and 13-5 in the Sun Belt. Given the remaining teams in the conference, that would probably mean taking some losses that would put JMU squarely on the bubble come Selection Sunday. Still, the Dukes seemed primed for at least an NIT invite even without the existence of automatic bids.

Michigan: I didn't even have Michigan as a protected seed in the NIT when I did my preseason bracket. My bad! The Wolverines have far surpassed all preseason expectations and are now 23rd in KenPom and look like a dangerous NCAA Tournament squad thanks to Dug McDaniel.

Princeton: While a 2-bid Ivy League is probably a long shot, the league does seem to be setting itself up for a potential NIT bid this season. Yale is still the class of the league according to projection systems (the Bulldogs did win at Loyola Marymound on Sunday), but the Tigers have victories over Rutgers on a neutral court and at Hofstra on their early resume. Wednesday's game at Duquesne is shaping up to be an extremely interesting NIT bubble battle as is the Dec. 2 matchup against Furman. How Princeton handles the rest of its non-conference schedule could help determine if the Ivy League positions itself for an NIT bid. (Shoutout to 3-1 Penn too. The Quakers just took down Villanova and are another one of KenPom's biggest risers. Steve Donahue's team looks like another dangerous Ivy League spoiler along with 3-0 Cornell.)

Utah: The Utes might also be playing themselves out of the NIT. While they haven't played the hardest competition yet, Craig Smith's team has stomped Eastern Washington and UC Riverside. Things pick up later this week with the Charleston Classic. Utah will take on Wake Forest and, with a win, potentially Houston and then one of LSU, Dayton, North Texas and St. John's. Those games will provide an excellent early test for a team that could be playing itself away from the bubble.

Akron & Toldeo: Let's cheat and put these two MAC teams together. The Zips have risen 20 spots thanks to a win at South Dakota St. and a comfortable home victory against Southern Miss. The problem for Akron is the quadrant system. They're going to have to do something in the Cayman Islands Basketball Tournament starting on Sunday in order to have a reasonable shot at the NIT because there aren't many Quad I or II type games on their non-conference schedule. Toledo, on the other hand, has a couple of shots thanks to games at West Virginia (see below) and neutral court contest versus New Mexico in the Ball Dawgs Classic. The MAC should be quite competitive this season between these two teams and Ohio and Kent St., so it'll be interesting to see if any of those four teams can put up a resume that will secure an NIT at-large bid.

Five Down:

UNLV: Wednesday's loss to Southern was one of the most shocking results of the opening week of the season. The Runnin' Rebels did follow it up by blowing out Stetson, but the non-conference schedule is extremely daunting. KenPom now projects that UNLV will finish 13-16 (8-10 in the Mountain West), which would be a far miss from UNLV's goals entering the season when I had them as a fringe NIT team.

St. Bonaventure and VCU: It hasn't been a great start to the non-conference slate for the Atlantic 10. The league hasn't had any of its top tier teams separate from the pack early on in the season and VCU and St. Bonaventure, which looked like potential postseason teams, have struggled early on. The Bonnies lost a home game to Canisius (yikes!) while VCU opened its season by getting beat by McNeese St. There's a lot of time for both these teams to get on track and the Rams in particular have an extremely challenging non-conference schedule in Ryan Odom's first season, but the early returns have me wondering if the Rams might take a little bit of time to gel. 

West Virginia: The Mountaineers lost to Monmouth at home on Friday, another one of the biggest upsets in college basketball this season. Josh Eilert was already trying to hold this team together with duct tape and having to play a Big 12 schedule is going to make it extremely difficult to play postseason basketball unless something dramatically changes. KenPom currently projects the Mountaineers to go 12-18 (5-13 in Big 12), which is a huge departure from their preseason rankings when I thought they'd be able to sneak into the back half of the NIT.

LSU: LSU lost to Nicholls St. at home on Friday and now the Tigers are projected to go 14-15 (7-11 SEC). Honestly, outside of the obvious NCAA Tournament contenders the SEC is pretty weak. It'll be interesting to see if one of South Carolina, Missouri, LSU and Georgia emerge as an obvious NIT team, especially considering the new automatic bid process.

Charleston: There are a lot of teams I could've picked here, but I think things are most dire for last season's regular season and tournament CAA champions. The Cougars lost by 18 to Duquesne on Friday and are looking at a 50/50 game to open the Myrtle Beach Invitational against Vermont. Charleston has a bunch of other tough games remaining on its non-conference schedule and KenPom is now pretty skeptical about what the Cougars can do against it. In addition, UNCW, Drexel and Hofstra seem to be legitimate challengers this season. The CAA seems likely to not have an NIT team at all.

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