Can Shaka Smart do it again? The young coaching genius has the VCU Rams back in the Tournament for the second consecutive year after a 59-56 win over Drexel in the CAA Championship. Virginia Commonwealth snapped Drexel's 19-game winning streak to take home the conference crown. The Rams shocked the world last season; while many pundits thought they shouldn't even be among the field of 68, coach Smart's crew stormed all the way to the school's first Final Four.
The Rams will surprise nobody in 2012, but take note of some history here. Hardly anybody thought Butler could get to the title game again last season, particularly after losing star player Gordon Hayward to the NBA. Yet that's exactly what the Bulldogs did. In fact, who did the Bulldogs beat to get to the championship contest in 2011? That's right, the VCU Rams. Much like Butler coach Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart has turned down more lucrative and higher-profile coaching jobs to stay at Virginia Commonwealth. Will Smart's loyalty be rewarded with another magical tournament run? We'll find out shortly.
In this edition of the barometer, we'll look at those teams improving their stock for the NCAA Tournament, and those sliding into the NIT, or perhaps beyond.
Connecticut - With consecutive victories in the Big East tournament, the Huskies appear to be in pretty decent position to gain an at-large berth in the field of 68. Tuesday's thrilling OT victory over West Virginia was led by Shabazz Napier, who has been inconsistent in trying to replace Kemba Walker. Against the Mountaineers, Napier tallied 26 points, four rebounds, six dimes, three steals and three blocks. For the Huskies to go far this season, they'll need Jeremy Lamb to step up, though, and be the focal point of the offense. Another Big East Championship and deep run in the NCAAs seems unlikely, but then again, wasn't that the story last year as well? One certainty is that Syracuse is probably not happy having to play UConn in the next round Thursday.
Saint Louis - The Billikens are 24-6, but may need to do some damage in the Atlantic-10 tournament to gain an at-large bid. They've beaten several big-conference squads in Oklahoma, Washington, Villanova and Boston College; however, only Washington appears to be a signature win of that group. In conference, they've won against Xavier twice, but they do have a bad loss at 7-24 Rhode Island. Should they not win the conference tourney and gain an automatic bid, they may have to get at least to the championship game to prove they belong in the Big Dance. Still, they have proven to be tournament worthy in my eyes.
West Virginia - The Mountaineers may be one of the teams sweating it out come Selection Sunday after getting knocked out in OT by UConn. With as many as 10 Big East teams vying for spots, the Mountaineers will point to triumphs over fellow Big East schools South Florida and Cincinnati, as well as wins Kansas State and fellow bubble squad the Miami Hurricanes. West Virginia doesn't have any monster wins, though, so it's hoping the strength of the conference will bode well for its chances.
Northwestern - Minnesota and Illinois are the worst losses for the Wildcats. Northwestern's strength of schedule is especially impressive at 13, with an RPI of 48 to boot. A signature victory over Michigan State certainly helps, but an 8-10 record inside the Big Ten certainly does not. My gut says the ability to play tough opponents night in and night out will be weighed more heavily for the Wildcats. But with the selection committee, you never know.
NC State - For big-time programs, 20 wins and an above-.500 conference record usually earns an invite to the ball. Not so in recent seasons, though, as mid-majors have gained notoriety and publicity. This could spell doom for the Wolfpack, a team with a consistent yet unspectacular resume. No big losses, but no huge wins. Consistency could be rewarded, but perhaps the Wolfpack are merely just a middle-of-the-road team with little to offer to the selection committee.
Drexel - A 19-game winning streak has to count for something, right? The aforementioned Dragons beat Virginia Commonwealth earlier in the season, just not in the conference championship. Will they get penalized for timing due to residency in the Colonial Athletic Association? A loss to Winthrop earlier this season can't help either, but the Dragons were simply dominant for nearly the entire year of 2012 up until their loss in the CAA title game. The Dragons' resume should be solid enough, but strength of schedule (208) is a concern.
Xavier - What should have been an epic season for the Musketeers spiraled out of control following the ugly brawl with Cincinnati. Undefeated at 8-0 at that time, the Muskeeters finished the year a dismal 11-11, including an ugly overtime loss to Hawaii in late December. On paper, Xavier has one of the most talented backcourts in the nation with Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. With Kenny Frease manning the middle, the Muskeeters have the talent to make some noise come tourney time. However, it could be a struggle to qualify if they don't take over the A-10 postseason.
Tennessee - Tennessee is an interesting squad. The Vols are 10-6 in the SEC, but just 8-7 outside of conference. Some of their losses are understandable (Duke and Memphis) while others are mind-boggling (Pittsburgh, Charleston and Austin Peay). Dispatching Florida twice looks fancy; a defeat at the hands of Georgia, not so pretty. A supremely up-and-down team, four consecutive wins heading into postseason play could mean the Vols are getting hot at the right time.
Iona - The Gaels were a chic pick to do some damage in March Madness; that is, until they lost in the MAAC Semifinals to Fairfield. A high-octane squad, the Gaels lead the nation with 85.3 points per game, as well as assists at 19.3 dimes per tilt. Iona is also second in the nation in field-goal percentage at 50.4 percent per contest. However, all those stats still might not help their case, due to ugly losses to Hofstra and Siena that could prove particularly harmful. Iona's RPI is decent, but strength of schedule not so much. All in all, the Gaels likely had to win their conference crown to get in.
Arizona/Oregon - The Pac-12 is really weak this season, and it would not surprise me if only two teams made it (Washington and Cal). The Wildcats are in even more trouble than the Ducks with a worse record, strength of schedule and RPI. A loss to Oregon doesn't help the Wildcats; nor does two losses to Washington. An automatic berth by virtue of claiming the Pac-12 Crown could be the only way for either team to dance later this month.
Miami - Miami has two extremely impressive victories; the Hurricanes beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Arena and also took down Florida State at home. The loss at Maryland stings, but otherwise the Canes don't have any truly damaging losses. It will be interesting to see if the committee takes into account the absence of monster center Reggie Johnson from the beginning of the season. Miami went 5-4 to start the season as Johnson was out with a knee injury. The Canes have gone 13-7 since. A few victories in the ACC postseason would certainly help Miami's cause.
Seton Hall - Seton Hall likely would be the 10th Big East squad to make the tourney. The blowout win over Providence in the first round of the conference tournament was needed, as the Pirates had dropped nine of 13 games before the victory. The Pirates have beaten Georgetown and UConn, but lost to Villanova, Rutgers and an awful DePaul squad. Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope are ultra-talented, but a sub-.500 record in conference could be the death knell for the Hall.