Updating the Big Sky and Sun Belt races
Both Denver and Northern Colorado took big steps forward in their respective conference races on Saturday. DU beat Florida International to stay in the thick of the race for the #3 overall seed in the Sun Belt, and just as important, avoided a slide toward the #6 seed and an opening-round game in Sun Belt. Meanwhile, UNC kept its head above water in the fight to qualify for the Big Sky tournament, which requires a top 6 finish in the regular-season standings.
I’ll start with Northern Colorado, since they have the most at stake: their very postseason hopes, not just seeding and bracketing, are on the line. The Bears are still on the outside looking in, but they’re now alone in 7th place, with a huge, almost must-win game Wednesday at the 6th-place team. Here’s the relevant part of the standings:
3. Idaho State 7-6 (games remaining: EWU, Sacto, @EWU)
4. Portland State 6-6 (Sacto, @Sacto, EWU, UNC)
5. Montana State 6-7 (Weber, @Montana, NAU)
6. Eastern Washington 5-7 (UNC, @ISU, @PSU, ISU)
7. Northern Colorado 5-8 (@EWU, Weber, @PSU)
8. Sacramento State 4-9 (@PSU, PSU, ISU)
If UNC wins out, they’re very likely in, as they’d own the tiebreaker with EWU. (I say “very likely” because I don’t know if a multi-way tie might change that equation.) The big question is, can they lose to Weber State (or at Portland State), win their other two games, and get in at 7-9? Let’s see…
With Montana State facing the conference’s two best teams and its worst team, it’s a fair bet they’ll finish 7-9. With three winnable home games, Portland State is fairly likely to end up no worse than 8-8. Idaho State, likewise, will probably win at least 1 game to get to 8-8 or better. Conversely, Sacramento State will probably lose at last 1 game, to finish 6-10 or worse. So, if UNC finishes 7-9, it would probably come down to Eastern Washington, Montana State and Northern Colorado for that sixth and final spot.
MSU and UNC split the season series, but assuming UNC beats EWU on Wednesday, the Bears would be 2-0 against the Eagles. The Eagles, for their part, are 2-0 against the Bobcats. So in a hypothetical three-way tie for fifth, UNC would be 3-1 against the group, MSU 2-2, and EWU 1-3. That means the Bears get in. Alternatively, in a two-way tie for sixth with just EWU (i.e., if MSU pulls off an upset and goes 2-1 or better down the stretch), the Bears would win the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Eagles, and get in. So, bottom line, it’s simply a question of whether EWU loses one (or more) of its final three games after (hypothetically) losing to UNC, in order to create that tiebreaker (or fall behind UNC altogether). If they do, UNC gets either the #5 or #6 spot, even if the Bears finish 7-9. Probably. But again, it all hinges on Northern Colorado winning at Eastern Washington on Wednesday. They’ve gotta do that.
Now, to the Sun Belt. Here is where things stand after Saturday’s action, in the battles for seeds #2 through #6:
2. UALR 9-3 (games remaining: FIU, @Troy, North Texas, Arkansas State)
3. Louisiana-Lafayette 9-4 (@Denver, @North Texas, LA-Monroe)
4. Denver 8-5 (LA-Lafayette, LA-Monroe, North Texas)
5. Florida Atlantic 7-5 (@Western Kentucky, @MTSU, South Alabama, Troy)
6. North Texas 7-5 (LA-Monroe, LA-Lafayette, @UALR, @Denver)
With its final three games at home, you have to like Denver’s chances to finish 11-5, in which case they can do no worse than #5, and have an excellent shot at #3 (they just need FAU to lose a game). But a single loss would be devastating — and both Lafayette and North Texas are certainly capable of beating the Pioneers, and will have every motivation to try. The season finale against the Mean Green, Denver’s senior day, could end up having huge seeding implications. It’s a Sunday afternoon game, and I hope to be there with my girls.