The stretch run of the region XXIII men's basketball tournament is here. The region champion will earn an automatic bid into the National Junior College Athletic Association championship tournament in Hutchinson, KS. Mississippi JUCO'S have had success in the national tournament. Jones College won the national championship in 2014. Holmes advanced to the elite eight in 2015 and plenty of other MS JUCO'S have also represented well. However, these teams all qualified for the NJCAA national tournament by winning their region championship. Nowhere in the record books could we find a MS JUCO ever receiving an at large bid into the national tournament.
One media outlet that JUCO basketball coaches and administrators monitor is "The Nielsen File." Nic Nielsen has been following JUCO basketball for over three decades. He currently provides "NJCAA Bracketology" on social media. His weekly in depth charts and graphics rank the JUCO teams across the country. He lists the schools that he feels should qualify for the national tournament.
I talked with the founder of "The Nielsen File."
JW: What formula does The Nielsen File use to produce Bracketology?
The Nielsen File: I combine the eye test with the raw data from the Massey ratings (which is a respected analytics platform) and the NJCAA website. I have watched over 300 JUCO games so far this season and I've watched games in 15 of the 16 districts this year. I also subscribe to everybody's you tube page that I can find. I watch some games "live", tape the others, and watch those games later.
JW: How do you determine your top 100 teams and your top 50 teams?
The Nielsen File: From the Massey 100.
JW: How much stock do you put into preseason rankings?
The Nielsen File: I do not put any stock in preseason rankings but it is the most important rating of the year for schools.
JW: How do you view JUCO basketball: Is there a high major, a mid major, and low major?
The Nielsen File: No, I do not view the JUCO'S that way. However, there are traditional hotbeds. Florida and West Texas in particular. I try to evaluate who the best teams are when I am putting together the bracketology report and then I combine that with what I think the selection committee would actually do. Some of the best predictors of who will do well is a tab I have and put out in my weekly rankings for "NJCAA Division I wins against opponents that have a 500+ record." I think the selection committee really values DI wins against winning teams. I think that historically, the committee will ding you if you have a loss to a DI team with a losing record. Whether that is right, wrong, or indifferent, I just think that's the way it works.
JW: What could Mississippi JUCO programs do to have more teams ranked on your board?
The Nielsen File: If there were a way to play the Florida JUCO'S that would go a long way. The JUCO basketball world revolves around Florida and west Texas. I think to get credibility on a national scale you have to be able to play some of those schools. Scrimmages played against teams will carry no weight with the committee.
JW: If Pearl River loses in the Region XXIII championship game, will they still get into the national tournament as an at large team?
The Nielsen File: Well, I think only playing a limited amount games because of the COVID-19 pandemic hurts them. But, they are ranked No. 11, which is a good spot to be in. However, in 2018 John Logan was ranked No. 5 and did not get an at large bid. Mineral Area had a high ranking last year and did not get an at large bid, so Pearl River would be on the bubble.
JW: If Pearl River wins the Region XXIII tournament, do you think another Mississippi JUCO will receive an at large bid?
The Nielsen File: I think if Pearl River wins the Region XXIII tournament, than any other school would have an uphill struggle to get in. I do not think there has ever been an at large selection that made it to the national tournament as an unranked team.
Pearl River head coach Chris Oney strongly feels that even if his Wildcats fall into the at large category they are deserving of an invitation to Hutch. "I think we have done enough. What I cannot change is that my school is located in Mississippi. If you put our resume in any other state, other than Mississippi, the national selection committee would put us in without any hesitation. We've lost one game in two years, we just do not get the national respect that our conference deserves," said Oney.
Holmes, Hinds, and Northeast are three more quality programs. If they can get to the regional finals, they feel they have a strong case for an at large bid. "There seems to be a stigma that we do not play good basketball here in Mississippi. But, we do," says Holmes men's head basketball coach Jason Flanigan. He added, "There are plenty of schools that deserve an at large bid this year including us." Flanigan's Bulldogs made a run to the elite eight in 2015 and qualified for the national tournament again in 2018. "We've proven we can play in the tournament in Hutch. When we went in 2015, we made it to the elite eight, which says plenty about our program and about our league. We beat Eastern Florida, and Indian Hills during our 2015 run, " said Flanigan. This season the Holmes Bulldogs are mentally and physically tough. "We're playing some great defense right now and we are sharing the ball on offense," said Flanigan.
A pre-season ranking is crucial when it comes to at large bids and Oney and Pearl River CC have put themselves in a good spot. "I think we have done a really good job at promoting our student athletes as far as getting our guys signed with Division I programs. Once people started seeing that, they began paying more attention to our record and us. I think the national committee likes to have high profile player's play in their tournament," said Oney.
However, it remains very difficult to receive a preseason national ranking if you are a Mississippi JUCO program. Last year, Northeast MS had to get to 15-0 before receiving a ranking. They received votes early on but not a ranking. The previous season to that, the Tigers finished as a ranked program by the NJCAA. NEMCC had a stable of star players returning but did not receive a preseason ranking when the next season started. Some in the conference felt that if NEMCC was 15-0 and in a Kansas, Florida or the Texas conference, they would not only have been ranked earlier in that season, but would have been a top five program by mid season.
Some say that what hurts the Mississippi JUCO'S is they do not play a national schedule. But playing games against schools from Kansas, Florida, or Texas is not as easy as you may think. A school from Florida or West Texas is not going to come to Mississippi to play a regular season game unless that Mississippi school goes to their campus first. Even then, there is no guarantee that those teams will commit to coming to the magnolia state for a regular season game. School budgets are also a factor.
If a Mississippi JUCO cannot secure a pre-season NJCAA national ranking, then it is unlikely they will get ranked which then drastically diminishes their chances at receiving an at large bid. If Holmes, Hinds, Pearl River, or Northeast finish as the runner up in the region XXIII tournament, their resume would be strong for an at large bid. Pearl River stands at 11-1 and is ranked No. 11 in the country. Hinds is 12-2, Northeast is 13-3 and Holmes is 12-3. Southwest and Northwest remain in the hunt but they would need to win the region tournament to go to Hutch.
History says that the only chance the conference has at getting an at large bid is if Pearl River is the runner up in the region XXIII tournament.
But, even then, everyone in Poplarville will be holding his or her breath and sweating it out on selection day.
Tonights Region XXIII scoreboard http://www.jucoweekly.org/sports/mbkb/composite