With a month until Selection Sunday, there are still a number of teams in contention for the 68 spots in the NCAA Tournament. The major conference teams will dominate most of the At-Large bids that are awarded in the NCAA Tournament, but there are some small conference teams to keep an eye on and some close conference races. Earlier this week I detailed the races in the Major Conferences. Today I dive into the minor conferences. Even though most of these will be one-bid leagues, they can make for some of the best action of the conference tournament fortnight and it’s never too early to start looking at teams that could make a splash in March.
Vermont has run through conference play this season with a perfect 14-0 mark. Second place Stony Brook are the defending America East tournament champions who reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history last year. Vermont can clinch the top seed in the conference tournament with a win over fourth place Albany next Wednesday. Prior to Stony Brook’s win last year, Albany had won the prior three America East tournaments. Despite having an RPI in the 50s, Vermont has no chance of an At-Large bid as the Catamounts are 0-4 against teams ranked in the Top 100 and 21 of their 22 wins have come against teams ranked 140th or worse.
The A-10 has been one of the most successful mid-major conferences in recent years, being awarded 18 at-large bids since 2011. This season has been a battle at the top between VCU and Dayton. Both teams have RPIs in the high 20s and played good enough non-conference slates, both ranking in the Top 70. The issue for both teams from a bracketology standpoint is a lack of good wins coupled with bad losses. VCU’s best wins are over Dayton (RPI 28) and Middle Tennessee (RPI 38) and the Rams have 4 losses to teams ranked outside the Top 70, including one to Fordham (RPI 212). Dayton does not have a sub-200 loss like VCU, though their worst loss is to #148 UMass. Additionally, the Flyers best win is a sweep of Rhode Island (RPI 42) by a combined 4 points. Speaking of Rhode Island, they are technically still in the picture thanks to no losses outside the Top 100 but have been uninspiring against good teams. The Rams have just two victories over Top 100 teams and have 5 losses against teams ranked between 50 and 100. Unfortunately for the A-10, that is the extent of their At-Large hopes for this season and none of them are on solid footing. Though they don’t have a tournament-worthy resume, George Mason has quietly put together a good season and could be a team to make some noise in the A-10 Tournament.
The Atlantic Sun is a few years removed from the “Atlantic Stun” label they garnered after Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer pulled shocking NCAA Tournament upsets in consecutive seasons. Florida Gulf Coast are the defending champions and currently tied with Lipscomb atop the conference. Lipscomb has twice won the regular season conference title but has never been to the NCAA Tournament. The Atlantic Sun does not have their tournament at a neutral site but rather in the gym of the higher seeded team so the regular season champion will get home court advantage throughout the tournament.
Once again, Weber St is sitting atop the Big Sky Conference. The Wildcats are the defending regular season and conference tournament champions. Weber St leads North Dakota by a half game in the conference standings and the two will face off on Saturday. North Dakota won the earlier meeting and is looking for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since moving up to Division 1 in 2011.
The Big South has been a three team race this season between Liberty, UNC-Asheville, and Winthrop. UNC-Asheville are the defending conference tournament champions and last year was the first time since 2008 that the Big South Champion did not receive a 16-seed. Winthrop made 8 NCAA Tournament appearances between 2000 and 2010 but has not been back to the Big Dance since 2010 (though they lost in the Championship Game the last three years). In the six years since the Eagles last trip, UNC-Asheville has won the Big South three times and Liberty has won it once. Winthrop and Asheville have split their two meetings this season while both Winthrop and Asheville have victories over Liberty. The next two weekends will decide the regular season conference title as Liberty plays Winthrop this Saturday and Asheville next Saturday. The Big South Tournament this year will be held at campus sites so the regular season champion will have home court advantage throughout the tournament.
The Big West has traditionally been a strong league but is going through a down year in 2017. UC Davis and UC Irvine are the only Big West teams with overall winning records. Interestingly, the conference has had 7 different representatives in the NCAA Tournament over the last 7 years and 8 over the last 9 years. The only team to not reach the Big Dance over that span has been Cal State Fullerton. UC Davis and UC Irvine have paced the field this year. Davis won the first meeting and the two will meet again in the regular season finale on March 4. Third place CSU Northridge is inelligible for the NCAA Tournament this year.
Defending champion UNC Wilmington and Charleston have been battling it out atop the CAA all season. Wilmington scored a mid-January victory in Charleston but then the Cougars came back and won in early February in Wilmington. Despite having an RPI in the 40s, UNC-Wilmington has a minimal chance of making the NCAA Tournament with no Top 50 wins and their best win coming over Charleston (RPI 72). Charleston’s RPI was hovering in the 50s before they lost back-to-back games to Northeastern and William & Mary. The CAA will be a one-bid league but the tournament will be competitive with Towson also figuring to be a strong competitor.
Middle Tennessee State is the defending champions and pulled the shocker of the Tournament last year when they beat Michigan State in the first round. The Blue Raiders have dominated conference play this season, boasting a 12-1 record with their only loss coming at UTEP. Unfortunately, UTEP ranks below 300 in the RPI which was a devastating loss for MTSU’s At-Large chances should they fall in the C-USA tournament.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Valparaiso is leading the Horizon League. The Crusaders have a two-game lead over Oakland and the two will face off again on Friday night. Oakland won the first meeting on Valparaiso’s floor in January. Valparaiso does have 3 Top 100 victories including a win over Rhode Island and could be a dangerous first round matchup in March if they can navigate the Horizon League Tournament. It is worth noting that the Horizon League awards a “double bye” to the first and second place teams in the conference so that they don’t start tournament play until the semi-finals. The second place race is tight with three teams (Green Bay, Northern Kentucky, and Wright St) within a game of second place Oakland.
For the first time ever this year the Ivy League will host a postseason tournament. While they are not including all of their teams, their first foray into conference tournament play will feature the top four teams in the league. This works out this year as the bottom four teams are absolutely atrocious. Princeton is unbeaten at 8-0 in league play with Harvard and Yale sitting two games back. Columbia is in fourth, two games ahead of the other four teams.
Monmouth has paced the field again this season in the MAAC. The Hawks are 14-2 in conference play and have a 4 game lead over St Peter’s and Iona. Monmouth was the center of much bracketology debate last season after they scored early-season victories over major conference opponents but in the end had too many bad losses to earn an at-large bid. This year, they did not play nearly as difficult a non-conference slate but find themselves in a similar position. Monmouth has a Top 50 RPI but only 2 Top 100 wins (with their best being over #66 Princeton). The Hawks have lost twice to teams below 150 in the RPI which will likely doom their At-Large hopes if they fail to win the MAAC tournament again.
Akron is absolutely running away with the MAC this season. The Zips are 12-1 in conference play and have a 4-game lead over the next closest teams. The Zips played an awful non-conference schedule and faced just 2 opponents ranked in the Top 100, losing both games. Despite having a Top 40 RPI, Akron will miss the Tournament if they don’t win the MAC.
North Carolina Central leads the MEAC and is the only team in the conference that has a winning record. It is almost a guarantee that the MEAC Champion will be a 16-seed this season if NC Central doesn’t win the tournament.
Wichita State and Illinois State have dominated the league this season. The teams split their head-to-head meetings and have a 5-game lead over the next closest team. The two seem to be on a collision course for a rubber match in the Missouri Valley title game, but don’t count out some other craziness happening in Arch Madness. Both the Shockers and Redbirds have Top 50 RPIs but are on treacherous footing for At-Large bids. The only Top 50 win either team has is their head-to-head win over the other. Illinois State did beat New Mexico (RPI 74) but also has 3 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs. Wichita State has not lost a game outside the Top 50 but their second-best win after Illinois State is over Colorado State (RPI 104). It is hard to see a team with just 1 or 2 Top 100 victories getting an At-Large bid, though a case could be made for either team based on the eye test as they both certainly look the part of an NCAA Tournament team.
Speaking of Colorado State and New Mexico, they are locked in a 4-way battle atop the Mountain West standings. Thanks to a loss by Boise State this week, Colorado State is currently holding a half-game lead over Boise and Nevada with New Mexico a game behind. Nevada has the best tournament resume in the conference with a Top 50 RPI but no wins against Top 60 opponents and 3 losses outside the Top 100. Boise State does have a Top 50 win (over SMU) but also has 3 sub-100 losses which is likely a resume-killer. New Mexico played the best non-conference slate of any of the four teams but lacks a Top 50 win and has also dropped 3 games to sub-100 teams. The Mountain West will likely be a one-bid league again this year, and don’t count out San Diego State in the conference tournament.
The NEC has been represented by four different teams over the last four seasons. The NEC Champion has received a 16-seed each of the last five years and that trend looks likely to continue this year. Mount Saint Mary’s leads the conference by two games and is the only team in the conference with an RPI in the Top 200. In fact, besides Mount Saint Mary’s only Long Island and Wagner have winning records on the season.
One of the biggest shockers of last year’s conference tournaments was 8th seeded Austin Peay navigating the Ohio Valley Tournament and knocking off the #5, #4, #1, and #2 seeds to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. It is worth noting that only 8 of the 12 OVC teams qualify for the Conference tournament and the winners of the two divisions get double-byes to the semi-finals. Belmont has a two game lead over Morehead State in the East Division and has only lost once in conference play. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they went 0-4 against Top 100 opponents this season and none of their 18 victories came against a team in the Top 150 so their chances of an at-large bid are essentially zero. There is a tight race in the West Division for the second double-bye with UT-Martin and Murray St holding a one game lead over Southeast Missouri St. At the bottom, Tennessee St is holding on to the 8th and final spot in the conference tournament with a 6 conference wins, 1 ahead of Eastern Illinois and 2 ahead of defending champion Austin Peay.
The only conference that could have topped the Ohio Valley in shock value last year was the Patriot League. Holy Cross finished 9th in the League with a 2-13 road record (0-9 in League play) and had not won more than 3 games in a row all season. The Patriot League Tournament is held at Campus sites so the Crusaders had to go on the road four consecutive times and defeat the #8, #1, #4 and #2 seeds to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. Bucknell is currently sitting atop the league, a familiar place for the Bison who have won the regular season conference title in 5 of the last 6 years. Despite having home court advantage in the conference tournament, the Bison have been upset the last two times and have not been to the Dance since 2013. Of their 3 conference losses this season, 2 have come against Lehigh who may be their main threat to winning the title. Bucknell can clinch the regular season title with a win over Boston U on Sunday.
Entering the season, many saw the SoCon as a two-team race between defending champion Chattanooga and East Tennessee State. Incredibly, neither currently sit atop the league but rather the Furman Paladins. All 3 teams are ranked in the Top 100 in the nation which should make for an entertaining conference tournament, especially with the competitive UNC-Greensboro in the mix as well. Furman has won 10 in a row to get to the top of the conference but has games against ETSU and UNC-G in the next week.
Stephen F Austin had dominated the conference, earning the automatic bid in each of the last 3 seasons with a combined record of 53-1 in conference play. The Lumberjacks also pulled two first round upsets in the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2016. Unfortunately, coach Brad Underwood departed for Oklahoma State and SFA has fallen back to the pack. The conference is wide open this year with New Orleans holding a slim lead over Sam Houston State and Stephen F Austin atop the standings.
The SWAC has received a 16-seed in all but one Tournament over the last 20 years. The conference is routinely plagued by ineligible teams which is the case again this year as Alcorn State failed to meet the NCAA’s APR requirements. Alcorn State is currently second in the standings so among NCAA Tournament-eiligible teams, Texas Southern is running away with the league with a 2.5-game lead over Southern. Texas Southern and Southern have owned the conference tournament and accounted for the last 4 NCAA Tournament berths from the SWAC.
Over the last 5 years the Summit League has been won by either North Dakota State or South Dakota State. North Dakota State is currently sitting atop the conference standings but it is a down year for the Jackrabbits as South Dakota State is currently sixth. South Dakota, on the other hand, is tied for the league lead with NDSU. Keep an eye on Fort Wayne in the conference tournament. The Mastadons played a tough non-conference schedule that included a win over Indiana (which doesn’t look as good now that the Hoosiers have forgotten how to win basketball games).
The Sun Belt is a league with a handful of good teams at the top that all have no chance at an At-Large bid. This has the makings of an incredibly fun conference tournament as UT-Arlington, Arkansas St, Georgia St, and Georgia Southern battle it out. Those 4 teams are all currently within a half place of first place and you can add in Texas State and Coastal Carolina who are both within a game and a half of first. UT-Arlington has a great road win at St Mary’s but has only 1 other Top 100 win and has lost 3 times outside the Top 100 which makes their tournament chances incredibly slim despite a good RPI and non-conference schedule. Similarly, Arkansas St won at Georgetown but has only 2 Top 100 wins and has lost to two sub-200 teams. Georgia State and Georgia Southern both have games remaining against UT-Arlington, Texas St, and Arkansas St along with a head-to-head meeting in the season finale.
Until last year, New Mexico State had been the dominant team in the WAC, winning 5 of the prior 6 conference tournaments. Last year the Aggies were topped in the WAC Championship by Cal State Bakersfield on a buzzer-beating 3 to send the Roadrunners to their first ever NCAA Tournament. The teams have split their two meetings this season but because of a New Mexico State loss to Grand Canyon last week, CSU-Bakersfield currently sits atop the league standings. With Grand Canyon ineligible for the postseason based on their transition to Division 1, a rubber match between CSU-Bakersfield and New Mexico State seems to be in the cards.
After running through all of the major and minor conferences, we finally come to the confernece which boasts the #1 team in the nation. Talk about burying the lede. Gonzaga has been incredible this season and their undefeated record is more than just running it up against bad teams. The Zags have neutral court wins over Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, and Tennessee who all rank in the Top 50. They also swept conference rival St Mary’s in convincing fashion. The Zags are looking to complete an undefeated season which will assuredly result in a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. St Mary’s should be in good enough shape for an at-large bid as long as they don’t lose to any team not named Gonzaga over the rest of the season. The Gaels have 2 Top 50 wins (though their best is over #29 Dayton) and don’t have a loss outside the Top 50. BYU and San Francisco are both flirting with the Top 100 which may put them on the NIT bubble but both teams have a number of bad losses and neither has a good enough win on their profile to garner consideration for the NCAA Tournament.