As the first full week of March comes to a close, the madness is already upon us. Conference tournaments began Tuesday with well over 200 teams knowing that winning a conference tournament title is their only hope to be recognized and be in the Big Dance. We are well aware of the Big Ten tournament and the ACC tournament. We have followed along with the standings in the Big 12 and SEC. We even know what teams could win a few games in the tournament from the Big East or Pac-12.
What’s challenging now is the impact the mid-majors have on the NCAA tournament. Who will be this year’s Cinderella? Can someone repeat UMBC’s historic upset of Virginia? Will a new page in history be made? With the lack of dominance this year in college basketball, it certainly feels like nothing is off the table. It looks like two mid-majors (yes, I know Gonzaga shouldn’t really be considered a mid-major, but they are still in a mid-major league) will be No. 1 seeds come to the NCAA tournament.
So with our first two automatic bids coming on Saturday let’s take a look at the best of the best mid-major conference tournaments and the teams to keep watch on in the Big Dance.
Dayton has dominated the conference all season long and is a lock to make the NCAA tournament and even has the potential to be a No. 1 seed. The fun begins with the teams on the bubble. Richmond and Rhode Island are potentially sitting on the outside looking in and will be desperate for a signature win and an A-10 title to ease their nerves. Don’t forget about Saint Louis either. The Billikens have been hanging on the ledge refusing to let go of any hope to an at-large hope. The Billikens may be the most challenging team for the Flyers. Losing to them twice this season by a combined eight points and missing out on a win at home from poor free-throw shooting.
Only one game separates three teams in the standings. Northern Colorado hasn’t won a Big Sky tournament since 2011 when they last appeared in a championship game. Eastern Washington and Montana have been the dominant programs as of late, meeting in the championship game three times in the last four years. Montana, however, has the experience. They have won five tournaments in the last 10 years and have appeared in seven title games during that time.
Hofstra is poised to make the NCAA tournament to represent the Colonial Athletic Association. If they do they are a team that any major program wouldn’t want to face. William & Mary, however, has other thoughts. The Tribe is one of four schools to never make the NCAA tournament as an original division I program. They are also a team with Nathan Knight that can be dangerous in the NCAA tournament. It looks to be a two-team race, but then again it is March.
The Ivy League tournament has made everything more exciting for the league. Yale and Harvard look to be in control and neither team wants to be bet against in the Big Dance.
No auto bids will be given to the MAC this year, but the tournament should still bring excitement. Akron and Bowling Green are the favorites, but we have certainly seen bigger surprises. If Akron can win the tournament they are a team that does not want to be seen as a first-round match-up.
The Missouri Valley is another potential bid stealing conference. Northern Iowa has just possibly done enough to earn an at-large bid from the selection committee. The Panthers would love to leave St. Louis with the MVC title but winning the Missouri Valley is no easy task. Northern Iowa enters the tournament as the favorite and as the No. 1 seed but in the MVC the No.1 seed has only won the tournament four times in the last 10 years. Loyola-Chicago is a potential to take the crown but in the Valley, anything can happen.
San Diego State has been playing with fire as of late. The Mountain West teams have learned to not be afraid of the Aztecs and have been giving them everything they have. The Aztecs lone loss on the season came to UNLV, but it is Utah State who sits on the bubble. After being picked to win the MWC the Aggies need a statement win and a tournament title to secure their playing days continue.
Belmont, Austin Peay, and Murray State have been trading the top seed in the Ohio Valley all season long. Neither team will make the tournament on their own accord but all three could be an upset pick potentially.
East Tennessee State is 27-4, 16-2 in the Southern Conference and still only won the conference by one game over Furman. Furman and UNC Greensboro have hung around the bubble conversation all season and want to make sure their fate is in their own hands. ETSU has most likely done everything it needs to to be an at-large team if they don’t win the tournament with their signature win coming at LSU.
Gonzaga, BYU, and Saint Mary’s have all most likely secured a spot into the tournament but the WCC is a potential bid thief if one of these three does not walk away with the championship trophy.