As Ground Hog’s Day approaches, the numbers of potential at-large teams drops into a more manageable number. Conference tournament action kicks off in less than four weeks, and four dozens of teams, their only chance to make the Big Dance will be to win their conference tournament.
In the past week, a couple of conferences on the verge of having a second team guaranteed to make the Field of 68 became clearer to the 32 Bracketologists that we consider A-1. The West Coast Conference now looks like a two-bid league for sure with both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s on pace to become locks. The American Conference is close to being assured of at least two teams with Cincinnati coming on strong and Connecticut looking like they have just enough positives on their resume to get in the Dance.
In the case of the Missouri Valley, Wichita State opened up a three-game lead over rivals Evansville and Southern Illinois, as the Shockers now look like a Sweet 16 team with the entire roster healthy. San Diego State has lapped the field in the Mountain West, and it looks like the Aztecs will be the lone team to earn a spot in the field if they win the conference tournament as well.
The bubble has been reduced to just 15 teams this week, with the top five on the bubble in the field, and the bottom 10 on the outside, looking in.
Here is this week’s One-bid Conference Review.
Stony Brook (8-0/17-4) made it 13 wins in a row with a 27-point win over contender Maine and a road win against Vermont by double digits. The Seawolves have enough talent to pull off a Round of 64 upset and cannot be overlooked. SBU should be no worse than 14-2/23-6 entering the AmEast Conference Tournament. Only Albany (6-2/17-6) still has a chance to take away the top seed, and we don’t see it happening. It will be a monumental upset if any team other than the Seawolves win this bid.
North Florida (7-0/18-6) has begun to distance themselves from the rest of the league. Florida Gulf Coast (4-3/13-10) has dropped three games in a row, while Jacksonville (5-2/13-11) has moved into second place. UNF looks like a 12-2/23-8 team at worst entering A-Sun Tourney play. The Ospreys have a pair of guards that can shoot opponents out of the game when they get on a hot streak. Dallas Moore and Beau Beech can knock it in from downtown and get inside the arc for open shorter looks. They both scored 31 points at LSU earlier in the season and might have upset the Tigers had Ben Simmons not gone for 43 points.
Montana (8-1/13-7) maintained the lead in the Big Sky with a road win over middle-of-the-pack rival Montana State, while top contender Weber State (7-1/15-6) swept the league’s two bottom-feeders. The top two teams meet Saturday, February 27, in Ogden, with the winner most likely to earn the top-seed. Unlike in years past, when only the top four, six, or eight teams qualified for the conference tournament, and the top-seed hosted it, the league has switched to a new format where all 12 teams qualify for the tournament, and it will be played in Reno.
This league is one of the most interesting of the low major conferences. Seven teams are still in contention for the conference tournament. Winthrop (8-3/16-6) is the hot team, having won eight consecutive games. The Eagles are tied for first with UNC-Asheville (8-3/15-8). Five other teams are within two games of first. The conference tournament is at last place Campbell.
The top two teams both suffered setbacks last week but still remain the teams to beat. Defending champion UC-Irvine (6-1/17-6) still has the best roster for scaring an #2 or #3 seed, but Hawaii (5-1/16-3) may have the better overall talent. As usual for the league, the conference tournament is in Anaheim, and that should help Irvine a little.
This is a five-team race to the conference championship, and any of the five could compete in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament. Presently, UNC-Wilmington (8-2/16-5) and Hofstra (8-2/16-6) are both enjoying healthy winning streaks, but February presents both schools tough finishing schedules. The co-leaders face off for the first of two times Thursday night in Hempstead. The out-of-conference schedules were not strong enough to merit an extra bid from this league, but there are two or even three teams talented enough to compete in the Field of 68.
UAB (8-1/18-4) is in the catbird’s seat in C-USA. The Blazers are close to locking up the top-seed in the conference tournament, and the league has made it easier for them by putting the conference tournament in Birmingham. Middle Tennessee (7-2/15-6) is firmly in control of the important second spot, where the top two seeds receive byes to the third day of the tournament. UAB must still visit MTSU on Sunday, February 21.
Valparaiso (9-1/19-4) is running away with this race. Wright State (7-3/13-10) defeated Valpo earlier this year, but the Crusaders will have the chance to get revenge at home later this month. The top two seeds receive byes to the conference tournament semifinal round. Valpo could earn a 10-seed if they win out, but they will not receive an at-large bid if they are upset in the conference tourney.
The one holdout when it comes to conference tournaments, the Ivy League still may be faced with a playoff of two or even three teams. Currently, two teams remained unbeaten in league play. Yale (4-0/13-5) knocked off previously unbeaten in Ivy play Princeton Saturday night, while Columbia (4-0/15-6) won at Harvard. The Bulldogs and Lions face off Friday night in New Haven, with a return game in the Big Apple on March 5. There is a good chance that the two might be forced to play a rubber game on March 12.
The top three teams have begun to distance themselves from the rest of the league. Monmouth (9-2/17-5) has won eight of nine games, including wins over the other two contenders, Siena (8-3/15-7) and Iona (8-3/11-9). The three contenders each face the other two one more time this year, starting with Monmouth facing Siena in Albany tonight. The MAAC Tournament will be in Albany again.
The MAC returns to its old conference tournament format with the four first round games played on campus sites and the winners joining the four teams receiving byes in Cleveland for the final three rounds. Even though the league is still divided into divisions, the teams will be seeded one to 12 in the postseason. In a showdown of division leaders last Tuesday, Akron (6-2/17-4) bested Northern Illinois (5-3/16-5). Kent State (6-2/15-6) and Central Michigan (5-3/12-9) currently hold on to the other two of the top four seeds, but there are teams behind these four capable of winning the lone automatic bid.
This race tightened since we last reported, as South Carolina State (7-2/12-11) won at league-leader Hampton (8-1/12-8) Saturday. It was the only regular season meeting between the top two teams, so Hampton does not have to go to Orangeburg.
Wichita State (10-0/16-5) has opened up a three-game lead over Evansville (7-3/18-5) and Southern Illinois (7-3/18-5), and short of SIU winning out in the regular season, which would include a Wednesday night win over the Shockers, this league will be reduced to one bid if WSU wins the automatic berth.
San Diego State (9-0/16-6) is on the verge of doing in the MWC what Wichita State has done in the MVC. The Aztecs are now 2 1/2 games ahead of number two New Mexico (6-2/13-8). The conference tournament is in Vegas, but the home team UNLV Rebels are mired in a distant seventh place and in utter disarray, so do not expect the home team to win the tournament or even make it to the semifinals.
This remains an exciting race, as six teams remain in contention for the conference championship. Seeding is very important in the NEC, because all conference tournament games are played on the superior-seed home courts. Saturday, Wagner (7-3/14-7) won at Mount St. Mary’s (7-3/10-13) to become the hot team. Fairleigh Dickinson (7-3/11-10) will make the 30-mile trek to Staten Island Thursday night to face Wagner.
Belmont (8-1/16-7) lost its first league game of the season, when the Bruins lost at Tennessee Tech (8-2/16-7). The Golden Eagles also bested Tennessee State (6-2/15-6) earlier in the week. TTU must still face the other two contenders on enemy turf this month. Morehead State (6-3/12-9) is in fourth place in the East Division, but that record would be good for first in the West Division. The top two seeds earn byes to the semifinal round.
Bucknell (9-1/12-9) has won nine of their last 10 games, and the Bison hold a 2 1/2 game lead over Navy (6-3/15-7), after the Midshipmen lost twice to bottom division opponents last week. All conference tournament games are played at the home courts of the higher seeds, and it will be very difficult for anybody to beat Bucknell at Sojka Pavilion.
With non-conference wins over Georgia, Dayton, and Illinois, and a loss at Iowa State, Chattanooga (7-1/18-3) might be capable of advancing past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, if star big guard Casey Jones can return from his ankle injury and play at the same pace prior to the injury. This team is solid and capable of winning 30 games. Any other team earning the bid from this league will be a great disappointment, because the Mocs are 10 points better than anybody else when Jones is healthy.
Brad Underwood should be coaching in a Power 5 conference. The head man of Stephen F. Austin (8-0/15-5), even in his early 50’s, is talented enough to get a big time job and lead a major conference team to a Final Four. The Lumberjacks face their sternest test of the conference season this Saturday, when they venture to co-leader Houston Baptist (8-0/14-7). Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (7-1/16-4) is close behind but lost at home to SFA over the weekend.
Three teams appear to be above the rest in the league, but it looks like an almost certainty that the winner of the automatic bid will have to turn around on just two or three days off to play a First Four game in Dayton. Texas Southern (8-0/9-11), Southern (7-2/15-7), and Jackson State (6-2/11-10) are the top three, while Alcorn State (6-3/8-12) is eligible to play in the SWAC Tournament, but ineligible to play in any postseason tournament. If the Braves were to win the Conference Tournament, the league will then choose the representative.
How about a race with four teams tied for first as they round the final turn and head for home? Locked in a tight race are South Dakota State (7-2/18-5), IPFW (7-2/18-6), Omaha (7-2/15-8), and IUPUI (7-2/11-13). The conference tournament remains in Sioux Falls, so the Jackrabbits have the advantage over the other three co-leaders. For Omaha, this is the Mavericks’ first year as an eligible member of Division 1. Omaha may actually be the best of the quartet, and they still must face SDSU twice.
Arkansas-Little Rock (9-1/19-2) probably has no chance at an at-large bid, even if they were to win out through the conference tournament semifinals before losing in the championship game. Even at 29-3, the Trojans would likely be headed to the NIT. UALR’s chief competition is Louisiana-Lafayette (7-3/11-8).
This leaves 46 teams from multiple bid leagues. Here is a rundown on each conference.
Okay for Now
North Carolina (8-0/19-2)
Okay for Now
Notre Dame (6-3/15-6)
Florida State (4-5/14-7)
Okay for Now
Virginia Commonwealth (8-0/16-5)
St. Joseph’s (7-1/18-3)
George Washington (5-3/16-5)
West Virginia (6-2/17-4)
Iowa St. (5-3/16-5)
Okay for Now
Texas Tech (2-6/12-8)
Kansas St. (2-6/13-8)
Okay for Now
Seton Hall (5-4/15-6)
Michigan St. (6-4/19-4)
Okay for Now
Okay for Now
Oregon St. (3-6/12-8)
Texas A&M (7-1/18-3)
Okay for Now
South Carolina (6-2/19-2)
Okay for Now
St. Mary’s (9-1/18-2)
The 68 Teams Seeded
|12||San Diego St.|
|13||South Dakota St.|
|15||Stephen F. Austin|
Last Four IN:Gonzaga, Butler, LSU, Texas Tech
First Four OUT: Wisconsin, UCLA, George Washington, Clemson
Next Four OUT: Vanderbilt, Kansas St., Oregon St., Creighton