2014 NCAA Tournament: Mid-Major Conferences Most Likely to Grab at-Large Bids

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 28, 2014

2014 NCAA Tournament: Mid-Major Conferences Most Likely to Grab at-Large Bids

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    J.J. Mann (24) celebrates after hitting a game-winning shot over North Carolina.
    J.J. Mann (24) celebrates after hitting a game-winning shot over North Carolina.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    For every extra Cinderella that enters the field of 68, a power conference bubble team loses its wings.

    Bubble watching becomes a pastime in and of itself this time of year. Who will crack the dance? After the 31 automatic bids go out for conference tournament winners, it's a land grab for the remaining at-large bids.

    For the so-called power conferences, winning the tourney is almost a bonus for some teams. On the other end of the spectrum, the automatic bid is the only ticket to the dance for some of the lower mid-major leagues.

    And then there are the conferences in the middle that have a foot in both camps. These are the leagues and teams that create bracketology's true X-factor. Call them the middle of the mid-majors, if you like, but if you're a fan of any basketball powerhouse school, you may be more likely to call them spoilers.

    Here are the mid-major conferences and teams that could play that role this year by unexpectedly landing more at-large dance cards than expected. 

    If you're one of the fans who will be on the edge of your seat come Selection Sunday, consider this your pocket guide to some of the mid-major tournaments to keep a close eye on as the big moment approaches.

    All stats provided by ESPN unless otherwise noted.

Missouri Valley Conference

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    Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet.
    Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Leading school: Wichita State (30-0 overall, 17-0 conference, RPI: 9)
    Potential spoiler: Indiana State (21-8 overall, 12-5 conference, RPI: 63)

    Wichita State is currently 30-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. So, yeah. They're going to the dance.

    But the Sycamores gave the Shockers their closest game of February, losing by only seven on their own home court. Wichita State tightened down on defense to pull out that game on Feb. 5, but the Sycamores are frisky, too.

    Indiana State would need to win their conference tourney to get into the big tourney, but if anyone can upend Wichita State in the conference tourney, it's probably the Sycamores. And if—pardon me—that shocker happens in the conference tournament, that's surely one at-large bid off the table for the ACCs and Big Tens of the world.

West Coast Conference

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    Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos
    Gonzaga guard Kevin PangosYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    Leading school: Gonzaga (24-6 overall, 14-3 conference, RPI: 30)
    Potential spoilers: BYU (20-10 overall, 12-5 conference, RPI: 35), San Francisco (19-10 overall, 12-5 conference, RPI: 72), St. Mary's (21-9 overall, 11-6 conference, RPI: 59)

    The WCC is a tough conference, as evidenced by its No. 9 ranking in conference RPI and the combined 84-35 record of their top four teams.

    If the tournament started today, most bracketologists have Gonzaga and BYU slated for the tourney. If that holds, a conference tournament upset from San Francisco or St. Mary's—both of which have played the Bulldogs and Cougars relatively close despite not netting any wins in those games—would eat up another at-large bid.

    Gonzaga doesn't seem like it can do anything to miss the dance at this point, but if bubbly BYU stumbles down the final stretch of the regular season, that could add another general layer of instability when the WCC tourney arrives.

Mountain West Conference

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    New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow
    New Mexico forward Cameron BairstowIsaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Leading schools: San Diego State (24-3 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 23), New Mexico (22-5 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 21)
    Potential spoiler: UNLV (18-10 overall, 9-6 conference, RPI: 105)

    Barring serious collapse, San Diego State and New Mexico are both likely locks for the tournament.

    But 18-10 UNLV is no joke. On Jan. 15, the Rebs and that rugged frontcourt upended the Lobos in New Mexico. New Mexico evened the score in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, but that game (plus a narrow five-point loss to juggernaut Arizona back in December) has proven that UNLV is nobody's easy out. 

    A March 5 date with the Aztecs—not to mention the conference tournament—could be very interesting. Multiple bites at the apple mean multiple chances to pull off something big, and UNLV has proven they are up to that task.

Big East

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    Villanova guard James Bell
    Villanova guard James BellH. Rumph Jr/Associated Press

    Leading schools: Villanova (25-3 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 4), Creighton (23-4 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 6)
    Potential spoilers: Xavier (19-9 overall, 9-6 conference, RPI: 48), Marquette (17-11 overall, 9-6 conference, RPI: 70), Providence (18-10 overall, 8-7 conference, RPI: 61)

    Sorry, Big East fans. In my book, you have a mid-major conference on your hands these days. Is it a high mid-major conference? Yes. Mid-major conference nonetheless? Yes.

    But let's move forward into the future now. Creighton and Villanova are written in ink on every bracket projection. But bracketology kingpin Joe Lunardi and the USA Today running bracket picks have a handful of slots written in pencil for Big East teams, with Xavier predicted to make the dance if the tourney started today.

    Marquette now may be in the mix as well after Thursday's defeat of Georgetown, which earned them a season sweep of the Hoyas.

    All three potential spoiler teams have games remaining against one or both conference front-runners. If any of these teams can convert an upset either in this final regular-season stretch or in the conference tournament, the Big East could double up—and then some—on its dance tickets in short order. 

Horizon League

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    Cleveland State guard Charlie Lee
    Cleveland State guard Charlie LeeRick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Leading school: Green Bay (23-5 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 56)
    Potential spoilers: Cleveland State (20-10 overall, 11-4 conference, RPI: 88)

    Believe it or not, Green Bay has a pretty sweet tournament resume. Not only do they have a strong overall and conference record, but they can also boast non-conference wins over Virginia and Tulsa, not to mention a razor-close loss to Wisconsin. And that's a pretty good RPI for a mid-major (just compare it with those of the Big East schools).

    Cleveland State is two games back in the conference and has already dropped a season sweep to the Phoenix. Nevertheless, they have won nine of their last 10 contests, have clinched the No. 2 seed in the Horizon League tourney and appear to be peaking at the right time.

    If Charlie Lee and the rest of Cleveland State's sharpshooters get hot and stay hot, they could upset Green Bay in the Horizon League tournament and make a run to the conference title. It's not so far-fetched to believe that such a run could turn the Horizon League into a two-bid conference.

Ohio Valley Conference

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    Belmont's J.J. Mann
    Belmont's J.J. MannGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Leading school: Belmont (22-8 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 60)
    Potential spoiler: Murray State (18-9 overall, 13-2 conference, RPI: 130)

    So Belmont doesn't scream at-large bid to you, eh? Two words for you, sir or madam: North Carolina.

    That's right. In case you forgot, J.J. Mann hit a massive three-pointer to down the Tar Heels right there in Chapel Hill. They also captured nice wins against Indiana State and Middle Tennessee State, and their RPI is nothing to sneeze at.

    In short, they're a tough matchup for anyone. Scoring 80 points per game (good for 19th in the nation) and shooting 50 percent from the floor will do that.

    This is probably a two-horse race. If Murray State takes out the Bruins in the conference tournament, it's not inconceivable that Belmont could still catch the selection committee's eye, especially in a day and age when mid-major schools are having more success (and getting more attention) in a big dance context.

Conference USA

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    Middle Tennessee State's Neiko Hunter
    Middle Tennessee State's Neiko HunterSpruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Leading schoolSouthern Miss (24-5 overall, 11-3 conference, RPI: 33)
    Potential spoilers: Louisiana Tech (23-6 overall, 11-3 conference, RPI: 71), Tulsa (16-12 overall, 11-3 conference, RPI: 89), Middle Tennessee State (21-8 overall, 11-3 conference, RPI: 66)

    We are tied four ways in Conference USA.

    And yet, the big experts expect the conference to place only one team in the dance. Far be it from me to question the great minds. But this thing has tightened up, and it looks like anyone can beat just about anyone.

    What's more, it's hard to imagine 24-win Southern Miss missing out on Selection Sunday, particularly given their high RPI and their solid-if-unspectacular non-conference wins over North Dakota State and Georgia State.

    Actually, it's hard to argue against Louisiana Tech as well, which has a victory over Oklahoma anchoring its resume.

    Not every team can make it, and methinks one of these teams will be left out despite perhaps deserving something different. If Tulsa or Middle Tennessee State can beat one or both of these two teams in the conference tournament, then we've got real chaos. Ultimately, with such an upset, two C-USA teams could make it in.

Atlantic 10

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    UMass point guard Chaz Williams (center)
    UMass point guard Chaz Williams (center)Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

    Leading schools: Saint Louis (25-3 overall, 12-1 conference, RPI: 15), Massachusetts (22-5 overall, 9-4 conference, RPI: 12), Saint Joseph's (20-7 overall, 10-3 conference, RPI: 34)
    Potential spoilers: VCU (21-7 overall, 9-4 conference, RPI: 22), Richmond (18-10 overall, 8-5 conference, RPI: 53), George Washington (20-7 overall, 8-5 conference, RPI: 22)

    After winning seven of its last eight, St. Joseph's has surged into second place in the A-10 conference standings. That makes this logjam of a conference even more, uh, logjammy.

    With the sixth-best overall conference RPI and a lot of quality in its top half, the A-10 could put as many as six teams into the dance. But that's far from guaranteed, especially when considering several of these teams are set to beat each other up in the final few games of the regular season.

    These are some good teams, though. Even if a battle-tested program like VCU or an upstart squad like George Washington doesn't sew up a bid before the conference tournament, they have the stuff to upset one of the A-10's auto-bid teams at the top of the equation. If that happens, six teams becomes much more feasible, and power conference fans shed still more teams.

    Maybe more than any other conference, fans of big-time bubble teams need to root against the little guy as the A-10 pulls into the hangar.