Best Teams That Could Miss March Madness If They Don't Win Conference Tournament

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2018

Best Teams That Could Miss March Madness If They Don't Win Conference Tournament

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    Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    The NCAA tournament is designed to showcase men's college basketball's best teams, but that doesn't always happen. Some squads that are deserving end up being left out, while others who should be good enough to earn a spot can't do enough to get in.

    The 68-team bracket that will be revealed on March 11 will feature most of the country's top teams, who qualify either via automatic bids or because the NCAA selection committee deems them worthy of an at-large spot. There are only 36 such invitations, though, and not every tourney-caliber team is going to make it in.

    The safest route to the NCAA tourney is winning a conference tournament and grabbing the automatic spot. Not doing so is likely to relegate the following teams to the NIT.

Non-Power-Conference Regular-Season Champions

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    South Dakota State forward Mike Daum
    South Dakota State forward Mike DaumPeter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Most Division I conferences only get one bid to the NCAA tournament that goes to their conference tourney champ. That is why several regular-season champions who get upset along the way end up being denied a bid since their resume isn't strong enough to warrant an at-large spot.

    Regular-season conference champions are guaranteed at least an NIT berth, but for these teams, that would be no consolation after months of hard work and success.

          

    Loyola of Chicago

    The Ramblers (25-5) won the Missouri Valley, rated as the top non-power conference, per WarrenNolan.com, with a 15-3 record that was four games better than the field. They have a December win at Florida in which they showed off their strong three-point shooting (40.7 percent for the season) and lockdown defense (63.4 points allowed per game).

          

    Middle Tennessee

    The Blue Raiders (23-5) have dominated Conference USA, going 15-1 with 10 straight wins, and they feature a terrific player in former Memphis and Alabama forward Nick King (21.5 points, 8.3 rebounds per game). MTSU has recent NCAA upset experience, beating Michigan State as a No. 15 seed in 2016 and Minnesota as a No. 12 last year.

           

    Murray State

    The Racers (24-5) lead the Ohio Valley and last made the NCAA tourney in 2012 with future NBA guard Isaiah Canaan. The current team has senior guard Jonathan Stark, who averages 21.7 points per game and shoots 42.2 percent from three. Matt McMahon could be the next Murray coach (following Steve Prohm, Billy Kennedy and Mick Cronin) to land a power-conference job.

           

    New Mexico State

    The Western Athletic-leading Aggies (24-5) are trying to go dancing for the third time in four years with three different coaches. First-year coach Chris Jans inherited a dandy senior duo in guards Zach Lofton and Jemerrio Jones, the latter who's ranked second nationally in rebounding (12.7 per game) despite being only 6'5".

           

    South Dakota State

    The Jackrabbits (25-6) sport one of the most dominant players in college basketball in 6'9" junior Mike Daum, who averages 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and won the Summit League player of the year award. The last Division I player to average 23 and 10 was Notre Dame's Luke Harangody in 2008-09.

           

    Vermont

    The Catamounts (25-6) rolled through the America East despite not having sophomore wing Anthony Lamb until Tuesday's regular-season finale. His return further strengthens a team that hung with Purdue last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Boise State

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    Loren Orr/Getty Images

    Record: 22-7, 12-5 Mountain West

    RPI: 52

    Tuesday's loss at San Diego State further pushes Boise State into an automatic-bid-or-bust scenario than it already faced. The Mountain West is much better this season than in recent years, with five top-100 RPI teams, but only regular-season champion Nevada (25-5) can safely expect to make the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tourney.

    The Broncos have snuck in as an at-large twice (2013 and 2015) under coach Leon Rice. Guard Chandler Hutchinson was a lightly used freshman on that last NCAA squad and now he's the focal point of an offense that averages 78 points per game. The 6'7" Hutchinson pitches in team bests in scoring (19.8), rebounding (7.7) and assists (3.5); he's one of four Division I players averaging at least 19/7/3.

    Outside of winning the league tourney in Las Vegas, Boise's best course of action is to win its regular-season finale against Wyoming on Saturday and then at least reach the Mountain West final. Getting a third game against Nevada, even if it lost, would be more valuable than falling somewhere else along the way.

Nebraska

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Record: 22-9, 13-5 Big Ten

    RPI: 54

    "Nebrasketball" is real and must be feared. Well, at least in Lincoln, where the Cornhuskers went 16-1, with the loss by one point to Kansas.

    The same hasn't been the case on the road and in neutral games, though, with losses to St. John's, UCF and at Illinois (its only setback in the past nine games) keeping Nebraska on shaky ground in terms of NCAA tournament worthiness. Every other power-conference team with as many victories is pretty much a sure thing to get in.

    The Cornhuskers tied for fourth place in the Big Ten, their best league placement since 2013-14 when they last made the NCAA field. They will play Michigan in the conference tourney quarterfinals on Friday in New York City.

    Nebraska must win that game and at least one more to have any real shot to make the Big Dance, particularly since almost every other bubble team will have chances to improve their resume after the Huskers are done playing.

Notre Dame

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    Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    Record: 18-12, 8-9 ACC

    RPI: 69

    Where would Notre Dame be had it had its normal starting five all season? It probably would have looked as good as it did Wednesday, when senior forward Bonzie Colson returned from a 15-game absence with a broken foot in a 73-56 win over Pittsburgh.

    The 6'5" Colson had 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes. Before getting hurt in late December, he'd been averaging 21.4 points and 10.4 rebounds and Notre Dame was 11-3. The Fighting Irish went 6-9 without him; senior guard Matt Farrell missed several of those games with an ankle injury.

    The NCAA tournament selection committee will have to factor in Colson's absence when evaluating Notre Dame's resume, which only includes two wins against Group 1 opponents. It won't have to do as much extrapolating if the Irish win the ACC tourney, which they did in Colson's freshman season in 2014-15.

Oregon

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    Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Record: 19-11, 9-8 Pac-12

    RPI: 79

    A Final Four team a year ago, Oregon saw seven of its top eight scorers either graduate, turn pro or transfer. This led to some lean times earlier in the season such as a 5-3 start overall and then a 2-4 mark to open Pac-12 play. But over time the young Ducks became more experienced, with graduate transfers Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh becoming leaders.

    Oregon swept the Arizona schools last week to keep its at-large chances afloat, but then a loss Thursday at Washington State killed any notion of an NCAA bid through any means other than the Pac-12 conference title. The Ducks can now finish no better than sixth place in the league, which doesn't bode well when most bracketologists have the Pac-12 getting no more than four teams into the tourney.

    Coach Dana Altman has led Oregon to a pair of conference tournament crowns, most recently in 2016. But neither of those came by winning four games in four days, which is what Oregon must do to avoid going from the Final Four to the NIT and miss the NCAA field for the first time since 2012.

St. Bonaventure

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    Corey Perrine/Getty Images

    Record: 23-6, 13-4 Atlantic 10

    RPI: 22

    According to CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm, since 2005 only four teams have had an RPI of 30 or better and failed to make the NCAA tournament. The most recent was Colorado State (29) in 2015, despite winning 27 games.

    With that being said, St. Bonaventure should feel pretty good about its chances of making it for the first time 2012. That wouldn't have been the case had the Bonnies not escaped with a 117-113 home win over Davidson on Tuesday, their 11th in a run that includes beating Atlantic 10 champ Rhode Island.

    URI (23-5) is a lock to make the NCAA tourney, regardless of what it does in the conference tournament, but St. Bonaventure is not one. With few quality teams in the league, almost any loss prior to the A-10 title game would make Selection Sunday a tense time for coach Mark Schmidt and prolific scoring guards Jaylen Adams (20.8 points per game) and Matt Mobley (18.4).

UCLA

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Record: 19-10, 10-7 Pac-12

    RPI: 54

    The program with the most NCAA titles has made the Division I tourney every time it's won at least 20 games over the past 32 years. UCLA would have hit that barrier had it not been swept at the Pac-12's mountain schools last week, dropping to 2-7 on the road this season.

    The Bruins finish up Saturday at rival USC, which they beat at home on Feb. 10. They followed that with a victory at Pac-12 champion Arizona (22-7) but since have dropped three of five to put their postseason situation into serious doubt.

    The Arizona win and the one over Kentucky in December are UCLA's only quality victories. A run to the Pac-12 title game, which would likely result in the conference championship, may be the only way the Bruins avoid missing the Big Dance for the second time in three seasons.

Washington

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    D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Record: 20-10, 10-7 Pac-12

    RPI: 45

    The worst team in the Pac-12 last season has been one of the league's biggest surprises this year. That started with the Huskies' shocking win against Kansas in Kansas City in December and continued with victories over certain NCAA qualifiers Arizona and USC during a 7-3 start in league play.

    That 78-75 victory over Arizona, on a three-pointer at the buzzer by Dominic Green, was then followed by a three-game skid and four losses in five games. A two-point home win over Oregon State on Thursday got the Huskies to 20, more than double their 2016-17 tally (nine) despite having eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz at their disposal.

    Mike Hopkins has done a tremendous job in his first season, but the overall weakness of the Pac-12 makes it hard for Washington to rely solely on its resume. The safest bet is to make a run in the conference tournament.

                

    All statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com. All RPI information is via WarrenNolan.com. Numbers are through games of Thursday, March 1. Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter, @realBJP.