Wofford, UCLA, and UConn.
In all likelihood only one of those three schools will be heading to the NCAA tournament this year.
It’s not the California school that has won a record 11 NCAA championships, been to three of the last four Final Fours, and has an enrollment of over 25,000 undergraduates.
Nor is it the Big East school that has been to five Elite Eights in the last nine years, has missed the NCAA tournament only three times in the last 20 years, and has an enrollment of more than 20,000 undergraduates.
Both UCLA and UConn will miss out on this year’s Big Dance, barring a surprising run through their difficult conference tournaments to secure an automatic bid.
It is Wofford that will still be on the basketball court two weeks from now, likely playing in the biggest arena and in front of more fans than the team ever has in school history.
A small liberal arts school in Spartanburg, South Carolina with an enrollment of around 1,500 students, Wofford has never made it to the NCAA tournament before.
That all changed last night when the Wofford Terriers’ men’s basketball team toppled Appalachian State in the Southern Conference Tournament championship game 56-51, thus securing the small conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
While many college basketball fans will turn their eyes to Madison Square Garden today for the beginning of the Big East Tournament, or to Greensboro, North Carolina later in the week for the ACC Tournament in order to watch some of the titans of college basketball battle it out before the NCAA tournament, the truly compelling stories of this week come from the small gyms across America where fans storm the court after schools like Wofford accomplish new athletic heights for their colleges and universities.
Most experts project that at least eight teams from the Big East and as many as seven from the ACC will be selected to play in the field of 65 NCAA tournament teams next week.
For most of the small and mid-major conferences in college basketball only one team will reach the NCAA tournament—whichever team secures the automatic bid from the conference by winning the year end conference tournament.
So while there may be something at stake for the teams in the Big East Tournament, the top teams in that league have already known for a month that they will be heading to a place that they have been before, regardless of what they do in the conference tournament this week.
The top teams in the small and mid-major conferences across the country, meanwhile, are playing for absolutely everything this week with a chance in some cases to get somewhere they never expected to be and have never been before.
Even for some of the top teams from smaller conferences that have aspirations beyond simply making it back to the NCAA tournament, like newly crowned MAAC champion Siena, which clinched its third straight NCAA tournament bid last night, the entire season rests on this week.
Siena has the potential to win games in the NCAA tournament next week—it did so a year ago in upsetting Ohio State in double overtime in the first round and pushing one seed Louisville to its limit in the second round. Additionally, its resume over the course of this season was worthy of consideration for an at-large bid into the March Madness bracket, but in all likelihood a lack of national exposure and a weak schedule would have denied the Saints a chance to return to the tournament had they lost last night.
Even though Siena was clearly the class of the MAAC conference this year, it was far from a formality that they would triumph in their conference tournament. The Saints trailed by 15 points in the second half last night to Fairfield and had to pull out the game in overtime. Fairfield had a shot at the buzzer of regulation to win the game and missed off the front of the rim—just like that Siena’s impressive season and dreams of pulling another upset or two in the NCAA tournament could have come to an end.
Maybe if you go to the Big East Tournament this week at Madison Square Garden you’ll get to see as many as two or three of the teams that will make up the Final Four in April in action, but you won’t get the kind of drama that fans watching the Siena-Fairfield MAAC title game or the Wofford-Appalachian St. Southern Conference title game got last night.
In less than two weeks' time, the NCAA tournament field will have been whittled down to 16 teams. Barring a March Madness miracle, Wofford’s season will be over, perhaps having lost to a Duke or a Kansas in the first round after keeping the game close for a half—an accomplishment, second only to making the tournament, that would be remembered at the school for years to come. Siena might still be hanging around if it can manage a couple of upsets over power conference teams and make a bit of a Cinderella run. But chances are that the season will be over for the Saints as well.
At that point, we can—and will—turn our attention to the very best teams of the college basketball world—the teams that will be playing in the Big East, ACC, SEC, Big Ten, and Big XII tournaments this week—but this week should belong to the Woffords of the basketball universe and the teams from small conferences that have absolutely everything to play for.
You might even get to see a team that will pull off a miracle run in the NCAA tournament in a few weeks like George Mason of the CAA did several years ago in making it all the way to the Final Four.
But in all likelihood, you will just get to see teams like Siena, which have to win to make their season a success, and teams like Wofford, which in winning achieve a piece of school history that is more meaningful to them than a Final Four run is to UConn or UCLA.