Plenty of quality mid-major teams can make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, yet face the pressure of winning their conference tournament with little-to-no chance of an at-large bid.
The NCAA Tournament committee more often than not awards at-large berths to middling major-conference teams rather than mid-majors that dominated their conference in the regular season, only to fall in their conference tournament.
Take last year, for example. Monmouth and its Bench Mob that owned wins over UCLA, Notre Dame, USC, Georgetown and Rutgers lost in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament and was left out of the NCAA Tournament.
Something similar happens every year, ridding fans of a potential NCAA Tournament upset while creating an easier draw for a major-conference team by sending a quality mid-major team to the NIT. And once again, there are plenty of mid-majors that need to win their conference tournaments to ensure their regular-season dominance won’t be for naught.
Here’s a breakdown of the most important mid-major conference tournaments – in no particular order – and the regular-season champion that likely needs to win them.
Missouri Valley – Illinois State (25-5, 17-1. RPI: 32)
The Redbirds shared the regular-season title with Wichita State, which has a much better shot of earning an at-large bid to the Big Dance even if it doesn’t win the MVC tournament. But Illinois State did not play a single AP Top 25 team this season – the Shockers currently are No. 21 but weren’t ranked either time when they split the season series – and also has losses to Murray State, Tulsa and San Francisco.
There’s a possibility the Redbirds, who rank sixth in the country in scoring defense allowing an average of 60.7 points per game, could get consideration from the committee should they reach the MVC title game and lose a close contest to Wichita State, but they’d be much better served taking the decision out of the committee’s hands and winning Arch Madness in St. Louis.
Conference USA – Middle Tennessee (25-4, 15-1. RPI: 30)
The Blue Raiders are proving their shocking win over No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament was no fluke. It’s true, though, that they haven’t played an AP Top 25 team all season and have losses to Tennessee State and Georgia State, and that could be the difference between an at-large bid and an NIT appearance should they fall in the C-USA tournament.
But Middle Tennessee also has victories over fellow mid-major regular-season champs UNC-Wilmington and Belmont, and it ran straight through a one-bid league like it was supposed to do. There’s a case to be made, but winning the C-USA tourney is its best bet to get into the Big Dance.
America East – Vermont (27-5, 16-0. RPI: 50)
Vermont’s 19-game winning streak heading into the America East tournament is the longest active run in the nation, and three of its five defeats have come against major-conference teams Providence, South Carolina and Butler. The Catamounts also rank seventh in the country with a 49.8 team field goal percentage.
They’re the clear favorite to win the conference tournament considering second-place Stony Brook finished four games behind them in the regular season, but a slip-up would send them to the NIT. And that would be a shame.
MAAC – Monmouth (26-5, 18-2. RPI: 43)
The Hawks are back in a similar position, except this time without the quality wins over high-majors. They’ve knocked off Memphis and Princeton with defeats against South Carolina, Syracuse and North Carolina, but they’ve also lost to Rider and St. Peter’s.
Monmouth enters the MAAC tournament having won 16 in a row, and it’ll need to use that momentum to win the conference tourney to have any shot at playing in the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, instead of a Hawks team that has real potential to make the Sweet 16 with a good draw, we’ll be stuck with a mediocre one-and-done.
Ivy League – Princeton (19-6, 12-0. RPI: 54)
The Ivy League’s holdout is over. The regular-season champion earned the NCAA Tournament automatic bid until this season, where a four-team conference tournament will now determine it. And that could mean bad news for the Tigers.
Princeton still has two regular-season games remaining, and has already locked up the top seed. It has also won 15 straight games, but faltering in the Ivy League tournament means it would end up being the first regular-season champion in conference history since automatic bids became the norm to not play in the NCAA Tournament.
Mountain West – Nevada (24-6, 13-4. RPI: 42)
The Wolf Pack are averaging 80.7 points per game in Mountain West play and have four players – led by Marcus Marshall’s 19.7 points per contest – averaging at least 14 points. As for quality wins? Nothing, really. Nevada missed its best shot to earn one in its season opener when it lost to St. Mary’s.
It certainly could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament with its scoring prowess and a solid coach in Eric Musselman, but the Mountain West looks like a one-bid league at this point and winning the conference tournament appears to be its only hope.
Sun Belt – UT-Arlington (23-6, 13-3. RPI: 34)
Colonial Athletic – UNC-Wilmington (26-5, 13-5. RPI: 37)
Ohio Valley – Belmont (22-5, 15-1. RPI: 57)
Patriot League – Bucknell (23-8, 15-3. RPI: 72)