Beholding the buoyancy of mid-major bubbles in the days before selecting the field of 68.
With conference tournaments raging on, we are at peak season for mid-game reports on teams’ resumes for the field of 68. Speculation runs rampant in the days before the tournament’s participants are revealed and with the day of reckoning fast approaching, it is time to look at which teams are safe and which bubbles will burst on Sunday evening.
Last year, the top seven conferences in the country - including the top five football conferences plus the Big East and the American Athletic Conference - accounted for 33 of the 36 at-large bids in the tournament. Worse yet for the prospects of the mid-majors, the three teams outside the top conferences to make it, Dayton, VCU, and Wichita State are not thought of as traditional mid-majors by those who follow college basketball.
Charting the at-large bids from outside those seven conferences reveals a boom after the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, but a steady decline since 2012. After securing 7 spots in 2011, including VCU who made it to the national semifinals from the Colonial Athletic Association, 11 qualified in 2012. Since then, the number dropped to 10 in 2013, 8 in 2014, 5 in 2015, and 3 last year.
Looking at Joe Lunardi’s most recent projections, he expects just three from these conferences to make it once again. That number could fluctuate depending on how small conference favorites fare over the next few days. For example, if someone upset tourney locks VCU (24-7, 14-4) and Dayton (24-6, 15-3) in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, that would spur the A10 to be a three bid conference. Saint Mary’s (28-4, 16-2) is also considered a lock after losing to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Championship. Meanwhile Lunardi’s final mid-major, Illinois State, is on the bubble, listed among the “last four in” as of Thursday.
As a result, the teams below are likely vying for just one or two spots in the field. Except for Rhode Island, these bubble teams are hoping that sheer quantity of wins will offset the lack of quality wins that the likes of bubble ACC, Big 12, and Big East teams have accrued. With that in mind, let’s speculate.
Illinois State (27-6, 17-1)
At the forefront of the mid-major discussion is Illinois State. The Redbirds contested Wichita State for the Missouri Valley crown this season, accumulating 27 wins en route to a share of the regular season title, thanks to a split of the regular season series. But since the Redbirds’ 76-62 win over the Shockers at home on January 14, Wichita State clapped back with two victories by a combined 61 points, including a 71-51 victory in the MVC Championship on March 5.
Led by 2017 MVC Coach of the Year Dan Muller, the Redbirds have a veteran roster in which the top eight players in minutes are returners. Four-year starter and 2017 MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee is the Redbirds’ all-time leader in steals. In addition to leading the MVC in steals per game (2.0), Lee is tops in the conference in assists (5.1) and three-pointers (69). Top scorers Lee, Deonte Hawkins, and MiKyle McIntosh all average double-figures, garnering Lee a spot first team all-conference selection and Hawkins and McIntosh spots on the second-team all-MVC.
One of the best things going for Illinois State, is a No. 31 ranking in the RPI. But recent history suggests that does not bear much influence on the committee. Last year, St. Bonaventure was ranked 30 in RPI with three wins against teams in the top 50. Monmouth was 55 in the RPI, won 27 games, and had two victories against top-50 teams. But when the field of 68 was revealed, neither team made the cut.
After boasting an early December victory over New Mexico as the only other win against teams inside the RPI top 100, out of conference losses to TCU, Tulsa, and San Francisco (in addition to a season-opening loss to a bad Murray State team) began to deconstruct the Redbirds’ odds.
Unfortunately for the Redbirds, the lack of quality wins on the schedule leaves the committee to weigh the victory over Wichita St. heavily. With two blowout losses to the same opponent since and no chance to improve the resume before selection, it’s hard to see the Redbirds making the cut.
Before conference tournaments began, Illinois State was sitting in decent shape. But after teams like Kansas State scored massive wins, the Redbirds are pushed down - and out of - the bracket’s ’S’ curve.
Rhode Island (21-9, 13-5)
On the other end of the mid-major bubble, Rhode Island is positioning to make its first tournament appearance since 1999. Following several appearances in the top 25 early in the season, the Rams got some early attention with a victory over Cincinnati. Home losses within the conference to LaSalle and Fordham have some souring on the Rams, but despite an unheralded resume, Rhody can play their way in to the field of 68 during the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
While other conferences have seen diminishing bids over the last couple of years, the Atlantic 10 continues to send multiple teams to the tournament. In addition to 2016 A10 Tournament Champion Saint Joseph’s, VCU and Dayton each merited a spot among the 36 at-large teams last season.
Leading the A10 in blocks for the fourth straight season, Rams senior forward Hassan Martin repeats as the Defensive Player of the Year while also earning second team all-conference. Compiling 314 blocks over his career, Martin is second on the Rams all-time leader board. Alongside Martin in garnering all-conference acclaim is junior guard E.C. Matthews. Returning from a knee injury that cost the entire 2015-16 season, Matthews averages a team-high 14.4 points per game.
Capping off the regular season with a 9-2 mark in the last 11 games, Rhode Island is the No. 4 seed in the A10 Tournament, granting them a spot in the quarterfinals against St. Bonaventure. Having defeated the Bonnies in the lone regular season meeting, the Rams need another win to further their case, which already features key wins over VCU and Cincinnati. A potential semi-final match up against VCU would offer the Rams a shot at silencing the critics.
Vaunting an 8-7 record against the RPI top 100, while 2-4 against the top 50, Rhody still has work to do but there is a possibility for the program to play its way into the first trip to the NCAA Tournament in the new millennium with a trip to the A10 Championship. Considering that Davidson (99) and George Washington (100) barely count as top-100 wins, Rhode Island might just want to win the conference tournament to feel safe.
Middle Tennessee (28-4, 17-1)
Middle Tennessee’s current resume is good enough to merit a bid regardless of the Conference USA crown, but that may not last. Remembered best as the No. 15 seed that knocked off Michigan State in the round of 68 last March, the Blue Raiders would have to suffer a bad loss to squander the conference’s automatic bid. In doing so, the resume could take a fatal hit at a bad time.
Setting a new all-time conference wins record of 17 in a season, the Blue Raiders led Conference USA with three selections to the all-conference teams. On the first team, Senior JaCorey Williams is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.2 points per game, ranking sixth in Conference USA in rebounds at 7.6 per game. Securing spots on the second and third teams, Senior forward Reggie Upshaw Jr. and junior guard Giddy Potts each average over 14 points and five rebounds per game.
Sporting a 4-1 record against teams in the RPI top-100, including a 2-1 mark against the top-50, the Blue Raiders have wins over CAA Champion UNC Wilmington and SEC foes Vanderbilt (by 23!) and Ole Miss (by 15 on the road!). Lying in the way of an automatic bid is a semi-final match up against UTEP and either Marshall or Louisiana Tech in the C-USA Final. In the only meeting with UTEP this season, the Blue Raiders were upset 57-54 in El Paso. Although the result is a blip in an otherwise solid 19-2 record against teams outside the RPI top-150, another loss to the Miners, who rank 227 in RPI, would be hard to defend.
Given the committee’s affinity to middling teams in big conferences, the Blue Raiders have done enough to enter the conversation, but like Rhode Island a trip to the finals is necessary to be in consideration for an at-large bid.
Nevada (26-6, 14-4)
The Wolf Pack have a difficult resume to judge. Only having one opponent all season in the RPI top-50, an opening night 81-63 road loss to Saint Mary’s, it is hard to argue that the quality of the Wolf Pack’s opponents is high enough to deserve at-large consideration. Against teams ranked from 50-100, Nevada is 8-4. Only Iona is expected to make the tournament from the pool of opponents, thus having eight wins against the 100, but zero against the top 50 makes the Wolf Pack an interesting case.
The conference that has been hit the hardest by the lack of at-large bids is the Mountain West. We are not long removed from the days of New Mexico and San Diego State among the VCUs and Wichita States in the world of mid-major basketball. But after topping out at four at-large berths in 2013, Nevada is the only hope to send two teams to the tournament this year.
The Wolf Pack are led by a balanced scoring attack, with five players averaging over 12 points per game. The team’s leading scorer is Marcus Marshall, third in the Mountain West with 19.3 points per game in his senior season after transferring from Missouri State last season. Sophomore forward Cameron Oliver is the top pro prospect in the conference, averaging 15.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, and ranking at No. 59 in the DraftExpress prospect list.
Due to the lack of marquee wins, the odds of the Wolf Pack making the field as an at-large are the longest of any on this list. Likely needing to win the MWC Tournament to make the field, the next test comes in the semi-finals from Fresno State. Dropping both regular season meetings to the Bulldogs, the Wolf Pack will seek revenge to keep postseason dreams alive.
Edited by Robert Hess.
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- Dayton (2008)
- Missouri State (2006)
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- Air Force (2007)