By Kevin Sweeney
Life as a mid-major is hard. Dealing with the brutal reality that the success of your season is almost entirely dependent on a few days in March is difficult to come to grips with. Thanks to the way that teams are judged by the selection committee, it is incredibly challenging for true mid-majors to earn at-large NCAA Tournament bids if they falter in their conference tournament. Last season, Monmouth did everything that the committee asks mid-majors to do: play and beat high-major opponents in the non-conference. However, they fell in their conference championship game and were left out of the NCAA Tournament field. While it is extremely difficult, it is not unheard of to see mid-majors receive at-large bids. Here’s a look at a few mid-majors with the best chance to earn at-large bids this season:
Note: I am not including the A-10, Wichita State, San Diego State, Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, or BYU.
The Hawks’ meteoric rise from a virtually unknown program to national brand in the span of about a month last season was remarkable. They were the story of college basketball’s first 2 months, knocking off numerous high-profile teams while their bench became internet sensations for its highly choreographed celebrations. However, the struggles of UCLA and Georgetown, 2 of Monmouth’s best wins, along with a few of their own missteps during the conference slate, left them on the outside looking in cone Selection Sunday. However, this season’s team has a great chance of being in position for an at-large bid this season. They bring back 4 starters from last season, including MAAC Player of the Year candidate Justin Robinson. They are also scheduled to play a difficult non-conference schedule, with road tests at Syracuse, South Carolina, Memphis, and North Carolina, as well as at-large candidate Princeton. They will likely need to win 3 out of those 5 games, but if they do, the Hawks have a shot at an at-large bid.
The Wolf Pack are a team that I am very high on coming into this season. Coming off winning the CBI Championship last season, the Wolf Pack add multiple impact transfers to a talented core. This makes them the second best team in the Mountain West, an excellent position to be in for NCAA Tournament consideration. The play of some of their non-conference opponents will be critical, as they have games scheduled against multiple teams who are question marks coming into the season (Washington, Oregon State, Iona). All 3 of those teams winning 20 games would be a big boost to their Strength of Schedule.
One of the nation’s perennial mid-major powers, the Panthers should once again be in contention for an at-large bid. They sustain heavy losses from last season’s team that was 30 seconds away from the Sweet Sixteen, but the Panther’s still have a lot of talent. Key will be the play of Jeremy Morgan, the team’s third-leading scorer from a season ago who put up 36 points in their Round of 32 game with Texas A&M last season. The challenge will be performing well during a difficult non-conference schedule despite having an inexperienced team. They certainly will have a lot of chances to get quality wins, with games against North Carolina, Iowa, and Xavier scheduled. They also are participating in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which has teams such as Clemson, Oklahoma, and Davidson in it. If the Panthers can earn a couple of good non-conference wins, they should have a great chance to be dancing in March.
Princeton flew under the radar last season, but were one of the best mid-majors in the country. They finished with a top-50 RPI, but were never really in contention for an at-large bid since the Ivy League didn’t have a conference tournament. Now, with the introduction of a 4-team conference tournament in the Ivy League, Princeton will get a few more chances to bolster their resume. They have an experienced roster that won’t be intimidated by anyone, and should be very competitive in games against BYU, VCU, and Cal in the first month. The Ivy League is the strongest it has been in recent memory, something that should also help Princeton’s at-large hopes.
The NCAA Tournament darlings of 2 years ago have a very good chance at an at-large bid, should they not win the very competitive Conference USA. They have the excellent opportunity of playing Kansas and either Georgia or George Washington in a neutral site for the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. Also on the Blazers’ loaded non-conference schedule is a home game with Auburn and trips to Memphis and Texas. Combine that non-conference slate with playing in the Conference USA, which is the best it has been since conference realignment, and UAB has an excellent chance to return to the Big Dance.