By Kevin Sweeney
Around this time of year, mid-major teams rally around the phrase “3 days in March”, which demonstrates that no matter how well or poorly your season is going, the legacy of your season will be defined by how you play in your conference tournament. Take last year’s Patriot League Tournament, for example. 9th seeded Holy Cross, who entered the conference tournament at just 10-19, went on a miracle run that included 4 road wins in 9 days to claim the conference title and reach the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, heavy favorites Bucknell, Lehigh, and Boston University all faltered, falling short of their lofty goals for the season.
However, not all teams even get the opportunity for a “3 days in March” run for the ages. In some leagues, not every team qualifies for the conference tournament. Therefore, these next two weeks are vital for teams on the fringes to make one more push to keep their hopes of a March miracle alive. Here’s a breakdown of the races around the country of teams just trying to make the conference tournament.
The situation down the stretch in the Big West will be fascinating to watch. There are two scenarios that could happen, and they are tied to whether or not Hawaii is ruled to be eligible for the postseason. The top 8 teams in the 9-team conference advance to the conference tournament, and if Hawaii loses its appeal & is ruled ineligible, it will be the one team left out. If the ‘Bows ARE eligible, then there will be a 3-way fight between UC Riverside, Cal Poly, and UC Santa Barbara to keep their season alive. UC Riverside appears safe, as all they have to do is not lose out and have UCSB win out to extend their season. UC Santa Barbara is currently last in the league, and probably needs to win 2 of its final 3 games to reach the conference tournament. If not, Cal Poly will advance regardless of the results of the Hawaii situation.
New adopters of the entire conference tournament model, the Ivy League Tournament doesn’t include all of its teams. In fact, only 4 of the league’s 8 teams will participate in the tournament, which will be played at the Palestra, a bucket-list spot for most college hoops fans. The top 3 seeds seem mostly locked up, with Princeton at the top, Harvard in second, and Yale in third, but the real intrigue comes for the fourth and final spot. Early in the season, it looked like Columbia was in control for the final bid, but now have just a 32.7% chance to reach the tournament, per Yale Sport Analytics on Twitter. Meanwhile, Penn has seemingly come back from the dead to move into position to claim the 4th seed.
Columbia and Penn face off this Saturday, a must-win for the Lions if they want to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
The 8 that will play for the NEC’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth are already locked in. Central Connecticut State and St. Francis (Brooklyn) have been eliminated from contention for a top-8 seed. However, with seeds 4-8 separated by just 2 games, there is still plenty to be intrigued by down the stretch.
The top 8 teams, regardless of division, in the 12-team Ohio Valley Conference convene in Nashville for the conference tournament the first weekend in March. 3 of the 4 teams who won’t qualify for the conference tournament have already had their fate sealed, as SIU-Edwardsville, Eastern Kentucky, and Eastern Illinois are already eliminated from top-8 contention. Meanwhile, their are 6 teams with 8 wins in conference play, while Austin Peay sits at 6 wins with 2 games to play. For Austin Peay, who won the conference tournament as an 8-seed last year, to have a chance to repeat, they must win out and have at least one of the 8-win teams lose out, then win the tiebreaker with that team. Only UT-Martin, Murray State, or SEMO can be the team to lose out for APSU to have a shot. The most likely scenario remains that Austin Peay is the final team left out, but there is still a glimmer of hope for the Governors.
In the Southland Conference, the top 8 eligible teams advance to the conference tournament. However, Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian are ineligible this season as they complete the 4-year transition to full Division 1 status. Only 5 teams have locked up tournament berths, while Lamar, Southeastern Louisiana, Central Arkansas, Nicholls State, Northwestern State, and McNeese State are still duking it out for the final 3 spots. Lamar, SELA, and Central Arkansas control their own destinies, with each team needing just one win and one Nicholls State loss the rest of the way to clinch a spot in the conference tournament. Nicholls must win 3 of 4 and probably needs to win out in order to qualify, while Northwestern State and McNeese State each would need to win out to have any chance.
Things are already wrapped up in the Summit League, as Oral Roberts will be the lone team left out of the 8-team Summit League Tournament held in Sioux Falls. Even if Oral Roberts wins its final game and Western Illinois loses its final 2, they would still be eliminated as ORU lost both head-to-head meetings with the Leathernecks.