Wichita State, Dayton and VCU are among the mid-major contenders who could get into the NCAA tournament without winning their conference tournaments.
There are many factors that affect the bubble, but one of the most important is how many at-large bids come from mid-major conferences. When mid-major leagues have split regular season and tournament winners, they are more likely to get at-large bids, meaning there are fewer available for the power conferences. Most mid-major conferences don’t have a shot at being multi-bid leagues, but every year there are a few that emerge as candidates.
Here are this year’s mid-major teams who have the best shot of crashing the party even if they don’t win their conference tournament. In this scenario, mid-major is defined as teams outside of the Power 5 conferences, the Big East and the American.
Dayton (22–6, 12–4 Atlantic 10)
The Atlantic 10 is the one conference here that seems sure to get multiple teams into the NCAA tournament—the question is, how many? At 22–6 with two regular season games left the Flyers should be headed to the Big Dance, though their uninspired play of late is costing them on the seed line. Dayton has lost three of its last four games and dropped out of first place in the Atlantic 10 in the process, but it still owns eight top-100 RPI wins and five top-50 wins (Iowa, Alabama, Monmouth, George Washington and St. Bonaventure). A January loss at sub-200 La Salle hurts, but it still has a home game with VCU and the A-10 tournament to help—or harm—its NCAA tournament potential.
Saint Joseph’s (24–5, 13–3 Atlantic 10)
After being picked in the preseason to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10, the Hawks are now tied with VCU atop the league standings. Saint Joseph’s currently ranks No. 25 in RPI and has not lost to a single team outside the top 70. The Hawks are also 10–1 on the road and have two top-50 wins (Dayton and Princeton), but have lost four others. On Wednesday, they play St. Bonaventure in a game that will be critical for both teams, as both are very much in the at-large mix.
St. Bonaventure (20–7, 12–4 Atlantic 10)
The Bonnies have used a late surge to play themselves into the NCAA tournament discussion. After dropping three straight Atlantic 10 games in late January, St. Bonaventure has won eight of its last nine, including wins at Dayton and at Saint Joseph’s. As mentioned above, it has a key game with the Hawks on Wednesday before finishing the regular season with a winnable game at Saint Louis. The Bonnies’ strongest case for an at-large bid right now is that they are 2–1 against the RPI top 25 with another four top-100 wins, though their Feb. 17 loss at La Salle sticks out. Keep an eye on the surging Bonnies in the A-10 tournament.
VCU (21–8, 13–3 Atlantic 10)
Saturday’s road win over George Washington was huge for the Rams’ at-large hopes, and not so much for the Colonials’. VCU still has a chance to win the Atlantic 10 regular-season title, and the conference tournament looks like it will be a bloodbath that could make or break how many teams the A-10 sends to the Big Dance. The Rams are 2–2 against the RPI top 50 and 6–6 against the top 100, leaving work to be done still to ensure an at-large bid. Winning their final two regular season games against Davidson and Dayton would go a long way.
George Washington (21–8, 10–6 Atlantic 10)
The last Atlantic 10 team with an at-large chance, the Colonials were dealt a big blow with Saturday’s loss to VCU but aren’t entirely out of the hunt. George Washington has the best win of any team on this list thanks to its defeat of Virginia in November, and also has a win over Seton Hall, which is surging in the Big East. But the Colonials are a combined 1–4 against the above A-10 teams and are going to need to make a lot of noise in the conference tournament to get an at-large bid.
Wichita State (23–7, 16–2 Missouri Valley)
The Shockers are one of the more intriguing cases for at-large consideration. They are No. 40 in RPI but No. 8 on kenpom.com (they have the nation’s No. 1 defense in terms of adjusted efficiency), yet are 1–5 against the RPI top 50 with only four top-100 wins (three of which are were against opponents ranking in the 90s). But four of the Shockers’ seven losses came in November, when they were struggling with injuries, particularly to senior guard Fred VanVleet. A month ago Wichita State looked like it was playing so well that an at-large bid was becoming increasingly likely, but then it lost games to Illinois State and Northern Iowa in a span of a week. The Shockers recovered well down the stretch, but is it enough to put them in the NCAA tournament if they falter during the Missouri Valley tourney? Working in Wichita State’s favor is that got a 17-point win over Utah in December, and Utah has been doing so well lately that it’s up to No. 8 in RPI. Also helpful: No bad losses, a 9–3 road record and a very tough nonconference schedule.
Saint Mary’s (24–4, 15–3 West Coast Conference)
The Gaels have had quite the season heading into Tuesday’s regular-season finale, a nonconference game against a team right outside the RPI top 100, Grand Canyon. The nation’s leader in effective field goal percentage and the eighth-best three-point shooting team, Saint Mary’s is in position to end Gonzaga’s three-year run of West Coast Conference tournament titles. The Gaels swept the regular-season series with the Bulldogs and earned the No. 1 seed, but beating a team three times in one season is difficult. Saint Mary’s doesn’t have an RPI top-50 win but is 5–2 against the top 100. Should a team like BYU snatch the WCC tourney crown, the Gaels would have the inside track over Gonzaga if the league gets a second bid.
Gonzaga (23–7, 15–3 West Coast Conference)
The Bulldogs picked up a pivotal win over BYU on Saturday in their regular-season finale, as a loss probably would have ended their at-large chances. With seven losses, the Zags have underachieved this year, leaving their streak of 17 straight NCAA tournaments in jeopardy. Gonzaga has one RPI top-50 win (Connecticut) but is 3–7 overall against the RPI top 100. If they don’t win the WCC tournament, the Bulldogs need to have a great showing (and hope Saint Mary’s takes the crown) to have a chance at keeping their streak alive.
San Diego State (21–8, 14–2 Mountain West)
The Aztecs have received an at-large bid in each of the last four years and have won at least one game in each of the last three NCAA tournaments, but got off to a rough start this year in dropping six of their first 13 games. San Diego State recovered quite admirably in conference play, winning 14 of its first 15 Mountain West games, but a home loss to Boise State on Saturday might have ended its at-large chances. At the very least, the Aztecs need to win their remaining games against New Mexico and UNLV and reach the Mountain West tournament final to plead one last case. In all likelihood San Diego State needs to do something it hasn’t done since 2011, which is win the Mountain West tourney.
Monmouth (25–6, 17–3 MAAC)
The Hawks have been in the at-large discussion for most of the year after their surprisingly strong nonconference season, which included wins over Notre Dame, USC, UCLA and Georgetown. All in all, Monmouth is 6–2 against teams in the RPI top 100 and has an excellent road record at 13–4. But three of those four road losses have been to teams outside the RPI top 200—Canisius, Army and Manhattan—and that many slip-ups are a serious obstacle to getting an at-large bid. If Monmouth doesn’t win the MAAC tournament, it is going to have to hope the committee is feeling generous toward a league that very rarely gets more than its designated automatic bid.
Valparaiso (26–5, 16–2 Horizon League)
The Crusaders are currently No. 44 in RPI and No. 33 on kenpom.com, but likely need to win the Horizon League tournament to go dancing. The only team in the conference that has managed to beat Valparaiso and its defense, which ranks No. 4 in the country in defensive efficiency, has been Wright State, and the Raiders swept the regular-season series. Valpo finished the regular season 26–5 with three RPI top-100 wins: at Oregon State, vs. IPFW and vs. Belmont, and also played Oregon very tough in a six-point loss in Eugene in November. But the pair of losses to Wright State could cost the Crusaders dearly if they don’t win the Horizon League tournament. The conference has not received an at-large bid since 2009, when 26–5 Butler was upset by Cleveland State in the championship and both went to the Big Dance.
Little Rock (26–3, 16–2 Sun Belt)
The Trojans are having their best season in program history and are the only team in the country that doesn’t have at least four losses (Little Rock has two regular-season games left), but their schedule is holding them back. The Trojans are No. 37 in RPI, but have only one RPI top-50 win (at Tulsa) and two top-100 wins (at San Diego State). The only other top-100 team Little Rock played was Texas Tech, which beat the Trojans at home by 12. Little Rock also has one bad loss, a three-point road defeat to sub-250 Arkansas State. If the Trojans hypothetically win out before falling in the Sun Belt championship game, they’d finish 29–4 and possibly in the NIT.