Bill Trocchi: What these 10 teams need to do to get an at-large bid - Sports Illustrated

Looking for an invitation

Publish date:

Selection Sunday is 46 days away, and there will be plenty of jockeying on the bubble among members of the 10 major conferences (six BCS, Atlantic 10, Conference USA, Mountain West, Western Athletic). For the rest of the college hoops world, February is about building momentum and improving seeding for the all-or-nothing conference tournament that ultimately holds the NCAA fate of almost every mid-major team.

There are a handful of mid-majors every year who slip up in their conference tournaments and still get invited to the Big Dance. This year, that field does not look very large. Five teams appear to be in decent shape, while five others can play their way into position during February and early March.

Here are the 10 mid-majors with the best chance of earning an at-large bid if they fail to win their conference tournament.

RPI: 23

Quality wins: Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, Ohio State, Florida State, Southern Illinois

Ticket to the Big Dance: Avoid a meltdown. Even if the Bulldogs lose the regular season title to surprising Cleveland State, their pre-conference resume is sterling. In addition to the five wins above, Butler's victory over Bradley may end up being another quality win if Bradley can right itself down the stretch.

Chances of an at-large bid: Excellent

RPI: 9

Quality Wins: Duquesne, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Creighton

Ticket to the Big Dance: Same advice to these Bulldogs -- stay away from a losing streak and you will be back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1971. Drake is in position to finish no worse than second in the Missouri Valley, and its RPI is not going to drop enough to knock them out of the NCAA picture.

Chances of an at-large bid: Excellent

RPI: 32

Quality Wins: UConn, Saint Joseph's

Ticket to the Big Dance: Easy recipe -- don't lose to any lower-level WCC teams. And in the WCC, everyone but St. Mary's and Gonzaga is considered lower-level. Gonzaga doesn't have a ton of quality wins, but there are no shaky losses on its typically murderous non-conference slate. The Bulldogs will likely be NCAA-bound for the 10th straight year, even without a WCC tourney title.

Chances of an at-large bid: Excellent

RPI: 17

Quality Wins: Drake, Oregon, Seton Hall, Ohio

Ticket to the Big Dance: Don't lose to anyone except Gonzaga the rest of the way. Thanks to a strong pre-conference resume and a good league record, the Gonzaga games are not must-wins in terms of earning an NCAA bid.

Chances of an at-large bid: Excellent

RPI: 27

Quality Wins: Mississippi State, Western Kentucky

Ticket to the Big Dance: The Jaguars, due to the overall weakness of the Sun Belt, cannot afford more than one regular-season slip-up and need to make it to the Sun Belt Conference tournament final if they wants to secure an at-large bid. And even then, it's not a given. Not playing a BracketBusters game hurts South Alabama's ability to grab an additional quality win. A 17-1 league record and 26-5 overall mark should get the Jags in without winning the Sun Belt tourney.

Chances of an at-large bid: Good

RPI: 63

Quality Wins: Houston, Maryland

Ticket to the Big Dance: The at-large potential drops off at this point. VCU is decidedly lacking in quality wins and will have few opportunities to improve its RPI the rest of the way. Run the table, including a BracketBusters win, and reach the CAA final, and that may be enough for Anthony Grant's team. Even though it supposedly does not play a factor, the committee has to remember the Rams' upset of Duke in last year's first round.

Chances of an at-large bid: Fair

RPI: 49

Quality Wins: Cleveland State, Dayton, Kansas State, VCU

Ticket to the Big Dance: The Patriots picked up a huge win on Wednesday, erasing a six-point deficit with 11 minutes to go to beat VCU. Mason, like VCU, needs a regular-season championship and a conference tournament final berth to get serious at-large consideration. And the Patriots need to win what should be a fairly high-profile BracketBusters game.

Chances of an at-large bid: Fair

Current RPI: 56

Quality Win: Saint Joseph's

Ticket to the Big Dance: The Bluejays missed a chance to chalk up a quality win on Wednesday at Drake. Dana Altman's crew can't afford another regular-season loss. Win the conference outright, then pick up a few more quality wins in the MVC tourney and Creighton will be in the hunt.

Chances of an at-large bid: Slim

RPI: 67

Quality Wins: Butler, Florida State, at Wright State

Ticket to the Big Dance: The Vikings need to win either the Butler rematch or their BracketBusters game, and win every other regular season game in order to get in position for at-large consideration heading into the Horizon tournament. Another loss along the way will force Cleveland State to win the league tournament in order to return to the NCAA for the first time since its magical Sweet 16 run in 1986.

Chances of an at-large bid: Slim

RPI: 36

Quality Wins: Illinois State, George Mason, Cleveland State

Ticket to the Big Dance: The MAC has not received an at-large bid since 1999, so recent history suggests it is going to be very difficult to get in without a tournament title. Kent State will need to run the table in the regular season and hope it gets a quality BracketBusters matchup to boost what will be a declining RPI. A 27-4 record entering the MAC tournament should be enough.

Chances of an at-large bid: Slim

BracketBusters matchups will be announced on Monday and played on Feb. 22 and 23. ESPN does its best to pair the best designated home teams against the best designated road teams, creating compelling matchups and giving the participating teams exposure and a chance for a quality win. The field has increased to 100 teams this year, but the reality is only a handful of games will impact the NCAA tournament.

Last year, we predicted three of six marquee matchups. Here goes this year's attempt.

Drake at Butler

No doubt about this year's headliner. The Cinderella leader of the Missouri Valley travels to Hinkle Fieldhouse for a battle with Butler on the court where Hoosiers was filmed.

Davidson at St. Mary's

The Wildcats probably don't want a second cross-country trip this year, but it could finally give them the high-RPI win they've been looking for after losses to UCLA, UNC, Duke and N.C. State. The matchup of guards Stephen Curry and Patrick Mills would be delicious.

Kent State at Oral Roberts

Kent State has to be hoping Oral Roberts does not lose between now and Bracketbusters, giving the Flashes an opportunity for a much-needed quality road win.

VCU at Illinois State

Anthony Grant's team is fighting for another regular-season Colonial Athletic Association title, while first-year coach Tim Jankovich has the surprising Redbirds in the hunt in the Missouri Valley. Ever since George Mason and Wichita State met in the Sweet 16 in 2006, the CAA and MVC have established themselves as the cream of the mid-major crop.

George Mason at Southern Illinois

So why not have another CAA vs. MVC matchup? Both teams were preseason favorites who have underachieved at this point, but they are both still a threat in their conference tournaments and hold very slim at-large hopes. SIU's Randal Falker vs. Mason's Will Thomas in the low post would be the mid-major version of Tyler Hansbrough vs. Kevin Love.

Creighton at Cleveland State

A win, even at home, over a top Missouri Valley team would legitimize Cleveland State's strong league run in the minds of the committee. Creighton simply cannot afford to slip at all.

Davidson's Stephen Curry scored 34 points in a 78-65 win over Wofford on Wednesday. It was Curry's fourth 30-plus point game this season. ... Presbyterian, which is playing 25 of its 30 games away from home in its first year of Division I competition, moved to 3-0 at home on Wednesday with a 92-45 victory over Allen, an NAIA school. Unfortunately for the Blue Hose, they are 0-21 on the road. ... Led by 7-foot-7, 365-pound center Kenny George, UNC-Asheville is in first place in the Big South at 6-0 and is 17-4 overall. George is averaging 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds while coming off the bench and playing 20 minutes a game. He's also shooting 71 percent from the floor -- best in the nation -- and is averaging more than four blocks per game.