Note: This article also appears at SouthernCollegeSports.com.
After last season’s NCAA Tournament where we saw the Missouri Valley Conference get four bids, George Mason reach the Final Four, and Bradley and Wichita State make it to the Sweet Sixteen, everyone is looking for the mid-major darkhorses. With a couple of weeks of conference play finished, the picture is starting to become clearer in several conferences. However, for the one-bid conferences, their March Madness starts a few weeks before Selection Sunday, when the conference tournaments begin. In other words, the team in first place right now doesn’t really matter. It will only matter in early March. What sleepers are out there looking to create chaos in your bracket? I’ll guarantee that it comes from one of the teams listed below. And you can hold me to that.
Missouri Valley: The MVC looks like they are repeating their outstanding season from a year ago, and might even be better. The top of the conference is very crowded, and no clear-cut favorite has emerged yet. If the season ended today, Southern Illinois and Missouri State would definitely be in the NCAA Tournament. SIU has an RPI in the top 10 with wins over Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky, and Missouri State. Missouri State owns a victory over Wisconsin and was 7 points away from being undefeated before losing by 20 at Southern Illinois this weekend. Creighton was at the top of the conference headed into the night, but they fell on the road to Wichita State. Their non-conference resume is not impressive, but if they finish in the top two or three in the standings, the committee will have no choice but to let them in. After that, it’s unclear. Northern Iowa was rolling along before losing back-to-back games last week. They don’t have any out-of-conference wins of note, so they could be sitting on the bubble the rest of the season. Bradley started off hot, but went 1-3 to start the MVC season. However, they just beat Southern Illinois and Indiana State and could be back in the conversation. Indiana State has been the surprise team of the conference, sitting at 4-2 in the league. They have wins over Purdue and Butler, but need to get to at least 11-7 or 12-6 to get consideration. Wichita State is an interesting case. They started off 9-0, with wins over LSU and Syracuse, but are 3-6 since then. The Shockers have the non-conference resume to make noise if they finish in the top four in the conference.
Champion: Southern Illinois
NCAA Tournament Teams: Southern Illinois, Missouri State, Wichita State, Creighton
Mountain West: The MWC has the #8 RPI in the country, and could get a couple of bids to the NCAA Tournament. Their potential for multiple invitations looked a lot better a few weeks ago, before New Mexico and San Diego State started falling apart. However, they still have several contenders. Air Force is a near-lock, with the #6 RPI and a 16-1 record. Barring a complete collapse, the Falcons are in. UNLV is the next-best candidate. They have a top 20 RPI as of now, and the Rebels have wins over Nevada and Texas Tech on the road. If they finish second in the conference with an 11-5 or 12-4 record, they have a good case. BYU started off slow, but won seven in a row before their loss at UNLV this weekend. They might not have the non-conference resume to get a bid, but with a great conference showing, look out. The only other teams with potential are San Diego State and New Mexico, but both need outstanding conference showings, especially the Lobos.
Champion: Air Force
NCAA Tournament Teams: Air Force, UNLV
Potential Multi-Bid Leagues
Atlantic-10: The A-10 could really have trouble getting a second bid. They do have five teams in the top 90 of the RPI, but no one has a great resume and might not get a lot of love from the Selection Committee come March. Xavier might have the best chance to get an at-large invitation. They have wins over Villanova, Illinois, and Kansas State, but losses to Cincinnati and Bucknell. If they win the regular season title, but lose in the tournament semi-finals, that might be the A-10’s best hope. Dayton has the league’s best RPI, but they have losses to SMU and Rhode Island. They need to finish at least second in the conference to have a chance. Massachusetts is undefeated in the conference, but they don’t have any outstanding non-conference wins. However, if they win the A-10, it will be tough to ignore. Saint Louis was looking good heading into conference play, before their losses to Duquesne and St. Bonaventure. They did beat Xavier this weekend, and could be bouncing back. Those losses could really hurt them if they are in the discussion come Selection Sunday.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Xavier
Colonial: After their outstanding showing last March, with two bids and a third, Hofstra, just left out of the conversation, the CAA could have trouble repeating that. VCU is the lone undefeated team in the conference, but they don’t have any marquee non-conference wins and will need to finish with at least 14 conference wins to have a chance. Hofstra started the season 0-3, but has played well lately, going 5-1 in the CAA. However, they have bad losses to Northeastern, Manhattan, and Charlotte, and no good non-conference wins. Their road win over Drexel could be big if they finish in the top two of the conference, though. Drexel has the league’s best non-conference resume, with a top 40 RPI and wins over Syracuse, Villanova, and five non-conference wins on the road. The Dragons need a top-three finish and 13 wins in the CAA to get consideration. Old Dominion doesn’t have any terrible losses and they own a win over Georgetown, but they might not have the overall resume to get a bid unless they finish in the top two of the conference. This will be a very, very interesting race to watch.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Hofstra, Drexel
WAC: Unlike the Colonial, the WAC has one definite lock for the NCAA Tournament, which could give them an advantage for multiple bids to the Big Dance. Nevada is a guarantee to be in the NCAA Tournament, with a solid RPI and a 15-1 overall record. Barring a collapse, the Wolf Pack will be a top six seed in March. New Mexico State would be next in line for a bid. They are undefeated in the WAC, and have won twelve in a row. However, they don’t have any good wins, either in and out of conference. They will need to finish a close second to Nevada, and beat the Wolf Pack at least once. Unless Nevada loses in the conference tournament, no other team has much of a chance.
NCAA Tournament Teams: Nevada
America East: Albany — Despite their loss to undefeated Vermont this weekend, the Great Danes have experience and the conference’s best player in Jamar Wilson. Vermont won’t give in easily, though.
Atlantic Sun: Belmont — Even though they lost at home to Lipscomb this weekend, the Bruins are 6-1 and have an excellent guard in Justin Hare. Lipscomb will give them a run, though.
Big Sky: Idaho State — The Bengals are undefeated at home, and already beat second-place Weber State on the road. Their backcourt of David Schroeder and Akbar Abdul-Ahad is the best in the league. Don’t sleep on Northern Arizona.
Big South: Winthrop — The Eagles are a big-time sleeper come March. They nearly beat Wisconsin and North Carolina, and could go undefeated. Torrell Martin and Michael Jenkins are explosive on the wing.
Big West: Cal State-Fullerton - The Titans have the league’s best player in Bobby Brown, and six guys that average in double-figures. Long Beach State will give them a great run, though, with their inside-outside balance.
Conference-USA: Memphis — The Tigers might not be as good as last year, but they have a better chance to go undefeated this season. Memphis is a lock. The C-USA is not good at all this season, and they don’t have any one close to an at-large bid right now.
Horizon: Butler — Unless the Bulldogs lose in the conference tournament, the Horizon is getting one bid. Butler, with their resume, is a lock right now. There are several teams that can knock them off in the tourney, though.
Ivy: Pennsylvania — With Princeton starting 0-2 and Penn dominating Columbia on the road, the Quakers could run away with this. Ibrahim Jaaber and Mark Zoller form an outstanding inside-outside combination.
MAAC: Marist — The Red Foxes knocked off league-leading Siena on the road tonight, and have the league’s best backcourt in Jared Jordan (a top 5 PG) and Will Whittington. With their balance, they could be a real sleeper in March.
MAC: Ohio — The MAC is wide-open this season, but the Bobcats have the best balance in the conference with five guys in double-figures. Toledo has the best backcourt, though, while Akron has great depth and experience. Watch this league.
Mid-Continent: Oral Roberts — Who am I to bet against a team with Caleb Green and a road win at Kansas this season? Depending on their matchup in the Big Dance, the Golden Eagles could pull a shocking first-round upset.
MEAC: Delaware State —The two-time defending regular-season champion should pull a three-peat this season and make the Big Dance. Jahsha Bluntt and Roy Bright are one of the best forward duos on the mid-major level.
Northeast: Robert Morris — The Colonials are only 3-3 right now in the conference, but they have one of the league’s best players in A.J. Jackson and great talent. Sacred Heart, however, is dominant at home, and FDU is also loaded.
Ohio Valley: Samford — The Bulldogs have lost two in a row, but they still own the league’s best guard in Randall Gulina and a good big man in Travis Peterson. Two teams that will give them a run are Austin Peay and perennial power Murray State.
Patriot: Holy Cross — The Crusaders beat defending champion Bucknell this week, and have the conference’s best player in Keith Simmons. The Bison, however, could be hitting their stride after their very slow start. Never count them out.
Southern: Davidson — The Wildcats always seem to contend, and this year is no different. Bob McKillop’s team is extremely well-coached, and Stephen Curry is the best freshman you haven’t heard of. Appalachian State, Charleston, and UNC-Greensboro will be in the mix.
Southland: Sam Houston State — With one of the best inside-outside combos in the league, and JeJuan Plair at the point, this team is tough. However, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, with center Chris Daniels, will give them all they can handle.
SWAC: Jackson State — For everyone’s sake, I hope the Tigers make the Dance. Trey Johnson is the country’s leading scorer and is very fun to watch on the offensive end. He is a lock to get about 30 points every night out.
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky — The Hilltoppers could be a tough out in March. Courtney Lee is one of the best players in the country, and WKU is extremely deep. They have already beaten Georgia and UAB.
West Coast: Gonzaga — The Bulldogs are a guarantee to make the Dance. Moreover, with the overall struggles of the WCC, the Zags could run the table in conference play. Even if they don’t, they are head-and-shoulders above everyone else.
Sweet Sixteen Non-BCS Sleepers
2. Air Force
4. Southern Illinois
6. Missouri State
10. Wichita State
14. Oral Roberts
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