NCAA tournament bracketology: Bubble teams catching a break with early conference tournaments

Things didn’t go so great over the last week for a bunch of mediocre power conference teams hoping to snag a double-digit at-large NCAA tournament berth. At least when they played.

But when others did? It was fabulous. In addition to a batch of teams failing to improve their lot in life (and some, such as Boise State and its home loss to Fresno State, doing an incredible job of torpedoing their postseason resume), there were no bid snatchers emerging in the early conference tournaments.

The Missouri Valley? Top-seeded Loyola Chicago won Arch Madness, defeating second-seeded Drake (a borderline tournament team) in the title game.

The Atlantic 10? St. Bonaventure and VCU, the league’s top two seeds, emerged as the finalists. Both already appeared to be bound for the field of 68. Now it’s just more obvious.

Much of the movement heading into Selection Sunday will occur later in the week, but there are seven tournaments wrapping up Monday and Tuesday. Those conferences will be responsible for whatever truly interesting happens in the next 48 hours that doesn’t involve a coronavirus test.

A rundown of what to expect the next two days …

Southern (Monday title game, 7 p.m., ESPN): For the second year in a row, the No. 7 seed in the SoCon has rattled off three victories in a row to reach the title game. Mercer (18-10) hasn’t been back to the tournament since upsetting Duke in 2014, but it’s made things interesting with its run just like Wofford did last season. However, the Bears have a tough task against defensive maestro Isaiah Miller and top-seeded UNC Greensboro (20-8).

Bracket impact: Neither team would be a pushover in the round of 64. UNC Greensboro has recorded five consecutive 20-win seasons, while Mercer upended Georgia Tech early this season in Atlanta. The winner will be a double-digit seed—though the Spartans’ ceiling is a bit higher.

Sun Belt (Monday title game, 7 p.m., ESPN2): Appalachian State was breezing along at 12-5 and fresh off a sweep of Georgia State. Then it lost six of seven to close the regular season before catching fire in the Sun Belt tournament. Meanwhile, Georgia State has lost just once since it encountered the Mountaineers and has won eight in a row as it seeks to add to its Sun Belt tournament crowns of 2015, 2018 and 2019.

Bracket impact: One-bid territory, but one with some turn-of-the-century history. Appalachian State is seeking its first NCAA berth since 2000, while Georgia State coach Rob Lanier is seeking to take a team to the tournament for the first time since he led Siena to a Metro Atlantic title in 2002 at age 33. He spent most of the time in the interim as a high-major assistant.

Colonial (Tuesday title game, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network): James Madison, the out-of-nowhere regular season champ that lost CAA player of the year Matt Lewis to a knee injury in mid-February, was summarily bounced from the tournament in the quarterfinals. Second-seeded Northeastern (10-8), defending champ Hofstra (13-9), sixth-seeded Drexel (10-7) and eighth-seeded Elon (9-8) advanced to the semifinals.

Bracket impact: Whoever comes out of this is likely to end up on the No. 15 or No. 16 lines.

Horizon (Tuesday title game, 7 p.m., ESPN): Top-seeded Cleveland State needed a circus shot and three overtimes to survive Purdue Fort Wayne in the on-campus quarterfinals last week. Co-regular season champ Wright State wasn’t so fortunate, blowing a 24-point lead in the final seven minutes against Milwaukee before losing in overtime.

All of which is to say there’s a lot for this event to live up to as the scene shifts to Indianapolis. Cleveland State (17-7) and Milwaukee (10-11) meet in one semifinal Monday, while Northern Kentucky (14-10) and Oakland (11-17) tangle in the other.

Bracket impact: Cleveland State could snag a No. 15 seed if it wins the Horizon, but the other semifinalists are likely play-in game fodder should any of them claim the automatic bid.

Northeast (Tuesday title game, 7 p.m., ESPN2): Bryant and Mount St. Mary’s were supposed to play a rescheduled regular season series last week. That got canceled, but now they’ll play for something even better: An automatic NCAA tournament berth. Bryant (15-5) has won five in a row, beat Massachusetts earlier this season and is the top remaining seed as it seeks its first NCAA berth at the Division I level. The Mount (11-10) has made five previous trips, most recently in 2017.

Bracket impact: Welcome to the No. 16 line. The NEC champion was shipped to the play-in round every year from 2014 to 2019, and it could happen again.

Summit (Tuesday title game, 9 p.m., ESPN2): The top four seeds have advanced to the semifinals, and only third-seeded North Dakota State won its quarterfinal by less than 10 points. Still, the Bison (14-11) claimed the Summit tournament the last two seasons. Before that, top-seeded South Dakota State (16-6) won the league three years in a row.

Bracket impact: Only one team is getting in here. South Dakota State could land a No. 13 seed if things break right for it, but the Jackrabbits are probably looking at a No. 14 seed. The other semifinalists—South Dakota, North Dakota State and Oral Roberts—would probably need some help to get off the No. 16 line.

West Coast (Tuesday title game, 9 p.m., ESPN): Gonzaga (24-0) is effectively assured a No. 1 seed regardless of what happens in this Las Vegas-based tournament, and BYU (19-5) is safely in the at-large field. If both win their Monday night semifinals, the WCC will be cleared of potential bid thieves. Gonzaga meets Saint Mary’s (14-8), while BYU faces Pepperdine (12-11).

Bracket impact: Gonzaga is aiming for its 18th WCC tournament title in 23 years, an incredible run of dominance. Borderline tournament teams would be content if the Zags won again, though they’d settle for a BYU title, too. Anything to keep Pepperdine or Saint Mary’s from snatching an automatic berth.

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Field notes

Last four included: Saint Louis, Drake, Mississippi, Xavier

First four on the outside: Boise State, Colorado State, Syracuse, Utah State

Next four on the outside: Seton Hall, St. John’s, Duke, Stanford

Conference call: Big Ten (9), Atlantic Coast (7), Big 12 (7), Southeastern (7), Big East (4), Pac-12 (4), Atlantic 10 (3), American Athletic (2), Missouri Valley (2), West Coast (2)

Moving in: Colgate, Georgia State, Hartford, Michigan State, Mississippi, Morehead State, Northeastern, Nicholls State

Moving out: Abilene Christian, Belmont, Boise State, Colorado State, James Madison, Navy, Texas State, UMBC

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Projection

West vs. East, South vs. Midwest

West Region

(1) WEST COAST/Gonzaga vs. (16) SOUTHLAND/Nicholls State-SOUTHWESTERN/Prairie View A&M

(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) LSU

(5) ATLANTIC COAST/Virginia vs. (12) Mississippi/Saint Louis

(4) Creighton vs. (13) BIG WEST/UC Santa Barbara

(3) Kansas vs. (14) PATRIOT/Colgate

(6) Tennessee vs. (11) UCLA

(7) MOUNTAIN WEST/San Diego State vs. (10) North Carolina

(2) Ohio State vs. (15) BIG SKY/Southern Utah

Time to ask an updated version of the question again: With five losses in its last six games, what is Wisconsin’s floor? Probably a No. 10 seed. The Badgers aren’t falling out of the field, but they’ve beaten only two likely tournament teams (Maryland and Rutgers) since dispatching Michigan State on Christmas. … Both Virginia and Florida State are on the No. 5 line in this projection, but it’s safe to assume either would get back to the No. 4 line if it wins the ACC tournament. …

UCLA is 2-6 in Quadrant 1 games and a combined 5-8 in the top two quadrants. An early exit from the Pac-12 tournament could relegate the Bruins to play-in territory. … North Carolina isn’t nearly as accomplished as it usually is, but it shouldn’t have to sweat Selection Sunday after beating Duke on Saturday.

East Region

(1) Illinois vs. (16) COLONIAL/Northeastern

(8) MISSOURI VALLEY/Loyola Chicago vs. (9) Louisville

(5) Colorado vs. (12) BIG SOUTH/Winthrop

(4) BIG EAST/Villanova vs. (13) SOUTHERN/UNC Greensboro

(3) Oklahoma State vs. (14) SUN BELT/Georgia State

(6) PAC-12/Oregon vs. (11) Maryland

(7) Clemson vs. (10) Virginia Commonwealth

(2) SOUTHEASTERN/Alabama vs. (15) WESTERN ATHLETIC/Grand Canyon

Loyola Chicago has advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in its last two NCAA appearances—1985 and 2018. With the way the Ramblers sliced through the Missouri Valley tournament, don’t count out another run this year. … No team eligible for the postseason has ever been left out of the NCAA tournament with two or fewer losses. Winthrop (23-1) avoided that fate by winning the Big South tournament. …

Maryland had better hope the committee loves road victories (Illinois, Rutgers, Wisconsin) as much as it normally does, especially after its nosedive over the last week. The Terrapins could be staring at play-in territory—and maybe worse—if it loses its Big Ten tournament opener. … VCU is 9-4 against the top two quadrants. That’s exceptional compared to the edge of the field. The Rams should be fine regardless of the result of the Atlantic 10 final.

South Region

(1) BIG 12/Baylor vs. (16) AMERICA EAST/Hartford-MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC/North Carolina A&T

(8) Florida vs. (9) ATLANTIC 10/St. Bonaventure

(5) Florida State vs. (12) Drake/Xavier

(4) Purdue vs. (13) CONFERENCE USA/Western Kentucky

(3) Arkansas vs. (14) OHIO VALLEY/Morehead State

(6) Texas Tech vs. (11) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/Wichita State

(7) Oklahoma vs. (10) Georgia Tech

(2) Iowa vs. (15) HORIZON/Cleveland State

Not only has Hartford never reached the NCAA tournament, it hasn’t played in a conference title game since 2008. The Hawks were supposed to last year, but the season was halted two days before the America East final. … Drake is in for an anxious week, but its profile is pretty similar to Belmont’s two years ago, and the committee sent the Bruins to Dayton. At the moment, this looks like a weaker edge of the field, which would seem to favor the Missouri Valley runners-up. …

Morehead State has won its NCAA tournament opener in three consecutive appearances—play-in games in 1984 and 2009, and a Kenneth Faried-fueled upset of Louisville in 2011. The Ohio Valley champions will get a chance to extend that streak next week. … Georgia Tech looks to be safely in its first NCAA tournament since 2010. The Yellow Jackets have won six in a row entering the ACC tournament.

Midwest Region

(1) BIG TEN/Michigan vs. (16) NORTHEAST/Bryant

(8) Virginia Tech vs. (9) Connecticut

(5) Southern California vs. (12) MID-AMERICAN/Toledo

(4) Texas vs. (13) ATLANTIC SUN/Liberty

(3) West Virginia vs. (14) SUMMIT/South Dakota State

(6) Brigham Young vs. (11) Michigan State

(7) Missouri vs. (10) Rutgers

(2) Houston vs. (15) METRO ATLANTIC/Siena

Connecticut has gone from a team that was getting graded on a curve because star guard James Bouknight lost a month to injury to one that has won six of seven and might be as good a bet as any team to win the Big East tournament. … Liberty is making its fifth NCAA tournament appearance, and the defense-minded Flames have a recent history of being spunky. They beat Mississippi State in the first round in 2019, and knocked them off again earlier this season (along with South Carolina). Alas, Ben Howland’s team isn’t making the field of 68 without a miracle run in the SEC tournament. …

Michigan State picked off Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan in its last six games. The Spartans might just be safely in even with a Big Ten tournament loss to Maryland. … Hard as it is to believe, only three teams have more Quadrant 1 victories than Missouri’s seven: Illinois (nine), Baylor (eight) and Oklahoma State (eight).

Patrick Stevens writes for The Washington Post.

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