There are five weeks until Selection Sunday, which means for most conferences there is just one month remaining of regular season play. Some of the smaller conferences who have their tournaments a week early have only three weeks remaining before their conference tournaments. With the Super Bowl (and thus the NFL season) in the books, here is a rundown on what has been happening in college hoops this season as we prepare for the stretch run before the NCAA Tournament. Today we take a look at the smaller “mid-major” conferences, most of which will be one-bid leagues for the NCAA Tournament. Don’t forget to check out our Bracketology Page for weekly updates of Ian’s bracket projections as we move closer to Selection Sunday.
America East Conference
Vermont is the defending regular season and conference tournament champions, and have rolled through conference play this year. The Catamounts went 16-0 against the America East last year and are off to a 9-0 start this year. This will be a one-bid league and Vermont has a 3-game lead on UMBC and Hartford in the conference standings. Vermont beat UMBC 81-53 this past weekend to complete the season sweep and already has a win at Hartford. Their hardest remaining game will be a trip to Albany this week.
Atlantic 10 Conference
It is a down year for the Atlantic 10, which will struggle to be a multiple-bid league. Rhode Island has run out to an impressive 19-3 start (11-0 in conference play) and has a 3-game lead over second place Davidson. St. Bonaventure had early hopes of an At-Large bid but have dropped some questionable games which may result in too many bad losses on their resume. One of the stories of the year is perennial bottom-dweller Duquesne fielding a highly competitive team that is 15-9 overall and sitting in the middle of the pack at 6-5 in conference play. The Dukes have no shot at an At-Large bid but have put together a nice season so far and have played tight against the top teams in the league.
Atlantic Sun Conference
Another familiar name, Florida Gulf Coast, has breezed through conference play with a 9-0 start. The Eagles are looking for their second straight regular season title and third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Dunk City has a 3-game lead over Jacksonville and recently completed a season sweep with a dominant 80-55 victory over the Dolphins. There is a tight race in the middle of the conference between Lipscomb, NJIT, and North Florida. Since the Atlantic Sun Tournament features games at the home court of the higher-seeded team, those three teams are fighting for third place and the right to avoid FGCU’s half of the bracket.
Big Sky Conference
Another year, another battle between Montana and Weber State. One of those two teams has represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament in 5 of the last 9 years. Montana has been the class of the conference so far with a perfect 11-0 conference record and a two-game lead over Weber State. The two teams will meet only once this season, a March 1 showdown that could decide the top seed in the conference tournament if Montana drops a game before then. Portland State had high hopes coming into conference play after a strong showing against major conference opponents in the PK80 Tournament, but the Vikings have fallen to the lower half of the pack.
Big South Conference
This is one of the tightest conference races in the country. UNC-Asheville holds a one-game lead over Winthrop and Radford. Gardner-Webb is just two games back. One team to watch down the stretch is Campbell with guard Chris Clemons who is in the Top 5 in the nation in scoring at 24.4 points per game. Campbell reached the Big South title game from the 7-seed last year as Clemons went off for 51, 33, and 29 in the Big South Tournament.
Big West Conference
Five teams sit within two games of the league lead. UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis are pacing the field with 7-2 records in conference play. Behind them, UC Irvine, Long Beach State, and Cal State Fullerton are in close pursuit. UC Davis is the defending champions but the Big West Tournament is traditionally wide open. A different team has won each of the last 7 years and there have been 9 different conference champions in the last 10 years. The only current member of the conference that has not made the NCAA Tournament in the last decade is UC Riverside, who is currently winless and in last place.
Colonial Athletic Conference
After a 3-3 start to conference play, Charleston has won 6 in a row to take over first place in the league standings. William & Mary and Northeastern are just a game back with Hofstra two games behind. William & Mary is one of just four original D1 teams that has never made the NCAA Tournament. Charleston and William & Mary will meet two times before the end of the season – once this week on February 8th in Charleston and in the regular season finale on February 24 in Williamsburg.
Two-time defending conference champions Middle Tennessee currently hold a slight lead over Old Dominion and Western Kentucky. Middle Tennessee also has a chance at earning an At-Large bid if they fail to win their conference tournament and avoid devastating losses down the stretch. The Blue Raiders have a strong RPI and played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation. Western Kentucky has five bad losses on their resume which will likely burst their bubble come Tournament time, but the Hilltoppers played a difficult non-conference schedule and have a neutral court win over Purdue.
The quality of the conference has declined a bit this year with long-time stalwart Valparaiso moving to the Missouri Valley Conference. Wright State and Northern Kentucky are tied atop the league with UIC team just a game back. Northern Kentucky is the defending conference tournament champions after earning their first NCAA Tournament bid from the 4-seed last year. In fact, the last two Horizon League tournaments have been won by the #4 seed. Currently, Oakland sits in 4th place with the NCAA’s second-leading scorer Kendrick Nunn (26.0 points per game).
Last year was the inaugural year for the Ivy League Conference Tournament. Only four of the eight teams qualify for the postseason tournament, which should make for an exciting race in the middle of the pack. Penn (5-0) and Harvard (5-1) are currently pacing the field at the top. In the middle, Princeton holds a slim lead for third with Brown and Columbia tied for fourth and Cornell and Yale only a game out of a playoff spot. The Ivy League got rolled in non-conference play and only Penn is more than 2 games above .500 in the overall record.
The MAAC features a tight race at the top between Rider, Canisius, and Iona. Rider has a half-game lead on Canisius and a one-game lead over Iona. However, Iona has history working in their favor as the Gaels are the two-time defending conference tournament champions and won it from the #3 seed last year. In fact, the MAAC Tournament has not been won by the regular season conference champion since Siena in 2010. Canisius currently has the edge in tiebreakers, having completed a season sweep of Iona and edging Rider by a point earlier this season. Rider has games against both Canisius and Iona in the final two weeks of the season.
The MAC is one of the few conferences in college basketball that still has two divisions. Buffalo and Toledo are currently the class of the conference. The Bulls have a one-game lead overall on the Rockets. Both Buffalo and Toledo have a three-game lead in their respective divisions and it is unlikely anyone will mount a challenge coming down the stretch. Buffalo has won 2 of the last 3 MAC Tournaments. Despite a good RPI and Non-Conference Strength of Schedule, Buffalo will not be a factor for an At-Large bid because they have only 1 win over a Top 100 team.
One of the best under-the-radar stories in college hoops this year might be Savannah State. Before this season, the university announced this would be their last year competing at the Division 1 level and they would drop down to D2 next year. Savannah State has never made the NCAA Tournament but has put together a spirited effort in conference play, running out to an 8-1 record and holding a half-game lead over North Carolina A&T in the standings. North Carolina Central and Bethune-Cookman are also within two games of the top of the league which should make for an exciting stretch run.
Missouri Valley Conference
Arch Madness, the MVC Tournament in St Louis, figures to be as crazy as ever this season. Six teams are currently within 3 games of the conference lead. With Wichita State moving to the American Athletic Conference, the MVC has been wide open this year. Loyola-Chicago currently holds a lead in the conference standings and has provent to be capable against high quality competition with a win over Florida on their resume. Southern Illinois is one game back and Bradley, Illinois State, and Drake are two games behind.
Mountain West Conference
The Mountain West has an outside shot to be a multiple-bid league this year. Nevada currently holds a one-game lead over Boise State in the conference standings. The Wolfpack are the defending conference tournament champions and have a very good RPI, non-conference schedule and have excellent computer numbers across the board. Additionally, Nevada only has one questionable loss on their resume which makes them an attractive At-Large candidate if they fail to win the conference tournament. Boise State did not play a good non-conference slate and has a resume lacking in good wins despite having only one questionable loss. Fourth place Wyoming have been home court heroes in Laramie with wins over both Nevada and Boise St.
Only once in the last decade has a team other than Mount Saint Mary’s, Robert Morris, or LIU Brooklyn won the NEC’s automatic bid. Wagner currently sits atop the league standings with a two-game lead over Mount Saint Mary’s. The middle of the pack is tight with St. Francis (PA), Robert Morris, LIU Brooklyn, and St. Francis (Brooklyn) all tied at just a game behind second place. Only the top 8 teams in the conference will reach the conference tournament, but it looks like Sacred Heart and Bryant are clearly the worst teams in the league and will end their seasons early.
Ohio Valley Conference
The Ohio Valley Conference always has one of the best conference tournaments and this year figures to be no different. Belmont leads the conference by one game over Murray State and two games over Austin Peay. Defending conference champions Jacksonville State is tied with Tennessee Tech in fourth place. The Gamecocks won the conference tournament from the #4 seed last year. Jacksonville State upset top-seeded Belmont last year and is the only OVC team to top the Bruins this season. The OVC Tournament is structured to give a massive advantage to the top seeds as the top two teams receive double byes to the semifinals and the third and 4th place teams get a bye to the quarterfinals.
Another year, another dominant performance in league play by Bucknell. The Bison have run out to an 11-1 record in conference play and hold a 3-game lead over Colgate and Boston U. Bucknell is on pace for their 7th regular season league title in the last 8 years. For the Patriot League, this honor comes with the added benefit of getting home court advantage for the conference tournament. Bucknell is the defending conference tournament champions and played West Virginia tight in the first round last year.
Defending SoCon champions East Tennessee State have bulldozed their way to a perfect 12-0 mark in conference play. UNC Greensboro, last year’s regular season champions who fell to ETSU in the title game, are in second place with Wofford and Furman a distant third. Wofford has the distinction of beating two ACC teams in non-conference play this year with wins over Georgia Tech and North Carolina. This leads one to wonder where Pitt (who remains winless in ACC play) would finish in the SoCon. Despite their 19-4 overall record, East Tennessee State does not have a victory over a Top 100 opponent and will n ot be considered in the conversation for an At-Large bid if they fail to win the SoCon tournament.
In one of the tightest conference races in the nation, five teams are within a game of first place in the Southland. Nicholls St holds a slight lead over defending tournament champions New Orleans. Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana, and Stephen F. Austin are all close behind. Like the Ohio Valley Conference, the top two teams in the Southland get byes to the semifinals of the conference tournament and the third and fourth seeds get byes to the quarterfinals. This makes the race at the top of the league all the more exciting coming down the stretch. The double-bye format has certainly helped as the top seed has won the tournament each of the last four seasons.
The SWAC has long been one of the worst conferences in D1 basketball. Currently, none of the teams boast a winning record and two teams (Grambling and Alabama A&M) are inelligible for postseason play because of APR penalties. All told, five of the ten SWAC teams failed to win a game in non-conference play. One of those teams was Arkansas-Pine Bluff who went 0-14 in non-conference play but has won 9 of 10 games since conference play started and currently leads the league by two games. The aforementioned Grambling is currently tied for second place with Jackson State. Given the fact that every SWAC team is below .500, it is almost a certainty that the conference champion will head to Dayton for one of the play-in games.
Over the last 6 seasons, two teams have dominated the Summit League. South Dakota State has won the conference tournament four times, including each of the last two years, and North Dakota State. South Dakota State leads the league by a half game over South Dakota (who was the only team to beat the Jackrabbits this season). The two teams will meet again in the final week of the season on February 22 in a game that will likely decide the regular season title. South Dakota State features one of the nation’s top scorers in Mike Daum (23.5 points per game) but it would be a tall task for them to earn an At-Large bid if they fail to win the Summit League tournament for a third straight season. That said, Daum is one of the best all-around scorers in the country and absolutely worth watching if you have the opportunity to see him play.
Sun Belt Conference
The “Fun Belt” has seen some massive upsets in their conference tournament in recent years. Over the last 7 seasons, the #6 seed has won the tournament twice (including Troy last season), the #7 seed once, and the #9 seed once. This season, Louisiana-Lafayette has rolled through conference play with a perfect 10-0 record. The Ragin Cajuns boast an impressive 20-3 record, but have a slim chance at an At-Large bid if they fail to win the Sun Belt because of a sub-par non-conference schedule. Louisiana has played only 3 Top 100 opponents and they lost all of those games. Georgia State is currently in second place, two games ahead of in-state rival Georgia Southern.
West Coast Conference
In all likelihood, the West Coast Conference should be a two-bid league once again. Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga have put together impressive seasons and both have resumes worthy of an NCAA Tournament team. St. Mary’s won the first meeting between the two by a 74-71 margin. The rivals will meet again on February 10 in a game that will likely decide the regular season champion. No other teams are close as BYU and Pacific are both 5 games behind the Gaels. St. Mary’s is 23-2 with a number of good wins on their resume and strong computer numbers. Meanwhile, Gonzaga played a more difficult non-conference schedule and has a number of better wins than St. Mary’s. However, the predictive-based metrics (BPI, KenPom, Sagarin) like Gonzaga a lot more than the result-based metrics (RPI, KPI, Strength of Record) which could lead to an interesting debate regarding the Zags when it comes time for the Tournament. Despite a relatively low RPI for a mid-major looking for an At-Large bid, Gonazaga’s on-court results can’t be argued with and they have enough good wins to keep themselves in the At-Large conversation.
New Mexico State has been the preeminent team in the WAC for the better part of the last decade. The Aggies have won the league’s automatic bid in 5 of the last 6 years. New Mexico State has once again paced the league with a perfect 7-0 conference record. Grand Canyon, Utah Valley, and Seattle ar all within two games. All three have games against New Mexico State in the week between February 10th and February 17th, which should ultimately decide the regular season champion. The Aggies have only one questionable loss on their resume and a neutral court win over Miami. However, after that Miami win they have only one other Top 100 victory which likely won’t be enough to carry them to an At-Large bid if they get upset in the WAC Tournament.