Low- and mid-majors still in spotlight as NCAA tourney nears
The behemoth known as the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament gets underway Tuesday, the first of the major conferences to begin the process of crowning a champion.
The real spotlight still belongs to the low- and mid-majors.
After all, the first-round ACC matchups of Georgia Tech-Boston College and Virginia Tech-Wake Forest amount to four teams that are a combined 28 games below .500, fighting merely for the right to face North Carolina and Miami, respectively. Each winner would still need to win four more games to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
Impossible? Nope. Unlikely? You bet.
So you might as well keep an eye some lower-profile leagues that have high hopes of their champions busting some brackets. St. Francis and Robert Morris will be fighting for the Northeast Conference title, and Green Bay and Valparaiso will be facing off for the Horizon League.
That would be the same Robert Morris that nearly took down Villanova a handful of years ago, and the same Valpo whose coach, Bryce Drew, is part of NCAA tournament lore.
The Summit League and West Coast Conference will also have championships up for grabs, though No. 7 Gonzaga may be the one team that knows it will be playing next week regardless.
St. Francis, the top seed in the Northeast, will be trying to punch its NCAA tournament ticket for the first time. The Terriers lost to Monmouth in 2001 and Wagner two years later with a bid on the line, but remains one of just five schools that have never made the NCAA tournament's ever-expanding field since the modern reclassification of Division I in 1948.
They'll be taking on second-seeded Robert Morris, which is back in its conference title game for the sixth time in seven seasons after a semifinal win over Bryant.
"I think this year is probably our best chance to win the championship," said Colonials forward Lucky Jones. "We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of athleticism. We have a lot of heart. I think this year we're more together than any team here the last four years."
Led by high-scoring guard Keifer Sykes, second-seeded Green Bay is playing for its first conference tournament title in 17 seasons. Top-seeded Valparaiso won the regular-season title, but the two schools split their meetings this season, each winning at home.
"We have some work to do," Drew said.
SO ABOUT THAT BUBBLE: Valpo can take the drama out of Selection Sunday by beating Green Bay, but the Crusaders would still have hope of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection with a loss. They are 27-5 with a blowout win over fellow bubble team Murray State, though losses to Missouri and New Mexico won't help their cause.
WEST COAST DRAMA: Every team clinging to the bubble will be staying up late to watch the West Coast Conference tournament unfold. Gonzaga is a lock for an at-large spot if it trips up, but BYU could be teetering on the edge or taking one of those precious few at-large bids.
NERVOUS NELLIES: So who, besides Murray State, is sweating things out this week?
Well, start in the major conferences. Schools such as LSU, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State can take a lot of stress out of Selection Sunday by winning at least one game in their respective conference tournaments. So can Texas, which was once ranked in the top five nationally but will have to play Texas Tech in one of the Big 12 tournament's first-round games Wednesday night.
"We've got another game, right now with Texas Tech, and we've got to go play, and it's obviously as big a game as we've played all year," Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said.
"We've been able to get into more of a rhythm, more of a rotation with our team, and it is what it is," he said. "All we have in front of us is Texas Tech."
Each of those schools could use a win or two in their league tournaments, but there are still more teams that could use a few wins. UCLA, Illinois and Texas A&M fall into that category as they await the start of the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC tournaments later this week.