Of all the negatives about the one-and-done epidemic in college hoops, the major positive has been the photosynthesis on mid-majors getting some major shine throughout the season. Nevertheless, the light never shines brighter than it will during conference tournaments when one-bid leagues across the nation will scrap it out for winner take all automatic NCAA Tournament backstage passes. There can only be one national champion, but automatic bids are little nuclear blasts of unabated joy for the mini-programs that populate the college hoops landscape.
The passion and intensity of these tournaments make college football’s bowl season look like an art gallery. These are the closest things to sports Oscars. These aren’t the major productions like the Pac-12 Tournament in Vegas, but on the hardwood, every mid-major underdog that storms through the 68-team gate can identify with Lupita Nyong'o.
There is no mid-major national champion, but if there was one voted on by the Associated Press, Wichita State would sweep the voting. Let’s tip this off with the most relevant mid-major in the land.
Wichita State: There are 31 reasons to think the Shockers are going to tear through the conference tournament like Drano through a septic tank. The Shockers won’t be named the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, but they’ve got a solid case. College Insider has been ranking the mid-majors for the entire season and Wichita State has never budged from the No. 1 spot. That also makes them every opponent’s national championship game on a nightly basis.
Indiana State has a little university pride invested in absconding with the Missouri Valley title though. The last time a Missouri Valley team finished the regular season undefeated was the ’78-’79 Larry Bird led Sycamores. As the clear No. 2 in the MVC, it’s up to Indiana State to defend the honor of Bird’s legacy. They’re the only other 20 win team in the conference and on February 5, Indiana State actually clung to a two-point deficit in the final 2:01 before the Shockers dropped Gorbachev’s Berlin Wall in front of their rim.
Odds they win the MVC: 9.5/10
Stephen F. Austin: Little is really known about the Southland. It’s basically the Bermuda Triangle for college hoops fans and even most experts. However, that could change on the first two nights of the NCAA Tournament. The only team on a longer winning streak than the Shockers are the Lumberjacks. They force turnovers with their aggressive defense, average nearly 80 points a game and went 17-0 in conference play. If they get a favorable matchup against a finesse high seed that relies on perimeter shooting, they could take a lumberjack to you meticulously researched bracket.
Odds they win the Southland: 9.9/10 Yes, I like their odds better than Wichita State’s.
Georgia State: In just his third season as Georgia State’s head coach, Ron Hunter has completed an Optimus Prime-like transformation of the Panthers toothless basketball program from junkyard program to rising mid-major power. I remember the emphasis on he atrocious free throw shooting two years ago when the Panthers were 344th out of 350 programs percentage wise from the charity stripe. In addition to fixing their horrid free throw shooting, Hunter has cleared the malaise surrounding Georgia State’s program with his infectious personality.
While deploying a significantly smaller lineup, the Panthers are fourth in free throw shooting percentage, sixth in points per possession and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio. They strategically press after baskets and sharpshooter R.J. Hunter has the green light and the range to fire at will from deep. Besides the McDermott’s, the Hunters are college hoops’ premier father-son duo.
The only conference loss for Georgia State was on the road at Troy. Ryan Harrow, the transfer from Kentucky is averaging nearly 20 points a game and Manny Atkins has been on a tear.
The Panthers had a few close calls including creeping by Arkansas State by one and another overtime victory over the Red Wolves Tuesday.
Odds they rock the Sun Belt championship belt: 8/10
Gonzaga Bulldogs: Gonzaga hasn’t beaten a ranked team this season, but the ‘Zags are a mid-major monarchy in the West Coast Conference.
David Stockton isn’t the best player on the ‘Zags roster, but the starting point guard is the crown prince of ‘Zags basketball as the son of John Stockton. Last season’s team reached No. 1 in the nation and earned a No. 1 seed, but was predictably eliminated by a more physical team from Wichita State. In hindsight, the loss doesn’t look that damaging to the reputation of mid-majors, but the ‘Zags are now in the same position as the 2013 Shockers sneaking in underneath the radar.
BYU is second in the conference and projected to slip into the tournament, but Saint Marys is the bubble team that will likely need a run an automatic bid to seek refuge among the 68 team field.
Odds they win the WCC tourney: 6.5/10
Conference USA is looking like a one-bid league these days. Southern Mississippi is basically assured an automatic bid no matter how they fare in the tournament. If there’s a conference that could pilfer an extra spot from one of the teams sitting on the bubble it’s this one.
Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee are the two main candidates to knock off the Southern Mississippi Eagles. Louisiana Tech will be attempting to pluck Conference USA out from underneath Southern Mississippi’s nose by re-integrating leading scorer Raheem Appleby into the lineup. Louisiana Tech certainly has the veneer of a tournament team having beaten Oklahoma in late December and winning 24 games, but their strength of schedule is ranked 206th in the nation.
Colonial Athletic Conference
Two years ago, the CAA was a symbol of mid-major strength. Meanwhile, Towson was 1-31 and a laughingstock. Realignment blasted the CAA back to the colonial ages. Without VCU, George Mason, Georgia State, Old Dominion stomping around the yard, Towson has reclaimed its dignity and gotten entangled in a tug of war with Delaware for first place in the ruins of the old CAA.
Towson actually set an NCAA record for the largest single season win increase last year, but due to APR academic penalties, they were ineligible to compete in the conference tournament. It would be an enticing storyline for Towson to win, but Blue Hens and their high-octane offense might have something to say about that. They have five players averaging double digits in points per game because they play at one of the quickest paces in the nation, but are in the bottom third in points per possession nationally and last in the conference in points allowed per game.
If you’re looking for a March surprise Green Bay owns this conference. As early as 2012, the Horizon League used to be Butler’s domain. In the absence of the don Brad Stevens, a vacuum has been left behind in the Horizon’s power structure just waiting to be filled.
Green Bay’s defense is one of the most underrated units in the country. Not only do they rank second nationally in blocks per game courtesy of 7-1 Alec Brown’s interior fanning skills, but they also set a Horizon League record. If the Phoenix unexpectedly falter, their resume is impressive enough that they could secure an automatic bid under the right circumstances. Offensively, Brown has the tools to be a solid NBA stretch-4 who is hitting 44 percent of his threes ad 49 percent from the field.
Oh, I said the next FGCU didn’t I? Dunks were GGCU’s calling card and if you want dunks, they’ve got dunks, but not from the usual places. Fireball 5-10 point guard Keifer Sykes doesn’t shoot the trey as well as his vertically-gifted teammate, and he’s not the facilitator on oops like FGCU’s point guard Brett Comer but at the rim he’s a much more imposing force. Unsuspecting defenders have been known to catch a face full of Nikes in the grill after one of his NSFW jams.
They’ve lost two games in conference play, but Green Bay swatted away Virginia early in the season and came three points away from beating in-state Wisconsin for the second time in 20 all-time meetings.
Chances of an upset: 2/10
Ohio Valley Conference: Now that Wichita State is snatching up national attention in the Missouri Valley Conference, the OVC has returned to its old moniker as the NCAA’s Other Valley Conference. Belmont is the pace horse in the OVC race, but Murray State’s Steve Prohm has winner’s circle experience as well after winning 31 games and tanning in the top 25 two years ago. The Racers have won 18 games without their best player Zay Jackson in the lineup for the entire season and their leading scorer is a freshman. Belmont took advantage of that blow to Murray State and has emerged as the conference’s best team without graduated sharpshooter Ian Clark.
Creighton can’t even compare to Belmont’s shooting prowess. Philosophically, the Bruins launch threes at a dizzying rate, but are eighth nationally in points per game, second in field goal percentage and true shooting percentage nationally.
Belmont/Murray State odds: 60-40. The best hope for the other teams in the Other Valley Conference is that Belmont has a cloudy day shooting from behind the arc.
MEAC: After Stephen F. Austin and Wichita State no team has done the stanky leg through their conference schedule more easily than North Carolina Central. The Eagles played a non-conference gauntlet that included Cincinnati, NC State, Wichita State and Maryland. Aside from a three-point loss to FAMU on January 11, it’s been smooth sailing for NC Central. Last year, coach Levelle Moton told TSL that NC Central was the MEAC’s “Black Duke”. The Eagles are well on their way to backing up their coach’s sky high confidence and expectations in just their eighth season as a Division I program.
The buzz is quiet on Moton, however, in four seasons, Moton has incrementally increased NC Central's win total from 15 wins to 25 wins. A far carry from the program that was 15-75 in the three seasons prior to his hiring. If Central wins the tournament, he may face the choice between listening to overtures from athletic directors in more prominent conferences and sticking around to become NC Central's Shaka Smart.
Summit League: The North Dakota State Bison will go where Taylor Braun leads them. The Bison feature the most unusual stat in the nation. Braun leads the Bison in rebounds, assists, points and steals. The Bison also hold the illustrious honor of being the nation’s leader in field goal percentage.
Atlantic Sun: Andy Endfield and his model wife are long gone, but for the second season in a row, the Atlantic Sun will most likely whittle down to its top two teams, Mercer and Florida Gulf-Coast.
MAC: Watch out for Buffalo and double-double tool man Javon McCrea. You might recognize their coach Bobby Hurley. The former Duke point guard is probably the third-most renowned coach in his own family behind his dad and brother, but he could be leading the Bulls into the NCAA Tournament. Before they begin booking flights on Selection Sunday, they’ll have to upend the high scoring Toledo Rockets who are leaving their conference foes choking on their fumes. Julius Brown is the focal point of the nation’s 17th highest scoring offense as the top scorer and leading assist man.