With a lack of worthy candidates and minimal conference tournament upsets, last season's NCAA tournament field included only one at-large bid for a mid-major team (Northern Iowa) -- for just the second time in 10 years.
With the Big 12 possibly only a four-bid conference this year, the bottom half of the SEC struggling to find its footing and the American Athletic Conference showing a large drop-off after Connecticut and South Florida, the door appears wide open for multiple mid-major at-large entries.
If only there were as many worthy candidates.
Teams like Western Kentucky, Northern Colorado and New Mexico had some success early that would have given them a chance, but they have since played their way off the board. The Atlantic-10 and Missouri Valley, conferences that have historically sent multiple schools to the NCAA tournament, appear headed to put just a conference champ in the tournament field in March.
The Mid-American Conference has three noteworthy teams in Central Michigan, Ball State and Buffalo, all of which boast top-50 RPI rankings. However, the best win among them is the Bulls' victory at St. John's. They will also likely cannibalize each other the rest of way, leaving the win-loss record insufficient.
The committee wants to see that a team has scheduled well in November and December, has at least one true quality win against that schedule, and shows some form of dominance within the conference. This year that leaves three realistic possibilities:
As they are most seasons of recent vintage, the Phoenix are the best bet to earn an at-large bid should they falter in the Horizon League tournament.
Green Bay emphatically checks both boxes when asked whether its nonconference schedule was challenging and whether they won any of those matchups. Victories over Arizona State, Marquette and Dayton highlighted a 10-1 nonconference record against a top-20 rated schedule.
This isn't the smoothest of offensive teams Green Bay has put on the court, but the Phoenix give up fewer points than any team in the country and are among the top five in just about every other major defensive category. No greater display of that work could be seen than on Monday night when the Phoenix went on the road and held IUPUI -- which had been keeping Green Bay out of first place in the Horizon -- to 34 points. Performances like that make the loss to now 4-13 North Kentucky even more unfathomable, but unless that kind of surprise repeats itself multiple times between now and March, Green Bay will be in the NCAA field regardless of what happens at the league tournament in Detroit.
South Dakota State
If somehow the Jackrabbits are joined by Green Bay and Florida Gulf Coast in the at-large pool come Selection Monday, they could be in trouble because South Dakota State lost to both. However, the Jackrabbits have wins over NC State and Oklahoma and played Louisville to its second-closest margin thus far this season.
A big part of the Jackrabbits' chances could hinge on the seasons that the Wolfpack and Sooners have the rest of the way. Oklahoma was struggling mightily when South Dakota State beat the Sooners in early December, but followed with two impressive wins (South Florida and a blowout of New Mexico) immediately following and are still a top-40 RPI team despite an 8-9 record. Three or four conference losses like they have had each of the last three seasons may not be good enough, though. If the Jackrabbits falter in the Summit tournament it's going to have to come as a dominant regular season champ to turn that impressive first two months into an at-large bid.
Florida Gulf Coast
The Eagles are the most tenuous of the three for one unfortunate but simple reason: The Atlantic Sun does them no favors. The league is ranked in the bottom third of the conference RPI standings, and none of FGCU's opponents the rest of the season will be in the RPI top 100. That means FGCU's overall RPI and strength of schedule will drop even if the Eagles continue to dominate the league as they have in their first three conference games, winning by an average margin of 32.3 points.
FGCU, the nation's leader in 3-point attempts per game, owns a win over DePaul (which ranks No. 2 in the same category) on a neutral floor. That win and an unbeaten conference regular season should still be enough for an at-large berth amongst what should be another weaker bubble should the Eagles falter in the Atlantic Sun title game.