Mid-majors miss an opportunity

What are the first things you look at when a new bracket hits this Web site? The No. 1 seeds? Where your favorite team might be shipped? How many teams the Big 12 gets in this week? (Nine, for those counting.)

This week, the lack of entries for the mid-majors jumped off the page for this committee of one.

But the mid-majors shouldn't be on the endangered list. With the Pac-10 down (just three entrants) and the Big Ten in its usual state of chaos behind league leader Ohio State, opportunities abound for the little guy.

But few have taken advantage. Only three at-large selections came from non-BCS schools, and two of those were from the Atlantic 10 (Temple and Dayton), the only league stepping forward. That's not really news, since the A-10 has produced three tournament teams each of the last three seasons.

The problem lies below the nation's eighth-rated league. Let's take a look at who hasn't been there to represent the little guy and who might.

Mountain West: The MWC a one-bid league? That scenario is likely. Barring an absolute collapse, TCU is in, but that could be it if the Horned Frogs also win the conference tournament. San Diego State and New Mexico were in the mix for an at-large bid until disastrous stretches saw them both lose to UNLV. Neither has the schedule to play its way back into true consideration. The last time the MWC sent only one team to the tournament was 2004, but unless someone knocks off TCU in Las Vegas in three weeks, it will happen again.

The Mountain West's troubles have a ripple effect. Combined with similarly tough times in the Pac-10 after Stanford, there is a general lack of teams west of the Rockies in the field. With four sub-regional sites in the Mountain and Pacific time zones (Berkeley, Stanford, Seattle, Tempe), this means that a highly seeded Eastern team is going to have some significant travel. Someone has to play there. This time around, it's West Virginia going to Seattle. Last season, Pittsburgh got to see the Space Needle up close.

Conference USA: The reshaping of the college basketball landscape a few years ago was great for the Big East and MWC, but not so great for C-USA. With DePaul, Louisville and TCU still in the league, C-USA regularly put three and four teams in the NCAA tournament. Since those schools left before the 2005-06 season, just once (2008) has an at-large bid made it out of the conference. In that case, UTEP had an unbeaten regular season before getting knocked off by a surprising SMU team in the league tournament final. Nothing close to that has occurred in either season since, even though C-USA is still considered a good league. This season, the conference has no chance to send anyone but the league tournament champ.

Sun Belt: With Middle Tennessee and Arkansas-Little Rock, both 13-1 in the league, the Sun Belt has what Conference USA does not: two dominant teams. That gives the league a fighting chance for two bids in case one of them doesn't win the league tournament, but the scenario is still unlikely. The best-case scenario is that the Blue Raiders get to the Sun Belt Conference title game but don't win. They've crept into the RPI top 40 and have one top-25 win, over Kentucky in December.

Now the problem. MTSU won't play a team in the top 100 the rest of the regular season and isn't even worthy of the field right now. UALR has a gaudy record and a big winning streak but nothing to speak of in the almighty category of quality wins. (Beating MTSU is the Trojans' best victory.) While a two-bid scenario remains in play, its likelihood is probably less than 20 percent.

America East: The most likely mid-major league after the Atlantic 10 to have a second team in the tournament is the America East. Hartford and Vermont are both worthy of at-large bids at this point. However, that hold is tenuous. Say Vermont stumbles against UMBC or Stony Brook or bows out early in the league tournament and Hartford wins it. The Catamounts could then easily be replaced by a BCS-conference school.

Vermont and Middle Tennessee are the only mid-majors included in the "last four in" and "first four out" categories, and the Blue Raiders would be the last team in that group to move into the field. While the America East has a decent shot of carrying the banner with Vermont and Hartford, it may be just the conference champ that gets in.

Colonial: Two weeks ago, with Old Dominion having a reawakening in league play and James Madison carrying a pretty good résumé, multiple bids looked promising. Even Drexel was in the conversation.

The Lady Monarchs have continued to play well, but because of their horrific nonconference season, an at-large bid is out of the question. The Dukes, despite holding third or fourth place in the CAA, had wins over Georgetown and Virginia to their credit. They had an opportunity to make up ground in the standings, but in back-to-back games last weekend, JMU lost at William & Mary and UNC Wilmington, two teams ranked outside the top 150 in the RPI. Now the at-large chances have all but disappeared. Drexel, too, has let opportunities pass and doesn't have a single top-50 win. So the most likely scenario now is that just the CAA tournament winner will head to the Big Dance in March.

The winners in all this are the big boys, and it's a possibility that a mere two at-large bids will come from non-BCS schools -- and that both will be from the Atlantic 10. This should have been the year of the mid-major. Instead, the Big 12, SEC, Big East and ACC will have an even brighter day in the sun come March 15.

Games to watch

A few key contests likely to affect the bracket in the coming week:

Xavier at Dayton: The Flyers could use one more big win to seal a bid. To remain in the hunt for a No. 2 seed, the Musketeers can't afford a loss. This is the biggest challenge the rest of the regular season.
Texas A&M at Oklahoma State: The loser probably falls out of any chance at finishing second in the Big 12 and, perhaps, a top-4 seed.

Sacred Heart at Robert Morris: The Pioneers need to win here to have a chance at catching the Colonials for the top seed in the NEC tournament and an opportunity to host a potential championship game rematch.
Vanderbilt at LSU: LSU still hasn't beaten a top-flight SEC opponent, and time is running out. A big road win would validate Vandy. That's something the Commodores don't have.

Boston College at NC State: This is a classic bubble matchup.

DePaul at Marquette: The Golden Eagles are absolutely done without a win here, but the Blue Demons don't have much room for error, either.

Maryland at Duke: An upset by the Terps seals their bid. Duke gets could get to within one win of clinching the ACC regular-season title.
Wisconsin at Michigan: This is exactly the kind of opportunity that the Wolverines can't let get away if they want to be a team that plays their way into the tournament and not out.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter.