That's the question that probably draws more reaction, more angst, more anticipation this time of year. Forget about bubble specifics, we know some teams will make the cut, while others ask what more they could have done. But which conferences will be well represented in the field of 68?
While the Big East is pining for upwards of 11 teams to make The Dance, the goal of every conference outside the Big Six is to earn that all elusive at-large bid. After all, that's the payoff for the brutal non-conference schedule isn't it? The hope that a couple of wins against the larger programs will be enough to buoy that all important strength of schedule and give the RPI a good ole' caffeine boost.
So while some of the big guys worry about whether or not they'll manage a 50% success rate of landing teams with NCAA Tournament bids on Selection Sunday, let's take a look at who will and who won't be pulling that all important at-large card in just a few days.
There's no question the A-10 will earn multiple bids, it's just a matter of how many. From a conference standpoint the best possible scenario would be for someone other than Xavier or Temple to win the conference tournament in Atlantic City, but neither seems willing to seed the high ground. Richmond seems like a pretty safe bet for an at-large bid as well with a 24-7 record and a top 60 RPI. Wins over Purdue and VCU certainly add a substantial amount of strength to their overall resume as well. A win in the conference quarterfinals tomorrow over Rhode Island should all but clinch that at-large berth.
That leaves two bubble teams in Dayton and Duquesne. Both are still alive in the postseason picture, with the Flyers facing top-seeded Xavier and the Dukes looking at a relatively easy road to the semifinals with only Saint Joseph's to get past. Dayton is definitely in the better position for a resume building win, as taking down the Minutemen would be a mean a win against a top-20 RPI team at the most opportune time of the season and prove to be their 21st win of the season. With that said, an RPI of 79, only one win over a top-50 RPI team and a 7-9 conference record during the regular season, anything short of winning the conference tournament probably leaves them out. The same is true for Duquesne which has an even worse off profile than the Flyers
Final Bid Count: 3
It's been a banner year for this conference and the MWC is assure of three bids at the minimum right now. BYU and San Diego State are both top five in RPI and are both going to be top four seeds, with the winner of the conference tournament likely looking at a two-seed. Following those two is UNLV, also assured of a place in the tournament field regardless of how things play out in Sin City over the next few days. The Rebels are 23-7, have a top 25 RPI rating and an excellent strength of schedule (37th), so it's only a question of how high can UNLV climb? Chances are barring a quarterfinal loss to Air Force tonight, they'll be on the upper half of the seed breakdown as a seven or an eight.
That leaves Colorado State and New Mexico as the bubble teams out west. The Rams have the better profile right now but lost four of their final five regular season games, while the Lobos enter on a three-game winning streak. The teams split during the regular season, with New Mexico defeating BYU last week and CSU having defeated UNLV earlier in the year. Chances are a win for the Rams gets them into the Dance with their 20th win, while New Mexico might need to advance to the conference title game to vault themselves into the field.
Final Bid Count: 4
It has to be hard not to think about what could have been for the CAA. Three bids was very much within reach, before Old Dominion snatched up the conference's automatic bid despite being a lock for an at-large nod. George Mason is an obvious lock for an at-large selection and will likely fall somewhere between and seven and a ten seed when the brackets are revealed.
VCU is the third wheel in this discussion and unfortunately for Rams fans, one that will soon be jettisoned. While three wins over top-50 RPI teams (Mason, Old Dominion and UCLA) look good, the inconsistent last month of the season hurts them quite a bit. It will be very close and a few losses by Big Six bubble teams in their respective tournaments would play in the Rams favor, but ultimately it looks as though they will fall just short of the 68-team cutoff.
Final Bid Count: 2
Things have the potential to get pretty hairy in C-USA. If all the cards fall in the right way up to three teams could be playing in the NCAA Tournament next week, with a worst case scenario being just one team. UAB and Memphis are the best chances of at-large bids right now as the Blazers are owners of a 22-7 record with an RPI or 28, while the Tigers check in with a 22-9 record and a 38 under RPI.
UAB has the benefit of being the top seed in their conference, but mustered only one win over a top-50 RPI team during the regular season in VCU, while Memphis defeated the Blazers twice during the season, their only wins over teams in the top 50. If both teams were to make it to the semifinal round, before a third team ultimately won the championship game, it's possible both Memphis and UAB would earn at-large bids, but it would be difficult. Chances are Conference-USA will only be earning a double dip into March Madness with UAB and Memphis as the representatives barring an unforeseen turn of events.
Final Bid Count: 2
It all comes down to Saint Mary's with this debate: are the Gaels in or out? On paper they actually have a better resume than conference champ Gonzaga and split with the Bulldogs during the regular season. An early season win over St. John's has obviously gained some weight as the season has progressed as the Red Storm are now classified as a top-25 RPI team. Three straight losses in mid-February may have put a slight damper on things, but ultimately Saint Mary's should be safe as ten or eleven seed when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Final Bid Count: 2
This will be the conference everyone has their eye on when the brackets are announced. Those eyes will specifically be on Missouri State, a team that has suffered more heartbreak than most on Selection Sunday. The Bears resume certainly looks the part of a tournament team with 25 wins, a regular season conference championship and reaching the MVC title before falling to Indiana State. Two factors that will come back to hurt the Bears on Sunday are strength of schedule (128th nationally) and not a single win against a top-50 RPI team. It may be difficult to swallow, but with conferences like the Big East cruising towards an unheard of number of at-large bids, it's looking like another case of Missouri State landing in the Last Four Out group.
Final Bid Count: 1