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NCAA Tournament: The road ahead as mid-majors scramble for an at-large bid

New Mexico State, St. Bonaventure, Western Kentucky, and others might have a nerve-wracking wait on Selection Sunday

NCAA Basketball: UAB at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Here at Mid-Major Madness, this is the time of year when we start getting the same question every day. Actually, closer to every hour. It goes something like this:

“If [TEAM] wins out then loses in the [CONFERENCE] championship game, can they get an at-large?”

The only correct answer to this is “win your conference tournament and you won’t have to worry about it.” But that doesn’t fly with some people. Here is a definitive look at the mid-major at-large landscape. And despite what others in the media might be saying, it’s not quite as bleak as you think.

Teams that should just win their conference tournaments:

These teams are overwhelming favorites in their conference and a loss in their conference tournament would be entirely on them.

Buffalo (MAC)

Currently: 15-5 (7-0 MAC East, 3-game lead)
Best wins: vs. UAB
Bad losses: NONE

Buffalo needs to win the MAC Tournament, because the Bulls just don’t have the non-conference resume to get in any other way. There’s just no way around it. The conversation would be different if they had knocked off Cincinnati, Texas A&M, or Syracuse. The good news is they are the best team in the MAC. By a lot.

At-large odds that I just made up: 4%

East Tennessee State (SoCon)

Currently: 17-4 (8-0 SoCon, 1.5-game lead)
Best wins: vs. Northern Kentucky
Bad losses: vs. Troy

ETSU is in the same boat as Buffalo. With no wins that will move the needle in the committee room, the Buccaneers need to win the SoCon. And they are in good position to do that. They’ve already passed their toughest test of the regular season by winning at Furman last week.

At-large odds that I just made up: 2%

New Mexico State (WAC)

Currently: 17-3 (5-0 WAC, 1-game lead)
Best wins: vs. Miami, vs. Illinois, vs. Davidson, at New Mexico, at Grand Canyon
Bad losses: NONE

It’s not likely and the Aggies’ best shot is to just win the WAC Tournament. HOWEVER! Their wins at the Diamondhead Classic will put them above many other mid-majors on the at-large list and they prove that NMSU can play with the best. With an undefeated WAC regular season and a strong WAC Tournament run, the committee would have a hard time keeping them out.

At-large odds that I just made up: 17%

Rhode Island (Atlantic 10)

Currently: 16-3 (8-0 Atlantic 10, 2.5-game lead)
Best wins: vs. Seton Hall, vs. Providence, at Dayton
Bad losses: NONE

Rhode Island is in excellent shape, even if the Atlantic 10 is down this year. The Rams’ win over Seton Hall in the non-conference should quiet any critic who says they can’t compete with the big boys and all three of their losses are to probable tournament teams. St. Bonaventure might be on a slide, but the Bonnies are still a KenPom top-100 team, so if URI can avoid any bad losses and pick up a win in Olean, it would be headed toward lock territory.

At-large odds that I just made up: 72%

Vermont (America East)

Currently: 17-5 (7-0 America East, 2-game lead)
Best wins: vs. Northern Kentucky
Bad losses: at Northeastern

Sorry, Vermont fans. The Catamounts have virtually no at-large chance either. No matter who often you ask us. Are the Catamounts one of the best 68 teams in the country? Probably. But ultimately there will be far more teams who have built stronger resumes. Nobody will notice that win over Northern Kentucky.

At-large odds that I just made up: 1%

Probable at-large teams:

Barring something unforeseen, these teams won’t have to worry about making the field.

Gonzaga (WCC)

Currently: 17-4 (7-1 WCC, 1 game back)
Best wins: vs. Ohio State, vs. Texas, vs. Creighton, at Washington
Bad losses: NONE

It’d take something really strange for Gonzaga to not make the field now. Maybe a few injuries or a string of head-scratching losses. The Bulldogs have the strongest resume of any team from a mid-major conference and are currently top-10 in KenPom. It’s not a question of if the Zags are going, it’s where and what seed they will get.

At-large odds that I just made up: 89%

Nevada (Mountain West)

Currently: 18-4 (7-1 Mountain West, 0.5-game lead)
Best wins: vs. Rhode Island, at Fresno State, vs. Boise State
Bad losses: vs. San Francisco

Don’t worry, Wolf Pack fans. That double-overtime loss in Laramie won’t cost you too much. Wyoming is a borderline top-100 team, it was on the road, and you guys already built enough of a cushion and have enough chances ahead to redeem yourselves. Nevada probably needs one more really good win to feel comfortable and its trip to Boise State on Valentine’s Day could do the trick.

At-large odds that I just made up: nice%

Saint Mary’s (WCC)

Currently: 19-2 (8-0 WCC, 1-game lead)
Best wins: at Gonzaga, at BYU, vs. New Mexico State
Bad losses: vs. Washington State

The Gaels’ win at Gonzaga last week bumped them from “work left to do” into the virtual lock category. Again, they just need to avoid an unforeseen run of hiccups going forward. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the staff here at Mid-Major Madness, but I will do so anyway: I can’t wait for March to become the Month of Landale.

At-large odds that I just made up: 71%

Work left to do:

These teams can play themselves onto the bubble with a strong finish to the regular season.

Boise State (Mountain West)

Currently: 17-4 (7-2 Mountain West, 0.5 games back)
Best wins: at Oregon, at UNLV, at Fresno State, vs. San Diego State
Bad losses: NONE

We all want to see Chandler Hutchison play in March and I do think it’s going to happen. The Broncos have to earn it, though. They have two tier-A KenPom games left on their schedule and they need to grab at least one. Having five-or-so Mountain West record wouldn’t be a good look.

At-large odds that I just made up: 44%

Middle Tennessee (Conference USA)

Currently: 14-5 (6-1 Conference USA, tied for first)
Best wins: at Murray State, at Florida Gulf Coast, at Vanderbilt, at UAB, at Western Kentucky
Bad losses: NONE

Two-bid CUSA? It’s possible, and this would serve as a good test for how honest the committee is about not favoring teams from power conferences just because. Wins at Murray State and Western Kentucky aren’t nearly as sexy as, say, wins at Alabama and Syracuse, but they’re every bit as good.

At-large odds that I just made up: 31%

St. Bonaventure (Atlantic 10)

Currently: 13-6 (3-4 Atlantic 10, 4.5 games back)
Best wins: vs. Maryland, at Buffalo, vs. Vermont, at Syracuse
Bad losses: vs. Niagara

What a change in the last two weeks for the Bonnies. They went from a surefire tournament team to one that is firmly in the NIT discussion. And it will be tough to make up that lost ground. The good news: none of those four A-10 losses are particularly damaging. But all of them together is troubling, especially when they were really their only shots at quality conference road wins. They need to go on a heck of a run to get back into the discussion and a win over Rhode Island next month is essential.

At-large odds that I just made up: 18%

Western Kentucky (Conference USA)

Currently: 14-6 (6-1 Conference USA, tied for first)
Best wins: vs. Purdue, vs. SMU, at Old Dominion, at Marshall
Bad losses: at Ohio

Did you write off the fightin’ Stansburys in mid-December? Shame on you. The Hilltoppers are back and won seven straight before losing to Middle Tennessee last Saturday. Beat the Blue Raiders in their place on March 1 and the CUSA Tournament will become much more interesting.

At-large odds that I just made up: 22%

Probably not, but like, maybe?

This team probably won’t get called, but keep an eye on them for funsies.

BYU (WCC)

Currently: 17-4 (6-2 WCC, 2 games back)
Best wins: at Princeton, at Utah State
Bad losses: at Pacific

The only reason BYU is even in this category is because it still has opportunities against Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. Sure, the Cougars have mostly won the games they should, but they also have no great wins to speak of and played a non-conference schedule in the 200s nationally. Let’s see what they do from here, but for now, nah.

At-large odds that I just made up: 9%

Just log off:

These teams don’t have a shot at an at-large, full stop.

Stephen F. Austin (Southland)
Louisiana (Sun Belt)