With the Missouri Valley Conference and Atlantic 10 releasing their conference schedules this week, we now have a better idea of the dates to circle when contemplating the 2019 NCAA Tournament at-large picture. As Matt Norlander of CBS Sports highlighted the other day, mid-major schools have precious few opportunities to build their resumes against quality competition, and so when those chances arise, teams must take advantage.
Here are 10 games that we know the NCAA selection committee will look at closely when evaluating mid-majors this March. They are by no means the only 10 and on their own they will not make or break anyone’s seasons. But boy oh boy would every team listed below like to come away with a W in these:
Western Kentucky at Washington, Nov. 6
Yeah, that’s opening night, and it’s a game that’s going to fly way under the radar. While most of the country is following the Duke-Kentucky game, or perhaps which party gains control of congress, the savvy bracketologist will turn his/her attention out west. In his first season as head coach, Mike Hopkins led Washington to a surprisingly solid 21-13 season, ending with a berth in the NIT. With the core of that team returning, the Huskies will set their sights higher.
The Hilltoppers will come to town in what’s sure to be a test for both sides. Western Kentucky mixes the old (Lamonte Bearden and Taveion Hollingsworth) with the new (stud freshman Charles Bassey) to make up one of the early favorites in Conference USA. A win over a Power 5 program to start the season would not only get the committee’s attention, but also give them a reason to watch throughout the non-conference.
Houston at BYU, Nov. 24
BYU has spent the last few years stuck in the world of Good, But Not Good Enough with three straight NIT appearances. But with Saint Mary’s headed for a rebuilding year, the opportunity is there for the Cougars to emerge as the second-best team in the West Coast Conference. BYU adds (re-adds?) Nick Emery to join Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws. All three are potential all-WCC players. Houston, meanwhile, finished last season in the KenPom top 20, and while it loses Rob Gray, should still be picked near the top of the American in a down year for the conference.
Nevada at Loyola University Chicago, Nov. 27
How the hell did this game get relegated to ESPNEWS, while Virginia Tech plays Penn State on ESPN2 or ESPNU? If you get that alleged channel, you’ll be in for a treat as we get a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 showdown. Nevada figures to be a trendy preseason Final Four pick, but the Wolf Pack will have an early challenge against a Loyola team that needs to take every opportunity it possibly can to beat a likely tournament team. Marques Townes, who dropped 18 on the Wolf Pack in March, is back for his senior season along with Clayton Custer, while Large Adult Son Cameron Krutwig enters his sophomore year with lofty expectations.
San Diego State at Illinois State, Dec. 1
The Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge gives us another gem, this one coming a few days later. Illinois State has three of the best players in the MVC in Phil Fayne, Malik Yarbrough, and Keyshawn Evans. For the Aztecs, Devin Watson is the leading returning scorer, though Jalen McDaniels made a name for himself inside with an awesome freshman year. Given how we get this game and the Loyola-Nevada contest, it should be a federal crime to end the MW/MVC challenge. Friends, please rethink this.
Illinois State at UCF, Dec. 21
Want to know the teams to watch in the Valley? Ask yourself this one question: Is the team from the state of Illinois? If the answer is yes, they have a shot to make some noise. For the Redbirds, this will be their second chance in a month to come up with a huge win over a possible NCAA Tournament team. No, literally a huge win. Like, a win against the 9-foot  Tacko Fall.
Nevada at New Mexico, Jan. 5
Nobody is going to top Nevada in the Mountain West standings, but if there is a dark horse for a run to the NCAA Tournament, it’s the Lobos. Remember big-time transfers Vance Jackson and JaQuan Lyle? Well, they’re eligible now and will join returner Anthony Mathis to headline an new-look offense. Between the three of them, New Mexico will have one of the better shooting teams in the mid-major world, and that’s the recipe to pulling some major upsets.
Illinois State at Loyola University Chicago, Jan. 12
In all likelihood, one of these two teams is going to win the MVC Tournament and the other will be fighting for an at-large bid. This will end up being a quad 1 (is that how we should write it? quad 1? Quad 1? quad one? Let us know, this is important) win for either team so it will become an important data point for the committee. Hopefully ESPN sees this game for what it is and puts it on one of its major channels. You know, unless Tulane is playing East Carolina or something.
Marshall at Western Kentucky, Jan. 21
Western Kentucky fans are great. They’re loud. They’ll pack Diddle Arena and make life a living hell for any opponent. On the other hand, Jon Elmore is a machine and defe- D’Antoni Ball travels. Do you want to see Elmore and CJ Burks bombing threes as these two teams play each other for the second time in 10 days? Of course you do. With any luck, we’ll get a third regular season matchup between these two CUSA heavyweights in late February as the league will implement a new scheduling format. Heck, a fourth during the CUSA Tournament would be nice too.
Davidson at Saint Louis, Jan. 26
Davidson loses Peyton Aldridge but remains positively loaded behind Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson — with KiShawn Pritchett hopefully set to play a more consistent role as well. Bob McKillop’s crew will be picked in the top tier of the Atlantic 10 alongside Saint Louis. The Billikens haven’t beaten Davidson in almost three years, but they return four of their top six scorers from a team that struggled with consistency last year. Throw in four-star freshman Carte’Are Goodwin and there’s no reason to think Saint Louis won’t be dancing if it can secure a few resume-building wins.
Gonzaga at BYU, Jan. 31
Let’s get this out of the way: Gonzaga is far-and-away the best team in the West Coast Conference, should coast to a tournament bid and protected seed, and will be favored in every conference game it plays this season. But running the table in league is really, really hard — no matter how much better you are than everyone else. And a road trip to BYU, a legit NCAA Tournament contender, could be the best chance to see the Bulldogs slip up. As for BYU, it will be the team’s best chance to secure a quad 1 win in conference play.