Forgotten 5’s Guide To The NCAA Tournament Bubble

As anyone that is a fan of “mid-major” basketball knows all too well, the only real guarantee to play in the NCAA tournament is through the conference tournament. A spectacular season can be easily undone by a single bad performance at the wrong time. Even the best of the non-power programs have to be very careful due to playing an entire season on the razor’s edge.

As we did with our my conference rankings list, we are not going to include the American or the West Coast Conference in our look at the teams that can play their way into the Big Dance without a conference tournament championship. Both conferences are on pace for multiple bids and are not “mid-majors” anymore.

First let’s take a look at the conference leaders that have no realistic hope at making the tournament without a tournament title.

  • Florida Gulf Coast (14-5, 3-0 A-Sun): Current ESPN Seed: #14 South Region
  • Richmond (11-6, 5-0 A-10) Current ESPN Seed: #14 West Region
  • Weber State (9-6, 4-0 Big Sky) Current ESPN Seed: #16 West Region
  • Winthrop (13-4, 5-1 Big South) Current ESPN Seed: N/A
  • UC Irvine (12-9, 5-0 Big West) Current ESPN Seed: #16 South Region (play in game)
  • Charleston (15-4, 6-0 CAA, tied with UNCW) Current ESPN Seed: N/A
  • Valparaiso (15-4, 5-1 Horizon) Current ESPN Seed: #13 South Region
  • Princeton (10-6, 3-0 Ivy League) Current ESPN Seed: #14 East Region
  • Monmouth (14-5, 6-2 MAAC) Current ESPN Seed: #13 East Region
  • Morgan State (7-10, 4-0 MEAC) Current ESPN Seed: #16 East Region (play-in game)
  • LIU Brooklyn (12-7 5-1 Northeast) Current ESPN Seed: N/A
  • Belmont (11-4, 5-0 OVC) Current ESPN Seed: #14 Midwest Region
  • Bucknell (14-6, 6-1 Patriot) Current ESPN Seed: #15 East Region
  • New Orleans (9-7, 4-1 Southland) Current ESPN Seed: #16 South Region (play-in game)
  • Texas Southern (9-9, 5-0 SWAC) Current ESPN Seed: #16 Midwest Region
  • Georgia Southern (12-6, 5-0 Sun Belt) Current ESPN Seed: #15 South Region
  • North Dakota State (12-6, 4-1 Summit) Current ESPN Seed: #15 West Region

I am not ready at this point in the year to give lock status to any team. There is still too much of the schedule left to play and too many variables at play. A 2-3 game losing streak could turn a dream season into a nightmare scenario.

With that said, let’s take a look at the Forgotten 5 programs that have the ability to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament even if they are upset in their conference tournament.

On my bubble:

Dayton (13-4, 4-1 Atlantic 10): With talk of the A-10 centering around VCU, the Flyers have slowly crept into the discussion for an at-large bid. They have a sparkling #27 RPI ranking with wins over East Tennessee State, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Rhode Island. With a tough A-10 schedule left to play, Dayton can really put their stamp on a bid in February. Current ESPN Seed: #9 South Region.

VCU (14-5, 4-2 A-10): A tournament regular in recent seasons, some of the luster has worn from the Rams after loss to Davidson and Fordham. The RPI #36 ranked Rams have wins over MTSU, LSU, Princeton, and Old Dominion, but need to do well in A-10 with two games versus Dayton and Richmond still on the schedule. Current ESPN Seed: #11 East Region (play in game).

Wichita State (16-4, 6-1 MVC): Another team that expects a trip to the NCAA tournament every year, the Shockers missed out on multiple chances at a statement win. They lost to #10 Louisville by ten and #24 Michigan State by five. A trip up versus Oklahoma State can be overlooked, but the Shockers look like the second best team in the MVC after getting dominated by Illinois State 76-62. A #76 RPI ranking (only two higher than Vanderbilt) could be tough to overcome. Current ESPN Seed: First four out.

Vermont (15-5, 5-0 America East): The Catamounts are in a tough situation. They are the class of a conference that will likely never get two bids. Despite a #60 RPI ranking and as much as I want Vermont to get into the bubble discussion, they will almost certainly have to win the America East tournament to get to the Big Dance. Current ESPN Seed: #12 East Region.

Rhode Island (11-6, 3-2 A-10): The Rams are in a good conference and have the ability to play into an at-large bid, but they are currently doing the opposite. A loss to Dayton is perfectly fine, but following that up with a 12-point loss to LaSalle really hurts. The only reason I have Rhode Island on the bubble is a schedule that included multiple shots at RPI 1-50 teams. Current ESPN Seed: First four out.

UNC Wilmington (17-2, 6-0 CAA): The Seahawks are another interesting case study. They are 17-2 with their only losses to a very good MTSU team and at Clemson before the Tigers fell off a cliff in ACC play. UNCW is #32 in the RPI but their biggest win on the season is over probably East Tennessee State. Running the table in CAA regular season play and getting to the conference title game would make it hard to overlook them. Current ESPN Seed: #11 South Region.

Middle Tennessee (15-3, 5-0 CUSA): The Blue Raiders did an excellent job in non-conference scheduling, but have a couple of inexplicable losses that hurt their odds. Losing versus Tennessee State and Georgia State cancel out much of the work that the CUSA leaders have done this season. They are still in very good shape with a top 25 RPI and a dominant win over fellow CUSA favorite UAB. Current ESPN Seed: #10 East Region.

Akron (15-3, 5-0 MAC): After losing in the season opener to RPI 200+ program Youngstown State, the Zips have done everything in their power to get back on the bubble. That includes winning 15 of their last 17 games with losses only to #10 Creighton and #8 Gonzaga along the way. The MAC is significantly down this season, so a perfect regular season conference record is a must to get any love from the committee. Current ESPN Seed: #12 South Region.

Illinois State (15-4, 7-0 MVC): Sporting an impressive #26 RPI ranking, the Redbirds have a weird resume. They have wins over New Mexico, Tulsa, and Wichita State, but have losses to San Francisco, Tulsa, and Murray State. They have been on fire since Christmas, sporting an 8-0 record, but still have work to do with a MVC title up for grabs. Current ESPN Seed: #11 Midwest Region.

Chattanooga (14-4, 5-1 Southern): The Southern Conference should be an interesting one down the stretch with the Mocs battling ETSU and UNC Greensboro for the automatic bid. Of the three, Chattanooga is the only one that could actually fight for a very unlikely chance at an at-large bid. They cannot afford another conference loss before the tournament.  Current ESPN Seed: #13 West Region.

New Mexico State (17-2, 4-0 WAC): The Aggies are one of seven teams nationally with 17+ wins on the season. While the other six are national name or getting some play on ESPN (UNCW), NMSU is just rolling along with what could end up the nation’s longest winning streak. I have them on the bubble to contend for a berth because who could ignore a possibly 28-2 team, but that is wishful thinking as the WAC is not sending two teams to the tournament. Current ESPN Seed: #13 West Region.

Nevada (16-3, 5-1 MWC): The final team on my bubble list is possibly the most interesting of the group. The Wolfpack have wins over Oakland, Oregon State, Washington, San Diego State, and Wyoming, but have ugly losses to Fresno State (RPI #131) and Iona (RPI #107). Nevada has possibly the craziest comeback I have ever seen versus New Mexico. They trailed 90-76 with 1:10 left in the game, found a way to send it to overtime, and won 105-104 in the extra session. Current ESPN Seed: #12 Midwest Region.

*****

In the end, I would only realistically expect 3-6 teams from the conferences we cover to make the tournament on merit alone. Last year, only Wichita State (MVC), VCU (A-10), and Dayton made the tournament as at-large bids. Time will tell, but the bubble has historically not been kind to the Forgotten 5.

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