Conference tournaments will start in about two weeks, and bubble teams from San Diego State to Connecticut will cross their fingers that the NCAA Tournament-worthy favorites from one-bid conferences take care of business.
Three conference tournaments in particular figure to stress out the fringe tournament teams. The Horizon League, Missouri Valley Conference and Western Athletic Conference have the looks of one-bid conferences. But if those conferences’ leaders fail to receive the automatic bid by winning their conference tournament, they have a good shot of making the tournament with an at-large bid.
Butler is the most comfortable conference leader of the three, as the Bulldogs remain undefeated in the Horizon League. Despite posting only two wins against the RPI top 50, the Bulldogs are ranked No. 17 in the RPI, thanks largely to a non-conference slate ranked No. 14 in difficulty. The good news for bubble teams is that the Horizon League tournament will be in Butler’s backyard in Indianapolis. And Butler has dominated the Horizon League’s most likely threats, beating Cleveland State, Wright State and Green Bay six times by an average of 14 points.
In the Missouri Valley, Northern Iowa has four more conference wins than second-place Wichita State. The Panthers sport a higher RPI than Butler at 15, though that will likely change tomorrow because Northern Iowa dropped a road game to Bradley, only the team’s second loss in conference play. Despite two losses to teams outside the RPI top 100, Northern Iowa still figures to receive an at-large bid if necessary because the team is 22-3 and has two wins against the RPI top 50. However, Northern Iowa’s road to the conference’s automatic bid is tougher than Butler’s. The tournament will be in St. Louis, and the Panthers have not exactly blown out most MIssouri Valley opponents — winning by less than 10 points in six of 13 victories.
Utah State would likely join the bubble if the Aggies lose in the WAC tournament in Reno, Nev. Although the Aggies have the best marquis win of Butler, Northern Iowa and Utah State — against BYU — they also have the most losses, six, including two against teams outside the RPI top 100. Utah State has a respectable strength of schedule hovering around 100, and the Aggies might continue to rise if they finish strongly in the 10th toughest conference. With four home games remaining, the Aggies could easily enter the WAC tournament with 24 wins. However, playing in Reno means the Nevada Wolf Pack will have home-court advantage knowing they must earn the conference’s automatic bid to make the NCAA Tournament. If Utah State loses to the Wolf Pack in the WAC championship game, the conference could end up with two bids in the NCAA Tournament.
With nearly half the Big East on the bubble, several prominent teams, such as Louisville, Connecticut and Marquette, will need to hope that Butler, Northern Iowa and Utah State ensure that seemingly one-bid conferences don’t unexpectedly become two-bid conferences. All three conference favorites will face upset-minded opponents in their tournaments, especially when their opponents know they can only earn an NCAA Tournament bid by receiving an automatic bid.