It’s been a long time since a conference out of the spotlight furnished two teams coming from seemingly nowhere to challenge for NCAA Tournament berths the way the Sun Belt Conference has this year with Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington.
It’s also not unprecedented, and that’s said not to take away from the fun of their stories one bit. For if one wants an illustration of how long it has been, the conference that last pulled off such a feat has since changed its name, lost three members and added four more in the time since.
To put it another way: Wimp Sanderson was the head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock back then, still sporting his famous plaid sport coats.
It’s still early in the season, and we’d be the next in line to advise as much after virtually every coach in the country would do so first. Still, it’s hard to overstate just how much we should appreciate what the Trojans and Mavericks have done in November and December.
As non-conference play winds down and RPI ratings slowly start to pick up more meaning, the teams picked to finish fifth and eighth, respectively, in the Sun Belt preseason poll are both firmly in the top 50 in the RPI. If that holds into March, they’ll certainly be worthy of serious at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament.
The duo is a combined 16-2 overall against Division I competition. UT-Arlington has won at Memphis, Ohio State and UTEP and one of its two losses was in overtime at Texas-the same place North Carolina also recently lost a close game. The Mavericks also were picked eighth in the Sun Belt and returned just two starters.
UALR has won at DePaul, San Diego State and Tulsa. At 10-0 overall entering a tough road game at Texas Tech on Tuesday, the Trojans are far and away the most unlikely unbeaten left and have been for some time. They’re also just three wins from matching their win total from all of last year. Oh yeah, and they’ve done it all with a new coach.
Both are doing it in different ways. UTA pounds the glass-especially on the offensive end, where it ranks third in the country with 16.8 offensive boards per game-and goes 10-deep with a lineup that isn’t huge but is tough and also has a breakout star in Kevin Hervey (17.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg). Little Rock is small-just two players in the rotation taller than 6-6-but plays some of the best team defense you will see all season. The Trojans lead the country in scoring defense (53.7 ppg) and rank eighth in field goal percentage defense (36.3%) while offensively using a motion offense that bucks the tiresome current trend of endless ball screens.
If both were to dominate the Sun Belt and then lose in the conference tournament, they would be very worthy at-large picks for the NCAA Tournament-and completely unexpected before the season, very similar to how the Midwestern Collegiate Conference furnished Detroit and Illinois-Chicago as at-large picks in the 1998 tourney.
Never heard of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference? You have, except it has a different name now. The MCC (once also known as the Midwestern City Conference) changed its name to the Horizon League in 2001. In the early 1990s, it was regularly competing for an at-large bid each year, if not necessarily more than one, though it was soon used as a steppingstone by more than a few programs, with Dayton, Evansville, Marquette, Saint Louis and Xavier among those jumping from the league to higher perches.
The MCC had sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament in four of seven years from 1990-96. It had never sent three, though, and only sent one in 1997-tournament champion Butler, which went as a 13 seed and was hammered by Cincinnati.
Coming in, 1997-98 hardly looked like the setting for a banner year, but that’s exactly what it was. Detroit and Illinois-Chicago both earned at-large bids, with Butler coming out as the surprise winner of the conference tournament (ironically without having to beat either one).
Detroit and UIC finished a game behind the Bulldogs in the conference standings the year before, but at 16-13 and 15-14, respectively, were nowhere near NCAA or even NIT consideration. A year later, though, the two shared the MCC regular season title, and both finished in the top 40 in the RPI on the strength of both defeating Michigan State (an eventual 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament) in the regular season-UIC convincingly at home by 12 points, Detroit on the road at the Breslin Center by three. The scope of the Flames’ and Titans’ upsets at that time probably didn’t rate as much nationally as some of the surprises by UTA and UALR this year, for they happened in the early days of the internet’s popularity and also was a time when this Joe Lunardi guy was just starting to become a household name in the sport with his “bracketology.”
Both teams got off to 10-2 starts out of conference before finishing 12-2 in league play. In addition to beating the Spartans, the Flames also lost by a point at Illinois (an eventual 5 seed in NCAAs) and defeated MVC champion Illinois State and won by 21 over a Valparaiso team that eventually made the Sweet 16. UIC had the MCC player of the year in guard Mark Miller and Bryant Notree and Anthony Coomes also were all-conference players, and the three combined to average over 48 points per game.
Detroit’s resume was a tad shakier, but a split with UIC in the regular season plus a win at Iowa State and an 18-point victory over eventual at-large pick Western Michigan sewed up a bid. Those were the years of coach Perry Watson’s balanced, defense-minded outfits, including this one led by first-team all-conference pics Derrick Hayes and Brian Alexander that also included a pair of players (Desmond Ferguson and Jermaine Jackson) who would play in the NBA.
More notably, neither team lost often, and when they did it was close. Both entered the conference tournament with just four losses, though it should be noted this was a time when schedules were generally shorter and there were far fewer exempted tournaments. Entering the NCAA tourney, three of UIC’s five losses were by two points or less, a fourth was by six and the lone game close to a blowout came at the hands of Detroit. The Titans’ resume was similar-four losses by five points or less and a fifth at eventual NCAA 2 seed Cincinnati by 10.
Illinois-Chicago eventually earned a 9 seed in its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to UNC-Charlotte 77-62 in the first round. Detroit was given a 10 seed and surprised St. John’s 66-64 in the first round before falling to 2 seed Purdue 80-65 in the second round.
It remains to be seen if UT-Arlington and Little Rock can keep up that pace. We know neither will have a win as high profile as either Detroit or UIC did in 1998, and at this point the Sun Belt’s place of 18th in conference RPI is far behind the MCC’s finish of 12th that year. At the same time, if the Mavericks and Trojans did make the tourney-even if one is the tourney champion-the conference’s accomplishment might be more notable in that the Sun Belt-a league that once had as many as four teams in the tourney in 1986-has had just one at-large qualifier in the last 20 years (South Alabama in 2008).
Regardless, it will be a fun story to watch, and rather than worrying too much about their postseason situation-as seems to happen in some way to so many teams on the fence in February and March-one hopes the teams and their fans can just enjoy the ride.