They claimed automatic NCAA tournament bids, forced teams with stronger profiles from their respective leagues into the at-large pool and effectively reduced the number of spots available to bubble teams by one apiece.
Like every March, there will surely be an interloper or two that uses an unexpected league tournament run to make its way into the NCAA tournament field this season. Here's a look at five potential bid thieves that fans of potential bubble teams should watch out for during the next two weeks of conference tournament action.
1. Northern Iowa (18-13, 11-7): In a league with an NCAA tourney lock in Creighton and a likely at-large team in Wichita State, Northern Iowa lurks as a dangerous potential party crasher. The Panthers surged to third place in the Valley standings behind the Bluejays and Shockers by winning seven of their final eight league games, a stretch that included victories over Creighton, Wichita State and Arch Madness quarterfinal opponent Illinois State. Evansville, Indiana State and even Illinois State are each capable of pulling an upset too, but it's Northern Iowa that has the best chance of making the Valley a potential three-bid league. The Panthers have a strong defense, balanced scoring and late-season momentum.
2. Southern Mississippi (22-8, 11-4): Whatever chance the Golden Eagles had at at-large bid likely vanished Tuesday night when they lost to an underachieving Marshall team they previously beat by 56 points. All is not lost, however, for Southern Miss since it still has a reasonable chance of winning the Conference USA tournament next week. Memphis is an NCAA tournament lock by virtue of its dominant 15-0 league record and its two double-digit wins over Southern Miss, but the Golden Eagles remain the team with the best chance of upsetting the Tigers. They're a top 40 RPI team and a top 60 KenPom team by virtue of a solid defense and sweet-shooting senior Dwayne Davis.
3. USC (14-15, 9-7): Its record doesn't exactly scream NCAA tournament, but a closer look at USC's recent performance suggests that the Trojans are a threat to make a run in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas next week. Since firing replacing Kevin O'Neill with interim coach Bob Cantu, USC has ditched its defense-oriented, heavily structured style and played with greater speed and confidence. The result has been six wins in its last eight games, a streak that includes victories over Arizona, Arizona State and Washington and a narrow loss at Cal in a game the Trojans led most of the way. Winning four games in four days next week won't be easy, but Colorado did it a year ago to steal a bid. Plus, while the Pac-12 is improved, it still lacks a dominant favorite.
4. Murray State (20-9, 10-6): Of the small-conference teams who have dominated their respective leagues, one of the ones with the best chance to lose in its conference tournament and still earn an at-large bid is Ohio Valley champ Belmont. The Bruins boast a 24-6 record, a top 25 RPI and wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio. The trouble for other bubble teams is Belmont is no shoo-in to win its league tournament, especially not with Murray State eager to atone for an uncharacteristically mediocre showing in Ohio Valley play by that program's high standards. The Racers finished the season poorly, but they do boast the league's best scorer in Isaiah Canaan and a Feb. 7 win over Belmont. If Murray State continues to falter, also dangerous is Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State.
5. BYU (21-10, 10-6): Gonzaga is a prohibitive favorite to win the WCC tournament and boost its case for a No. 1 seed, but there are two teams capable of at least posing a threat for a title game upset. One is second-seeded Saint Mary's, which has a chance to earn an at-large bid even if loses in the WCC tournament. The other is third-seeded BYU, which can only make the NCAA tournament by winning three games in Las Vegas. This isn't one of BYU's strongest teams, but the Cougars do have two of the league's better players in Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies and a streaky guard in Matt Carlino who makes the team dangerous when he plays well. BYU had Saint Mary's beat in Provo and pushed Gonzaga into the final minutes there as well. Wins on neutral courts will be tougher to come by but the Cougars shouldn't be counted out.
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