Atlantic 10, Mountain West headline year's best non-BCS leagues

Jeff Eisenberg

When George Mason made its memorable run to the Final Four in 2006, it was hailed as proof that schools from non-BCS conferences could compete against college basketball's juggernauts.

Then a strange trend started. Curiously, the number of mid-majors who received at-large bids began declining instead of increasing as expected.

Whereas as many as 12 mid-majors received at-large bids in 2004, there were only six in 2007 and 2008 and just four a year ago. Instead last season's bracket was dominated by middling major-conference teams like Minnesota, Arizona or Clemson while non-BCS teams like Stephen Curry's Davidson team stayed home.

The pendulum finally seems to be swinging back the other way this season, with the Pac-10 crumbling and the Big Ten and SEC lacking depth at the same time as a handful of potential multi-bid mid-major leagues have emerged. Here's a look at five non-BCS leagues that have the best chance of putting two or more teams in the NCAA tournament:

1. Atlantic 10

Solidly in the field: Temple (19-4), Xavier (16-6)

Work left to be done: Charlotte (17-5), Rhode Island (18-3), Richmond (17-6), Dayton (15-6)

Outlook: No less than six Atlantic 10 teams are in contention for the tournament, though preseason favorite Dayton is probably the biggest long shot at this point. A 7-1 conference record and a win at Temple strengthens Charlotte's case, but its non-league win over Louisville suddenly doesn't look as good. Rhode Island's best wins are either at Boston College or at Dayton, but it desperately needs to keep winning. And Richmond has impressive non-league wins over Old Dominion, Missouri, Mississippi State and Florida, but most of its difficult conference games lie ahead.

2. Mountain West

Solidly in the field: BYU (22-2), New Mexico (20-3)

Work left to be done: UNLV (18-4), San Diego State (16-6)

Outlook: While BYU and New Mexico has positioned themselves for high seeds in the field of 65, the other two Mountain West contenders still have work to do. UNLV will be also playing for seeding if it survives a three-game gauntlet against the three top teams in the league in the next eight days, while San Diego State's lack of quality non-league wins mean the Aztecs will probably have to win at BYU or at New Mexico to have any shot.

3. Missouri Valley

Solidly in the field: Northern Iowa (20-2)

Work left to be done: Wichita State (18-5)

Outlook: Unless Northern Iowa collapses in the second half of league play, it seems pretty certain the Panthers will be making a return to the NCAA tournament. Wichita State's chances of joining them took a big hit when the Shockers lost at Northern Iowa this week, but they still have a chance if they win the rest of their league games and their Bracket Buster matchup at Utah State.

4. West Coast

Solidly in the field: Gonzaga (18-4)

Work left to be done: Saint Mary's (20-3)

Outlook: An injury to Patrick Mills robbed what may have been a better Saint Mary's team of a bid last season, but the Gaels are back behind big man Omar Samhan. Although wins at San Diego State and Oregon and vs. New Mexico State and San Diego State will help, Saint Mary's probably needs either a win at Gonzaga next week or to at least win the rest of their games besides those against the Zags.

5. Conference USA

Solidly in the field: None

Work left to be done: Alabama-Birmingham (18-4), Memphis (16-6), UTEP (16-5), Tulsa (18-4)

Outlook: UAB looked to be solidly in the field and Memphis looked completely out before the Tigers' victory over the Blazers pushed both teams toward the bubble. Memphis desperately needs a win over Gonzaga on Saturday to really get back in contention. Neither Tulsa nor UTEP did enough out of conference to warrant a bid, but they're tied atop the C-USA standings at 8-1. Would the winner of this league really not merit a bid?