Mid-majors may receive a record-low number of at-large bids this March

Illinois State is one of only a handful of mid-major contenders for at-large bids. (AP)
Illinois State is one of only a handful of mid-major contenders for at-large bids. (AP)

When the NCAA tournament bracket gets unveiled 13 days from now, it’s easy to predict what one of the most common complaints will be.

Where are all the little guys?

Teams from outside college basketball’s six power conferences are in jeopardy of receiving a record-low number of at-large bids this year. BracketMatrix.com, a site that combines dozens of online mock brackets into one composite list, projects as of Monday that just four out of 36 available at-large bids will be awarded to teams hailing from mid-major conferences.

Four non-power-six at-large bids would match the modern low set in 2009 before the NCAA tournament expanded from 65 to 68 teams. Teams from outside the power conferences have averaged eight at-large bids since 2000 and have received as many as 12 back in 2004.

Of the handful of non-power-six teams even in contention for at-large bids this year, most should hardly be classified as mid-majors. Programs like Gonzaga, Cincinnati, Wichita State and Dayton charter flights to games, practice in top-notch facilities and pay their coaches millions of dollars, hardly the hallmarks of the small-conference Cinderellas that typically give the NCAA tournament its charm.

The dearth of mid-major at-large candidates this season stems largely from the underwhelming performance of three of Division I basketball’s 32 conferences.

The Mountain West, which sent as many as five teams to the NCAA tournament as recently as four years ago, is in grave jeopardy of being a one-bid league for the second straight year. Flagship programs San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV have regressed and the rest of the league combined for just one victory over a top 50 opponent during non-conference play.

The Atlantic 10, which has averaged 4.2 NCAA tournament teams per season the past five years, is in nearly as dire a position. Only first-place Dayton and second-place VCU are likely to secure bids unless Rhode Island makes a late charge or a bid thief wins the league’s conference tournament.

The American Athletic Conference, which boasts a handful of name-brand programs, has also underachieved. With UConn enduring an injury-plagued season and Memphis and Temple both rebuilding, it would be a surprise if anyone besides SMU and Cincinnati reaches the NCAA tournament.

The rest of the premier mid-major conferences have performed at their typical levels. Illinois State and Wichita State are both in contention for at-large bids from the Valley. Saint Mary’s will almost certainly join Gonzaga from the WCC.

The overall lack of mid-major at-large candidates reflects how much tougher it is to build an NCAA tournament-caliber resume from outside college basketball’s power structure.

Teams in the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 sometimes get a dozen or more chances to record victories against top 100 competition. Teams in a mid-major league typically have to capitalize on the couple opportunities they get to have any realistic hope of earning an at-large NCAA bid.

What this unbalanced system creates is a glut of mediocre power-conference teams on the fringes of NCAA tournament contention despite not accomplishing much. This year’s group is especially uninspiring, from Cal and its one top 50 win, to Kansas State and its dismal 6-10 league record, to Syracuse and its 13 losses.

One solution some have proposed is to prohibit teams with sub-.500 league records from receiving consideration for an at-large bid much the same way that college football teams with five or fewer wins can’t play in a bowl game. This idea sounds good in theory until you consider the point that Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News recently made — it would benefit even worse power-conference programs as much as deserving mid-majors.

To achieve a .500 record in the Pac-12 or SEC this year, a team could theoretically beat up on the soft underbelly of both leagues. How does it make sense to reward a Utah team with a dreadful non-league schedule and zero KenPom top 50 wins instead of a Georgia Tech team with a lesser league record but far more quality victories?

The only way a few power-conference teams with sub-.500 league records and a dozen or more losses won’t make this year’s NCAA tournament is if the selection committee makes an abrupt philosophical shift. The committee would have to commit to rewarding dominant small-conference champions like Monmouth, Middle Tennessee or UNC Wilmington even if they get upset in their league tournaments.

History suggests that’s unlikely to happen. Ask Monmouth, which missed the NCAA tournament last season despite 27 wins including victories over Notre Dame, UCLA, USC and Georgetown. Or ask Green Bay, which won 24 games and upset Virginia in 2014 yet was among the last teams left out.

Ultimately, this is likely to be a tough year for the little guy.

There will be a herd of unremarkable power-conference teams vying for America’s attention this March, but Cinderella might be left out in the cold.

– – – – – – –

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!