But there are still several smaller conferences that could slip multiple teams into the NCAA tournament, here’s a look at each from the most to least likely.
Atlantic 10: Between the imposing profile of Dayton (16-3, 6-1) and the menacing defense of Virginia Commonwealth (15-5, 7-0), there appear to be two Atlantic 10 teams on track to snag an at-large bid. VCU still has more work to do to solidify its at-large credentials, but the last month suggests its will stymie much of its league competition.
The greater question here is whether a third (or a fourth or even a fifth) Atlantic 10 team can find its way into the field of 68. Saint Joseph’s (16-3, 5-1) could end up benefitting from quantity — pending no missteps — even without much in the way of high-profile victories. The Hawks’ best accomplishments to date are defeats of Princeton and Temple.
Meanwhile, George Washington (15-4, 4-2) has a victory over Virginia, but also unhelpful setbacks at DePaul and Saint Louis. The Colonials remain an at-large possibility, but they would be well-served to do some damage against the other teams in the A-10’s top tier.
For the league’s overall postseason prospects, the best-case scenario would be a top four that utterly dominates the bottom 10. Dayton, George Washington, Saint Joseph’s and VCU are a combined 20-2 against the rest of the A-10 at the moment, a good start on creating some separation.
American Athletic: The combination of Southern Methodist’s postseason ban, the failure of Cincinnati and Connecticut to dominate in non-conference play and plenty of dead weight at the bottom of the league, there is a chance the American will be one-bid territory this season. Connecticut (14-5, 4-2) has the best at-large profile at the moment, thanks to defeats of Michigan and Texas.
One thing working in favor of both Cincinnati and Connecticut is top-35 KenPom.com rankings. Based on the committee’s actions last year — including a marginal UCLA team that compared favorably under the advanced-metric lens — that could prove valuable.
The problem here is anybody who harbors even faint at-large hopes (and Temple and Tulsa fall into that category) has plenty of games left that will do them little good if they win and a lot of harm if they lose. If the American is going to send multiple teams, it either needs two non-SMU teams to roll through the rest of the season, or have one (preferably Connecticut) and then have a bid thief emerge in the league tournament.
Mountain West: Any list of teams that would love to have just one mulligan this year must include San Diego State, which lost to a rebuilding San Diego team on Dec. 6 that is now ensconced in last place in the West Coast Conference. Oh, and that game was played outside (albeit in San Diego). The Aztecs (15-6, 8-0) are chugging along nicely now, though that is a black mark.
Elsewhere in the Mountain West, Boise State (15-5, 6-1) owns a prominent victory (Oregon), played a good non-conference schedule, has done well away from home and has only one remotely dubious loss (to Montana on the first night of the season). If the Aztecs and Broncos dominate the regular season, this could turn into three-bid territory with a conference tournament upset. But that’s a major “if” in a league with a history of great homecourt play, even in a year when there aren’t nearly as many at-large contenders as usual.
West Coast: Nobody can be considered safe in this league, not 17-2 Saint Mary’s and particularly not a 15-5 Gonzaga bunch that is hanging its hat on neutral-court defeats of Connecticut, Tennessee and Washington. Brigham Young (14-7) cannot be dismissed just yet, but there is already a surplus of troubling losses on the Cougars’ resume and little margin for error in the coming weeks.
Saint Mary’s took the first meeting with Gonzaga last week, and the Gaels’ return trip to Spokane is Feb. 20. The Bulldogs can’t let that opportunity (or their Feb. 13 trip to Southern Methodist) slip away; otherwise, they may actually need to win the WCC tournament for the first time in a long while to make the field of 68.
UNDER THE RIGHT CIRCUMSTANCES
Missouri Valley: To clarify the definition of “the right circumstances,” in this case it means Wichita State continuing to plow through the league and then stumbling during Arch Madness, the MVC tournament held in St. Louis. The Shockers (14-5, 8-0) have won nine in a row and look like the class of the Valley … though one obvious spoiler is out there.
That’s Evansville (17-4, 6-2), which lost by three at Wichita State earlier in the month and plays host to the Shockers on Sunday. The extremely veteran Purple Aces played a poor non-conference schedule, but rebounding savant Egidijus Mockevicius is a constant force and could make a major difference in a league tournament setting. If anyone can spoil Wichita’s Valley party this year, Evansville is easily the best bet.
SO, YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE …
Horizon: There’s only one remotely plausible at-large candidate in the Horizon, and that’s Valparaiso (17-4, 7-1). The Crusaders played a decent non-conference schedule, losing at Oregon while winning at Oregon State during a West Coast swing in November. They also have pretty much everybody back from a team that won the Horizon last year.
There just aren’t any chances to improve their profile. Valpo is the only Horizon team in the top 100 in either the RPI or the KenPom rankings. Could the Crusaders warrant an at-large look at, say, 28-5? Perhaps. But last week’s loss at Wright State definitely did some damage. Bryce Drew’s team would be wise to win the league tournament.
Metro Atlantic: The Hawks (15-5, 7-2) are another team without much of a chance to help themselves down the stretch. Unlike Valparaiso (which might get a bump from its KenPom ranking, which currently sits at No. 24), Monmouth won’t get analytics-based help.
The assets here are obvious: Victories over Notre Dame and Southern California are very helpful, triumphs at Georgetown and UCLA a little less so. Monmouth also owns 10 victories outside its own gym. It also has three losses to teams outside the top 200 of the RPI (Army, Canisius and Manhattan). The Hawks are a great story, but they’ll probably have to win the MAAC tournament to get into the field of 68.