By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

For lots of teams, conference tournament time is it -- the time for a last-ditch effort to get off the bubble and firmly grasp an NCAA Tournament bid. For some teams, a major upset in just one tournament game will often do the trick. But for others -- especially the teams with losing records-- the only way to get to the Big Dance is to win that automatic bid.

Who'll surprise in conference tourneys this season? We don't know. But we do know who's shocked College Basketball Nation in the past. The biggest conference tournament surprise winners of the past 25 years:

10. Central Florida, 1996 TAAC
The University of Central Florida won its first two games of the regular season, then lost 12 of its next 13, including two 40-point defeats. Seeded sixth going into the Trans America Athletic Conference Tournament, the Knights didn't stand a chance.

But they got one lucky break -- the best team in the TAAC wasn't eligible for the tourney because it hadn't been a Div. 1 school long enough. And then the Knights reeled off their first three-game winning streak of the season -- a win over Southeastern Louisiana a nine-point victory over Campbell in round two, and in the finals, a win over Mercer.

UCF was ousted in the first round of the NCAAs by top-seed UMass.

Jim Valvano
Jim Valvano and N.C. State shocked the ACC in 1983 -- and then shocked the world by winning the Big Dance.

9. Florida International, 1995 TAAC
What can you say about a team whose head coach, Bob Weltlich, announced his resignation in midseason, with his 3-10 Golden Panthers drawing an average crowd of about 500 fans a game? A team that went 8-18 before the conference tournament? A team that was already interviewing candidates to replace Weltlich, even as he was preparing his team for the NCAA Tournament?

A mini-miracle. FIU beat Stetson, Southeastern Louisiana, and then Mercer in the championship game.

FIU drew top-ranked UCLA in the first round of the West Regional. UCLA was able to give its bench players plenty of playing time in beating the Panthers 92-56.

8. Providence, 1994 Big East
Providence College got off to a slow start in the 1993-94 season, starting 5-8 in conference play. But late in the season, the Friars got going. They won their final five Big East matchups, and went into the tournament as the sixth seed. At Madison Square Garden, Rob Phelps led them to a 69-67 win over No. 3 Connecticut in the semifinals, which the Friars followed with a 74-64 win over Georgetown in the finals to clinch their first Big East title.

Six Big East teams got NCAA tourney berths in 1994. The Friars, seeded 8th in the Southeast Regionals, fell to No. 9 seed Alabama, 76-60, in the first round.

7. North Carolina State, 1987 ACC
Jim Valvano's N.C. State squad, seeded sixth in the ACC tournament, had gone only 6-8 in the conference (17-14 overall) during the regular season. To make matters worse, the Pack was streaky, in a bad way -- they'd lost six in a row at one point during the season, and 10 of 12.

College Hoops: List Mania
Page 2 is all caught up in March Madness! We love our brackets, but we also love our lists. Over the next few weeks, don't miss out on these other top-10 college hoops lists:

  • Biggest surprise conference tournament winners

  • Best clutch shooters: Who do you want taking the final shot?

  • Wednesday, March 17: Best Cinderella stories in Tournament history

  • Wednesday, March 24: Best regional matchup games

  • Friday, April 2: Best individual performance in the Final Four
  • But N.C. State opened with a 71-64 overtime win over third-seed Duke, beat Wake Forest the next day in double-overtime, and slid by No. 2 North Carolina, 68-67, to claim the championship.

    The Pack was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tourney, losing to Florida, 82-70.

    6. Prairie View A&M, 1998 SWAC
    The Panthers, who had only four players on scholarship, went 10-16 in the regular season, and nobody expected the boys from Prairie View to go anywhere in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament -- after all, they hadn't won a tournament game in 12 years, and had almost disbanded their hoops team for good just eight years earlier.

    Prairie View was seeded seventh in one of the weakest conferences in the country. Despite the long odds, and despite trailing by 20 points to Texas Southern at halftime in the final, the Panthers won it all, 59-57.

    Then they got ready to play second-ranked Kansas in the first round of the NCAAs. If you had taken Prairie View and 37 -- that was the spread -- you'd be crying all the way to your bookie. The Panthers lost by 58, 110-52, the second-biggest margin of defeat in NCAA Tournament history.

    5. Iowa, 2001 Big Ten
    The Hawkeyes, coached by Steve Alford, came into the Big Ten tourney with a respectable 18-11 record. But, playing without their injured star Luke Recker (who averaged 18.1 ppg before breaking his kneecap late in January) during the last third of regular season, they'd gone 1-7. It didn't look too promising.

    But the Hawkeyes reeled off four wins in four days -- over Northwestern, 24th-ranked Ohio State, Penn State, and, finally, a 63-61squeaker over Indiana, to gain an automatic NCAA Tournament berth after being on the bubble.

    Recker wouldn't return for the NCAA Tournament, but Iowa beat Creighton in the first round before bowing to Kentucky.

    4. Missouri, 1993 Big Eight
    The Tigers lost seven of their last eight pre-tournament games, and entered the Big Eight tournament with a 16-13 record overall and 5-9 in conference play. But the team, led by Mark Atkins, Reggie Smith and Chris Heller, played its best game of the season in the first round to blow out No. 21 Oklahoma State, 81-62..

    The Tigers then downed Iowa State in the semifinals and followed the next day with a 68-56 win over Kansas State.

    But the Tigers' turnaround wouldn't last long. In the NCAAs, they played terribly in a 75-61 first-round West Regional loss to Temple.

    3. Fairfield, 1997 MAAC
    Coming into the 1997 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, the Stags had an 11-18 record and had dropped 12 of their last 15 -- including a 91-45 loss in early February to Canisius at Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena, where the tournament would take place a month later.

    But come MAAC Tourney time, Fairfield, ranked 252nd in the RPI, caught fire. They beat top-seed Iona and No. 4 seed St. Peters. Finally, facing Canisius, they pulled off a 78-72 win, despite playing without two key starters out due to injury and illness.

    In the first round of the NCAA tourney, the Stags led No. 1-seed North Carolina at halftime and gave the Tar Heels a real scare before finally falling, 82-74.

    2. Saint Louis, 2000 Conference USA
    Twice during the 2000 regular season, Saint Louis got crushed by Cincinnati -- including, about a week before the Conference USA tourney, an 84-41 pasting against the then-No. 1 Bearcats.

    But when Saint Louis -- 15-13 in the regular season and 7-9 in the conference -- faced Cincinnati again in the tournament quarterfinals, they won 68-58, a huge upset even when you take into consideration that Cincy's Kenyon Martin went down in the game with a broken leg.

    Then the Billikens won two more -- four wins in four days against higher seeds -- to gain the conference title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

    In the Big Dance, Saint Louis played tough, but lost a 48-45 heartbreaker to Utah in the first round.

    1. North Carolina State, 1983 ACC
    Talk about a longshot -- North Carolina State came into the 1983 ACC tournament as the fourth seed and a 17-10 record, fighting just to get an NCAA bid. But, led by Thurl Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, they beat Wake Forest, then No. 5 North Carolina in overtime, and, in the final, second-ranked Virginia, led by Ralph Sampson. They rode those two huge upsets all the way to an upset NCAA championship victory over Houston.

    Thanks to Dan Shanoff, Brian Wood, Mark Pinto, Brad Edwards, and, especially, Chris Fallica, for research assistance and nominations.