- Charlie Creme, Women's College Basketball
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The SEC is down a bit this season. The Big 12's great teams at the top could cannibalize its overall depth. The Big Ten is better, but still might have only three or four NCAA tournament-worthy teams. Sounds as if the door is open for some mid-major at-large invasion, right?
In fact, it is. But the list of teams ready to enter that threshold just isn't deep. The likelihood that more than one or two will sneak in without winning its conference tournament isn't high. Here's a list of those teams categorized by probability of earning an at-large bid.
South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits' at-large viability is actually reflected in this week's bracket. They aren't the current leaders in the Summit after falling to Oakland at the beginning of the month. The Grizzlies go in as league champs, but South Dakota State is in the field, and comfortably so.
That should also be the case come March even if the Jackrabbits stumble in the conference tournament. The job done by ninth-year coach Aaron Johnston is among the top stories in the women's game over the past few years. Of course, that alone doesn't get anyone a bid. What does is a gaudy record and big wins. The Jackrabbits are already at 18 victories and counting. More important are some of those nonconference victims. Wisconsin, Utah, Montana, Minnesota and Gonzaga could all be competing with South Dakota State for at-large bids -- and the Jackrabbits beat each of them. This side of a meteor falling in Sioux Falls, Jennifer Warkenthien & Co. will be in the NCAA tournament for the first time win or lose at the Summit League tournament.
Marist: The Red Foxes have been to four of the past five NCAA tournaments, but their at-large chances aren't quite as secure. No doubt the record will be eye-popping by season's end, but the quality wins just aren't there. A visit to Oklahoma was the only time all season Marist really stepped up in the level of opposition, but the game wasn't that competitive.
With three wins in the past two NCAA tournaments, and the national recognition that came with it, that kind of scheduling is disappointing. Fortunately, the Red Foxes have been so dominant in league play that the MAAC tournament hasn't been much to worry about. With a regular season that should produce 27 to 29 wins, it is hard to imagine Marist not getting a bid -- but remember, it takes only one slipup at the wrong time. Then that schedule which will likely have an SOS rating north of 200 will be in the committee's hands.
Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders have a win at LSU, but MTSU will absolutely have to dominate the regular season in the Sun Belt to feel good about any at-large chances. The RPI and SOS look good now, but those numbers also carry less meaning this early in the conference season. The good news is that with Alysha Clark leading the way, the Blue Raiders are off to a good start in the league. They are unbeaten after seven games and have already won at their two chief rivals, Western Kentucky and Arkansas Little Rock. Playing well for a half against Louisville and Tennessee also won't hurt, but more than one or two losses the rest of the way could. What happens in the SEC and Big 12 will have a tremendous impact on the Blue Raiders' at-large chances.
VCU: The Rams hung tough at North Carolina in a Preseason WNIT matchup and also beat Georgetown. Not great. Not bad. Where VCU can build the résumé and make its case is by going 17-1 or 16-2 in the Colonial. That means zero or one losses the rest of the way. Given that Old Dominion has won the past 17 CAA tournament titles, VCU needing an at-large bid is likely. The good news is that two seasons ago when James Madison and Delaware won 16 leagues games and 27 and 26 overall, respectively, they each earned a bid. Unfortunately, it will take that kind of near perfection.
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Bowling Green: At first pass, the Falcons might look to be a logical choice for the "maybe" category along with Middle Tennessee. The MAC sits on the cusp of being a top-10 league, and Bowling Green has a history of recent success (although that is not a NCAA selection criterion).
However, a deeper look makes the answer easy. The Falcons need to win the MAC tournament, no questions asked. The schedule is just so bad (Hartford was the top opponent and best win), and it's hard to argue with history. The MAC is a one-bid league. Always has been. It would take someone like Bowling Green really scheduling up and getting more than one upset to change that. Last year tells the story. A 25-7 mark and regular-season championship wasn't enough. Even a 26-win regular season in 2009 won't be, either.
Montana: The Lady Griz are victims of the overall weakness of the Big Sky. The majority of the league's teams will carry RPIs above 200, and that is all Montana has left to play. Coach Ron Selvig, he of nearly 700 career wins, did schedule up a bit, but his team ultimately didn't capture any of the big games. The Lady Griz went winless against Maryland, South Dakota State and Gonzaga. Winning at Oregon tops the list. The bottom line is that Montana's entire season comes down to three days in March at the Big Sky tournament.
Gonzaga: The Zags know the drill. In 2005, they won 27 games and went unbeaten in the WCC until the conference finals. Santa Clara won that game and Gonzaga did not go dancing. It's 2009 now, but some things don't change, and this is one of them.
Of course, none of this happens in a bubble. One team's fate always impacts a bunch more -- a domino effect that moves in numerous directions, so to speak.
With that understood, the Mountain West might benefit the most among non-BCS conferences
from the SEC's lack of its usual depth or the possible dominance in the Big 12 of the top four or five schools. Three teams made the field this week, and San Diego State is in the mix for a possible fourth. That's a league race everyone should be watching.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.