Single-bid conferences offer 1 path to the NCAA Tournament

Teams throughout North Carolina will try and win their way into the Big Dance when conference tournaments begin this week

Guard Shykeim Phillips and UNC Wilmington will look to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a win at this week's CAA Tournament in Washington, D.C. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The ACC Network is currently airing a documentary series about the league’s postseason basketball tournament, including rare footage of the event when only the winner was eligible to receive an NCAA bid and the opportunity to play for a national championship.

The drama and intensity of the ACC Tournament have long since waned now that multiple teams are allowed to advance, turning it into what former North Carolina coach Roy Williams referred to as a glorified cocktail party.

But fans around the state can still relive the experience now that March has arrived and the madness of one-bid conference tournaments is about to get underway.

Here’s a look at how they all stack up, which teams stand the best chance at getting to the big dance and who has the potential to pull off a surprise.

Colonial Athletic Association
March 5-8, Washington, D.C.

UNC Wilmington (21-8) missed out on the tournament’s top seed when Towson came from behind to beat Delaware in the completion of a suspended game on Monday. But as the co-regular season champion with a 15-3 league record, including a split of its series with the Tigers, the second-seeded Seahawks are in a prime position to earn the program’s seventh NCAA Tournament bid.

Coach Takayo Siddle’s team, which was picked to finish ninth in the CAA’s preseason poll, begins postseason play at 6 p.m. on Sunday with a quarterfinal matchup against in-state rival and seventh-seeded Elon (10-21), with the winner taking on either third-seeded Hofstra or No. 6 College of Charleston.

Sun Belt
March 3-7, Pensacola, Fla.

Seeded second in the 12-team conference, Appalachian State enters this year’s tournament in a more advantageous position than it did a year ago when it won as the No. 4 seed to earn the league’s automatic bid.

Coach Dustin Kerns’ veteran team, which returned 10 lettermen from that 2020-21 squad, received a bye into the quarterfinals, where it will meet the winner of the first round matchup between No. 7 Coastal Carolina and No. 10 Georgia Southern.

The Mountaineers (18-13, 12-6) lost the only regular season meeting with top-seeded Texas State, 68-66 in San Marcos, Texas, on Feb. 3.

Big South
March 1-6, Charlotte

If there’s strength in numbers, then the Big South provides North Carolina one of its best opportunities to send a team to the NCAA Tournament.

Gardner-Webb (17-12, 11-5) stands the best chance as the tournament’s No. 3 seed. But if you’re looking for a dark horse capable of coming out of nowhere to stun the field, a potential candidate is seventh-seeded High Point (13-17, 7-9). Not only did the Panthers beat second-seeded Winthrop during the regular season while losing a pair of close games to No. 1 Longwood, but they’ll also have the incentive of playing for new coach G.G. Smith — who took over when his father, Tubby, retired last month.

The rest of the state contingent includes fifth-seeded UNC Asheville (16-13, 8-8), sixth-seeded Campbell (15-12, 8-8) and No. 9 NC A&T (11-19, 6-10).

First round matchups on Wednesday include Gardner-Webb against Campbell, UNCA against No. 12 Charleston Southern, High Point against No. 10 Hampton and A&T against No. 8 Radford.

Southern Conference
March 4-7, Asheville

UNC Greensboro (17-13, 9-9) is the defending champion but sports a vastly different look as it rebuilds under new coach Mike Jones. The Spartans are seeded sixth and will begin play against No. 3 Samford in their opening game on Saturday.

One day earlier, 10th-seeded Western Carolina — another state team with a first-year coach — will look to get a fresh start after going 11-20 (5-13) during the regular season when it takes on No. 7 Mercer at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.  The winner earns a second-round date against second-seeded Furman on Saturday.

Chattanooga is the top seed.

MEAC
March 9-12, Norfolk, Va.

One week remains in the regular season before NC Central (14-15, 7-6) gets its shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.

 

At least one mid-major team from North Carolina will enter the postseason confident in its NCAA chances regardless of how it does in its conference tournament. Davidson has put itself in position for an at-large bid by fashioning a 24-4 overall record (14-2 in the Atlantic 10) with one week left in the regular season.

And while the American Athletic Conference and Conference USA both have the potential to send more than one representative to the NCAA Tournament, state schools East Carolina (15-13, 6-10 AAC) and Charlotte (15-13, 8-8 CUSA) are in the same boat as their one-bid neighbors in having to win their league tournaments to play the field of 68.