For most of the conferences in college basketball, early March is not a time for bubble speculation and bracketology. While power conference teams like UNC, Michigan and Clemson have seen their odds of getting an at-large bid recalculated after every game for the last two weeks, the math is much simpler for teams in mid-major conferences and beyond.
Zero. That’s the chances of getting an at-large bid from the selection committee for all but a handful of college basketball conferences. And ESPN’s talking heads don’t need to rehash it at halftime of every game. It’s been zero since preseason practice tipped off. No matter how many regular season games you win or how dominant you are, unless you win your conference tournament, you won’t be going to the Big Dance. It’s harsh, but that’s life in a one-bid league. That means that, for most of the teams in our state, March Madness tips off this week with the conference tournaments that will determine whether or not they get the chance to play for the national title.
Colonial Athletic Conference
The Colonial Athletic Conference has two teams at the top, College of Charleston and Hofstra, but there are teams that can still make a run in the tournament, namely last year’s champion, Delaware, and runner-up, UNCW.
8-23 overall, 6-12 CAA (9th)
Elon enters the CAA Tournament with distant hopes of going deep. Led by first-year coach Billy Taylor and graduate guard Sean Halloran (13.0 points), the Phoenix struggled early, losing 19 of their first 21 games, but finished the season 6-4.
Since joining the CAA, Elon has never won the tournament, but they do have one runner-up finish in 2021, following an improbable run as an 8-seed. It will take another such week for Elon to find its way into the NCAA Tournament — if the Phoenix can make it past their first opponent, William & Mary, top-seeded Hofstra awaits.
North Carolina A&T
13-18 overall, 8-10 CAA (7th)
In its first year in the CAA, A&T managed to finish right in the middle of the pack under interim coach Phillip Shumpert, who took over following the surprising dismissal of Willie Jones.
The Aggies have gotten steady production from their backcourt of sophomore Kam Woods and senior Demetric Horton, who are averaging a combined 28 points per game. Last year’s top producer, junior forward Marcus Watson, has been steady as well.
It’s the third conference in three years for the Aggies, and their last NCAA Tournament appearance came two conferences and a decade ago when they won the MEAC Tournament in 2013.
22-9 overall, 12-6 CAA (4th)
The Seahawks are back in contention for the second year in a row and are looking to make a splash in the CAA Tournament. Last season, UNCW was runner-up to Delaware but went on to win the CBI.
Coach Takayo Siddle, in his third season with the Seahawks, will lean on sophomore forward Trazarien White, who leads the Seahawks in points (13.9) and rebounds (5.7)
UNCW hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since Kevin Keatts was coach, getting an automatic bid in 2016 and 2017.
The Southern Conference Tournament tips off Friday in Asheville, and it might be the safest one-bid league for the regular season champion. The team that finished first in the standings has won every SoCon tournament since 2015. That includes seven outright league champions and one team that tied for the league title. This year, there’s a logjam at the top with Furman and Samford tying for first with identical 15-3 marks and UNC Greensboro a game back.
20-11 overall, 14-4 SoCon (3rd)
The Spartans will try to keep their postseason streak alive. Setting aside 2020, when the pandemic canceled all postseason basketball, UNCG has played in a tournament each of the last six postseasons. That includes two CBI appearances, two NITs and a pair of NCAA tourneys, most recently in 2021 when they lost to FSU as a No. 13 seed.
UNCG will be looking to rebound from disappointment in the regular season finale. The Spartans entered the game with a chance to at least tie for the regular season crown but were upset at East Tennessee State, losing a one-point heartbreaker. UNCG opens with the final game of Saturday’s quarterfinals, taking on sixth-seeded Wofford. Greensboro swept the regular season series with the Terriers, winning by nine on the road and in overtime at home. The Spartans are led by double-figure scorers Keyshaun Langley, Keondre Kennedy and Mikeal Brown-Jones.
17-14 overall, 10-8 SoCon (4th)
The Catamounts are looking to make their first NCAA Tournament of the millennium. Western went in 1996, the last time they won a conference tournament, and nearly made history as a 16th seed before losing by two to top-seeded Purdue. They’ve made the SoCon championship game just twice in the 27 years since. Western Carolina appears to be a long shot to break that trend this year.
Despite being a top-four seed in the conference tournament, they are a step below the top three teams, all 20-game winners that have combined for a 44-10 conference record. The Catamounts won five of their last seven to stay above .500, overall and in the conference. They’ll open with No. 5 East Tennessee State on Saturday. Western swept the regular season series, winning by two at home and 11 on the road. They’re led by a trio of double-figure scorers in Tre Jackson, Tyzhaun Claude and Vonterius Woolbright.
The Sun Belt doesn’t have a truly dominant team this season, with nine teams at 0.500 or above. Even the conference player of the year, Marshall’s Taevion Kinsey, comes from a team that finished 9-9 in conference play. So the automatic bid for the tournament champion could be anybody’s to grab.
16-5 overall, 9-9 Sun Belt (9th)
The Mountaineers have three players averaging more than 10 points per game: senior forward Donovan Gregory, sophomore guard Terence Harcum and senior guard Tyree Boykin.
Under coach Dustin Kerns, the Mountaineers have fallen a bit from last season when they finished second in the conference with a 12-6 record and made it to the conference semifinals.
App State last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2021 when it won the Sun Belt Tournament, one of three times the Mountaineers have accomplished the feat.
The Atlantic Sun Conference has two powerhouses at the top of the conference. Liberty, which has been the ASUN regular season champion for five straight years, and Kennesaw State, which has never made the NCAA Tournament at the Division I level.
18-14 overall, 7-11 ASUN
In its first Division I season, Queens managed to squeak into the 10-team ASUN Tournament as the No. 9 seed and defeated 10th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on Monday. That left the Royals with the tall task of facing top-seeded Kennesaw State on Tuesday, and they fell just short of pulling off a major upset.
Queens’ Chris Ashby made a 3-pointer with three seconds left that brought the Royals within 67-66, and the Royals immediately called a timeout. Queens’ Trey Hubbard immediately fouled the Owls’ Chris Youngblood, who missed two foul shots. But the Royals failed to get off a shot after grabbing the rebound.
Big South Conference
UNC Asheville is this year’s poster child for the unfairness of one-bid leagues. The Bulldogs wrapped up the regular season title a couple weeks ago and won the league by a four-game margin. And all of that will mean nothing if they don’t take care of business in Charlotte. If recent history is any guide, the other teams to watch are Longwood and Radford, who tied for second at 12-6. A top-four team with double-digit wins has won the last nine Big South tourneys.
24-7 overall, 16-2 Big South (1st)
The Bulldogs know the risks of the conference tournament. This season is their eighth Big South regular season title, but their previous seven top seeds in the conference tourney resulted in one NCAA appearance, in 2012. UNCA has four other NCAA bids that came from upsetting its way to the Big South Tournament title, most recently in 2016. Asheville enters the tournament on a six-game winning streak which helped the Bulldogs tie school records for overall and conference wins. They also won their last three games by double digits, matching the number of double-digit wins they had in their first 15 Big South games.
The Bulldogs open play on Friday against the winner of Wednesday’s 8-9 game between High Point and Charleston Southern. UNCA swept those two opponents in four regular season games, winning three by double figures. Asheville will rely on Drew Pember (20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds) and Tajion Jones (14.7 points, 5.0 rebounds), who became the school’s all-time leading scorer this season.
15-15 overall, 10-8 Big South (4th, tie)
The Runnin’ Bulldogs will look to return to the Big Dance for just the second time in school history. Gardner-Webb won the Big South as a No. 4 seed in 2019, then put a scare in eventual national champion Virginia as a 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Runnin’ Bulldogs tied for fourth again this season (but will be the fifth seed in the tournament), although they were hopeful of finishing much higher before dropping their last four regular season games.
The Bulldogs’ defense has eluded them in the last two weeks. Gardner-Webb has allowed foes to shoot 30 of 65 from 3, which is a .462 percentage, compared to the .318 rate it was allowing up until then. The two-point defense has also slumped, as the Runnin’ Bulldogs have given up twos at a .517 percentage in the last four, .448 before that. They’ll open with USC Upstate, which split with them this season. Each team won at home, G-W by 12 in late January, and USC Upstate by six in the season finale.
13-17 overall, 8-10 Big South (7th)
The Camels have made one NCAA Tournament in their history, facing defending national champion Duke in 1992 as a No. 16 seed. Campbell will have its work cut out for itself to break its 31-year drought this season. The Camels will have to win four games after their seventh-place finish and sub-.500 record relegated them to Wednesday’s opening round. Campbell will open with No. 10 Presbyterian, then face No. 2 Longwood if they win. The Camels split with Presbyterian this year, losing by 10 on the road and winning by 17 at home.
Campbell has been playing better down the stretch, winning two of the last four, with their last three losses, all on the road, coming in double overtime, single overtime and by two in regulation. The Camels’ interior defense — Campbell ranks No. 333 in the nation in two-point shooting defense — has also improved over the last two weeks.
14-16 overall, 6-12 Big South (8th)
The Panthers have not made the NCAA Tournament since becoming a Division I team, and this year doesn’t look likely as a potential breakthrough year. High Point endured losing streaks of eight and four games earlier this year and finished eighth in the league with sub-.500 records overall and in conference play.
High Point opens play on Wednesday with No. 9 Charleston Southern. The winner will then get top-seeded UNC Asheville. The Panthers split with Charleston Southern, getting blown out on the road 106-69 in January to drop to 0-5 in the conference. They won the rematch at home by eight. High Point enters on a roll, winning three of their last four to close the regular season. They’ll look to John-Michael Wright (18.4 points), Zack Austin (14.4 points, 8.0 rebounds) and Jaden House (12.3 points) for offense.