N.C. mid-majors hunt for NCAA bid

Mid-major conference tournaments are must-win scenarios

Charlotte head coach Aaron Fearne reacts to a play earlier this season. The first-year head coach will take his third-seeded 49ers into the AAC Tournament this week. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley)

With conference tournament action already underway for the state’s crop of mid-major Division I teams, this week brings opportunities for local schools to lock down an automatic bid into the Big Dance.

Despite strong seasons overall, multiple North Carolina teams with winning records, such as the Appalachian State men (27-6, 16-2 Sun Belt) and UNC Asheville men (22-12, 12-4 Big South), have already seen their NCAA Tournament hopes crumble to dust from inopportune losses in their respective conference tournaments.

The top-seeded Mountaineers secured the Sun Belt regular season title but fell to No. 4 Arkansas State (18-15, 11-7 Sun Belt) in a 67-65 buzzer-beater loss on Sunday. App is rated No. 78 in KenPom, similar to teams on the at large bubble, like Memphis and Syracuse. The Sun Belt is generally considered a one-bid league, however. So, App got its one and only shot in the conference tournament.

The pendulum swings both ways, allowing teams that have underachieved all season a chance to get hot at the right time, but also eliminating the NCAA odds for stronger squads that happen to slip up against a weaker conference opponent.

One might call it a trial dose of March madness before the actual March Madness begins.

With at-large bids highly unlikely for any of the state’s mid-major teams, it will take a conference championship for any of them to make it to the Dance. So who stands a chance to actually win their tournament?

AAC urgency

As a clinched No. 3 seed with a double-bye, the Charlotte 49ers men’s team (19-11, 13-5 AAC) is set to travel to Fort Worth, TX, to play against a No. 6 seed in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament on Friday.

In their regular-season finale under first-year head coach Aaron Fearne, the Niners rattled off a 82-72 road victory over the East Carolina Pirates (14-17, 7-11 AAC), who received a No. 8 seed in the tournament and squared off with No. 9 Tulsa (16-14, 7-11 AAC) in Tuesday’s second-round matchup, played after press time.

“The thing that I’m the most proud of is the energy we’ve been able to bring back into the program,” Fearne said on Monday. “People are excited about the program, the way we play and how hard the guys compete. I’m excited to get in the building and watch us perform…We’ve been able to re-ignite some old memories for our older supportive base and the new energy of the student body.”

With a 29-point, ten-rebound performance from senior Danae McNeal on Monday, the No. 9 ECU women’s team (18-13, 9-9 AAC) made it to the semifinals of its conference tournament with an upset 75-71 win over No. 1 Tulsa (23-9, 13-5 AAC).

“I knew I had to come out here to show something and prove something,” the two-time AAC Defensive Player of the Year said after the victory. “We did it last year and we can do it again — defense wins games.”

Last season, ECU won its conference tournament and received a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it fell to Texas in a 79-40 first-round loss.

The Pirates beat No. 4 UTSA on Tuesday in the AAC semifinals.

MEAC Madness

Over in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, both the men’s and women’s teams North Carolina Central Eagles teams are primed for a title run.

The No. 2 men (17-12, 9-5 MEAC) will play No. 7 Maryland Eastern Shore (9-19, 4-10 MEAC) in the quarterfinals on Wednesday while the No. 3 women (15-14, 9-5 MEAC) are set to challenge No. 6 Delaware State (8-19, 4-10 MEAC) in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

Hoping to win the MEAC tournament to get an automatic bid, the NCCU men’s team is chasing its first NCAA Tournament first-round game since 2014 after making the tournament in 2017, 2018 and 2019 but failing to get past the First Four round.

In the Coastal Athletic Association, two local women’s teams will face off on Thursday in Washington, D.C, as No. 8 Campbell (16-13, 9-9 CAA) plays against No. 9 Elon (11-20, 7-11 CAA); the No. 4 North Carolina A&T Aggies (19-10, 13-5 CAA) received a double-bye in the CAA women’s tournament and will play an opponent (TBA) on Friday,

In the Atlantic 10 men’s tournament, the No. 13 Davidson Wildcats (15-17, 5-13 Atlantic 10) were eliminated by No. 12 Fordham on Tuesday in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn.

The AAC should get multiple bids, so there’s a slim safety net for teams in that tournament. For everyone else gearing up for conference tournament games in the mid-majors, their most important matchups of the season await.