Which teams could go on surprise runs and shake up the NCAA Tourament field? Check out our list of potential March Madness bid-stealers.
One of the biggest storylines to watch during March is potential bid-stealing teams. The NCAA Tournament field “shrinks” when a team not projected to receive an at-large bid wins its conference tournament, grabbing an automatic bid.
There were two noteworthy bid-stealing instances during the 2021 season. Oregon State and Georgetown were nowhere near the at-large picture by the time they started their conference tournaments and went on inspiring runs to land on the bracket’s 12-seed line. It likely led to the demise of Colorado State and Louisville’s at-large hopes as the first two teams out of the tournament field.
Could we see this happen again in 2022? Here are a handful of teams — and leagues — to monitor over the next two weeks that could shake up the tournament field.
The Missouri Valley is tricky. Loyola Chicago is the favorite to win the conference tournament but its at-large chances are hanging by a thread as the Ramblers haven’t won three consecutive games since mid-January.
Northern Iowa seems like the more obvious bid-stealer after finishing the regular season 9-1 with the guidance of star AJ Green. However, with Loyola as the 4-seed and UNI in the top spot, it would be highly unlikely the Ramblers could earn an at-large bid with a loss in the Arch Madness semis.
Instead, the path to a multi-bid Valley would likely call for Loyola falling in the title game (ideally by a slim margin) to a team in the bottom half of the bracket. A team that has had some success against the Ramblers of late is Drake, which swept Loyola Chicago for the first time in program history this season.
Darian DeVries‘ squad made the NCAA Tournament last March as an 11-seed after an 18-0 start. This time around, the Bulldogs haven’t had quite as much pub but are peaking at the right time. Seven of Drake’s eight rotational players are seniors with the lone exception being Tucker DeVries — Darian’s son — who leads the team in scoring as a versatile 6-7 forward who can stretch the floor.
Given Murray State — safely in our projected field as an 8-seed — has already dismantled Belmont twice this season, Morehead State feels like the most likely bid-stealing team out of the OVC.
Last year’s Ohio Valley tournament qualifier, Preston Spradlin’s Eagles have strung together another 20-win season and could be a dangerous out in Evansville. Big man Johni Broome is the star of the show, averaging 16.5 points and 10.6 rebounds on the year with the nation’s sixth-best block rate.
Morehead State has shown far more fight in its games against Murray State than Belmont, falling by 11 on the road — tied with 10 minutes left — and by four at home in which the Eagles led 50-42 with under four minutes to go. Could a third time be the charm for Spradlin after two close calls? If so, the OVC will have two bids for the second time in three NCAA Tournaments.
A storied basketball program, the Rebels haven’t played in a March Madness game since 2013. First-year head coach Kevin Kruger has his UNLV squad playing good basketball of late with a likely 5-seed on the way at the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.
Led by superstar guard Bryce Hamilton (21.8 points per game), the Rebels could be a team none of the MWC contenders want to face. UNLV already swept Colorado State by a combined 35 points, had close calls against Boise State and, of course, plays its conference tournament games at home.
With Boise State, Colorado State, Wyoming and San Diego State in steady at-large position, the Rebels could stretch the Mountain West to its highest bid total since 2013.
Two-bid Conference USA? It could be a reality for the first time in a decade. North Texas is 22-4 on the year and dropped just one conference game. The Mean Green hang right around 40th nationally in most metrics used by the selection committee and are above the at-large cut line in several brackets across the Internet.
There probably isn’t much margin for error for Grant McCasland‘s group, which is why a Quad-2 loss to UAB in the CUSA Tournament wouldn’t be much of a dent. The Blazers are responsible for UNT’s only blemish since Feast Week, winning in Denton by six in early January. Andy Kennedy‘s team has seven losses this season with the following margins of defeat: 1, 2, 3, 3, 5, 6, 9. This group makes every matchup interesting.
Assuming the Cavaliers win their final regular-season matchup of the season at Louisville, Tony Bennett‘s team will be no worse than a 6-seed in the ACC Tournament.
Can Virginia win four games in four days in Brooklyn? Given the wide-open nature of the ACC this season, it would be foolish to leave the Cavs out of the conversation.
Virginia nearly swept Duke during the regular season, the ACC’s only Top 25 team since November. While this is team is far from the level we’ve grown accustomed to in the Bennett era, the Cavaliers rank 24th in efficiency margin nationally since Feb. 1. Maybe a late-season surge is in the works.
Arizona, UCLA and USC have all but locked up NCAA Tournament bids this season while Oregon hangs around the bubble. Three teams, including the Ducks, could shake up the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas and push the bid total to four.
- Oregon: There’s a lot to say about the Ducks this season. Picked 13th in the preseason AP poll, Dana Altman’s squad looked lifeless to start the year, scoring 50 points or fewer in three of its first six games. A 10-1 stretch put Oregon in the bubble conversation earlier this month but there is still plenty of work to be done. The Ducks have no shortage of talent but finding consistency again will be key.
- Colorado: Tad Boyle has the quietest 19-win team in the country. Even after the Buffaloes beat Arizona by 16 over the weekend, CU isn’t really viewed as an at-large threat nor a complete afterthought either. Jabari Walker is a double-double machine who could lead the Buffs to another Pac-12 title game appearance. He had 24 points off the bench in last year’s NCAA Tournament win over Georgetown.
- Arizona State: This one might not be as crazy as many would think. The Sun Devils had a dreadful nonconference slate and lost seven of eight between late December and early February. However, since the start of February, ASU has had the fifth largest uptick in efficiency margin in college basketball. Bobby Hurley‘s team has played like the nation’s 44th-best team this month, per T-Rank, which ranks third overall in the Pac-12.
It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that the A10 will be a bid-stealing league this March, assuming Davidson secures a ticket. Let’s go through some likely A10 title candidates.
- VCU: The Rams are a completely different team since Ace Baldwin returned from his Achilles injury. VCU went 4-4 without Baldwin with home losses to Wagner and Chattanooga to start the year. With Baldwin back, the Rams have won 16 of their last 19 and are currently on the right side of the bubble. A tremendous defender, Baldwin is helping leading a VCU defense that is the only one in college hoops to rank in the top 10 in efficiency, opponent effective field-goal percentage and opponent turnover rate.
- Dayton: The nation’s youngest team had its fair share of hiccups to start the season, dropping games to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay. Even after a surprising road loss to La Salle this past weekend (sans Toumani Camara), it’s hard to count out Anthony Grant‘s Flyers in the A10 Tournament. The Atlantic 10 often has one of the more unpredictable tournaments and there’s no reason to count out a team that already has wins against VCU, Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure in league play.
- St. Bonaventure: Months ago, St. Bonaventure was ranked as high as 16th in the AP poll. The Bonnies made a habit out of slow starts, though, and a once-promising season went by the wayside. While the team’s postseason outlook is largely dependent on the health of big man Osun Osunniyi, St. Bonaventure has now rattled off seven consecutive wins and is playing its best basketball of the year. Can Mark Schmidt‘s team overcome injuries and lacking depth to find its way back into the NCAA Tournament picture?