Change the batteries in the remote. Fluff the recliner. It’s conference tournament week and that means seven days - and nights - of games that will decide the fate of bubble teams and the seeding of those who don’t have to worry.
The first category of games are the championships of the one-bid conferences. These have the capability of making a neutral viewer feel elation and despair over the same game. Most of the title tilts this weekend lived up to that with Belmont’s win over Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference the best example.
Then comes the games of the bubble teams of the bigger conferences. So many times you hear the talk of a team that may be in seventh or eighth place needing to win at least a certain number of games. Usually the first game such a team plays is against an opponent from the same part of the standings and that means the RPI computer yawns at the result. Those teams need to beat a team with a better RPI to improve their chances of securing a spot on the at-large list.
An example is Connecticut in this week’s American Athletic Conference tournament. The sixth-seeded Huskies, the defending national champions who need a lot to happen to get even a chance to repeat, open play Thursday against 11th-seeded South Florida. UConn, which had an RPI around 70, wouldn’t get much help from beating a team whose RPI is in triple digits.
But Friday’s quarterfinals would mean a matchup with third-seeded Cincinnati, a team with an RPI in the high 40s, and that would be a boost to the Huskies’ resume. One advantage they have going in is that the tournament is being played in Hartford, a quick ride away from campus.
Anther number that has seen plenty of change in recent years is wins. The days of 20 wins - even in a power conference - almost guaranteeing an at-large bid are long over. If Kentucky were to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated, the Wildcats would be 40-0. That’s eight more wins than the Hoosiers had in their perfect season.
ROOTING HARD: Those connected with bubble teams were glued to the television for Sunday’s Missouri Valley Conference championship game.
No. 11 Northern Iowa was down 18 points in the first half against Illinois State. The Panthers had a berth sewn up win or lose. The Redbirds, however, were playing for their only possible NCAA route - the conference championship. And if they did that one of the spots coveted by the bubble teams would be gone.
Northern Iowa rallied for the 69-60 win and a lot of teams with resume work to do exhaled.
MURRAY HILL: As the players from Murray State walked around in a daze following their loss to Belmont in the Ohio Valley championship game, many were too quick to point out that the Racers would be a long shot for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The loss ended Murray State’s 25-game winning streak and it was the 25th-ranked Racers’ first to a conference opponent this season. Even before the loss their RPI was in the 60s. They started the season 2-4 and there wasn’t a quality win during the streak. Those factors seem to indicate there probably won’t be good news for the Racers on Selection Sunday.
“This is an NCAA Tournament team,” coach Steve Prohm said. “I know you don’t go off past seasons, but look at everything this league has done since 2010. Look at the guys in the NBA. … Look at what we’ve done in the postseason. OVC teams have won multiple NCAA Tournament games.
“We’re very deserving,” Prohm said. “If you’ve watched us play, then you would agree. I hope we get a chance. These guys deserve it. But if not, we’ll be gracious about it and play as I hope we get an opportunity. If not, we’ll be gracious about it and go play in the NIT.”
SECURE MUSTANGS: SMU was the team last year that had the biggest gripe about being left out of the field of 68. The Mustangs made sure there won’t be any discussion about them being left out this year.
Their 67-62 victory over Tulsa gave them the AAC regular season championship - SMU’s first in 22 years. The Mustangs (24-6) are looking for their first NCAA berth since winning the old Southwest Conference in 1993.
“We better get in the NCAA,” said Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, whose team was the only one of the top five in the AAC that didn’t get in last year after finishing in a three-way tie for third. “I didn’t politick last year. But if we don’t get in, there’s something wrong.”
The loss left Tulsa in the same situation SMU was in last year. The Golden Hurricane (21-9) started the conference season 10-0 then finished second with a 14-4 mark under first-year coach Frank Haith.
“I do think there’s a little bit of an eye test and hopefully the committee is watching the game,” Haith said. “And I think there’s two teams that deserve to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
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