Which mid-majors are bubbling over?
With most of the nonconference season in the rearview mirror and league play beginning in earnest this week, it is a good time to examine what the at-large pool might look like come March. More specifically: Which teams from the non-BCS leagues still have a chance to earn an at-large bid?
The catch here is that teams from outside the big six generally have few opportunities to build their résumés after Jan. 1 each season.
But here is a look at five teams for whom the door is still open to the at-large room and a few more that were close to getting inside before that same door slammed in their face. The margin for error is always small, but these are the teams to watch the rest of the season, the ones that really help shape the bubble come March.
They can still get an at-large bid
Delaware: The Blue Hens are the most intriguing team in the entire tournament pool, and it all has to do with Elena Delle Donne -- her absence, her return, and how the committee will view those games she missed. The recurrent effects of Lyme disease kept the preseason All-American out of six of the Hens' first seven games. Delaware managed to go 4-2 in her absence. Obviously, the Blue Hens are a different team with someone so supremely talented, and that has been on display since Delle Donne returned on Dec. 20 (she has played four consecutive games). Those two losses -- to Duquesne and Georgetown -- can't be completely dismissed, but they do come with asterisks, and that will be part of any discussion about Delaware. If Delle Donne had been healthy from day one, the Blue Hens probably wouldn't be facing any threat of not making the tournament -- and they still might not be. Delle Donne's teammates did enough so that the expectation in Newark did not change. As long as the Blue Hens have the expected results in the Colonial, they should have no problem -- which is why they are at the top of this list.
Duquesne: The Dukes come next largely because they and Delaware will be linked all season based on the circumstances discussed above. Duquesne and Delaware played each other twice -- once with Della Donne on the floor (Sunday in a tournament in New Hampshire), one without her (the Dukes' third game of the season). Not coincidentally, Duquesne won the game that Delle Donne sat out, marking its second-best victory of the season (its win over West Virginia ranks No. 1). Had the Dukes won again when they played the Blue Hens with Delle Donne (they lost by 15), the at-large résumé would have looked exceptional. As it stands, the upset in Morgantown and a respectable showing on the road at North Carolina puts the Dukes in the position to have a chance. However, that chance likely disappears with any more than three Atlantic 10 losses and/or anything lower than a third-place regular-season finish. A quick look at the current A-10 standings tells you that this wasn't the best of opening months for the league. The Dukes will stay in the hunt because they were one of the early-season exceptions, but the opportunity for marquee wins the rest of the way is small. One meeting with Dayton provides the lone top-50 RPI game left. If the Dukes take care of business and win the games they should, then they will have probably done enough to earn a bid.
Dayton: The Flyers and Duquesne clearly appear to be the two best teams in the A-10, a league that typically sends multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. In fact, 2011-12 was the first season in six that three schools didn't represent the conference. That being said, if Dayton and Duquesne dominate over the next two months, this will be just a two-bid league again. Certainly, at least one of the two will be represented, and Dayton is in much better shape. Wins over DePaul, Vanderbilt, Arizona State and Michigan State were all part of the Flyers' surprising start. That's a no-brainer NCAA tournament résumé to this point. Unless Dayton takes a 180-degree turn in conference play, this is an NCAA tournament team. What bears watching is if Sunday's inexplicable 25-point loss at Bowling Green was a sign of some kind of turn for the worse. Assuming that was just a blip and the Flyers quickly résumé their level of the first two months, then they are in better shape than any team in the discussion.
UTEP: Much like last season, the Miners are off to a terrific start at 11-1. The quality of those wins (the best are against Arizona State and Kansas State) isn't to the level of Dayton and Duquesne, but the start was good enough for the Miners to possibly afford a slipup or two in C-USA play. Last season, UTEP simply removed all doubt after dominating the conference's regular season by also winning the league tournament. This season, falling short there should still be fine, especially if the Miners are able to post another 15-1 regular-season conference mark -- and they will be favored in every game they play the rest of the way. A two- or three-loss UTEP team should still be able to get an at-large bid. Any more than that, though, and watch out.
Creighton: The Bluejays' win over Nebraska was big and the only reason they are in the conversation. A win over Minnesota would have really helped, too, but Creighton blew a 15-point halftime lead in that one. The Bluejays have already lost three games, so the margin for error is next to nothing. However, if they were to get through the Missouri Valley regular season unbeaten or with just one loss, and lost in the conference tournament final, a chance for a bid would still be a possibility. Any more than one league loss, however, and that opportunity disappears.
They likely can't
Gonzaga: The Zags always seem to be on lists like these. The program, with its quality nonleague scheduling and typical success against those schedules, usually puts the Bulldogs in that position. Unfortunately, Kelly Graves' club is not in that spot this season. Games against Louisville, Stanford and Ohio State provided the opportunity that was never taken. Gonzaga lost each of those games. Perhaps an unbeaten WCC season could have made amends, but the death knell sounded with a home loss to Washington State the last time out. The Zags have no résumé-building wins, and now a loss that will probably be sub-100 by the time the season ends. Gonzaga had better celebrate a WCC tournament title in Las Vegas if it wants to host an NCAA tournament game or two again.
Green Bay: The Phoenix are good under Kevin Borseth again. They just aren't No. 7 or No. 5 seed good like they were the past two seasons under Matt Bollant. It's high praise to write this, but two losses -- Central Michigan and James Madison -- to less than elite competition at this point in the season has become unheard of in Green Bay. It also means that the Phoenix have one ticket to the NCAA tournament, and that's winning the Horizon tournament. They left it up to chance by losing in the conference tournament semifinals in 2008 with a résumé that looks much like this year's could, and Green Bay played in the WNIT that year.
San Diego State: The Aztecs played tough against a tough schedule, but have come out of it 6-4, and that just won't be good enough. Once upon a time, the Mountain West was a multiple-bid league because its teams were good enough to raise the level of the others. That isn't the case anymore. Like Gonzaga, San Diego State had opportunities -- UCLA, Colorado, Oklahoma State -- but lost them all. The Aztecs can dominate the rest of the regular season, but it won't matter if they lose in the MWC tournament.