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Journey to NCAA tournament starts this week in far-flung places

When Winthrop and Radford roll out the ball Tuesday morning at the Big South tournament in Conway, S.C. — just a stone’s throw from Myrtle Beach — the postseason march will begin, complete with stops in Austin, Arlington and, ultimately, Atlanta.

The beauty, and curse, of college basketball is that no matter how badly a team’s season has gone, it can be salvaged by lighting it up for one week in March. Win your conference tournament, and you earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance, which visits the Erwin Center for second- and third-round games.

There are 347 NCAA Division I teams, and approximately 300 of them will be part of a title-elimination process that starts this week, when low-major and mid-major conference tournaments tip off.

“We’re always talking about opening the NCAA tournament to everybody, but with the exception of the Ivy League, it already is open to everybody,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “Regardless of what kind of year you had, you have a chance to play your way into the NCAAs.”

The only teams that don’t have this last-gasp chance are from the Ivy, which has no postseason tournament; the Great West, a newer conference not yet awarded an NCAA invite; about a dozen schools that are academically ineligible; and a handful of independents.

For everybody else, whether you are 3-26 Binghamton, 8-23 Presbyterian or 13-16 Texas, which has a No. 122 RPI, there is a sliver of hope. A tiny sliver.

Texas, for instance, is given a 0.73 percent chance — about 1 in 135 — of winning the Big 12 tournament, according to teamrankings.com. Hey, it beats no chance at all.

“The conference tournaments always give you new life,” Barnes said. “Some roads are more difficult than others, but it’s been proven a long shot can get in if it gets hot at the right time.”

The flip side for low-majors and mid-majors is that teams that had great regular seasons have to prove it all over again.

“The stakes are really high there because they know their league is only going to get one NCAA bid,” Barnes said. “Imagine the pressure, the intensity, but it makes their tournaments really exciting because it’s winner-take-all.”

Yes, in this sport, the sprint can be more important than the marathon.

Valparaiso (24-7, 13-3) won the Horizon League with the kind of team that could scare, possibly even beat, one of the big boys in a few weeks. Unless the Crusaders win their tournament, though, they won’t be dancing.

Bucknell (25-5, 12-2) faces the same heat in the Patriot League. The Bison, who have a possible NBA draft pick in 6-foot-11-inch center Mike Muscala, are projected as a 13th seed if they make the NCAA tournament.

Fortunately for Valpo and Bucknell, their leagues do all they can to protect their regular-season champs by giving them a home-court advantage for the conference tournaments.

Last year, only 11 of 30 regular-season champs also won their league tourneys.

Of the 14 conference tournaments on tap this week, just three leagues have legitimate chances to earn multiple NCAA bids:

  • West Coast, which starts Wednesday and is fronted by new national No. 1 Gonzaga (29-2). St. Mary’s (26-5) is a decent bet to earn an at-large, and if another team, say BYU (21-10), wins the tourney, then the WCC could pick up three bids.
  • Missouri Valley, which opens Thursday, holds its popular “Arch Madness” in St. Louis, averaging more than 10,000 fans per session. It has two teams — Creighton (24-7) and Wichita State (24-7) — that should make the NCAA cut.
  • Ohio Valley, which tips Wednesday, is the league that gave you Murray State last year. This time newcomer Belmont (24-6, 25 RPI) is so accomplished the Bruins will be a strong NCAA candidate even if they don’t win the OVC tourney. Belmont has the nation’s No. 2 nonconference strength of schedule.

 

“I’ve always thought if you’re in a smaller league, you should play the hardest nonconference schedule you can to give yourself a better at-large chance,” Barnes said. “Anybody can get knocked off in a conference tourney.”

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