Each and every year, fans and bettors alike search for those mid-major programs that will make a splash at the NCAA tournament. It seems that every year a program like Loyola, Oral Roberts, or Abilene Christian somehow finds a way to win at least one NCAA tourney game. This year is likely to be no different.
In the latest NET rankings (the NCAA uses this formula to rank teams), ten mid-major programs are ranked in the top 50. If you include Gonzaga, which hails from a mid-major conference, that number is 11. Any one of these programs could pull an upset or two. Don’t forget, last year Oral Roberts, a No. 15 seed, won its first two games and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. Who will it be this year?
The Saint Mary’s Gaels are 24-6 and ranked No. 19 in the nation. They essentially locked themselves into the NCAA tournament with a 67-57 win over No. 1 Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s relies on a lockdown defense to win games. The Gaels rank eight in the nation in scoring defense allowing opponents just 60.1 points per game.
Four of the Gaels’ last six opponents didn’t reach 60 points. Saint Mary’s, the highest-ranked mid-major program, has a number of strong wins and no bad losses. If they do not win the West Coast Conference tournament, the Gaels should receive an at-large NCAA bid. Whoever they play should be on the lookout. Defense wins games.
Speaking of defense, North Texas has the best in the nation. The Mean Green allows just 56 points per game which is why they are 23-4 and 16-1 in Conference USA. North Texas is 1-1 in Quadrant 1 games this season and 5-2 in Quadrant 2 games.
The Mean Green is ranked at No. 39 in the NET rankings. Last season, North Texas won the C-USA tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. As a No. 14 seed, the Mean Green knocked Purdue in the first round. It could happen again.
After Saint Mary’s at No. 19 in the NET rankings, there is Murray State at No. 23. The Racers are 28-2 and haven’t lost a game in the Ohio Valley Conference. The alma mater of Ja Morant also has a win over Memphis this season and is 2-1 in Quadrant 1 games.
The Racers should win the OVC tournament, but Belmont (25-6) could be a challenge. Regardless, Murray State should receive a bid to the tournament and the Racers have the potential to pull off an upset.
No. 26 in the NET rankings is San Francisco, another team from the West Coast Conference. The Dons are 23-8 with a 3-5 Quadrant 1 record. They have wins over BYU (21-9) and Santa Clara (20-10) and a narrow loss to Saint Mary’s.
The Mountain West has San Diego State (No. 27), Colorado State (No. 28), and Boise State (No. 30). The Broncos (24-6) hold the top spot in the conference. The Rams (23-4) are second and the Aztecs (20-7) are third. All three teams have four Quadrant 1 wins.
Loyola, which made an improbable run to the Final Four a few years ago, is also in the mix. At No. 29 in the NET, the Ramblers are 22-7 and are 2-2 in Quadrant 1 games. Last season, Loyola made it to the tournament, beat Georgia Tech in the first round and then upset No. 1 seed Illinois to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.