Area schools vie for chance at the Big Dance

Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 10:10pm

One slip-up and those plans for the Big Dance get put on hold.

That is the dilemma facing many mid-majors, who walk on eggshells even amid 20-win seasons.

Murray State experienced it firsthand last year. The Racers went 23-7 and captured the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship. But they lost in the semifinals of their league tournament, missing out on a chance to capture the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they were sent to the lower-tier NIT.

This season, Murray State isn’t leaving its postseason fate to chance. The Racers are the last undefeated team in Division I men’s basketball, as they took a 20-0 record into Saturday’s game against Eastern Illinois.

Ranked 11th in the country, Murray appears determined to show it is worthy of a rare at-large bid.

“Without question, there is not a doubt in my mind,” Murray State’s first-year head coach Steve Prohm said. “What we’ve done in the non-conference season, with three Top 35 RPI wins [over Southern Mississippi, Dayton and Memphis], there are not a lot of teams in the country that can say that, and that is BCS schools included. We have the most road wins [nine] in the country, and we have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country.”

On Monday, Murray’s strength of schedule (currently 214th) and RPI (31st) will get another boost with the announcement of ESPN’s BracketBusters. On Feb. 18, the Racers will host a formidable non-conference foe, most likely No. 21 St. Mary’s, Wichita State or Long Beach State.

All of those mid-major conferences are trying to plead their case for at-large berth regularity. The three leagues with local connections are no different.

Along with the OVC, whose headquarters are in Brentwood, the Sun Belt and Atlantic Sun want to crash the dance and send two teams. Only once has the OVC achieved the feat. In 1987, Middle Tennessee State (now in the Sun Belt), earned an at-large berth alongside tournament champ Austin Peay, which upset No. 3 seed Illinois in the opening round.

Coincidentally, this year MTSU is also making its case for an at-large bid as it tries to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fist time since 1989.

Entering last Thursday’s game against Troy, the defensive-minded Blue Raiders were off to their best start in program history with a 19-2 record and an 8-0 mark in Sun Belt play. Their RPI is ranked a respectable 49th, and they have wins against UCLA, which was on the road and ranked in the preseason top 15, Ole Miss, Akron and Belmont.

“If the season ended today, I think we would be right in the topic of conversation” about an at-large bid, MTSU coach Kermit Davis said last week.

The last time the Sun Belt sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament was in 2008. At one point in that season, the Blue Raiders had the nation’s top strength of schedule and won 19 games. It still wasn’t enough to receive an at-large bid, as league foe South Alabama, which MTSU beat twice that season, sneaked in without winning the conference tournament.

“It shows you it can definitely be done,” Davis said. “Sometimes it is kind of where you start too. We started [this season] picked second on our side [in the East Division] and fourth in the league. So you’ve got to win a bunch of games at our level to attract the national attention that we have. You’ve got to come out of nowhere, and you’ve got to go for a long period of time. You can’t have a stumble. But it is year to year.”

Last season’s local darling, Belmont, can relate.

The Bruins blew through their regular-season schedule with a 28-4 record heading into the A-Sun Tournament. Without any RPI Top 50 wins — they lost twice to Tennessee and once to Vanderbilt — their hopes of receiving an at-large bid were slim. It ultimately didn’t matter, as they won the league tournament before bowing out to Wisconsin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

This season, they have the weakest argument among the local schools vying for an at-large bid. The Bruins’ RPI is 89 and they have road losses to Duke, Memphis, Marshall and MTSU, along with wins against Marshall and the Blue Raiders. But the A-Sun’s RPI is 20th — the Sun Belt ranks 18th and OVC 21st — out of 32 conferences.

Plus, heading into last weekend, the Bruins already had two league losses — twice as many as last year. The gap has closed too, as Mercer sat atop the league standings, tied with Belmont.

So, the A-Sun might be waiting another season to earn their first at-large bid since 2001.

“I think it is much more difficult on the men’s side,” MTSU athletics director Chris Massaro said. “Over the past five years, there have been 32 teams from the non-big six conferences get at-large bids. ... Ten of them went to either Xavier and/or BYU.”

Massaro speaks from experience of being on the inside. Last year, he served on the NCAA Women’s Tournament selection committee. There are differences, of course, but he understands how the process works. With four names posted up on the board at one time, the committee votes for the two best and rewards teams for difficult non-conference schedules and signature wins.

He agrees with Davis that every year is different. He also said that if a BCS conference — like the Pac-12 this season — is having a down year, then more bids are freed up.

Securing at-large bids annually, like the Atlantic-10, Missouri Valley and WCC have come close to doing in recent years, is no easy task.

“It is hard to sustain,” Massaro said. “I think the Sun Belt can, and it is just a growth process. I think we need to have people have sustained success. That would be helpful. It was helpful when Western Kentucky made a Sweet 16 run [in 2008].”

The OVC, which has won an NCAA Tournament game each of the last three years, wants to be in that discussion as well. Commissioner Beth DeBauche has put together a board of presidents, former athletic directors and basketball coaches that will focus on enhancing the league’s growth as a basketball conference.

By bolstering non-conference scheduling and RPI, the league aims to earn a higher seed in the tournament, along with getting two teams in every year. Pulling from revenue gained from past NCAA Tournament appearances, DeBauche hopes to implement an incentive-based model that would reward programs that show “a level of commitment to the sport.”

“We do think we would be a two-bid worthy league,” DeBauche said.

But for now, area mid-majors aren’t taking anything for granted. 

“Definitely, being a mid-major it is kind of rough, knowing if you lose your conference tournament, you might not make the tournament no how matter good you did,” MTSU guard Bruce Massey said. “You could be 30-4, and one slip-up and you can be in the NIT real quick.”