Out of the 68 teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last month, 32 of them received automatic bids from winning their conference champions. The tournament’s selection committee determines the other 36 spots. Most of the time, the larger conferences are the ones who receive these at-large bids, but in 2019, two mid-major conferences were able to attain multiple bids: the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) and the West Coast Conference (WCC). The SoCon was not on this list, despite having teams with arguably better resumes in the conference.
Murray State of the OVC was one of the biggest topics of discussion on ESPN over the entire collegiate basketball season. Point guard Ja Morant produced a nightly highlight reel of tomahawk dunks and slick crossovers. Led by Morant, the Racers upset No. 5 seed Marquette in the NCAA Tournament. Morant, mostly unheralded out of high school, is now projected to be a top-five pick in this year’s NBA draft.
Still, Murray State was riding the second-place spot in the OVC all year long, with conference losses to Belmont and Jacksonville State. But with the bright lights on, Murray State and Ja Morant were able to punch their ticket to the Big Dance in a thrilling victory over Belmont in the OVC Tournament final. However, with a 26-5 overall record and a 16-2 conference record, Belmont was given an at-large bid by the selection committee. On the College Insider Men’s Mid-Major Top 25 Rankings at the end of the regular season, Murray State was ranked fourth and Belmont in fifth.
Belmont’s inclusion into the tournament might’ve been surprising to some, but Gonzaga’s wasn’t. Gonzaga, in the WCC, is ranked fourth in the AP Top 25 with a 32-3 overall record and 16-0 conference record. Combined with their impressive early season win over Duke, Gonzaga was a lock for weeks. Still, the mighty Bulldogs were upset by Saint Mary’s in the WCC final, giving the Gaels an automatic bid. Regardless, Gonzaga earned a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament—a draw some considered questionable, with teams like Tennessee and Kentucky having similar regular season records while facing better competition.
UNCG was not nearly as fortunate. They were literally the last team held out of the NCAA Tournament, and the biggest reason was playing in the SoCon. The SoCon had the seventh highest NET rankings of the conference tournament semifinalists, with a score of 46.5. UNCG had two quadrant 1 wins, and zero quadrant 2-4 losses. They ranked 33rd in the country in the strength of their record. Meanwhile, ACC schools are so impressed by SoCon excellence that Virginia Tech just hired Wofford’s Mike Young to replace Buzz Williams as head coach.
In the 17-18 season, the Atlantic 10 notched three bids while being the 11th ranked conference in the NCAA; however this year, the SoCon (the 11th ranked conference) was only able to get one. What more did they have to do?
Look at St. John’s. UNCG had a higher NET ranking, stronger record, and less Quad 2-4 losses than them, but the Red Storm was able to attain an extra bid. They were soundly beaten in the first round. At least UNCG received a one seed in the NIT, and we got to see another home win from this truly special team.