Close Calls in Single-Bid Conferences
Ten exciting races for these conferences’ NCAA bracket spots
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Although Power Six conferences routinely earn multiple at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, it’s relatively rare for mid-major conferences to have teams other than the conference tournament champion included in the final bracket. The most recently released 2023 Bracketology foresees an at-large bid for only one of the twenty-six mid-major conferences. Princeton is listed as one of the “Last Four In,” and Columbia is predicted to earn the automatic bid for the Ivy League. The teams in the remaining mid-major conferences will have to battle it out for what will likely be the lone bracket spot during their tournaments, which are scheduled to start in just a little over a week. And although that date isn’t far away, there are still multiple conferences without a clear frontrunner. Below we highlight several of these hotly contested races and discuss the difference-makers for teams if they want to make it to the big dance.
America East Conference
In the battle for the America East’s lone NCAA bracket spot, the University of Vermont (12-2 conference record) is one of the favorites and the team most likely to earn the number one seed in the conference tournament. The Catamounts traded wins with the University of Albany during the regular season, and their only other loss was a 58-57 nail-biter against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Vermont boasts the conference’s most efficient offense, leading the America East in points per play (.84), effective field-goal percentage (48.9), and assists-to-turnover ratio (1.05) during conference games. The Catamounts have also held opponents to the lowest points per game (53.9). Their main struggle has been rebounding, ranking seventh in the conference, but if they can control the boards while maintaining their other strengths, the Catamounts have a solid chance to capture their first America East crown since 2010.
As the defending champion and just two conference losses, Albany will provide the stiffest competition for the Catamounts. Besides its 53-49 loss to Vermont, the Great Danes’ only other defeat came against Maine (50-49), whom they recently just beat (53-50). The team is led by senior forward Helene Haegerstrand, junior forward Kayla Cooper, and senior guard Ellen Hahne, averaging 15.1, 14.9, and 11.6 points per game, respectively. Although Cooper was sidelined due to injury for the first 11 games of the season, she’s been a great asset since her return and has played exceptionally well in both of the team’s losses. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with Haegerstrand and Hahne, who were kept well below their scoring averages in both of those two games. These players’ continued production, especially against Vermont’s tough defense, will be critical if the team wants to see success down the stretch.
Atlantic Sun Conference
The two teams with the most potential to come away with the ASUN’s single NCAA Tournament spot have already played each other twice, with each team winning on their home turf. Florida Gulf Coast University (14-1 conference record) took the first meeting 70-53, but Liberty University (13-2 conference record) won the rematch in overtime, 88-78. The Her Hoop Stats prediction model gives the Eagles the edge should they meet again in the conference tournament, but their regular-season series demonstrated that the game could still go either way.
When Liberty came away with the overtime win, it was largely due to the standout performances of junior guard Kennedi Williams, who scored 24 points and dished out six assists, and senior center Mya Berkman, who scored 18 points and pulled down six rebounds. The team also kept the Eagles scoreless for several minutes down the stretch and knocked down some clutch free throws to secure the victory. If Florida Gulf Coast wants to lock in its spot in the NCAA tournament, it needs to do a better job defensively and convert on its offensive opportunities, especially if the game stays tight.
Atlantic 10 Conference
The Atlantic 10 is another conference where the two teams most likely to meet up in the conference championship game have already played each other twice and split wins. The first time they met, the University of Rhode Island (13-1 conference record) beat the University of Massachusetts (13-1 conference record) 75-68. In that game, junior forward Maye Toure led the Rams with 20 points, and her team had a much easier time putting the ball in the hoop—especially from three—shooting 14-for-30 (46.7 percent) from beyond the arc compared to the Minutewomen’s 5-for-19 (26.3 percent).
When they met up again last week, neither team shot the ball very well from outside, but UMass’s rebounding—led by reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Sam Breen—and second-chance points as well as its ability to get to the line are what put them on top. The Minutewomen also had four players scoring in double-digits, compared to only one player for the Rams. If they face off one more time in the conference tournament, it may come down to who has the hot hand or who can rip down the boards if the shots aren’t falling.
Big West Conference
It’s another two-way race for the Big West’s NCAA tournament spot. UC Irvine (12-2 conference record) and Long Beach State (14-2 conference record) traded wins against each other during the regular season, and they also each have one other tight loss. UC Irvine’s other defeat came against Cal State Fullerton, which beat them 66-64 in overtime. Long Beach State’s other loss was at the hands of Cal State Northridge in a close 52-50 battle.
The first time the two teams played against each other, UC Irvine came out on top 60-57. The Anteaters outrebounded the Beach, particularly on the offensive boards, and 6-foot-2 junior center Nevaeh Parkinson came off the bench to score a season-high 14 points. In their most recent matchup, Long Beach State came away with a 52-50 win. Although the Beach were still outrebounded, their defense was much more effective, holding the Anteaters to 31.5 percent from the field—including 2-for-24 from beyond the arc—and allowing just one player to score in double figures. If these two teams meet up again in the conference tournament, Long Beach State has a slight edge per the Her Hoop Stats prediction model, but rebounding and defense will likely be the deciding factors.
Colonial Athletic Association
Holding onto the lead in the Colonial Athletic Association has been a little like playing musical chairs, with three teams coming away with the most wins, but Drexel (10-4 conference record) is the likely favorite. The Dragons are led by senior guard Keishana Washington, who’s a semifinalist for the Becky Hammond Mid-Major Player of the Year Award, the team’s leading scorer (27.2 ppg), and a possible WNBA draft pick. Drexel also leads the CAA in field-goal percentage (46.4) and assists per game (17.7), while committing the fewest turnovers (11.6) per game, while also holding its opponents to the fewest points (60.6).
But winning the conference tournament won’t be easy for the Dragons. North Carolina A&T and Stony Brook also have 10-4 conference records, and Towson is 9-4. And although Drexel beat Stony Brook twice, it split the regular-season series with Towson, and won’t match up with North Carolina A&T until the regular season finale. One of the areas Drexel struggles with is rebounding, ranking second-to-last in the conference, so it will be important for the Dragons to improve on that if they want to take home their second CAA crown in three seasons.
Two teams have risen to the top in the Horizon League, and they face off this Thursday when Green Bay (16-2 conference record) hosts Cleveland State (16-2 conference record) in a battle that will likely decide the conference’s regular-season champion. Green Bay has been dealing with injuries this season so its scoring has been relatively spread out, with only one player averaging more than 10 points per game. Cleveland State’s production comes from a much tighter group, with Destiny Leo (18.3 ppg) and Brittni Moore (12.1 ppg) leading the Vikings.
Although the Phoenix toppled the Vikings 82-65 in their first meeting on Jan. 14, both teams have shown some weak spots in their other conference losses. When Green Bay lost to Youngstown State, 63-60, it had just lost starter Maddy Schreiber to injury and struggled with turnovers and the pressure to make key shots—including free throws—at the end of the game. When Cleveland State lost to Northern Kentucky 73-69, it had a hard time getting key defensive stops and taking care of the ball during the final stretch of the game. If the score stays close when Green Bay and Cleveland State meet up again—in regular-season play and potentially the conference tournament—it may come down to which team stays the most locked in the longest.
Three teams are tied for the lead in the Mid-American Conference, with Ball State, Bowling Green, and Toledo all having 12-2 conference records. Ball State’s losses came against Toledo and Northern Illinois, Toledo’s losses were to Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, and Bowling Green was defeated by Ball State and Northern Illinois. Each team still has several key games left in the regular season. Toledo travels to play Ball State on Feb. 25, Ball State travels to Bowling Green on March 1, and Bowling Green travels to Toledo on March 4.
Since three teams also trade places for who’s ranked first, second, and third in the conference in points per game, field-goal percentage, and assists, other aspects like rebounding, taking care of the ball, and defense could be the differentiators for who punches its ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri Valley Conference
There are three teams with 13-3 records in Missouri Valley Conference, but Illinois State may have a slight edge when vying for the conference tournament title because its three losses are all to teams with whom it split its regular-season series: Northern Iowa (74-64), Missouri State (71-66), and Drake (83-67).
Throughout the season, Illinois State has been able to count on senior guard Paige Robinson (18.8 ppg, ranks second in conference) as well as shooting well from beyond the arc (38.1%, leads the conference) to achieve success. However, in its losses to Northern Iowa and Drake, Illinois State got lower production than usual from Robinson (10 and two points, respectively). And in their loss to Missouri State, the Redbirds only made 4-for-20 from 3-point range. If the Redbirds want to lock in a trip to the NCAA tournament, their traditional offensive weapons have to be in full force.
Although the Her Hoop Stats prediction model gives an edge to Fairleigh Dickinson (conference record 11-2) to win a trip to the NCAA tournament, the other top contender, Sacred Heart (conference record 10-3), has already beaten them twice. In both games, the Pioneers were buoyed by making their free throws and taking care of the basketball. In the first game, the Pioneers also shot better from the field compared to the Knights (44.6 percent vs 40.0 percent), and in their second meeting, they were able to hold the Knights to just six points in the final quarter to pull off the win.
However, Sacred Heart doesn’t have the NCAA bracket spot locked up by any means. For one, it has three other conference losses: one to Central Connecticut and two to Merrimack. For another, Fairleigh Dickenson is the conference leader in average points (65.8), field-goal percentage (42.0 percent), and rebounds per game (37.3). The Knights also average the fewest turnovers (15.0) and hold their opponents to the fewest points (53.1) in the NEC. So if Fairleigh Dickenson can play to their potential, they should be able to overtake Sacred Heart if they meet up with them for a third time in the conference tournament.
The Sun Belt has several teams that could potentially earn the conference’s sole NCAA Tournament bid. Troy (12-4 conference record) is one of the favorites because three of its losses were by one or two points, and the fourth loss was only by six points. But James Madison (12-4 conference record) also has a great shot. Although the Dukes have lost to Georgia South twice, and Coastal Carolina and Georgia State once, they’ve already beaten Troy and have recently picked up key wins against Texas State (58-54) and Old Dominion (73-68).
When Troy defeated James Madison (80-79), the Dukes struggled with turnovers but won the rebounding battle, typically one of Troy’s strengths. James Madison also had an outstanding performance from junior guard Peyton McDaniel, who came off the bench to score 28 points—including six 3-pointers—and grab nine rebounds. Although Troy had a great night from junior guard Makayia Hallmon, who scored 33 points, it didn’t have quite as balanced of a scoring attack as it usually gets from its starters. If the two teams meet up again in the conference tournament, whoever plays the toughest perimeter defense and pulls down the most rebounds is likely to get the win.
There are several exciting matchups over the next couple of weeks, and with everything on the line for these mid-major teams, their players can’t let up for a single second or their conference’s lone NCAA bracket spot could go to someone else.
Correction (Feb. 20, 2023, 1:29 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that Bowling Green’s conference losses came against Ball State and Richmond. Bowling Green’s second conference loss came against Northern Illinois, not Richmond.
Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.