The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is without question. Thousands before me have waxed poetic about what makes it so special, which is exactly why I won't today. Instead, I'm here to talk about the ugly reality that mid-major fans like myself face every year. Each season, exciting teams from all around the country come up short in their conference tournaments and, without a quality schedule to back up their win total, miss a shot at the National Championship.
If your team fits this description, fret not, for if your team clinched their conference's regular season title, then they've got an auto-bid to the 2023 National Invitation Tournament. With the final verdict on your team's tourney hopes still a few days away, let's break down the case for why it may be too early to start refreshing the transfer portal.
Records and Kenpom Rankings are based on results through the morning of March 8th.
NET Rankings are based on results through March 7th.
Breakdowns by Sam Basel and Jake Zimmer
Eastern Washington-Big Sky Regular Season Champs
Record: 22-10 (16-2 Big Sky)
Key Wins: UC Davis (79-68 at Home), Montana State (70-67 Away), Montana (87-80 Away, 64-57 at Home)
Key Players: Steele Venters (15.5 PPG, 38.3% 3PT); Angelo Allegri (13.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
Zimmer-Eastern Washington was the cut-and-dry favorite to win the Big Sky Conference, but they were walked off by 10-22 Northern Arizona at the buzzer. After a tough non-conference schedule left them 4-7 to start the season, the Eagles went on an 18-game win streak spanning from December 17th to February 25th. Two straight losses to end the regular season slowed the momentum for EWU, and sure enough, NAU made it a third. Now, the Eagles have punched their ticket…to the wrong event. Standout guard Steele Venters has dropped at least 21 points in both of EWU's last two games, but Eastern Washington’s problem has been depth scoring. Success for the Eagles in the NIT will hinge on finding a second consistent scorer.
Hofstra-CAA Regular Season Co-Champs
Record: 24-9 (16-2 CAA)
Key Wins: Iona (83-78 at Home), Charleston (85-81 at Home)
Key Players: Aaron Estrada (20.5 PPG), Tyler Thomas (16.3 PPG, 41.3 3P%)
Basel-The #StrongIsland Stunners, the Hofstra Pride made their presence in the CAA known this year when they took down Charleston early on in conference play. At the time, the No. 18 Cougars were one of the hottest Mid-Majors in the country on a 20-game win streak. Behind 25 points from Aaron Estrada, the Pride not only brought Charleston back down to earth, but thundered through the rest of the conference to claim the Regular Season title. However, their quest to double up their 2023 CAA banners was halted by UNC Wilmington in the semifinals after the Seahawks bested the Pride in a shootout. Wilmington finished the game 52.3% from the field, outscoring Hofstra 8-2 in OT. Getting out-shot is a very rare occurrence for this year's Pride, as they rank 18th in the country in Effective Field Goal %. A fast-paced, sharpshooting team that wins turnover battles can be very dangerous, and with the best TO margin in the CAA, the Hofstra Pride are nowhere near done in 2023.
Youngstown State-Horizon League Regular Season Champs
Record: 24-9 (15-5 Horizon)
Key Wins: Wright State (88-77 Away, 91-89 in 3OT at Home)
Key Players: Dwayne Cohill (17.8 PPG, 43.2 3PT%), Brandon Rush (14 PPG, 38.7 3PT%)
Zimmer-It's no secret that the Penguins are the most complete team in the Horizon League, ranking first in just about every offensive category-efficiency, effective field goal percentage, holding onto the ball, etc. Despite the statistical Penguin prowess, Jerrod Calhoun's group couldn't pull it out against Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League semis. Their bench only scored 3 points in 44 total minutes, contributing to less than 5% of the team's total despite spending around 25% of the game on the floor. While the Penguin's top five are essentially bulletproof, they'll need to reach into their depth to be successful in the NIT. Relying on Dayton transfer Dwayne Cohill and FDU transfer Brandon Rush to carry the Penguins simply won't cut it.
Bradley-Missouri Valley Regular Season Champs
Record: 25-9 (16-4 MVC)
Key Wins: Akron (74-55 at Home), Drake (73-61 at Home)
Key Players: Rienk Mast (13.8 PPG)
Basel-Despite being picked second in the Preseason MVC Poll, Bradley's '22-'23 run in conference play was quite a refreshing watch after years of mediocrity. In their eighth year under HC Brian Wardle, the Braves finished their regular season conference slate on a ten game win streak, grinding out victories by locking down the paint. In conference play, the Braves finished third in the MVC in blocked shots and second in offensive rebounds. A methodical, efficient team from the field, it will be very interesting to see how the Braves stack up in the NIT against other mid-majors that like to bump up the tempo.
Merrimack-NEC Regular Season and Tournament Champs
Record: 18-16 (12-4 NEC)
Key Wins: Wagner (58-48 Away), Sacred Heart (67-55 Away, 71-60 NEC Tourney)
Key Players: Jordan Minor (17.4 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG), Ziggy Reid (13.4 PPG)
Zimmer-The only program on the list that won their Conference Tourney title, the Warriors came away victorious in Tuesday night's NEC Championship against FDU, but unfortunately, they're still on the outside looking in. In year four of their transition from the D-II NE-10 Conference, the Warriors were finally eligible to compete in the NEC tournament, but are still barred from the NCAA Tournament or the NIT until 2023-24. I'll leave it to people more qualified than I to determine if that's fair. While ineligible for those first two tourneys, a potential CBI appearance is not off the table. Jordan Minor is having a career year, pushing a double-double per game with almost 3 blocks every time he touches the floor. If he can't lead Merrimack to a successful CBI campaign this year, then he's played his last game in the NCAA.
Morehead State-OVC Regular Season Champs
Record: 21-11 (14-4 OVc)
NET: Morehead St.
Key Wins: Georgia Southern (74-71 Away), ETSU (61-57 at Home), Bellarmine (62-55 at Home)
Key Players: Mark Freeman (15 PPG, 37.6 3PT%), Alex Gross (11.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG)
Zimmer-The Ohio Valley Conference was all shook up with some departures this offseason, and for better or worse, Morehead State stayed put. Their excellent regular season validated that decision, and many chose them to represent the OVC in the NCAA Tourney. But Southeast Missouri State (SEMO), who upset nearly everyone in their path en route to a Championship Game loss, caught the Eagles off guard and sent them home early. Morehead's guard depth is solid, as Mark Freeman, Drew Thelwell, and Jake Wolfe make up 35 PPG, along with solid contributions from key bench pieces. However, one thing is for sure-Morehead will go nowhere in the NIT without F Alex Gross turning it around; he was held to just 4 points in their first round exit against SEMO.