Conference tournaments are underway. Many of these conferences will provide the early madness of March where a team knows that they must win to get in. But several conferences are setting up to provide the necessary ingredients for a bid thief situation. If I were sitting on the bubble, I wouldn’t be too comfortable that the number of at-large spots available remains the same.
What is a bid thief situation? It’s one where a team that was not going to get an at-large wins the conference tournament AND at least one other team in that conference is at-large worthy and was the presumptive auto bid until the tournament concluded. It moves an extra team to the at-large pool and bumps one of the bubble teams to the wrong side.
This year, there are so many possible bid thief situations that I’d set the over/under at 2 spots. If you are projected as the final two participants in the First Four in Dayton right now, you are really on the wrong side.
Here’s how I assess the situations, in order of likelihood of producing a bid thief.
#1 Conference USA (Final on March 10)
Presumptive auto bid: Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee has an at-large profile, and I’d say the chances are very high that they get in even if they don’t win the conference tourney, especially if the loss is to either Western Kentucky or Old Dominion in the final.
The Blue Raiders have neutral court losses to three tournament teams in Auburn, USC, and Miami. They’ve won at Vanderbilt and beaten Ole Miss out of the SEC. And the new Tier 1 system of categorizing wins should help them (if the committee truly considers it) because road wins at Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, and Murray State all qualify, as all are inside the Top 75 (Old Dominion is just on the edge, at 73). The overall RPI is inside the top 25 and I would be stunned if they were left out.
Western Kentucky and Old Dominion are no slouches, and this is a conference that has produced three straight years of upsets in the NCAA tournament and has depth. I’m giving Middle Tennessee a 40% chance of winning the conference tournament, which means there is a good chance of a 2nd Conference USA team in the tournament.
My Bid Thief Estimate: 60% Chance
#2 Mountain West (Final on March 10)
Presumptive auto bid: Nevada
Nevada is in as a stone-cold lock out of the Mountain West. Boise State, on the other hand, I think is out and needs to win the tournament, just like all the other teams in the conference.
This presents the classic bid thief scenario because anyone but Nevada winning opens the door. I give Nevada a 45% of winning the tournament as the heavy favorite.
My Bid Thief Estimate: 55% Chance
#3 Atlantic 10 (Final on March 11)
Presumptive auto bid: Rhode Island
Rhode Island is in the field no matter what and likely looking at a pretty good seed in the 5 to 7 range. St. Bonaventure is more on the bubble, but I think they are likely to get an at-large as well. They’d certainly like to win the auto bid to remove all doubt.
Anyone else winning would result in a bid thief situation (and yes, St. Bonaventure could be the team affected). I’ve got a 50% chance that Rhode Island–who has dominated the conference–wins, and another 15% chance that it goes to St. Bonaventure. Davidson is the most likely team to jump up and claim a bid, while everyone else would individually be a longshot (but there are 11 other candidates in the mathematically challenged Atlantic 10).
My Bid Thief Estimate: 35% Chance
#4 Missouri Valley (Final on March 4)
Presumptive auto bid: Loyola-Chicago
Loyola Chicago is the regular season MVC champ, and has a road win at Florida and a 25-5 record. Their RPI is sitting right at 30, and it should remain in that range if they can advance to the Missouri Valley Final.
To this point, most bracket projections have been penciling in Loyola-Chicago for the auto bid and as a 12 seed. But if anyone else wins Arch Madness, they have a compelling at-large case.
They would fit the profile of several teams that got ticketed to Dayton for a First Four game when they didn’t win the conference tourney, such as Iona in 2012, St. Mary’s and Middle Tennessee in 2013, and Dayton in 2015, as well as teams that were seeded ahead of the final at-large, like George Mason in 2011, and Belmont and Bucknell in 2013.
Ken Pomeroy gives them a 44% of winning the Missouri Valley tourney
I don’t think they are a lock for an at-large if they lose, and it depends on the circumstances of that loss, but I do give them closer to a 50% chance of sliding into a game in Dayton and giving the MVC two bids.
My Bid Thief Estimate: 25% Chance
#5 Pac-12 (Final on March 10)
Presumptive auto bid: Arizona
The Pac-12 is only being given 3 spots in many current brackets (Arizona along with Arizona State and USC). UCLA is right on the bubble and teams like Utah, Washington, and Oregon are also lurking.
Then, you look at the likely bracket and there’s a very good chance that Arizona and Arizona State are in one quadrant of that tournament, with the Sun Devils likely falling in the 8 vs 9 game.
That leaves most of the rest of the bracket open, with teams capable of winning the tournament and getting deeper before they either have to play Arizona (or let the Wildcats get beaten by someone else).
I think USC or UCLA would both be in by getting to the final, but I’m not sure about the others. Lots of chances.
My Bid Thief Estimate: 25% Chance
After that, I think the chances drop dramatically of another conference producing a bid thief. I’d put it about 10% in the Big Ten (because the top 4 are so strong and in separate quadrants until the semis), and about 10% that BYU or someone else could somehow get through both Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in the WCC. The Big East has probably 6 teams and Xavier and Villanova at the top, so someone like St. John’s or Marquette would have to run the table (less than 10% chance combined). The ACC, SEC, and Big 12 are too loaded with tournament teams and quality to expect a realistic (>5%) chance that a non-tourney team goes all the way.
But if you go and add all those scenarios together, you get 2 spots just from adding my top 5 scenarios, and another 0.5 spot from adding the WCC and the major power conferences projected to have 4+ bids. With an over/under of around 2.5, it would be very unlikely that we don’t see a bid thief situation develop by Selection Sunday, and it could be several.