Trifecta: Three teams who could steal an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament

Bryce Dulin has emerged as a star for Navy, and his play has the Midshipmen in line to contend for the Patriot League's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. (Source: Navy Athletics)
Bryce Dulin has emerged as a star for Navy, and his play has the Midshipmen in line to contend for the Patriot League’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. (Source: Navy Athletics)

CALGARY, Alta. — Conference tournaments officially get underway on Monday, which means the 2017 NCAA Tournament is just around the corner.

Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away, which means it’s also time to get looking at some teams who could be surprise entrants into the field of 68 as conference champions.

Every year, teams get hot down the stretch and ride the positive momentum into the NCAA Tournament, and that will be the case again this season. It’s inevitable.

Cinderellas make their first appearance in the two weeks prior to the Big Dance, rolling to unexpected conference tournament titles as lower seeds and ‘stealing’ a bid from the top teams in their respective conferences. As college basketball fanatics, we love the drama that comes with March.

Some prefer to see the best teams from each conference go to battle in March. But, if teams earn the right to be in the field, we’d much rather see that. Plus, who doesn’t love the underdogs?

This is the first edition of the ‘Trifecta’, where we will focus on groups of three players, teams, or events that will affect March Madness.

Below are three teams who could very well knock off the top teams in their respective conferences, thus earning themselves a coveted spot in the field of 68 that otherwise wouldn’t come their way.

Navy Midshipmen (15-15, 10-8)

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Navy Midshipmen were one of the hottest teams in the country. Now, while they’re limping towards the Patriot League tournament, they still have the potential to enter the field of 68 as the conference champions.

After a slow start to conference play, the Midshipmen reeled off eight straight wins to vault themselves into contention in the Patriot League. Six of the eight wins came by double digit margins, and the stretch included a 16-point drubbing of the Army West Point Black Knights,

They’ve fallen off from their hot streak as of late, having lost four straight contests overall, and five of their last seven, but the emergence of Bryce Dulin cannot be ignored. Over Navy’s win streak, the junior recorded six games with double-digit points, two of which were 20+ point games, and he averaged 14.1 points per contest.

His seasonal average is 9.1 per game.

If Dulin and the rest of the Midshipmen can regain their mid-season form, then the rest of the Patriot League should be on the lookout. Navy already does have a win over the pre-season favourite Lehigh Mountain Hawks on their resume.

Elon Phoenix (18-13, 10-8)

In the Colonial Athletic Association this season, it has been the UNC Wilmington Seahawks and the Charleston Cougars, then everyone else. The Seahawks have led the entire way, while the Cougars have been nipping at their heels. Below them, four games separate the third place team from the eighth place squad.

One of the teams in the log jam in the middle is the Elon Phoenix.

After starting CAA play at 0-3, the Phoenix won seven of their next eight games to put themselves in the upper echelon of the standings. Their lone loss from January 7th to February 2nd was a one-point loss to the Drexel Dragons.

Following their hit streak, the Phoenix lost back-to-back games on the road against Charleston and the Delaware Blue Hens. In their next game, which was at home, they knocked off the conference-leading Seahawks, 77-76, to earn a split in the season series.

Since that win, Elon has alternated wins and losses over their past five contests, and they are looking to end that trend and string together consecutive victories. After securing the fifth spot in the regular season standings, the Phoenix take on the William & Mary Tribe on Saturday to open up the conference tournament in the always exciting 4-vs-5 matchup.

Five players have played in all 31 games for the Phoenix season, and are averaging at least 8.9 points per contest. The star of the show is sophomore Tyler Seibring, who is averaging a team-best 14.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.

In just his second season in the NCAA, Seibring has emerged as one of the brightest stars in the conference, and has Elon in a great position as the CAA Tournament quickly approaches.

Jackson State Tigers (11-17. 7-8)

Every year, it seems as though a team comes from out of nowhere to claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament from a lesser-known conference. Last season, the Holy Cross Crusaders and Austin Peay Governors earned spots in the field of 68 as 9-seeds in their respective conference tournaments.

This season, the team that comes out of seemingly nowhere to earn a spot could be the Jackson State Tigers.

In the SWAC, which has been led by the Texas Southern Tigers and the Alcorn State Braves for most of the season, Jackson State is a team that nobody should take lightly. They split the season series with Texas Southern, and were competitive in two losses to the Braves.

While Jackson State won’t blow you away on offense, guard Edric Dennis is a threat to go off on any given night. He put up 36 points earlier in the season against Fisk, then followed that up with a 30-point performance two games later against the Alabama State Hornets. Dennis has recorded double-digit points in 21 of his 27 games played in 2016-17.

When you add in Yettra Specks, the Tigers have a one-two punch on offense who can keep up with the top teams in the conference.

Heading into this week, the Tigers are tied for 5th in the SWAC standings at 7-8 with the Prairie View A&M Panthers. With three games remaining, the Tigers have a strong chance of securing a spot in the eight-team SWAC Tournament, and could build some much needed momentum heading into the event.

– T. Bennett