CALGARY, Alta. — Some power conference teams simply don’t know what it’s like to not make the NCAA Tournament each year. Teams like the Kansas Jayhawks, Michigan State Spartans, and even the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs have lengthy streaks of appearances in the Big Dance.
On the flip side, some smaller programs are still awaiting their first spot in the magical field of 68.
Advancing to the NCAA Tournament is always tougher for smaller programs. In most cases, non-power conferences are only represented by their respective conference champions. Outside of the Missouri Valley Conference and the West Coast Conference, it’s very rare to see to see multiple teams from the same small conference in the field of 68.
This season, the level of parity across the NCAA appears to be at an all-time high. So far in March, we’ve already seen our fair share of upsets. The Campbell Camels knocked off the UNC Asheville Bulldogs behind a Big South record 51 points from Chris Clemons, and two of the top three teams are already out of the Big South tournament.
Because of these upsets, it makes us think that anything is possible.
In the latest edition of the ‘Trifecta‘, here are three teams who appear to have the best chance of securing their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Note: the three teams listed below have yet to begin their conference tournaments.
North Dakota Fighting Hawks (18-9, 13-4)
Despite succumbing to the Sacramento State Hornets on Thursday night in the second-to-last regular season game of the season, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks still look like the team to beat in the Big Sky Conference.
They are now tied atop the standings at 13-4 with the Eastern Washington Eagles, and both have one game remaining on Saturday to close out the regular season. Regardless of the result, the Fighting Hawks will have a top-two seed come the conference tournament.
Leading the way once again this season is the reigning College Court Report Player of the Year, in senior guard Quinton Hooker. He’s averaging a team-best 18.9 points per contest, while also adding 3.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
However, the play of sophomore Geno Crandall has been just as integral to the team’s overall success this season. Crandall has emerged into a star player this season for North Dakota, averaging 15.7 points and a team-high 3.8 assists per game, while shooting 51.0% from the field. Crandall put up a strong freshman campaign, and has only built off of that momentum.
With Hooker graduating after this season, the Fighting Hawks won’t have to look far for their next go-to scorer.
When you add in the fact that North Dakota has eight players who have played at least 25 games this season, and six of whom average at least 7.8 points per game, it should come as no surprise that North Dakota is on the verge of their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
If they can get strong performances from their bench players, they could even pull off an upset or two come the Big Dance.
UC Davis Aggies (19-11, 11-4)
Heading into their regular season finale on Saturday against the UC Irvine Anteaters, the Aggies have a chance to secure the regular season Big West title. They are currently tied with the Anteaters for top spot in the conference at 11-4, and both teams will be looking for a leg up on the other for when the Big West tournament kicks off.
While UC Davis has never made the NCAA Tournament, this year looks like it could very well be their year. They are currently riding a three-game winning streak, and have won six of their last eight contests. The Aggies are peaking at the right time, and that’s bad news for the rest of the conference.
If the Aggies want to advance to the Big Dance, Brynton Lemar will need to keep up his strong play as of late. The senior has scored in double-figures in each of the Aggies’ last 14 games, and he leads the team in scoring with an average of 15.8 points per contest.
Add in junior Chima Moneke and sophomore Siler Schneider, among others, and the Aggies have a healthy combination of youth and experience, all of whom have talent. This could be the perfect combination that ultimately results in a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
South Dakota Coyotes (21-10, 12-4)
What a year it’s been for the Coyotes of South Dakota, and there’s still more to be accomplished.
So far, the Coyotes have won their first-ever Summit League regular season crown, and Craig Smith was named the Summit League Coach of the Year after leading his team to a 21-10 record in the regular season.
Heading into the Summit League tournament, the Coyotes are riding a six-game winning streak, and four of those six wins came on the road. They take on the Western Illinois Leathernecks in the opening round of the conference tournament, and the Coyotes swept the two-game season series.
The key match-up in the quarter-finals will be between Matt Mooney and Garret Covington. They are two of the premier guards in the conference, and fans in attendance will be treated to quite the battle in the back court.
While the team is led by Mooney and Tyler Flack, it’s the depth of the Coyotes that makes them so dangerous. Their roster bodes seven players who played all 31 games this season, and average at least 5.6 points per contest. Smith’s confidence in his rotation will do wonders for the team moving forwards.
– T. Bennett