As the regular-season races around the nation begin to wind down, the prospect of postseason basketball begins to take shape. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who really knows?
No team wants to worry about going the at-large bid route to the NCAA tournament. But there are only 32 automatic bids to the tournament each year. And for playoff hopefuls not in the Power 5 Conferences, there’s only one way to guarantee a chance to dance — winning your conference tournament and its automatic bid.
Here's a look at a few of the more exciting moments from mid-major conference tournaments in recent years.
America East Championship: 2015
Albany 51, Stony Brook 50
For Albany and head coach Will Brown, the win over Stony Brook in the 2015 America East Tournament final had a little extra oomph. Albany was gunning for its third straight conference titles, but the Seawolves of Stony Brook were looking for redemption after losing the title game in 2014. Both teams shot well below 40 percent, but the storyline of the game was undoubtedly Albany’s Peter Hooley. Just over a month after his mother passed away due to colon cancer, the native of Australia capped a solid tournament run by knocking in a last-second 3-pointer to give his team the victory. The bucket with just 1.6 seconds left gave the Great Danes their sweet three-peat.
ASun Championship: 2016
Florida Gulf Coast 80, Stetson 78, OT
The 2016 ASUN title game, in front of a sellout crowd at Alico Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., was a hard-fought contest between Florida Fulf Coast and an upstart Stetson squad that included 16 ties and eight lead changes. FGCU's Antravious Simmons led all scorers with a career-high 21 points, but the chief highlight of the game was a title-saving block courtesy of FGCU’s Zach Johnson. That block, of what would have been a game-tying shot at the rim with four seconds left, gave FGCU its ticket to the Big Dance.
WAC Championship: 2016
Cal State Bakersfield 57, New Mexico State 54
You want to know a good way to earn your school its first trip to the NCAA Tournament? CSU Bakersfield guard Dedrick Basile knows. About this time a year ago in the WAC title game, the Houston native canned a late 3-pointer with two-tenths of a second remaining. The bucket gave the Roadrunners the win over New Mexico State, which was looking for its fifth straight conference tournament crown. And the confidence from last year’s win may have carried over into the 2016-17 season. The Roadrunners and senior floor general Basile have set the pace atop the WAC standings since the beginning of conference play.
Missouri Valley Championship: 2016
Northern Iowa 56, Evansville 54
The Scottrade Center in St. Louis — AKA the home of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament (and of course the St. Louis Blues of the NHL) — has seen its fair share of fun over the years. Last year, with the Northern Iowa Panthers meeting the Evansville Aces, everyone left entertained. UNI’s Wes Washpun, who led the Panthers with 18 points, got some help on a last-second game-winner from a friendly rim. Tough way to go out for Evansville, but that’s just the way the ball bounces.
MAC Championship: 2016
Buffalo 64, Akron 61
After an automatic bid to the Big Dance via the MAC Tournament title in 2015, the Buffalo Bulls were back to bust things up again in 2016. The Bulls would clinch their second-straight MAC title behind some late-game heroics from senior forward Blake Hamilton. A 3-pointer with two seconds left gave Buffalo the win and another berth in the NCAA tournament.
Conference USA: 2016
Middle Tennessee 55, Old Dominion 53
When the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee and the Monarchs of Old Dominion met in the 2016 Conference USA Championship, some fans may have been surprised to see the pairing. The top seed in the tournament, UAB, fell in a quarterfinal matchup to open the door for the Monarchs. But Middle Tennessee was not going to roll over and relinquish its shot at the automatic bid. ODU proved game, but Giddy Potts and the Raiders had just enough to get by. A pair of free throws from MTSU teammate Reggie Upshaw with 2.9 seconds left proved to be the difference.