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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | July 13, 2020

Men's college basketball conference tournament champions that (almost) no one saw coming

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The best way to guarantee a spot in the NCAA tournament is to earn an auto-bid by winning a conference tournament. Top-seeded teams are often rewarded with one-, two- or even three-round byes in their conference tournaments, but that certainly doesn't mean they always win. Who knows what any given March will hold on the basketball court!

Every few years, if not multiple times in the same year, there will be an unlikely team that pieces together a few incredible days of play to knock off better-seeded opponent after better-seeded opponent to win a conference championship.

Here are some of the most unlikely NCAA men's basketball conference tournament championships that (almost) no one saw coming.

Conference record eight games below .500

Georgia

Year: 2008
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed in the East Division
Regular season conference record: 4-12
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed in the West Ole Miss, No. 2 seed in the East Kentucky, No. 1 seed in the West Mississippi State, No. 2 seed in the West Arkansas
NCAA tournament seed: No. 14 seed

Georgia's 2008 SEC tournament run is an all-time conference tournament performance. The Bulldogs had won just four conference games in the regular season. Then they won four games in four days, including games against Kentucky and Mississippi State, which both went 12-4 in conference play. The 'Dawgs entered the SEC tournament having lost six of their last seven games and 11 of their last 13, which caused them to finish last in the SEC East.

Here's a game-by-game breakdown of Georgia's 2008 SEC tournament run.

March 13, 2008 – Georgia 97, Ole Miss 95 (OT)

"The Dogs won. How rare is that? They had won only two of their previous 13 games to close the regular season," reported The Atlanta Journal Constitution. "An upset over Kentucky and they'll match their victory total for the past seven weeks. But for now, they'll just enjoy the high. '(I'm) proud of the way we kept going after the victory until we got it,' (coach Dennis) Felton said."

March 15, 2008 – Georgia 60, Kentucky 56 (OT)

"Georgia coach Dennis Felton said he 'objected vehemently' to the SEC's reconfigured tournament format and that the league was basically 'eliminating [the Bulldogs'] chances of winning the tournament' by making them play twice in a day against an opponent that is playing only once," reported The Atlanta Constitution's Chip Towers. "The sixth-seeded Bulldogs (15-16) shocked No. 2 seed Kentucky (18-12) with a 60-65 overtime win early Saturday afternoon. Their game was originally supposed to be played Friday night at the Georgia Dome but was moved to Saturday to Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum because of storm damage to the Dome. SEC officials and administrators from the five schools still competing met into the wee hours Saturday morning to decide how to proceed."

March 15, 2008 – Georgia 60, Mississippi State 60

"Coming in with the worst record in the league, the Bulldogs (16-16) won their third consecutive game, 64-60 over Mississippi State (22-10), the Western Division's No. 1 seed," reported The Atlanta Constitution. "'We're the ultimate underdog,' said Georgia coach Dennis Felton. 'We've just got to keep believing in ourselves.' The Bulldogs are in the tournament final for the first time in 11 seasons. They will be seeking their first tournament championship since 1983. Only two teams have even won four SEC tournament games in four days: Auburn in 1985 and Arkansas in 2000."

March 16, 2008 – Georgia 66, Arkansas 57

"We saw things that previously existed only in hallucinations," reported The Atlanta Constitution's Jeff Schultz. "A conference punching bag wearing championship hats and T-shirts (somebody actually had those ready?). The maligned coach smiling, climbing a ladder, cutting down a net and waving it in front of the student section. A sign reading, 'Worst To First (in four days).' All wrong-way signs lead to this. Georgia: from 4-12 to SEC tournament champions. On a court with 'ACC' painted in the lanes. On the campus of its rival. Georgia: from smoked by 14 points on its home court to close the regular season, to four wins in four days — three in a span of 29 hours. Georgia: from program perceived in disarray to NCAA tournament berth."

The Bulldogs ultimately earned a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament with a 17-16 overall record. They lost in the first round to No. 3 seed Xavier.

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Florida International

Year: 1995
Tournament seed: No. 8 seed
Regular season conference record: 4-12
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 1 seed Stetson, No. 4 seed Southeastern Louisiana, No. 3 seed Mercer
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

Florida International made its only NCAA tournament appearance ever in 1995, when the Panthers were in their fourth season competing in the Trans America Athletic Conference (TAAC) after being independent. During the regular season, Florida International won just eight games and the Panthers won back-to-back games just once.

But in the TAAC tournament, Florida International mounted one of the most unlikely conference tournament titles ever as the Panthers won three games in a row (four in a row, dating back to the regular season) for the first time all season.

Their reward? Playing No. 1 seed and future national champion UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

March 2, 1995 – Florida International 63, Stetson 56

"James Mazyck scored 19 of his game-high 21 points in the second half as eighth-seeded Florida International upset top-seeded Stetson 63-56 in an opening-round game in Orlando, Fla.," reported the Austin American-Statesman. "Stetson (15-12, 11-6) grabbed its biggest lead of the contest, 42-33, when Jason Alexander connected on a three-pointer with 14:50 remaining in the game. But then Mazyck went to work, scoring nine points while leading the Golden Panthers on a 17-6 run. The 6-foot-7 inch senior capped the surge with a short jump shot that gave FIU a 50-48 advantage with 5:41 remaining, and Stetson was never able to recover."

March 3, 1995 – Florida International 65, Southeastern Louisiana 64 (OT)

"Mike Tchir sank a 3-point shot with four seconds remaining in overtime to lift Florida International to a 65-64 win over Southeastern Louisiana Friday," reported the AP. "The victory sends Florida International into Saturday's Trans America Athletic Conference tournament final against Mercer."

March 4, 1995 – Florida International 68, Mercer 57

"Sometimes it matters not how many games a team wins, but which ones it wins," reported Florida Today. "Such was the case Saturday as Florida International, loser of 18 games in the regular season, beat Mercer 68-57 to gain a berth in the NCAA tournament as champion of the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament. 'Two years ago, we won the TAAC outright and and had a 20-10 record,' Florida International's outgoing coach Bob Weltlich said, 'and we didn't even get invited to the NIT, let alone the NCAAs. So maybe there's a little bit of poetic justice in getting in this way this year.'"

Conference record four games below .500

Liberty

Year: 2013
Tournament seed: No. 5 seed in the North Division
Regular season conference record: 6-10
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 4 seed (South) Coastal Carolina, No. 1 seed (North) High Point, No. 2 seed (South) Gardner-Webb, No. 1 seed (South) Charleston Southern
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

Liberty didn't win consecutive games from the time Big South play started until the end of the 2012-13 regular season. All six of their conference wins were sandwiched by losses. But as the No. 5 seed in the Big South's North Division, the Flames managed to win the conference tournament.

March 5, 2013 – Liberty 78, Coastal Carolina 61

March 7, 2013 – Liberty 61, High Point 60

March 9, 2013 – Liberty 65, Gardner-Webb 62

March 10, 2013 – Liberty 87, Charleston Southern 76

"Liberty coach Dale Layer doesn't care how many losses it took to get his players to the NCAA tournament," reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. "The Flames became just the second 20-loss team to reach college basketball's marquee event, beating Charleston Southern, 87-76, Sunday in Conway, S.C., to win the Big South Conference title. Liberty opened the season with eight straight losses and have never won more than three in a row until this week."

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Colorado State

Year: 2003
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 5-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed Wyoming, No. 2 seed BYU, No. 4 seed UNLV
NCAA tournament seed: No. 14 seed

From Feb. 3, 2003, to March 1, 2003, Colorado State lost seven games in a row as its 14-5 record quickly approached .500. The Rams won just five conference games all season and only two in their final 10 games of the regular season as they finished four games under .500 in Mountain West play.

Colorado State earned the No. 6 seed in the eight-team conference and the Rams were just two games ahead of last place in the conference standings.

Here's how a team that hadn't won more than two conference games in a row all regular season won three in a row in the conference tournament:

March 13, 2003 – Colorado State 74, Wyoming 71

"Forty for 40. It was the message Brian Greene delivered to his Colorado State University men's basketball teammates before Thursday's opener at the Mountain West Conference Tournament," wrote the Fort Collins Coloradoan's Jeff Bersch. "Greene wasn't ready to see his season end, to watch his career end on the same Thomas & Mack Center court where the past three seasons also have ended. Andy Birley also wasn't ready for it to be over just yet. Until Thursday, Greene and Birley had left the MWC Tournament every season after one game, each a loss. This time was different. The Rams put together a 40-minute game in a 74-71 victory over Border War rival Wyoming. The win was the first taste of postseason success for Greene and Birley, the only two seniors for the Rams."

March 14, 2003 – Colorado State 86, BYU 80 (OT)

"Michael Morris hit the second of his two 3-pointers with 1 minute, 37 seconds remaining in overtime to give the Rams a 76-73 lead," wrote the Fort Collins Coloradoan's Kelly Lyell. "And Shelton Johnson's defense pressure caused Travis Hansen, a senior and BYU's leading scorer, to miss 11 of his 18 shots, including his first five of the second half. Morris, a 6-foot-4 freshman guard/forward from Katy, Texas, finished with six points, five rebounds, five assists and a blocked shot."

March 15, 2003 – Colorado State 62, UNLV 61

"The Colorado State University men's basketball team traveled to Las Vegas for the Mountain West Conference and hit the jackpot," wrote the Fort Collins Coloradoan's Kelly Lyell. "Overcoming three of the conference's top four teams, the Rams secured their first berth in the NCAA Tournament in 13 years by stunning UNLV 62-61 in the championship game of the MWC Tournament on the Rebels' home court at the Thomas & Mack Center before 13,492 fans."

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Virginia

Year: 1976
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 4-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed/No. 17 NC State, No. 2 seed/No. 9 Maryland, No. 1 seed/No. 4 North Carolina

Back in the 1975-76 season, when the ACC was just seven teams (eight fewer than it has in men's basketball today), Virginia finished sixth in the conference. The Cavaliers went 4-8 in conference play while North Carolina finished in first by a four-game margin thanks to an 11-1 ACC record.

The Cavaliers entered the ACC tournament with a 15-11 record overall then they rattled off three wins in three days against the top three seeds in the tournament — teams that were all ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll. After the tournament run, Virginia itself became ranked, jumping from unranked to No. 13 in the AP poll.

This was just the third time that a time that wasn't from the state of North Carolina won the ACC tournament.

Here's a game-by-game breakdown of Virginia's 1976 ACC tournament run.

March 4, 1976 – Virginia 75, NC State 63

"Hot shooting early in the game by Wally Walker and Marc Iavaroni enabled Virginia to withstand a late rally by State," reported the AP. "Virginia, which had lost seven consecutive tournament games to State, rolled to an early 34-12 lead as Walker scored 12 points and Iavaroni nine. But the Wolfpack, which had won two of the last three championships, rallied behind Kenny Carr in the second half and pulled within 62-56 with a little over five minutes remaining. But Virginia, which has never won the tournament title and plays Maryland in Friday's semifinals, staved off a threat and won going away."

March 5, 1976 – Virginia 73, Maryland 65

"Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell praised Virginia as being 'better prepared to play mentally, physically and emotionally,'" reported the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia. "Slowly but surely, Virginia fattened the lead to eight and then fell off until it was 62-59. That signalled [sic] the start of the Stokes Show. Wally Walker, who missed making the first-team All-ACC and has been playing like a man with a mission, once again led all scorers with 27 points, while (Billy) Langloh had 20. (Robert) Stokes finished with nine."

March 6, 1976 – Virginia 67, North Carolina 62

"Virginia's third straight upset of a nationally ranked team in the Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball Tournament stunned everyone in Capital Center except the Cavaliers' players and coaches," write The Danville (Va.) Register's Dwight Rayfield. "Guard Billy Langloh who broke a tie with two free throws and passed to Otis Fulton for an easy layup for the deciding points said, 'We knew we could win when we came here.' Senior Wally Walker, the most composed of the Virginia players following their 67-62 win for the school's first ACC championship, wasn't completely sure his team had progressed to the point it could upset third ranked North Carolina."

Schools two games below .500

Austin Peay

Year: 2016
Tournament seed: No. 8 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 5 seed Tennessee Tech, No. 4 seed Tennessee State, No. 1 seed Belmont, No. 2 seed UT-Martin
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

Austin Peay started the 2015-16 season 0-4 and five times during the season the Governors climbed within one win of .500. Ultimately, they got there, then entered the 2016 NCAA tournament at one win over .500 after winning the OVC tournament as the No. 8 seed.

March 2, 2016 – Austin Peay 92, Tennessee Tech 72

March 3, 2016 – Austin Peay 74, Tennessee State 72

March 4, 2016 – Austin Peay 97, Belmont 96 (OT)

March 5, 2016 – Austin Peay 83, UT-Martin 73

Coppin State

Year: 2008
Tournament seed: No. 7 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 10 seed Howard, No. 2 seed Hampton, No. 3 seed Norfolk State, No. 1 seed Morgan State
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

Syracuse

Year: 2006
Tournament seed: No. 9 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 8 seed Cincinnati, No. 1 seed/No. 1 UConn, No. 5 seed/No. 23 Georgetown, No. 6 seed/No. 15 Pittsburgh
NCAA tournament seed: No. 5 seed

Syracuse's 2006 Big East tournament title was won by the slimmest of margins. The Orange won four games in four days by a combined eight points — a one-point win, a two-point win in overtime, a one-point win and a four-point win. From Jan. 16 until the end of the regular season, Syracuse went just 4-9 after their 12-game winning streak ended.

But the Orange found its groove inside Madison Square Garden. Here's how Syracuse won the Big East tournament:

March 8, 2006 – Syracuse 74, Cincinnati 73

"Gerry McNamara has attempted 1,642 field goals in his storied, four-year career at Syracuse, including a shooting exhibition in the 2003 NCAA championship game that stretched the dreams of driveway H-O-R-S-E players everywhere," wrote the Daily News' Rich Cimini. "Of all those shots, the biggest may have been No. 1,642. 'Under the circumstances,' McNamara said yesterday at the Garden, 'this is the most important shot that I've hit.' Tough to argue with him. With time running out in a two-point game, and with Syracuse's NCAA Tournament hopes riding on the outcome, McNamara made a running, just-beyond-the-arc three-pointer with 0.5 seconds on the clock, lifting the Orange to a 74-73 victory over Cincinnati in the opening round of the Big East Tournament."

March 9, 2006 – Syracuse 86, UConn 84 (OT)

"The Orange, who lost twice to Connecticut during the season, led 39-28 at halftime and a three by McNamara extended the lead to 49-35 with 16:43 to go," reported the AP. "The Huskies, who trailed 10-0 just 2:30 into the game, started chipping away and were within 62-56 with 7:24 to play. McNamara hit a three to restore the lead to nine points, but Connecticut tied the game with a 9-0 run capped by four free throws by Hilton Armstrong. Rashad Anderson's three-pointer with 32 seconds left in regulation gave Connecticut the lead for the first time, 72-71. Josh Wright missed a shot with 12 seconds left — McNamara could be heard complaining he didn't touch the ball on the possession — and Denham Brown made two free throws with 11 seconds left to make it 74-71 .. Syracuse took the lead for good at 79-78 on Darryl Watkins' three-point play with 3:20 to go."

March 10, 2006 – Syracuse 58, Georgetown 57

"McNamara scored 15 of his game-high 17 points in the second half in helping the Orange overcome a 15-point halftime deficit, the largest in Big East Tournament history," reported the AP. "The Hoyas (21-9) built their lead thanks to a barrage of first-half three-pointers, draining seven of 13 en route to a 36-21 halftime advantage. But Georgetown missed all seven of its attempts from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes, while McNamara made five of his eight three-point attempts, including three on consecutive possessions inside a 17-5 run that pulled the Orange even with 7:20 left."

March 11, 2006 – Syracuse 65, Pittsburgh 61

"Syracuse won the Big East championship. It was Gerry McNamara's tournament," wrote the AP's Jim O'Connell. "The Orange repeated as conference champions by beating No. 15 Pittsburgh 65-61 on Saturday night. It was the first time in their record four victories they didn't need late-game heroics from the senior guard. It was sophomore Josh Wright who clinched the title win, making four free throws in the final 17 seconds. But it was still McNamara's tournament."

Maryland

Year: 2004
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed/No. 15 Wake Forest, No. 2 seed/No. 17 NC State, No. 1 seed/No. 5 Duke
NCAA tournament seed: No. 4 seed

Two years after the Terrapins won the national championship, Maryland rolled through the ACC tournament in impressive fashion, beating the top three seeds in succession, each of whom was ranked in the top 20 of the AP poll. Here's how the Terps won the conference tournament in 2004:

March 12, 2004 – Maryland 87, Wake Forest 86

"He spent much of the first half seated on the bench in foul trouble, but Maryland sophomore point guard John Gilchrist never lost his rhythm last night," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Gary Lambrecht. "Gilchrist completed another clutch performance by making a free throw with 3.7 seconds left to lift the sixth-seeded Maryland Terrapins to an 87-86 victory over third-seeded Wake Forest in an Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinal at Greensboro Coliseum."

March 13, 2004 – Maryland 85, NC State 82

"The Wolfpack led by as many as 21 points in the first half behind (Ilian) Evtimov, who was 5-for-5 — including four 3-pointers — as they took a 45-26 lead into the break," reported the AP. "But Maryland opened the second half by pressing N.C. State and the change in defense confused the Wolfpack. The Terrapins scored the first seven points to get N.C. State's attention, and they were just warming up. Behind Gilchrist's hot hand, Maryland made 11 of 15 shots and tied the game at 53 on Travis Garrison's basket with 12:50 to play. Suddenly, everything that had gone so right for the Wolfpack in the first half stopped working. Evtimov began missing his shots and, after shooting 62 percent as a team in the first half, so did everyone else."

March 14, 2004 – Maryland 95, Duke 87 (OT)

"The only thing missing from a magical weekend of basketball for the University of Maryland was a win over North Carolina," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Paul McMullen. "Coach Gary Williams and his young but gutty Terps cut down three-fourths of the college basketball world that is known as Tobacco Road, as Maryland completed a most-improbable championship at the 51st Atlantic Coast Conference tournament yesterday with a 95-87 overtime victory over Duke. It was Maryland's first ACC tournament title in 20 years and the third in school history."

Iowa

Year: 2001
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 11 seed Northwestern, No. 3 seed/No. 24 Ohio State, No. 7 seed Penn State, No. 4 seed Indiana
NCAA tournament seed: No. 7 seed

In Steve Alford's first year at Iowa, the Hawkeyes went 14-16. The next year they were Big Ten tournament champions, thanks to a four-day run through the tournament.

March 8, 2001 – Iowa 72, Northwestern 55

"Iowa, a team that had been under 40 percent from the field in six of its previous nine games, shot a season-high 57.1 percent Thursday," reported The Des Moines Register. "The Hawkeyes' front line of (Reggie) Evans, (Glen) Worley and (Duez) Henderson were a collective 19 of 26 from the field against the undersized Wildcats. 'We wanted to attack the paint,' (coach Steve) Alford said. The victory was redemption of sorts for Iowa's humbling 69-61 loss at Northwestern Feb. 10, which let the Wildcats snap their 32-game regular-season Big Ten losing streak."

March 9, 2001 – Iowa 75, Ohio State 66

"Iowa seized the momentum by outscoring the Buckeyes 22-11 to begin the second half," reported the Iowa City Press-Citizen. "The Hawkeyes pulled even for the first time since early the game when senior point guard Dean Oliver hit a 3-pointer, which made the score 44-44 with just under nine minutes to play. Oliver played the entire game and finished with 16 points and six assists. Junior forward Reggie Evans made a basket and a free throw to give Iowa a 53-47 lead with 5:22 remaining."

March 10, 2001 – Iowa 94, Penn State 74

"Penn State lost its passion for the game about the time Reggie Evans strolled onto the United Center court Saturday with an ornery look in his eye," wrote the Quad-City Times' Steve Batterson. "And, as the Nittany Lions soon found out, the Iowa center and his teammates meant business. The 6-foot-8 junior scored a career-high 30 points and equaled a career-best effort with 18 rebounds to power Iowa to a 94-74 victory in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. 'He did what he wanted out there today. He was the aggressor,' Penn State center Gyasi Cline-Heard said."

March 11, 2001 – Iowa 63, Indiana 61

"Reggie Evans, the tournament's most outstanding player, helped preserve the victory in the final seconds with a block of Kirk Haston's three-pointer from the top of the key," reported The Des Moines Register. "A team that needed four weeks to win four games at the end of the regular season won four in as many days and won the title as the sixth seed. 'What these kids have done is truly remarkable and amazing,' said Iowa Coach Steve Alford, a net draped around his neck and the game ball at his side."

Arkansas

Year: 2000
Tournament seed: No. 3 seed in the West Division
Regular season conference record: 7-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 6 seed in the East Georgia, No. 2 seed in the East/No. 16 Kentucky, No. 1 seed in the West/No. 10 LSU, No. 2 seed in the West Auburn
NCAA tournament seed: No. 11 seed

During SEC play in the regular season, Arkansas won consecutive games just once, while it had three different losing streaks in conference play. The Razorbacks' last six games of the regular season were against ranked opponents and Arkansas went 2-4 in that stretch, which sealed the team's fate of finishing below .500 in conference play. With a 7-9 SEC record, Arkansas finished behind LSU (12-4) and Auburn (9-7) in the SEC West, but ahead of Alabama (6-10), Mississippi State (5-11) and Ole Miss (5-11).

Here's how Arkansas won the 2000 SEC tournament.

March 9, 2000 – Arkansas 71, Georgia 64

"Freshman Alonzo Lane scored a career-high 23 points and Arkansas shut down Georgia in the second half for a 71-64 victory in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament Thursday night," reported the AP. "The Razorbacks (16-14) advanced to meet No. 16 Kentucky in the quarterfinals Friday night, hoping to reach the semifinals for the eighth time in nine years. Kentucky, however was one of four teams to share the regular-season title."

March 10, 2000 – Arkansas, 86, Kentucky 72

"It wasn't Arkansas' traditional '40 minutes of hell,' but it sure felt like it to Kentucky," reported the AP. "Joe Johnson scored 21 points and Arkansas pulled off the third major upset of the Southeastern Conference tournament with a wire-to-wire 86-72 victory over No. 16 Kentucky on Friday night. The Razorbacks, the third seed in the West, eliminated one of the four teams that shared the regular season title. Two others, No. 8 Tennessee and No. 11 Florida, also lost in Friday's quarterfinals. Only No. 10 LSU is still alive."

March 11, 2000 – Arkansas 69, LSU 67

"And then there were none. Arkansas knocked off the last of four teams that shared the Southeastern Conference regular-season title, upsetting No. 10 LSU 69-67 in the semifinals of the league tournament Saturday," reported the AP. "Joe Johnson scored 21 points and Louisiana native Brandon Dean added a career-high 20, including a key basket with 22.6 seconds remaining."

March 12, 2000 – Arkansas 75, Auburn 67

"Arkansas didn't want to be remembered for a mediocre regular season. Not to worry. Playing their fourth game in four days, the Razorbacks earned an improbable trip to the NCAA tournament by beating Auburn 75-67 Sunday, winning the Southeastern Conference tournament and the league's automatic bid," reported the AP. "Brandon Dean scored 22 points and Arkansas closed the game with a 14-5 spurt, making the Tigers seem to be the tired team when it should have been the other way around."

Winthrop

Year: 1988
Tournament seed: No. 4 seed
Regular season conference record: 5-7
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 5 seed UNC Asheville, No. 1 seed Coastal Carolina, No. 3 seed Radford

In just Winthrop's second season as a Division I men's basketball program, the Eagles won the Big South tournament. They had gone 8-20 in the previous season, then went 5-7 in the Big South during the 1987-88 campaign, earning the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament.

March 3, 1988 – Winthrop 63, UNC Asheville 58

March 4, 1988 – Winthrop 75, Coastal Carolina 40

March 5, 1988 – Winthrop 71, Radford 56

"But despite the limited playing time, (Lenwood) Harris has had a big impact on Winthrop's late-season success that ended with Saturday night's 71-56 Big South Conference championship win over Radford at the Winthrop Coliseum," reported The Charlotte Observer. "'Lenwood has adjusted well to his new role, and I know it hasn't been easy,' Winthrop coach Steve Vacendak said."

NC State

Year: 1987
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 6-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed/No. 14 Duke, No. 7 seed Wake Forest, No. 1 seed/No. 2 North Carolina
NCAA tournament seed: No. 11 seed

NC State started the season ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP poll and the Wolfpack climbed to No. 11 but a six-game losing streak in January and February knocked them out of the poll for the rest of the year. They went 2-10 in the span of a month in the heart of conference play.

But NC State turned things around by winning its last three regular season games and the Wolfpack won three more in the ACC tournament — needing a total of three overtime periods to become the conference tournament champion.

March 6, 1987 – NC State 71, Duke 64 (OT)

"When the game ended, when with three seconds left he knew his team had won, N.C. State coach Jim Valvano stuck both hands in the air in a victory V. Behind him, a fan waved a red and white N.C. State flag. The Wolfpack was alive," wrote The Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorensen. "N.C. State had just upset Duke 71-64 in the first round of the ACC basketball tournament. The Wolfpack needed an overtime period to do it, but they did it and that was what counted. Now they could talk about receiving an NCAA tournament bid."

March 7, 1987 – NC State 77, Wake Forest 73 (2OT)

"The team on a mission to make the NCAA tournament survived another test of will, endurance and desire Saturday," wrote The Charlotte Observer's Kevin Quirk. "N.C. State's Wolfpack labored through two overtimes to outlast Tyrone Bogues and his band of Wake Forest bandits 77-73 in the ACC basketball tournament semifinals. The sixth-seeded Wolfpack (19-14) moves into today's 1 p.m. championship game against North Carolina tired, drained but somewhat confident. Maybe not about its chances of upsetting the Tar Heels, but at least of getting into the NCAA tournament."

March 8, 1987 – NC State 68, North Carolina 67

"Unranked North Carolina State, which had lost 10 of 12 games during one stretch of the season, completed its miraculous turnaround here Sunday," wrote the Asheville Citizen-Times' Doug Mead. "Tournament MVP Vinny Del Negro hit a pair of foul shots with 14 seconds on the clock and the Wolfpack held on to defeat second-ranked North Carolina 68-67 and win the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament before a sellout crowd of 19,277 at the Capital Centre."

Auburn

Year: 1985
Tournament seed: No. 8 seed
Regular season conference record: 8-10
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 9 seed Ole Miss, No. 1 seed/No. 19 LSU, No. 5 seed Florida, No. 3 seed Alabama
NCAA tournament seed: No. 11 seed

Auburn made a Sweet 16 run in the 1985 NCAA tournament, which included wins over No. 6 seed Purdue and No. 3 seed Kansas, but it may have never happened without the Tigers' surprise SEC tournament title. Auburn had lost four of its last six regular-season games, including three in a row, as the Tigers finished tied for seventh in the 10-team SEC and earned the No. 8 seed in the conference tournament.

March 6, 1985 – Auburn 68, Ole Miss 60

"Auburn's finish — the Tigers are now 17-11 — provides an ironic twist to (Sonny) Smith's seventh and final season with Auburn," reported The Anniston Star. "Since he announced eight games ago he would resign at season's end, the Tigers have played themselves in a position to delay his self-imposed exile. And it doing so, Auburn has put together three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 17 years."

March 7, 1985 – Auburn 58, LSU 55

"Inspired Auburn, surviving a six-minute drought in the second half, hit six consecutive free throws in the last two minutes to shock Louisiana State 58-55 in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament here Thursday night," reported The Montgomery Advertiser. "With Auburn unable to buy a basket, LSU turned a six-point deficit into a four-point lead with 8:22 left. But a Jeff Moore putback and a Chris Morris breakaway dunk tied it at 49-49. Chuck Person's two-footer put Auburn up 52-51 with 4:48 left. The Tigers never trailed again as the partisan Auburn crowd of 14,000 in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum roared its approval."

March 8, 1985 – Auburn 43, Florida 42

"Move over football, and welcome to the 'Basketball Capital of the South,'" wrote The Anniston Star's Charles Goldberg. "The dream matchup in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game for area basketball fans materialized here Friday night when Auburn nipped Florida 43-42 and Alabama dropped Georgia 74-53 in the semifinal tournament action. That sets the stage for the third meeting of the year for the two arch-rivals. Alabama won the first two meetings."

March 9, 1985 – Auburn 53, Alabama 49

"Auburn's victory, which few except perhaps (Sonny) Smith and his team believed was possible because of the fatigue factor of playing four games in four days, improved the Tigers' record to 20-11, the second straight year Auburn has attained 20 wins," reported The Montgomery Advertiser. "The victory also assured the Tigers of their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance."

Syracuse

Year: 1981
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 6-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed St. John's, No. 2 seed Georgetown, No. 4 seed Villanova

Syracuse finished sixth in the eight-team Big East in 1981 but the Orange beat three of the top four seeds in succession in the conference tournament.

March 5, 1981 – Syracuse 71, St. John's 66

"Syracuse won, 71-66, though trailing going into the final five minutes — after which its only two field goals would be by low-presser (Sean) Kerins," wrote the Press and Sun-Bulletin's John Fox. "Eddie Moss, passing up what looked like an open lane to the basket himself, flicked off a point-blank assist which Kerins cashed as a conned McKoy pawed toward Moss. Then, with Syracuse's margin an insecure 4 at 0:24, Kerins climbed the glass to convert a textbook lob pass from Leo Rautins."

March 6, 1981 – Syracuse 67, Georgetown 53

"Leo Rautins and Tony Bruin combined for 37 points Friday night as Syracuse University defeated Georgetown 67-53 to move into the finals of the Big East Conference basketball tournament," reported the AP. "The victory put Syracuse in the championship game today against Villanova, which stopped Providence 58-49 in overtime in the other semifinal game. Syracuse jumped off to a quick 14-4 lead after only 4:30 of play."

March 7, 1981 – Syracuse 83, Villanova 80 (3OT)

"Leo Rautins, who spent part of the season in the doghouse of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, tipped in a rebound with three seconds left in the third overtime yesterday as the Orange edged Villanova 83-80 in the Big East Conference basketball championship," reported the Press and Sun-Bulletin. "The Big East tourney doesn't yet carry an automatic NCAA invitation and whether the Orange's 18-11 mark earns a bid will be learned this afternoon."

Ole Miss

Year: 1981
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 8-10
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed/No. 10 Tennessee, No. 7 seed Vanderbilt, No. 5 seed Georgia

Ole Miss lost its first SEC game of the season and five of its first six. Ultimately, the Rebels finished the regular season with a 12-13 record overall and an 8-10 conference record. But for the first time since Ole Miss' first three games of the season, the Rebels rattled off three wins in three days to win the SEC tournament.

March 5, 1981 – Ole Miss 81, Tennessee 71

"The Tennessee Volunteers must be thinking that the devil wears red and blue, stands 6-feet tall, answers to the name of Cecil [Dowell] and can always be found lurking around the court during the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament," wrote the Clarion-Ledger's Jerry Potter. "The proverbial devil jumped out at the Vols for the second time in as many years here Thursday afternoon, and consequently, Tennessee is headed home after an 81-71 loss to Ole Miss before 10,072 mostly Big Orange fans in Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center."

March 6, 1981 – Ole Miss 71, Vanderbilt 51

"Elston Turner scored nine of his game-high 22 points during the first five minutes of the second half when Mississippi extended a two-point lead to 17 and went on to rout Vanderbilt 71-51 in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Basketball tournament Friday night," reported the AP. "The victory moved the Rebels into Saturday night's championship game against the winner of the game between third-ranked Louisiana State and Georgia. Turner, an All-SEC star held to only four points in the first half, ignited the second half eruption with an 18-footer nine seconds into the period."

March 7, 1981 – Ole Miss 66, Georgia 62

"Ole Miss, a team headed for nowhere but Birmingham when it left Oxford Wednesday afternoon, is now headed for the NCAA basketball tournament," wrote the Clarion-Ledger's Jerry Potter. "The Rebels earned a berth here Saturday night with a pulsating 66-62 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. It would be somewhat inappropriate to say the victory was unexpected because this week the Rebels have made the unexpected the expected. They've won three straight games to push their record to 16-13 after coming here as a .500 ball club."

Other surprise conference tournament champions

Xavier

Year: 2006
Tournament seed: No. 10 seed
Regular season conference record: 8-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 7 seed UMass, No. 2 seed Charlotte, No. 6 seed Fordham, No. 5 seed Saint Joseph's
NCAA tournament seed: No. 14 seed

You'll be hard-pressed to find many men's basketball conference tournament champions with a worse tournament seed than Xavier in 2006, when the Musketeers finished in a four-way tie for seventh place at 8-8 in conference play. Based on the tiebreakers, Xavier was seeded fourth among the four teams that were tied with the same regular-season record, so the Musketeers were seeded No. 10.

After winning eight conference games in roughly two months, Xavier won four conference games in four days to earn the A-10's auto-bid.

Remarkably, three of Xavier's four wins in the conference tournament came against conference opponents that went 9-7 or 8-8 in the A-10. Top-seeded George Washington, which was ranked No. 6 in the AP poll after going 16-0 in conference play, was upset by No. 9 seed Temple in the quarterfinals and Fordham, which Xavier defeated in the semifinals, knocked off No. 3 seed La Salle.

March 8, 2006 – Xavier 75, UMass 66

"Stanley Burrell scored 22 points Wednesday, leading a long-range shooting attack that carried the Xavier University basketball team to a 75-66 victory over Massachusetts in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament," reported the AP. "Xavier (18-10) went 10-of-18 from behind the arc, scoring easily over the conference's stingiest 3-point defense. Burrell led the way, going 3-of-5 from behind the arc in a balanced offense that featured five players in double figures."

March 9, 2006 – Xavier 59, Charlotte 55

"Conference basketball tournaments assume a weird momentum all their own. Your team can play like a charity case for a month, then hit the lottery for three or four days," wrote The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty. "When Xavier started playing in the Atlantic 10 tournament Wednesday, the Musketeers were a sign and a cardboard box. Now, they're two wins from resurrecting their season. Stranger things have happened."

March 10, 2006 – Xavier 70, Fordham 59

"Overall, only nine other teams have won four games in four days to get tournament titles. No school has done it twice," reported The Journal News in Hamilton, Ohio. "Against the odds, this one has a chance. Xavier also seemed to be down and out in February, when (Justin) Doellman broke two bones in his shooting hand and leading scorer Brian Thornton was lost for the season to a broken ankle. ... The Musketeers have taken turns leading the turnaround. Josh Duncan scored a career-high 20 points Friday night against Fordham (16-16), which set its defense to stop guard Stanley Burrell."

March 11, 2006 – Xavier 62, Saint Joseph's 61

"Xavier (21-10), a week ago on the brink of missing the postseason altogether for a second straight season, is going to the NCAA Tournament after earning the A-10's automatic berth in front of 9,373 rowdy fans," reported The Cincinnati Enquirer's Dustin Dow. "Justin Doellman, a freshman two seasons ago when Xavier also won four games in four days to win the A-10 Tournament, played the hero's role. He made two free throws with 5.1 seconds left to give Xavier the one-point lead."

Michigan

Year: 2017
Tournament seed: No. 8 seed
Regular season conference record: 10-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 9 seed Illinois, No. 1 seed/No. 15 Purdue, No. 4 seed Minnesota, No. 2 seed/No. 25 Wisconsin
NCAA tournament seed: No. 7 seed

While Michigan's 10-8 conference record during the 2016-17 season isn't in the same category as other teams on this list, the Wolverines were still the No. 8 seed because — like Xavier in 2006 — Michigan finished in a four-way tie. Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern also finished with a 10-8 conference record and based on the tiebreakers, Michigan was seeded last among that bunch. That forced them to play on Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten tournament against fellow 10-8 conference finisher Illinois.

For reasons we'll outline below, there was uncertainty as to whether Michigan would make it to the Big Ten tournament on time.

March 9, 2017 – Michigan 75, Illinois 55

"The Michigan basketball team woke up early to make it to the Big Ten tournament on Thursday," wrote the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder. "Now, the Wolverines plan to stay. Taking a morning flight to D.C. after enduring a plane crash Wednesday, the No. 8-seeded Wolverines had the same aggressiveness from the past five weeks and pounded No. 9 Illinois, 75-55, at the Verizon Center. Derrick Walton Jr. scored 19 points, which included a few late three-pointers, and the Wolverines (21-11) never trailed. 'What these guys have been through the last 24 hours has been incredible,' said U-M coach John Beilein, who became the Wolverines' all-time winningest coach with the victory."

March 10, 2017 – Michigan 74, Purdue 70 (OT)

"The players say they have returned to normal, the everything has settled down, but coach John Beilein is still dealing with it," reported the Detroit Free Press. "'You have to know my whole life, but adversity does not bother me,' Beilein said. 'It does not bother me at all ... This one is not rolling off me yet. As I read more accounts, that you are going that fast. This is not a toboggan ride. We were going so fast...' For Beilein, the basketball court has turned into a place of solace, where he can forget what happened on that airplane. Which brings us back to (D.J.) Wilson. He played outstanding Friday, scoring 26 points, grabbing eight rebounds and recording three blocks in 36 minutes."

March 11, 2017 – Michigan 84, Minnesota 77

"Putting the eighth-seeded Wolverines on his senior shoulders Saturday afternoon, Walton brought them to the brink of that reality, with the second straight tournament upset, knocking off No. 4 seed Minnesota, 84-77, at the Verizon Center," reported the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder. "He dished early, with five assists in just over the first 5 minutes, and then closed late, dropping 19 of his career-high 29 in the second half, pushing Michigan into Sunday's Big Ten title game against No. 2 seed Wisconsin."

March 12, 2017 – Michigan 71, Wisconsin 56

"This game was a living highlight reel," reported the Detroit Free Press. "There was D.J. Wilson, grabbing a pass and hopping straight up for a dunk, like he walks around with a trampoline under his shoes. There was (Derrick) Walton assisting Zak Irvin for a basket. These two have been roommates for four years, and they play like there's a telepathy between them. 'It was a great feeling, just knowing all the hard work we put in through the whole season,' Irvin said."

Schools that went .500 in conference play

Bradley

Year: 2019
Tournament seed: No. 5 seed
Regular season conference record: 9-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 4 seed Missouri State, No. 1 seed Loyola Chicago, No. 6 seed Northern Iowa 54
NCAA tournament seed: No. 15 seed

Iowa State

Year: 2019
Tournament seed: No. 5 seed
Regular season conference record: 9-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 4 seed Baylor, No. 1 seed Kansas State, No. 3 seed Kansas
NCAA tournament seed: No. 6 seed

Hampton

Year: 2015
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 8-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 11 seed Morgan State, No. 3 seed Maryland Eastern Shore, No. 2 seed Norfolk State, No. 5 seed Delaware State
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

North Carolina A&T

Year: 2013
Tournament seed: No. 7 seed
Regular season conference record: 8-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 10 seed Florida A&M, No. 2 seed North Carolina Central, No. 6 seed Delaware State, No. 5 seed Morgan State
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

UConn

Year: 2011
Tournament seed: No. 9 seed
Regular season conference record: 9-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 16 seed DePaul, No. 8 seed/No. 22 Georgetown, No. 1 seed/No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 4 seed/No. 11 Syracuse, No. 3 seed/No. 14 Louisville
NCAA tournament seed: No. 3 seed

USC

Year: 2009
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 9-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed California, No. 2 seed/No. 15 UCLA, No. 4 seed/No. 23 Arizona State
NCAA tournament seed: No. 10 seed

UNC Asheville

Year: 2003
Tournament seed: No. 5 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-7
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 4 seed Elon, No. 1 seed Winthrop, No. 7 seed Radford
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

San Diego State

Year: 2002
Tournament seed: No. 5 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-7
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 4 seed BYU, No. 1 seed Wyoming, No. 3 seed UNLV
NCAA tournament seed: No. 13 seed

Mount St. Mary's

Year: 1999
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 10-10
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed Robert Morris, No. 2 seed St. Francis, No. 4 seed Central Connecticut
NCAA tournament seed: No. 16 seed

Charleston Southern

Year: 1997
Tournament seed: No. 4 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-7
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 5 seed Coastal Carolina, No. 1 seed UNC Asheville, No. 2 seed Liberty
NCAA tournament seed: No. 15 seed

Georgia Tech

Year: 1993
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 8-8
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed/No. 8 Duke, No. 7 seed Clemson, No. 1 seed/No. 1 North Carolina
NCAA tournament seed: No. 4 seed

West Virginia

Year: 1984
Tournament seed: No. 5 seed
Regular season conference record: 9-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 4 seed Rutgers, No. 1 seed/No. 15 Temple, No. 7 seed St. Bonaventure
NCAA tournament seed: No. 11 seed

Georgia

Year: 1983
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 9-9
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed Ole Miss, No. 7 seed Tennessee, No. 9 seed Alabama
NCAA tournament seed: No. 4 seed

Duke

Year: 1980
Tournament seed: No. 6 seed
Regular season conference record: 7-7
Tournament opponents beaten: No. 3 seed/No. 19 NC State, No. 2 seed/No. 10 North Carolina, No. 1 seed/No. 7 Maryland
NCAA tournament seed: No. 4 seed

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