March is a time for hope.
Some teams may not have a shot at making the NCAA tournament if they don’t win their conference tournament. They’re the lower-seeded side in a matchup with a team that sports a higher seed and could make the NCAA tournament anyway, even with a loss. History isn’t on their side.
But March is a time for hope.
Hope the progress your team has made over the course of the year pays dividends in a win-or-go-home setting. Hope those lucky one or two bounces benefit you instead of your opponent. Because the margin of error tightens with every successive round.
Three schools, one each from the Big Sky Conference, Colonial Athletic Association and Mid-American Conference, fit this bill. They aren’t favored to win their conference tournaments. Many may have already dismissed their chances. But here’s why they could prove doubters wrong.
Eastern Washington, Big Sky
Eastern Washington doesn’t jump off the page right now with its 13-19 record. It certainly didn’t three games ago when it started its conference tournament as a No. 6 seed with just 10 wins on the season. But then the Eagles handled their business against No. 11-seed Weber State, pulled off an overtime upset of No. 3-seed Idaho State and shocked No. 2-seed Northern Colorado.
EWU had split its season series with Weber State and Northern Colorado and been blown out twice by Idaho State before the Big Sky tournament. It even entered postseason play on a three-game losing streak with losses against Idaho State and Weber State being the final two before tournament action began. The Eagles didn’t care.
And so two double-digit losses against its tournament final opponent, No. 4-seed Portland State, don’t appear as jarring to Eastern Washington’s chances. Violet Kapri Morrow and her 18.3 points per game are pushing the Eagles forward. They aren’t playing like a team that had a negative average scoring margin during the regular season. They’re playing like a squad that's a win away from making the NCAA tournament.
William & Mary, CAA
William & Mary (15-15) is only in the quarterfinals of its conference tournament. Three wins still separate it from a spot in the NCAA tournament. But when the No. 7-seed Tribe drubbed No. 10-seed Charleston to the tune of a 61-41 win, they didn’t just earn a matchup against No. 2-seed Drexel. They set up a third meeting with a team they beat in triple overtime on March 1. William & Mary split its season series against Drexel just as it split its season series against No. 3-seed UNC Wilmington, a possible opponent in the CAA semifinals.
The Tribe have suffered their fair share of bad losses this season, but they’ve also shown they have the potential to beat teams far more would favor to win the CAA tournament. And with No. 10-seed James Madison’s loss to No. 9-seed Hofstra, the Tribe should have no reason to doubt themselves against the top two seeds left. Especially if William & Mary’s leading scorer Bianca Boggs (17.1 points per game) drops 23 points again as she did against Charleston. The just have to continue to build on their success.
Buffalo (21-9) is lurking as a No. 4 seed. It beat Summit League champion South Dakota State earlier this season. It almost upset Stanford, losing in the end by just seven to the Pac-12 tournament champions. And now it's facing a No. 1-seed Central Michigan team Friday that has lost to twice this season but nearly beat in mid-February.
The Bulls dropped 95 points on CMU that day. Of course, they also allowed 100. But any team that can replicate that sort of offensive attack behind a player like Cierra Dillard, who averages 25.2 points per game for Buffalo, and also play solid defense will be tough to beat. It’s how Buffalo beat No. 5-seed Kent State in the MAC quarterfinals, 85-52. And it's why the Bulls have a plus-9.5 scoring margin on the year.