Last year 18 schools from the Mideast and Midwest Regions earned at-large invitations into the 2013 NCAA tournament. Here is a close look at the 15 conferences that make up the regions to see what teams this year have the inside track for automatic qualification or at-large bids for the 2014 championship.
For the third consecutive season it appears that the battle for the automatic bid from the Atlantic Sun will come from either Florida Gulf Coast (16-7/10-1) or Stetson (18-5/10-1). Florida Gulf Coast opened conference play with a 72-56 win against Stetson on Jan. 4, with the Hatters then reeling off 10 consecutive victories. A loss to Northern Kentucky is the only blemish for Florida Gulf Coast in conference play. The Eagles earned the conference’s automatic bid in 2012, while Stetson was a tournament qualifier in 2013. The two teams will close the regular season against each other on March 8, with the season finale at Stetson.
Behind 17 consecutive wins, Middle Tennessee (20-4/9-1) was looking unstoppable before Southern Mississippi rose up to stop the streak on Feb. 5. The Blue Raiders are fueled by senior forward Ebony Rowe, who ranks in the top 25 in four NCAA categories. She is third nationally with 19 double-doubles, 10th with 11.8 rebounds per game, 19th with 491 points and 24th with 21.3 points per contest. She holds nine school records, including the school's all-time scoring and rebounding marks. Looking for a 16th NCAA tournament appearance, Middle Tennessee is being pushed by East Carolina (20-3/9-2), UTEP (19-4/8-2) and Tulane (17-6/8-2).
One of the more entertaining conference tournaments looks like it will take place in the Mid-American as division leaders Bowling Green (20-3/10-1) and Central Michigan (15-8/11-0) appear to be on a collision course for the league’s automatic bid. Central Michigan won the first meeting between the two teams by an 82-79 count in overtime at home. Bowling Green’s season resume features wins against Ohio State and Michigan. Possessing a top 10 in the nation scoring offense, Central Michigan is fueled by the MAC’s second-best scorer, Crystal Bradford, who worked on her game this summer with USA Basketball’s gold medal winning team at the Summer University World Games in Russia and leads the Chippewas at 19.8 points per game. The two teams will have a possible tournament preview when they meet for a second time on Feb. 19 at Bowling Green.
With six previous NCAA tournament appearances, Hampton (20-4/11-0) appears poised for another March Madness ticket. The Lady Pirates have won 20 games for the fifth season in a row. Currently riding a 10-game winning streak, Hampton has posted 41 consecutive wins against Mid-Eastern foes (including conference tournament games) and 17 consecutive home MEAC games. Non-conference wins versus Virginia Tech, Kansas State, Southern Mississippi and Drexel have also helped to boost Hampton’s championship resume.
The host conference for the 2014 Women’s Final Four in Nashville, the Ohio Valley Conference has been paced by Tennessee-Martin (17-7/10-1) which is counting on a return to the NCAA tournament in 2014. Paced by the dynamic backcourt duo of Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome, the Skyhawks had a 10-game winning streak snapped last week in a loss to SIU-Edwardsville. Butler leads the OVC in scoring at 23.0 points per game, while Newsome averages 19.2 points. Conference tournament competition could come from Eastern Kentucky (13-8/7-3) who are the leaders in the OVC’s East Division.
With seven schools in last year’s NCAA tournament, the Southeastern Conference is no stranger to strong March Madness representation. This looks again to be the case with six schools ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll and several other schools in the conversation. South Carolina (22-2/10-1) has won six games in a row to move into the conference lead. Only conference setback for the Gamecocks came on the road at Texas A&M (18-6/8-2). Tennessee (20-4/9-2) has matched South Carolina with six consecutive wins and will close the regular season by hosting the Gamecocks on March 2 in Knoxville. The conference tournament will be one to watch as LSU (18-6/7-4), Kentucky (17-6/5-5), Vanderbilt (17-6/6-4), Georgia (16-7/4-6) and Florida (17-7/7-4) all have the potential to have a say in the matter.
Coaching legend Jim Foster has his Chattanooga (21-3/13-0) team on a roll. Inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame last summer, Foster has won at least 200 games at three different schools -- St. Joseph's, Vanderbilt and Ohio State duing his storied coaching career. Topping the 800-career win mark this season, Foster’s team at Chattanooga has won 16 consecutive games. The Mocs were tested in non-conference play, losing to Tennessee, Minnesota and Hawaii, while scoring wins against Alabama and Auburn of the SEC. Davidson (12-12/9-4) will be looking to upset the Chattanooga tournament plans.
With perennial conference favorite Middle Tennessee now competing in Conference USA, the Sun Belt is up for grabs. Winners of six of the past seven games have pushed Arkansas State into the conference lead with three weeks to play. The Red Wolves (16-8/10-2) have a slim lead against Texas State (10-11/7-3) and Georgia State (10-12/6-4), with Western Kentucky (15-8/7-5) lurking nearby. Arkansas State will host Texas State on Feb. 22 in a game that could go along way in deciding the No. 1 seed for the Sun Belt Tournament.
Behind the sterling play of senior guard Maggie Lucas, Penn State (18-5/9-2) has won 12 of the past 14 games to move into the Big Ten lead. The sharp-shooting Lucas is second in the Big Ten in scoring (21.0) and has 13 games with 20-or-more points on the year for the Lady Lions. She leads the nation in free-throw percentage (96.4 percentage) and is on pace to break the NCAA single-season record. Lucas is currently second at Penn State and fifth in Big Ten history in career scoring with 2,322 points. After battling injury woes for most of the season, Michigan State (16-8/8-3) has scored key conference wins as of late to move into second place behind Penn State. Purdue (17-7/7-5), which will have to play the rest of the season without guard K.K. Houser, earlier defeated Penn State and always seems to play its best basketball at Big Ten Tournament time. Iowa (19-6/7-4), Nebraska (17-5/7-3) and Michigan (15-9/6-5) all remain in the title conversation.
Race for the top spot in the Big 12 has narrowed to Baylor (21-3/11-1) and West Virginia (20-3/9-2). Life for the Lady Bears without Brittney Griner this season has been made more palpable behind the strong play of senior guard Odyssey Sims, who leads the nation with a scoring average of 30.2 points per game and has totaled 30 or more points in 11 games this season. Baylor as a team averages 87.2 points per game, No. 4 in the nation. West Virginia dropped its first meeting at home to Baylor 78-62 on Jan. 8, with hope for a better outcome in the rematch on March 2 in Waco. Oklahoma State (19-4/8-4) remains within striking distance of the two conference leaders, while Texas (17-7/8-4), Oklahoma (15-9/6-5) and Iowa State (16-7/5-7) will be building their respective cases for tournament consideration during the final weeks of the season.
Green Bay (14-7/7-2) started slowly, but has since regained the conference lead ahead of Wright State (17-7/6-3) by virtue of six consecutive wins. The Phoenix defeated Wright State at home on Jan. 25. A repeat when the two teams meet again on Feb. 27 could mean the conference championship for Green Bay. Wright State has resume building non-conference wins against NC State and James Madison. Other Horizon teams to watch down the stretch include Cleveland State (11-11/6-3) and Youngstown State (10-12/6-3).
A team quietly enjoying a stellar season is Wichita State (20-2/11-0) which has won 19 consective games and has dominated play in the Missouri Valley. The Shockers have now won 20 or more games for three consecutive seasons, marking the first time this has happened in school history. It’s been a fun basketball season in Wichita. Along with Wichita State’s women’s basketball success this season, the Shocker men’s basketball team is 12-0 in league play and a perfect 25-0 overall. No program in the history of the MVC (the first year women’s basketball was a sponsored sport in the league was 1992-93) has had both of its teams begin a league season 9-0. The combined record for Shocker basketball teams (45-2) is best in the nation.
Eight teams in the Southland have .500 or better conference records led by Central Arkansas (15-7/9-2). Lamar (13-9/8-3), Stephen F. Austin (13-9/7-4) and Nicholls State (12-10/7-4) are all in contention for the regular-season title which could come down to the March 1 game when Lamar travels to Central Arkansas.
Southern University (13-6/10-1) has the conference lead by benefit of a win against Texas Southern (12-9/9-1). Winners of 10 of the past 11 games, Southern defeated Texas Southern 70-68 in overtime on Jan. 8 in Houston. The Jaguars and Tigers will meet again on the final day of the regular season (March 8) in Baton Rouge with the conference regulatr-season title possibly hanging in the balance.
IUPUI (18-6/8-1) has won eight consecutive games and made it a two-team race with an important home win against South Dakota State (17-8/8-1) last weekend in Indianapolis. The two teams split the season series which leads one to look to the Summit tournament as the possible deciding matchup for the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.