One of my favorite things to watch over the next 10 days is whether the proverbial bubble shrinks or all of those borderline at-large teams get to let out a huge sigh of relief. The reason for this is the bid stealers. The thieves of an NCAA tournament bid usually come from smaller conferences where the top team or teams is already locked in. A major conference team can make a huge conference tournament run, but there are usually too many obstacles for them to truly steal a bid. So who are the teams that have the bubble teams on edge? Which conference tournaments should they be tuning into for a closer look?
1. Mountain West Tournament (Las Vegas) - March 7-10
Nevada is a lock for the NCAA tournament. The only thing that will hurt Nevada by not winning the Mountain West Tournament is their seeding. Beyond Nevada, no other team would be included in the Field of 68. While not as strong as it has been in recent memory, the Mountain West still supports some quality teams that can easily take home the tournament in a one-and-done scenario.
Boise State is a really good team without the quality wins to make it a serious at-large contender. They have played Nevada close this year and could get them the 3rd time around. San Diego State is never a team to overlook. They have won 5 games in a row and sport a victory over Gonzaga this year. They might be my favorite to steal this bid. Throw in Wyoming who already has defeated Nevada and the host UNLV team that also defeated the Wolfpack and you have a dangerous quad of teams that could send fans in Austin and Seattle into a panic.
2. Atlantic 10 Conference (Washington D.C.) - March 7-11
The A-10 is a little trickier. I am less confident that Rhode Island and Saint Bonaventure have locked up bids. The most likely result is that this is at most a 2 bid league, but there is an outside chance it becomes a 3-bid league. Davidson is the top contender to turn things up-side-down. Not a huge bid stealer risk here, but one to watch.
3. American Athletic Conference (Orlando, FL) - March 8-11
Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston are locks. There is a high likelihood that one of these 3 teams will take down the AAC Tournament Championship. It is not impossible though to think that another team could upset the apple cart and pull of a couple upsets that put them into the Big Dance and steal an at-large bid. Just keep an eye on Tulsa, UCF and Temple. Especially the 4 or 5 seed that would only have to beat Cincinnati and then the Championship Game as opposed to going through all 3.
4. West Coast Conference - (Las Vegas) in progress
Yesterday I spoke about Gonzaga's seeding dilemma and the weak resume of St. Mary's. What if both these teams are safe? It has been a long time since one of the favorites failed to win the West Coast Conference tournament, but it is not impossible to fathom that the door is a little more open to that this season. BYU would be the obvious bid stealing threat, but San Diego and San Francisco would have a fighters chance as well.
5. PAC-12 Conference (Las Vegas) - March 7-10
The one major conference that makes my list is the PAC-12. Maybe Alonzo Trier's return makes Arizona an overwhelming favorite. Outside of Arizona, this conference is wide open. With USC and Arizona State as shaky locks right now and Washington, UCLA and Utah as fringe bubble teams, a surprise winner of the PAC-12 tournament could solidify the conference with 4 bids. Oregon and Stanford probably should not be counted out either.
While there seems like very few bid stealing possibilities, just 1 or 2 will help the committee sort out a soft bubble.