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What conferences can steal a bid from an at-large team in the 2023 NCAA Tournament?

Not every conference can get multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament. For the ones that can, sometimes a team can come out of nowhere and win their way to March Madness.

When March Madness comes around, who is in the field of 68 is always the topic of conversation. While there are 32 conferences in Division I men’s college basketball, a majority of these leagues will only send one representative to the NCAA Tournament and will not be a threat to steal an at-large bid from another league.

For example, Charleston in the Colonial has had a truly impressive season with a 28-3 record. However, they are just 0-1 vs. Quad 1 opponents and have two losses in Quad 3 games as well. Another loss in the CAA Tournament will not be a Quad 1 either, so they’re likely on the outside looking unless they can win three games in Atlantic City. Southern Miss of the Sun Belt is in the same boat, as their 22-6 record is just 1-0 vs. Quad 1, and they are 2-4 vs. Quad 2 teams. If the Golden Eagles don’t cut down the nets in Pensacola and earn the league’s auto-bid, they will most likely be left out of the big dance.

With that said, there are 10 conferences where a team could rise up and steal a spot from an at-large team that would otherwise be in the NCAA Tournament. We’ll go over those leagues below.

Update March 7: The WCC saw No. 1 Saint Mary’s and No. 2 Gonzaga reach the final, so we are down to nine potential bid thieves.

Potential Bid Thief Conferences

Big 12
Big East
Big Ten
Conference USA
Mountain West

A good chunk of the NCAA Tournament will be comprised of members of the six “power” conferences in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and the SEC. Every year, there’s always a strong possibility in these leagues that a bubble team could make a run through the conference tournament and steal a bid by winning. For example, if a team like West Virginia were to unexpectedly win the Big 12 tourney and earn the league’s auto-bid to the NCAA’s, a favorite like Kansas would get bumped down to at-large status. With an extra Big 12 team going to the dance in this scenario, another league would lose an at-large spot. It’s a zero-sum game.

Beyond the power leagues, the AAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, and WCC all have a chance to steal bids for the tournament. Houston and Memphis are considered NCAA Tournament locks for the AAC regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. That means a usurper like Cincinnati or Tulane miraculously winning it would give the league an extra bid, which would be bad news for a bubble team in another league.

The same concept works for the WCC, where Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are in no matter what and a team like Santa Clara could steal itself a bid if they were to cut the nets down in Las Vegas. San Diego State, Nevada, and Boise State seem to be the surefire locks from the Mountain West but a feisty program like Utah State could very well be a bid-jacker come Selection Sunday.

The most interesting case for this is Conference USA, where Florida Atlantic has stood tall above everyone in the league this year and will enter next week’s conference tournament in Frisco, TX, as the favorite. The Owls have handled business in what has been an otherwise weak league and the metrics back them up. They are currently ranked 19th in NET rankings with a combined 5-3 record in Quad 1/2 games and they are ranked 30th nationally in KenPom. If FAU were to be ousted by someone like North Texas in the C-USA tourney, they could possibly still sneak into the NCAA’s as an at-large. Keep an eye on the Owls over the next two weeks.