Jacksonville State, Iona, and South Dakota State are not household names when it comes to college basketball, but they are part of the reason why the NCAA tournament is one of sports’ greatest events. All three teams won their season-ending conference tournament and earned an automatic berth in what has become known as March Madness, the three-week dash to crown a college basketball national champion. The NCAA gives automatic bids to the winners of 32 conference tournaments, and then selects the remaining 36 teams based on a multitude of criteria including marquee wins and strength of schedule.
So, what happens to all of those conference champions who play poorly over a two-, three-, or four-day stretch and are eliminated from their conference tournament? Well, if you’re North Carolina and lose to Duke in the ACC tourney – as the Tar Heels did recently – it’s not much of a problem. Head coach Roy Williams and the 27-7 Tar Heels are a lock for an at-large bid. But, what about Monmouth, the regular season champion of the MAAC? The Hawks ripped through the regular season winning 27 games just like North Carolina. Monmouth went 18-2 in conference play but lost to Sienna, which tied for third, by four points in the MAAC tournament. Iona (22-12, 12-8) went on to win the conference tournament and earn the automatic bid. Oh, and Monmouth beat Iona twice during the regular season….