- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Power conferences collect NCAA bids like kids collect Webkinz dolls, but mid-major leagues are defined by a single digit: the number of teams they send to the Big Dance. Regardless of how the participants actually do in the tournament, the number follows a conference around for an entire year -- either the haunting scarlet-letter one, or a two or three-tag that inevitably draws contentment, pride, and television contracts.
And while the two-month conference season is vitally important, November and December are crucial for building a case for league strength, for gaining the type of wins that will eventually differentiate between the "tough conferences" and the one-bid wonders. Let's check in on how the borderline BracketBusters conferences are shaking out in the early season. (Results are up to including Tuesday's games.)
Colonial (37-41 nonconference record, 1-12 vs. "Big Six" conferences)
After two-decades of one-bid life, the CAA earned two NCAA bids in 2006 (aka the "George Mason year"), and did so again in 2007 when Old Dominion's résumé proved too convincing. A key element in the 2007 CAA campaign was strength against the Big East (ODU's shock win over Georgetown, and Drexel's takedowns of Villanova and Syracuse). But like last year, the CAA's return to one-bid land, the big headline-grabbing nonconference wins simply haven't materialized. VCU will have a chance to make a mark on Dec. 20 against Oklahoma, but the league may have already played its way out of two-bid contention.
Horizon League (24-27, 3-6)
Butler, which owns three NCAA wins in two years but lost four starters from its 2008 Round of 32 squad, is at it again, starting out 7-0 and winning at home against the Big Ten's Northwestern. In last week's 50-49 victory over presumptive Horizon League favorite Cleveland State, no Bulldogs finished in double figures -- time will tell if that's "balanced scoring" or "anemic offense." The conference will have lots of opportunities for upsets this month, and is already 2-0 against the SEC (Loyola over Georgia, and UIC over Vanderbilt).
Mid-American (31-54, 0-16)
At this time last year, the MAC was establishing its toughness against the big boys -- Miami beat Illinois, Ohio topped Maryland. These wins helped underscore the hard-earned nature of Kent State's impressive double-championship, and helped vault the Golden Eagles to a No. 9 seed. But with new coaches, rebuilding projects, and impossible schedules dotting the landscape, the MAC has not been able to make an iota of impact. Unless that oh-fer against the Big Six disappears -- and fast -- this league will be a one-bid conference for the 10th consecutive year.
Missouri Valley (40-30, 3-10)
No league was as devastated by its one-bid status in 2008 than the Valley. The MVC prided itself on its decade of multi-bid strength, highlighted by a four-bid breakthrough in 2006, the "Year of the Mid-Major." A perfect storm of departed seniors, coaching turnover, and a magical Drake team ended the run. There have been a few big noncon wins, but none of the "wow" variety that marked previous years. Drake beat Iowa State in their home-state round-robin, and there were a couple of wins over upset-prone SEC teams by Northern Iowa (Auburn) and Missouri State (Arkansas). As December winds down, the Valley will have few chances to grab headlines, and as such may be on shaky ground again.
Sun Belt (42-46, 2-14)
Fans across the wide Belt that stretches from Colorado to Florida cheered when their conference earned two bids for the first time since 1995. And Western Kentucky, which got in the old-fashioned way while South Alabama earned the at-large, is putting together an impressive campaign for secondary consideration should it excel in conference season and fall short. Those two wins against Big Six competition listed above have both been earned by the Hilltoppers, against Louisville and Georgia. At this point, any SBC two-bid scenario runs through Bowling Green, Ky..
Western Athletic (27-26, 2-6)
This league was always good for at least two bids, and you could always put that down in pen. Since 1983, the conference has had two bids every season except for two: 2003, and last year. In 2007-08, overscheduling was the problem. This year, with a league-wide youth movement underway, the WAC decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Few teams are stepping up to the plate against top competition, and all the league has to show for the first month of the season is a one-point win over Iowa State by Hawaii and a Nevada victory over hapless Pac-10 member Oregon State. Don't expect the selection committee to be impressed.
West Coast (25-31, 4-8)
Let's end the suspense: barring a Biblical event, Gonzaga's going -- wins over Indiana and Oklahoma State will help the Zags' cause. San Diego's struggles and lack of quality wins (such as last year's win at Kentucky) narrow the three-bid window, and while Saint Mary's is working off the UTEP loss at the Anaheim Classic as if it were the Freshman 15, its win over Providence and mid-on-mid victories such as last week's BracketBuster return at Kent State bolster the Gaels' résumé heading into conference season next month. Two bids seems a safe bet.
Power conferences collect NCAA bids like kids collect Webkinz dolls, but mid-major leagues are defined by a single digit: the number of teams they send to the Big Dance.