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NCAA Tournament mid-major breakdown: Sun Belt, SWAC, WAC

Arkansas-Little Rock players celebrate on the court

Arkansas-Little Rock players celebrate on the court after a game against Texas State on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Little Rock, Ark. Little Rock won 73-68 to clinch the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title. Credit: AP / Stephen B. Thornton

As Selection Sunday approaches on March 13, the mid-major conferences in Division I men’s basketball start to gain attention.

Here’s a primer on three such conferences as conference tournament play begins for the Sun Belt, SWAC and Western Athletic Conference.

Sun Belt

Conference tournament: March 10-13, New Orleans

The Favorite: Arkansas Little-Rock

Record: 27-4, 17-3 Sun Belt

RPI: 48

Best wins: At San Diego State, at Tulsa, vs. Texas-Arlington (twice)

Worst loss: At Appalachian State

A potential at-large contender heading into the end of the regular season, UALR likely will now have to win its conference tournament to earn an NCAA bid after some upsets in other league tourneys have pushed other mid-majors such as Wichita State and Monmouth onto the bubble.

The Trojans largely rolled through the weak Sun Belt Conference this season. However, their biggest slip-up came at the worst possible time: On the last day of the regular season, they lost to Appalachian State, 69-63.

UALR’s biggest strength is its defense. The Trojans are surrendering only 59.8 points per game, third fewest in Division I.

If UALR can survive the conference tournament, it could be a dangerous 12 seed.

The contender: Texas-Arlington

Record: 22-9, 13-7 Sun Belt

RPI: 102

Best wins: At Ohio State, at Memphis

Worst loss: At South Alabama

The Mavericks made a ton of noise in non-conference play, beating Ohio State and Memphis on the road and pushing Texas to overtime. They couldn’t carry over that momentum into Sun Belt play, however, as a four-game losing streak at the end of January ended any realistic hopes of catching UALR.

That losing streak coincided with the loss of star sophomore forward Kevin Hervey for the season because of a torn ACL. Hervey was averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds.

Despite losing Hervey, Texas-Arlington continues to pull down more rebounds per game (44) than any other team in Division I.

Though the Mavericks were swept by UALR during the regular season, they would get a third crack at the Trojans if they made it to the conference championship game on Selection Sunday.

Dark horse: The second seed in the tournament, Louisiana-Monroe (19-12, 15-5 Sun Belt) enters on an absolute tear, having won nine in a row.

SWAC

Conference tournament: March 8-12, Houston

The favorite: Texas Southern

Record: 17-13, 16-2 SWAC

RPI: 185

Best wins: None against a team in the RPI top 200.

Worst loss: Vs. Howard (neutral site).

Texas Southern entered SWAC play 1-11 and without having played a home game.

Since then, the Tigers have dominated the SWAC, starting out 9-0 and then 15-1 in conference play. They learned a lot from a brutal non-conference slate that saw them hang tough in road losses to Creighton, Mississippi State, Syracuse and Baylor.

Texas Southern also has the advantage of possessing a coach with significant NCAA Tournament experience in Mike Davis. Davis made four appearances in the Big Dance with Indiana (including a trip to the national championship game in 2002), a fifth with UAB and two straight with Texas Southern heading into this weekend.

The contender: Southern

Record: 19-12, 11-7 SWAC

RPI: 217

Best wins: At Mississippi State, at Wyoming, vs. Texas Southern.

Worst loss: Vs. Prairie View A&M (twice).

The Jaguars picked up the conference’s marquee win on Nov. 16, when they stunned Mississippi State, 76-72, on the road. Guard Trelun Banks dropped 18 points that afternoon.

In SWAC play, however, the Jaguars struggled. They dropped four of their final five games to sink to the fourth seed.

If they win their quarterfinal game against Alabama State on Thursday, the Jaguars would be in position for a potential rubber match with Texas Southern in the semifinal.

Dark horse: Alcorn State (15-14, 13-5 SWAC) owns the second seed in the conference tournament but was swept by Texas Southern in the regular season.

WAC

Conference tournament: March 10-12, Las Vegas

The favorite: New Mexico State

Record: 22-9, 13-1 WAC

RPI: 114

Best wins: Vs. Grand Canyon, vs. Tennessee Tech, vs. Cal State Bakersfield (twice).

Worst loss: At Air Force.

The last holdover from the WAC before it was ravaged by football-driven conference realignment, New Mexico State has run over conference foes comprised largely of castoffs from other conferences and teams transitioning into Division I. As a result, the Aggies have qualified for the NCAA Tournament four straight times under Marvin Menzies.

Sophomore forward Pascal Siakam, a Cameroon native, leads the charge this season. He’s averaging 20.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. As a team, New Mexico State excels on the glass, pulling down 41.5 rpg, 10th in Division I.

Making life easier this year for the Aggies is the fact that second-place regular-season finisher Grand Canyon (RPI: 94) is ineligible to participate in the WAC and NCAA tournaments as it completes the transition to Division I.

The contender: Cal State Bakersfield

Record: 21-8, 11-3 WAC

RPI: 136

Best win: Vs. Grand Canyon.

Worst loss: At Idaho.

The Roadrunners have been New Mexico State’s most credible postseason-eligble competition. They enter the conference tournament having won seven of eight, albeit with the one loss coming on the road to the Aggies.

Senior forward Kevin Mays, who grew up in Queens, was named first-team All-WAC after posting averages of 12.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Having become a Division I program in 2010, Cal State Bakersfield is in search of its first NCAA Tournament bid.

Dark horse: Seattle (13-15, 7-7 WAC) is the third seed in the conference tournament and hung tough in non-conference games against Washington, UAB and California.

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