Although UConn is the only mid-major program to have won a national championship since 1988 — or 1993, if you count Texas Tech’s win as a member of the now-defunct Southwest Conference — the success of the mid-majors in the NCAA Tournament is part of what makes this time of the year so special.
With 33 mid-major programs competing in this season’s NCAA Tournament, there’s no shortage of dream matchups between mid-majors or opportunities for double-digit-seeded mid-majors to upset power conference teams. There’s also no shortage of interesting storylines that may not have received national coverage.
Here are nine mid-major programs that deserve your attention as the tournament tips off Friday. Whether or not they have a chance of winning their opening-round games, it’s worth it to check out the culmination of what these teams have been working toward all season long.
No. 6 South Dakota State Jackrabbits
How they got in: Won the Summit League
What to know: South Dakota State has been a thorn in non-conference opponents’ sides for a long time. This season, the Jackrabbits took down Drake and Green Bay while playing Baylor and Oregon to within single digits in close losses. In the last few years, they’ve beaten NC State, Iowa, Miami and DePaul. Look for the Summit League’s all-time leading scorer Macy Miller to pace the Jackrabbits as they go for their first NCAA Tournament win since 2016.
No. 7 BYU Cougars
How they got in: Won the WCC
What to know: You probably know BYU best this season from their three defeats of Gonzaga, sealing their WCC-best 3-1 record against AP Top 25 teams. The loss came to then-No. 23 California, though even then, the Cougars stayed in the ballgame until the final quarter. But with their polished late-game finishing power shown in their first two wins over Gonzaga, it’s clear the Cougars are going to be tough to beat.
No. 8 South Dakota Coyotes
How they got in: At-large, Summit League
What to know: The recipients of the Summit League’s first-ever at-large bid, the Coyotes (that’s KAI-oats, or just Yotes) made the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history back in February. With wins against Iowa State and Missouri on its early-season résumé, South Dakota also far surpassed its last (and only) NCAA Tournament seeding, moving up from No. 15 in 2014. Plus, except for one, all five of the Yotes’ losses came to teams seeded No. 10 or better in this tournament. This is a program with something to prove, and they won’t go away quietly.
No. 11 Missouri State Lady Bears
How they got in: Won the Missouri Valley Conference
What to know: Not since 2014 has an MVC team beaten both in-conference Iowa schools in one road trip, and not since 2016 has one team taken down the Drake Bulldogs twice in one season. But this season, the Lady Bears can say they’ve done both. This team is on a roll, winning 22 of its last 24 games en route to collecting the MVC crown. And although Missouri State has never beaten DePaul, its first-round opponent, this team stands a good chance of being the one to get it done.
No. 11 Princeton Tigers
How they got in: Won the Ivy League
What to know: If anyone is going to propel Princeton to a first-round win, it’ll be two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie. (And if not this year, then next year, as she’s only a junior.) With two 40-point games this season and her Ivy-best 23.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game pacing the team, Alarie nearly singlehandedly pulled the Tigers out of a 2-7 tailspin after returning from injury on Dec. 8. Princeton is on a 12-game winning streak that they won’t easily give up.
No. 11 Quinnipiac Bobcats
How they got in: Won the MAAC
What to know: Though the Bobcats tend to fly under the radar during the regular season, it’s no surprise when their name pops up on Selection Monday. Quinnipiac (emphasis on the first syllable) has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in the past two seasons: In 2017, they took down Marquette and Miami to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, while last season saw the Bobcats knock off Miami once again. Can Quinnipiac — and its 21-game winning streak — use another mid-major win over South Dakota to spring them into position for another Sweet Sixteen run?
No. 12 Rice Owls
How they got in: Won Conference USA
What to know: Like South Dakota, Rice found itself in the AP Top 25 for the first time ever this season. Paced by Erica Ogwumike — yes, of that Ogwumike family — the Owls also collected their first C-USA tournament title, their longest winning streak in program history (21 games and counting) and a bevy of other historic firsts. That winning streak, tied with Quinnipiac, is good for second in the nation. Also look out for Nancy Mulkey, whose 6-foot-9 frame lends itself well to her NCAA-best 3.86 blocks per game (albeit unofficial, due to injury keeping her out of the first month of the season).
No. 13 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
How they got in: Won the Atlantic Sun
What to know: The Eagles are looking to make it two seasons in a row with a first-round NCAA win, having defeated Missouri last season to open the tournament. Their 2019 opponent, Miami, was almost a first-round upset victim at their hands in 2017, escaping with a two-point victory. Having blown through the ASUN tournament after finishing undefeated in conference play, FGCU’s 19-game winning streak is nothing to overlook. Although their non-conference schedule wasn’t nearly as impressive as last season’s, the Eagles are no stranger to the postseason magic they could tap into against Miami — again.
No. 15 Portland State Vikings
How they got in: Won the Big Sky
What to know: Sure, the Vikings are matched up with Oregon in their first game. Sure, they’ve never won an NCAA Tournament game, nor beaten a ranked opponent. But Portland State has faced some recent adversity — that is, having to work with the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky tournament — and they went and won the whole thing. The Vikings are also coming off their best-ever season in the Big Sky, winning 25 games. For a team already having a historic year, why not tune in and watch them try to make more history?