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Tickets Punched: Mid-Majors Already Headed to the Big Dance
By Mike Jasko

One of the aspects of March Madness that makes it one of the greatest sporting events of the year is the impact that mid-majors can have on the competition. It is often times difficult for these teams to qualify for the big dance without winning the automatic bid granted by winning their conference tournament. However, once in the tournament, these teams can wreak havoc on your bracket. Here is a rundown of the mid-majors that have already punched their ticket to the big dance.

Albany Great Danes (America East Conference)

The Great Danes of Albany capped off a 28-8 season with an exciting win over Stony Brook in the American East Conference final. They eased through their conference with a 15-1 record on their way to their fifth ever NCAA tournament berth. Last season they advanced to the main field after beating St. Mary's in a play-in game before losing to #1 seed Florida in the first round. Their top scorers are senior forward Sam Rowley (14.0 PPG) and Peter Hooley (13.8 PPG). It was Hooley who punched Albany's ticket by hitting a 3-pointer to help seal the late victory over Stony Brook.

Belmont Bruins (Ohio Valley Conference)

The Belmont Bruins are headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the 7th time in school history, first since 2013. They earned their ticket to the big dance by upsetting Murray State in the Ohio Valley Championship game. Murray State had gone 16-0 in the OVC including a 15-point victory against Belmont, but the Bruins won when it mattered, and are headed to the Big Dance. Belmont went 22-10 during the season and their title-clincher also gave them a top-25 victory, as Murray State had climbed to #25 before the championship game. The Bruins are led by junior guard Craig Bradshaw, who averages 18.1 PPG, and sophomore Evan Bradds who averages 14.3 PPG.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (Big South)

Perhaps the zaniest named team to punch their ticket, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers punched their ticket virtue of a 81-70 victory over Winthrop in the Big South title game. Interestingly, their name comes from their former affiliation with the University of South Carolina. Until the 1960's, the school's teams were known as the Trojans. After they became affiliated with USC, there was a push to change the mascot to something more akin to their parent school's “Gamecocks.” The Rooster from, “The Nun's Priest's Tale,” of Canterbury Tales provided the inspiration for the name. As for the actual basketball team, Coastal Carolina went 24-9 this season. Their leading scorer is senior guard Warren Gillis, with 13.1 PPG.

Gonzaga Bulldogs (West Coast Conference)

Gonzaga will be entering the tournament for the 18th time in school history, one of the most frequent mid-major tournament representative. This season they are not only one of better mid-majors, but one of the best teams in the field, with a 32-2 record. While they did not need to win their conference tournament to make it into the 68-team field, their 91-75 win over BYU in the WCC title game all-but locked up a #2 seed for them. That game also avenged a 73-70 loss at home to BYU in the last game of the regular season. Gonzaga was 29-1 going into that contest, having only lost previously to #3 Arizona. Junior forward Kyle Wiltjer leads the Zags with 16.7 PPG. Wiltjer is playing his first season for Gonzaga after sitting out a year after transferring from Kentucky.

Hampton Pirates (Mid-Eastern)

Perhaps the most unlikeliest ticket to the Big Dance was punched on Saturday as the Hampton Pirates beat Delaware State for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. The Pirates will enter the tournament a game under .500 at 16-17. It is not very often that a team with a six-game losing streak on their resume makes it in, but Hampton managed to win four-straight conference tournament games to do just that. The Pirates are led by Junior Dwight Meikle, who scores 13.0 PPG.

Lafayette Leopards (Patriot League)

Lafayette clinched their first trip to the tournament since 2000 with a narrow win over American in the Patriot League title game. The Leopards enter the tournament with a 20-12 record. Their leading scorer is Dan Trist with 17.3 PPG. Point guard Nick Linder has carried them as of late however, scoring 71 points in his last 3 games on 24-39 shooting. He also had a season-high 30 in a loss to Colgate late last month. His hot hand could make Lafayette an upset-watch team.

Manhattan Jaspers (Metro Atlantic)

The Jaspers will be making their 8th trip to the big dance in school history thanks to a 79-69 win over Iona in the Metro Atlantic finals. Manhattan lost twice to Iona during the regular season but persevered to take the conference's automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament. They went 19-13 this season; their leading scorer is Emmy Andujar with 16.5 PPG.

Northeastern Huskies (Colonial)

The Huskies of Northeastern will also make their eight trip to the Tournament following a 72-61 victory over William & Mary in the CAA championship game. The Huskies are 23-11 this season and did achieve an early season win over Florida State, something that will surely give them confidence when matched up against a big-time opponent. Scott Eatherton (14.6 PPG) and David Walker (13.4 PPG) have been their leading scorers this season.

Northern Iowa Panthers (Missouri Valley Conference)

Northern Iowa avoided a major clash with #8 Wichita State when the Shockers lost to Illinois State in the MVC semi-finals. The Panthers rallied to beat Illinois State in the MVC title game after falling behind 36-22 at the half. They ended up with a 69-60 win to lock-up the conference's automatic bid. With wins against Virginia Tech and Iowa on their resume, Northern Iowa could be a mid-major that could has the ability to advance far in this tournament.

North Dakota State Bison (Summit)

The Bison of North Dakota State punched their ticket to the Big Dance by winning a close border-battle with South Dakota State, 57-56. It is their third NCAA Tournament berth in school history. The Bison's leading scorer is Lawrence Alexander, who is averaging 18.7 PPG, good enough to put him in the top 40 in the NCAA.

North Florida Ospreys (Atlantic Sun)

Making their first ever NCAA tournament appearance are the Ospreys of North Florida. Previously of NCAA Division II, North Florida has only been in Division I for six years, making their tournament appearance pretty impressive. They defeated South Carolina Upstate 63-57 in the Atlantic Sun Final. The Ospreys have been on a roll of late, winning 16 of their last 18 including 8 straight. Sophomore Dallas Moore is their leading scorer, with 15.9 PPG. There is nothing in their resume to suggest they could be a major-upset team, but when a team is hot like North Florida has been, you can't discount the confidence it will give them.

Robert Morris Colonials (Northeast)

Making their 8th NCAA tournament appearance are the Robert Morris Colonials. They punched their ticket by defeating St. Francis (Brooklyn) in a narrow Northeast Conference title game. The Colonials went 19-14 this season and their leading scorer is Rodney Pryor who averages 15.2 PPG.

Valparaiso Crusaders (Horizon League)

Out of the Horizon League, the Crusaders of Valparaiso will be making their ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Their 54-44 win over Wisconsin-Green Bay in the Horizon League final clinched their trip. Valpo went 28-5 this season on their way to this tournament berth. They are led by sophomore forward Alec Peters, who averages 16.7 PPG and 6.8 RPG.

Wofford Terriers (Southern)

Wofford will be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in school history after defeating Furman 67-64 in a close Southern Conference title game. The Terriers went 28-6 this season and their leading scorer is Karl Cochran with 14.6 PPG.

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