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Mid majors poised for NCAA tourney resurgence

DES MOINES, Iowa — Last March brought a sobering dose of reality to the nation's mid-majors.

After a long stretch of multiple at-large NCAA tournament bids that included George Mason's memorable Final Four run in 2006, only four teams got at-large invitations to the Big Dance.

Some wondered if it meant the heyday of the pesky underdog had come and gone. It turns out that the mid-majors can still hang with the big boys.

Six teams that don't play in the six BCS conferences are in this week's Top 25, and an eyebrow-raising 15 mid-majors were among the RPI's Top 40 as of Sunday. Non-BCS schools might not get the 12 at-large bids they landed in 2004, but they could come close.

"I think you're going to see a very, very strong comeback this year — if things hold," Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. "You do see some very, very strong what most people call mid-major teams that are in position to command consideration."

Leading the way are the surging Atlantic-10, which could send a league-record six teams to the NCAA tournament, and the Mountain West, which has a pair of top 20 teams and could potentially grab four spots.

No. 13 Gonzaga, No. 18 Butler and Missouri Valley champions Northern Iowa all look like locks for the NCAA tournament, while the West Coast Conference, Conference USA and Colonial Athletic Association also have hopes for at-large bids.

All this is happening as the Pac-10 and Southeastern Conference struggle through down years.

The Atlantic-10's recent push for more ambitious non-conference scheduling to raise its profile with the tournament selection committee has paid off. The league has 18 wins over BCS teams this season, the most of any non-BCS league.

No. 21 Temple and No. 25 Richmond, which this week cracked the Top 25 for the first time on 24 years, look to be in great shape if they can finish strong. Xavier has made a strong case as well, with wins over Cincinnati and at Florida and an RPI of 20, and then there are Charlotte, Rhode Island and Dayton.

"It really says a whole lot about how teams in our conference scheduled out-of-conference and the results they had in those games," first-year Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "I also think, outside of Xavier, you look at the continuity teams have had with coaches and staff, and the fact that freshmen and sophomores become juniors and seniors. I think it lends itself to a terrific year."

The Mountain West has always winced at its mid-major label. This year, it has shown the nation why.

No. 12 New Mexico and No. 16 BYU are hoping for high NCAA seeds, and UNLV and San Diego State are in the mix for bids as well.

"I don't think you can consider New Mexico, UNLV and BYU mid-majors. I think the commitment these institutions have made to basketball is night and day," Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said after the Lobos hammered his Cowboys 83-61 this week. "There's no question in my mind we'll get three teams in the NCAA tournament for sure, and if San Diego State plays well down the stretch, we should be in the discussion about getting four."

The most intriguing non-BCS team this season just might be New Mexico, winners of 10 straight and 24-3 overall.

The Lobos have defeated California, Dayton, Texas Tech and Texas A&M in non-conference play, bumping their RPI up to 9th — best among the mid-majors — through Sunday's games.

"We've played a demanding schedule and we've been able to win, and those are always two combinations that are pretty impressive," said coach Steve Alford, who left Iowa three years ago.

Saint Mary's could join Gonzaga out of the WCC, while Alabama-Birmingham and Texas-El Paso are at-large possibilities from Conference USA. Old Dominion of the CAA entered this week with an RPI of 33 and could improve its resume with a win at Northern Iowa on Friday night.

The ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 will all get their share of teams into the tournament. But it's starting to look like last year's four-bid bummer was a blip, not a trend, for the mid-majors.

"The competitive equity in Division I men's basketball continues to rise every year," Atlantic-10 commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade said. "I think this parity is going to continue as long as people stay committed to their programs."

AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Dan Gelston in Philadelphia and Tim Korte in Albuquerque, contributed to this report.