Furman and Clemson did not meet on the basketball court this season.

But the Paladins and Tigers may well go head-to-head in an even more important venue on Selection Sunday — the New York City hotel room where the NCAA Tournament selection committee has been meeting this week. The field of 68 will be unveiled at 6 p.m. on CBS.

Furman, one of four teams that dominated the mid-major Southern Conference this season, and middle of the ACC pack Clemson represent a storyline that has reached critical mass this week as Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament approaches.

Do successful mid-major teams such as Furman and the SoCon's UNC Greensboro deserve an at-large place in the 68-team NCAA Tournament? Or should most of the 36 at-large berths in the field continue to be reserved for teams from Power 5 leagues, no matter how mediocre their records?

The SoCon's unprecedented success this season — four teams with at least 24 wins, led by league champion and automatic-bid winner Wofford, and an RPI ranking of No. 11 among 32 Division I leagues — has thrown the debate into sharp relief.

No SoCon team has received an at-large bid to the tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and the odds against it happening grow every year. Last season, 86 percent of at-large bids went to Power 5 leagues and the Big East, compared with 69 percent in 2000, according to the Sporting News.

Thus, the debate rages.

Should an at-large bid go to a 28-6 UNCG team that lost to 20th-ranked Wofford in the final of the SoCon Tournament? Or, for example, to a 22-11 North Carolina State team that went 9-9 in the ACC?

Does the committee go with Furman, whose 12-0 start included wins over defending national champ Villanova and 2018 Final Four team Loyola Chicago? Or does it choose a 16-15 Texas team that was sixth in the Big 12?

"If (the SoCon) doesn't get two bids, I will lose a lot of confidence in what this system is all about," UNCG coach Wes Miller said after the title game loss to Wofford. "... Leagues that have been ranked (where the SoCon is) have gotten multiple bids. We have a top 20 team in the nation, and they've played like it all year.

"And we've got a couple of other dang good teams, and we've got one here. I think we have an unbelievable resume to get in the tournament."

Bandwagon rolling

The SoCon and UNCG have mounted social media campaigns to argue their cases this week.

The SoCon's Twitter account changed its handle to "At Large SoCon" and is posting helpful tidbits such as: Furman (ranked No. 41 in the NCAA NET) outranks 17 different teams that currently sit on the bubble or in ESPN's projected field of 68.

The UNCG basketball account has taken similar steps, changing its handle to "UNCG At Large" and comparing the Spartans' resume favorably to those of bubble teams from Power 5 leagues such as Indiana, Ohio State and N.C. State.

Heading into the weekend, CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm had Wofford, Furman and UNCG in the field.

And the SoCon bandwagon has even reached ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who in the past has shown had little sympathy for the plight of mid-major teams. Even Bilas acknowledges that this year might be different and lists the SoCon among leagues that might send more than one team into March Madness — but not necessarily due to SoCon strength.

"After the 32 automatic bids are determined, the 36 next-best teams are selected. Each team gets two bites at the NCAA tournament apple," Bilas wrote this week. "Yet every year there is the populist, bleeding heart sentiment that goes with the tournament — let the 'little guy' in so we can watch more Davids take a swing at the Goliaths. This year, the cries will be even more intense because the bubble isn't just soft — it is absolutely mush."

'A travesty'

Others argue that the SoCon "deserves" two bids this season.

"The depth of our league is so good," said Wofford senior standout Cam Jackson. "It would be kind of frustrating to see some of the teams like Furman, UNCG and ETSU not get a chance when, in my opinion, they can play with and beat some of the teams."

But ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi points out that selection committee members don't look at it that way.

"I'm always reluctant to say that a conference has earned anything," Lunardi said this week. "Because clearly it's teams, not leagues, that are evaluated. Number one, the conference that a team is in doesn't even appear on their team sheet in the committee room. And two, their conference record doesn't appear on the team sheet, either."

Lunardi said he would have UNCG ahead of Furman in his SoCon pecking order, even though the Paladins' NCAA NET ranking of No. 41 is well ahead of the Spartans' No. 58.

"I would actually place Greensboro ahead of Furman because they beat them in the conference tournament for one thing," he said. "And two, they finished two games ahead of (Furman) in the regular season. So I think that part would be easy. In Furman's case, what you're really saying is there would have to be three teams from the Southern Conference for them to make it.

"And if we're honest with ourselves, we know that's not going to happen."

UNCG's Miller knows the bandwagon might be rolling uphill.

"I'm making the case and fighting for our group," he said this week. "And I think we deserve to be there. But I have an appreciation that a lot of teams feel the same way. I just hope the committee takes a long, hard look at us the same way they do the teams who are on ESPN every night."

Indeed, the SoCon's best chance at getting a second team into the NCAA Tournament may have disappeared when Wofford rallied from nine points down to defeat UNCG in the title game.

"Realistically, Greensboro's chances probably aren't good," Wofford coach Mike Young said after that game. "And that's a travesty."

Travesty or triumph? The SoCon will learn its fate on Sunday.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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