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Conference USA is the NCAA tournament’s most reliable upset league

Four years in a row, the league’s pulled off a big one.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Marshall vs Wichita State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

If someone asked you to name the best mid-major conference in college basketball, you’d rattle through a bunch of names before you got to Conference USA.

The Atlantic 10 and American would probably come up first. Maybe the Mountain West or Missouri Valley would merit a mention. Some jokesters might say the SEC.

Those people would all be right. C-USA hasn’t been a particularly good basketball league, especially not since Memphis left for the AAC after the 2012-13 season. But the league has now cobbled together at least one NCAA tournament win four years in a row:

The league hasn’t won any more games after those. But its 4-4 overall record in the last five tournaments is a tremendous winning percentage for a mid-major that has to punch up.

Conference USA is becoming a bona-fide upset monster.

In the last five tournaments, there have been 14 upsets involving teams seeded 12th or lower in the round of 64. C-USA’s four are twice as many as any other conference’s. The list:

  • C-USA: 4
  • Sun Belt, Southland, Ivy: 2
  • MAC, Summit, Big West, A-Sun: 1

There’s no clear reason this keeps happening, but it is cool.

C-USA has a handful of schools that care about men’s basketball and have prioritized it by making significant investments in it. Western Kentucky and Old Dominion are legitimate programs that in the right years could beat some power-league teams. But neither of those teams has made a tournament recently. Middle Tennessee is another, and the Blue Raiders claimed upset victims two years in a row before this year. Their win against Michigan State in 2016 is definitely the biggest tournament update of this half-decade.

Now: Can Marshall get the C-USA where it almost never goes?

The league’s last appearance in the Sweet 16 was in 2009, when a John Calipari-coached Memphis made the last of four consecutive appearances in that round.

The last appearance before that was Louisville’s in 2005, and the Cardinals are now two conferences and one vacated national championship removed from their time in C-USA. In fact, 10 of the league’s 11 Sweet 16 appearances all-time are by schools that have since left the league. Marquette and Cincinnati also made it between the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A current member of the conference hasn’t shown up in a Sweet 16 while in C-USA since UAB got there and lost to Kansas by 26 points in 2004. And that’s the only time it’s ever happened.

So, Marshall, your task is simple.

Win one more, and you’ll probably get promoted to the Big 12 or something.