Waiting is the hardest part, but the Minnesota State men's basketball team still has a good chance to receive an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.

The Mavericks played their final game of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament on Monday, losing a heartbreaker to top-seeded Northern State on a basket in the final seconds. A victory would have moved the Mavericks into the championship game and likely clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament.

But as it is, the Mavericks remain a strong option for the NCAA, ranked seventh in the Central Region. The top eight get in.

The Mavericks improved their NCAA resume in the last week by defeating Minot State and playing Northern State, boosting their strength of schedule, a key criteria for selection. The Mavericks have won 22 games, 21 against Division II opponents, and have a 19-8 record against region opponents.

Minnesota State is one of the best eight teams in the region.

But things can still go awry this weekend. March, as we all know, is famous for upsets.

Because each of the three conferences in the region — Northern Sun, Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Great American Conference — get an automatic NCAA bid for its tournament champion, the best eight teams in the region don't always get in.

Northern State earned the Northern Sun's bid as tournament champion, but the Wolves were a lock to get in anyway. That's good for Minnesota State.

Northwest Missouri State and Missouri Southern State are ranked ahead of the Mavericks, so if one of those teams wins the MIAA tournament, it helps Minnesota State. If Central Oklahoma, which is ranked eighth, wins the MIAA, it's not a deal-breaker for the Mavericks, but it's not ideal.

Southern Nazarene is the only GAC team that has had a tournament-worthy regular season, so if another team wins that tournament, Minnesota State is in trouble.

Ever since the Northern Sun moved its conference tournament to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it's had to play a week earlier because The Pentagon also hosts the Summit League tournament this weekend. It creates a five- to seven-day wait for Northern Sun teams who are hoping to receive an at-large berth.

The Mavericks practiced Thursday and will do so again today, hoping to prepare for the NCAA regional, which likely will be held at Maryville, Missouri, home of defending national champion Northwest Missouri State. But if there are upset winners in the MIAA and GAC tournaments, the practice will be for naught.

The Mavericks will find out late Sunday night if they'll return to the national tournament for the 12th time in the last 14 seasons, an impressive feat on its own. But if things go wrong, it will be consecutive seasons with an NCAA game for the first time since 2002-04.

It's tough to lose control of your situation. Waiting is hard.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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