The mid-major conference tournaments are the source of much of the early holiday season drama, as only the tourney champion will be able to put on their dancing shoes. While almost all mid-major NCAA teams have the chance to play Cinderella come Christmas Day (aka the first round of the NCAA tourney), it is particularly special when these teams have an inspiring sentimental storyline. Often times this involves a squad making its first trip to the Big Dance (see Northern Colorado in 2011). Other times there is a likable coach who warms the hearts of the nation (see Pete Carril in 1994, Andy Enfeld in 2012). Inevitably, when the second week of March comes around, these stories will come to fruition. In the meantime, it’s worth looking at the standings and checking out which mid-major conference leaders/contenders could inspire us during ESPN’s annual championship week. Only teams currently in first or second place of their respective conferences will be included in this column. They are listed in alphabetical order by conference.
Note: an original list of mid-major Cinderella stories was posted a few weeks ago but this list is now updated to include teams who have made a last season surge and exclude others who have stumbled down the stretch.
SMU (AAC)- The Mustangs are projected as the first 7 seed in my latest edition of Brad-ketology 2015. This squad is still looking to earn its first tourney bid since 1993 with the legendary Larry Brown at the helm.
North Florida (Atlantic Sun)- Basically, any way this week’s Atlantic Sun tournament turns will produce a sentimental storyline. The reason being is that thanks to conference realignment only two teams in the current league have ever danced before and one of those squads (Jacksonville) hasn’t been in the field of 64 since 1986.
Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)- We all remember what this squad did in the 2012 tournament and even though some of the personnel and head coach have changed, Lob City 2.0 would be a fun story come March.
Sacramento State (Big Sky)- The Hornets of Sacramento State currently sit atop the Big Sky standings in search of their first ever bid to the NCAA tournament.
High Point (Big South)- The Panthers are another Big Dance virgin who clinched conference regular season co-championship and enter the Big South tourney as a dangerous 2 seed.
Charleston Southern (Big South)- The Buccaneers haven’t danced since 1997 but will be the # 1 seed in “Myrtle Madness” (aka Big South Tournament) this week.
UC Irvine (Big West)- Despite being a powerhouse in baseball, the Anteaters have never qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament. Now, they sit alone in second place of the Big West standings
UC Davis (Big West)- See comment above except the Aggies are alone in first place.
Northeastern (Colonial)- The Huskies haven’t earned a Big Dance invite since the 1990’s but they clinched a share of the conference regular season championship thanks to UNCW’s collapse at Elon on Saturday night.
William & Mary (Colonial)- The Tribe are seeking their first dance invite in school history, as they enter the Colonial tournament as the conference # 1 seed.
Louisiana Tech (C-USA)- The Bulldogs are alone in first place in Conference USA and haven’ been dancing since 1991.
Green Bay (Horizon)- Butler’s departure has opened the door for the Phoenix, who actually won a tourney game in 1994, to earn their first bid since ’96. This team finished alone in second place in the Horizon and will host all of its conference tourney games until the championship. If this story/video doesn’t get you excited about this program, then nothing will:http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/35087/green-bay-guard-pranked-with-scholarship.
Yale (Ivy)- For the past 25 years, this league has been dominated by Princeton and Penn with an occasional run by Cornell or Harvard mixed in. Now, Yale is looking to finally breakthrough as they are tied with Harvard atop the Ivy League standings and already possess a road non-conference win over the defending national champions. The de facto league championship game will be played this Friday at 8:00 in Cambridge, as Yale looks to secure its first NCAA bid since JFK’s presidency (1962).
Rider (MAAC)- The Broncos are just two games back of perennial power Iona for first place in the Metro Atlantic Conference and haven’ been dancing since 1994.
Bowling Green (MAC)- The Falcons’ NCAA tourney drought extends almost as far back as Yale’s (1968). However, right now this squad is alone in first place in the MAC East.
Toledo (MAC)- The Mid-American tourney could be one of the wildest of championship week, and the MAC West leading Rockets will be playing close to home (Cleveland) with a great chance of securing their first NCAA tourney bid since 1980.
Bryant (Northeast)- As you can probably see, conference realignment has really opened the door for a lot of Big Dance virgins to earn their first-ever tourney bid. The same can be said about the Bulldogs of Bryant University, as they are tied with Morris for second-place in the NEC.
St. Francis (NY) (Northeast)- The forementioned Bryant Bulldogs and Robert Morris Colonials are having great seasons respectively but they are both chasing league leading St. Francis (NY) who has never once put on dancing shoes.
Colgate (Patriot)- The Raiders haven’t gone to the tourney since former NBA star, Adonal Foyle, played for them in 1996. However, they are currently just a game back of perennial powerhouse Bucknell for first place in the league standings and actually one both regular season meetings against the Bison.
George Southern (Sun Belt)- This conference used to be ruled by Western Kentucky, but now that the Hilltoppers have departed for C-USA, it has open the door for an unusual suspect to earn a tourney bid. See football power Georgia Southern who is currently tied with fellow Cinderella contenders UL-Monroe and Georgia State for first place in the league.
George State (Sun Belt)- The Panthers of Georgia State are tied atop the Sun Belt right now and possess a few of the top sentimental storylines of the season. Not only is Georgia State trying to end a 13-year tourney drought, but two of their star players are former major conference superstars seeking redemption at a smaller school. Starting point guard, Ryan Harrow, was a highly-touted high school recruit that failed to make things work at both NC State and Kentucky. Starting shooting guard, Kevin Ware, was a starter for Rick Pitino’s Louisville team before a horrifying leg injury in the Elite 8 sidelined him for over a year. Can you imagine if these two guys got another shot at the Big Dance?
UL-Monroe (Sun Belt)- This Cinderella story isn’t probably as sexy as the two other Sun Belt co-leaders, but the Warhawks are another basketball afterthought seeking their first NCAA tourney big in nearly two decades (1996).
UMKC (WAC)- Are you ready for the Kangaroos on to your bracket for the first-time in school history this March? Well it very well could happen as the ‘Roos are only alone in second place behind New Mexico State in the WAC.