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 last season). 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.
Stony Brook (America East)– The Seawolves have been an America East powerhouse for the past several years, but believe it or not, they have still not gotten over the hump and earned the school’s first-ever NCAA Tourney bid.
SMU (AAC)- They currently sit right on the tip of the NCAA Tourney bubble, but could you imagine the buzz if this team was to earn its first tourney bid since 1993 with the legendary Larry Brown at the helm.
UMass (Atlantic 10)– Believe it or not, this team has still not made the NCAA tourney since Bruiser Flint’s second season in 1998. Right now, I have the Minutemen in as a 5 seed.
Mercer (Atlantic Sun)- Much like the Seawolves of Stony Brook, Mercer has been an upper echelon mid-major program that has failed to break their lengthy NCAA tourney drought. The Bears haven’t danced since 1985 but currently find themselves alone atop the A-Sun standings.
Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun)- We all remember what this squad did in last year’s tournament and even though some of the personnel and head coach have changed, Lob City 2.0 would be a fun story come March.
Coastal Carolina (Big South)- Both of the current Big South division leaders have not danced since the early 90’s (Coastal- 1993, Campbell- 1992).
Campbell (Big South)- See comment above.
UC Irvine (Big West)– Despite being a powerhouse in baseball, the Anteaters have never qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament. Now, they are deadlocked in a three-way tie atop the Big West Standings.
Delaware (Colonial)– The Blue Hens haven’t earned a Big Dance invite since the 1990’s but they currently have a commanding three game lead in the conference standings.
Towson (Colonial)- Not only does Towson have a 22-year tourney drought going, but they have also been one of the worst teams in this conference for the past decade or so. This year, however,the Tigers have a fighting chance for an auto bid as they currently stand alone in 2nd place in the Colonial.
Green Bay (Horizon)- Butler’s departure has opened the door for the Phoneix, who actually won a tourney game in 1994, to earn their first bid since ’96. This team has a solid two game lead in the conference standings and already has picked up a win against Virginia this season. 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.
Canisius (MAAC)- The Golden Griffins (great nickname!) haven’t put on dancing shoes since 1996, but they are currently tied atop the MAAC standings with conference powerhouse Iona.
Toledo (MAC)- The Rockets have had a solid basketball program for years, but believe it or not they haven’t played in the Big Dance since 1980. This year they have the squad to not only make the tourney but also make some noise as a dangerous 12 or 13 seed.
North Carolina Central (MEAC)- The Eagles are another Big Dance virgin currently sitting atop their conference standings. This program has gradually improved over the past several years and was able to knock off NC State in Raleigh earlier their season.
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.
IPFW (Summit)- All the talk from this conference right now is about North Dakota State, but the Mastodons of IPFW, are currently tied with the Bison for first-place in the Summit as they search for their first-ever tourney bid.
Utah Valley (WAC)- See analysis for Bryant above.