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). Here is a list of mid-major conference champs who are particularly lovable entering the Big Dance. Teams are listed in alphabetical order by conference.
Note: this is the third and final part of my Mid-Major Cinderella Watch for this season.
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 7 seed.
Mercer (Atlantic Sun)– Mercer has recently 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 after their upset win over FGCU, this squad will be in the dance field.
Coastal Carolina (Big South)– Cliff Ellis is finally going to take the Chanticleers to their first NCAA Tourney since 1993!
Cal Poly (Big West)– The Mustangs earned their first ever dance bid last night with an upset win over Cal State Northridge. Any squad entering the Big Dance with a 13-19 record has to peak your interest.
Delaware (Colonial)– The Blue Hens hadn’t earned a Big Dance invite since the 1990’s but they punched their ticket last Monday with a nail-biting win over William & Mary.
Tulsa (C-USA)- The Golden Hurricane have been to the tournament frequently over the past couple of decades but this will mark the first-time a prior NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player will coach an NCAA Tourney game. Can we get a sequel to Danny and the Miracles please?
Manhattan (MAAC)– The Jaspers inclusion on this list has a lot to do with my personal bias, but hey this is my list– not yours. Steve Masiello was one of the most popular of the legendary cast of walk-ons Rick Pitino had at Kentucky. He was apart of their 1998 National Championship Team and now will get to coach his first game in the Big Dance
North Carolina Central (MEAC)– The Eagles are the second Big Dance virgin (along with Cal Poly) to break through this season and earn a trip to the tourney. This program has gradually improved over the past several years and was able to knock off NC State in Raleigh earlier their season. The sight of their head coach crying after their title game victory last night was definitely one of the most heart-warming moments of Championship Week.