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.
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.
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. They will need to pull off an upset over Vermont in the conference final to do it in 2014, but they shouldn’t have any trouble getting to the America East title game, as they will be a solid # 2 seed in the conference tourney.
SMU (AAC)– The Mustangs currently sit on the right side of the NCAA Tourney bubble. The buzz about this squad will only increase could if SMU 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 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 currently find themselves tied 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 if they could earn the A-Sun automatic bid.
North Dakota (Big Sky)– The Fighting Sioux have emerged from nowhere to challenge for their first-ever NCAA tourney bid. They currently sit tied for second in the Big Sky standings in their first year as a member of a sanctioned NCAA Division 1 basketball conference.
Coastal Carolina (Big South)– The Chanticleers haven’t danced since 1993 and even though they no longer stand atop the conference standings, they get to host the entirety of the Big South tournament.
High Point (Big South)– The Panthers will enter the wide open Big South tourney as the # 1 seed, assured of school’s first-ever major postseason tourney berth. Only question now is whether they will win a trip to the NCAAs or to the NIT.
VMI (Big South)– Despite some recent successes, the Keydets haven’t danced since the late 1970’s. They are currently tied for 2nd in the Big South.
Gardner-Webb (Big South)– This Big Dance virgin impressed me in the Big South semis last year and once again will be one of the top contenders in the league tourney.
UC Irvine (Big West)– Despite being a powerhouse in baseball, the Anteaters have never qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament. Now, they sit alone 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 one 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.
Louisiana Tech (C-USA)– The Bulldogs’ fierce defense has them tied atop the C-USA standings, as they look to end their 23 year tourney drought.
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 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 for second in the MAAC standings.
Quinnipiac (MAAC)– Most experts predicted struggles for the Bobcats as they made the step up from the NEC to the Metro Atlantic. This Big Dance virgin has answered the bell though and currently is tied for second in the league standings.
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.
Buffalo (MAC)– The Bulls have a commanding two game lead in the MAC East as they search for their first-ever NCAA tourney bid.
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.
Elon (Southern)– My law school alma mater has underachieved slightly this season but they will still be a tough out in the upcoming SoCon tournament. The Phoenix currently are tied for second in the league standings and already own a road victory against league leader Davidson.
IPFW (Summit)– All the talk from this conference right now is about North Dakota State, but the Mastodons of IPFW, are currently tied for second place in the Summit as they search for their first-ever tourney bid.
Utah Valley (WAC)– New Mexico State is the most talented team in the WAC, but the Wolverines of Utah Valley, who have never danced before, beat them head to head last week, lead the conference standings, and also appear to have the psychological edge over the Aggies.