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 or squads currently in the hunt for an at-large bid will be included in this column. They are listed in alphabetical order by conference.
Stony Brook (America East)- The Seawolves have been in the hunt for their school’s first NCAA tourney bid the past four seasons but have managed to fall short each and every time. This may be their best chance yet as they currently hold a two game lead over the rest of the conference.
Jacksonville (Atlantic Sun)- The Dolphins haven’t danced since 1986 but they currently find themselves tied for first place in the Atlantic Sun with defending conference champion North Florida. Would you believe this squad actually made the Final Four in 1970?
Seton Hall (Big East)- I know this is technically an article about “small conference” Cinderella stories, but I am going to include a few squads from major conferences who are in the process of breaking major NCAA tournament droughts. The Pirates are one of those squads who believe it or not haven’t danced in 10 years. They are currently 3rd in the conference standings and sit as a 10 seed in my current Brad-ketology bracket projection.
Hawaii (Big West)– The Rainbow Warriors haven’t danced since 2002 but they are currently tied with the defending conference champs (UC-Irvine) atop the Big West standings.
UNC-Wilmington (Colonial)- It’s been a decade since the Seahawks have put on their dancing shoes, but right now they stand alone atop the CAA standings.
William & Mary (Colonial)- The Tribe along with Northwestern, Army, St. Francis (NY), and The Citadel are make up the infamous list of “Original Five” squads to never make the NCAA tournament. Last year W & M won the conference regular season but faltered in the tourney. This year, despite losing NBA draftee Marcus Thornton, the Tribe are only a game back of UNCW for first place in the Colonial.
Yale (Ivy)- Neither Yale or Columbia have danced since the 1960’s but right now those two squads are first and second respectively in the Ivy League standings.
Columbia (Ivy)- See comment above.
Monmouth (MAAC)- If I was to pick one squad who I most want to see Dance this year, this would be it. Literally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uZd2rVpzdE. The Hawks haven’t danced in ten years and if they were to make the field in 2016 their world famous bench would have a chance to shine on their biggest stage yet. Right now, Monmouth is in great shape to get there too, as they are alone in first place in the Metro Atlantic Standings are also in line for a potential at-large bid.
South Carolina State (MEAC)- The Bulldogs haven’t punched their dance card since 1993, but right now they are tied for first place in the MEAC with defending conference champ Hampton.
Evansville (MVC)- The Purple Aces of Evansville and the Redbirds of Illinois State haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since the late 90’s, but this year they are tied for second in the league standings.
Illinois State (MVC)- See comment above
Fairleigh Dickinson (Northeast)- The NEC is traditionally dominated by either Robert Morris and Mount St. Mary’s, but this season the league standings have been turned upside down as all of the conference’s top three teams have current tourney droughts lasting over a decade (Fairleigh Dickinson- 2005, Wagner- 2003, St. Francis PA- 1991)
Wagner (Northeast)– See comment above.
St. Francis (PA) (Northeast)– See comment above.
Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley)- Belmont is still the clear favorite to repeat as OVC champ, but they are surprisingly tied for first place in the conference with a Tennessee Tech squad that hasn’t danced since the year JFK was shot.
Oregon State (Pac-12)- The Beavers have one of the longest current major conference tourney droughts, as they haven’t put on dancing shoes since Gary Payton’s senior season in 1990. Ironically, his son, Gary Payton II, has a great chance of following in his father’s footsteps and leading OSU back to the Big Dance in his own senior season. Right now the Beavers sit squarely on the NCAA Tournament Bubble.
Navy (Patriot)- See comment for Evansville above. The Midshipmen find themselves in the exact same situation in their respective conference race.
Colgate (Patriot)- See comment for Evansville above. The Raiders find themselves in the exact same situation in their respective conference race.
South Carolina (SEC)- Not only have the Gamecocks not danced in 12 seasons, but they haven’t won a tourney game since before my dad attended college there (1973). However, thanks to a huge road win over Texas A & M on Saturday, South Carolina is currently projected as an 7 seed in my most recent Brad-ketology update.
Houston Baptist (Southland)- The Huskies haven’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since before I was born (1984), but right now they are tied for second in the Southland.
IPFW (Summit)- Like William & Mary, the Mastodons are a Big Dance virgin who currently sit alone in second place in their respective conference standings.
Cal-State Bakersfield (WAC)- The Roadrunners were a Division II basketball powerhouse in the 1990’s and after going through a lengthy transition process, they have emerged as the top contender to challenge frontrunner New Mexico State in this year’s WAC title race.