Each season, I chronicle the potential March Madness Cinderella Stories by writing two articles that detail teams across that could become a feel-good story come March. The first article is written around the midpoint of the season (early February usually) and the second is written write just as the conference tournaments begin. Here is the second of those two annual editions.
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 and other probably NCAA Tournament teams could inspire us during the first few weeks of March. 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 second place in the Atlantic Sun. Would you believe this squad actually made the Final Four in 1970?
NJIT (Atlantic Sun)- The Highlanders are currently tied with the aforementioned Dolphins for second place in the A-Sun, but they have actually earned the two seed for the league’s upcoming conference tournament based on the league’s tiebreaker system. Not only has NJIT never danced before but they had one of the worst teams in the history of basketball when they transitioned to Division 1 9 years ago as they actually posted an 0-29 record during the 2007-2008 season, losing every game by at least double digits.
Seton Hall (Big East)- Despite their rich basketball history, the Pirates haven’t danced in 10 years, but currently find themselves 3rd in the Big East standings and sit as the top 10 seed in my current Brad-ketology bracket projection.
High Point (Big South)– Like the aforementioned Stony Brook squad, High Point University has knocked on the door of the NCAA tournament the past few seasons but has been unable to earn the school’s first-ever NCAA bid. This season they have as good of a chance as any of achieving that that goal as the conference tournament is being played close to home in Buies Creek, NC, and the Panthers are currently tied for first in the league coming off a huge win over Winthrop.
Hawaii (Big West)– The Rainbow Warriors haven’t danced since 2002 but they are currently alone 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 are tied atop the league standings. Unfortunately for UNCW, they squandered a chance to wrap up the league’s regular season crown by blowing a 17-point second half league against Hofstra.
Marshall (Conference USA)– The Thundering Herd haven’t danced since I was a year and a half old (1987), but this traditional football power is alone in second place right now in Conference USA.
Yale (Ivy)- The Bulldogs haven’t danced since the JFK administration but appear to be destined to meet Princeton in a one-game tiebreaker to decide the conference championship.
Monmouth (MAAC)- If I was to pick one squad who I most want to see Dance this year, this would be it. And when I say dance, I literally mean dance. The Hawks haven’t gone to the NCAA Tournament 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 and 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 just a half game back of first in the MEAC.
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 four of the five’s top 5 teams have current tourney droughts lasting over a decade. Fairleigh Dickinson’s last tourney trip was in 2005. Wagner’s was in 2003, and St. Francis NY and Sacred Heart have never gone.
Wagner (Northeast)– See comment above.
Sacred Heart (Northeast)– See comment above.
St. Francis (NY) (Northeast)– See comment above. The Terriers along with Northwestern, Army, William & Mary, and The Citadel make up the infamous list of “Original Five” squads to never make the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley)- Belmont is still the clear favorite to repeat as OVC champ, but if they somehow falter in the conference tournament then there are three other teams from the Volunteer state that are currently tied for second place in the OVC and will be in prime position to end a lengthy tourney drought. Tennessee State hasn’t earned an NCAA bid since 1994. Tennessee Tech hasn’t gone to the tourney since 1963, and UT-Martin has never danced before.
Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley)-See Comment above
Tennessee State (Ohio Valley)-See Comment above
UT-Martin (Ohio Valley)-See Comment above
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 are in the field as an 8 seed according to my Brad-ketologoy.
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.
IPFW (Summit)- The Mastodons (great nickname by the way) are a Big Dance virgin who currently sit alone in second place in their respective conference standings.
UL-Monroe (Sun Belt)- The Warhawks haven’t gone to the Big Dance since I was in middle school (1996) but currently find themselves alone in second place in the Sun Belt.
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 conference tournament.