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 (late January/early February) and the second is published just as the conference tournaments begin. Here is the first 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.
Rhode Island (Atlantic 10)- The Rams haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since Lamar Odom took them there in 1999. Currently, they are in the mix for an at-large bid.
South Carolina Upstate (Atlantic Sun)- Upstate has gradually improved its program since transitioning from Division 2 less than a decade ago, as they are currently tied for first in the conference standings in search for their first ever tourney bid.
TCU (Big 12)- The Horned Frogs haven’t danced since 1998, but Jamie Dixon has them in position for an at-large bid in just his first season.
North Dakota (Big Sky)– The newly named Fighting Hawks are a Big Dance virgin who are sitting alone in 2nd place in the Big Sky standings.
Northwestern (Big Ten)– The only major conference team never to make it to the Big Dance is in great position to finally breakthrough this season.
UC Davis (Big West)– See comment about North Dakota above.
Charleston (Colonial)– Would you believe that despite all the success Cremins and others have had here recently the Cougars haven’t danced since the 1990’s? They are a clear second behind UNCW right now in the Colonial but they do get to host the conference tournament.
Louisiana Tech (Conference USA)– This football powerhouse hasn’t danced since 1991 but they are currently the top challengers of MTSU in this league.
Eastern Michigan (MAC)– The Eagles had a breakthrough football season this year earning their first bowl bid since the 1980’s and now they are in the hunt for their first tourney bid since 1998 as they are currently tied with NIU for the lead in the MAC West. Interestingly, the MAC and Ohio Valley are the last leagues in the country still holding on to the two division format in college basketball.
Northern Illinois (MAC)– Tied with the above mentioned Eagles for first in the MAC West and they actually have an even longer tourney drought as they haven’t put on dancing shoes since 1996.
Illinois State (MVC)– Despite being one of Wichita’s top MVC challengers in recent years, the Redbirds haven’t gone dancing since 1998. This year they lead the conference standings outright and have already knocked off the Shockers by double digits.
Navy (Patriot)– The Midshipmen also haven’t danced since the 90’s but currently find themselves tied for 2nd in the Patriot.
South Carolina (SEC)– Not only has it been 12 years since the Gamecocks got to the NCAA tournament but they haven’t won a game there since 1973. That is the longest such drought in major college hoops besides of course the forementioned Northwestern Wildcats. This drought is especially shocking when you consider the Gamecocks held # 2 and 3 seeds respectively in the 1997 and 98 NCAA tournaments.
New Orleans (Southland)– Now that Stephen F. Austin’s reign of terror in the Southland appears to be over with the departure of Brad Underwood, the Privateers are alone in first place and in prime position to earn the Big Easy’s first tourney bid since 1996.
Denver (Summit)– North Dakota State is definitely the class of this conference right now but two big dance virgins, Denver and South Dakota are tied for second and ready to pounce if the Bison stumble in March.
South Dakota (Summit)– See Denver comment above.
Georgia Southern (Sun Belt)– The last Big Dance the Eagles participated in was the one where Laettner stomped on Aminu Timberlake and then hit one of the most famous buzzer beaters of all-time. Now, they sit alone atop the Sun Belt with a two game lead over the rest of the league.
Arkansas State (Sun Belt)– Like Georgia Southern above, the Red Wolves are a Sun Belt football power who hasn’t been to the Big Dance since the 90’s. They are hoping to end that drought this season as they are currently tied for second in league play.