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 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.
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. In fact, my lastest bracket projection has them as the last team in the field.
Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)- This small Church of Christ school in Nashville has never danced in its brief 17 year Division 1 history but they enter the Atlantic Sun tournament as a dangerous # 2 seed.
TCU (Big 12)- The Horned Frogs haven’t danced since 1998, but Jamie Dixon has them squarely on the bubble in his first season.
North Dakota (Big Sky)– The newly named Fighting Hawks are a Big Dance virgin who are sitting alone atop the Big Sky standings with just two games to go.
Northwestern (Big Ten)– The only major conference team never to make it to the Big Dance is in position to finally breakthrough this season. However, their late season slump is making their at-large bid a lot less secure than it looked just a few weeks ago.
UC Davis (Big West)– The Aggies are trying to make their first ever trip to the Big Dance and are currently tied for the league lead with just two games remaining.
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 entering the postseason, but they do get to host the conference tournament, which I will be attending next weekend.
Louisiana Tech (Conference USA)– This football powerhouse hasn’t danced since 1991 but they will be the top challengers of MTSU in the upcoming C-USA tournament.
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 shared the conference regular season championship with the Shockers and enter Arch Madness as the # 1 seed.
UT-Martin (OVC)– The affectionately named Skyhawks have never danced before but are this season’s Ohio Valley West Division champs and appear to be Belmont’s top challenger in the upcoming conference tournament.
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. This year it appears they will have a chance to end that drought as my current bracket projection as the Gamecocks safely in the field as a # 9 seed.
Furman (Southern)– The Paladins haven’t danced since 1980 but did you know this squad made the Sweet 16 in 1974? This year they are a half game between East Tennessee State in the conference standings and clinch a share of the conference regular season championship if UNCG knocks off ETSU on Monday night.
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.
South Dakota (Summit)– The Coyotes have miraculously surpassed perennial powerhouse North Dakota State atop the Summit League standings with just a game to go in regular season play. They haven’t come close to sniffing the Big Dance in their seven years of playing Division 1 basketball but this year appears to be different.
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 (1992). Now, the Eagles sit tied for second in the Sun Belt with just two winnable games left to go in regular season play.