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.
Hartford (America East)- The Hawks have never been to the Big Dance before but currently sit tied for 2nd in their conference standings.
Jacksonville (Atlantic Sun)- The Dolphins have been dancing since 1986, but they are now alone in 2nd place in the conference standings.
TCU (Big 12)- The Horned Frogs haven’t danced since 1998, but Jamie Dixon has them firmly in position for an at-large bid in just his second season.
Charleston (Colonial)– Would you believe that despite all the success Cremins and others have had at C of C the Cougars haven’t danced since the 1990’s? They are currently the frontrunners in this year’s Colonial Standings and also get to host the conference tournament.
William & Mary (Colonial)– The Tribe are joined by St. Francis (NY), Army, and The Citadel as the only four original teams to have played NCAA Division 1 basketball when the tournament started and have still not made the Big Dance. This could be their year as they are just a game back of the forementioned Cougars in the Colonial standings.
Rider (MAAC)– Neither of the top two teams in the current Metro Atlantic standings have danced since the mid-1990s.
Canisius (MAAC)– Neither of the top two teams in the current Metro Atlantic standings have danced since the mid-1990s.
Toledo (MAC)- Buffalo is garnering all the headlines in the MAC this season, but the Rockets of Toledo are quietly dominating the league’s other division as they seek their first tourney berth since 1980.
Savannah State (MEAC)- These Big Dance Virgins have flirted with a tourney bid before as they won the MEAC regular season championship in 2012 before being upset in the quarterfinals of the conference tourney in Winston-Salem (I was actually in attendance for that game). These Tigers are hoping for a better postseason showing this season as they are currently tied for first in the league standings with North Carolina A & T.
Loyola-IL (MVC)– The Ramblers not only have one of the best nicknames in college sports but they also have a rich NCAA history as they actually won a national championship in 1963. Unfortunately, the Ramblers haven’t been back to the Big Dance since 1985, but this year’s squad should break that streak as they have the deepest and most talented team in the MVC.
Colgate (Patriot)– The Raiders haven’t danced since NBA journeyman Adonal Foyle graced their roster in 1996. This year’s squad however sits tied for second behind Bucknell in the Patriot standings.
Nicholls State (Southland)– Ever since Stephen F. Austin’s reign of terror in the Southland ended with the departure of Brad Underwood in 2016, this conference has become wide open. Last year, New Orleans claimed its first tourney big in over 20 years, and this season Nicholls is attempting to do the same as they currently sit alone atop the conference standings.
Grambling State (SWAC)– Believe it or not, this historical football powerhouse has never made it to an NCAA basketball tournament. That could chance in 2018 as the Tigers sit alone behind a very beatable Arkansas-Pine Bluff squad in second place of the SWAC standings.
South Dakota (Summit)– South Dakota State is definitely the class of this conference right now but these Big Dance virgin are alone in second and ready to pounce if their in-state rival stumbles in the conference tournament. Interestingly, only three teams in the current Summit League have ever gone to the NCAA tournament (Oral Roberts, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State).
Grand Canyon (WAC)– The Antelopes have never been dancing but former NBA superstar Dan Majerle has gotten them off to a strong start in conference play this year as they currently sit alone in 2nd place in the WAC behind New Mexico State. The issue is that I am not sure anyone in that league can beat the mighty Aggies this season.