As the calendar turns to March, it is time for me to update my earlier entry regarding potential March Madness Cinderella stories. 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 probable 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.
Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun)- The Bisons (yes, thats with an “s”; not sure they teach English at Lipscomb) are a big dance virgin that have been overshadowed in the past decade by crosstown rival Belmont. Now, Lipscomb comes into the A-Sun tourney as a 2-seed and just sits two wins away from their first tourney berth. They will be heavily favored tonight against Jacksonville but will likely have to spring an upset at Florida Gulf Coast if they get to the final.
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.
Idaho (Big Sky)- Don’t look now but the Vandals, who haven’t danced since 1990, have snuck their way into a tie for 2nd with league powerhouse Weber State heading into next week’s Big Sky tournament.
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? That may all change soon, as they are the regular season co-champions in this year’s Colonial Conference and also get to host the conference tournament.
Rider (MAAC)– Neither of the Metro Atlantic co-champions have danced since the mid-1990s.
Canisius (MAAC)– See comment above.
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 locked in a five-way tie for first with just a game left in the regular season.
Bethune-Cookman (MEAC)- The Bethunies are the other team that’s never danced currently in the five-way tie for the MEAC championship.
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 winning the league by four games.
Colgate (Patriot)– The Raiders haven’t danced since NBA journeyman Adonal Foyle graced their roster in 1996. This year’s squad finished second in the regular season standings, so they will get to host all of their conference tourney games until at least the semifinals.
UNC Greensboro (Southern)– The Spartans haven’t danced since 2001 despite coming close on numerous occasions, including last season. This year they won the outright SoCon regular season championship under the leadership one of college basketball’s rising coaching stars, Wes Miller.
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 (last bid was 1998) as they currently sit alone atop the conference standings with one game left in league play.
Prairie View A & M (SWAC)– One of my favorite low-major squads is looking to put on dancing shoes for the first time in 20 years, as the Panthers are currently in a four-way tie for second in league play. Finishing second place in the SWAC carries with it extra significance this season because the likely regular season champion, Grambling, is ineligible for postseason play due to APR issues.
South Dakota (Summit)– South Dakota State is definitely the class of this conference right now but these Big Dance virgins 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).
Utah Valley (WAC)– These big dance virginis have come out of nowhere to emerge as the top challengers to league powerhouse New Mexico State in next week’s WAC tournament. The Wolverines knocked off the Aggies by 7 in their most recent meeting on February 15th, and the league runner-up has upset the # 1 seed in consecutive WAC tourney finals.