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 college basketball 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.
Duquesne (Atlantic 10)- The Dukes haven’t danced since 1977 but currently have a 4-1 conference mark and are only a game out of the A-10 lead. Interestingly enough, the first two schools on this list are located in the city of Pittsburgh (see below).
Pittsburgh (ACC)- If Jeff Capel can somehow get the Panthers to the NCAA tournament this year in his first year on the job and just a year removed from their 0-18 campaign, it would be one of the greatest single season rebuilding jobs of all-time. Right now I have Pitt squarely on the bubble as they are the first team out of the tournament on my most recent edition of Brad-ketology.
Campbell (Big South)- Chris Clemons from Campbell has been one of the most prolific and dynamic scorers throughout his four years in college, despite standing only 5’9″. How special would it be if he closed his college career by sending his Camels to their first Big Dance since 1992? They’re currently 3-1 in conference play and only a game and a half out of the conference lead.
High Point (Big South)- You know who is also 3-1 in the Big South and also only a game and a half out of first? The Panthers of High Point, who have never been dancing before. What a story it would be if Tubby Smith could back to his alma mater and take his sixth different team to the NCAA Tournament..
Dartmouth (Ivy League)- The Big Green haven’t danced since the Eisenhower administration (1959) and even though they are only 1-0 in Ivy league play, their first win was an impressive 18 point annihilation over Tommy Amaker’s perennial powerhouse Harvard team. Dartmouth also gave Davidson a run for their money in conference play, so this squad appears to be for real.
Rider (Metro Atlantic)- The Broncos haven’t danced since 1994, but they have started off conference play this season with an impressive 5-0 start. They are all alone atop the MAAC with two less losses than their closest competitors.
Canisius (Metro Atlantic)- The Golden Griffins (very underrated nickname) are nipping at heels of the Broncos (see Rider entry above) and haven’t been to the Big Dance since 1996.
Bowling Green (MAC)- Despite their football successes, the Falcons haven’t been to the Big Dance in basketball since 1968. However, they are currently tied atop the MAC standings at 5-0 with number 14th ranked Buffalo. The two squads meet for the first time this season on February 1st in Bowling Green.
Norfolk State (MEAC)- Even though UMBC knocked off Virginia last year for the biggest upset in tourney history according to seed differential, the Spartans of Norfolk still have the record for biggest point spread upset in the tournament. The last time this squad went dancing in 2012 they knocked off Missouri as a 21.5 point underdog (UMBC was a 20.5 point underdog). They haven’t danced since then, but this team would love to get back and try to repeat history, and they are in a great spot to do so in 2019 with a 5-0 start to conference play.
Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley)- Speaking of teams looking for an encore performance, the Ramblers and Sister Jean would love to have a chance to make another tourney run and are currently in position to do so as they are tied for 1st in the Valley with a 5-1 start. This team doesn’t appear to be quite as good as it was last year but they do have all the key pieces back from that Final Four run.
Illinois State (Missouri Valley)- It is hard to believe the Redbirds haven’t danced since 1998, as they have made multiple trips to the MVC final in recent years. ISU is once again in position to make a run, as they are only a game back of the leaders in the current conference standings.
St. Francis-Brooklyn (Northeast)- There are only four teams that have played basketball since the NCAA tournament began in 1939 not to make the NCAA tournament. They are: William & Mary, Army, The Citadel, and these Terriers of St. Francis. This year’s squad is looking to end that streak, as they are currently tied for 2nd in NEC play.
Sacred Heart (Northeast)- The Pioneers of Sacred Heart are another Big Dance virgin that is tied for second in Northeast conferece play.
Army (Patriot)- Like St. Francis above, Army is one of the original four teams never to make it to the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, the Black Knights are in the thick of the Patriot league race this year, as they are currently tied with league powerhouse Lehigh for 2nd place in the standings.
Ole Miss (SEC)- The Rebels were predicted to finish dead last in the loaded SEC this year during Kermit Davis’ inaugural campaign in Oxford. However, Ole Miss has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations and currently sit at 4-1 in conference play and project as an 8 seed in my latest NCAA bracket projection which was published earlier today.
Abilene Christian (Southland)– The Wildcats have only been a Division 1 basketball participant since 2014, but they are already find themselves in contention for their first-ever NCAA tournament trip. Abielene is off to a 5-1 start in Southland play and are only a half game back from league leader Sam Houston State.
Central Arkansas (Southland)- The Bears are another Big Dance virgin who is currently off to a great start in Southland play. Too bad Corliss Williamson isn’t the coach anymore.
Grambling (SWAC)- The Tigers have had one of the most legendary football programs in all of FCS over the years, but they have never been to the Big Dance in men’s hoops. That could all change in 2019, as this squad, who is typically a league bottom dweller, finds itself only a game and a half behind league leader Prairie View (see below).
Prairie View (SWAC)- The team Grambling is chasing in the SWAC is in fact my beloved Prairie View Panthers who are undefeated in conference play so far. This university who suffered through the longest losing streak in college football history (80 straight losses from 1989 to 1998) hasn’t been to the Big Dance since the streak was going on in 1998.
Omaha (Summit)- This conference is interesting in that only three of its members have been to the NCAA tournament before (Oral Roberts, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State). And while this is once again South Dakota State’s conference to lose, two big dance virgins, Omaha and IPFW, are their biggest challengers. The Mavericks of Omaha (great nickname) are tied with SDSU for first place in the conference, and the Mastodons of IPFW (an even better nickname) blew out South Dakota State by 16 points earlier this month.
IPFW (Summit)– see Omaha entry above
Texas State (Sun Belt)- The Bobcats haven’t danced since the 1990s, but they are currently tied for first in the Sun Belt.
Georgia Southern (Sun Belt)- Two other Sun Belt squads who haven’t been to the tournament this century are also in contention for this league’s championship. Georgia Southern and UL-Monroe are both within a game and a half of the league leaders.
UL-Monroe (Sun Belt)- see Georgia Southern entry above
San Francisco (WCC)- The Dons who haven’t been dancing since 1998 are off to a magnificent 16-3 start this season with wins over BYU, Stanford, and Cal. Gonzaga is still the heavy favorites to win the WCC, but if the Bulldogs somehow stumble in the conference tournament, San Francisco may be the best equipped squad to win this league in 2019.
Grand Canyon (WAC)– The Antelopes have never been dancing but former NBA superstar Dan Majerle has had them in contention the past few seasons. He has once again gotten them off to a strong start in conference play this year, as the Antelopes are currently tied for first with league leader Cal State Bakersfield. The Aggies of New Mexico State are a little down this year relative to their past few campaigns, so this may be the season Majerle can get Grand Canyon to the Big Dance.