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.
UCF (AAC)- The Cinderella darlings of college football are right on the cut line for this year’s NCAA Tournament, and if they do go dancing for the first time in 13 years, 7’6″ Tacko Fall is going to present matchup problems no matter who they face.
Campbell (Big South)- In drastic contrast to UCF’s Tacko Fall, 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 11-4 in conference play and only a game back of conference frontrunner Radford as they head into their regular season finale against the Highlanders on Saturday. The winner of that game will get to host the upcoming Big South tournament as the # 1 seed.
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 come back to his alma mater and take his sixth different school to the NCAA Tournament.
Hofstra (Colonial)- The last time Hofstra went to the Big Dance they were known as the Flying Dutchmen (2001). The Pride are now in great shape to end their drought, as they’ve already clinched the # 1 seed for the upcoming Colonial tournament in Charleston.
Rider (Metro Atlantic)- The Broncos haven’t danced since 1994, but they are currently just a game back of the conference lead play entering the final weekend of the league play.
Quinnipiac (Metro Atlantic)- The Bobcats are the only remaining Big Dance virgins in the Metro Atlantic, but they are great shape to finally put on dancing shoes as they are one of the three MAAC teams tied for first place in the loss column.
Canisius (Metro Atlantic)- The Golden Griffins (very underrated nickname) are nipping at heels of the Bobcats (see Quinnipiac 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 the team with the best chance of knocking off Buffalo in the MAC tourney, as Bowling Green has the second best record in the league and beat Buffalo in their only regular season meeting thus far.
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 as they have already clinched the top seed in the upcoming MEAC tournament which the Spartans will be hosting.
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. This team doesn’t appear to be quite as good as it was last year but they do have a lot of the key pieces back from that Final Four run.
Missouri State (Missouri Valley)- In 1999, a Steve Alford-led Missouri State team (known as Southwest Missouri State at the time) made a magical Cinderella run to second weekend of the NCAA tournament as a # 12 seed. The Bears haven’t danced since, but now they find themselves just a game back of league leaders Drake and Loyola heading into the final weekend of the regular season and swept the forementioned Ramblers in both regular season meetings.
St. Francis-Pennsylvania (Northeast)- St. Francis is the only team in the country who shares its university name with another school in the very same conference. And while St. Francis in Brooklyn has the most epic of all March Madness droughts (never danced since the NCAA tournament was created in 1939), St. Francis in Pennsylvania also hasn’t been to the tournament in 28 years. This year’s squad is in prime position to end that streak, as they are currently alone in first place going into their final regular season game this weekend.
Colgate (Patriot)- Speaking of tourney droughts dating back to the 1990s, the Raiders of Colgate haven’t danced since future journeyman pro Adonal Foyle graced their roster in 1996. Now they have caught fire, winning seven straight and locked in a three-way tie with league powerhouses Bucknell and Lehigh for first place in the conference.
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 in a tie for 4th in 14 team SEC and project as a 9 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 already find themselves in contention for their first-ever NCAA tournament trip. Abilene stands alone in 2nd place in the Southland heading into their regular season finale.
Prairie View (SWAC)- 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. Now, my beloved Prairie View Panthers, who have always been my favorite HBCU squad, find themselves with a two game lead over the rest of the league heading into March.
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, the Mavericks of Omaha (great nickname) have emerged as their most intense challengers.
Texas State (Sun Belt)- The Bobcats haven’t danced since the 1990s, but they are currently alone atop the Sun Belt standings.
Georgia Southern (Sun Belt)- Another Sun Belt squad who hasn’t been to the tournament this century is also still in contention for this league’s championship. The Eagles of Georgia Southern are tied for second place, just a game behind the Bobcats heading into the final week of the regular season.
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 second in the WAC with fellow Big Dance virgin Utah Valley (see entry below). 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.
Utah Valley (WAC)- Speaking of former basketball superstars who are trying to coach a WAC squad to their first NCAA tournament, Mark Pope, the former Kentucky Wildcat national champion and NBA role player, has Utah Valley tied with Grand Canyon for 2nd in the conference heading into the final stretch of the regular season.