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.
Tulsa (AAC)- The Golden Hurricane were picked to finish 10th in the American Athletic this season but now they find themselves tied for the conference lead entering the final week of the regular season. Add in the heart-warming story of Elijah Joiner, and you have all the makings of a great March Madness Cinderella Story.
Rutgers (Big Ten)- The Scarlet Knights have long been the doormat of major college basketball. In fact, you could argue they have long been the doormat of major college athletics, as they are only one of two Power 5 schools never to play in a ESPN College Gameday basketball or football game (the other is my beloved Wake Forest squad). Nevertheless, Rutgers is in prime position to break through this season as they are start to the season and currently projected as a 9 seed in my most recent bracket projection. The Knights haven’t played in an NCAA tournament since 1991 and haven’t even had a winning season since 2006!
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 enter the CAA tournament as the # 1 seed.
William & Mary (Colonial)- Could this be the year? The Tribe are one of the original four NCAA teams that have been apart of Division 1 since the tournament’s inception in 1939 but have never garnered a tourney bid. (Army, Citadel, and St. Francis-Brooklyn are the others). Nevertheless, William & Mary finished alone in second in the CAA regular season and appears to be Hofstra’s top challenger in the upcoming conference tournament. Dane Fischer has done a tremendous job with this program in his inaugural season as head coach.
Louisiana Tech (Conference USA)- The Ragin’ Cajuns have produced a solid football program over the years, but the basketball program hasn’t seen in an NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. They have a decent shot at ending that drought this season, however, as they are tied for second place in the loss column in the current Conference USA standings.
Bowling Green (MAC)– Would you believe the Falcons haven’t danced since LBJ’s presidency back in 1968? This football powerhouse may finally have the goods to breakthrough in hoops, as they are tied with Akron for first place in this league entering the final week of the season.
Northern Illinois (MAC)– The Falcons aren’t the only MAC team positioning themselves for a Cinderella NCAA tourney bid. The Huskies, who have been the class of the league in football for several seasons, are alone in first in the MAC West, as they search for their first NCAA tourney bid since 1996.
Loyola-Chicago (MVC)– Can Sister Jean make more one more March Madness run? This may be the 100 year old nun’s last, best shot as the Ramblers enter the MVC tournament as a # 2 seed after recently knocking off the regular season champ Northern Iowa.
St. Francis-PA (NEC)– The real Cinderella story in the Northeast Conference is the Merrimack Warriors who won this conference’s regular season in their very first year playing Division 1 basketball. Unfortunately, Merrimack is ineligible for the Big Dance, so the one Cinderella Story that matters in this league is St. Francis PA who will be a # 2 seed in this week’s NEC tournament, despite a 29 year NCAA tournament drought.
Furman (Southern)– The Paladins haven’t danced since 1980 but did you know this squad made the Sweet 16 in 1974? This year they will enter the SoCon tournament as a dangerous # 2 seed, as they only lost by 3 at Auburn earlier this season and split regular season meetings with league champ ETSU.
Nicholls State (Southland)- The Colonels haven’t danced since the late 90’s, and even though everyone think this is Stephen F. Austin’s league to lose, Nicholls is just a half game back of second place in the conference standings.
Arkansas-Little Rock (Sun Belt)– The Trojans have danced as recently as 2016 when they beat Purdue in a huge first round upset. Nevertheless, Little Rock finished dead last in conference the past two seasons. That is why it is fairly astonishing that Darrell Walker has led this team to a regular season championship and conference tourney # 1 seed this season.
Texas State (Sun Belt)– The Bobcats haven’t danced since the late 1990s but they are the aforementioned Little Rock’s top challenger in the upcoming Sun Belt tournament.