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 Enfield in 2013). 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 conference (or within a game of the conference lead) 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.
UMBC (America East)- Can the Retrievers get back to the Dance for the first time since their incredible 2018 upset over Virginia? Well, they enter the America East with the top seed and subsequent home court advantage throughout the tourney. Not only does UMBC still have Daniel Akin who had a big impact in that legendary upset, but they also have a 5’2″ senior point guard in Darnell Rogers who is the shortest player in Division 1 basketball history.
Richmond (Atlantic 10)- It is hard to believe the Spiders have not gotten to the Big Dance since their Cinderella Sweet 16 run ten years ago. I think the Spiders would have earned one of the last few at-large bids last season, but this year the always underrated Chris Mooney, who is in his fifteenth year with the school, again has his team on the cusp of a trip to the tourney. The Spiders are just one game behind in the loss column of the A-10 leader St. Bonaventure and are right in the thick of the NCAA tourney at-large bubble.
Southern Utah (Big Sky)– The Thunderbirds have never been dancing before, yet they enter the last week of regular season play tied for first in the loss column with perennial power Eastern Washington. Todd Simon’s crew was picked to finish seventh in this league in the preseason, but they are as hottest team in the league right now, as they have won their last seven games and split their two road games against EWU earlier this season.
Campbell (Big South)– Speaking of 7 game-winning streaks, the Fighting Camels from Buies Creek, North Carolina have also won seven in a row as they enter Big South tourney play later tonight as a dangerous # 3 seed. The Camels haven’t danced since 1992 when they were Duke’s first victim in the Blue Devils’ epic repeat championship run that featured Laettner’s legendary game-winner over Kentucky.
Rutgers (Big Ten)- The Scarlet Knights were robbed of their first tourney bid since 1991 last year when Covid-19 cancelled an NCAA tournament which they almost assuredly would have received an at-large bid to. This year Rutgers is sitting pretty as a # 7 seed in my bracket projection (and many others) and are on the verge of clinching a long-anticipated dance invite. At this point it would be a major surprise if the longest current tourney drought amongst Power 5 schools doesn’t come to an end on Selection Sunday.
Louisiana Tech (Conference USA)- Speaking of teams that haven’t been dancing since 1991, the Ragin’ Cajuns received their last dance bid that very same season, but this year they are in prime position to make a run at ending this lengthy drought. Last year, they found themselves on this list but never got a chance to make a run due to the cancellation of their conference tourney. This season, they enter the last week of the regular season as the hottest team in the league, winning their last four games and eight of their last nine, to climb to first place in the C-USA West standings.
Toledo (MAC)– Every year when I write this column I am always shocked to see that this team still hasn’t played in an NCAA tournament since 1980. The Rockets always seem to field solid MAC teams that fall just short of the conference crown. This may be the season Toledo is finally able to breakthrough, as they are 14-3 in MAC play and have a two game lead on the field in the conference standings.
Drake (Missouri Valley)– The Bulldogs haven’t danced since having their hearts ripped out by Western Kentucky in the 2008 NCAA tournament, when they suffered an upset loss as a surprise 5 seed thanks to a 30 foot prayer at the buzzer. Now, Drake has a decent shot at both an automatic bid or an at-large bid (if one is needed) after an impressive 24-3 regular season. Interestingly, the Bulldogs of Drake also fielded a loaded team during their most recent tourney appearance prior to 2008, as their 1971 squad make it all the way to the Elite Eight. It is fair to say that Drake doesn’t dance often, but when they do they, bring a team that far exceeds what you would expect from a normal Missouri Valley tourney participant.
Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley)- Drake’s only major challenger in the Missouri Valley is none other than Sister Jean’s crew from Chicago. Loyola of Chicago, the 2018 Final Four Cinderella darlings, are still very dangerous as they finished the regular season with a 21-4 record and a projected 9 seed in my bracket projection and several others. This squad features both a starter (Cameron Krutwig, pictured below) and a role player (Lucas Williamson) from that 2018 squad who want to bookend their careers with another surprising NCAA tourney run. Loyola and Drake split their two regular season meetings and almost got in a fight after their second matchup, so needless to say, the potential rubber match in the Missouri Valley final should be a classic.
Bryant (Northeast)– The Bulldogs of Bryant have been an emerging power in the NEC for a few years now, but they still haven’t earned their first NCAA tourney bid in school history. That could change this March as Bryant enters conference tourney play as the # 1 seed in the bracket and have home court advantage throughout. They also have proven they can play with the big boys as Bryant lost at Syracuse by a mere point back in November.
Navy (Patriot)- Despite their recent football successes, the Midshipmen haven’t danced in men’s basketball since the 1990’s. However, this season the Middies have an excellent shot at ending that drought given that they have already clinched the # 1 seed in the upcoming conference tourney and more importantly, home court advantage in all of their games. Their main competition there will be an 11-1 Colgate squad that Navy didn’t have to play in the regular season. If those two teams meet in the league championship game on Selection Sunday, it could be one of the great tourney finals in this conference’s storied history.
Furman (Southern)– Speaking of lengthy NCAA tournament droughts, the Paladins haven’t danced since 1980, but did you know this team made the Sweet 16 in 1974? This year Furman tied both Wofford and UNC Greensboro, in the loss column, for the regular season Southern Conference title and enter the league tournament as a dangerous # 3 seed.
Nicholls State (Southland)- The Colonels haven’t danced since the late 90’s, but they currently find themselves in first place in the Southland conference standings, a half game up on both Sam Houston State and Abilene Christian with just a game left in their regular season. They also gave LSU a run for their money back in December, only losing by six in Baton Rouge.
South Dakota (Summit League)- The Coyotes have becoming a basketball power over the past half decade, but they haven’t been able to overcome South Dakota State and North Dakota State’s stranglehold on this league and earn their inaugural NCAA tourney berth. This may be the season that all changes though, as South Dakota sits in second place and only a half game back of arch rival SDSU with just a game to go in conference play. The Coyotes have also beaten South Dakota State in two of their three matchups earlier this season.
Texas State (Sun Belt)- The Bobcats were featured on this list last season, as they are still searching for their first NCAA tourney bid since 1997 when they got destroyed by Clem Haskins’ Minnesota squad under their former moniker of Southwest Texas State. Last season, Texas State was on their way to possibly ending that drought, as the Bobcats were in the Sun Belt conference semifinals before the Covid-19 virus cancelled the remainder of the tournament. This season, Texas State is once again contending for the league crown as they enter the conference tournament as regular season champions as well as the # 1 seed from the Sun Belt’s West Division. Georgia State will likely be the Bobcats biggest obstacle standing between them and an elusive NCAA tourney bid.
Grand Canyon (WAC)- The Antelopes have never been dancing, and even though they are no longer coached by NBA superstar Dan Majerle, his replacement Mr. Mid-Major Cinderella Story himself Bryce Drew (pictured below) has them on the precipice of a tourney bid this season. In the past, Grand Canyon just hasn’t been able to beat perennial power New Mexico State when it has mattered the most. This appears to be the season that is set to chance though, as Grand Canyon swept New Mexico State by fairly wide margins earlier in the season and currently sit atop the league standings entering the final week of regular seaosn play.
Utah Valley (WAC)– While Grand Canyon got rid of their NBA star in favor of a former NCAA tourney legend, Utah Valley’s head coach actually embodies both of those titles. Former Stanford standout and LA Laker, Mark, “Mad Dog” Madsen (pictured below) has the Wolverines on the cusp of their first WAC title and inaugural NCAA tourney big in just his second year at the helm. Utah Valley trails Grand Canyon by just a half game in the conference standings and plays them on both Friday and Saturday night this week to conclude their regular season. With a possible third matchup coming in the WAC championship game, these two teams will be seeing a lot of each other over the next couple of weeks. Interestingly, Bryce Drew of Grand Canyon and Madsen of Utah Valley are probably the two most iconic figures from the same 1998 NCAA tournament, as Madsen led Stanford to a surprise Final Four berth that season while Valpo made a shocking Sweet 16 run thanks to Bryce Drew’s late-game heroics.