Potential March Madness Cinderella Stories 2022- Conference Tourney Edition

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)- The America East conference appears to be Vermont’s to lose, but if the Catamounts somehow stumble in the conference tourney (like last season), then the second-seeded Retrievers find themselves in the best position to pick up the pieces. UMBC has not danced since their incredible 2018 upset over Virginia, and even though all the contributing parts of that team including the head coach have moved on, it would still be a lot of fun to see this team in the bracket again, likely in the same spot as they were before…a dangerous 16 seed. This team is now led by the shortest player in Division 1 basketball history, 5’2″ point guard Darnell Rogers (see photo below).

Montana State (Big Sky)- The Bobcats have not been dancing since Kentucky’s 1996 national championship season, and this season they are in prime position to end that drought as they are alone atop the Big Sky standings enter the final week of regular season play.

Longwood (Big South)– The Lancers have never danced in school history and are probably best known for producing the founding chapters of four different national sororities (Kappa Delta, Sigma Sigma Sigma, Zeta Tau Alpha, and Alpha Sigma Alpha). However, this season Longwood has clinched the conference’s outright regular season crown and enters March as the top overall seed in the Big South tournament this weekend.

Winthrop (Big South)– Unlike most of the teams on this list, the Eagles have danced a plenty in the past couple of decades. However, they have never done it under new head coach Mark Prosser (pictured below), who every college basketball fan should be cheering for, after his dad, Skip, tragically died of a heart attack in 2007 during his tenure as Wake Forest head coach. The Eagles will enter the Big South tournament as its # 2 seed and presumptive favorite to take home the title. If Mark can make his first trip to the dance this season with Winthrop, he will have an immediate chance to do something his father never did, which is get a victory over a single digit seed in the NCAA tournament.

Towson (Colonial)– Thanks to a strange mid-game postponement, the Tigers had to wait until yesterday to clinch the CAA’s top seed with a dominant come from behind victory over Delaware. Entering the tourney, Towson is by far playing the best basketball in the league, and this team looks poised to go dancing for the the first time since 1991, which was the first-ever NCAA tournament won by Coach K. I saw this team play in person a few weeks ago, and I guarantee that they will be a tough out in the Big Dance should they get in. They have a slew of dead-eye shooters surrounding a few athletic big men and guards that can penetrate.

IPFW (Horizon)– The Mastodons not only have one of the best mascot names in college basketball, but they are also the league’s hottest team entering the Horizon league tourney which begins tonight. Fort Wayne has won nine straight games and will just need three more to earn their first-ever trip to the Big Dance.

Toledo (MAC)– Every year when I write this column, I am always shocked to see that the Rockets still haven’t played in an NCAA tournament since 1980. This university always seems to field very good teams that fall just short of the conference crown come March. In fact, last season, Toledo was the heavy favorite to win the MAC tourney but lost in the semis to the eventual champion, Ohio. This season, the Rockets once again find themselves alone atop the the league standings heading in to the final weekend of the regular season. Will this be the year the Rockets finally launch themselves into the Dance?

Howard (MEAC)– Norfolk State gets to host the MEAC conference tourney, and they will be the clear-cut favorite to make the dance for the second consecutive season. However, their top challenger and likely # 2 seed will be the Bison of Howard who haven’t danced since the 1992 NCAA tournament, which was the event that saw Laettner break the hearts of Kentucky fans everywhere.

Loyola-Chicago (Missouri Valley)– Gone are Porter Moser and Cameron Krautwig, but the Ramblers still have Sister Jean and a NET ranking that at this point puts them in decent position for an NCAA tournament at-large bid (31). And if the Ramblers and Sister Jean do make this tourney (either through an auto bid or as an at-large), then there won’t be a better story then Sister Jean going for a third deep NCAA tournament run in the past five seasons, this time at the age of 101.

Missouri State (Missouri Valley)– While Loyola is still the team to beat in the Valley, the second place team in the league is the Missouri State Bears who beat Loyola by ten points on the road earlier this season. Surprisingly, this program hasn’t played in an NCAA tournament since their Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 in 1997 when they were named Southwest Missouri State.

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. In fact, last season Bryant lost a heartbreaker in the conference tourney final at home to Mount Mt. Mary’s. This season, the Bulldogs have once again have put themselves in great position to breakthrough, as they will get to host all of their conference tourney games as the # 1 seed in the NEC, thanks to a late-season collapse by Wagner.

Navy (Patriot)- Despite their recent football successes, the Midshipmen haven’t danced in men’s basketball since the late 1990’s. And even though Colgate will enter the Patriot League tourney as the heavily favored # 1 seed, the Middies will be the dangerous # 2 seed who gave the Raiders all they could handle on the road in their meeting last Saturday.

Furman (Southern)– Speaking of lengthy NCAA tournament droughts, the Paladins haven’t danced since 1980, despite being a upper echelon SoCon team for the better part of the last decade.  This year, Furman once again enters the conference tourney as a top contender, holding a # 2 seed in this weekend’s bracket.

Nicholls State (Southland)- The Colonels haven’t danced since the late 90’s, but they currently find themselves tied for first place in the Southland conference standings and are regarded by many as the favorite in next week’s league tournament.

Texas State (Sun Belt)- The Bobcats have been featured on this list for the past two seasons, 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. This season they will be the clear-cut favorites in the upcoming Sun Belt tournament, as they have won nine straight games and finished three games ahead of the entire league in the regular season standings.

San Francisco (West Coast)– The Dons haven’t danced since 1998 when they lost to a Utah team that ended up as the national runner-up that season. Admittedly, no one from this conference has danced much since then, as Gonzaga began its reign of terror in the WCC the following season and have won 18 out of the last 23 conference titles since then. And even though Gonzaga seems to have this year’s WCC title on lockdown as well, San Francisco is in great position for an at-large bid with a 23-8 overall record and a NET ranking of 28. Currently, the Dons are a 9 seed in my NCAA tournament bracket projection.

Seattle (WAC)– The Redhawks of Seattle are in the midst of a magical season en route to potentially ending a lengthy NCAA tourney drought. Seattle U was a basketball powerhouse in the 1950’s and 60’s, as Elgin Baylor led this squad to the NCAA title game in 1958. However, the Hawks haven’t played in an NCAA tourney since 1969 and even dropped down to NAIA play in 1980 due to their lack of competitiveness. Nevertheless, the Redhawks have been back in Division 1 since 2008 and will be a top contender in next week’s WAC tournament, entering the event as the likely # 2 seed.

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