Potential March Madness Cinderella Stories of 2023- Early Edition

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 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.

Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun)– The Owls have never played in the Big Dance before, as they just transitioned from Division II in 2010. danced in school history, as. However, this season Kennesaw State sits tied with Liberty atop the Atlantic Sun standings despite being picked 8th of our 14 teams in the league’s preseason poll

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UMass Lowell (America East)– The River Hawks came out of nowhere last year to make a run to the America East title game, only to fall just short of earning their first ticket to the dance. This year, they are looking to finish the job, as they are just a half game back of league leading Vermont in the America East standings.

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UC Riverside (Big Sky)– Speaking of Big Dance virgins, the Highlanders of Riverside have also never been do the Division 1 men’s basketball tournament, despite being a Division 2 powerhouse from the 1970’s-1990’s. This is the year they could breakthrough though, as they are tied for first in the win column in the Big West standings, only a game behind the league leaders from UC Santa Barbara.

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College of Charleston (Colonial)– The Cougars have been to the tournament six times in their storied history, but their 21-1 mark which includes wins over four teams from last year’s NCAA tournament field, has been truly remarkable. This is really fun team to watch, as they are play at the fastest tempo in the country and can shoot the lights out of the gym. Pat Kelsey (pictured below) has always been known as great offensive coach, but this team plays scrappy D as well. They will be a dangerous out if they reach the Big Dance as either an automatic qualifer from the CAA or with a potential at-large bid.

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Hofstra (Colonial)- The last time Hofstra went to the Big Dance they were known as the Flying Dutchmen (2001).  The Pride, as they are known as, are in the hunt to end their drought in 2023, as they are tied for second behind Charleston in the CAA standings.

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Towson (Colonial)– The Tigers of Towson were in great shape to end their 31 year NCAA tournament drought last season as they entered the CAA tournament last year as the # 1 seed and the clear betting favorite. Nevertheless, Jameer Nelson Jr’s Delaware team got hot at the right time and knocked them out in the league semifinals. This year, Towson has again put themselves in contention for the league title as they are tied with the aforementioned Hofstra squad for second place in the league.

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Florida Atlantic (Conference USA)– Joining College of Charleston and Purdue as the nation’s last one loss teams are the Owls of Florida Atlantic, who are off to a shocking 19-1 start that includes a road win over the Florida Gators. Barring a total collapse down the stretch, FAU will almost assuredly earn themselves an at-large bid if they somehow fail to win the C-USA tourney. This astonishing run is even more impressive when you consider that this program has not been to the Big Dance in 21 years and was only picked 5th in this league’s preseason poll.

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Rice (Conference USA)- This Houston-based engineering school has always been a juggernaut baseball but they have been perennially terrible in both football and basketball over the years. This season, however, the Owls are tied for second place in the loss column in Conference USA standings and are in prime position to earn their first NCAA tourney bid in 53 years if FAU somehow falters in the conference tournament.

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Maryland-Eastern Shore (MEAC)– There are three teams tied atop the MEAC standings right now and two of them haven’t been dancing in over 30 years. The first of these squads, the league-leading Hawks of Maryland Eastern-Shore, have never earned a tourney bid despite being a Division 1 program for nearly a half century. In fact, this program has been so bad in recent years that this week is the first time they have appeared on one of my bracket projections that I have been publishing weekly during the months of January, February, and March for the past 14 seasons!

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Howard (MEAC)– The other first place MEAC team that is trying to end a lengthy tournament drought is the Howard Bison who haven’t danced since the season Christian Laettner led Duke to a second consecutive national title (1992)! Right now, the Cinderella Howard and Maryland Eastern Shore squads are the two hottest teams in the league as they have each won four straight games. These two squads will square off in their only regular season meeting at Howard on February 13th.

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Southern Illinois (Missouri Valley)- The last time the Salukis danced I was a college junior (2007), and this squad made the Sweet 16 as a # 4 seed! In fact, in more than half of the school’s last six NCAA tournament trips this program has won at least one game in the bracket. This year’s team is currently alone atop the Missouri Valley standings and already have wins over perennial powers: Oklahoma State, Murray State, and Belmont.

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St. Francis-PA (Northeast)- The other St. Francis from Brooklyn is one of the original four NCAA Division 1 programs never to make it to the Big Dance, but the Red Flash from Loretto, PA are also trying to end an epic NCAA tourney drought. This program has not punched their ticket to the Dance since 199,1 but they are currently alone atop the NEC standings with a record of 5-1.

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Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley)- The OVC currently has the nation’s biggest logjam atop its league standings with six different teams tied for first place in conference play. One of those squads, the Golden Eagles of Tennessee Tech, has not played in an NCAA tournament since falling to eventual national champion Loyola of Chicago in the first round of the 1963 Big Dance. Two of teams tied with them have, in fact, never gone dancing: UT-Martin and SIU Edwardsville.

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UT Martin (Ohio Valley)- See comment about Tennessee Tech above

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SIU Edwardsville (Ohio Valley)- See comment about Tennessee Tech above

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Samford (Southern)– The Bulldogs from Birmingham haven’t danced since the turn of the century but currently find themselves tied atop the SoCon standings with perennial power UNCG.

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Nicholls State (Southland)- The Colonels haven’t danced since the late 90’s, but they currently find themselves tied for first place in their league standings. They also gave both Texas Tech and Mississippi State a run for their money back in December when they lost heartbreakers to both squads on the road.

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Alcorn State (SWAC)– It has been over two decades since the Braves from Lorman, Mississippi have made it to the Big Dance, but this squad is on fire right now, as they have won six straight games after dropping their league opener to Jackson State. Alcorn is currently tied for first in the SWAC standings with Southern, and they play the Jaguars this Saturday to decide the outright league leader.

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Oral Roberts (Summit)– Will the legendary Max Abmas (pictured below) get another shot at an NCAA tournament run after leading this program to the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed two years ago? Right now, he has ORU in prime position to do so as they stand alone atop the league standings with a perfect 8-0 record.

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Seattle (WAC)- Seattle U was an NCAA basketball powerhouse in the 50’s and 60’s as Elgin Baylor led this program to an NCAA title game in 1958. However, the Redhawks haven’t played in an NCAA tourney since 1969 and even dropped down to NAIA play for a period of time beginning in 1980. Nevertheless, the Redhawks are back in Division 1 and seem poised for their first tourney trip in over 50 years, as the currently sit atop the WAC standings with a perfect 7-0 record in league play. Last season, this squad entered the conference tourney as a two seed and lost a heartbreaker in the WAC semis against Abilene Christian. Now, they look to take the next step, as they have not lost a game since before Christmas.

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Utah Valley (WAC)– Former Stanford standout and LA Laker, Mark, “Mad Dog” Madsen (pictured below) has taken the Wolverines on the cusp of their first NCAA tourney in each of his last two seasons only to fall just short. Now, Madsen may have his most talented squad yet, as Utah Valley has won 13 out of its last 14 games, including victories over BYU and Oregon. They currently sit just a half game back of the aforementioned Seattle squad in the WAC standings.

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