I published the column below a couple of weeks ago, but due to several shifts in some of the conference standings, I think it might be best to update it by adding and subtracting a few teams. Only teams in first or second place of their respective conferences or have an especially good chance of winning their conference tourney will be included in this column.
We’re a mere minutes from the beginning of the great month of the year! But before we focus on Selection Sunday andthe Big Dance, we must focus on the squads who have the best chance of charming us during championship week. The mid-major conference tournaments are the source much of the early holiday season drama, as only the tourney champion will be able to put on their dancing shoes. 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 Wofford and Arkansas Pine-Bluff last year). Other times there is a likable coach who warms the hearts of the nation (see Pete Carrill in 1994). 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 could inspire us during ESPN’s annual championship week. These are listed in alphabetical order by conference.
Northern Colorado (Big Sky)- The Big Sky Auto Bid appears to be a two-team battle between Montana and Northern Colorado. For the sake of ensuring that we have a Big Dance first-timer in this year’s tournament, let’s go Bears!
Coastal Carolina (Big South)- The Chanticleers, who haven’t danced in nearly 20 years, have the 1 seed and homecourt throughout the Big SouthTourney. The problem is that their leading scorer Desmond Holloway is still suspended due to an eligibility issue. Coastal should still probably win this conference tourney, but it’s going to be a lot harder than expected.
Cal Poly (Big West)-The Mustangs have never been to the tourney, but are alone in 2nd in conference play. Unfortunately, Long Beach State appears to be the class of this conference, so Cal Poly is going to have to pull off a big upset to get a bid here.
Southern Miss (Conference USA)-The Golden Eagles have only danced once in school history andthat was 20 years ago. To add further interest to this already compelling interesting, it’s worth noting that Iowa State is coached by Larry Eustachy. Yes, that Larry Eustachy. The one who took meager Iowa State to national prominence before getting fired for several alcohol-related offenses including trying to pick up college girls at a frat party. Nevertheless, Eustachy has made the most of his second chance and has USM near the top of the conference standings and on the fringe of the bubble. Even if the Golden Eagles don’t get an at-large bid, they have as good of a chance as anybody to win that wide-open C-USA tourney.
Harvard (Ivy League)-And just when you thought Harvard was going to finally breakthrough and get their first tourney bid since 1946, Harvard drops a game to archrival Yale. Harvard is still in contention but will need to beat Princeton twice to get the auto bid. Their first opportunity will come on Saturday in Cambridge. A Harvard victory there would setup a one-game playoff for all the marbles.
Fairfield (MAAC)- If you listen to my podcast show (http://68and16sportscast.tumblr.com/) you will know that the Stags have randomly become a talking point in recent weeks. Justin and I are cheering for them because they haven’t danced since 1997 and have the most timid-looking logo in the country (http://logoinspirations.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Fairfield-Stags.jpg). Fairfieldhas the 1-seed in the MAAC tourney, but their weekend loss to Iona raises some doubts.
Bethune-Cookman (MEAC)-The Bethunies, as I affectionately call them, have never danced before but are in-line for the MEAC regular season champinship. If the Wildcats make it to the conference tourney final, I may have to buzz down the road to Winston-Salem to see them in action.
Long Island (Northeast)- LIU is NEC leader right now and playing impressive basketball. How can you not love a team nicknamed the Blackbirds that hasn’t danced in 13 years?
Florida Atlantic (Sun Belt)- The current leaders of the Sun Belt have danced before but never under the leadership of the great Mike Jarvis. Another name from the past who may return to the college basketball limelight in the upcoming weeks.
UL-Lafayette (Sun Belt)- If the Ragin’ Cajuns can make it to the dance it will without a doubt be the turnaround story of the season. On January 15th, this squad had an absymal overall record of 3-14 and an RPI of 275. They have since won 11 straight and find themselves tied for 1st in the Sun Belt West.
Please comment with any other applicable sentimenal storylines that you think deserve a mention.