Every year there is some school that manages to captivate the country’s imagination, a minnow that roars back against the big fish of March Madness. While college football delights in restricting access for mid-major schools, basketball at the Division I level revels in these Cinderella stories. For some schools, merely reaching the NCAA Tournament is the big deal; for others, the dream is to build a program into the next Butler or Wichita State.
Which teams have the chance to inspire us with their stories this season? Some have already had their “One Shining Moment” just by reaching the Dance; others are eyeballing a run through the bracket. All six discussed below have a compelling story to offer as we approach the Tournament. (Current seed projections are derived from the work of Mr. Bracketology himself, Joe Lunardi.)
Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers (16-16/9-7 NEC)
The Mountaineers stunned their way into the tournament for the first time since 2008. By defeating Robert Morris in the Northeast Conference tournament final — after reaching the game thanks to some illegal shenanigans — Mount St. Mary’s has earned the right to be shellacked by a one-seed in the opening round. It’s quite the feat, especially considering that they began the new year with a 3-9 record and entered the NEC tournament at 13-16. Currently projected to face Coastal Carolina in the play-in round, the Mountaineers will need senior guards Julian Norfleet and Rashad Whack to heat up if they are to advance to the round of 64.
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (21-12/11-5 Big South)
For the first time since the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Chanticleers are going dancing this March. A 15-point win over Winthrop put Coastal Carolina into the NCAA Tournament as the Big South’s representative and earned the Chanticleers a modicum of revenge after losing twice to the Eagles in the regular season. They’ve been blessed with great production on the boards from Senegalese senior El Hadji Ndieguene, while inexperience hasn’t held back freshman guard Elijah Wilson from leading the team in scoring during the regular season. Coastal Carolina will almost certainly be slotted into a play-in game rather than falling right into the field of 64, meaning that their shining moment could end quickly.
Mercer Bears (26-8/14-4 Atlantic Sun)
While everyone was lamenting the fact that Dunk City will not return to the NCAA Tournament in 2014 due to Florida Gulf Coast’s loss in the final of the Atlantic Sun tournament, it merely meant that a really good Mercer squad will enter the bracket for the first time since 1985. The Bears failed their only tests against RPI top-50 competition, losing to Texas and Oklahoma earlier in the season — making it especially unlikely that they will pull off the 13-over-4 upset in the first round against projected opponent San Diego State. But Bob Hoffman and his crew have a team that has already pulled off one upset with the ousting of FGCU, and it isn’t entirely unimaginable to see them get at least number 27 against the Aztecs.
Delaware Blue Hens (25-9/14-2 CAA)
Thanks to a 13-game winning streak to start the new year, the Blue Hens entered the Colonial Athletic Association tournament as the top seed. Monte Ross’s team didn’t disappoint, fending off a William and Mary team hungry for its first NCAA appearance in a tense 75-74 final. The reward is the first NCAA Tournament bid for the Blue Hens this century 15 years after their most recent appearance in 1999. Delaware will need senior guards Devon Saddler and Davon Usher to hit their scoring averages in their likely first-round matchup against ACC regular-season champion Virginia if the Blue Hens hope to pull off the No. 14 over No. 3 upset of the tournament.
Cal Poly Mustangs (13-19/6-10 Big West)
The Mustangs weren’t supposed to reach the first NCAA Tournament in school history after finishing the regular season sixth in the Big West standings. They were slated against a UC-Santa Barbara team that finished the regular season with 21 wins, including a 16-point victory over Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in the regular-season finale. Completely against convention, the Mustangs drubbed the Gauchos 69-38, followed it up with a three-point win over regular-season champion UC-Irvine, and knocked off Cal State-Northridge in the Big West final to earn the league’s automatic qualification. Cal Poly enters the NCAA Tournament with the lowest winning percentage since Oakland in 2005.
North Carolina Central Eagles (28-5/15-1 MEAC)
North Carolina Central is hardly a surprise entry, having won 28 games during the season and losing just once in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. But before 2014, the Eagles had never managed to finish their season with a berth in the NCAA Tournament. LeVelle Moton’s crew did everything necessary in the MEAC tournament to finally realize the March Madness dream — doubling up Howard in a 92-46 victory, winning by 23 over Norfolk State in the semifinals, and outlasting Morgan State for the conference crown. Senior guard Jeremy Ingram is in the top 20 in the nation in scoring, averaging more than 20 points per game, and the Eagles should be a tough out for Syracuse or Iowa State or whichever other powerhouse lands them in the round of 64.