- Ron Buck
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It's a sad fact of life for the low- and mid-major regular season champions. Before any can entertain thoughts of being a NCAA Cinderella, they must first avoid the spoilers lurking in their own conference tournaments.
Yes, East Tennessee State enters the final weekend of the regular season a perfect 15-0 in the Southern Conference. But if the Bucs (24-4) are going to lose to a SoCon team this season, it better be on Saturday at College of Charleston. A loss any later would mean no NCAA Tournament bid.
The same is true for Austin Peay, which can complete an unblemished OVC regular season with a win at home over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday. But with eight non-conference losses, the Govs better cap off regular-season perfection with three more OVC victories next week.
While not perfect, there are others who've had impressive regular seasons and earned the title of regular season champion. But outside of Southern Illinois, Gonzaga and possibly Utah State or the MAC's division leaders, at-large bids won't be waiting if regular-season champions fall short.
So, who should the "champs" be worried about? Here are a few conference tournaments tipping off in the next week that bring to an unexpected the hopes of teams who've separated themselves from the pack.
Atlantic Sun: It's been a month since Troy State (19-5, 16-2) lost. Now on a nine-game winning streak, the Trojans can win the A-Sun's regular season title with a victory at Jackson State on Friday or Stetson on Sunday. But Troy State's last loss was to Central Florida (20-5, 15-3) and it only beat a suddenly surging Belmont (19-6, 14-4) by two points in the teams' first meeting. You remember Belmont, who shocked Missouri at home and whose only two losses over their last 12 games are at UCF and to Troy State. While it wouldn't be surprising to see any of the three win next week's A-Sun tournament, the Trojans could easily be one of two 20-win teams in the A-Sun who don't dance.
Big Sky: Eastern Washington is six games (yes, six!) better than any other team in the Big Sky. After losing its conference opener to Montana, the Eagles have reeled off 11 straight wins and can enter the conference tournament with 13 straight. If Eastern (11-1, 15-10) gets to the title game for a fourth straight year, the Eagles will play host (March 10) because of its losses at Weber State and Montana in the past two Big Sky championship games. In all, Eastern has lost three straight title games. And without a team above .500 in conference, a fourth straight loss would be the cruelest of all.
MAAC: Manhattan has been here before, as the clear favorite to win the MAAC's automatic bid and not much to fall back on if it doesn't. Last year, the Jaspers took advantage of the league's new policy giving the regular-season champion a bye to the semifinals. The same will be true this year, as Manhattan (21-5, 15-2) had already wrapped up the top seed even before losing by a point at Rider on Thursday night. The loss snapped a eight-game winning streak and may give MAAC teams hope that the Jaspers can be beaten by anyone in the conference. Fairfield gave Manhattan all it wanted in a 63-60 loss on Jan. 21. The Stags (18-9, 12-5) have been as hot as the Jaspers since the teams' second game in a three-day span. Fairfield could certainly give Manhattan much more trouble if the Stags' current four-game win streak and wins in 10 of 11 games are any indication of what they have in store for the postseason tournament.
Ohio Valley Conference: Maybe the most unlikely of conference champions, Austin Peay (18-8) just can't lose in the OVC ... or win outside of it. But Peay won't play another nonconfernce game until the NCAA Tournament -- if, indeed, it earns the OVC's automatic bid. And the Govs have plenty of competition for that bid, despite its perfection heading into their season finale on Saturday. Murray State (23-5, 12-2) was the early team to watch in the OVC until it lost at Austin Peay on Valentine's Day. The Racers are still one of only two teams to beat Southern Illinois this season, and have wins over TCU and Southern Miss. Think the Racers would like another shot at the Govs? A game, say, with a ticket to dance to the winner?
Southern Conference: In the land of two divisions, Eastern Tennessee State dominated the North and can sweep the South as well with a win Saturday over another team many picked to be in the Bucs' shoes at this point of the season. While ETSU (24-4, 15-0) rolled through the regular season unbeaten, College of Charleston stumbled more than anyone expected. But the Cougars (18-8, 10-5), as well as likely South Division champion Georgia Southern (20-6, 11-4), will be waiting for the Bucs in Charleston, S.C., next week.
It's called Championship Week for a reason. And in most cases, fairly or not, the champions are crowned over three or four games, not three months.
If you haven't been following along, let's clarify once again what the Cinderella Watch is all about. First of all:
- At ESPN.com, a team in the Mid-Major Top 10 (see chart below) may not "officially" be on the Cinderella Watch.
However, those 10 teams certainly could qualify as Cinderellas come March. But, for now, those teams are a bit more mainstream in our view. (See: Gonzaga rule below). So, just because Utah State, Southern Illinois or East Tennessee State isn't on the Cinderella Watch, it doesn't mean they aren't Cinderella-worthy come tourney time. In fact, we'd be surprised if at least two or three teams on our final Top 10 list in March didn't win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
Over the past six weeks and with two more leading up to Selection Sunday (March 14), we'll chronicle the progress of all deserving mid-major teams around the country -- via the Cinderella Watch and Mid-Major Top 10. The goal is to identify a few teams that fans should become familiar with heading into the Big Dance. Some of the teams we feature this week are regulars, while others have fallen by the wayside. The Watch has had its share of changes and will continue to until the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
As for the definition of a Cinderella? Well, the only rule when it comes to the Watch is that a team can't play in the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC or Pac-10. So, unlike the Mid-Major Top Ten (which doesn't include the Atlantic-10, WAC or Mountain West), those conferences can produce Cinderellas. But just because South Carolina is enjoying surprising success in the SEC, don't look for the Gamecocks on the Watch.
Why? Because we said so.
One aspect to the Watch hasn't changed this year: Fans will still play a major role in the look of the Watch. Not only can you vote for the most deserving Cinderellas each week in the poll below, but be sure to send in your Cinderella Watch comments, telling us why your school should get more attention from not only us but also from the selection committee. Last week, the fans spoke -- and Louisiana-Lafayette was eliminated.
Oh, and remember the Gonzaga Rule: The Zags outgrew their slipper several years ago.
Aside from that, the Watch is pretty much open to everyone.
With all of this in mind, let's take a look at the teams the big boys should be watching along with us this week.
Manhattan: The country got a good look at why the Jaspers are once again a dangerous dance partner. Manhattan went into Milwaukee on Bracket Buster Sunday and all but ran the Horizon's best team out of its own gym in an 83-76 victory that wasn't that close. All Manhattan must do now is make sure it doesn't stumble next week on the way to the Dance ... as it did Thursday night at Rider. Once again, the Jaspers aren't quite good enough on paper (49 RPI, 169 SOS) to warrant an at-large bid if they fail to win the MAAC tournament for a second straight year. But once in the NCAAs, Luis Flores and company will give any big boy a battle -- just ask Syracuse, which didn't exactly have fun playing their New York City neighbors in the first round last year or in December this season (winning 69-63 in the Carrier Dome). Flores is once again among the nation's leading scorers, sitting third at 24 point a game -- his third straight season of at least 20 ppg. The Jaspers have once again rolled through the MAAC regular season at 15-2. And all that is missing on Bobby Gonzalez's résumé is a first-round victory, which just might happen in March.
Slipping Into A Slipper?
Illinois-Chicago The Horizon League's automatic bid to the Dance is suddenly anyone's to win next week. And the Flames are certainly the hottest of those who've shown NCAA potential this season. UCI (21-7) has won nine in a row and 10 of its last 11 behind five senior starters. No, it's not just the Cedrick Banks Show. While the guard leads the Flames at 18.6 ppg, and has gone off for 20 or more points 14 times, UCI is winning even when he isn't scoring. That's good news for the Flames. Also promising is UCI's current trend of winning on their main competition's court. The Flames have five road wins during their current streak, and with the conference tournament played on the higher seed's court, the Flames may not care where they're seeded next week.
Slipping Out of Its Slipper
Dayton: We aren't saying the Flyers aren't going to dance, but since losing to Saint Joseph's, they have lost their step. Two more losses add up to a total of three setbacks in 10 days and four games -- not a good trend heading into March. Still, with 20 wins and the conference tournament on their own court, the Flyers could still be poised to hand St. Joe's its only loss heading into the NCAA Tournament. But protecting its court this week against La Salle and Rhode Island comes first in order to get the No. 1 seed opposite St. Joe's.
Does The Slipper Fit?
The following teams may or may not have the stuff to be included in this week's Mid-Major Top 10, but certainly could become a Cinderella story. And here's where you come into play. Vote in the poll to the right. Your vote will help eliminate one team users don't feel has shown it can be a Cinderella in March. Want to express yourself further? Click here to let us know who we missed, or why your team should stay on next week's guest list.
Ron Buck is ESPN.com's men's college basketball editor.