Is Cinderella already in the Dance? Or is this year's feel-good story playing a conference tournament game or two this week?
Liberty, East Tennessee State, Murray State, Central Florida and Princeton all clinched NCAA Tournament bids on Saturday. Four more mid-major title games are slated for Monday. And by the end of the week, all 31 conference champions will be decided. So, who should be fitted for slippers and whose NCAA Tournament hopes will be shattered during Championship Week?
Well, No. 1 seeds beware: The upsets are already creating unlikely Cinderella stories.
As warned last week, just getting to the Dance is tough enough for mid-major teams. Just one stumble these days can void a regular season full of success. Here is a look at the mid-major story lines as bids continue to be handed out over the next six days.
Colonial Athletic Association: Top-seeded Virginia Commonwealth (22-7) will play for the title Monday night (ESPN, 7 ET) against No. 3 seed George Mason (21-8). Where's the No. 2 seed? Drexel lost in the quarterfinals Saturday. So, can Jeff Capel get back to the NCAAs? As the youngest coach in Division I basketball, the former Dukie has the Rams poised for just that with a win over GMU, a team it beat by 24 back in January, but also a team whose eight wins in the last 10 outings include a 69-57 victory over VCU on Feb. 11.
Missouri Valley Conference: Southwest Missouri State (19-13) is one step from dancing after upsetting Southern Illinois in the MVC semifinals Sunday. The Bears, who danced all the way to the Sweet 16 under Steve Alford's direction in 1999, will return to the NCAAs for the first time since with a win over No. 2 seed Northern Iowa (20-9) (ESPN, 9 ET). During the regular season, the teams split their home-and-home by a total of seven points. The winner of the third game joins the Salukis in the Dance.
MAAC: Top-seeded Manhattan (23-5) waited two days to start its quest to return to the Dance, but showed no rust in routing St. Peter's on Sunday. With a bye straight into the semis, the Jaspers face a little good news/bad news. The good news is host Siena isn't around after getting halfway to a repeat of 2002's improbable run to the NCAAs. The bad news, No. 2 seed Niagara beat the Saints to move into Monday's title game (ESPN2, 9 ET). The Jaspers beat Niagara twice during the regular season, but the last meeting was decided by just three points in NYC.
WCC: The biggest favorite in any mid-major tournament this week tipped off at midnight Sunday night against Santa Clara and nearly lost in the wee hours of Monday morning. The Zags beat Santa Clara by a point in the final seconds, and will now play No. 2 Saint Mary's in the title game (ESPN, midnight ET). Gonzaga hadn't come close to losing a WCC game this season, but they have never finished without a WCC loss, either. Was Monday morning a wakeup call, or a sign of things to come in 24 hours.
Horizon League: For a couple days it appeared Butler was up to its old tricks. But the Bulldogs ran into No. 2 seed Illinois-Chicago on Saturday, which is where last year's Sweet 16 team's season ended. The championship game (ESPN, 9 ET) will be a 1-2 matchup, but is No. 2 the favorite over No. 1 Wisconsin-Milwaukee? The Flames (23-7) have won 11 straight and beat the Panthers by four a month ago. UWM is looking for a return trip to the Dance, while UIC was in the NCAAs two years ago.
Sun Belt: It took two days to settle on the semifinalists, but No. 1 seed Louisiana-Lafayette (18-8) and No. 2 Arkansas-Little Rock (17-11) are both alive. Not sure both will be around in 24 hours. But if they are, it could be interesting theater in the title game (ESPN2, 8 ET). The Cajuns lost three of six down the stretch in the regular season, but Little Rock's only loss in its final five was to the Cajuns.
Mid-Continent: Another tourney just tipping off Sunday, the Mid-Con's two most recognizable names -- not to mention the top two seeds -- won quarterfinal games. Top-seeded Valparaiso and Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) each opened with double-digit wins, while No. 3 seed Oral Roberts was upset by Missouri-Kansas City. That may open things up a little for Homer Drew to return to the Dance (ESPN2, 7 ET) after a one-year hiatus.
Northeast Conference: The NEC is a mess, but at least the top seed survived a weekend of upsets. And even Monmouth needed a second-half comeback Sunday to beat No. 4 seed Robert Morris. Central Connecticut State is the team causing all the trouble for the top seeds. The Blue Devils find themselves in the title game (ESPN, 7 ET) after upsetting No. 2 seed St. Francis, N.Y. on Saturday and clipping No. 3 Fairleigh Dickinson in overtime. Then again, in an NEC that saw the top seed lose six conference games -- including a 19-point loss at CCSU -- we should have expected a No. 7 seed to have a shot to dance.
Big Sky: Top-seeded Eastern Washington didn't exactly roll into the postseason, losing its last two regular season games on the road at Weber State and Idaho. It just happens that those may be the two teams the Eagles need to beat to go dancing. Weber State arrives in Cheney, Wash., on Tuesday night to play the Eagles. Idaho State, meanwhile, takes on No. 2 seed Northern Arizona. Even with its late losses, EWU was four games better than anyone else in the league. And to say the Eagles are due to dance would be an understatement. Eastern (15-12) has lost the last three Big Sky title games. Losing a fourth, on its own court no less (ESPN2, 9 ET), is no way for a very successful senior class of Eagles to go out.
America East: For a team that hasn't caught a break since beating Boston U. in last year's conference title game, the stars aligned just right this weekend for Vermont (21-8). Not only was top-seeded BU upset in the first round by Stony Brook, but the Terriers' loss means the Catamounts will host the title game (ESPN, 11:30 a.m.). A month ago, the Cats were trying to figure out how to win without Taylor Coppenrath. This weekend, when Coppenrath was named the America East player of the year for the second straight season, the Cats won twice, and could dance without him. Up next, a game with No. 4 seed Maine (20-9), a team Vermont split with this year, but lost to by five without Coppenrath on Leap Day to close the regular season.
Patriot League: Another tourney where things went as planned for the top two seeds. The question now becomes, is this the year American finally dances? Jeff Jones led the Eagles to the regular- season title two years ago, but lost the title game on their own court to Holy Cross. This year, the No. 2 seed travels to top-seeded Lehigh -- which has gone from six wins two years ago to sharing the regular season title with American. The Mountain Hawks (19-10) swept the Eagles during the regular season, winning by 21 back on Feb. 13.
Big West: By the time things are sorted out in the early wee hours of Selection Sunday (ESPN, midnight), both Utah State (25-2) and Pacific (22-7) could be headed for at-large bids. Neither is likely to lose semifinal games, but one will lose this week. Whoever does will have a co-regular season championship and a profile strong enough already to merit attention by the selection committee. But seeing the two face off for a third time after splitting regular season games would be fun. Both have double byes into the semifinals of a tournament that doesn't tip off until Wednesday night.
If you haven't been following the Cinderella Watch all season, let's clarify once again what follows. 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 into Selection Sunday (March 14), we've chronicled 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.
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.
Liberty: Any of the five teams in the Dance so far could occupy this space. And while some may argue (and we have in this space this season) that the Big South's best team wasn't eligible to dance (see: Birmingham Southern), nothing should be taken away from what Randy Dunton's squad accomplished in just his second season on the bench. Since being established in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, the little Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., has danced just one other time. Two years ago, Liberty won just five games. But the groundwork for this season was set with 14 wins last season. Liberty enters the Dance with a 18-14 mark and dates with Duke and the like. But freshman Larry Blair (29 points in Big South title game, including seven 3s) and four seniors should be commended for a landmark season at Liberty, not to mention creating the first of several special moments during Championship Week.
Slipping Into A Slipper?
Murray State Like most of us, the Racers might have thought Austin Peay was never going to lose an OVC game. But the Govs' first league loss happened at the right time, at least for Murray State. And now a team used to dancing will be a very dangerous first-round partner. Only Saint Joseph's, Stanford, Mississippi State and Duke have matched wins or won more heading into the NCAAs. Not bad company. Murray State beat Southern Illinois during the nonconference, and was competitive in losses at Pittsburgh and in Freedom Hall to the Cardinals. When a team wins as much as the Racers have this season, winning once more in the first round of the NCAAs just seems natural.
Slipping Out of Its Slipper
Kent State: What has happened to this team? The Golden Flashes haven't been the same since rallying past Creighton on Bracket Buster Saturday. The win put them in the at-large discussion, but four subsequent losses -- three on the road -- have Kent (20-7) needing three wins at the MAC tournament to get in the Dance.
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.
Ron Buck is ESPN.com's men's college basketball editor.