It’s time for the little guys to take center stage.
College basketball’s mid-majors, the wanna-be Cinderellas, have begun their fight for a ticket to the ball. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Missouri Valley (MVC), and Big South conferences play conference quarterfinals tonight. The Ohio Valley is in the semifinal round. The Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and West Coast Conference open first-round play.
The big boys still have a few, mildly important regular-season games to play – such as the North Carolina/Duke rematch on Saturday – before the power conference tournaments get under way next week. But for my money, the most fun to be had before the NCAA tournament opens on March 17 will be on display in the next few days.
You’ll recognize some of the Cinderella contenders. Wichita State (23-7), which faces Loyola of Chicago in the MVC quarterfinals this afternoon, crashed the 2013 party all the way to the Final Four. Southern Illinois (22-9) and Northern Iowa (19-12), who square off in another MVC quarter, are perennially upset-minded tournament teams who have historically made good surprise Sweet 16 picks.
Other teams are more obscure. You may not have heard of the Big South’s Presbyterian College, which at 11-19 takes on 21-8 Winthrop, where Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall first got a taste for winning championships, in today’s quarters. But you should be aware of PC, if only to know that its nickname is the Blue Hose, a nod to the socks won by its football team in the early 20th century.
This is not to be confused with the Delaware Blue Hens, who take on Charleston in a CAA first-round game tonight. Delaware is more of a football school, most famous for producing Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, and this year’s hoops squad is 7-22. But it’s March. Anything can happen.
The Blue Hens are not the only fowl-centric school in action today. Coastal Carolina, the two-time defending Big South champions, takes on Gardner Webb in a quarterfinal. Coastal’s mascot is the Chanticleer (SHONT-a-cleer), the collar-popping king of the barnyard in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The nickname harkens back to the school’s days as a branch of the University of South Carolina, which is of course the Gamecocks. CCU has been independent for decades, but the rooster has proven to have staying power.
Morehead State takes on UTMartin in an Ohio Valley semi to cap tonight’s action. The Eagles aren’t making much national noise this year – at least, not the kind they made in 2010, when Kenneth Faried, now with the Denver Nuggets, was pulling down 13 rebounds a game.
There’s just no telling what will happen as these small schools duke it out in what is, in most cases, their only chance to make it to the Big Dance. The arenas will be small, the fans rabid, and the action intense.
I can’t wait.