As you read this some unheralded team out there is about to go on an incredible run that will land them in the NCAA tournament. They will enter the conference playoffs as a low seed, probably a seven or an eight. They’ll upset teams with much better records, riding their momentum to the conference championship, a net cutting ceremony and an automatic bid. As long as you’re not stuck playing the role of the ugly step sister, Cinderella makes for a nice story.
But in some conferences, Cinderella need not apply.
They send a smaller group to the playoffs and let them fight for the top prize. This is the last week for teams in those conferences to fight for a place in the conference playoffs, just so they can start the struggle over again in those playoffs. And that’s a pretty good story, too.
Here are a few races to watch as teams fight for the right to fight for the right to party on Selection Sunday.
• CCIW men (Five teams alive for four spots): The regular season has been everything we hoped and there’s a good chance the ending will be just as exciting. Five teams are within two games of each other with two games remaining for all but Augustana. The Vikings won the last two tournaments, but only lead Carthage for the last playoff spot by half a game. The Red Men control their own destiny but have to beat Raymond-recharged Wheaton (Ill.) and Elmhurst. All those “buts” mean ours will be on the edge of our seats until the very end.
• Liberty League women: (Five teams for three spots in a four team tournament): Complicated tiebreakers notwithstanding, Union appears to be the only team safely in. Rival RPI is in good shape, too. Then there are four other teams for two spots including three – St. Lawrence, William Smith and Hamilton – who have accounted for five NCAA tournament appearances in four years.
• MAC Commonwealth (Five teams for two spots in a four team tournament): These teams have been tightly grouped together all year long. Preseason favorite Widener has already secured the top seed and Elizabethtown has a playoff spot. Everyone else besides Arcadia is still in the mix. Widener only lost twice in conference but it was against Leb Val and Lycoming who could both miss the playoffs, underlining how close these teams are.
The ultimate anti-Cinderella conference is the UAA. Its automatic bid goes to the regular season winner and there is no tourmanent. Washington U. locked up the men’s bid but the women’s side has intrigue left. The February 22nd game between Wash. U and Rochester feels like a de facto title game. But Chicago has games left against both and can still impact this race, even if its own title hopes are slim.
And while Delaware Valley fits the Cinderella mold nicely, the Aggies are also fighting for a conference playoff spot. Kudos to new coach Casey Stitzel who has Del Val a game ahead of Alvernia (and two in front of two other teams) for the final slot in the MAC-Freedom playoffs. Last year Del Val was 3-22 and winless in conference. If the Aggies can hold their lead for seven more days, they will have their first postseason berth since 1969.