The next Cinderella story: 2024 March Madness preview

Photo Courtesy of Jacob Rice on Unsplash
Photo Courtesy of Jacob Rice on Unsplash

Sports fans, it’s finally here. We made it to March.


March is the one month of the year when millions of people focus all their attention on one sport: college basketball. With March Madness quickly approaching, basketball nerds and casual fans alike begin to plot their perfect brackets, only to have their hopes and dreams get busted by a no-name sleeper team. We’ve seen this time and time again with squads like Loyola Chicago in 2018, Oral Roberts in 2021, and St Peters in 2022. With the first automatic bids for the NCAA tournament being handed out this week, here are a few of the teams hitting the court that you need to watch out for.


Charleston (Coastal Athletic Conference)

Last year, the 12th-seeded College of Charleston Cougars came in as one of the teams most likely to be the Cinderella story of the tournament. Instead, they got axed in the first round by the eventual tournament runners-up, the San Diego State University Aztecs. Led by returning juniors Ante Brzovic and Reyne Smith, the Cougars sit atop the Coastal Athletic Conference and hope to win the CAC for the second straight season. While success has been harder to come by this year, the Cougars have been heating up as of late, setting themselves up for a well-deserved redemption story.


Drake/Indiana State (Missouri Valley Conference)

One of the most competitive mid-major conferences in college basketball, the Missouri Valley Conference, always incites excitement come March. In recent years, it has been Loyola Chicago taking the conference en route to a deep tournament run. Last year, we got our first taste of the conference without the Ramblers, culminating in the Drake Bulldogs earning their shot at college basketball glory. However, in another case of an unlucky matchup, Drake was eliminated in the first round by Miami, who would go on to the Final Four. This year, the bulldogs are hungry for revenge.


To win the Missouri Valley Conference, however, they’ll need to get through the Indiana State Sycamores. Despite notable alumni like Larry Bird, the program hasn’t had a tournament appearance in over a decade. This year looks like a different story, with the Sycamores putting together a formidable record and leading in the MVC standings. With both of these teams playing well throughout the season, don’t be surprised to see either the Bulldogs or the Sycamores make a deep run in the tournament.


Appalachian State/James Madison (Sun Belt Conference)

Like the Missouri Valley, the Sun Belt Conference has multiple teams capable of winning a few games come tournament time. Currently leading the Sun Belt are the Appalachian State Mountaineers — a team that has never won an NCAA tournament game. That being said, a strong regular season highlighted by a win against SEC powerhouse Auburn shows this year’s team is different and has what it takes to pull off big upsets when it counts.


The James Madison University Dukes were another victim of App State’s strong play. However, apart from two losses to their Sun Belt rivals, the Dukes have had an almost perfect season. And, like the Mountaineers, the Dukes have shown they can defeat a strong Power Five school in a win against Michigan State. If they can finally shake off the Mountaineers in the Sun Belt tournament, the Dukes would also be a team to watch out for in the big dance.


Vermont (American East Conference)

The Vermont Catamounts have been on the verge of a March breakthrough for the last three seasons. After winning the American East and locking up a spot in the Round of 64, they lost in 2022 and 2023 to Arkansas and Marquette, respectively. Now leading in the American East again, thanks to a near-perfect 2024, this could finally be the year the Catamounts end their postseason woes and advance through the tournament.


Samford (Southern Conference)

After two bad losses to start the year, including a 53-point loss to the highly ranked Purdue Boilermakers in the season opener, the Samford Bulldogs have looked sharp throughout the season. Having locked up the Southern Conference regular season crown, they’re in good shape to win the Conference and advance to the tournament. The only thing missing from their resume this season is a win against a Power Five team. Last year’s Southern Conference champions, the Furman Paladins, made headlines when they upset the four-seed Virginia Cavaliers in the first round of the tourney seemingly out of nowhere. Perhaps this year’s Southern Conference champs can find the same magic in their first-round matchup.


McNeese State (Southland Conference)

The early frontrunners as a March Cinderella team are the Southland Conference regular season champs, the McNeese Cowboys. With a near-perfect record since November and a double-digit win against the Big Ten’s Michigan Wolverines, the Cowboys have established themselves as a legitimate threat in the tournament. It’s worth keeping an eye on their seeding, as whomever they get matched up with will have their hands full in the first round of the big dance.

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About the Contributor
Ryan Kirton, Contributing Writer
I am a junior majoring in Psychology and Communications and I am on the swim team.
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    Mike FuljenzMar 6, 2024 at 4:17 pm

    We will see if The NCAA weighs mid major teams fairly considering when they play guarantee games on the road they are playing with the power 5 conference refs.Not that the refs cheat but even John Calipari and Dale Brown acknowledged to me it is an advantage.The excellent book Scorecasting did a great job analyzing the home advantages.The NCAA NET does not factor in enough the non conference home loading record advantage power 5 conferences get.A team like McNeese that won all 3 non conference guarantee games on the road over Michigan,VCU and UAB should be rewarded more.I swayed the father of the RPI Jim V and USA Today’s Stat analyst Jeff Sagarin with these arguments in the past.