Cinderella Casting 2017: Atlantic Sun, Big South, Colonial, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Southern Auto Bids

March 7, 2017

In the past, I have started this series of articles with the sentence “the greatest time of year is almost upon us”.

This, my friends, is a lie. The greatest time of year is not almost upon us. It is upon us.

The magical thing about March Madness is that it doesn’t begin with the first tipoff in Dayton next Tuesday. It started last week, when the first conference tournaments kicked off opening rounds and teams fighting to keep their season alive for another game left everything out on the floor, even if they were nine games under .500.

For me, it means a return to writing. Although I haven’t been the most active author in the two and a half years since I began my first real day job, March Madness is one of the periods where you can be sure I’ll be using the written word to express my love of sports. In what will come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog over the years, I’m a huge fan of the underdog.

As a result, the Cinderella Casting series was created to take an early look at what small and mid-major teams have a shot at knocking off one of the big boys in the NCAA Tournament. Although I have historically done very poorly at predicting these teams, I’m a firm believer that understanding the underdogs you have chosen makes it so much sweeter if they do happen to pull off an upset or two.

For those unfamiliar with the this segment of posts or Around The Corn in general, here is how the Cinderella Casting series works. I break down the automatic bids for each of the small and mid-major conferences in Division 1, predicting seeding, their chances of being a Cinderella and listing any other teams that may receive an automatic bid.

So as Championship Week rolls on, stay tuned to this site for updates to the series. Coverage will continue up through Selection Sunday.

Atlantic Sun

Automatic Bid: Florifa Gulf Coast

Projected Seed: 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

Remember Dunk City? Well, they’re back, and shot clocks everywhere better take cover. The Eagles are making back-to-back tournament appearances for the first time in school history, and this isn’t a squad that will simply be happy with making the Big Dance. Florida Gulf Coast was the best team in the Atlantic Sun all season and rolled through the A-Sun tournament, gaining momentum at the perfect time (winners of 12 of its last 13 games).

There are just two seniors on this team, which lost six players after last season, but that’s okay. The pulse of the squad is Brandon Goodwin, a transfer from UCF that missed out on last season’s run to the tournament. Goodwin is the kind of player you feel good about with the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. He may get the chance to prove that, as the Eagles are talented enough to give a high seed a real battle. They’ll be nearly as fun as the 2013 squad doing it, too.

Big South

Automatic Bid: Winthrop

Projected Seed: 13 or 14

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Eagles went out and tested themselves on the road this season, facing potential tournament bound teams Florida State, Dayton and Illinois during the non-conference slate. And yet, their adjusted strength of schedule according to KenPom is No. 327 in the nation. At worst, they won’t be intimidated by their opponent. At best, Keon Johnson will go off, the country will learn the name of No. 10 scorer in college basketball and Winthrop will earn its second NCAA Tournament victory in school history.

Johnson may be the key scorer, but Xavier Cooks averages nearly a double-double for Winthrop (16.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG) and can also play guard. If the Aussie gets going, Johnson will have more room to work which would be dangerous for the opposition. The senior is only 5’7″ but when he gets hot is incredibly difficult to stop from nearly anywhere on the floor. Keon Johnson isn’t a household name, but will have a stage to introduce himself and seems primed to make the most of it.


Automatic Bid: UNC Wilmington

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

If the Seahawks are shooting well, they have the ability to win more than just one game. Nearly a 30-win team this season, UNC Wilmington can hang with the most potent offenses, averaging over 85 points per game which puts the Eagles at No. 10 nationally in the category. Adjusted numbers would suggest that Kevin Keatts’s squad is a top 20 team in offensive efficiency but isn’t terrible defensively, either (No. 125 in adjusted defensive efficiency).

But enough of the numbers, because that just complicates things. The Seahawks aren’t big (just one player on the roster is taller than 6’8″), but get good play from their backcourt. Three guards average double-digits in scoring and five of the six players that average at least 10 minutes per game are guards. UNC Wilmington won’t bully anyone in the Big Dance, but is scrappy and is a fun team to watch when it has the ball. An opponent that struggles with fitness and perimeter defense could have a lot of trouble with the Seahawks.

Missouri Valley

Automatic Bid: Wichita State

Projected Seed: 8 or 9

Probability of being a Cinderella: N/A

Team(s) that could earn an at-large bid: Illinois State

Gone are program legends Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, but the train keeps rolling for the Shockers as they are guaranteed to be making a sixth straight appearance in the Big Dance. It should tell you something about the program when, before the season began, head coach Gregg Marshall was afraid that this could be a rough season, one in which the team may have trouble winning 20 games. Instead, Marshall’s team clinched its 30th victory in the MWC title game.

Wichita State doesn’t sneak up on anyone these days, so even if the team were to earn a seed lower than a nine, it would be difficult to assert the Shockers could become a true Cinderella. Those days are gone, as both the players and supporters alike expect that this team will compete come tournament time. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to the tough competition that the Tournament will bring, however. Despite climbing into the Top 25 near the end of the regular season, the Shockers don’t have any marquee victories.

Ohio Valley

Automatic Bid: Jacksonville State

Projected Seed: 16

Probability of being a Cinderella: Very Unlikely

The Gamecocks, making their first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, had to take out the top two seeds in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in succession to reach this point. That’s saying something for a team that was six games back in its own division of the conference following the regular season. That being said, the Ohio Valley probably won’t be winning any games in this year’s Big Dance save a play-in game victory.

Jacksonville State doesn’t score a lot of points, so it will take a hell of a defensive effort against what will more than likely be one of the top seeds in the tournament for the Gamecocks to pull off a monumental upset. Although there isn’t a ton of points being scored, there is offensive balance on this squad with four players averaging double-digits in scoring. The Gamecocks should take in the atmosphere of the Tournament, though, because it won’t be a long stay.


Automatic Bid: East Tennessee State

Projected Seed: 12 or 13

Probability of being a Cinderella: Decent

The Buccaneers were the best in the Southern Conference all season, have a go-to scoring threat in T.J. Cromer and have proven the ability to rebound from adversity. If you’re looking for a mid-major team capable of handling one of the big boys, those are three pretty good weapons in East Tennessee State’s arsenal. Speaking of the handling adversity, it happened quite recently. Down by seven after the first half, the Bucs were facing elimination against a UNC Greensboro team that was 20-0 this season when leading at the half. But determination and perfect free throw shooting (19 for 19 in the SoCon title game) has the program back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2010.

East Tennessee State will be a tough out considering how unusually experienced the squad is this season. Incredibly, all but one player on the roster is a junior or senior. Seniors dominate the minutes and offensive production, starting with Cromer, a 6’3″ guard with the ability to take over a game. This is not a team that anyone on the top four lines would want to see opposite their name.

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