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By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com
Here's the hard truth about life at the mid-major level: You cannot be Cinderella if you don't get to the Dance.
Which is why off-radar teams that look scary in January are still at risk of being spectators in March. You can win 25 games and dominate your league, but it guarantees nothing. Teams like Murray State, College of Charleston, East Tennessee State and others cannot afford a bad night in the crucible of mid-major conference tournament action, or it's hello, NIT.
And that's not the stuff of fairy tales.
"The harsh reality hit us last year," said College of Charleston coach Tommy Herrion. "We were 24-6 going into the semifinals of (the Southern Conference) tournament, we'd won the Great Alaska Shootout. The reality slapped us when we lost to a very good East Tennessee State. There's no shame in losing to them, but the reality is that we ended up in the NIT."
Once there the Cougars beat Kent State before losing in the second round. Meanwhile, they got to watch East Tennessee State push Wake Forest to the brink of elimination in the tournament that everyone cared about.
This year Charleston and East Tennessee State could be on a collision course for another elimination game. They appear to be the best in a contentious, competitive league that hasn't had a repeat NCAA Tournament representative since Chattanooga in 1994-95.
The Cougars are 14-2, with a season-opening loss to Auburn and a loss at Wisconsin. They're guarding with a tenacity that would make the legendary former coach, John Kresse, proud. They can shoot outside. They have a league player of the year candidate in Thomas Mobley (15.9 points, 5.6 rebounds) and one of the nation's best shot-blockers in Mike Benton (3.9 rejections per game). They're winning the close ones, with an 8-1 record in games decided by single digits.
The Buccaneers, in their first year under former UAB head coach Murry Bartow, who took over when Ed DeChellis left for Penn State, are 13-4. They opened the season by beating Houston on the road by 14, then gave Texas Tech a game before losing by 11. They're second in the league in scoring margin at 9.5 per game. They have their own player of the year candidate in athletic 6-5 forward Zakee Wadood (14.9 points, a league-high 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 steals per game), and fast little point guard Tim Smith is regaining the form that made him Freshman of the Year last season (21.7 points, 3.7 assists and three steals over the last three games).
Charleston leads the South Division at 6-0 and is No. 70 in the ESPN Daily RPI. ETSU leads the North at 5-0 and is No. 105 in the RPI, hurt by playing three games against non-Division I teams. Nobody else in the SoCon is within the top 160.
The teams' only regular-season meeting is in the final game of the year Feb. 28. The finale is on ESPN2. The pair could perhaps meet again on national TV in the league tournament, where winner might take all.
"You try not to talk about it," Herrion said. "But the only sure-fire way for teams like us to get in is to win the conference tournament.
"If we're talking about the best 65 teams come the NCAA Tournament, I think we'll have more than one of those. We're in a little different era right now, with more parity. But it's not easy. We know the past history."
The past history is ironclad: The Southern Conference has never had more than one team in the NCAA Tournament in a given year.
Murray State is the rarest of creatures: an Ohio Valley Conference team that has at least positioned itself on the at-large bubble.
It has happened exactly once in league history. In 1987, the OVC put two teams in the Dance. One of them, Austin Peay, upset No. 3 seed Illinois and then pushed Providence to the limit before losing in overtime. An Austin Peay player named Bob Thomas missed a pair of free throws that could have iced the game, derailed the Friars' Final Four run, and delayed the onrushing fame of two men named Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan.
Could Murray have a run similar to the Governors'? The 14-3 Racers have had a sensational season under rookie head coach Mick Cronin, formerly an assistant under Pitino at Louisville and Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. They ripped Southern Mississippi by 40 and beat Southern Illinois and Texas Christian on the road. Until a home hiccup against Samford, the Racers' two losses were against elite teams: at Louisville and at Pittsburgh.
Murray, which leads the OVC in scoring, gets it from a variety of sources. Five players average 9.4 points per game or better, led by springy Cuthbert Victor (15.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, shooting 64 percent from the field). Seven players average 20 or more minutes per game.
"We're really executing and sharing the ball well," Cronin said. "We can score from all five positions. Guys have been really unselfish."
They're No. 62 as of Wednesday in the RPI and own a 4-2 record against the RPI Top 150. It looks good, and it gets the Racers in the argument. The question is whether they can win the argument come Selection Sunday.
"To get an at-large bid, we're looking at maybe losing one more game to have any chance of it," Cronin said, knowing that OVC play will drag down his team's RPI. "You want to shoot for that, but the reality is probably winning the conference tournament."
The roadblock there could be defending champ Austin Peay, which began the season as the heavy league favorite and then struggled against a rugged early schedule. Now the Governors have it back together and are 5-0 in OVC play. The Govs and Murray play just once, Feb. 14, at Austin Peay. Then it's on to the league tournament.
"I think that's why the mid-major tournaments are so well-played," Cronin said. "There's so much on the line."
So, with January turning into February and conference tournaments deciding who has the chance to be a Cinderella, here are four more mid-major league races in Dixie to watch:
Sun Belt: Perennial kingpin Western Kentucky is facing a serious challenge from just about everyone. The Hilltoppers have recovered and are playing better for rookie head coach Darrin Horn after an 0-5 start, but the league race looks like a free-for-all and what should be a wild conference tournament (which, key part, will be held in Western's gym). Seven schools are clustered between 104 and 172 in the RPI. Keep an eye on John Pelphrey's South Alabama squad, off to a 3-1 league start.
Atlantic Sun: Central Florida is off to a blazing 9-0 start and is 14-2 overall. The biggest competition might come from Troy State, and the two meet at Troy Friday night. Don't forget about Belmont, which won at Missouri but hasn't sustained that momentum into conference play.
SWAC: Mississippi Valley State looks much the best, owning the only winning record overall (13-4), a 5-0 league mark and the best RPI in the league by 50 spots over runnerup Jackson State.
Southland: Southeastern Louisiana looks the best on paper at 10-4 overall, but Northwestern State and Texas State are the unbeatens in league play so far. The league tournament winner is a prime candidate for a No. 16 seed.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com