The St. Louis Blues and Washington Nationals mounted two of the most remarkable in-season comebacks in sports history to win championships in 2019. But there were no Blues or Nationals-type stories to be found in the sports that were able to crown champions during the pandemic-dominated 2020.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who had the best regular-season record in baseball, won the World Series. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who were tied for the third-most points in the NHL during the regular season, raised the Stanley Cup. The Los Angeles Lakers, who had the third-best record in the NBA (and LeBron James) during the regular season, rolled to another title. This weekend’s Super Bowl is scheduled to pit the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, who finished an NFL-best 14-2, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have annoyingly frequent Super Bowl contestant Tom Brady.
College basketball, of course, did not get to crown champions in 2020. But the conference tournaments, which usually yield the most compelling Cinderella stories, went mostly according to form before sports were shut down on Mar 12.
Of the 11 Division I men’s teams to clinch NCAA Tournament berths, nine won their conference tournaments as either the no. 1 or no. 2 seed — including top-seeded Hofstra in the CAA. The lowest-seeded teams to earn an NCAA Tournament bid were Boston University, which was the no. 3 seed in the Patriot League, and Bradley, the fourth seed in the Mountain Valley.
But with the start of March Madness (hopefully) less than a month away, there’s going to be chances again for Cinderellas to punch their tickets to the NCAA Tournament (hopefully). There’s no shortage of darkhorse candidates in the CAA, where, thanks at least in part to the topsy-turvy schedule, six teams are at .500 or below in league play as February begins.
Can any of them pull off a Blues- or Nationals-like run deep into the CAA Tournament or beyond? Here’s our look at their chances on a scale of 1-5 Glorias or Mad Max Black Eyes, the internationally recognized and scientifically proven measure of underdogs everywhere.
(For a refresher on how we came to using Glorias and Mad Max Black Eyes as a measure of a team’s Cinderella chances, check out last year’s midseason piece.)
As head coach Zach Spiker noted this week, the Dragons are whiskers away from being in a far better position. Drexel squandered double-digit leads in each game of a weekend sweep at the hands of Charleston Jan. 9-10, when the Cougars won the opener after Zep Jasper drained three free throws with less than a second left, and led William & Mary by nine points with under four mintues to play Jan. 17 before allowing the Tribe to score its final 17 points from the free throw line.
Drexel has a pair of first-team all-CAA candidates in point guard Camren Wynter and forward James Butler, which is the type of inside-outside combo that can make a lot of noise in March. The Dragons need to prove they can win away from Philadelphia and against elite competition, but they could be jam-packed with opportunities to make statements ahead of the tournament. Drexel is slated to face Hofstra, Delaware, and James Madison, all of whom are over .500 in league play, and has two postponed games against league leader Northeastern that could be made up.
LIKELIHOOD: Three-and-a-half Glorias
The Tigers, who were picked third in the preseason poll, have been in this type of hole before. Towson overcame an 0-3 start to finish third in the CAA at 12-6 last season and opened CAA play 0-4 before finishing 11-7 and earning the no. 3 seed in 2016-17. The Tigers returned from a second coronavirus pause on Jan. 16 by winning two of their first three league games but have lost five straight since, including three games to a pair of surging teams in Hofstra (a weekend sweep on Long Island) and James Madison while struggling from outside (Towson is last in the CAA in 3-point shooting percentage).
But with a potential first-team All-CAA star in Zane Martin and the league’s most physical frontcourt, Towson can get hot in a hurry. The Tigers are scheduled to open February with a couple teams coming off coronavirus pauses — Charleston this weekend and Northeastern next weekend — which could give them a chance to generate some momentum.
LIKELIHOOD: Three-and-a-half Mad Max Black Eyes
The Cougars appeared headed for a reload year even before Brevin Galloway suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. But head coach Earl Grant has a championship pedigree and has the type of guard trio that can spark a team in March in Minnesota transfer Peyton Willis, junior Zep Jasper, and sophomore Brendan Tucker. Charleston, whose first six CAA games were all decided by seven points or fewer, is also getting valuable experience in close games.
LIKELIHOOD: Two-and-a-half Glorias
William & Mary (4-4)
The Tribe were expected to be at least two years away following the graduation of all-world Nathan Knight, but head coach Dane Fischer has found a pair of stars mature beyond their years in freshmen Connor Kochera and Yuri Covington. Kochera just became the first freshman to win CAA Player of the Week honors in six years. William & Mary also has senior leadership and experience in senior guard Luke Loewe, who leads the team with 16.9 points and 3.5 assists per game. The Tribe built some momentum with a weekend sweep of Towson but won’t play again until at least Feb. 18 due to a coronavirus pause.
LIKELIHOOD: Two Mad Max Black Eyes
UNC Wilmington (1-5)
Nobody in the CAA plays harder than the Seahawks, who have been hammered by injuries under first-year head coach Takayo Siddle. UNC Wilmington played just six players on Sunday, days after leading scorer Jaylen Sims suffered a season-ending injury in practice. Projected starting point guard Shykeim Phillips has yet to play due to an infection, but he’s returned to practice and could soon give the Seahawks a boost. Adding him to a core that already includes at least two players who have flashed All-CAA potential this season — Mike Okauru scored a career-high 30 points Sunday and Joe Pridgen has five double-doubles — would make the Seahawks a classic threat to emerge from the outbracket to get to at least the semifinals, a la Elon last season.
LIKELIHOOD: Two Glorias
There were high expectations entering the season for the Phoenix following a surprise charge to the CAA semifinals, the return of two All-CAA freshmen in Hunter McIntosh and Hunter Woods and a fruitful recruiting class that included JaDun Michael, who was pursued by Power 5 schools. But Elon has been waylaid by injuries — Michael, who suffered a shoulder injury last February, has yet to play more than 17 minutes in a game — even before a third coronavirus pause left the Phoenix on the sidelines for most of January. A brutal stretch of road games — a series at Delaware and a midweek makeup at red-hot James Madison — greeted Elon upon its return last Saturday. But the talent is there for a tournament run by the Phoenix, which will look to build momentum during a February in which it is scheduled to play five of its final eight games at home, where it hasn’t played since Dec. 19.
LIKELIHOOD: One-and-a-half Mad Max Black Eyes
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.