Niagara was down by four when I realized that my March Madness had already started.

Jess Cox

After the two teams traded baskets for the first 10 minutes, Rider had taken a 21-17 lead over the Purple Eagles in the championship game of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

And I was standing up, alone in my dorm room, screaming at the television. A bid to the NCAA Tournament was on the line, and I was begging Niagara not to let poor defense keep it from the Big Dance.

Such is the life of a mid-major (or lower) college basketball fan.

I grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., a city of dedicated sports fans without a major college team in the immediate area. Instead, we have a group of small and mid-major schools that we call the Big Four — Buffalo, Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure.

While Buffalo and St. Bonaventure are arguably the more high-profile programs, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the two MAAC schools ever since my middle school marching band served as Canisius’s pep band at the 1997 tournament. For three straight nights, we had courtside seats, cheering for the Golden Griffins during the game and performing on the floor of HSBC Arena at halftime. We felt like part of the team. So when Canisius lost in the championship game, I think we were as devastated as the players were.

This year, it’s Niagara who has captivated the collective consciousness of Buffalo sports fans. It has been 35 years since Calvin Murphy led the Eagles to their last NCAA Tournament berth. Under coach Joe Mihalich, Niagara has played in three of the last four conference championship games but has lost each time. And this year, with MAAC Player of the Year Juan Mendez at center and the support of more than 6,000 local fans, the Eagles earned another shot at the title. They won the chance to dance, ultimately beating Rider by 22 points.

I almost wore purple on Tuesday to celebrate.

But small conference basketball tournaments are exciting even without a hometown connection to spur your interest. It seems like every year, in the days leading up to Selection Sunday, there’s a compelling story or a wild finish you have to see to believe. These games boast a desperation that the major conference tournaments lack. Because, for almost every team involved, winning the championship game is the only way to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

And a team from suburban Detroit probably knows that better than anyone in the nation right now.

After compiling a 12-18 record in the regular season, the Oakland Golden Grizzlies rattled off three consecutive victories and stunned Oral Roberts to capture the Mid-Continent Conference crown and an automatic berth. That game had everything that makes these tournaments special — an underdog pulling off an upset, a last-second, game-deciding shot and a no-name player turning into a hero.

Pierre Dukes averages just four points per game and almost didn’t make the Grizzlies’ squad. But with 1.3 seconds left on the clock, Dukes sank his only shot of the second half to win the game for Oakland.

Before he hit that game-winning shot, Dukes had virtually no chance of ever being remembered for his college basketball career. But once the ball dropped through the net, his legacy was secured, at least in the hearts of Oakland fans.

While their excitement is understandable, it’s almost ironic. Just think about what these teams receive for winning — a chance to be destroyed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There are exceptions, like 2004 MAAC champion Manhattan knocking out No. 5 seed Florida. But for every Cinderella who finds her glass slipper, there are dozens of teams from minor conferences that get just once dance.

Each small conference champion has basically ensured that its season will end with a loss. Obviously, there are just two Division I schools that can be guaranteed to win their final game — the NCAA champion and the NIT champion. But most of the major schools have at least some hope of winning it all. The fact that small conference champs have about as much chance of winning the NCAA tourney as I have of making a WNBA roster makes their over-the-top celebrations even more remarkable.

Take Oakland for example. Do the Grizzlies really believe they can compete with the North Carolinas of the basketball world? Probably not. But that didn’t stop them from celebrating exuberantly at midcourt when the final buzzer sounded.

Teams like Oakland are genuinely excited simply to qualify for the Big Dance.

For a minor team that wins its conference championship to advance to the NCAA Tournament, it truly is an honor just to be there.

Just ask Mihalich. It has been his lifelong dream to coach in the NCAA Tournament. With his 80-year-old mother receiving chemotherapy to treat colon cancer, that dream took on a different urgency this season. Mihalich fulfilled his promise to his mother, and she gets to be there to see it — if only for a game.

Did I say Buffalo didn’t have a major college team? It does now. Niagara is going to the Big Dance.

And I’ll be wearing purple next weekend.


Stephanie Wright can be reached at smwr@umich.edu.

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