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.
Starless South Carolina states its case
Last time the South Carolina Gamecocks were ranked, it was the last Associated Press poll of 1998. Carolina was upset by Richmond in the NCAA Tournament shortly thereafter and dropped off radar for nearly six years.
Today they're back. The Gamecocks crept back into the AP poll this week, and at 16-2 rank among the biggest surprises in college basketball.
Not bad for a team picked in the preseason to finish last in the SEC East. But Dave Odom isn't so sure what to make of it.
"We haven't arrived," he said on the SEC coaches' teleconference Monday morning, before the new poll was released. "I have no problem with us playing under the radar a little longer. It's not time for us yet."
After the poll was released Odom told the Columbia State, "Now the tables turn. The coin flips a bit. Instead of teams wondering who South Carolina might be, they'll take a little longer look at us. The bullseyes get bigger."
In truth, you still have to look pretty hard to find recognizable names on the Carolina roster. This anonymous bunch is winning with a minimum of frills and thrills, instead just steadily choking opponents with defense.
South Carolina leads the SEC in points allowed (55.2), opponents field-goal percentage (35.4), opponents 3-point percentage (24.6) and turnover margin (a plus-5.7). They're 3-1 in league play and 2-0 on the road. Keep an eye out for the Gamecocks -- whoever they are.
Saint Louis is joining the growing group of Conference USA schools battling for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The Billikens are off to a 3-1 start in league play and haven't allowed anybody to score 70 points in a month. Brad Soderberg's team hosts 0-4 East Carolina Saturday -- but then the schedule gets tough, with eight straight games against teams with winning records and legitimate postseason tournament aspirations. First comes three straight road games, at Charlotte, UAB and Memphis, then home games against DePaul, Charlotte and Marquette, then back on the road against DePaul and Cincinnati. If the Billikens get through that grind without collapsing, they're not bad.
Tennessee qualifies as the Jeckyll-and-Hyde, home-and-away team of the year in the SEC. The Volunteers are 8-1 at home, with the only loss coming Tuesday night by a point in overtime against Kentucky, but 1-3 on the road, with the losses coming by an average of 24.7 points. Nobody exemplifies the home-road schism more than leading scorer Scooter McFadgon, who has been unstoppable in Knoxville and unwatchable elsewhere. McFadgon is a stellar 60 of 119 from the field in Thompson-Boling Arena, including 24 of 51 from 3-point range. He's a gruesome 14 of 62 on the road, 4 of 22 from three-point range.
Mississippi State has performed well without a true point guard in the starting lineup, but freshman Gary Ervin is making a bid to take the position and give the Bulldogs the high-energy penetrator they've been missing. The super-quick Brooklyn product had a career-high 11 points against Kentucky, all in the first half, then topped that at LSU with 13. Ervin missed his first nine college 3-pointers but made two of three in those two games.
Mario Moore has come to Matt Freije's aid as a second gunman for Vanderbilt. The point guard has averaged 15.7 points over his last three games and made 5 of 6 threes in the Commodores' upset of Florida last Saturday.
Kentucky has slowed down offensively. Only once in the Wildcats' last seven games have they scored 70 or more points, and only once in that time have they won by double digits. Kentucky scored more than 70 in five of its first seven games, including hitting 89 or more four times. Yet the Cats' survival instincts remain strong, winning their last two SEC road games by a single point, at Mississippi State and at Tennessee. Against the Volunteers Tuesday night Kentucky needed point guard Cliff Hawkins' first 3-pointer in 5½ games with 16 seconds left to force overtime, and pulled out the win from there.
The mayday signal is officially on at Marquette. After building up a nice-looking record against relatively soft competition, the Golden Eagles has lost three in a row: handily at home to Cincinnati, by a shocking 22 in Green Bay to Southern Mississippi and by eight Tuesday night at Charlotte. Adding injury to insult, heart-and-soul point guard Travis Diener was taken off the court on a stretcher during the Charlotte game with a neck injury, after Calvin Clemmons bought a pump fake and crashed down heavily on Diener's head. Diener was admitted to a Charlotte hospital Tuesday night, and in a show of solidarity the Marquette team chose to remain in Charlotte with him instead of returning after the game to Milwaukee. Fortunately, Diener's injury was determined to be similar to whip lash.
Figuring out Memphis might take a PhD in psychology. Sandwiched between a 16-point road win at Villanova and a 22-point home win over Charlotte, the Tigers lost consecutive ugly upsets to Southern Mississippi and DePaul. That kind of inconsistency can jeopardize a team's hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com