The temperature in Clarion hit a balmy 59 degrees this week as we adjust back to the academic grind and prepare for seven more weeks of school.
However, the temperature in Clarion isn’t the only thing heating up.
It is once again time for the greatest tournament in all of sports.
It’s time for March Madness.
It is pretty clear that Kentucky is the nearly-unanimous favorite to cut down the nets in Lucas Oil Stadium at the end of the tournament.
The real question is, who will be this year’s Cinderella story?
To clarify, my definition of a Cinderella candidate is a team from a non-power conference and that is a No. 10 seed or lower.
There is one team that sticks out to me to be a dangerous team that most people are overlooking.
This team has won the Southland Conference Tournament in consecutive years and have won 28 of its last 29 games and have gone 61-7 the past two seasons.
The team that I am picking as my Cinderella team is the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin State University.
The Lumberjacks are led by two players that happen to be the last two Southland Conference players of the year.
The 2014-2015 player of the year went to junior Thomas Walkup.
Walkup, a two-year starter for the Lumberjacks, averaged 15.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game.
Walkup shot 56.9 percent from the field and had five double-doubles on the season.
The 2013-2014 Southland Conference Player of the Year, Jacob Parker, was second team all-conference this year.
Parker averaged 14.2 points per game and recoded 5.4 rebounds per game.
Even though Stephen F. Austin went 0-3 against tournament teams this season, I see the team as a tremendous threat in the tournament.
The Lumberjacks ranked No. 5 in the country in shooting from the field and are also No. 1 in the country for number of assists recorded per game.
The amount of mistakes that it makes are limited as well with the Jacks listed as plus 3.2 turnovers per game.
The number one reason I have the Jacks making a run in the tournament is that the team returns six of the nine players that played in the team’s victory over VCU in the 2014 tournament.
The Jacks beat the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University by a score of 77-75.
This shows that the Jacks know what it takes to win a tournament game.
Not to mention that they know how to handle the pressure that any team gives them due to the fact that they were able to shove aside Shaka Smart’s HAVOC defense.
In my opinion, the Jacks have a favorable matchup in the second and third rounds.
The Jacks first match up with Delon Wright and the Utah Utes in its first game.
Wright will pose a challenge for Stephen F. Austin, but I think the Jacks will be able to persevere.
The third round matchup has a possibility of matching up with either Georgetown or Eastern Washington.
I have the Jacks charging into the Sweet 16.
It’s March so that means March Madness for college basketball.
It also means that it’s time for lesser known schools to be dubbed this years “Cinderella” team.
There’s been Florida Gulf Coast’s miracle run to the Sweet 16 two years ago or Davidson missing a buzzer beater that would have sent them to the Final Four in 2008 or George Mason actually reaching the Final Four in 2006.
The tournament has delivered some memorable Cinderella stories.
This year won’t be any different.
This year my Cinderella pick is the Northern Iowa Panthers (30-3, 16-2).
Now the Panthers are not really considered a Cinderella anymore since they made a Sweet 16 run in the 2010 tournament as a nine-seed.
That year the name Ali Farokhmanesh was made a household name for his clutch shooting.
However, this time around, there will be no Cinderella story for Northern Iowa as they are a No. 5 seed, but they are still lesser known by many.
The Panthers have lost just one time since Jan, 1 and are one of the best shooting teams in the tournament while also being strong defensively.
Senior Seth Tuttle has been one of the most valuable players in all college basketball this season and is a sure-fire NBA prospect.
The 6-foot-8, 240 pound do-it-all forward is averaging 15.3 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per games, 3.3 assists per game and is shooting the ball 62 percent from the field. March Madness is all about star power, and Tuttle fits that bill.
Tuttle has been a steady force for the Panthers the past four seasons, but he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves because he’s not at a high-major school.
But he certainly could make a name for himself this tournament.
Northern Iowa is also battle tested this season.
They split with Wichita State, lost to VCU by six points, beat Iowa by 12 points and grinded out a two point victory over Stephen F. Austin.
So the Panthers know what it’s like to play close games.
Moreover, the Panthers have a very upperclassmen laded team with two seniors, two juniors and sophomore in their starting line-up.
All of them have either started or played significant minutes since coming to Northern Iowa.
Furthermore, throw in the fact that Northern Iowa is the same bracket as arguably the “weakest” number one seed in the Villanova Wildcats, that gives the Panthers a chance to get, at least, the Elite Eight and with an upset potential at the bottom of the region, it wouldn’t be farfetched to see Northern Iowa in the Final Four when it’s all said and done.
Northern Iowa will be a team that shocks some people during this tournament.
Look out for the Panthers to make a deep run and challenge some of the big-time programs in this tournament.