Potential Cinderellas you want to win their automatic bid

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Cam Payne (AP Photo)

Conference tournament play kicked off on Tuesday, and over the course of the next two weeks, we’ll see each and every league in the country hand out their automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And yes, that includes the Ivy League, who will have a de-facto title game on Friday night when Yale squares off with Harvard. 

As always, it’s never a guarantee that the best team from any given conference will punch their ticket to the dance, so if you enjoy upsets in the Big Dance, here is a list of 12 teams that you’ll want to root for over the next 12 days:

Murray State: The only team in the country that has won more consecutive games than Murray State is Kentucky. The Racers are on a 24-game winning streak, having rolled through the always-tough Ohio Valley undefeated. They’re led by sophomore point guard Cameron Payne, one of the nation’s best kept secrets. If the basketball gods are looking down on us, he’ll get a chance to show what he can do on a national stage.

Eastern Washington: The Eagles looked like the favorites in the Big Sky a month ago, but they’ve lost three of their last five games and play their last two regular season games on the road. That said, this team plays fast, scores a ton of points, has the nation’s leading scorer (Tyler Harvey) on their roster and won at Indiana earlier this season. They’re fun.

Green Bay: By now, everyone should know about Keifer Sykes, Green Bay’s talented point guard and the Horizon Player of the Year. The Phoenix didn’t win the league this season — Valparaiso did — but they did win at Miami. Cinderellas often need a superstar to carry them, and Sykes is as likely a candidate as anyone.

Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs have emerged from a tough Conference USA as the best team in the league. They have a trio of really good guards — Alex Hamilton, Raheem Appleby, Speedy Smith — play fast, and force a lot of turnovers.

Iona: Like Eastern Washington, Iona is as entertaining as any team in the country. They score a ton of points and they shoot a ton of threes, but they also have a pair of stars that can matchup with just about anyone. A.J. English is the guy that gets the publicity, but David Laury is actually the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Iona won at Wake Forest in November.

Wofford: The Terriers aren’t all that flashy, but the SoCon regular season champs are tough, physical, well-coached and smart. Karl Cochran is the name to know with this group, but it’s important to note than they returned everyone from a team that made the 2014 NCAA tournament as well. Wofford won at N.C. State this year while also beating small league powerhouses Iona, Charleston Southern and Sam Houston State.

Georgia State: You’d be hard-pressed to find a team with as much talent in the back court as Georgia State at any level. Everyone will recognize the names Ryan Harrow and Kevin Ware, but the real star of this team is R.J. Hunter, a talented playmaker with a lethal perimeter stroke that could find his way into the NBA Draft’s first round.

Texas Southern: The Tigers played just one home game before January 17th this season, but that didn’t prevent them from beating Michigan State in East Lansing or Kansas State in Manhattan. Mike Davis has a roster full of high major cast-offs (Deverell Biggs, Nevin Johnson) and former top 25 recruits (Chris Thomas).

FOUR MORE TEAMS YOU WANT TO ROOT FOR

  • North Carolina Central: The last time a MEAC foe beat the Eagles was all the way back on Jan. 11th … of 2014. They’ve won 33 straight games in the league. They’re clearly the class of the conference.
  • Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks look like they’re going to repeat as Southland champs this season. They knocked off VCU in the opening round in 2014.
  • North Florida: The Ospreys not only have a great nickname, but the Atlantic Sun champs went into West Lafayette and knocked off Purdue earlier this season.
  • New Mexico State: The Aggies struggled in non-conference play, but that came with Daniel Mullings and Tshilidzi Nephawe missing 12 games each with an injury. They can beat the big boys.