Editor’s note: this post is from 2010. For the 2013 update, click here.
It’s almost time for the conference tournament season, and almost every year a school will celebrate its very first bid to the NCAA tournament. Announcers will gush as the students rush the court following a dramatic victory in a league tourney final. ”They’re dancing!” is the cry.
Of course, most of the time the school in question has only been in Division I for a few years after enjoying success in Division II or the NAIA. Occasionally the team is supplemented, if not dominated, by sketchy transfers or refugees from a local work-release center. It doesn’t matter, though — it’s in the field of 65. The school becomes part of the madness of March, and its supporters will cheer wildly (often televised from a local sports bar) when its name is called by James Brown on Selection Sunday.
However, every now and then a school that has spent decades in the Division I wilderness, searching in vain for the road to the tourney, finds its way out of the woods and into the promised land. Two seasons ago it happened to American University, which had just missed in several Patriot League tourney title games before finally punching its ticket with a 52-46 victory over Colgate. AU had been in Division I since 1967.
Another school that had a long wait end in 2008 was UT-Arlington. The Mavericks had been members of Division I since 1969, but had never made the NCAAs until winning the Southland tournament that season (as the 7 seed in the league tourney).
These are the schools I (usually) root for come tourney time, to get that proverbial monkey off their back. They are the 20 schools that have been in Division I the longest without making a single appearance in the NCAA tournament. To keep what follows in perspective, just remember that George Mason University, which made the Final Four a few years ago, didn’t even exist until 1972.
“The Forgotten Five”
The NCAA’s modern classification into what we now call Division I occurred in 1948, although the hoops tourney started in 1939. The five schools that have been in D-1 since ’48 were all technically eligible to be selected to the NCAAs since that first 1939 tourney. Of course, it was only an 8-team tourney in those years.
Tangent: maybe it was only an 8-team field in those days, but none other than Harvard got a bid in 1946 (losing both its tourney opener and a consolation game). Thus, Harvard has been to the NCAA tourney despite having never won the Ivy League (which has officially only been around since 1954).
The class of 1948:
- Army: I didn’t know this until last year, but the Black Knights actually could have gone to the NCAA tournament in the 1960s. According to Bob Knight (in a TV interview) Army turned down an NCAA invite to instead play in the NIT, with a chance to compete at Madison Square Garden.
Another tangent: The last school to turn down an NCAA bid was Marquette (in 1970), a decision made by the late, great Al McGuire. McGuire was annoyed that his team (ranked 8th nationally) was going to have to travel further than he thought was right for a top 10 squad, so he thumbed his nose at the NCAA brass and accepted an NIT bid (Marquette would win that tournament). Schools are no longer allowed to decline NCAA bids to play in the NIT.
- Northwestern: The Wildcats are the only school in a “power conference” to never make the tournament. The school hosted the first NCAA tourney in 1939.
- St. Francis of New York: This school is not to be confused with St. Francis of Pennsylvania, fellow member of the Northeast Conference, which actually made the tournament in 1991 (and had to win a play-in game to do so). The Terriers, on the other hand, made three NIT appearances from 1956 to 1963, but have never been particularly close to an NCAA berth, at least from what I have been able to determine. There isn’t a great deal of SFC hoops history readily available online. The Terriers may be the most forgotten of the Forgotten Five.
- William and Mary: The Tribe did make the NIT in 1983. Thomas Jefferson and Jon Stewart demand more success than that, though.
- The Citadel: I wrote about the school’s painful hoops history in November of 2008. Since I wrote that manifesto, the team has won more games over a two-season stretch than at any other time in the Bulldogs’ history. Karma?
The chances of any of these schools making it this year are not particularly good. Northwestern, William and Mary, and Army all got off to good starts, but have faded down the stretch (the Tribe’s 16-point loss to Iona in a Bracketbusters game probably eliminating W&M from at-large consideration). To get a bid, it’s likely that only a league tournament title (and the automatic bid that goes with it) will do.
At this point, The Citadel might have the best shot, as it will be very difficult for Northwestern and/or William & Mary to win their respective conference tourneys (I think it’s fair to say that winning the Big 10/CAA tourneys is harder than winning the SoCon crown). The Bulldogs, while currently playing good basketball, will probably have to win four SoCon tourney games in four days, however. Considering the school has only won two consecutive SoCon tourney games once in its entire history, that may be too tall an order.
As for Army and St. Francis of New York, both are currently in 8th place in their respective conferences, which does not exactly scream “potential tourney run”, especially for Army, since there are only eight teams in the Patriot League.
Other schools who have had to hold their tickets for too long (records listed are as of Feb. 20):
- Centenary (D-1 member since 1960): Well, the Gentlemen only have two more years to make the NCAAs (including this one), since the school is moving to Division III after the 2011 season. Robert Parish’s alma mater would have to win the Summit League tourney. Currently Centenary is in next-to-last place in the conference and has lost 19 games.
- New Hampshire (class of 1962): A case could be made that the Wildcats have been the worst D-1 program since joining the division. Entering the 2009-10 campaign, the Wildcats’ all-time school record (including the years before joining D-1) is 817-1327 (38%). New Hampshire’s record in America East play entering this season was 142-299. Yikes. At any rate, it doesn’t look like UNH (currently seventh in the America East with an overall record of 10-15) will break through this year.
- Maine (class of 1962): Now here is a promising team to watch. Like New Hampshire, Maine is a member of the America East conference. Unlike UNH, though, Maine is having a solid season, third in the league, and with an overall record of 17-9. Keep a close eye on the Black Bears, which may have their best shot at making the field since 1994, when Maine lost in the conference final to Drexel.
- Denver: The Pioneers were in D-1 in its initial incarnation in 1948, left the classification in 1980, and then returned to D-1 in 1999. Denver (one of several hockey-first schools on this list) is a middling Sun Belt team this year (8-7 in league play, 15-11 overall). It wouldn’t be a complete shock to see the Pioneers make a SB tourney run, though.
- UT-Pan American (class of 1969): The Broncs currently compete as members of the Great West conference, a league that doesn’t send an automatic qualifier to the NCAAs. With a current record of 4-23, I’m guessing UTPA is not in line for an at-large bid.
- Stetson (class of 1972): The Hatters reside in the Atlantic Sun basement right now, tied with Florida Gulf Coast in league play (if you’ve never heard of Florida Gulf Coast before, don’t feel bad — DePaul never had either). Stetson has an overall record of 6-21. This isn’t going to be the year.
- UC Irvine (class of 1978): Like a lot of these schools, the Anteaters are at the bottom of their league standings, tied for last in the Big West with UC Riverside. It’s not going to be their year either.
- Grambling State (class of 1978): You would think a school with a football tradition as grand as Grambling’s could parlay that into an occasionally good hoops team, but no. This season is no different, as the Tigers are only 6-15 entering weekend play. Of course, being in the SWAC means that a team with a 6-15 overall record can’t be completely ruled out as far as winning the league tourney is concerned.
- Maryland-Eastern Shore: The Hawks joined D-1 in 1974, but left after just two years, and then returned in 1982. This season UMES is 6-6 in MEAC play but only 8-18 overall. I don’t see the Hawks getting past Delaware State or South Carolina State in the MEAC tourney, much less Todd Bozeman’s Morgan State club.
- Youngstown State: The Penguins were D-1 in 1948, but then dropped down and didn’t return to the division until 1982. Jim Tressel won multiple I-AA football titles while in Youngstown, but the hoops squad hasn’t been as successful, and this year is no different. YSU is tied for last in the Horizon League with Illinois-Chicago (the Flames have been extinguished) and has an overall record of 8-18.
- Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): B-C is actually tied with UMES in the MEAC standings right now, but at 14-12 may be a better team. I wouldn’t give the Wildcats much more of a shot of winning the league tourney, though. Maybe they need to bring Cy McClairen back.
- Western Illinois (class of 1982): The Leathernecks are currently third-from-last in the Summit League, one place above Centenary. It’s hard to see WIU making much of a run in that conference tourney.
- Chicago State (class of 1985): Like Texas-Pan American, Chicago State is a member of the Great West. Like UTPA, Chicago State has no chance to make the NCAAs in the foreseeable future.
- Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks, whose most notable hoops alum is Vin Baker, missed a chance to make the NCAAs when they lost in the America East finals two seasons ago to UMBC. At 8-19 this season, the odds are not in Hartford’s favor.
- Buffalo: the Bulls moved up to D-1 in 1974, left D-1 in 1977, then rejoined the classification in 1992. Buffalo has come closer than any other school on this list to breaking through in recent years, losing in the MAC title game last season and in 2005 (the latter an excruciating 80-79 loss in overtime). The Bulls are currently 15-9. It wouldn’t be that surprising to see them in the conference championship game again.
So there you have it. Those are the 20 schools that have waited the longest for an NCAA bid. Will one of them break through this year? Maine and Buffalo look like the best bets, but you wouldn’t really want to place a wager on any of them.
It would be great if one did, though. I think back to that American victory in 2008, and the sight of Eagles head coach Jeff Jones crying in his sideline chair. He knew the difficulty of what his team had accomplished. I felt so good for him and for the long-suffering AU fans.
Incidentally, that difficulty of accomplishment is just another reason why expanding the tournament would be such a mistake. It wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were easier to gain entry into the field. For myself, I’m not interested in The Citadel being part of a diluted field. Like the fans and players of all the schools still waiting for their moment, I want to enjoy the real thing.
It would be nice to enjoy it sooner rather than later…
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