It’s that time of year again, as in late February teams can see the end of the regular season finish line, and the anticipation of the conference tourneys begins. It’s also that time when we see if any of the schools with many years in Division I but no NCAA tournament appearances will finally get to become debutants in the Big Dance.
I want to start this post, however, by acknowledging that there have been a few schools which have an NCAA history but have not appeared in the tournament for a very long time (in some cases, forty years or more). Of this group, the longest drought is that of Harvard, which made its first and only tourney trip in 1946. Harvard currently leads the Ivy League, however, and is favored to win the conference and make a long-overdue return to the NCAAs this season.
Other schools not so favored: Rice (tourney-free since 1970), Bowling Green (1968), Columbia (1968), Tennessee Tech (1963), Yale (1962), and Dartmouth (1959).
I wouldn’t mind seeing any of those schools get back into the NCAAs someday, to be sure, but the focus of this post is on the twenty schools to have been in Division I the longest without making even one appearance in the NCAA tournament. Each of these schools has been in D-1 for at least 25 seasons (counting the 2011-12 campaign) with no appearances on any bracket.
Will any of these 20 schools finally break through this season? Last season, none of them did. The season before that…none of them did. The list of 20 has changed this year, however, because Centenary completed its 50-year run in D-1 last season with no tournament appearances. Since Robert Parish’s alma mater has dropped out of the division, it no longer appears on our list. Replacing Centenary this season (and #20 in terms of “seniority”) is UMKC.
Tangent: if you’re wondering how Centenary never made the NCAA tournament despite having Robert Parish in its lineup for four years, it’s because the Gents were on probation all four seasons he played for the school, thanks to the recruitment of…Robert Parish. Reading the link, it becomes clear that the NCAA hasn’t changed much over the years. This is not a good thing.
Now for this year’s review of our hopeful little group of perennial non-contenders. Please note that there are other schools in Division I that have yet to make an NCAA trip, but all of those schools are “newbies” — they all became members of D-1 after 1990. They haven’t suffered enough to be listed here.
[Note: all records listed below are for games through February 22]
The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. In 1948, the NCAA was re-classified into separate divisions (university and college). There are five schools which have continuously been in what we now call Division I since 1948 that have never made the tournament field. (That doesn’t include the aforementioned Harvard, which made its solitary appearance in 1946.) All five of those schools theoretically could have been in the tournament beginning in 1939, so for them the wait is actually longer than their history as official D-1 programs.
The five schools are known as the “Forgotten Five”. The class of 1948 (or 1939, if you will):
– Northwestern: NU is easily the cause célèbre of the Forgotten Five, as the only school in a BCS league never to have made the tournament. The Wildcats (16-11) have had a frustrating “so close, but so far away” kind of season, including Tuesday night’s overtime loss to Michigan. To break through this year and finally bring joy to the likes of Michael Wilbon or Darren Rovell, Northwestern needs to win its last three regular season games or make a big run in the Big 10 tourney. Neither is likely, particularly the former, as one of those three games is against Ohio State and the other two are on the road.
– Army: The Bulldogs of the Hudson are 12-16 overall and currently in sixth place in the eight-team Patriot League. Army would probably have to beat all three of the league heavyweights (Bucknell, Lehigh, and American) to win the conference tournament. Don’t bet on it.
– St. Francis (NY): The Terriers sport a modest 15-12 record, but are one of the better teams in the Northeast Conference, having won seven of their last nine games. SFC has to be considered a dark-horse threat to win the NEC tourney. When it comes to making the NCAAs, St. Francis is one of the more promising possibles among our group of 20.
– William and Mary: There has been some hot-and-heavy “bubble talk” about whether the CAA deserves to be a two-bid league, but none of that discussion has revolved around the Tribe (6-24). It’s been a long year for Jon Stewart’s alma mater.
– The Citadel: At 6-22, it’s been a long year for my alma mater too (despite the recent two-game winning streak). Of course, this isn’t the first time the Bulldogs have had a long year…
Okay, that’s the Forgotten Five. What about the other schools?
– New Hampshire (which began Division I play in 1962): The Wildcats are 12-15, which is actually a better mark than their historical norm; UNH’s basketball program has a “lifetime” winning percentage of under 40%. That’s good enough for sixth in the America East. That’s not good enough to garner an NCAA bid.
– Maine (also from the class of 1962): This season Maine is matching New Hampshire win for win (12-15; both teams are also 7-9 in America East play). When you match New Hampshire win for win in basketball, that’s generally a sign that you aren’t headed for postseason glory.
– Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): Unlike most of the teams on this list, the Pioneers are actually good. Denver already has 20 victories this season, including wins over St. Mary’s and Southern Mississippi. Another of the Pioneers’ victories came against Sun Belt rival Middle Tennessee State, but the Blue Raiders will still be solidly favored to capture the Sun Belt tourney crown. That’s important, because Denver has no realistic shot at getting an at-large bid. It must win the league tournament.
– UT-Pan American (class of 1969): It’s not like UTPA is completely devoid of hoops history; Lucious “Luke” Jackson played for the Broncs, and he later won both an Olympic gold medal in basketball and an NBA title. Abe Lemons and Lon Kruger both coached at UTPA. However, the school has not been rolling up victories in recent years. This season’s 11-17 campaign to date is a big improvement over the last two years, both 6-win debacles. Ultimately, though, that improvement doesn’t matter much; as a member of the Great West conference, a league without an automatic bid, UTPA has no shot at an NCAA berth.
– Stetson (class of 1972): The most famous hoopster in Hatters history is probably Ted Cassidy, the actor who played Lurch on The Addams Family. Alas, no amount of bell-ringing will bring an NCAA bid to Stetson this season, as the Hatters are 9-18 and in danger of not qualifying for the Atlantic Sun tournament.
– UC Irvine (class of 1978): The Anteaters are 10-17, seventh place in the Big West, and a million miles behind league leader Long Beach State in terms of basketball prowess this season. It’s too bad UCI has never made the NCAAs, as “Zot, Zot, Zot” is surely a much better chant than “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk”.
– Grambling State (class of 1978): The Tigers are 3-21 overall and in last place in the SWAC, which makes them a strong contender for being considered the worst team in Division I. Indeed, Grambling is ranked 345th and last in the Pomeroy Ratings.
– Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-1975, then back to the division in 1982): The Hawks are 6-20 and in next-to-last place in the MEAC. I’m not forecasting a deep league tourney run this year for UMES.
– Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, returning in 1982): The Penguins are a respectable 14-13 and a middle-of-the-pack team in the always solid Horizon League. It’s hard to see YSU getting past Valparaiso, Butler, and Cleveland State in the league tournament, however.
– Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): B-C missed a great opportunity last season after winning the MEAC regular season title, as the Wildcats lost in the conference tourney semifinals. Bethune-Cookman isn’t as good this year (13-14) but is one of six or seven teams with a reasonable shot at winning the MEAC tournament. If it were to do so, it would probably land in one of the dreaded 16-seed play-in games.
– Western Illinois (class of 1982): The Leathernecks are 14-12 and comfortably situated in the middle of the Summit League standings, a vast improvement over last year’s seven-win squad, which lost its last 13 games (including one to Centenary, the Gents’ only win in their farewell D-1 season). It’s been a nice bounceback year for WIU, but it’s unlikely Western Illinois can get past Oral Roberts and South Dakota State in the league tournament.
– Chicago State (class of 1985): Like Texas-Pan American, Chicago State competes in the Great West conference and thus has no opportunity at snagging an automatic bid to the NCAAs. Unlike UTPA, however, the Cougars haven’t been competitive, with a record of 4-23.
– Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are the third America East team on our list. Hartford is ahead of UNH and Maine in the league standings but has a much worse overall record (8-20). Hartford can count singer Dionne Warwick among its alums, but you don’t need a psychic to know that the Hawks are not making their first NCAA appearance this season. You don’t even need a friend.
– Buffalo (class of 1985): The Bulls have come closer than most of these schools to finally grabbing the brass ring. This season, Buffalo is 16-9 overall and in second place in the MAC East, the superior of that league’s two divisions. While Akron is probably the favorite to win the conference tournament, Buffalo is a team to watch, having recently gone on an eight-game winning streak (before dropping its last two contests).
– UMKC (class of 1988): The newest member of the countdown, the Kangaroos are only 10-19 overall and tied for last place in the Summit League. It’s quite possible UMKC may not qualify for the league tournament, much less the NCAAs, which would definitely upset all the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, and wastoids at the school, not to mention UMKC alum Edie McClurg.
Well, that’s this year’s rundown. St. Francis (NY), Denver, Buffalo, and possibly Northwestern have not-improbable chances of finally getting the call on Selection Sunday. However, it’s more likely that once again, none of the never-beens will realize the dream. It’s too bad. However, it won’t stop fans of those programs from continuing to support them, hoping that one day they will get that moment in the sun.
For this season, though, the skies appear to be cloudy.