All records are through March 1
It’s time again for another round of March Madness. The regular season is drawing to a close, and conference tournament action is about to begin. Across the country, schools will make a final push to make it to the promised land, the NCAA Tournament.
For some of them, however, there has never been a journey to the mountaintop.
There are currently 35 schools that have been in Division I for at least a decade that have yet to make a trip to the NCAAs. Of course, there are 18 other schools in D-1 that haven’t received a solitary tourney invite either, but there is a difference between recent D-1 entrants such as Northern Kentucky or Incarnate Word and longtime outsiders like UT-Pan American or Youngstown State.
Of those 35 schools with 10+ years in D-1 but no bids to show for it, 18 of them have been in Division I for 30 years or more and are still waiting. For fans of Hartford, or Bethune-Cookman, or Western Illinois, the annual tradition of watching as other schools get their names called on Selection Sunday has become more than a little depressing.
This post is about those schools that have known nothing but pain, nothing but longing, nothing but disappointment. Will the dream finally come true for one or two of them this season? Sadly, history says that the answer is no.
However, history can be rewritten. I truly believe there is hope this year. A couple of longtime wannabes may get asked to the dance this time. It won’t be easy,though.
I started posting about this topic in 2010. That year, I highlighted the 20 schools that had waited the longest for their first NCAA bid. As of 2015, nineteen of those schools are still waiting. The twentieth? Centenary, which left Division I four years ago.
In a way, it is hard to blame the folks in Shreveport for throwing in the towel. Centenary would have almost certainly made the NCAAs when Robert Parish was enrolled there, but instead its games from that era — including its players’ individual statistics — did not count. If you want to read yet another horror story about the NCAA, this 1975 Sports Illustrated story is for you: Invisible in the Post
In recent years, I’ve expanded the rundown to include schools with at least ten years or more in D-1 but no appearances in the NCAA Tournament. For all of those schools, making the ultimate leap into the field of 68 seems almost impossible. However, one did beat the odds in 2013-14.
Last season, Cal Poly entered the Big West tournament with a 10-19 record, but promptly beat the league’s top two seeds (including star-crossed UC-Irvine; more on the Anteaters later). Cal Poly captured the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAAs, the Mustangs’ first in 20 years as a D-1 member.
Of course, that bid came with an asterisk, as Cal Poly was relegated to “almost but not really in the tournament” status by having to participate in a play-in game. The Mustangs did win the much-despised PIG, however, and advanced to the “real” tournament, where they lost to Wichita State.
Congratulations to Cal Poly for dropping off this list and not emulating Centenary in the process. Alas, two more schools have been added to the 10+ years club, UC Davis and Utah Valley. For the Aggies and Wolverines, the struggle begins anew (though it may be a brief struggle for UC Davis, as we’ll see below).
Before beginning this season’s rundown of the longtime no-timers, however, it’s worth mentioning another list of schools. There are quite a few institutions that have made at least one NCAA appearance, but haven’t been back to the tournament in at least 20 years. Some of those schools have been waiting longer for a return to the Big Dance than many of the never-beens have been in D-1.
First among this group of schools is Dartmouth. The Big Green has made seven appearances in the NCAA tournament, and was the national finalist twice (in 1942 and 1944). However, Dartmouth last made the tourney in 1959, and that streak of futility will continue for another year, as the Big Green is tied for last place in the Ivy League (which has no postseason tournament).
Next is another member of the Ivies, Yale, which has not appeared in the NCAAs since 1962, the last of three trips for the Elis. However, Yale is currently in second place in the conference, and still has a chance to crash the NCAA party. Overcoming hoops nouveau riche Harvard may prove too difficult a task, though.
Other schools that have made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but haven’t been back since 1995 (or earlier) while continuously in D-1:
Tennessee Tech (1963), Columbia (1968), Bowling Green (1968), Rice (1970), VMI (1977), Duquesne (1977), Furman (1980), Toledo (1980), Loyola of Chicago (1985), Brown (1986), Jacksonville (1986), Marshall (1987), Idaho State (1987), Marist (1987), Oregon State (1990), Loyola Marymount (1990), Idaho (1990), Louisiana Tech (1991), Towson (1991), Northeastern (1991), St. Francis-PA (1991), Rutgers (1991), Howard (1992), Georgia Southern (1992), Campbell (1992), Fordham (1992), East Carolina (1993), SMU (1993), Rider (1994), Tennessee State (1994), and Tulane (1995).
Worth noting: Seattle (which last made the NCAAs in 1969, and which Elgin Baylor led to the national final in 1958) and Houston Baptist (a tourney team in 1984) both left Division I and then later returned, so they haven’t been in D-1 for all the years after making their most recent NCAA tourney appearances.
Some of those “last time in the field” appearances have been notable. Tennessee Tech may want to forget its 1963 trip, a 111-42 loss to eventual national champion Loyola of Chicago. In 1977, VMI made it to the round of 16 (the Keydets had reached the Elite Eight the year before).
Brown’s reward for winning the Ivy League in 1986? A matchup with Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Sure, that was fair. (Of course, the same thing happened to Navy two years later, but then a player named David Robinson vaulted into the national consciousness at the home team’s expense.)
Marist has made two NCAA appearances, the last coming in 1987, with Rik Smits (the Dunking Dutchman) leading the Red Foxes. The year 1987 was also the last time Marshall made the field, as the next season the Thundering Herd began suffering from the Curse of Randy Nesbit.
It is hard to believe it has been 25 years since the emotional, mesmerizing run of Loyola Marymount to the Elite Eight, which included one of the most amazing second-round games ever played, the Lions’ 149-115 destruction of defending national champion Michigan. It is almost as hard to believe that it was also the last time LMU made the NCAAs.
– Worthless trivia department: When Jacksonville made its last NCAA trip, in 1986, the Dolphins were coached by Bob Wenzel. When Rutgers made its most recent appearance in the Big Dance, in 1991, the Scarlet Knights were coached by…Bob Wenzel.
– Worthless trivia department, part 2: Idaho State’s last NCAA appearance, in 1987, was a one-game cameo in Salt Lake City. Idaho’s last tourney trip in 1990 also lasted one game, and also took place in Salt Lake City.
– Worthless trivia department: part 3: In 1991, there were three play-in games that took place between the league champions of six conferences, an early effort by the NCAA to eliminate as many automatic bids for smaller conferences as possible. Unlike the PIGs of today, these games were not official NCAA Tournament games, so the three teams that lost are not credited with a tourney appearance.
All three losing teams (Fordham, Jackson State, and Florida A&M) subsequently appeared in the NCAAs; Fordham’s trip came the following year, in 1992, the last time the Rams made the field. The team that beat Fordham in that 1991 play-in game was St. Francis (PA), the first and only time the Red Flash have qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
– Last year, two schools with long breaks between appearances broke through, Mercer and Coastal Carolina — and the Bears made their long-awaited return a memorable one by beating Duke in the first round.
This season, it appears that SMU will make the field after just missing out on an at-large bid last year. Others to watch in this group: Toledo (tied for first in the MAC’s West Division), Bowling Green (first place in the MAC’s East Division), Northeastern (tied for first in the CAA), Louisiana Tech (in first place in CUSA), Georgia Southern (tied for first in the Sun Belt), and Rider (the MAAC’s second-place team).
Among the power conference schools, Oregon State’s 25-year drought is currently the longest, not counting Northwestern…and that’s the cue to start with the list of schools that have never made the NCAAs. As usual, we begin with the Forgotten Five (recently described by one school president as a “very elegant group”).
The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. In 1948, the NCAA reorganized itself, and established separate divisions (college and university) for its member institutions. Of the schools that since 1948 have continuously been in what we now call Division I, five have never made the tournament field. 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 members of Division I.
The five schools are known as the “Forgotten Five”. The class of 1948 (or 1939):
– Northwestern: NU actually hosted the very first NCAA championship game back in 1939, though technically not the “Final Four”, which as a separate concept did not exist in the days of an eight-team tournament. The semifinal rounds that year were played in Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Of all the schools on this rundown, Northwestern is almost certainly the biggest underachiever. The NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It is hard to imagine a school in a “power conference” could fail to get an at-large bid during that time, but that is the case for the Wildcats.
Of the 65 schools in the top five leagues (counting Notre Dame as an ACC member), 48 have made at least one appearance in the NCAA tournament over the past four years. That’s 74% of all power-conference schools.
Of the seventeen that haven’t, only six haven’t made the tourney over the past seven years: South Carolina (last made the NCAAs in 2004), Auburn (2003), TCU (1998), Rutgers (1991), Oregon State (1991), and Northwestern. Rutgers hasn’t been in a power league all that time, of course (neither has TCU). The failure by Oregon State to make the field of 64 (or 68) over the last quarter-century is remarkable, but it pales in comparison to Northwestern’s infamous streak.
That streak is likely to continue for at least another season, as the Wildcats are 14-15 overall, 5-11 in the Big 10.
– Army: In 1968, Army turned down an NCAA bid, electing to play in the NIT instead. Army had been successful in the NIT under Bob Knight, reaching the semifinals on multiple occasions, and also had a chance to play at Madison Square Garden in the first round. The Black Knights would lose to Notre Dame in that first-round game.
(In case you were wondering, the last school to turn down an NCAA bid was Marquette, in 1970. That move was made by the late, truly great Al McGuire. Schools are no longer allowed to decline NCAA bids to play in the NIT, since the NCAA bought the NIT a few years ago — which probably would have greatly amused McGuire.)
Army also went undefeated in 1944 (15-0), but didn’t play in any postseason tourneys due in part to wartime travel restrictions. I am not sure the Black Knights would have been guaranteed an NCAA invite, as it was still just an eight-team invitational event. It seems likely, though. Many years later, the Helms Foundation awarded Army the retroactive 1944 national title.
All that being said, though, Army is still waiting to make that first NCAA appearance.
This season, the Black Knights are 15-14 overall, but in last place (6-12) in the Patriot League. A run through the league tourney seems unlikely.
– The Citadel: The Bulldogs avoided a fifth consecutive 20-loss season, but at 11-18 (6-12 SoCon), it was another frustrating campaign. There will be no party on Selection Sunday for the cadets. Same song, different year.
I wrote about the program’s tortured history in massive detail seven years ago. Since then, things have not improved.
– William and Mary: Last year, the Tribe came oh so close to breaking through, but lost a heartbreaker to Delaware in the CAA final, 75-74. The Blue Hens scored the final seven points in the contest to steal the bid.
This season, the Tribe (18-10, 12-6) finished in a four-way tie for first in a balanced CAA (despite a bizarre home loss to Drexel that closed out the regular season). William and Mary will be the top seed in the league tournament.
I wouldn’t bet on a repeat appearance in the conference title game, but I wouldn’t bet against it either. I’m certainly not betting against Marcus Thornton if he gets another championship-winning opportunity.
– St. Francis College: It has been a banner season for the Terriers, 21-10 (15-3 in the NEC). St. Francis has clinched the top seed in the league tourney. This appears to be SFC’s best chance in years to grab the brass ring.
The New York City press is starting to take notice of the oldest collegiate basketball program in the city. The late James Luisi, a former NBA player better known for his work as an actor (including Lt. Chapman on The Rockford Files), is arguably the school’s most famous hoops alum.
By getting the top seed, SFC will get to play at home throughout the NEC tournament. That’s a big deal.
Also worth noting: the Terriers at least know they have an NIT bid to fall back on if they don’t win the league tourney (the same is true for William and Mary). SFC wants more than that, though.
Next up on the list of the never-beens are two New England schools still in search of a bid despite being members of D-1 since 1962. As a hardwood tandem, they are known as “The Dour Duo”. This season, one is doing considerably better than the other.
– New Hampshire: The Wildcats are 18-11 overall, and finished fourth in the America East. This is UNH’s first winning season since 1994-95.
Albany, which leads the conference, is the favorite to get the league’s autobid. Still, Bill Herrion’s crew has a puncher’s chance to crash the party, which is not something you can say too often about New Hampshire’s basketball program.
– Maine: Times are tough in Orono. The Black Bears are 3-26 this season (after winning only six games last year). Even the school’s hockey team has a losing record.
Maybe Rick Carlisle could return to campus and turn the hoopsters into winners. After all, he started his collegiate career at Maine before transferring to Virginia. I’m guessing he’s happy coaching the Dallas Mavericks, though.
The rest of the rundown:
– Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): A couple of seasons ago, the Pioneers were coming off consecutive 22-win campaigns. The window may have closed for Denver, however, which is 12-17, 6-10 in the Summit League.
Only one D-1 school (American) plays at a slower pace than the Pioneers, which has partially masked the fact UD is poor defensively (bottom 30 nationally).
– UT-Pan American (class of 1969): The Broncs are in last place in the WAC and are 9-19 overall. It’s not going to happen this year (a sentence I will repeat, with variations, throughout the rundown).
– Stetson (class of 1972): Ted Cassidy’s alma mater is 9-21 this season. Only once in the last six years have the Hatters managed to get to double digits in wins, a fact that would even depress Uncle Fester.
– UC Irvine (class of 1978): UCI was the top seed in last season’s Big West tournament, only to lose in the semifinals to Cal Poly (as mentioned above). This year, the Anteaters are 17-11 overall and alone in second place (10-4) in the league standings.
The most well-known UCI player is 7’6″ Mamadou Ndiaye, who has been injured this season and has missed most of the Anteaters’ games. However, Ndiaye returned to action on February 26. Perhaps UCI’s dream will only be delayed by one year.
– Grambling State (class of 1978): The Tigers are 2-23 this year, and winless in SWAC play. That continues a trend, as in the previous three seasons Grambling won 4, 0, and 5 games. GSU is currently last in the kenpom ratings, a position it has held at the end of two of the last three seasons. To state the obvious, this isn’t going to be the year.
– Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-75, then back to the division for good in 1982): Last year, UMES had its 12th consecutive 20+ loss season.
This year? Well, it’s a new and much better one. The Hawks are 17-13, 10-5 in the MEAC. In his first season at UMES, Bobby Collins has performed one of the nation’s best coaching jobs.
The odds are against Maryland-Eastern Shore winning the MEAC tournament. Top seed North Carolina Central is undefeated in league play and will be hard to beat, as will second-place Norfolk State (particularly with the tourney being held at the Scope).
Having said that, I wouldn’t put anything past the MEAC tournament, a six-day extravaganza that defies convention (see the bracket on page 39 of this document). This year, Gladys Knight opens the festivities.
– Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, then returning to the division in 1982): The Penguins are 11-20, 2-14 in the Horizon League (last place). Hey, did you hear Bo Pelini is the new football coach?
– Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): This is another program that had its window of opportunity three or four years ago. This season, the Wildcats are 10-19, 6-8 in the MEAC. I don’t really think this is going to be the year.
– Western Illinois (class of 1982): Speaking of windows of opportunity, the Leathernecks won 22 games two years ago. This season? 8-19, 3-13 in the Summit League (last place). It’s not meant to be this season.
– Chicago State (class of 1985): Of the seven schools in the WAC eligible for the NCAA auto-bid (Grand Canyon hasn’t competed its reclassification period yet), five of them have never made the Big Dance. Despite that, this season the odds are good the league doesn’t send a newbie to the tourney.
Of the WAC no-nos, Chicago State is the least likely to break through this year, as the Cougars are 8-22 overall, 4-9 in the league (next-to-last place).
– Hartford (class of 1985): Dionne Warwick is Hartford’s most famous alum. If one of the NCAA regional pods were in San Jose, and Hartford won the America East tournament, by law the selection committee would have to send the Hawks there.
However, San Jose is not a host site this year, and Hartford (14-15, 7-9 in league play) is not likely to win the AE tourney. That will greatly upset WCSC-TV sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau, who may be the most ardent Hartford fan working in local television.
Incidentally, the great big freeway known as L.A. is hosting the West regional.
– UMKC (class of 1988): Here is another never-been from the WAC, and another one with a losing record (13-17). The Kangeroos are actually in second place in the conference standings (8-5), so perhaps UMKC is capable of making a miracle run through the league tourney. Edie McClurg would be so happy.
– Buffalo (D-1 from 1974-77, then back to the division in 1992): Buffalo has put itself in good position several times in recent years, but hasn’t had a lot of luck in the MAC tournament. This year, the Bulls are having a solid season (19-9, 10-6 in conference action).
This is head coach Bobby Hurley’s second year in charge at Buffalo. The former Duke star knows what it takes to be successful in the NCAA Tournament; first, though, you have to get there — and that’s the hard part.
– Sacramento State (class of 1992): From this year’s Blue Ribbon annual, Sacramento State’s preview (written by John Moorehouse):
Sacramento State has a pretty pitiful history as a Division I hoops program. In 24 seasons, the Hornets have never finished with a record better than .500. They’ve also never reached the NCAA tournament.
Nothing lasts forever. And Sacramento State has an excellent chance to end one of those droughts this season.
Point to Mr. Moorehouse. Sacramento State is currently 19-8 overall, clinching that winning campaign, and is also in first place in the Big Sky (13-3). If it stays in the top spot, Tom Hanks’ alma mater will host the conference tournament — but not at its regular facility, “The Nest“, a/k/a Colberg Court, which seats 1,200.
Instead, the tourney would take place at another site on campus, “The WELL” (the all-caps is apparently intentional). The WELL will seat 3,000 for basketball.
– UT Martin (class of 1993): Last season, the Skyhawks lost their first ten games and did not even qualify for the OVC tournament. Things have greatly improved for new head coach Heath Schroyer’s squad this season, as UT Martin is 18-11 overall, 10-6 in the league. Getting past conference top dog Murray State in the OVC tourney may be a bit much to ask, though.
– Jacksonville State (class of 1996): The Gamecocks, like UT Martin, did not qualify for last year’s OVC tournament. Unlike UT Martin, JSU (12-19, 5-11) did not qualify for this year’s OVC tournament, either.
– Quinnipiac (class of 1999): The Bobcats are a middling MAAC team (15-14, 9-11). To win the league tourney in Albany, Quinnipiac would likely have to beat at least one of the top two teams in the league, Iona and Rider, both of which swept the Bobcats this season. In a recent survey, 100% of respondents considered Quinnipiac’s prospects of claiming the auto-bid to be less than stellar.
– Elon (class of 2000): The Phoenix moved from the SoCon to the CAA this season. Elon is 14-17 overall and finished eighth in a ten-team conference. This doesn’t look like it will be the year.
– High Point (class of 2000): The Panthers (22-8, 13-5) finished tied for first in the Big South but blew a chance to win the league outright on the final Saturday of the regular season. The Big South is a league in which seven teams have a legitimate shot to win the conference tournament.
HPU can grab that auto-bid, but it will have to do so in three games in three days in Conway, South Carolina — and will probably have to beat three of the other contenders in the process.
– Sacred Heart (class of 2000): At 15-16 overall (9-9 in league play), things are looking up for Sacred Heart, as the Pioneers only won five games all of last season. Winning the NEC tournament is probably not in the cards, however.
– Stony Brook (class of 2000): Over the last five seasons, the Seawolves have won 22, 15, 22, 25, and 23 games. This year, Stony Brook is 21-10 overall, 12-4 in the America East (tied for second).
One of these years, the Seawolves are going to rip down the door separating them from the NCAA Tournament. It’s not out of the question it could happen this season.
– UC Riverside (class of 2002): The Highlanders are 14-14, 7-7 in the Big West. That’s a nice improvement from recent campaigns. UCR won’t be favored in the Big West tournament, but neither was Cal Poly last season and we all know what happened.
– IPFW (class of 2002): The Mastodons are 16-13, 9-7 in the Summit League. South Dakota State and North Dakota State will be the heavy favorites in the league tournament, but IPFW beat both of those squads during a recent seven-game winning streak. Don’t count out the Mastodons, even though Mastodons are, well, extinct.
– Gardner-Webb (class of 2003): The Runnin’ Bulldogs are 18-13 overall, 10-8 in the Big South. As mentioned earlier, the Big South tournament will be a bloodbath, and Gardner-Webb is one of seven teams with a decent shot at the tourney title.
– Savannah State (class of 2003): The Tigers are 9-19 overall, 5-9 in the MEAC. Nope, not going to happen this year.
– Lipscomb (class of 2004): The Bisons are 13-16, 7-7 in the Atlantic Sun. FGCU and North Florida are well ahead of the other A-Sun teams in the standings, and will be favored to meet in the league tournament championship game. Lipscomb is 0-4 this season against those two schools.
– UC Davis (class of 2005): The Aggies won only nine games last season. This year, UC Davis is 22-5, 12-2 in the Big West, and favored to cut the nets down in Anaheim (site of the Big West tourney).
UC Davis is coached by Jim Les, the former Bradley player and coach (Les also played in the NBA). During his tenure at Bradley, Les led the Braves to four consecutive postseason tournaments, all of which were different events — the NCAAs in 2006 (when Bradley made the Sweet 16), NIT in 2007, CBI in 2008, and CIT in 2009.
– Utah Valley (class of 2005): The Wolverines are 10-18 overall, 4-9 in the WAC. Utah Valley has not been an offensive juggernaut, failing to reach 50 points in seven of its defeats (with a low of 33 points in a loss at Seattle).
If New Mexico State somehow loses in the WAC tourney, the door will open for a first-timer to make the NCAAs. With the history of the five never-beens in the league, though, it would surprise nobody if Seattle (the only team in the league to beat NMSU this season, and the only other team in the league to have made the Big Dance) would grab the auto-bid.
Well, that’s the roll call for this season. Will any of those teams get to the promised land?
The answer, I suspect, will be yes. There are too many teams on that list which have had outstanding seasons. One or more of them will prevail. Among the candidates: St. Francis College, William and Mary (either of which would be huge stories), Sacramento State, UC Irvine, Stony Brook, High Point, UT Martin, Buffalo, Gardner-Webb, New Hampshire, and Maryland-Eastern Shore.
One other potential first-timer not on the list is North Florida, which has been a full-fledged Division I member for only six seasons. The Ospreys (20-11, 12-2) won the regular-season Atlantic Sun title and will get to play all of their league tournament games at home.
If any of the aforementioned schools qualify, they better not be shunted off to one of the play-in games (which obviously shouldn’t exist in the first place).
As I’ve said before (and will say again), the play-in games limit the tournament experience of the automatic qualifiers, and that’s tremendously unfair. If the NCAA has to have the despicable PIGs, make the last eight at-large teams play in them.
A team that handles the pressure of a one-bid league tournament and survives to garner an NCAA bid should always be in the main draw. Always.
Good luck, dreamers.
Filed under: Basketball | Tagged: Army, Buffalo, Dour Duo, Forgotten Five, Gardner-Webb, High Point, Maine, Maryland-Eastern Shore, NCAA Tournament, New Hampshire, Northwestern, Sacramento State, St.Francis College, Stony Brook, The Citadel, UC Irvine, UT-Martin, William and Mary | Leave a comment »