All season records are through February 28
League tourney time is right around the corner, with the regular season drawing to a close for most of the nation’s conferences. That means it’s time for March Madness, with schools across the country striving to making the promised land, the NCAA Tournament.
Most of them will not succeed. After all, there are 351 institutions that play men’s basketball at the Division I level, and only 68 of them will make the NCAAs. For some of those schools, though, the failure to make the tourney is not just a brief blip in their respective hardwood histories.
There are 33 schools that have been members of D-1 for at least a decade, but have never appeared in the NCAAs. Now, there are other schools in the division that have also never made the Big Dance, but there is a distinction to be made between schools that are recent arrivals in D-1 (like Central Arkansas or Bryant) and longtime no-nos (such as Hartford or UMKC).
Of those schools with 10+ years in Division I but no bids to show for it, 17 of them have been in D-1 for 30 years or more and are still waiting. For fans of schools like Denver, Maryland-Eastern Shore, or Stetson, the annual tradition of watching Selection Sunday with no vested interest has become a numbing experience, if not a depressing one.
History shows that it is hard for these schools to break through. When I started writing about this topic in 2010, I listed the twenty schools with the longest waits for an NCAA tourney bid. Of those twenty, seventeen of them are still waiting. One of the three no longer on the list, Centenary, simply dropped to Division III after 50 years of frustration.
However, there is hope, as the other two schools dropped off the list because they finally made the tournament last season. For UC Irvine, which had been in D-1 since 1978, the dream was realized when it won the Big West tourney title. The program had lost in the conference championship game on four previous occasions.
Meanwhile, Buffalo (a D-1 member for 26 years, and continuously since 1992) won the MAC tourney and earned its first trip to the NCAAs in the process, having come very close several times before but never quite getting over the hump. Both UCI and Buffalo lost close games in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, but at least they got there.
Before starting this year’s report on the longtime no-timers, however, there is another list of schools worthy of mention. There are numerous institutions that have made at least one NCAA appearance, but haven’t been back to the tournament in at least 20 years. A few of them have been waiting longer for a return to the NCAAs than the majority of the never-beens.
First (last?) among this group of schools is Dartmouth. The Big Green was the national finalist twice (in 1942 and 1944), and has made five other appearances in the tournament. However, Dartmouth last made the NCAAs in 1959. That streak will continue for at least one more season, as the Big Green has already been eliminated from the Ivy League title race (and that conference has no postseason tournament).
Next up (down?) is another member of the Ivies, Yale, which has not appeared in the NCAAs since 1962, the last of three trips for that program. However, the Elis are currently in first place in the Ivy League, and stand a decent chance to get that long-awaited return trip (after narrowly missing out last season).
Other schools that have made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but haven’t been back since 1996 (or earlier) while continuously in D-1:
Tennessee Tech (last made the NCAAs in 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), St. Francis-PA (1991), Rutgers (1991), Howard (1992), Georgia Southern (1992), Campbell (1992), Fordham (1992), East Carolina (1993), Rider (1994), Tennessee State (1994), Tulane (1995), Canisius (1996), Colgate (1996), Drexel (1996), Green Bay (1996), Montana State (1996), New Orleans (1996), Northern Illinois (1996), Portland (1996), San Jose State (1996), Santa Clara (1996), ULM (1996), and Western Carolina (1996).
Yes, twelve schools that appeared in the 1996 tournament have not been back since, which is more than a little flukish.
Note: Seattle (a finalist in 1958, but with no NCAA appearances since 1969) and Houston Baptist (made the tourney in 1984) both left D-1 and then later returned, so they haven’t continuously been in the division after making their most recent NCAA tourney appearances.
Last year, Northeastern and SMU both made the NCAAs after long absences. They had last made the field in 1991 and 1993, respectively.
Besides Yale, teams on the above list with a reasonable chance to make it back to the NCAAs this season include Furman, Toledo, Jacksonville, Marshall (still trying to overcome the Curse of Randy Nesbit), Oregon State, Louisiana Tech, Towson, Tennessee State, Green Bay, and Northern Illinois.
Of course, it’s possible none of the above-mentioned schools return to the tournament. Most of them would have to win their conference tourneys to get a bid. An exception to that might be Oregon State, which holds the dubious distinction of suffering from the longest current tournament appearance drought of any power 5 school save Northwestern.
Speaking of the Wildcats, it is time to begin the rundown of the schools that have never made the NCAAs in at least a decade of trying. As always, we start with the Forgotten Five.
The NCAA Tournament began in 1939, with the final that year held in Evanston, Illinois (which must really annoy Northwestern fans). In 1948, the NCAA reorganized into separate divisions (university and college) for its member institutions. Of the schools that since 1948 have continuously been in what is now Division I, there are five which 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. (This is just one of many crushing items/statistics about these institutions’ basketball histories.)
The five schools are known as “The Forgotten Five”. The class of 1948 (or 1939, if you want to get overly technical):
– Northwestern: It is hard to believe a school in a power conference could fail to get an at-large bid in all this time, especially with the expansion of the tournament, but Northwestern has made believers of us all.
Of the 65 schools in the top five leagues (counting Notre Dame as an ACC member), 52 have made at least one appearance in the NCAA tournament over the past five years. That’s 80% of all power-conference schools.
Of the thirteen 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 (1990), and Northwestern. (It should be noted that TCU and Rutgers haven’t continuously been members of a power conference during that seven-year stretch.)
If you’re wondering how a major-conference school could somehow manage to miss out on the tournament for so long, it’s fairly simple: Northwestern hasn’t had a winning record in Big 10 play since 1968. That may be a more amazing mark of futility than the failure to make the NCAAs.
Northwestern’s struggles in conference action is a tidbit mentioned in John Feinstein’s recent article in The Washington Post on the Wildcats’ hoops program, one of a series of stories on the Forgotten Five over the past few weeks in that newspaper (all authored by Feinstein).
This season, Northwestern is 18-11 overall, but only 6-10 in league play. The Wildcats’ only chance at an NCAA bid this season is to win the Big 10 tourney, and they won’t be able to play Rutgers in every game.
– Army: Not only was 1968 the last time Northwestern finished with a winning record in the Big 10, it was also the year Army turned down an NCAA bid and played in the NIT instead. It wasn’t a bizarre decision by any means (as Feinstein relates in his piece on Army hoops).
[Tangent: the last school to turn down an NCAA bid was Marquette, in 1970, a move made by the remarkable Al McGuire, who should be the subject of a major motion picture sooner rather than later. Schools are no longer allowed to decline NCAA bids to play in the NIT, a tournament which is now owned by the NCAA.]
Army went undefeated in 1944 (15-0), but didn’t play in any postseason tourneys; wartime travel restrictions played a role in that. Would the Black Knights have received an NCAA invite in an era in which the tournament only included eight teams? We’ll never know.
As for this year, Army is 18-12 overall, 9-9 in the Patriot League. A run through the league tourney may not be probable, but it is possible.
– The Citadel: The Bulldogs have now lost 20+ games in five of the last six seasons, though this year’s campaign (10-21 overall, 3-15 SoCon) has been a little different, given it was the first season in Charleston for Duggar Baucom and the frenetic style of play he employs (as detailed in John Feinstein’s school profile). Regardless, The Citadel will have to wait for at least one more year.
– William and Mary: In my opinion, the Tribe is the Forgotten Five program that most deserves to break through and make the NCAAs. The past two seasons have been tortuous, as excellent William and Mary squads have fallen one game short of the Big Dance.
This year, the Tribe is 19-10 overall, 11-7 in the CAA. I wouldn’t be surprised to see William and Mary in the league final for a third consecutive year. The problem is that the Tribe is 0-9 all-time in conference championship games (in three different leagues).
– St. Francis College: John Feinstein’s story on the Terriers includes a memorable quote from the school chaplain prior to last season’s NEC title game, which was hosted by St. Francis:
We’ve been in the desert longer than Moses. The end is near.
Moses eventually got out of the desert. St. Francis College, not so much.
There isn’t likely to be any relief for SFC this year, either. After being just one game away from the oasis last season, in 2015-2016 the Terriers are 15-16 overall, 11-7 in the conference.
Perhaps St. Francis can make another tournament run. One gets the sense, though, that the window of opportunity (at least for right now) may have closed.
Next up on the list of the dance-averse are two New England universities still in search of an initial NCAA bid despite being members of D-1 since 1962. As a hardwood tandem, they are known as “The Dour Duo”. Both are members of the America East conference.
– New Hampshire: The Wildcats are 18-11 overall, 11-5 in conference play, and have clinched a second consecutive winning season (after not having any winning campaigns in the previous 20 years).
Stony Brook is the league leader (more on the Seawolves later) and will be favored in the conference tourney. However, UNH cannot be completely dismissed. New Hampshire probably has one more opportunity next season to break through with its current group of players, but sometimes it’s easier to arrive a year early. This could be that year.
– Maine: On the other hand, it has been another tough season in Orono, as the Black Bears are 8-21 (4-12 in league play). That is better than last season (3-27), to be fair.
Maine will have to wait at least one more year (a sentence that will be repeated, with minor variations, several times in this post).
The rest of the rundown:
– Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): The Pioneers are 15-14 overall, 7-9 in the Summit League. This season has been better than last year for slow-slower-slowest Denver (only two other Division I teams average fewer possessions per contest), but a surprise run through the league tournament seems unlikely.
– UT-Rio Grande Valley (class of 1969): If you’ve never heard of UT-Rio Grande Valley, don’t feel too badly about it. The school formerly known as UT-Pan American merged with UT-Brownsville to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, and also changed nicknames (from Broncs to Vaqueros).
Recently, the school announced that former Texas head football coach Mack Brown will lead a feasibility study for potentially establishing a new football program. Brown is expected to recommend that UTRGV add the sport, as there are a large number of high school quarterbacks in the region who could be offered scholarships to play free safety.
On the hardwood, the school hasn’t had much success over the years, regardless of its name, and this year is no exception. UTRGV is 8-20 overall, 4-9 in the WAC.
– Stetson (class of 1972): The Hatters are 10-21 overall, 4-10 in the Atlantic Sun, and ineligible for the NCAAs because of a sub-par APR score. Thus, the school’s most notable hoops player will remain the late Ted Cassidy. You rang?
– Grambling State (class of 1978): The bad news is that Grambling State has only won six games this season. The good news is that the Tigers have won more games this season than they did in any of their four previous campaigns (4, 0, 5, and 2 wins).
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): UMES had suffered 12 consecutive 20+ loss seasons until last year’s mini-miracle, which resulted in 18 wins.
Alas, this year the Hawks are 9-21 overall (6-9 in the MEAC). Eight of UMES’ nine conference losses have been by single digits. The magic has left the shore, at least for the moment.
– Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, then returning to the division in 1982): The Penguins are 11-20, 6-12 in the Horizon League. It’s basically a repeat of last year’s 11-21 season. In other words, time to get ready for spring football practice.
– Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): The Wildcats are only 13-16 overall, but 9-5 in the MEAC. Could they sneak through the league tourney and grab that elusive NCAA tourney bid?
It’s not out of the question. After all, this is the MEAC Tournament, which always has something for everyone, on and off the court. See pages 40-41 of this document for the men’s and women’s tourney brackets (the two tournaments take place over a six-day period at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, VA).
This year’s entertainment at the MEAC tourney includes a tipoff concert by the “Legends of Soul” (featuring Freddie Jackson) and a pair of official after-party events, one of which is hosted by Kid ‘n Play.
– Western Illinois (class of 1982): During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, the Leathernecks won a combined 40 games. However, WIU followed up those fine seasons with 10- and 8-win campaigns, and was 10-17 this year. Western Illinois finished in last place in the Summit League and did not qualify for the conference tournament.
– Chicago State (class of 1985): The Cougars won only eight games last season. This year, Chicago State is 4-26 and has only one Division I victory, which came against…Western Illinois.
Unfortunately, right now Chicago State has much bigger problems than its basketball team’s record.
– Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are 9-22, 4-12 in the America East. It looks like this will be another season of torment for WCSC-TV sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau and the rest of Hartford’s faithful fans.
– UMKC (class of 1988): Six of the eight schools in the WAC have never been to the NCAAs. Of the six, the one having the best season (Grand Canyon) is ineligible to participate because it hasn’t completed its probationary period in D-1.
We’ve already seen Chicago State and UT-Rio Grande Valley on this list. As for UMKC, the Kangaroos are 10-18 overall, 3-10 in the WAC. UMKC does have a win over a power conference team this season (Mississippi State), but that’s probably going to be the highlight of its season.
– Sacramento State (class of 1992): Last year was a very good one for the Hornets, which won 21 games. One of those was a CIT triumph over Portland, the first postseason tournament victory in the program’s history.
This year, things haven’t gone nearly as well. Sacramento State is 11-16, 4-12 in the Big Sky. In past years, that would have eliminated the Hornets from league tournament qualification, but this year the conference has expanded its tourney to include all 12 teams.
– UT Martin (class of 1993): The Skyhawks are tied for first place in the OVC West, with a 10-6 conference mark (18-13 overall). It’s the second consecutive solid season for UT Martin, which won’t be the favorite at the OVC tourney (that will be Belmont), but would seem to have at least a puncher’s chance.
– Jacksonville State (class of 1996): The Gamecocks are 8-23, 4-12 in the OVC. For the third season in a row, Jacksonville State will not qualify for the league tournament. It’s kind of hard to make the NCAAs in a one-bid league if you can’t make your conference tourney.
– Quinnipiac (class of 1999): At 9-20, 6-14 in the MAAC, Quinnipiac is going backwards. The Bobcats won twenty games in 2013-14 and fifteen games last season.
Perhaps in an election year, it is a bit much to expect Quinnipiac to fully concentrate on hoops when there is so much polling to do.
– Elon (class of 2000): The Phoenix are 16-15 overall, but just 7-11 in CAA play. The league tournament should be one of the nation’s most competitive this year, but it’s difficult to envision Elon winning four games in four days.
– High Point (class of 2000): High Point is due. This is the fourth straight season the Panthers (20-9, 13-5) have won or shared the regular-season title in the Big South. High Point also has the league’s best player in John Brown.
However, Brown missed the regular-season finale with a foot injury. If he is limited (or simply unable to play) in the conference tournament, it could be crushing for HPU.
– Sacred Heart (class of 2000): The Pioneers lost 10 of their first 11 games, but things improved once conference action began. Sacred Heart is 12-17 overall, with a winning record in the NEC (11-7).
The league tourney could be a brawl. Sacred Heart is a potential sleeper.
– Stony Brook (class of 2000): Over the last six seasons, the Seawolves have won 22, 15, 22, 25, 23, and 23 games. Last year, Stony Brook was very close to an NCAA tournament bid. How close? This close.
That had to hurt.
This year, the Seawolves are 23-6 overall, 14-2 in conference play — but with losses in two of their last three games.
Stony Brook will host every game it plays in the league tournament. Will this finally be the year?
– UC Riverside (class of 2002): The Highlanders won 14 games last season and are 14-16 this year. UC Riverside is a respectable middle-of-the-pack Big West squad, but winning the conference tournament might be a bit of a stretch.
– IPFW (class of 2002): The Mastodons are 23-8 overall and tied for first place in the Summit League with a 12-4 mark. The conference tournament is in Sioux Falls, which could be an issue (nearby South Dakota State being the other team that tied for first). Still, this should be a good opportunity for IPFW to make the NCAA tourney.
Mastodons may be extinct, but you still can’t count them out.
– Gardner-Webb (class of 2003): The Runnin’ Bulldogs are 15-15 overall, 10-8 in the Big South. It wouldn’t be a total shock for Gardner-Webb to be playing for the league tournament title on March 6.
– Savannah State (class of 2003): The Tigers are 13-13 overall, 8-6 in the MEAC. Savannah State needs a few breaks to go its way in the MEAC tournament. Hey, it could happen.
– Lipscomb (class of 2004): The Bisons are 11-20, 7-7 in the Atlantic Sun. If North Florida were to be upset in the league tournament, then just about any other team in the top six could win it, including Lipscomb. I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it.
– UC Davis (class of 2005): The Aggies won 25 games last season and the Big West regular-season title. This season, UC Davis is 10-17, 5-9 in the league.
Last year could have been the year. This year almost certainly won’t be.
– Utah Valley (class of 2005): Utah Valley is 12-16, 6-7 in the WAC. That isn’t great, but it’s better than the three other WAC teams on this list.
Indeed, the Wolverines are 6-0 against UMKC, Chicago State, and UTRGV (the three worst teams in the league). However, they are winless against the three schools expected to compete for the conference tourney title (including the favorite, New Mexico State).
Well, that’s the roll call for this season. Will any of those teams finally get their moment in the sun?
Surprisingly enough, I think so. Last year it was UC Irvine and Buffalo. This year could be the time to shine for Stony Brook, or IPFW, or High Point, or maybe (after all these years) William and Mary.
One other potential first-timer not on the list is Cal State Bakersfield, which has been a full-fledged D-1 member for only six years. The Roadrunners (20-8, 10-3) are having a nice season in the WAC and could definitely challenge for the league tourney title.
As I’ve said many times before, if any of the aforementioned schools qualify for the NCAAs, they better not be dropped into one of the play-in games. The “First Four” chiefly serves to limit the tournament experience of the automatic qualifiers, which is unfair and asinine. If the NCAA has to have play-in games (it doesn’t), make at-large teams play in all of 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 real tournament — the main draw. Always.
Good luck to all the dreamers out there.
Filed under: Basketball | Tagged: Army, Bryant, Buffalo, Central Arkansas, Denver, Dour Duo, Forgotten Five, Gardner-Webb, Hartford, High Point, IPFW, Maine, March Madness, Maryland-Eastern Shore, NCAA Tournament, New Hampshire, Northwestern, Sacramento State, St.Francis College, Stetson, Stony Brook, The Citadel, UC Irvine, UMKC, UT-Martin, William and Mary |