All season records through February 25
As the regular season comes to a close in Division I basketball, the next two weeks will be filled with action, as conference tournaments begin across the nation. March Madness will arrive, with teams dreaming of boogieing down on the biggest dance floor of them all, the NCAA Tournament.
Most of those dreams will not come true; most of them won’t come close to coming true. There are 351 D-1 institutions that play men’s basketball, and only 68 of them will make the NCAAs. For some of those schools, though, the failure to make the tourney is a common occurrence — in fact, it is all they have ever known.
There are 29 schools that have been full members of Division I for at least a decade, but have never made a trip to the NCAAs. Now, there are 14 other schools in the division that have also never crashed the party, but there is a distinction to be made between schools that are fairly recent arrivals in D-1 (such as Central Arkansas or Bryant) and longtime never-beens (like Hartford or Western Illinois).
Of those schools with 10+ years in D-1 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 UMKC, Stetson, or Denver (just to name three such schools), watching the CBS selection show with no vested interest in the brackets is a sad but seemingly inevitable tradition.
When I started writing about this topic in 2010, I listed the twenty schools with the longest waits for an NCAA tourney bid. That was eight years ago. Sixteen of those schools are still waiting to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. One of the four institutions no longer on the list, Centenary, eventually dropped out of D-1 after 50 years, never making the tournament.
However, there is hope. No fewer than five first-timers made the field of 68 in 2017. Two of them were relatively new to Division I (North Dakota and Northern Kentucky). UC Davis had been in D-1 since 2005, so it had bided its time, as had Jacksonville State (a member of the division since 1996).
Then there was Northwestern, one of the “Forgotten Five”. Now the Forgotten Five is known as the Forgotten Four, as the Wildcats became the last major-conference school to make an initial appearance in the NCAAs.
Before diving into this year’s rundown of the longtime non-invitees, 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 those schools have actually waited longer for a return to the NCAA tournament than most of the no-timers.
First (or perhaps last?) among this group of schools is Dartmouth. In both 1942 and 1944, the Big Green advanced to the NCAA title game. Dartmouth has made seven total appearances in the tournament, but last made the NCAAs in 1959.
That unfortunate streak will continue for another year, as the Big Green will not qualify for this season’s Ivy League conference tournament.
Other schools that have made at least one appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but haven’t been back since 1998 (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), 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), Montana State (1996), Northern Illinois (1996), Portland (1996), San Jose State (1996), Santa Clara (1996), ULM (1996), Western Carolina (1996), Charleston Southern (1997), Fairfield (1997), Texas State (1997), TCU (1998), Eastern Michigan (1998), Illinois State (1998), Navy (1998), Nicholls (1998), Prairie View A&M (1998), and San Francisco (1998).
Of note: Seattle (which made the NCAA championship game in 1958 thanks mostly to Elgin Baylor, but which last made the tournament field in 1969) and Houston Baptist (a tourney team in 1984) both left Division I and then later returned. Thus, they haven’t been in D-1 for all the years after making their most recent NCAA tourney appearances.
Seattle spent 15 years out of D-1, so it has not made the tournament in 34 non-consecutive Division I seasons. Houston Baptist has been absent from the NCAA tournament for 12 non-consecutive D-1 seasons.
Of the teams listed above, TCU is the only one with a reasonable chance of receiving an at-large bid this season. Indeed, the Horned Frogs have had a very solid 2017-18 campaign, and are likely to make the field.
Other schools mentioned above that would be favorites, or at least realistic contenders, to win their league tourneys: Loyola of Chicago, Idaho, Campbell, Marshall, Towson, Toledo, Illinois State, Nicholls, and Navy.
Now it is time to begin the rundown of the schools that have never made the NCAAs in at least a decade of trying. As mentioned earlier, there are 29 such schools.
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, four have never made the tournament field. All of them theoretically could have been in the tournament beginning in 1939, so for these four schools the wait is actually longer than their history as official members of Division I.
Due to Northwestern finally breaking through last season, this group of schools is now known as the “Forgotten Four”. The class of 1948 (or 1939, if you’re so inclined):
– William and Mary: William and Mary has been to its league championship game nine times in its history. Every time, it would have received a bid to the NCAAs with a victory.
The Tribe is 0-9 in those games. Two have come in the last five seasons.
This season, William and Mary has an overall record of 18-11 (11-7 CAA). The Tribe won’t be favored in the league tournament in Charleston, and has a brutal bracket (Towson, and if it wins then probably College of Charleston in the semifinals).
However, the Tribe is an excellent offensive team. Two games of hot shooting could put W&M in the conference final yet again.
– The Citadel: The Bulldogs have lost at least 20 games in seven of the last eight years, including this season’s campaign (10-20, 5-13 in the SoCon).
At one point this year, it appeared that The Citadel might be finally turning the corner. It didn’t.
– Army: The Cadets (13-16, 6-12 in the Patriot League) will be a major underdog in their conference tournament, as they were last year. In fact, Army has been 6-12 in conference play in each of the last two seasons.
If the Black Knights were to beat Loyola of Maryland on Wednesday, they would face top seed Bucknell on Thursday. That does not bode well for continuing to play over the weekend.
– St. Francis College: It has been three years since the Terriers were one game away from the NCAA tournament. Things didn’t go well that night for St. Francis.
This year, SFC is 13-17 overall, 10-8 in the NEC. The Terriers are much improved from last season, when they didn’t even qualify for the league tournament. As the five seed, SFC would probably have to win three road games to win the conference tourney. Unlikely, but not completely impossible.
Next up on the list of teams never to have made the tournament: “The Dour Duo”, two New England state schools that have been members of D-1 since 1962. Both are members of the America East conference.
– New Hampshire: In their previous three seasons, the Wildcats won a combined 59 games. UNH could never get past the league tourney semifinals, however.
This season, New Hampshire is 10-19 (6-9 in the America East), and has lost four straight games. Back to square one.
– Maine: Over the past five years, the Black Bears have won 6, 3, 8, 7, and (this season) 6 games.
New Hampshire and Maine play each other in the Hockey East tournament’s opening round, which may be of more interest to the two schools right now.
The rest of the rundown:
– Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): Denver is 14-14 overall, 8-6 in the Summit League. The conference tournament is being held in Sioux Falls, and the two South Dakota schools (USD and SDSU) are the favorites.
According to kenpom, Denver has a 2.8% chance of winning the league tournament. Hey, it’s better than no chance at all.
– UT-Rio Grande Valley (class of 1969): Whether it has been known as UT-Pan American or UT-Rio Grande Valley, hoops success has always been hard to come by for the school located in southern Texas.
This year’s 15-15 record (6-7 in the WAC) is an improvement over recent years, as the Vaqueros had not broken the 10-win barrier in their last four campaigns. Expecting UT-RGV to make much noise in the league tournament may be a bit much to ask, at least this season, with New Mexico State the solid favorite in the WAC.
– Stetson (class of 1972): This year has been fairly typical for the Hatters, which are 12-19 overall, 4-10 in the Atlantic Sun. Stetson did make the league tournament this season, but that is only because the A-Sun is down to eight members (the Hatters will be the 7 seed).
As always, this post will note that the school’s most famous basketball player is the late Ted Cassidy. You rang?
– Grambling State (class of 1978): After being arguably the worst D-1 basketball program of them all over the last decade, this has been an excellent year for GSU hoops. At one point the Tigers won 11 straight games and held the nation’s longest active win streak, which deservedly grabbed a lot of attention.
Alas, Grambling State is banned from postseason play due to APR issues, so it will be at least another year before the Tigers can make their first NCAA tournament appearance.
– Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-75, then back to the division for good in 1982): Three years ago, UMES won 18 games. Outside of that one spectacular outlier of a season, however, the Hawks have lost at least 20 games in fifteen of the last sixteen seasons, including this year (6-24, 2-13 in the MEAC).
– Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, then returning to the division in 1982): The Penguins are 8-23, 6-12 in the Horizon League.
It is puzzling that YSU, a school with a significant winning tradition in football, has never been successful in basketball at the D-1 level. (The same could be said for Grambling State, too.)
– Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): The Wildcats are 17-12 overall, 11-4 in the MEAC. That league mark currently leads a very balanced conference (at least at the top).
Bethune-Cookman has won five straight games and would love to carry that momentum into The Scope for the MEAC tournament. Could this be the year for the Wildcats?
– Western Illinois (class of 1982): The Leathernecks are 12-15 overall, 3-11 in the Summit League. Earlier, I mentioned that kenpom gave Denver a 2.8% chance of winning the Summit League tournament.
WIU has a 0.2% chance.
– Chicago State (class of 1985): In the two seasons before this one, the Cougars had a combined total of four D-1 victories. This year, Chicago State has none. The Cougars are 2-28 overall, 0-13 in the WAC.
On the bright side, CSU’s women’s basketball team recently broke a 59-game losing streak.
– Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are having a fine season. Hartford is 18-11 overall, 11-4 in the America East.
WCSC-TV sportscaster Kevin Bilodeau and the rest of Hartford’s faithful fans are hopeful this could be the year, but Vermont is the kingpin in the AE, and will be very hard to beat. That said, only Hartford alum Dionne Warwick knows for sure what the future holds.
– UMKC (class of 1988): UMKC is one of a fistful of WAC schools that have never been to the NCAAs. The Kangaroos are ahead of Chicago State in the “likely to break through” category, but that’s not saying a whole lot.
UMKC is 10-20 this season, 5-8 in league play. However, the Kangaroos have won four of their last five games and could be tough to bounce in the conference tournament.
– Sacramento State (class of 1992): Sacramento State is 6-23 overall, 3-13 in the Big Sky. This isn’t going to be the year.
– UT Martin (class of 1993): Last season, the Skyhawks advanced to the final of the OVC tournament, only to lose to a fellow never-been, Jacksonville State.
This season, UT Martin (10-21 overall, 5-13 OVC) did not even qualify for the league tourney.
– Quinnipiac (class of 1999): The Bobcats are 10-20 overall, 7-11 in the MAAC. There are no polls that have QU as the favorite to win the league tournament.
– Elon (class of 2000): The Phoenix are 14-16 overall, 6-11 in CAA play. Elon will be playing in an opening-round game of the league tournament, and thus has to win four games to emerge with an automatic bid. Odds of that happening are not good.
– High Point (class of 2000): High Point (14-15 overall, 9-9 Big South) is one of about eight teams that could conceivably win the Big South tournament. HPU does have a disadvantage in that it has to win four games to claim the conference tourney title, instead of three. However, the preliminary game is a home matchup against 6-25 Longwood, so the extra contest may not be an overwhelming burden.
– Sacred Heart (class of 2000): The Pioneers finished the season 10-21, 5-13 in the NEC. They did not quality for the league tournament, so Sacred Heart will have to wait for at least one more year.
– UC Riverside (class of 2002): UCR is currently eighth in the Big West standings with a 3-11 conference mark; overall, the Highlanders are 8-20.
The last-place team in the Big West does not get to play in the league tournament, so UC Riverside may need to win one of its last two games to ensure it advances to the conference tourney.
– Fort Wayne (class of 2002): The Mastodons (possibly the best nickname in D-1) are 18-13 overall, 7-7 in the Summit League. Fort Wayne is a solid outfit that won’t be favored to win the conference tourney, but won’t be an easy out either. Earlier this season, Fort Wayne beat Indiana 92-72 — in Bloomington.
Besides, as I always say: Mastodons may be extinct, but you still can’t count them out.
– Gardner-Webb (class of 2003): The Runnin’ Bulldogs are 14-17 overall, 9-9 in the Big South. As mentioned in the comment about High Point, there are about eight teams that have a realistic shot at winning the Big South tournament. G-W is one of them, and will face Winthrop in a quarterfinal contest played in Asheville, NC.
While Gardner-Webb has wins over both of the top two seeds in the league tourney, Winthrop (the 3 seed) swept the Runnin’ Bulldogs this year.
– Savannah State (class of 2003): The Tigers are only 13-16 overall, but are 10-4 in the MEAC. Savannah State is moving to Division II after the 2018-19 season, so this is one of just two remaining years in which the Tigers can make the NCAA tournament.
Originally, APR issues were going to keep SSU from participating in postseason play this season, but the school got a waiver. That means the nation’s fastest-paced team (the Tigers average almost 85 possessions per contest) will have a chance to win the MEAC tournament. They could be a serious threat in Norfolk.
– Lipscomb (class of 2004): The Bisons are 20-9, 10-4 in the Atlantic Sun. Only Florida Gulf Coast had a better conference record than Lipscomb. Of course, that was true last year as well, and FGCU won the league tournament (with Lipscomb losing in the conference semifinals).
Lipscomb has won five in a row and nine of its last ten. One of those victories was a road win over FGCU. After a couple of near misses, perhaps this could be the year of the Bisons.
– Longwood (class of 2008): The Lancers are 6-25 overall, 3-15 in the Big South. After finishing last in the conference during the regular season, Longwood (which has lost 12 straight games) plays at High Point in a preliminary round tournament game. I wouldn’t put a lot of money on the Lancers advancing to the conference tourney quarterfinals.
A quick list of other Division I schools in search of their first NCAA tournament invitations, but which haven’t been full D-1 members for 10 years: Bryant, Central Arkansas, Kennesaw State, NJIT, Omaha, South Dakota, USC-Upstate, Utah Valley State, SIU-Edwardsville, Presbyterian, South Dakota, Massachusetts-Lowell, Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, and Grand Canyon.
The last four schools on that list (Grand Canyon, Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word, and Massachusetts-Lowell) just completed their D-1 transitional phase and are eligible for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Of the “newbie” institutions, the best bets to win a conference tourney are South Dakota (which won the regular-season title in the Summit League) and Grand Canyon (the WAC school has a chance to finish with 20 regular-season victories).
Conversely, Bryant (3-28 overall, 2-16 in the NEC) did not qualify for its league tournament.
Can any of the longtime no-timers finally break through this year? Sure. There are several that would seem to have a reasonable chance of winning their respective league tournaments.
I would pay particular attention to Bethune-Cookman, Hartford, Savannah State, and Lipscomb.
If any of the never-beens make it, my main worry is that they could be forced into one of the play-in games (better known as the PIGs).
As I’ve complained about repeatedly, the play-in games limit the tournament experience of the automatic qualifiers. It is both unfair and unnecessary. If the PIGs have to exist (and there was nothing wrong with the 64-team tournament), at least make the last eight at-large teams play in them, as opposed to four teams that get automatic bids.
Automatic qualifiers should always, always be in the main draw — the real tournament.
Good luck to all the teams dreaming the biggest of dreams.