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Never Made the Tournament Club 2018, Mid-December Update: Try to believe

Don’t cry for me, Mid Major Madness readers.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Grand Canyon Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

“People believe, thought Shadow. “It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”

-Neil Gaiman in American Gods

The Never Made the Tourney Club is not for the faint of heart. For every lucky member that leaves this Isle of Misfit Toys and progresses to the Great Beyond, there are dozens that languish in this prison for generations. It is a peculiar suffering, one born of budgetary constraints, bad facilities, and Mike effing Daum. It takes belief to leave this Nietzschean landscape at the bottom of college basketball. That’s for certain.

If you are not familiar with the peculiar suffering of this column about the teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament, go read this excellent primer by the esteemed Ben Goren. The 2017-18 college basketball season is only in its first third. There are still conference games and the great lottery of conference tournaments to come. And yet, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed by the NMTC so far. Right now, when most of these teams are getting paid to lose by 25 to a “real” basketball school, belief is low. The endless parade of losses I see when I sort by “All Division I Games” on my scores app is tiresome. The entire club has precisely three signature wins to write home about (William & Mary over Old Dominion, UC Riverside defeating Cal and Grambling topping Georgia Tech). It has not been great. We’ve already learned that a lot of teams will be here next year.

But don’t worry, Mid-Major Madness has you covered.

For now, we’ll examine the members that could find their way out.

The “Actually Good” Tier:

South Dakota (Summit, 10-3)

Good news: the South Dakota Coyotes are 10-3 and are the best team in the Summit by KenPom ranking.

Bad news: The Summit League is a total crapshoot.

Regardless, South Dakota is in good position to get a high seed in the conference tournament for the second year running. The Coyotes are a young-ish team that goes 7-8 deep and have taken care of business against lesser competition so far. They only lost by five at TCU, which looks really good considering TCU is still undefeated.

For South Dakota, everything is going to come down to the conference tournament. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. The Coyotes had the No. 1 seed last year and got “Daum-ed,” along with two other NMTC teams. As long as the Coyotes can get that top seed and Mike Daum eats some bad fruit the night before the game, they should have a good shot. Regular season Summit League play is absurdly unpredictable though, so we shall see.

For now, South Dakota plays at a dysfunctional UCLA team on Dec. 19. Could this be the signature win the NMTC is waiting for?

Grand Canyon Antelopes (WAC, 7-3)

Grand Canyon has been getting way too much hype this year. It seems like all West Coast basketball nerds are crowning Dan Majerle and the Antelopes as a lock to get out of the WAC. They may well be, but they aren’t the best team in the conference by KenPom rating or the eye test (that honor goes to New Mexico State, who just beat Illinois in the United Center). Fellow NMTC member Utah Valley isn’t too far behind either.

Majerle’s squad has no wins over a team ranked over 237 in KenPom. When the Antelopes topped Robert Morris at home, the Colonials were in 300+ territory and have actually helped Grand Canyon out by rising almost 100 spots. Grand Canyon lost at home to San Diego and lost a game in Phoenix to St. John’s. They had a chance to get a nice win at Boise State, but gave up a backbreaking, game-tying three-pointer with three seconds left. Then they blew the game in double overtime. Argh.

Senior Joshua Braun has regressed badly from his usual form to start the year. All of his shooting numbers are down and he’s jacking up more shots than ever. Oregon transfer Casey Benson has also been less effective, possibly residue from learning a new system. But the Antelopes have significantly more talent than any team in the NMTC, and they should gel at some point this year. Grand Canyon gets two more easy ones against Mississippi Valley State and Longwood before traveling to play Louisville and Illinois. Those will be good tests.

Lipscomb Bisons (Atlantic Sun, 7-4)

The Antelopes are still the most likely team to make it out, but I’d now only give them a slight edge over Lipscomb, who is playing some good ball. The Bisons haven’t embarrassed themselves in the buy-game-circuit, even if the score-lines against Alabama and Texas look bad. A 10-point loss at Tennessee is fine for an Atlantic Sun team, and the Bisons even picked up a stellar road win over Belmont. Conference play will be the real test for Lipscomb, who, like Grand Canyon, has a conference stalwart in its way to exiting the club. If someone can trip up Florida Gulf Coast in the conference tournament, the Bisons have to be second-favorite.

Also, as I mention every year, this is not a typo. The school refuses to acknowledge that the plural of “bison” is in fact “bison.” I like to think that some annoyed grammarian basketball god is trapping them here until the Bisons change their name. That god graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a fact that he tells his other basketball god friends at every opportunity.

The “Could be Good” Tier

Army Black Knights (Patriot, 6-4)

Army is sitting at 6-4 with a decent win over UMBC as its only quality achievement on paper. But the troops are analytically...decent? KenPom and Sagarin still have them as the second-best team in the Patriot League, slightly ahead of Navy (insert JUST LIKE FOOTBALL chant here). Everyone is expecting Bucknell to roll this conference again, but the Bison haven’t exactly lit the world on fire to start the year. Yes, they’re the only team in the conference playing real teams, but an 18-point loss to Northeastern and a 4-7 start isn’t impressive. Is it time to buy stock in the troops? Well, I play a lot of Civilization, so it’s always time to do that, but maybe you should too!

Fort Wayne Mastodons (Summit, 7-5)

If you had to take another team from the Summit (that conference has five teams in the Club), it would be Fort Wayne, which has been knocking on the door for the past couple years. A win over the Stetson Hatters (another NMTC member) on Saturday brought the Mastodons to 7-5. There aren’t many NMTC members with winning records, but unfortunately Fort Wayne’s is mostly smoke and mirrors. Two wins over D-II schools and a win over Delaware State, a.k.a. the worst team in the country by KenPom ratings, don’t really inspire confidence. The Mastodons will have to prove it in the Summit League, on the road, against Mike “The Boogeyman” Daum, who once singlehandedly knocked out three NMTC teams in one week while working on a full-length advertising campaign for Kia Motors.

Western Illinois Leathernecks (Summit, 7-2)

The Leathernecks were abysmal last season, but 2017-18 has seen a stunning rise from Billy Wright’s team. After winning just 26 games in his first three years, Wright has led his squad to a 7-2 record with dominant wins over UW Milwaukee and IUPUI. What?! This team has done nothing to inspire hope since 2013, and now suddenly the Leathernecks are up 56 spots in KenPom and have a huge road showdown with a struggling Eastern Illinois team on Dec. 19. What the hell? Seriously? I don’t follow Western Illinois basketball, so I have no clue how this is happening.

Utah Valley Wolverines (WAC, 7-4)

Let it always be remembered that Utah Valley was leading Kentucky by nine at halftime in its season opener. The Wolverines have a few good wins and are in the top-35 for offensive rebounding percentage. Having 7-footer Akolda Manyang on the team is helpful in that category. Utah Valley should be a tough out in the WAC this season.

Elon Phoenix (6-4) and the William & Mary Tribe (6-3)

Elon and William & Mary are in a similar situation. Both teams are fairly average and have gotten crushed by Power 5 competition (Duke and Ohio State, respectively). Both teams will have to deal with four legitimately decent teams at the top of the Colonial this season (Towson, Charleston, Northeastern, and Hofstra). If it were one dominant team at the top (traditionally UNC Wilmington), it would be one thing. But with four significantly better teams, it’s going to be tough to survive.

Of the two, William & Mary definitely has a higher upside. A 79-77 win over Old Dominion at home is actually the NMTC’s best win by KenPom ranking this season. If the Tribe can find another gear in conference play and make it to the next level of the Colonial, they should have a shot.

FIRE AND BRIMSTONE TIER

No other teams are in the top 200 of KenPom. Yikes. 17 NMTC members (possibly more, if I counted incorrectly) are in the 300+ range. This happens every year, but the low end of the NMTC is just absurdly depressing. You have the nearly bankrupt Chicago State team that regularly loses by 60. You have Longwood, which solely exists for lewd jokes at this point and has no D-I wins. There’s also 3-10 USC Upstate, which has one D-I win. Of course, that win came over Abilene Christian, another NMTC member.

Then there was recent (as pointed on Twitter) NMTC-leaver North Dakota on Saturday night The 4-6 Big Sky team was up by eight with under four minutes to go at Gonzaga, which would’ve been a historic win for the program. A few turnovers later, and Gonzaga was in the lead. But North Dakota miraculously hit a game-tying three to make it 69-69 and send the game to overtime. Predictably, the Bulldogs wiped North Dakota off the court in the extra period.

Misery. Just misery.

However, this group does have a signature win. Yes, the Grambling Tigers’ buzzer-beating road win over Georgia Tech is arguably the most notable win any NMTC member has had this year. Not because Georgia Tech is good (the Yellow Jackets have also lost to Wofford this year), but because it was GRAMBLING STATE and they BEAT AN ACC TEAM!!!

Oh wait, Grambling is the one team on the list ineligible for the postseason due to a disastrous APR. Why can’t any teams mentioned in this column have nice things?

We have a long time until conference play starts, so there might not be another wrap-up until the season really starts for these teams. Until next time, keep hugging your NCAA Tournament appearance banner(s) (we’re looking at you, Northwestern).