Every year, Tristan Jung chronicles the stories of the “Never Made the Tournament Club,” the group of teams that have never made the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. Started by Rodger Sherman in the misty past, the column has continued here at Mid-Major Madness. Usually, it’s pretty good content.
The Never Made the Tournament Club is always prepared for long winter. In the years that I’ve done this column, the regular season winning percentage of the NMTC can’t be higher than 40 percent. Given that perennial conference doormats like Chicago State, SIU-Edwardsville, and The Citadel are well-established members, the overall regular season record is never going to be mediocre, let alone good. These team lose a lot. That’s why they are here. We must accept that.
For those who don’t know, I have spent the last four years tracking the Never Made the Tournament Club, a group of mostly hapless college basketball programs that have never made the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Rather than delve into one of my usual ramblings, let’s take a look at how far we’ve come since I inherited this strange series from The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman in 2015.
- Mike Daum destroyed my soul nine times and then lost to Western Illinois in somewhat hilarious fashion. Somehow, this wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped.
- In 2016-17, Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament, becoming the last major conference team to escape this list. Then Chris Collins sent all of his players to Mid-Major Madness-land, which is ironic because that’s exactly what happened to this blog.
- The last decade or so has seen teams leave this group and become legitimate mid-major conference powerhouses. Buffalo, UC Davis, Northern Kentucky, and Lipscomb, among others, have all solidified themselves as perennial contenders. These are the glamorous success stories of the NMTC, but their rise has severely diminished the quality of the teams left behind. Other than the Summit League teams and Grand Canyon, it’s hard to find similarly positioned teams that are eligible to make the tournament right now.
- This apparent “dead zone” might be because there was a brief pause in new Division I teams in the middle of the decade. The best NMTC teams are often those that make the transition from Division II, build up a program during ineligibility, and then crush their opposition. Teams that have been in the NMTC for over a decade have a level of institutional decay that starts to dampen any hopes whatsoever.
- Re new teams: Cal Baptist and North Alabama showed some potential last season, but they will have to wait for their chance. Currently, there seems to be an endless string of new Division I teams to add to the list. We’ve already added Merrimack. Tarleton State, Dixie State, St. Thomas, UC San Diego, and Bellarmine are coming down the pipeline. Maybe we’ll talk about these teams as the next great success stories of the late 2020s, but because there wasn’t much expansion (and poor Savannah State dropped down), the NMTC seems even weaker than previous years. Yikes.
- The Founding Fathers that have missed every single NCAA Tournament since its inception (William & Mary, The Citadel, St. Francis Brooklyn, and Army) have not really come close to breaking free.
- MIKE DAUM GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE AND WENT TO SPAIN, HALLELUJAH!!!!!!
Given these circumstances, it is hard to see where the next Lipscomb or Northern Kentucky will come from. The cliché is that teams can make the NCAA Tournament via crazy conference tournament runs, but those are honestly few and far between for the NMTC. Since 2014, the only wild runs were Jacksonville State in 2017 and Gardner-Webb in 2019. Even Gardner-Webb wasn’t much of a “crazy” outcome — plenty of people thought they could win the Big South tournament given how well they’d played at times that year.
Thus, it pays to be good in the regular season, and it’s really tough to see how any of these teams are going to be good in the regular season. None of these teams made the “Mid-Major Madness Other 25.” Maybe Grand Canyon and NJIT could sniff that list if they play well, but both have veteran conference foes in their path (New Mexico State and Liberty, respectively). Other than that...it’s bad. I’m pretty sure I counted 24 teams above No. 280 in KenPom, which is more than half of the field. If I counted wrong, it’s definitely more than 24 rather than less. Only five teams are even in the 100-200 range on KenPom: South Dakota, Grand Canyon, NJIT, Cal Baptist, Utah Valley, and Nebraska Omaha.
The first name on that list is the prime contender for this season. The Coyotes are the best Summit League team on KenPom were picked to finish second in the conference’s preseason poll. But the Coyotes and the rest of the Summit have screwed this up so many times — a Summit League NMTC team has lost in the conference championship game in four consecutive years — that it’s hard to have faith.
The last two years have seen grand, historically driven narratives as framing devices. I really tried to think of a clever, funny idea based on the Napoleonic Wars or the Haitian Revolution, but in the end I couldn’t find anything suitable. This is a transitional phase for the NMTC. For a while, we could rely on our usual themes: historical inevitability, fate vs. free will, suffering vs. reward. But now, we are left in the eye of the storm. Can someone break free and give us something to root for?
Nevertheless, we press on. This column is still going to run as often as I can write it. Hopefully we get some nice brutality early in the season, followed by a regular season filled with somewhat meaningful games. There’s also a decent chance I write about the existential dread of watching Elon basketball. I hope everyone enjoys the ride.
THE NEVER MADE THE TOURNAMENT CLUB CLASS OF 2020
Big Sky: Sacramento State Hornets
Big West: UC Riverside Highlanders
Horizon League: Youngstown State Penguins
MAAC: Quinnipiac Bobcats
MEAC: Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks
Ohio Valley Conference: SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks
Patriot League: Army Black Knights
SoCon: The Citadel Bulldogs
SWAC: Grambling Tigers