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Never Made the Tournament Club: Despair is coming

The strife of conference tournament play is near

NCAA Basketball: Quinnipiac at Villanova Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Watching something end that you don’t want to end is a deeply frustrating experience. The frustration boils up in various forms: disgust, anger, melancholy, and above all, grief. I am sorry to report that, for many fans of teams in the Never Made the Tournament Club, the sinking feeling is coming soon. Every college basketball season is a production. Good money and good emotions go into every season, and most of them amount to nothing. In college basketball, and life, the sheer number of losers astounds the mind. Why must it end in a blowout loss to Wagner? Why must so much of what we believe in go unrewarded? I can’t answer that, sadly.

But while that dreadful question always haunts this column, it pales next to the perilous flame of hope sustains it. Conference tournament season is right around the corner, and those 32 knockouts tournaments provide us limitless potential to dream of a world where Quinnipiac, St. Francis Brooklyn, and Grambling State triumphantly march into the NCAA Tournament. This is the final regular season recap before this article becomes a daily series, and we’re here to inspire as much confidence as possible.

We shall start with those Quinnipiac Bobcats, who are currently tied for second in the MAAC with three other teams. Kenpom projects the top five MAAC teams to end with an 11-7 record, with seeding determined by increasingly arcane tiebreakers. After years of futility, the Bobcats are the real upstarts of this group. The NMTC game of the year thus far featured a triple-overtime win for the Bobcats over Siena. Quinnipiac has won three overtime games this year and could still take a surprising regular season crown if things break their way. The MAAC Tournament is usually a random number generator, and Quinnipiac’s Cameron Young is the perfect player to take advantage of the seeming randomness of the format. Young is shooting 42.7 percent from three on 199 attempts. He scored 55 points in that triple-overtime game, and is making a good case to be MAAC Player of the Year.

The NMTC’s other best hopes this year are not your usual suspects. In the Southland, Abilene Christian remains in strong position for a first round bye, despite dropping its last game to SE Louisiana. Abilene Christian has been nowhere near escaping the NMTC since joining Division I in 2014. The Wildcats have never even qualified for the Southland Conference Tournament. That’s due to change, as they are the best-ranked Southland team on Kenpom and can reasonably claim to be the best Abilene Christian men’s basketball team of all time.

Sacred Heart and St. Francis Brooklyn continue to hang onto the No. 4 and 5 seeds, respectively, in the NEC. This year is setting up to be wide open in the NEC, and we now have two potential contenders to advance. The Summit League will once again feature the world against Mike Daum and South Dakota State, as I seem to write in every one of these articles.

And then there’s Grand Canyon, our old friends from the WAC, who have been extremely disappointing since our last column on Jan. 25. The Lopes lost three straight to UT-Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico State and UMKC. It’s not looking good with New Mexico State in firm control of the No. 1 seed. The Lopes are also in trouble because a decent Utah Valley team is still hanging around in the No. 3 seed, which will set up an NMTC matchup before the final if there are no upsets. The Wolverines are 8-4 in conference and are on a three-game win streak.

Also, Savannah State has won five of its last seven after starting the year 5-15. Given that Savannah State plays at the No. 3 tempo in the country and has a No. 286 effective field goal percentage, it’s hard for them to stay consistent enough to win the MEAC Tournament, but that tournament should be very open. Savannah State has eight players have taken 70 or more threes this year, and only two of them are shooting over 30 percent. Rock on. Speaking of fast tempo, The Citadel is 4-12 in conference with the No. 9 adjusted tempo in the country. The troops defeated Samford in overtime on Saturday, but they need to get through a monster field in the SoCon to make the NCAA Tournament.

Citadel’s conundrum has been the main theme of the entire season. While the mid-major field is very strong this year, often with two or three good teams per conference, that has left almost no opportunities for NMTC challengers to break through. In the Big South, Ohio Valley, and Atlantic Sun, there are at least two very good teams that must be vanquished en route to a first NCAA Tournament appearance. That makes it harder for so many otherwise half-decent options (Hartford, High Point, Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian etc.). It’s almost easier in the Summit, Big Sky or the WAC, where there is just one dominant team to defeat.

But March is the best month of the year for a reason, and the potential for insanity is always there. Don’t give up, enjoy the ride.