Welcome to the final edition of the 2019 Never Made the Tournament Club Recaps, in which we recorded the trials and tribulations of every team to have never made the NCAA Tournament. Thank you for reading.
In November, I compared college basketball to the Roman Republic. I said every team in the Never Made the Tournament Club was on the first step of becoming novus homo (new man), a term used for members of the Roman aristocracy who had no noble ancestors. This year, I am happy to report that two teams, Gardner-Webb and Abilene Christian, have achieved the monumental first step and made the NCAA Tournament. They are free from the club and ready to begin their climb up the Cursus Honorum of Division I men’s college basketball. Congratulations to both!
Abilene Christian won the Southland in fine style on Saturday night, defeating New Orleans 77-60 in a clinical and comprehensive performance (a hearty thanks to New Orleans for upsetting No. 1 seed Sam Houston State as well). For a team that reclassified to Division I just six years ago and were only eligible for the Southland Tournament in the last two years, this is an amazing accomplishment. In 2013, its final year in the Lone Star Conference, Abilene Christian finished ninth and went 6-12 in conference. When Abilene Christian joined Division I, it was mostly to promote their football team, which had won Lone Star Conference Championships in 2008 and 2010. The men’s basketball team wasn’t an afterthought, but no one was expecting something this big this quickly, especially with an established powerhouse like Stephen F. Austin in the Southland.
It’s worth noting that Abilene Christian men’s basketball has not made an NCAA Tournament at any level since 1999, when they made the Division II Regional Semifinal. This is the best Abilene Christian men’s basketball team of all time by a huge margin. Led by seniors Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin, the Wildcats went 27-6 and 14-4 in conference. It was a dream season and ended in the best way possible.
We’re not going to talk about Grand Canyon or the rest of the WAC (no, Utah Valley and UT-Rio Grande Valley did not do the thing either). Grambling lost to Prairie View. It was not fun.
Like the NCAA, the Roman Republic was a ridiculously unfair oligarchical mess that survived as long as it did in spite of itself. Most up-and-comers who even managed to start gaining prominence in society in the novus homo category never came close to challenging the blue bloods. Also, it’s not like women, slaves, foreign immigrants or lower class people were given a say in government or the history books either, although that appears to be a problem inherent to human society in general (and NCAA sports, unsurprisingly).
College basketball is hard. Living in the Roman Republic was hard. Life is always hard. To be honest, most of the teams that have made the NCAA Tournament aren’t that good either. Take Dartmouth, which last made the NCAA Tournament in 1959. Are the Big Green really that much better off than Maine or St. Francis (NY)? Probably not. And then there’s the entire Pac-12, which makes the distinction between “major” and “mid-major” conference somewhat moot.
I celebrate the Never Made the Tournament Club because they are still trying, often to the greatest extent of their and minds and bodies, to achieve something new. There is something to be admired about these teams, just like the Romans admired Cato the Elder for rising from the bottom. There is much to be criticized about the entire enterprise, of course, but when you have a team go from the dregs of Division II to a potential NCAA Tournament date with Kentucky, you cannot help but marvel at the upward mobility still possible. And that’s why we do this. Thanks for reading everyone, and I hope you had fun.
[P.S. Hello to Merrimack College of North Andover, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show.]
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
Ohio Valley Conference: SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks
Patriot League: Army Black Knights
SoCon: The Citadel Bulldogs
SWAC: Grambling Tigers