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Never Made the Tournament Club 2019 Conference Tournament Preview: The Ferris Wheel

What can NCAA Tournament hopefuls learn from the 1893 Columbian Exposition?

NFL: International Series-London Views Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the day, Rodger Sherman, now of The Ringer, wrote about all the schools that had never made the tournament on Sippin’ On Purple, the forerunner to the current Northwestern SB Nation blog, Inside NU. This elite group of teams would be dubbed the “Never Made The Tournament Club.” As Northwestern has made the tournament, The Never Made The Tournament Club, or NMTC, needed a new home. We found one, here, at Mid-Major Madness. While we have been covering the NMTC all year, it is now conference tournament time, which means daily updates.

Here is your 2019 preview.

The original Ferris Wheel was located in Jackson Park, a pleasant isle of greenery on the shores of Lake Michigan on the South Side of Chicago. It was painstakingly constructed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, intended as an attraction to rival the Eiffel Tower in France. Its inventor, an engineer from Pittsburgh named George Washington Gale Ferris, would be immortalized by his amazing wheel. In an extremely Chicago ending, the Ferris Wheel was moved to the richer North Side for richer patrons, before it eventually left for St. Louis’ 1904 World’s Fair.

I have a recurring nightmare of being stuck on various amusement park rides. This mostly stems from long-gone days of summer camp, where we would go to the local fair and I really would be stuck on various amusement park rides due to peer pressure or malfunctions (that one that just spins you around is the worst). I have never dreamed of an eternal trip on the Ferris wheel. Maybe that’s because so much of life — school, friends, work, pets — is a cyclical experience of intense grandeur and obtuse banality. The Ferris wheel, then, is not to be dreamed about, but the dream/metaphor that life creates for itself, an eye-opening bringer of perspective and context. Or maybe, because I’m a good all-American guy, it’s too boring to remember.

I bring this up because there is no better metaphor for the Never Made the Tournament Club than an eternal Ferris Wheel, spinning itself through time. Most conference tournament games do not feature NMTC teams. This is a sub-sub topic. There are major conferences, good mid-major schools, and good basketball teams to care about before you get to the NMTC. It is designed to be an interesting factoid, an existentialist drama played out over two weeks in March and then forgotten. And like most clumsy metaphors used by young writers, it illustrates a perfectly simple truth that most people already understand.

Every year, me and most of these teams arrive at this exact moment, where the conference tournaments begin and anything seems possible. The games happen, the wheel turns, and we start over. As long as the behemoth of American college sports functions, there will always be new Division I teams. And then teams like Army, William and Mary, The Citadel and St. Francis (NY), the Founding Fathers that have missed every NCAA Tournament going back to the first one, well, they are seemingly never going to leave. This concept is unlikely to ever end, at least in any meaningful way. Every year, there will always be someone writing or talking about the teams that have never made it in.

This started as an assignment my editor Henry Bushnell gave me while I was a freshman in college. He figured it would be fun for me to write. Little did I know that I would write this through my eventual graduation. But this year has been different. Online legend Ben Goren was instrumental in the last two years of writing this, but his work obligations have left me, the college senior, alone to ride the wheel once more. He has gotten off the ride, and others are soon to follow (but not me, I’m here until something really dumb happens).

For one, Mike Daum, my great enemy who has knocked out countless NMTC teams, is graduating. This is his last NMTC appearance. He is the Summit Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds, taking out Nebraska Omaha, South Dakota and a host of other Summit League teams. But this is his last dance, and I almost want him to make the NCAA Tournament so he can get his first win in the Big Show. There is Savannah State, the lovable lemmings who play at a crazy pace and launch threes like they are playing Missile Command. They are transitioning out of Division I at the end of this year. Unless something drastic changes, this is it for them. They aren’t going to be on this column next year.

As I wrote last week, watching things end is inherently frustrating and painful. But the fascinating bit is watching how life endures anyway. The NMTC cycle will ride on, and this year should be as fun as any other. After it moved from the posh Chicago neighborhood, the original Ferris Wheel served its purpose in St. Louis, distracting people from the Extremely Not Pleasant colonial exhibitions, consumer products, and occasional rioting.

It made the owners $215,000. Then, they blew it up.

Possible Escapees

I’m going to be honest with you; the pickings are slim this year.

ASUN

Despite having four NMTC members in the conference, the ASUN is not looking good. Liberty and Lipscomb have dominated the conference season. North Alabama is ineligible (they can still do us a favor by taking out a team) and Stetson was not even good enough to make the field. That leaves NJIT and Kennesaw State.

Summit League

The big name here is Nebraska Omaha, the No. 2 seed in the conference and the second-best on KenPom by a huge margin (48 spots). But remember, Summit Shiva still exists, and South Dakota State is still there. Sigh.

NEC

Come on you Terriers! St. Francis (NY) is in a decent position to advance. There are certainly worse fates. The most interesting team is Sacred Heart, which bounced back from not making the NEC Tournament at all last year to the No. 3 seed.

Colonial

William and Mary won five straight to close this season and is the third-best team in the conference behind Northeastern and Hofstra. Those two teams are really good, however.

MAAC

Cameron Young could really lead the unheralded Quinnipiac Bobcats to the Promised Land this year. I just want to see him score 50 on Iona in the title game for the catharsis.

Big South

The smart money is on either Chris Clemons and Campbell or Radford, but Gardner-Webb has the horses to pull off an upset here.

America East

This year has not been a total wash in favor of Vermont, and UMBC has already proven that Vermont is surmountable in the conference tournament. That leaves Hartford and UMass Lowell with some hope, although the odds are slim.

WAC

Utah Valley and Grand Canyon are both in the top 100 of KenPom and have been nipping at New Mexico State for years. However, getting past that final hurdle will be difficult. Even worse, seeding woes mean that they are likely to play each other before even facing New Mexico State.

Southland

Abilene Christian remains the top team in the Southland on KenPom. They have been solid all year, and could definitely make a play with Stephen F. Austin on the downswing.

Today’s Schedule

(1) Lipscomb vs. (8) Kennesaw State (ESPN+) - 8 p.m. EST [1% chance to win]

(5) NJIT vs. (4) FGCU - 7 p.m. EST [45%]

(3) Jacksonville vs. (6) North Alabama (ESPN+) 7 p.m EST [18% chance to win]

The first night of the NMTC and the conference tournament season is always the ASUN, which tips off at 7 p.m. EST. Last year’s heroes, the Lipscomb Bisons, have already turned into the villains. They are 27.5-point favorites over Kennesaw State. So, you’re saying there’s a chance? The big game for us is really NJIT vs. FGCU, a classic mid-major conference tournament clash between a team that is actually good (NJIT is 20-11 this year) against a team with a name people recognize but has been rather disappointing. FGCU eked out the No. 4 seed and will host, which could be the key factor here.

For North Alabama, our interests are split. On one hand, they cannot make the NCAA Tournament, so if they win, the regular season champion automatically qualifies. That won’t do. However, if they take out North Florida, that could be a huge boon for NJIT. But North Florida stands a better chance of knocking out Liberty, which would be an even bigger gift to NJIT (but really Lipscomb, if we’re being honest). So, I don’t know, root for whichever team you fancy.

THE NEVER MADE THE TOURNAMENT CLUB CLASS OF 2019

America East: Hartford Hawks, Maine Black Bears, New Hampshire Wildcats, UMass Lowell River Hawks

Atlantic Sun: Kennesaw State Owls, North Alabama Lions (NEW MEMBER!!), NJIT Highlanders, Stetson Hatters (GOAT NAME)

Big Sky: Sacramento State Hornets

Big South: Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs, High Point Panthers, Longwood Lancers, Presbyterian Blue Hose, South Carolina Upstate Spartans,

Big West: UC Riverside Highlanders

CAA: William & Mary Tribe, Elon Phoenix

Horizon League: Youngstown State Penguins

MAAC: Quinnipiac Bobcats

MEAC: Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, Savannah State Tigers, Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks

Northeast Conference: Bryant Bulldogs, St. Francis (NY) Terriers, Sacred Heart Pioneers

Ohio Valley Conference: SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks

Patriot League: Army Black Knights

SoCon: The Citadel Bulldogs

Southland Conference: Abilene Christian Wildcats, Central Arkansas Bears, Incarnate Word Cardinals

SWAC: Grambling Tigers (BACK AT IT)

Summit: Denver Pioneers, IPFW Mastodons, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, South Dakota Coyotes, Western Illinois Leathernecks

WAC: California Baptist Lancers (NEW MEMBER!!) Chicago State Cougars, Grand Canyon Antelopes, Texas Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros, Utah Valley Wolverines, UMKC Kangaroos

Coming back next year...

Cal Baptist (transitioning to D1)
Incarnate Word (will miss the Southland Tournament)
North Alabama (transitioning to D1)
Stetson (missed ASUN Tournament)