Welcome back to the Never Made the Tournament Club.
The movie Chicken Run is a modern masterpiece. What could be better than watching a bunch of claymation chickens attempt to fly out of a farm in rural England? Well, obviously the film is a nuanced and compelling depiction of Anglo-American relations and the natural stubbornness within British culture, while also being a highly entertaining prison break movie. However, how does all this relate to basketball? Well, in essence, the members of the Never Made the Tournament Club are all chickens trying to escape into the outside world. From a basketball perspective, they are all trying to construct a way out, often from ramshackle materials and with the help of a few rodents in suits.
The primary goal of Chicken Run is to explore the implications of one sentence: chickens can’t fly. The primary goal of the NMTC column is to explore a similar sentence: these teams have never made the NCAA Tournament. They are similar.
I illustrate the challenges in this kids movie because Never Made the Tournament Club is not really having a great time this season. The best team on KenPom is William & Mary, which sits at 163rd. That’s not to say William & Mary isn’t good: they are 7-2 and sit atop the CAA. However, mathematically, their chances of making the tournament are still no better than 20%, and this is in their best year since 2016. I really want it to happen, but I can’t ignore the reality of the situation. In total, I would say that this year is more likely than any year I’ve done this column to have zero escapees.
This statistical misery often means the regular season iterations of this column will turn into a morbid “roll call” of poor results and disastrous outcomes. While we must celebrate the Tribe, Quinnipiac, and South Dakota for their efforts in making strides this season, we must also recognize that seven of the 11 worst teams in the country are NMTC teams, and their chances of ever making it out seem slimmer than ever. I don’t really want to chronicle the disastrous fates of Western Illinois, Longwood, and High Point, all of whom are 2-6 in conference and not going anywhere.
But the positives are hard to come by. I think Cal Baptist could be the best team in this entire group of teams, but they aren’t even eligible for the NCAA Tournament for another two years.
Like the chickens in Chicken Run, teams like Incarnate Word, Chicago State, and Houston Baptist are really stuck in a bind. What are the odds they’ll make it out this decade? This century? Not great. Maryland Eastern Shore has been at the back end of the MEAC for so long that imagining a sustained run of success is almost impossible.
But just as Chicken Run makes the impossible real, we must continue to believe victory is just around the corner. In one recent example, the Stetson Hatters defeated Liberty, the evil and annoyingly decent No. 1 team in the ASUN, despite having a win probability of 13%. In fact, while Stetson has been one of those teams buried at the bottom, they have suddenly found life and won four straight games, as well as earning another huge upset against South Carolina earlier this year.
We’ll end this brief update by examining UC Riverside, surely one of the most downtrodden of all the NMTC teams. The poor Highlanders haven’t finished at .500 in conference play since 2009. If you asked me a year ago, I would’ve said they’re one of the least likely teams to get out this decade. Yet in two short years, David Patrick has made UC Riverside... respectable? In addition to their brutality wins over Nebraska and Fresno State, the Highlanders are 3-3 in conference and the third or fourth best team in the Big West. In a year without a standout team at the top, UC Riverside could find a way to sneak into the Big Dance.
Thus, while much of the NMTC seems to be in a fallow period, fear not! Chickens can fly, as long as you build a recruiting apparatus and style that fits your school and enables overall success while also getting extremely lucky! It’s possible!
Also, I like to think the Tweedy family in Chicken Run are the grandparents of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. That’s all for now, folks.