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Never Made the Tournament Club, 1/7: This is the way.

Back from hiatus, the NMTC returns with updates on W&M, South Dakota, and others.

Who is the fastest in hook ladder climbing Photo by Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

Sorry for the long break everyone, a combination of intense writer’s block, contempt for Vox Media’s policies, and holiday travel have badly delayed the NMTC series. If you’re not aware, I write a column about the teams that are vying to make their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

There are three William & Mary grads in my office. Recently, I asked one of them how he felt about the Tribe never making the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve definitely made it at some point,” he said.
“Uh, no, you haven’t.”
“Seriously? That can’t be right.”
“I am the Internet’s foremost expert on teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament, and I can assure you they’ve never made it.”
“But we’ve definitely made it, right?”

They have not. William & Mary are one of the illustrious “Founding Fathers”, the teams that were in Division I when the NCAA Tournament began, but have since failed to make any of them. Along with St. Francis (NY), Army, and The Citadel, William & Mary have been searching in the desert for a long time. In fact, they’ve been waiting twice as long as the Israelites waited for the Promised Land—it’s been 81 years since the first NCAA Tournament.

I’d imagine diehard William & Mary fans, wherever you are, are getting quite stressed. The Tribe are good, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve won three straight road games to start CAA play, and are the No. 4 team in the conference by KenPom. With good seeding, they could definitely make a run. Nathan Knight is one of the best scorers in the country, and the rest of the squad is deep and filled with dangerous shooters. They are seventh in the country in eFG% and four players shooting better than 40% from three.

Wisconsin transfer Andy Van Vliet, a 7-footer who shoots 41% from three, is providing all kinds of floor spacing for Knight and Milwaukee transfer Bryce Barnes. There’s a chance the drought ends this year. It might even be a good chance. After starting the year at No. 251 on KenPom, W&M is up to 151 after knocking off Northeastern on the road last Saturday. They have one of the easiest schedules in the conference and are currently projected to go 21-10, which would probably put them in the No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

But with the regular season not mattering quite as much for mid-majors, especially mid-tier CAA teams, the pressure of making your first NCAA Tournament towers over everything. We’ve seen Founding Fathers crumble in the past—just take a look at poor St. Francis Brooklyn in 2015, who won the conference and advanced to the title game, only to heartbreakingly lose 66-63 to Robert Morris. William & Mary had this happen in 2015 as well. After winning the conference and making the title game, they lost 72-66 to Northeastern. The expectation for these long-term members of the club is a curse to be reckoned with.

As someone who was attending Northwestern when it finally broke the curse and made the NCAA Tournament in 2017, I can assure Tribe fans that the catharsis is immensely gratifying. It also weighs upon the team like a giant cement scarf. In “the year”, Northwestern blew numerous chances to really seal its spot, and very nearly screwed everything up completely until the famous Taphorn-to-Pardon buzzer beater against Michigan.

But, as a TV show has recently popularized, this is the way. You cannot join the NMTC and expect anything easy. Now, please enjoy some lazy bullet points to wrap up the last six weeks in NMTC-land.

Bullet Points

  • In the last days of non-conference play, Hartford enacted brutality and defeated Northwestern 67-66. Northwestern has now lost two buy games to NMTC teams, which is perfect.
  • There’s been a shift in our hopes for the Summit League. South Dakota entered the year as one of our prohibitive favorites, but they’ve completely no-showed the first half of the season. Losses to Northern Arizona, UMKC, and Northern Colorado ruined the end of non-conference play. They’ve started Summit League play by losing to Western Illinois and Fort Wayne, both of which were hypothetically inferior teams. Meanwhile, Nebraska-Omaha won its first two conference games, including a win over South Dakota State. Omaha plays South Dakota on Wednesday, and has a real shot to cement its status as the NMTC hope of the conference.
  • It’s tragic that Cal Baptist is the second-best team in the WAC, yet is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. I have come to believe the “waiting period” for teams to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament should be shortened by at least one year. It’s stupid that schools spend so much money to upgrade to Division I facilities, yet cannot even play for the premier event until years after they’ve made the jump. It hurts their pitch to potential grad transfers and makes things far less entertaining. Besides, most of these teams can’t make the NCAA Tournament after moving to Division I anyway, so why is this rule in place?
  • I shouldn’t be so quick to anoint the Lancers when UMKC is undefeated in conference. Former Northwestern assistant Billy Donlon has done a remarkable job in his first season with the Kangaroos. After winning buy games at East Carolina and George Washington, UMKC has started 2020 on a four-game winning streak. They beat Toledo (no joke), South Dakota, Seattle (a triple-OT thriller), and Utah Valley. Considering Donlon lost the best player off of last year’s team that went 11-21, this is a truly astonishing first-year job from Donlon and his team.
  • Speaking of colossal disasters, we need to discuss NJIT and Grand Canyon. If we didn’t have some great storylines elsewhere, it’d be pretty gloomy at NMTC central as these early hopefuls are 3-11 and 5-10, respectively. NJIT is just having a nightmare season and has fallen 141 spots on KenPom in just 14 games. GCU is not far behind at 95, having just blown its first conference game in a 69-62 loss to Cal State Bakersfield.
  • Here’s a team we don’t speak about often here: Sacred Heart of the NEC. Anthony Latina has spent six long years trying to develop a winner, and suddenly the project looks close to completion. Sacred Heart picked up five impressive non-conference wins and just knocked off Wagner on the road to start NEC play.
  • It’s been a great year for the BRUTALITY LEADERBOARD, and I’d like to end this recap by shouting out the NMTC teams who got things done on the road:
  • The Stetson Hatters defeated South Carolina 63-56.
  • UC Riverside had THREE brutalities in 2019, taking down San Jose State, Fresno State, and Nebraska. Could they be a factor in the Big West this year? I say yes.
  • Omaha beat Washington State, but I’m not even sure that’s out of the ordinary.
  • Bryant beat Fordham 69-61, although again, that’s not much of an upset.
  • And finally, Merrimack and Hartford both beat Northwestern. We love that.