The Never Made the Tournament Club is back, and we have a new contributor helping out! Garrett Lash, hello.
Tristan: This has been a tough regular season here at NMTC headquarters. After a very non-scientific run-through of Bart Torvik’s NCAA Tournament simulator, the best chance that an eligible NMTC team will make the NCAA Tournament is Sacred Heart at 27 percent. No other team is better than 14.7 percent. That’s not great. There’s a good chance that some random team makes a deep run, but we’ll have to see it to believe it.
The two best-positioned teams in the regular season standings are Cal Baptist and Merrimack, who rank second and first in their respective conference. However, they’re ineligible for the tournament due to the NCAA’s stupid transition rules, so that has gone mostly for naught. We’ve asked this question before, but why does the NCAA have this four-year ban on making the NCAA Tournament for new teams? Do they actively want fewer teams playing Division I basketball? The idea that a college will get high off making the NCAA Tournament and then want to drop back down is ludicrous. Plus, wouldn’t it be so fun to have a Division II team make the NCAA Tournament after just one year? It’s stupid.
Garrett: Merrimack was predicted to finish 11th out of 11 teams and finished first. Predictions suck.
Tristan: Regardless, Merrimack is having one of the best Division I transition years of all time. They’re 14-4 in-conference and won the regular season title. But with the Warriors out of the equation, let’s talk about the other contenders (if you’re wondering who wrote what, I wrote the shorter ones).
William and Mary
The best hope for the NMTC is one of its founding members. The Tribe have slowed down from their hot start, and a disappointing three-game losing streak to start February helped slow down content production here at the NMTC. However, they won their last five games and will be the No. 2 seed in the CAA Tournament. This conference is going to be a total crapshoot: Hofstra, Towson, Delaware, Charleston, Northeastern will all have good odds to win. At least the Tribe and Nathan Knight have as a good shot as anyone else. We will be watching every game closely.
Oh, bless their sacred hearts. (But seriously we would love to see one of our club members make it to the big time in a year where it increasingly seems like they might get shut out.)
The boys from Fairfield, Connecticut have a decent chance, which is great to see from a team that flies very much under the radar, even for those at Mid-Major Madness. It’s been a good year for the Pioneers, whose best accomplishment to date was the 1986 Division II Championship. This year they will finish third amongst tourney-eligible teams in the Northeast Conference (#freeMerimack) at 12-6 in conference with one to play. This is their first year with a winning record since 2008-09 and only their fourth time since joining D-1 back in 1998-99. They haven’t been to the NEC Championship game since back-to-back appearances in 2007 and 2008.
Sure, SHU has taken its lumps against the top three teams in the league – a combined 0-6 against Merrimack, St. Francis (PA) and Robert Morris. But five of the six losses have been by single digits. And, those are the only NEC losses SHU has recorded; they are a combined 11-0 against everyone else. Good stuff!
So if Sacred Heart gets past the No. 6 seed on its home floor, it would likely travel to face 2 seed St. Francis PA. And despite not having beaten them or Robert Morris, SHU was a great road team this year, posting a 7-4 record in conference and 11 road wins overall, which unofficially ties for the D-I lead. Also, the top seed isn’t necessarily a great position to be in, since top seeds haven’t won the NEC tourney in six of the past seven years.
Besides, this is a fascinating team that does one thing really well: it rebounds. This team has the second-most rebounds overall this season and eighth-most rebounds per game in the whole country. I once heard that the eighth-highest rebounding team in America would win the championship in any given year. Not going to challenge it.
This team frankly isn’t experienced — its top three scorers are sophomores Koreem Ozier and Aaron Clarke, and junior E.J. Anosike, who is an absolute stud, averaging team highs 15.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. But the youth could mean success in the future if it doesn’t pan out this year. Also, head coach Anthony Latina, has some experience. He is in his seventh year after serving eight years as an assistant under 35-year coach Dave Bike.
Sacred Heart isn’t the favorite to come out of the NEC, but it has a chance and a few things going for them. And whoever emerges victorious will try to break a different, more inglorious streak: no NEC team has won a game in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament since the conference’s inception in 1982. (This excludes the First Four, which was technically the first round for a few years, which was stupid.)
I’ve regretted not following Army’s magnificent turnaround this season. After starting the year 5-10 and 0-4 in the Patriot League, the Black Knights have stormed back to relevancy. A six-game win streak and a recent OT triumph over Navy has them tied for fourth in the conference and the No. 4 seed in the Patriot League tournament
Summit League Agony
I’ve lumped a couple conference contenders together because they both compete in the Summit League, which has long been the most frustrating NMTC conference of them all. Despite having five member schools in the NMTC in a conference of nine, it fails, time and time again, to elevate one of these teams to the promised land. Since 2012, when South Dakota State reached the NCAAs for the first time, the Jackrabbits and North Dakota State have represented The Summit each of the last eight years.
Last year, the frustration reached its peak. After No. 8 seed Western Illinois shocked top-seed South Dakota State and perennial NMTC nemesis Mike Daum, three of four teams remaining were NMTC members (Fort Wayne, Omaha, Western Illinois). The mathematics seemed to indicate that one of these three teams and their undeniably superior mascots would finally break the Summit Curse.
But no. As is customary for the conference at this point, the auto-bid somehow fell into the hands of the fourth team, the incredibly average North Dakota State Bison, who upset Omaha in the final. I’m starting to believe that the tournament’s location in Sioux Falls, South Dakota gives the Dakota schools an inherent advantage, but I digress.
About that Omaha team. Last year was disappointing, sure, but it was only their fourth season of postseason eligibility, so worry not Mavericks fans: real pain is probably still a few years away. They’ve enjoyed decent success in their brief D-I tenure; they have finished with a winning conference record in four of their last five seasons. After being competitive in several tough non-conference games (and picking off Washington State) their conference slate has consisted of runs and slumps.
The good news is 15th-year head coach Derrin Hansen has the Mavs in one of those runs right at the right time — they’ve won their last four and now sit in a tie for third. They slipped past SDSU in December, but were badly beaten in the return matchup three weeks ago. One interesting note about this team: though ranked 10th in field goals made, they are only 95th in points scored, owing to their high percentage of two-point-shots. And they have the 325th ranked scoring defense. Yikes.
Also tied for that third slot is South Dakota. They’re the only Dakota school yet to make the big dance, but that doesn’t mean that Coyotes haven’t played a part in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, some South Dakota fans were perhaps living vicariously through former Coyote standout Matt Mooney, who grad-transferred to Texas Tech for his final year of eligibility and shot lights out to help the Red Raiders to the title game. Other fans may have just been sad, but that’s their fault for turning a proud moment into a negative, so shame on them.
Anyway, it must be frustrating to see their in-state rivals have so much success, especially at their expense. The Jackrabbits stopped the Coyotes’ two best chances at the tournament thus far. In 2018, the Jacks topped the Coyotes in the championship game. The year prior, in another maddening episode of the Summit Curse, the 8-8 Jacks knocked off the top-seeded Coyotes on a buzzer beater. They proceeded to win the championship by two points over — you guessed it — Omaha.
Before I keep reflecting on past tournaments that have crushed many a soul, let’s check in with this year’s Yotes, who own the tiebreaker over Omaha for the third slot. They shoot the ball extremely well — just a hair under 50 percent — and accordingly put up 80 points a game. Like Omaha, their defense is also bad, but when you have a guy like Tyler Hagedorn who can flat-out score and shoots over 50 percent from three, it’s not as bad.
But after filling a page with optimism for Sacred Heart, I’m going to give it all back right now. Let’s be real: if the Monstars fielded a team, joined this conference and started each tourney game with a 20 point lead, they couldn’t dethrone an SDSU or NDSU. Especially not this year, when those two squads have raced through their conference schedules to fill the top two spots.
So good luck to you, Omaha and South Dakota. We’d love to see it, but forgive us for not having a ton of faith in you. It’s a safety issue.
St. Francis Brooklyn
Our beloved Terriers went 7-11 in the NEC and aren’t looking likely once again. They have one of the worst three-point shooting percentages in Division I (28.6%) and just aren’t good. This is setting up nicely for a depressing loss in the quarterfinals.
The WAC Teams
New Mexico State isn’t quite as good as it was last year, but I’d be shocked if it doesn’t win the WAC again. The Aggies crushed Grand Canyon last night and have a healthy margin of talent over the likes Utah Valley and UT Rio Grande Valley. I hate it.
Man, that would be great. The MAAC Tournament is always a mess, and Quinnipiac isn’t terrible, but they are seventh in the conference and can’t really play defense, so I’m not very optimistic.
Thursday, March 6 (all times ET)
USC Upstate vs Winthrop — 11 a.m.
Stetson vs. Liberty — 6 p.m.
Hampton vs. Longwood — 7 p.m.
Friday, March 7
The Citadel vs. Wofford — 6:30 p.m.
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
MEAC: Bethune-Cookman Wildcats, Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks
Ohio Valley Conference: SIU-Edwardsville Cougars, Tennessee-Martin SkyHawks
Patriot League: Army Black Knights
SoCon: The Citadel Bulldogs
SWAC: Grambling Tigers