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Nobody Makes the Tournament Club: Valediction

So, what now?

SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This year’s edition of the Never Made the Tournament Club, like the rest of the college basketball world, abruptly came to an end last week. We figured it’s only right to have one last update before saying goodbye to the season.

It’s tough to grasp the magnitude of this current situation. It’s harder to frame the entirety of COVID-19’s impact in the text of an article for the NMTC. The NCAA Tournament, for what it’s worth, is officially cancelled, but most people already have more pressing matters at hand.

First and foremost, we’d like to express our condolences to the loved ones of those who have passed away. We’d also like to offer support and encouragement to all the first responders and medical professionals at the front lines of the fight.

As for basketball, there’s not much we can say. It’s so meaningless, yet it feels like, if only to keep a sense of normalcy, we should try to write something about it...hence this column.

Garrett: Sometimes it feels inappropriate to put a sports frame around something that is wreaking havoc upon so many people’s daily lives in countries some of us will never travel to. Some people that have never watched a second of American sports are falling ill and dying. And that’s why it seems odd to take a worldwide pandemic and focus on its relation to not the entirety of American sports, or basketball at large, or Division I men’s basketball, or even the entirety of a specific set of collegiate basketball teams excluded from conferences of perceived relative strength or tradition (mid-majors). I am trying to examine a worldwide pandemic’s effect on an even smaller subset of mid-majors that have never partaken in a season-ending tournament to determine a champion. We have to keep things in perspective.

Tristan: Yeah, it’s absurd, but there’s always some small grain of meaning to be found in the absurdity of sportswriting. The loss of college basketball, as abruptly as it happened, does have a great deal of meaning to many people across the country. The idea of having two single-elimination basketball tournaments transfix a nation probably doesn’t make sense, in perspective. Writing a column that’s solely about a handful of teams that have never even made the men’s version of the tournament is even more absurd. But you can say that about nearly everything in life, so much so that when something truly momentous and unstoppable occurs, it’s that event that feels absurd, rather than the smaller things.

In a more cosmic sense, I think each cancellation (and every American has had one, at this point) means much more than we give it credit for. I tend to think of endings as precursors to death. Each ending we feel has a way of warning or preparing us for The Big Ending, depending on how we feel about it. But to have so many things cancelled without any forewarning is a lot of stimuli at once. Every lockdown and bit of news serves to remind us that mortality is inescapable. Yikes...

Garrett: Going back to basketball, I think if the tournament was canceled in an ordinary NMTC year, the first group of people I would instinctively feel for would be players for NMTC programs that had finally broken through. But to feel any stronger for them above other programs would be a bit unfair. In a way, it pins the failure of a program to reach the tournament in prior years on its current players. (I think this is something we always need to remember, and something I forget at times: we should never make, say, Nathan Knight feel responsible for 81 years of failure just by falling a little short in one year). In the same way, it’s not fair to feel any less for players of a more storied program that has been to the tournament a few times. Every player only gets four years of eligibility, and it’s their dream, no matter who they play for, to have the opportunity to play for a national championship.

And so my heart breaks most for all players, NMTC or not: those who may have qualified for the NCAA Tournament — especially if it was their very first — but were robbed of the chance to play, and those who were robbed of the chance to qualify at all. My heart especially breaks for the seniors who were torn away from the college game without really getting to say goodbye on their own terms (though I believe that at the least, seniors should get an extra year of eligibility if they so choose). The decision may have been the correct one, one with the health and safety of the players, coaches, staff, and fans in mind, but it is still one that brings much sorrow to the NCAA community.

Beyond that, there are coaches who may not be subject to an eligibility window, but may have finally had the opportunity to make the tournament, or make a significant run in the tournament. Joe Jones, Brian Dutcher, Anthony Grant, Mark Pope, and many more who were having great seasons, perhaps on the cusp of reaching a personal goal or financial bonus, are now left wondering what could have been. My heart goes out to them.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the staff members across the NCAA sports landscape, individual teams, and wage workers at venues, whose paychecks take a huge hit from this move. My heart goes out to them.

And now, I arrive at us: the fans. We are not on the program staff, and most of us have not yet been directly affected by the virus, so the worst thing that has happened to us thus far is that we have no sports.

But sports are a part of who we are. We as college basketball fans have a right to feel sad in this time, especially ones who are fans of the 10 NMTC squads that had their opportunities to qualify for their first NCAA Tournament cut short. Some of us have probably been waiting for that moment for decades. But the way I see it, when that moment comes, and we have college basketball next year, and a Club squad finally breaks through, it will be that much sweeter.

Tristan: I guess that just leaves me to predict how this season will be remembered. The COVID-19 crisis will indelibly change lives, history, and society forever, which makes the “tournament not held” asterisk on College Basketball Reference seem unremarkable. But this season did happen, and although we’ll remember how it ended, we should try not to forget what happened before.

Even outside an NMTC perspective, this season had some great moments. Stephen F. Austin beat Duke, Evansville beat Kentucky, and I must note that the Stetson Hatters pulled off a brutality at South Carolina! We had a great Rutgers season and a terrible UNC season. We had incredible years from Baylor, Gonzaga, and San Diego State. All in all, I had a grand time watching college basketball, and I miss it dearly. I miss all sports dearly. They have a grip on me that I cannot understand.

I don’t know when sports will come back, but I am fully confident that they will. When we remember this time in our lives, I feel like the lack of sports and cultural/artistic events, those high school “extracurriculars” that we never value enough will be prominent. No one is going to say “oh, I missed working in the office” or “I missed commuting and reading my phone aimlessly.” For a lot of Americans, entertainment is what we truly think about.

Finally, before we get into the basketball recaps, I would also like to thank the staff at Mid-Major Madness for letting Garrett and me write this column. It’s been a fun time, as always. In fact, I really owe a lot to the higher-ups — Chris Schutte, Kyle Cajero, Cam Newton, Greg Mitchell, and, of course, the Blog Daddy and Very Talented Mr. Russell Steinberg — for reading and editing through my nonsense for the last few years. Keep getting those checks!

You gotta have Hart (Most of the next section is Garrett)

Now, this has obviously not been a normal year for the NMTC. As I was preparing to write before the sports world shut down, SOMEONE has made a run in the NMTC pretty much every year, despite their inherent disadvantages. Maybe a team has a lot of seniors, maybe the conference is down, maybe they just stumbled into an upset or two without rhyme or reason.

But for the first week plus of conference tournaments, nobody had really come close. Most teams, even higher-seeded ones coming off decent seasons, had rolled over and died in the first round or quarterfinals. All of four teams had made the semis — Elon and Sacred Heart were handled in their games, and Stetson fought hard but went down to Liberty.

Enter Hartford.

It has languished in the America East for its 30-plus seasons in D-I, finishing higher than third in its league only once — a second-place finish in 2008, where it reached the America East tournament final for the only time in its history. John Gallagher took over in the spring of 2010, but after a bit of success, had three straight losing conference seasons, including back-to-back 4-12 marks in 2016 and 2017.

But things started to turn around in 2018. A strong run near the end of conference play found the Hawks in third place with an 11-5 conference mark and 19 wins overall. After losing to eventual giant-killers UMBC in the conference semis, they posted a 10-6 conference mark the following year, only to be undone in double-overtime by UMBC again.

The 2019-20 season actually got off to a rough start, but once they got star Pitt transfer Malik Ellison back from injury, they played much better. Season highlights included a win over Northwestern to make it four(!!) straight years with a Power 5 win, and a sweep of America East 2 seed Stony Brook, on their way to a third straight winning conference record. Hartford handled UMass-Lowell in the quarters, then went on the road to defeat Stony Brook for a third time. Hartford was 40 minutes away from punching a ticket — against a tough Vermont team, sure, but anything can happen.

Unless there’s a pandemic that cancels your conference tournament.

I suppose it is up for debate whether it would have been even worse if they did manage to win the America East championship game, only to have the NCAA cancel the tournament anyway. Would there be a greater sense of satisfaction in finally earning a spot, or would there have been more anguish in having that earned spot taken away? Furthermore, for our bookkeeping purposes, if that happened, would Hartford still be in the NMTC? Because they would have made the tournament, only the tournament then ceased to exist, and thus they would have Never Appeared in the Tournament.

These questions are moot now, and we will include Hartford in our 2020-21 edition of the NMTC. Gallagher and Ellison both appeared on ESPN mere hours after the tournaments were cancelled, and displayed great class. We applaud you both and hope you make another run next year.

The Wild, Wild WAC?

We never really found out how wild it could be, because the tournament ended before it started. On one hand, five of eight tournament teams were Club members, edging the Summit for the highest such percentage. On the other, New Mexico State went undefeated in conference play and seemed likely to walk to another WAC tournament title.

With Cal Baptist ineligible, the highest-seeded NMTC team was Texas Rio Grande Valley, with a 9-7 conference mark and losing record overall. UMKC outperformed expectations but still finished only 8-7. Grand Canyon was a pretty big disappointment and fired their coach to hire Bryce Drew. Utah Valley fans got to watch Mark Pope take BYU to a WCC semifinal appearance and Chicago State was, well, still Chicago State.

But next year should be, at the very least, interesting. Cal State Bakersfield and Kansas City leave for other conferences, but will be replaced by D-I newcomers Tarleton State and Dixie State. That means that there will be six teams eligible for postseason play next year, and four will be NMTCers. NMSU probably still wins that six-team tourney, but let’s say Chris Jans gets hired away over the summer. It could get wild!

Other Notables

Two HBCUs had reasonable shots: Grambling State of the SWAC and Bethune-Cookman of the MEAC. No. 6 seed Grambling lost to Texas Southern in the SWAC semis, but has now finished tied for fourth or better in four straight years, including a first-place finish in 2018, when it was ineligible for the postseason. 4 seed Bethune-Cookman never got to play its quarterfinal against Morgan State but finished the season 10-6 in league play to continue a now-three-year streak of winning conference records. Tough way to go out for both, but keep it up!

Sacramento State, notable as one of the last teams to remain undefeated this year (primarily due to only playing four games in a 25-day span in November), was seeded ninth in the Big Sky tourney and defeated 8 seed Weber State in the first round. It was gearing up to play top-seed Eastern Washington, to which it had lost twice by a combined six points, before its tournament got cancelled, and became one of 10 cancellation casualties.

Never got a chance: 10 teams
America East: (3) Hartford Hawks (Finals)
Big Sky: (9) Sacramento State Hornets (QF)
Big West: (6) UC Riverside Highlanders (QF)
MAAC: (5) Quinnipiac Bobcats (QF)
MEAC: (4) Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (QF)
WAC: (2) Texas Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros, (4) Grand Canyon Antelopes, (5) UMKC Kangaroos, (6) Utah Valley Wolverines, (8) Chicago State Cougars, (ALL QF)

NMTC Class of ‘20-21
Everybody’s coming back.