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Never Made The Tournament Club: Grand Canyon and UC Riverside are among the candidates to break through

A January check-in with our favorite group of teams.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 04 Grand Canyon at Cal State Bakersfield Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As expected college basketball during the pandemic has become a mix of horrifying and humdrum. Keyontae Johnson collapsing mid-game and later being found to have myocarditis will end being the defining moment of the regular season for a lot of people. Meanwhile, some aspects of the season have given a sense of normalcy to life, even as non-conference schedules have been stripped down. There’s something calming about checking the SoCon standings or wondering if the Saint Louis Billikens are any good. As my friend Ben Goren wrote in a different blog:

“Sports are background noise, they are the soundtrack to the sports fan’s life, mostly played softly below the action and occasionally crescendoing to a more prominent role. This year, sports were no more important than they were last year, no less important than they were the year before that. As they always have been, sports in 2020 were an empty vessel in which you could place your priors to create your narrative.”

So, let’s establish a narrative and talk about the Never Made the Tournament Club!

Is anyone exceeding expectations?

Grand Canyon

After muddling around with Dan Majerle for a while, Grand Canyon decided to Get Boring and hire Bryce Drew as its next coach. That experiment already seems to be paying off, as Grand Canyon is comfortably the best non-New Mexico State team in the WAC. New Mexico State is currently barred from its own campus due to COVID restrictions and just suffered a positive test of its own, so right now the ‘Lopes are the de facto WAC leaders.

Featuring a lineup that includes former Wichita State center Asborn Midtgaard and GCU veteran Alessandro Lever, they’ve already beaten Nevada on the road and nearly topped Arizona State and San Francisco as well. With a sweep of Tarleton State already in the books, it looks like this will be Grand Canyon’s best shot yet to escape the NMTC.

UC Riverside

The Big West is soldiering on, and UC Riverside appears to be one of the beneficiaries. After showing potential last season, the Highlanders are 4-2 and have broken into the top 150 of most advanced rating systems. Not bad! Whenever the conference tournament happens, UC Riverside should have a legitimate shot to advance over traditional Big West representatives like UC Irvine.

Bryant

You might remember Jim Boeheim throwing a hissy fit earlier this year, claiming their program was too ravaged by COVID to be prepared for a game they ended up just eking out. In case you forgot which mighty NEC team daunted them so much, that would be these Bryant Bulldogs from Smithfield, Rhode Island. (Coach Jared Grasso offered a much different account of that game, by the way, describing how they offered to cancel the game several times, all of which Syracuse denied.)

This is a tough team with great guard play. That was a game the Bulldogs led virtually the entire way before the Orange made a late surge to win by a point. They only have one other loss this year — to fellow NEC and Club member St. Francis Brooklyn by two on the road. They are three road points away from an 11-0 start overall and 6-0 in conference.

And don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Army

It’s a cause for celebration any time you can hype up a Founding Father and the Black Knights are certainly intriguing enough to be on this list. They have wins over A-10 La Salle, MAC Buffalo, and a hard-fought loss at Florida. Perhaps my favorite result, however, is a two-point win at conference favorite Colgate just a day after the Raiders beat them by 44 points. This veteran squad shows the fight that you might expect from a service academy team. It will be worth keeping an eye on in the Patriot League — where only Army and Navy had the benefit of non-conference play.

The...Citadel?

More content that you love to see, even if Cam Newton doesn’t. The Citadel rattled off eight straight wins to start the year, which is the program’s best start in a century. The Bulldogs’ unbeaten run finally ended Wednesday with a close loss to Furman.

You may be a bit skeptical about schedule strength for a team that has ranked in the basement of all basements the last several years, and you’d have a point — four of their wins came against non-D-I opponents. But that means they’ve won four D-I games, which is more than they racked up all of last year. This includes their most recent win, where a 16 for 31 clip from behind the arc (!!) carried the Bulldogs to a 92-87 conference upset over Chattanooga. The Citadel went 0-18 in SoCon play just a year ago and were picked to finish last this year.

NJIT

NJIT’s first year in the America East has been a rousing success. The Highlanders have picked up a buzzer-beater win over Vermont and are currently 3-3, tied for the best NMTC team in the conference with New Hampshire. A recent 45-41 loss to fellow club member Maine was annoying, but we still believe in the other Highlanders.

Is anyone disappointing?

We don’t really like to dwell on disappointments here, as the average NMTC team generally finishes in the bottom half of its conference and in the 260-350 range of KenPom. But we were still hoping these teams would bring us just a little something to look forward to in late February...

The Summit League Crapshoot

Yeah, not sure what to add here. It seems like the Summit League will be disappointing for the rest of my life. South Dakota has shown a pulse by going 4-0 (against awful teams) to start conference play, but they also went 1-6 in the non-conference. While that lone win was against South Dakota State, they also lost to North Dakota and North Dakota State, which isn’t ideal. Meanwhile, Kansas City, Nebraska-Omaha, Western Illinois, and Denver are occupying the bottom four spots in the standings.

William and Mary

After coming so close to making the NCAA Tournament field in 2020, the Nathan Knight-less Tribe have gotten off to a rough start in 2020-21. The most tortured of the Founding Fathers is 3-5 and 1-2 to start conference play.

Stetson

Oof, swing and a miss. Well, we went one for two, which is a better winning percentage than the Hatters can sport (3-5). And while that record me seem salvageable, one of those losses came against D-II Emmanuel College (GA). And one of those wins was against Carver College by only 44 points, the fourth-lowest margin of victory out of 17 D1 games against them. Ouch!

Does this mean anything?

Well, probably not. Life remains rather meaningless due to extenuating circumstances and the NCAA landscape remains uncertain — we don’t even know if the conference tournaments are going to happen as scheduled. Still, there’s plenty to be excited about on the NMTC front. Like how if Fort Wayne goes to the tournament it’s going to get an unstoppable home-state advantage. Optimism is nigh.