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Tristan Jung: The Never Made the Tournament Club is built on pain. Sure, each year a few teams get to escape (often before making a cameo appearance in the First Four or the Round of 64), but the vast majority of these squads never even come close to the NCAA Tournament. If you’ve ever seen Jon Bois’ Chart Party episode “The NCAA Tournament is a loser machine”, just remember that the conference tournaments are an even bigger loser machine. It goes without saying that the NMTC squads are often the victims.
Let’s take Elon University, which joined Division 1 in 1999. In their three years in the Big South, they only made one conference tournament. They moved to the SoCon. More chances, right? Over 11 years, despite winning their division twice, they made just one appearance in a game that could get them an NCAA bid. Of course, that year they were pitted against Steph Curry and Davidson, so you can guess how that went.
So then Elon went to the CAA. Can’t get any worse, right? Since joining the CAA in 2014, they’ve only won two games in the conference tournament once. That was last year, when they knocked out William and Mary in the quarterfinals — you know, one of the four teams that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the entire system was created. Elon then immediately lost to Northeastern, and then the NCAA Tournament was canceled altogether. Nice.
(This column doesn’t even get into the dozens of teams that had one NCAA Tournament bid over 20 years ago and have been completely unable to make the Big Dance since then. For example, VMI last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 1977.)
Garrett Lash: Don’t tempt me into making a “It’s Been a Long-Ass Time” Club. But continue.
TJ: Conference tournaments are, of course, completely unfair. They devalue the regular season and don’t reward the best teams. Most of them don’t even have reseeding. But despite all of this, we love them because they provide some of the best drama that you’ll ever find in sports. In fact, as we’ve already seen, the mid-major conference tournaments are often better than some rounds of the actual NCAA Tournament.
This year, conference tournament season is more elongated than ever, which gives us more time to savor some of the complete and utter bullshit that goes on during these games.
GL: We are still on the fringes of really getting into things. Average ESPN2 halftime anchors are still saying “conference tournaments are coming up soon,” even during halftime of a tournament game in progress. This draws our ire of course, but we give them a pass because we understand they get their plebeian joy by watching mediocre ACC Mondays.
And largely, with 12 days until Selection Sunday, the emotional swings should be relatively tame. Until this evening, it’s been like the mildly amusing start of a long road trip, as it should be. “Oh look at that cute 8 seed over there, and that 5 seed got a win! That’s nice!”
With just two low-seeded teams in action Tuesday, we had low expectations, partly saving our anticipation perhaps for later in the week, partly because lower expectations usually means less heartbreak. And with that, I turn it back to my colleague here who is well versed with NMTC anguish.
TJ: Let’s discuss the fresh hell that the Horizon League brought upon us last night. While Milwaukee (not a member) pulled a tight upset over No. 2 seed Wright State, both Youngstown State and Fort Wayne suffered heartrending losses in overtime.
To deal with the (slightly) less agonizing defeat first, Youngstown State was down in the second half but played excellent defense to earn a tie with Oakland with 6 seconds left. Unfortunately, the Penguins settled for a 40-foot three-pointer and then got run in overtime.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the No. 10 seed Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons absolutely should have upset Cleveland State. In the five years that I’ve done this column, this game easily made the top-five NMTC heartbreaks. You had to watch it on ESPN+ to get the full experience, but Fort Wayne came back from a nine-point second half deficit and forced overtime with a Jarred Godfrey layup.
Across three overtimes, Fort Wayne:
- Allowed a game-tying layup with 22 seconds left and then failed to get a final shot off
- Went up 86-81 in 2OT only to allow a ridiculous banked three from Cleveland State’s 6’8, 250-pound center Al Eichelberger. What goes around comes around, I guess.
Algevon Eichelberger hits the game tying 3 for Cleveland State with 4 seconds left in 2OT and sends their game with PFW to 3OT pic.twitter.com/nlqrxOFF3l— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) March 3, 2021
- Until this game, Eichelberger had taken 21 three-pointers in his four years and 104 games in college basketball, making just six (28%).
- Couldn’t get any stops in triple overtime. The game was sealed when Cleveland State brought Mabor Majak, a 7’2 freshman who had played 61 minutes over the entire season, to guard the inbounds pass by doing jumping jacks and being tall. The whole bench started mocking the jumping jacks in unison. This somehow worked to perfection and Fort Wayne turned it over.
GL: But like the gambler who is now working through their third child’s college tuition, or the idiot who dare tries to find love again after being left on the altar, we press on to the next one. The next game, the next team, (god forbid) the next year. After a crushing night like tonight we have no choice but to run through some other conferences and see where our contestants are at.
“Damn it, damn it all to hell” pic.twitter.com/C4ywTtr3wV— Never Made the Tournament Club (@NMTC_Hoops) March 3, 2021
TJ: Well, four of the six contestants in this year’s conference tournament are in the club, so if a mediocre New Mexico State team wins it all anyway, I will go full Mishima on my Twitch stream. Cal Baptist is ineligible due to NCAA BS, but we should still root for them to knock out Seattle and New Mexico State.
One of the interlopers is New Mexico State, which has won this tournament 130 times in a row, but the Aggies have struggled this year. Look, it’s not their fault, they got moved from their campus due to COVID chaos and have had a rough schedule, but Grand Canyon is definitively better than them. Utah Valley, UTRGV, and Cal Baptist have achieved parity.
UTRGV is a particularly difficult story, as its head coach Lew Hill passed away from complications due to COVID-19 this year at 55. While it does put in stark light the absurdity of doing this season at all (must be said), it’d be awesome if the Vaqueros can put it all together.
GL: Five of nine Summit League members are in the Club, so naturally we end the year with but a single true contender — South Dakota, once again. (Sorry Kansas City.) I don’t even want to dig into the stats this year, because in this league everything is made up and the stats don’t matter.
Let’s just go with this: South Dakota has a good team this year. This is not new: the ‘Yotes have been banging on the gate with good team after good team — since 2016-17, they sport a 51-26 league record. They have the 2 seed this year. This is not new: within the last four years they have held each of the first three seeds. Each time they were knocked out by one of the other Dakota schools, including a particularly painful defeat as the top seed to fourth-seed South Dakota State in 2017. In fact, over the span of the last 15 tournaments, the Summit League has had 16 different basketball members, including eight who have never been. Only four — Oral Roberts, Oakland, and yes, North Dakota State and South Dakota State — have claimed the title. NDSU and SDSU have the last nine. Zero have gone to NMTC members.
So, optimistic as we should be, we are not. Hit us up if you have a good psychic.
GL: Hey, a bright spot! There are two NMTC representatives in the semifinals: UMass-Lowell and Hartford. UMass-Lowell is kind of randomly in position to sneak in all of a sudden. Well, not totally randomly, because of the glorious return of a man named Obadiah Noel who is very, very good at basketball. (How many other universities in other rando Massachusetts cities can we bump up to D-1?) Sunday night it was the River Hawks who jumped out to a huge lead and, though they tried to bring UNH back into it by committing more really dumb fouls, held on. They might actually give top-seed UMBC something to think about this Saturday. The River Hawks won’t be favored, but are certainly capable of more than what their record indicates, having had multiple COVID stoppages and Noel injured for five games. Just look at their near-upset of UOhio-Columbus earlier this year.
The Hartvard Crimson-Hawks continued their feel-good story by taking down Albany in a game where they held a tenuous lead virtually the entire time. They draw the tougher road challenge with No. 2 seed Vermont, the best team in the conference by the ratings systems, but it might be poetic justice if they win — this was the scheduled matchup in last year’s AEC final before life as we know it ended. Win that and they have a real shot; they’ve already earned road splits against both UMBC and UML.
In conclusion, I just talked myself into believing that there is a 95% chance of a UML/Hartford final.
Big (and Long) South
GL: Longwood fulfilled its end of the bargain and actually broke through to the semifinals (convincingly, at that) so we will acknowledge them here. They now put their solid defense up against one-loss Winthrop on Thursday in Rock Hill, where they were handled twice earlier this season. BartTorvik likes Winthrop by 10.6 points. But...Longwood just smacked the only team that was able to take down the Eagles all season, so you never know. (And look, we know some of us are rooting for Winthrop, a mid-major actually capable of winning a game in the tournament. But for god’s sake, how awesome would it be if Jim Nantz said “UVA sure is getting everything they can handle from Longwood tonight!”)
TJ: None of the four longest-serving members of the NMTC, Army, William and Mary, St. Francis Brooklyn, and The Citadel are remotely close to favored in their conference tournaments. St. Francis is the second alternate to the four-team NEC conference tournament, and probably would not play their game anyway because of a positive COVID test (this problem has also likely knocked out fellow NEC stalwart Bryant, which is a huge shame because the Bulldogs had a really good season).
The Citadel cooled off from its undefeated start and will be big underdogs against Western Carolina. After getting scared in-person by William and Mary’s disastrous game in last year’s CAA Tournament, I think we can go a year without going in-depth (side note: I went to that arena without a mask in March 2020 and thought I was totally fine, so embarrassing).
That leaves us with Army, which is the No. 4 seed in the Patriot League Tournament after one of their best seasons in years. Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast gives them a 6% chance of getting in due to the quality of Colgate and Navy. But there’s still a chance!
Other Quick Hitters
NEC: We probably could’ve spent a bit more time here, because there are only four teams and possibly two of them are Club members. We say possibly because Bryant, who has been leading the NEC most of the season, picked the worst possible time to go on their second COVID pause of the season and may have prematurely knocked itself out. A healthy Bulldogs squad would be favored by many to win two games and go dancing, but if they are incapacitated, we will rest our hopes on Sacred Heart. This tournament still seems kind of up in the air, so we will keep an eye on it before its scheduled Saturday start.
ASUN: With the only eligible teams, Kennesaw State and Stetson, at the bottom of the conference, there’s not much to add here. Once again, it should be noted that Bellarmine and North Alabama deserve to be playing for an NCAA Tournament bid, but they will not due to NCAA rules. If Kennesaw State can knock out Liberty, that’d be sick though.
Big West: We’ve been tracking UC Riverside this whole season, and still think they can catch fire at the end. They shoot the ball exceptionally well (39%) from deep, and own one resounding win (and close loss) against each of the favorites, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine. They’re kind of in the shadows of the other UCs, in basketball and in general, so here’s to hoping they can shine this year.
Upcoming Games (times EST):
Ohio Valley Quarterfinals
(8) SIU-Edwardsville vs. (1) Belmont, 8 p.m.
Oh, did we mention that SIUE gets a shot at Belmont immediately because the OVC weirdly reformatted their tournament this year? Well if we did, forget about it; you’ll just end up removing it from your brain space tomorrow.
Big South Semifinals
(5) Longwood at (1) Winthrop, 6 p.m.
(8) Kennesaw State vs. (1) Liberty, 2 p.m.
(5) North Alabama* vs. (4) North Florida, 2 p.m.
(7) Stetson vs. (2) Bellarmine*, 7 p.m.
SoCon First Round
(9) Western Carolina vs. (8) The Citadel, 5:30 p.m.