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NMTC Update: The Citadel’s (Extreme) SoCon Tourney Blues, and more

The Bulldogs’ 84-year history in the conference tournament is comically bad, plus previews for a loaded day of NMTC action

NCAA BASKETBALL: FEB 01 Citadel at Chattanooga Photo by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I started writing about the NMTC in February 2020. Obviously I didn’t do it for money or fame — the NMTC posts only speak to a small subsection of a small subsection of the population (even though we know we’re the normal ones, and everyone else is weird). To be honest, I didn’t at first seek to gain many practical skills from this either. I started writing because March Madness is a minor major obsession of mine, and nothing is more interesting to me than the little guy, with the NMTC members as the ultimate little guys. I didn’t expect too much in return.

But there’s at least one practical thing that covering and following the NMTC has shown me, and that’s the necessary occasional use of artificial hope. As we said on Wednesday, the NMTC is built on pain. There’s almost invariably more pain than joy in any given year. How do you think we can keep on coming back to the William and Mary’s, the Stetsons, the Summit Leagues year after backbreaking year? We grasp at straws, we look for signs, we make stuff up even, anything that might signal that this might be the year. Or if not this year, some year before Florida goes underwater. Sometimes we say it, even if we sure as hell don’t mean it.

And it works! It keeps us churning. I certainly affixed some fake hope to the end of the pandemic. I told myself it would come in the summer of 2020, then the fall, then the third month of the Biden Administration and now 2023, knowing that likely none of those will prove true. But it helped get me through my days to this point.

There is one team in the NMTC, though, that it is really hard to even create fake hope for during March, even for experts like us. This is a school with a football team that every so often is capable of beating my alma mater South Carolina, and even hung with Alabama for a half not long ago. In collegiate baseball they made the College World Series once.

But in basketball, they haven’t done a darned thing. These are the Citadel Bulldogs.

There actually was a stretch this season that the Citadel had an optimism that few seasons have seen — they started 8-0. I know, four were against sub-D-I teams. But four weren’t! They certainly fell flat at the end of the year, no doubt, to finish at 12-11...but they were really only non-competitive in three or four of those games, right?

On Saturday, the Citadel hung 100 on Western Carolina to move into the quarterfinal round against top seed UNC Greensboro. If you’re following them for the first time, maybe you’re thinking: “What if their offense continues to be hot? What if they’re a disciplined team, maybe they could rise up? Is there no true juggernaut in the SoCon?”

I’m gonna have to stop you right there. First of all, they lost to UNCG Saturday afternoon, though they hung tough. The Citadel and the SoCon Tournament do not go well together. Let’s take a look at some history to show you what I mean.

If you’ve been following the NMTC, you know that The Citadel is a “Founding Father,” one of just four original D-I teams to never make the NCAA Tournament despite being eligible for every one. It has been a member of the Southern conference since 1936 — few schools can claim to have ever had a conference allegiance that long. The Southern Conference has also been holding conference tournaments since 1922, which is as far as we can tell, the oldest continuous conference tournament in existence.

We should point out that the Citadel, being a military school, has a smaller and tougher recruiting pool to start with. But the SoCon, for much of its history, has hardly been a powerful conference to begin with. However, it did have a very powerful era from the 1920s through the early 1950s, home to a number of current major conference teams. From the Citadel’s joining in 1936, the Bulldogs toiled with the likes of Duke, UNC, Clemson, South Carolina, and NC State to name a few, until most of them departed for the ACC in 1953. (Oddly enough, the SoCon was also home to fellow Founding Father William & Mary for over 30 seasons.)

The last Power Five members to leave were Virginia Tech and West Virginia in 1965 and 1968, respectively. With the exception of those two schools, since 1953, the SoCon has been home to almost exclusively what would be considered mid-majors today.

So that’s 84 years of membership before this season for the Citadel, most of them with modest competition.

The Citadel men’s basketball team has made but one (1) SoCon tournament final.

In that year, 1959, the Bulldogs finished 7-4 in conference and earned the 3 seed. They defeated (6) Furman and (7) George Washington before losing 85-66 to top seed and Jerry West-led West Virginia, who lost the national title game by a point that year. To repeat, the Citadel has not advanced that far before or since.

The next part is perhaps even more mind-boggling: the Bulldogs have advanced to the SEMIFINAL round just six (!!!) other times — 1943, 1961, 1979, 1982, 1985, and 1998.

There is a particularly grotesque stretch in there that stood out to me (and that I clicked through countless Wikipedia screens to research). Understand that in every season between the years 1958-1992, the SoCon had only seven, eight, or nine teams, and ran an eight team tournament. To reach the semifinal round in an eight team tournament, you need to win one game.

In those 34 seasons, the Citadel didn’t make the tournament twice because they finished ninth. In the 32 seasons they made the SoCon tourney, they lost their first game an unbelievable 27 times. ETSU could play blindfolded and luck their way into more wins than that.

You might think that it was because they had a horribly bad team the entire time — but that’s not entirely true! They certainly weren’t good, and they had some dismal campaigns in there, but at times they earned decent seedings in the regular season and immediately ruined it with a loss in the tourney. In that stretch, they went 5-6 as a 3-seed, but scored zero wins against higher-seeded teams. Seeded fourth through eighth, they went 1-26, including 0-16 when seeded four through six.

Naturally, when the tournament expanded past eight for the 1993 edition, that didn’t help. They’re arguably on their worst run yet; though they’ve won a few more games in the earlier rounds, they’ve made the semifinal just once since then. This includes a miserable episode in 2009, where after going 15-5 in conference — their best win percentage ever — they dropped their first tournament game.

Final thought: In its entire SoCon tournament history, The Citadel is believed to have won 14 games total, and four games against higher seeds.

Recaps and previews

11 club teams are in action on a loaded Saturday!

NEC

Perhaps the best boon to the NMTC’s chances as a whole this week came not in a game result but in an announcement. The Bryant Bulldogs announced on Wednesday that despite having to cancel their make-up pair of games with Mount St. Mary’s, they would be able to host an opponent in the semifinal round of the NEC Tournament (large exhale).

While Bryant was forced to cancel its last two games, the Wagner Seahawks swooped in and locked up the top seed with their two-game sweep of Merrimack. Instead of Bryant and fellow NMTC member Sacred Heart playing in different semifinals (as it looked for a while like it would be), the Bulldogs were forced to play the Pioneers first. But despite missing some key pieces, the Bulldogs never let Sacred Heart into the game and won by 30.

Is it good or bad that the two Club members had to play first? To each their own, I guess. Some like the guaranteed bird in hand, others the chance at the coveted all-NMTC final. Either way, we’re all united in our rooting interest before Tuesday’s final, so keep pushing the good juju to Bryant and hopefully it can get some players back.

ASUN

The good? There is an NMTC team in the final. The bad? Freaking Liberty, despite unconvincing wins against the worst two ASUN tournament seeds, has already punched its NCAA ticket after the semifinal round.

It definitely blows. They let a bad Kennesaw State team hang around for a full half, and Stetson held a four-point lead with under eight minutes to play before Liberty absolutely knocked them out. (The pain.) This meant that North Alabama’s semifinal game against FGCU was one of the most conflicting ones to watch as an NMTC fan, knowing that a win gets them to the finals while putting Liberty in the NCAA tourney participant “pool.”

But, perspective. UNA made it to the tournament finals in their third year of D-I play. To win would be a huge accomplishment regardless of eligibility, which would be more than almost all Club members could say. More importantly, with a loss, Liberty would become one of the least deserving NCAA qualifiers ever, with no at-large resume and no tournament victory.

And, for the 237th time, the four-year reclassification is stupid. Get rekt, NCAA.

Summit

We spent all of our time focused on South Dakota in the last update, so we’ll take a bit of time to talk about the other three suitors. Kansas City has actually had a better-than-expected year at 7-7, though we and they probably would have liked it better if they were still in the WAC this year, considering NMSU. (They did split with North Dakota State, their first round opponent, and it would be soooooooo clutch if they could pull it off. Go Roos.)

Western Illinois is one of the longer-tenured members of the Club (since 1981-82). However, at the seven spot, the Leathernecks have no real shot at going all the way, so it would be the most Summit League thing ever if they knocked off actual contenders South Dakota in the quarterfinals. (No offense, but this is our nice way of saying “stick your neck out for the team, Leathernecks”). And after a nice run for Omaha — four out of five Summit campaigns over .500 and two title game appearances — it is awful this year, needing to step on even lowlier NMTCer Denver to sneak into the 8th seed. They get perennial Curse-enforcer South Dakota State. Now I remember why we didn’t talk about these guys.

Quick Hitters:

Colonial

William and Mary starts off today with a bad UNCW team, but would face Northeastern next, who has dominated the CAA; Elon, if it gets through Towson, would get top-seed James Madison on the Dukes’ home floor. You can see why we promised to spare you from a full analysis. Good luck, friends.

Big South

Longwood couldn’t rise up and extend its season. The Lancers shriveled up just a bit at the key moment and allowed Winthrop to manhandle them basically the entire game. But someday, as they mature, they may be able to last the whole tournament. Longwood.

Killer hashtags, by the way.

America East

No real updates here since Wednesday. But today is a big day, with UMass Lowell and Hartford going for dual upsets against the top two seeds. Our friend Bart Torvik has the games at 77 and 79 percent for the favorites, respectively. Now I don’t know how to read his detailed charts (Tristan does very well) but my primitive math skills tell me that using his numbers, the chances that at least one NMTC team makes it is 1-(.79*.77), which is about 40%. Good chance? No. Are river hawks real? Not sure. Are you gonna watch? Yep.

Patriot

Wow, I’m just realizing now that there’s a real chance that all of the Founding Fathers get knocked out today, which would be like emotional homicide. Well, either way, we told you Wednesday that Army had a 6% shot of getting in, according to Torvik, which actually isn’t horrible in a 10-team field. It posted a 7-7 record but those are hard to trust with this year’s separate divisions in the Patriot League. And, the Black Knights handed both Navy AND Colgate their only losses of conference play — on the road! They first must go through American today.

OVC

We think it’s a fair question. (They lost, by the way.)

Upcoming games (all times Eastern)

Saturday, March 6

Noon: NEC Semifinals, (3) Sacred Heart 55 at (2) Bryant 85
Noon: SoCon Quarterfinals, (9) The Citadel 72 vs (1) UNC Greensboro 80
2 p.m.: America East Semifinals, (6) UMass Lowell at (1) UMBC
3 p.m.: Patriot Quarterfinals, (5) American at (4) Army
3 p.m.: Colonial 1st Round, (9) Towson vs. (8) Elon
4 p.m.: America East Semifinals, (4) Hartford at (2) Vermont
6:45 p.m.: Summit Quarterfinals, (8) Omaha vs. (1) South Dakota State
7 p.m.: Colonial 1st Round, (10) UNC Wilmington vs. (7) William and Mary
9:45 p.m.: Summit Quarterfinals, (7) Western Illinois vs. (2) South Dakota

Sunday, March 7

2 p.m.: ASUN Final, (5) North Alabama* vs. (1) Liberty
9:45 p.m.: Summit Quarterfinals, (6) Kansas City vs. (3) North Dakota State

bold = NMTC member, * = ineligible