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Never Made the Tournament Club 2021-22, 1/11: The Haunted NMTC

Maybe the first step in defeating our ghosts is acknowledging they exist?

Welcome to yet another year of the Never Made the Tournament Club (NMTC) experience, where existence is usually painful, save for the rare cases when it isn’t. We are tracking all of the men’s basketball teams that have never made the NCAA Tournament. For even more 24/7 NMTC “fun” follow our Twitter account at @NMTC_hoops.

Also, if you love spreadsheets as much as we do, check out our ever-improving NMTC Tracker on Google Sheets.

The NMTC is full of ghosts. You might even say it’s haunted.

Four teams (Army, The Citadel, William and Mary, and St. Francis Brooklyn) have been in this group for 83 years, enough to drive anyone insane. For recent Division I newcomers like St. Thomas and Bellarmine, sharing a column with those teams is like living with zombies.

There are also the ghosts of missed chances. Teams like South Dakota, Elon and Nebraska-Omaha have had chances to escape the group in recent years only to fall short. The agonizing call of regular-season titles squandered and crapshoot conference tournament games rings through this column.

There are even more haunting stories from teams that are dropping/have dropped D-I athletics. Savannah State spent years trying to escape, even winning the MEAC regular season in 2012 only to eventually get downgraded to D-II before ever making the NCAA Tournament. Even poor Hartford, which escaped the club last year, is being dragged down to D-III just after making their maiden appearance (we shall keep them in our thoughts and prayers).

But, basketball is a sport of vanquishing one’s demons (or Demon Deacons, as it were), and hope springs eternal for this year’s NMTC crew. Thirty-seven of the 45 NMTC teams are eligible to make the NCAA Tournament this year, and it’s time to graduate some members into not-so-corporeal status.

Ever since Northwestern, the last major conference team to do so, left the club, non-conference season for NMTC teams typically takes to a familiar script: NMTC team plays buy game on the road; NMTC team loses by 10-60 points. Sometimes, an NMTC stuns a larger school on the road (see: UC Irvine, Western Illinois, Utah Valley) but these one-off wins typically don’t matter due to most teams being stuck in a one-bid conference.

Thus, the hard times of this column won’t arise until conference tournament season begins. But, we still have conference play to look forward to (hoping everyone stays out of the health and safety protocols to make the season enjoyable, get vaccinated and boosted, folks).

Overall, the NMTC is having a demonstratively OK year. There have been a few excellent non-conference wins and some standout teams, but it’s too early to tell whether any of them will make deep runs. As usual, there are about 25 teams that have no hope already and need a minor miracle to make the tournament.

Let’s take a look at the survival chances of some notable squads.

Contenders: Ghosts aren’t real and these teams are determined to prove it. (Sanity level 9, for fans of the board game Betrayal at the House on the Hill.)

Utah Valley

A win over No. 12 BYU may have been the best win by any NMTC team since that shot. Now walking double-double Fardaws Aimaq must lead the state of Utah’s best team (not even gonna back down from that) through a tough WAC this year with the addition of four strong teams from the Southland, plus the perennial life-ruiners NMSU and old-friend-turned-enemy Grand Canyon.

UC Riverside

Tabbed to be one of the better chances at an NMTC graduation, the Highlanders started the year with a 70-foot bang. They’re trying to get over the top on the back of a bunch of talent from down under, and achieved some promising early results, but just got dominated in the second half by UC Irvine. Still, we have undying faith in our savior Mike Magpayo (go Asians!)

Bryant

It wasn’t a great non-conference showing from the Bulldogs, but this team, picked 2nd in the preseason, returns a ton of experience in Peter Kiss, Charles Pride and Hall Elisias, all of whom show capabilities of taking a game over in the clutch. Should battle Wagner down the stretch in a thin NEC.

Stock Up: Demonstrated some early savviness, but still likely at the hands of the zombie-ghost-demon beings that run the NMTC

Army

One tempts fate when discussing the merits of an NMTC Founding Father (and as soon as we type this, they drop a tough one at Colgate.) But this year, the Black Knights, who have finished in the top half of the conference for three straight seasons and last year committed the cardinal sin of giving us real hope before their crushing downfall, started with three wins in the Patriot League before the loss. We’ll see if they can bounce back against another preseason favorite, Boston U.

Longwood

The Lancers have demonstrated impressive (rebounding) length, coming in just under +10 in rebounding margin — good for top 15 in the country and by far the highest of league teams. No signature wins yet, but with Winthrop not appearing as dominant this year, Longwood is expected to contend deeper into this season than ever before. (Shoutout to one of our biggest Twitter fans, @LongwoodBlue!)

Western Illinois

The Leathernecks put together perhaps the most impressive non-conference resume of any NMTC school, winning their season opener at Nebraska (much to one fan’s chagrin). They convincingly ran through three MAC opponents (Miami, Ball State and Central Michigan) and Horizon League contender Northern Kentucky, plus had close losses at Eastern Michigan and DePaul.

Naturally, they followed it up with losses to Omaha — by metrics, one of the worst teams in the country to that point — and St. Thomas after escaping projected bottom-feeder Denver in overtime, so they couldn’t quite make the “contender” cut. Besides, given the Summit’s history, it’s tough to call anyone a contender in the Spooky Summit (more on that in a moment).

Maryland-Eastern Shore

Picked to finish last in the conference and dead-last in the country by Sports Illustrated before the season, UMES has been a huge surprise this season. The Hawks have played competitively in pretty much every contest so far, staying within a few possessions deep into road losses at St. Joe’s, Temple, Liberty, UConn and Charlotte. In an eight-team conference with some teams unfortunately ravaged by COVID-19, anything seems to be possible.

The Ineligibles

As always, NMTC HQ is tormented by the typical strong performances by teams barred from the Dance by the dumbest of rules. So it brings us absolutely no joy to highlight that UC San Diego beat Cal, UCSB and GW in a fantastic non-con campaign, Merrimack might win the league again, Cal Baptist raced to a 10-3 start, St. Thomas has held its own in year one and Tarleton State went toe-to-toe at Gonzaga. No joy. Boooooo.

Chicago State!

A 5-12 record may not look like much, but when you consider they had won three D-1 games since the start of the 2017-18 season, and just three more the year before that, five D-I wins — and the first conference win since 2018 — will get you a spot in the stock up column, dammit. Hail to you, CSU, can’t wait to see you in the MVC.

Other notables: Carolina “Blue”-bloods (Presbyterian, The Citadel), Youngstown State, New Hampshire, Quinnipiac, UT Martin, Kansas City

Stock Down: Not even halfway through plot development and still pretty close to bleeding out. Not the recipe for a compelling horror script made for a cult following (which is a pretty accurate descriptor for NMTC fans)

Summit-time Sadness (South Dakota, Omaha)

If you’re a longtime fan of the column, you’ve seen us talk at length about the scariest ghost story of them all: The Summit Curse, the phenomenon where despite the multitude of NMTCers in the Summit League, none have made it out in the last decade of Dakota dominance, often in excruciating fashion. South Dakota, a contender on paper for the last several years and picked fourth this year, will need to battle back from an 0-3 start in the league. Not much was expected from Omaha, but they went on a brutal 11-game losing streak. Tough.

William & Mary

Just two years after entering the CAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed, the Tribe has fallen to an abysmal 342nd in KenPom and lost all of their non-conference games against D-I opponents. Of course, it followed this up by defeating their first two CAA opponents of the season by one point. The long-term view points to another down year for a Founding Father, but maybe they can ride this to glory.

Incarnate Word

Again, not the highest of expectations, but for a team that’s leaving the depleted Southland ostensibly for “greener pastures,” 1-11 in D-I games was not the start they wanted.

Maine

The Black Bears are still without a D-I win, and for much of the season sat 358th out of 358 in NET. But we have a fun story for next time about how Maine and New Hampshire became our new “Founding Uncles!”

And now, “A Note on Conferences”:

How good one’s conference is in a particular season plays a huge role in whether a mid-major school in a one-bid league has a decent shot to make the NCAA Tournament. This year, the WAC’s expansion has helped push it from 18th to 15th in overall conference ratings in T-Rank. Unfortunately, this makes it harder for a very good Utah Valley and UT-Rio Grande Valley to advance. Sigh.

Another huge impediment to our dreams comes from a familiar place: South Dakota State. After repeatedly torching the NMTC’s hopes, one would think the team had enough, but no. SDSU is clearly the best team in the Summit League this year, and Oral Roberts, last year’s Sweet 16 darlings, is not far behind. They are a combined 9-1 to start conference play, and so the Curse appears strong again this year.

It brings us no pleasure to report that the Big South and CAA are actually slightly better this year. That being said, as we mentioned, the Big South does not have a 2020-21 Winthrop juggernaut, and one could argue much of that improvement is due to NMTC teams being better! Similarly, this year’s Big West doesn’t have an unstoppable UC Santa Barbara team to contend with, although they and UC Irvine likely will still be favorites come conference tourney time.

Finally, we must deal with the Ohio Valley Conference, which is traditionally one of the most difficult conferences to escape. While this year’s prospects look bleak as Murray State and Belmont would likely finish mid-pack in the ACC, they are both leaving for the Missouri Valley Conference next year. This is an exciting development for SIU-Edwardsville and UT-Martin, who can avoid the Belmont/Murray State jackboot from now on — if the OVC itself should survive, of course.

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Thus sets a rather spooky stage for the 2022 NMTC experience. Join us over the coming weeks for some more ghost stories and (hopefully) some sparse tales of survival.