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Never Made The Tournament Club, 2/22/22: Contenders brace for the final push

Longwood, Bryant, Fort Wayne emerge from a host of lackluster squads as conference tournaments draw near

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 30 Longwood at Georgetown Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Follow us on Twitter (@NMTC_hoops) and check out our NMTC spreadsheet to keep comprehensive tabs on every last NMTC member during conference tournament week.

Garrett Lash: Hey Tristan, got any Shakespeare quotes on mediocrity?

Tristan Jung:

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” from King Lear.

How is that?

GL: I’ll take it. It’s been a weird year in the Never Made the Tournament Club. In the early going, there was a ton of eye candy — a bunch of teams picking up early results that made us believe this could be a massive year for the NMTC.

Like Utah Valley: In December the Wolverines moved to 7-1 with an upset over then 12th-ranked in-state rival BYU — maybe the most impressive win for any NMTC team since Taphorn to Pardon. Now, nearing the end of conference play, they’re having a solid year at 17-9 (8-6), but are middling in a WAC with which New Mexico State (shocker) and Seattle (actual shocker) are running away. Really, Seattle?

Western Illinois: They started 10-2 with wins over Nebraska and three MAC teams. Now they can finish no better than sixth in the Summit League with a conference record of 6-10.

UC Riverside. Remember the half-court buzzer beater to beat ASU? They’re not having a bad season either, but if the season ended today they’d enter the league tournament in fourth.

Army. Not long ago they shared the Patriot League lead with Navy at 7-3. They are now 7-9 and tied for sixth. Ouch.

While all those teams are capable of stringing a few wins together, at this point it would be a mild surprise if any captured their respective tournament crown to advance to their first dance. And thus, we are left with but three teams we can really put our trust in to get the job done.

TJ: Well, let’s see what we’ve got.

Longwood: Right now, everything looks great for Longwood. They are 21-6 with a 13-1 conference record and will likely cruise to the No. 1 seed. Former Wake Forest and Virginia Tech guard Isaiah Wilkins is one of the best players in the conference, and their team is deeper than it has ever been. This is clearly the best Longwood team that has been assembled in decades, but they will face stiff competition from Gardner-Webb (ahead of them in the metrics, perhaps unjustifiably) and Winthrop. Unfortunately, they don’t get the benefit of home-court advantage this year — this is the first time since 2016 that the tournament will be at a neutral site (Charlotte) as opposed to campus sites — and the timing is very on-brand for the NMTC. Still, this is perhaps the best Club member candidate we have.

Bryant: After missing out last year, Bryant has come back with a vengeance in 2022. Sitting at a 14-2 conference record and rolling toward a second-place finish yet again, the long-term trajectory bodes well. However, Bryant will most likely face a death match against a 15-1 Wagner squad that defeated them in overtime during the regular season. The Bulldogs can still win, of course, but watch out for their end-of-season matchup this week to get a preview of the projected title bout.

Fort Wayne: The Mastodons have a lot going for them. They’ve won seven straight and surged to the No. 2 spot in the conference. Jarred Godfrey is having a magical senior season. Their competition in the conference has not exactly excelled. However, the Horizon League conference tournament is notoriously unpredictable, and there are no less than seven teams that could reasonably make a run to the tournament bid. Still, this is a major upswing for our prehistoric friends.

GL: Three contenders is a bit disappointing considering all of the early season promise, but three graduates would be a pretty nice year for the NMTC. Checking in with the loyal fans of the column, though, they don’t seem super confident that three, or even two, teams will emerge victorious this year.

I’m outraged. And also I’m somewhat in agreement.

TJ: I think one team leaving is a reasonable assessment. There may not be much to celebrate in the regular season, but there typically are some bad teams that slip through. But, as usual, we’re going to see at least one of the big favorites in conference tournaments completely mess up, whether that is deserved or not.

GL: Thankfully that works both ways. Going back to 2012, of the 19 teams that made the tournament for the first time, only five were a number one seed in their conference tournament. Eight two-seeds and four four-seeds broke through in that time, so someone a bit in the periphery can rise up and take it, including the aforementioned four teams, especially UC Riverside, that tempted us early on.

Speaking of which, Tristan, you’ve got to be excited that PENGUINSZN might be back in earnest this year after a couple of years off.

TJ: Youngstown State is my spirit animal. Unfortunately, I’ve watched Cleveland State and I regret to inform you they are good.

GL: Remember the CSU 7-foot benchwarmer that guarded the inbounds pass with the entire team doing jumping jacks with him to seal a win against Fort Wayne last year? You know they’re coming to him with the game on the line.

Want to throw a quick bone to a couple of other teams. USC Upstate was a huge surprise this year, heading for a top-four finish in the Big South despite being picked last by many. Also, Grambling State is hanging around once again, just a game and a half out of first place in the SWAC. They sit in fourth currently, to illustrate the crowded nature at the top of the conference, but unlike in previous years there does not appear to be a world-beater among them. Perhaps the Tigers can pull something off.

TJ: It would be very cool if Grambling does the thing, as they are a quintessential long-haul NMTC member. In 2018, they were hit by sanctions and denied entry despite being regular season champions, so this would be just desserts.

GL: Our producer is demonstratively motioning to us to end the positivity talk and return to our manic depressed state. So I think now is a good time as any to check the current status of our favorite* conference, where more than half of the members are NMTC: the Summit League. (* = primary source of despair)

Oh, well would you look at that. At this moment, the top three positions are occupied by the enemy. (Not that good positioning entering the conference tournament has ever helped NMTC squads, as we’ve discussed several times in this column. But still.)

This year, Kansas City and South Dakota have come on strong at the end of the year, and may well face each other in the first round if KC doesn’t vault itself higher due to favorable tiebreakers. But if they do, they would find themselves likely in the slaughterhouse of an absolute juggernaut South Dakota State squad, one on the edge of at-large consideration and even more dominant perhaps than those from the Days of Daum. If somehow the Jacks were to falter, there also lurks an Oral Roberts squad that was a few inches away from the Elite 8 last season. I think you see where this is going.

TJ: To add to the woes, the WAC having six of the seven worst teams be NMTC members is also tragic. Adding all these competent Southland programs has really dimmed the chances for the UT Rio Grande Valleys of the world.

But, the important thing to remember, as always, is that the regular season is mostly irrelevant to this column. So, we still have a chance.

GL: Just like the regular season is mostly irrelevant to New Mexico State, and they basically always end up winning the conference tournament? Rad.

TJ: I’ve used this in an obscure article before, but the remainder of the King Lear quote is:

“this a good block;

It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe

A troop of horse with felt”

(The brief speech ends with Lear saying kill kill kill kill kill like some Counter Strike player)

GL: In English, please.

TJ: Uh, he’s going insane and eventually uses the horseshoe metaphor to justify attacking his sons-in-law.

Here’s to hoping that we get some delicate stratagems from the NMTC next week. We’re all waiting expectantly.