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Never Made The Tournament Club, 3/1/22: So it begins

NMTC teams are set to embark on their conference tournament journeys, giving us fans solace amid global crisis once again

NCAA Basketball: Bryant at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

To those that are inevitably new to the page this time of year, welcome to the Never Made the Tournament Club, where we cover all of the teams that have yet to appear in the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Follow us on Twitter @NMTC_Hoops and check out our NMTC team tracking spreadsheet.

Tristan Jung: These are certainly not good times. As the main series on this site that drifts into incoherent ramblings more “speculative” topics, it’s hard to ignore that we are doing another NMTC preview in the midst of a global crisis. That’s all three years! Not great.

But while it’s easy to get pessimistic about life, we urge you to take heart, flip on ESPN+ and watch some conference tournaments. Here at the Never Made the Tournament Club, the stories are comparatively simple and easy to understand.

There’s a team that is waiting to do this cool thing.

They have to win games to get there.

That’s it.

BUT FIRST: A word on Chicago State, which upset New Mexico State at home

Garrett Lash: Here’s a dose of optimism for everyone.

For nearly the entirety of its Division I existence, the Chicago State Cougars have been one of college basketball’s loveable losers, but for the last six years they’ve been the loveable loser of all losers, even when grouped with other NMTC teams that have very scarce success.

Entering this year, Chicago State had won just seven games against D-I opponents in the five full seasons (plus last year’s abbreviated one) since the fall of 2015. They had just three D-I wins since the fall of 2017. The state of CSU’s financially challenged athletic program has been called into question, and they announced months ago that they would be leaving the WAC after this year but still have not announced a new conference home.

Gerald Gillion inherited a program at the lowest of lows, but in his first year led the team to six wins over D-I teams, and in losses stayed competitive much more frequently than was expected. Yet CSU had been mired in a nine-game losing streak when conference leader New Mexico State came in with a chance to lock up a share of the WAC crown. Chicago State had an all-time 1-21 record against the Aggies.

CSU nonetheless jumped to a 12-point first half lead, only to see NMSU chip away at it the entire way and take the lead late. Chicago State tied the score on a late 3-point play, and had the ball as time ticked down…

Build a statue for that man.

With this win, CSU clinched a spot in the WAC tourney. May not sound like much when 10 out of 11 eligible teams will qualify, but considering how bad Chicago State had been, it’s something. We’ll see CSU play a postseason game for the first time in three years. Should be a fun champ week …

Pre-tourney exits

GL: … for almost everyone anyway. Last week, old time member Maine officially missed out on the America East Tournament. It’s been a rough stretch for the Black Bears, who had their coach step down mid-year and haven’t posted a conference winning record since 2010-11, but they will always have a sweet color scheme.

They were tragically followed by UT-Martin, which days earlier had led ranked Murray State into the final seconds before falling. The Skyhawks have fallen off a bit since back-to-back tourney final appearances in 2016 and 2017, but hopefully will be competitive after Belmont and Murray State depart for greener grass next year.

And now that we’ve honored the lost, let’s turn to the living:

TUESDAY’S ACTION

ASUN (formerly the Atlantic Sun)

GL: The insistence on abbreviation and all-caps is kind of silly to me. It kind of feels like a silly forced acronym now despite there not being one. Like the “About-time Someone Uprooted that Nutty Lynchburg school” Conference?

TJ: ASUN is like the Big Ten permanently calling itself B1G and we don’t make fun of it enough.

GL: Facts. Anyway, Liberty did announce it was leaving for Conference USA, but that won’t be until after next year. In the first year of divisional seeding, they topped the East, while fellow departed Jacksonville State topped the West. It feels like until those two schools leave, and with the best NMTC challenger for a second year in a row — Bellarmine — sidelined by the dumb four-year NCAA reclassification rule, it might be slim pickings here for a couple more cycles.

To set the scene, on Tuesday a much-improved Kennesaw State draws Eastern Kentucky in the first round, while fellow NMTC members Central Arkansas and Stetson will duke it out for the right to face a surprising Jacksonville Dolphins squad. The ASUN notably lets its ineligibles participate; ineligible North Alabama (last place) will take on FGCU Tuesday for a shot at fellow ineligible Bellarmine in the quarterfinals on Thursday. If either ineligible team reaches the final, their championship game opponent will automatically qualify (which, if you ask me, is kind of a buzzkill even if it makes some sense). The good news is, in that scenario, either would have extinguished Liberty to get there.

Good luck to all, and we shall reassess before Thursday.

Horizon

TJ: It’s time to go all in on the PENGUINSZN once again.

GL: Yaaaaaassss.

TJ: Youngstown State will take on Robert Morris at home on Tuesday in their quest to escape the club. Robert Morris has not been good this year and the Penguins will be at least eight-point favorites to advance. Although they split their season series, the Penguins have only lost once at home since January, though that loss was to this Robert Morris team. Still, barring a big upset, Youngstown State should get through this round and take on one of the top four teams (the Horizon League does a reseeding after the first round).

WEDNESDAY’S ACTION

Big South

GL: Longwood. America’s favorite phallic team (this is how our column founder Rodger Sherman once described them once, I think.) As we’ve described at length in this column, they rose up and did not disappoint this year. They won the regular-season crown and earned a bye until Thursday.

Besides them, there was a lot to like for all of the Club members from this conference. High Point unfortunately saw Tubby Smith step down mid-season, but improved this year, their first in the brand-new Qubein Center. They take on Hampton in the first round. America’s favorite mascot, the Blue Hose of Presbyterian, had a rough 4-12 conference mark, but not a single loss was by more than 10 points. They will first face Campbell. USC Upstate massively outperformed its expectations and secured a bye as the fourth-seed.

High Point is given a 77% chance of victory by Bart Torvik, and if they win will have a shot at doing Longwood’s dirty work by knocking out perennial champion Winthrop. Presbyterian will be a decent underdog but if it pulls off an upset, it will draw metric darling Gardner-Webb.

NEC

TJ: Before we discuss legitimate contender Bryant, we must first focus our attention on the very put-upon NMTC “Founding Father” St. Francis Brooklyn, one of four teams trying to make its inaugural NCAA Tournament appearance for the 83rd year in a row. St. Francis had some late momentum with three straight wins in mid-February, but they will still be underdogs on the road to Mount St. Mary’s, last year’s NEC representatives. This is a situation where the Terriers likely can’t win three games, but if they can oust Mount St. Mary’s, they will greatly help Bryant’s odds of making the NCAA Tournament.

GL: Speaking of Bryant, they entered last week as one of the NMTC’s best hopes for a graduate and those hopes have only grown stronger. They cashed in on a wonderful opportunity when Wagner dropped its penultimate game of the year to bottom-feeder Fairleigh Dickinson, and then took down the Seahawks in the season finale to grab the outright regular season title. It now faces ninth-seeded Central Connecticut, and with a win would advance to face the winner of the aforementioned St. Francis/Mount St. Mary’s showdown. As Tristan was getting at, a St. Francis win would be so gosh darn nice not just for themselves, but because Mount St. Mary’s has a reputation for crushing NMTC dreams, including a depressing (for us) road upset over Bryant in last year’s NMTC final. Getting them out of the way would be quite clutch.

Also in the draw is Sacred Heart, who was one of four teams tied for last place at 5-12 entering the last day of the season before slipping ahead of the other three with a win. Not expecting much when they travel to third-seed LIU, but we’ll see.

OVC

GL: For the second year in a row, SIUE snuck in as an eight-seed, and for the second year in a row, we don’t know how to pronounce SIUE.

The OVC’s “Ladder of Terror” format (just made that up) means they’d have to win four times to escape; first up is fifth seed Tennessee State. (Shoutout to Lindenwood for elevating to D-I by the way and giving the storied St. Louis metro area a coveted second NMTC team.)

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Enjoy the beginning of the madness. We’ll be back with another column in a couple of days.

Bold teams = NMTC members

Tuesday, March 1

All games on ESPN+ at 7 PM (lol)

ASUN, 1st Round

(6E) Stetson at (3W) Central Arkansas

(5W) Eastern Kentucky at (4E) Kennesaw State

(6W) North Alabama* at (3E) Florida Gulf Coast

Horizon, 1st Round

(10) Robert Morris at (7) Youngstown State

Wednesday, March 2

Big South, 1st Round (Charlotte, NC)

(10) Hampton vs. (7) High Point, 6 PM, ESPN+

(11) Presbyterian vs. (6) Campbell, 8 PM, ESPN+

NEC, Quarterfinals

All games on NEC Front Row at 7 PM

(9) Central Connecticut at (1) Bryant

(6) Sacred Heart at (3) Long Island

(5) St. Francis Brooklyn at (4) Mt. St. Mary’s

OVC, 1st Round (Evansville, IN)

(8) SIUE vs. (5) Tennessee State, 7:30 PM, ESPN+