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Never Made the Tournament Club Update 2/11: Hope Springs Forth?

It might be the hope that kills us in the end, but we actually might have some reasons for positivity after a long, depressing winter.

Courtesy: NCAA.

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We’ve been in hiding over here at NMTC HQ — both from the cold and our daily sorrows. Thankfully, there’s still been plenty of college basketball to get through meetings/nights indoors/classes/layoffs. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) aside, we’re back with another NMTC installment.

If this article had been written a couple weeks ago like it should have, it would have been straight up good vibes, perhaps amongst the best we’ve ever seen. Now we’ve got good vibes mixed with OK vibes, “this team keeps messin’ around” vibes and what-could’ve-been vibes. Overall though, we have quite a few teams that seem poised to escape, many more than usual, and several that have seldom been on our radar in years past.

The Vibes are GOOD with these ones

PENGUINSZN. It’s here, and it’s not because you might’ve contracted frostbite on eight of your toes when you took your dog on a walk last weekend in minus-20 wind chill like I did. It’s here because Youngstown State is doing the thing baby. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 and lead the league by a game. This certainly isn’t a sure thing, of course. The Horizon League is famous for its outrageous early round tournament upsets over the last few years, but it’s a good time to be a peripheral fan of the Penguins, who have been Club members since the early 80s — unlike what the commentator calling Friday night’s Purdue-Fort Wayne/YSU game would have you believe. (It’s okay, we fixed it and we’re cool now.)

Grambling State is another awesome story. This team is one of the longer-tenured members of the club that consistently won regular season titles in the SWAC’s Division II days, but since the league moved up to Division I status in 1977, it has only won a share of the league three times, and once since 1989. Not so long ago, it felt like escaping the club was eons away — a five-year stretch from 2011-2016 with just twelve D-I wins, including one D-I winless season and one actually winless season. Since 2016, when not on an NCAA ban, this team has been middle of the pack, always seeming to lurk as a dark horse at the start of the SWAC tournament. And this year the vibes are great with this team.

Grambling had only beaten two “Power-5” opponents in its history before this season; they matched that in this year alone with wins over Colorado (that gained them some votes in the AP poll when Colorado turned around at beat No. 11 Tennessee) and at Vanderbilt (where now-No. 6 Tennessee just lost). Texas Southern and Prairie View, stalwarts at the top of the standings for a few years, are down, and the Tigers sit one game back of conference leader Alcorn State in what looks to be a wide open SWAC. And no matter what happens, whatever Tennessee is seeded, Grambling should be seeded one seed higher because logic.

Kennesaw f***ing State. We talked about them in the season preview, how they are making the jump from the chipotle ranch grilled cheese burrito conference (still known by some plebeians as the ASUN or Atlantic Sun) to the much more reputable gordita baja conference (aka Conference USA), despite having little to show on the hardwood in its decade plus of D-I existence. We kind of wrote them off this year, too (literally, they were the only team we accidentally excluded from our preseason tiers list) if only because the experts didn’t pick them too high and, well, their entirely futile recent history – they went 1-28 just three seasons ago!!

Well, we’d like to think they posted this article on their locker room wall somewhere, because they’ve largely run through the league this year at 20-7 (12-2 in conference) on their way to what will be its first winning season at the D-I level. In fact, they’re a perfect 11-0 at home this year. Next week comes a big home test against L*b*rty, and will likely decide who enters the conference tournament with the top seed, and whether or not we move the Owls into “cautiously optimistic” territory. Regardless, not bad for a team that finished 27 games under .500 in 2020.

Utah Valley has been in the mix for the WAC title several times since it joined the league back in 2013, but has often been blocked by the likes of Grand Canyon and perennial league giant New Mexico State. (Funny I say “blocked” because they’ve been paced by Aziz Bandaogo, top ten in the nation in rebounds and *blocks*. Continuing.) This year, Grand Canyon appears a bit down, and Greg Heiar has apparently torpedoed the shit out of the once mighty Aggies. Despite the league’s recent expansion from seven to 13 teams, the Wolverines find themselves with the best league record heading into the final stretch.

One thing to keep your eye on is the weird Kenpom-based seeding system the WAC is using to seed their teams come conference tournament time, which incorporates conference and non-conference performance. That means that even if UVU finishes with the top conference record, it may not get the top seed because teams with better non-conference performances, such as Sam Houston State, would be favored by the advanced metrics. Maybe this system is more fair and futuristic with unbalanced league schedules, and I can’t speak for my co-editors here, but for now I think it’s terrible, especially if it screws over one of my teams. Pout. (If it ends up working in UVU’s or any other NMTC member’s favor, I can be swayed.)

(Editor Lance here. I think the KenPom thing is dumb and the discourse around the WAC seedings will make for great content.)

And last but not least, UMES. Just last year, at least one outlet picked this team to be the worst team in all of America. It has led a rather quiet existence as an HBCU on the Peaceful Yet Forgotten Shore of Maryland. Unless you are a fan or have been frequently checking in with our spreadsheet, you likely wouldn’t know this is a team in its 50th(!) Division I campaign. But in magic season number 50, Jason Crafton’s squad picked off Temple in the non-conference and won six of their first seven MEAC games before dropping a nail-biter to Norfolk State last night. The Shore is sure to be must-watch TV…OK barf, I hate that I just said that completely phoned-in cheesy shit. Vomit. Go Hawks though.

“Playing-with-their-food” teams

I kind of just made this dumb section up, but it feels like there are a couple of teams that really should be in a much better position than they are if they played more consistently.


UMass-Lowell is having a fantastic season without a doubt, by far its best in its 10 Division I seasons. It raced out to a 11-1 and 14-2 start on the year, only losing competitive games to Rutgers and Rhode Island, beating “flagship” UMass and torching everyone else in its path. Then, its kryptonite emerged in the form of the dreaded “road games at bottom-half America East teams.” Road losses to Binghamton, Maine, New Hampshire and, in particular, a blowout loss to a bad Albany team have taken the luster off a resume that sports a 15-point home win over Vermont.

The River Hawks were handled in the return game at Vermont for their fifth consecutive road loss and now sit three games back of those same Catamounts (who are basically the America East’s version of South Dakota State, more barfing) in a three-way tie for third place. They’ve shown they can play well, but it’s a bit of a disappointment to be where they are after their amazing start. Unless they can convince America East leadership to play all of the tourney games in Lowell and not at the site of the higher seeded team (hey, we hear Lowell is nice this time of year!) it seems they might be back for another year while Evilmont goes dancing yet again.

Quinnipiac has been a tough one to figure out. We were in WINnipiac mode when they won their first seven games of the season. Then, they lost five of seven, including their first three MAAC games. Then, they won their next six MAAC games, including a beatdown of Pitino’s Iona. Then, it really got weird: in their return game at Iona, they blew a 17-point halftime lead to lose by six. They erased early 14- and 12-point deficits to beat Marist and Fairfield going away. Then, they blew an early 14-point lead against Mount Saint Mary’s and another second-half 17-point lead against Niagara, losing close both times. This team is really f***ing around right now, and though it seems they can beat anyone, welp, it’s going to get real NIPI in a couple weeks.

Cautiously optimistic vibes

For a few years now, UC Riverside has been a fan favorite at NMTC HQ. Maybe it’s because they’re kind an overshadowed UC, maybe it’s because financial issues have recently threatened their athletics programs, most likely it’s because we are biased and they have the first Asian head coach in college basketball history — but we love them and Mike Magpayo has got it going again this year at 9-5, tied for third in the standings. The Big West has a lot of competition at the top. While it feels like UCSB or UC Irvine is going to win, why can’t we throw UC Riverside into the mix?

Stetson got off to a bang this year with wins over Florida State and South Florida, and have largely kept it up most of the way. Really, if a one-point overtime loss to Kennesaw State goes their way, they might’ve gotten co-top billing in this article, despite a blowout loss to that school in Lynchburg. They have two Dudes on their team — Wheza Panzo and Luke Brown — that can absolutely shoot it. Keeping our eye on these Hatters.

With Murray State and Belmont jumping to the other valley, the two main terrors of the Ohio Valley were gone and we kind of knew we’d have some degree of hope from one or both of our eligible teams in this league as the year dwindled down. SIU-Edwardsville (SIUE) and UT Martin both have had moments this year; SIUE in particular, who we’ve given our fair share of mockery to due to recent ineptitude, broke out in a big way with wins over Saint Louis and Longwood. UT Martin was a bit less convincing in non-conference but went on a run in conference play. SIUE looks to have a real shot at the dance for maybe the first time, while 30-year club member UT Martin went to the OVC title game in 2016 and 2017; both are tied for third place with a game against each other coming up next.

And we’re going to mention Sacred Heart here. Why? Because I predicted them? Maybe. Also because they’re really good? Well, okay, maybe the rest of the league is awful. The NEC appears to be, in our estimation, the worst league in the country, and it really seems like anyone except Long Island could win it. Sacred Heart is 6-6 in league contests, but notched road wins against Fairleigh Dickinson (currently leading the league) and Merrimack (currently tied for second) and lost by one point on the road to Tourney-ineligible D-I newcomer Stonehill (also tied for second, which, kudos to Stonehill). It also blew a big lead at home to the aforementioned Long Island, a game which remains the only D-I win on its resume! I’m not going to insert an overused Rooth Jonsteen quote here, but let’s just say something to the effect of: “anything can happen come NEC tourney time.”

How about the Founding Fathers?

Glad you asked! If you’re new here, these are the four teams — Army, The Citadel, William & Mary, and Saint Francis Brooklyn —that have been eligible for every tournament since 1939 and haven’t yet appeared in one.

If they were normal teams, Army and St. Francis might well be in the “cautiously optimistic” section of this page. St. Francis, after all, sports a league record just a half-game behind Sacred Heart. But it feels different for them; unlike SHU, they haven’t really been super competitive against teams in front of them. As for Army, at 8-6 and tied for third in the Patriot League, once again find themselves in the top half having put together a solid campaign. But once again, Colgate looks like it’s going to run away with the title this year. And besides, these aren’t normal teams. They’ve brought us nothing but crushing pain for generations. We need to move on. (The Citadel and William and Mary are bad, by the way.)

And now a word on the Summit League, which still sucks.

Again, if you’re new here, we don’t know if we can muster ourselves to completely explain the hell that is the Summit League Curse. (If you want to read more about our laments, read literally any other NMTC article we’ve written.) Suffice it to say, over the last decade, no matter how good or bad the NMTC team members are — and they make up a majority of the conference — someone else, almost always a “Dakota State,” swoops in to take the bid. Last year, South Dakota State decided that losing was dumb, so they took it to a new level, going 21-0 in the conference regular season and tournament.

Any hopes of SDSU(T?) running the table came to a glorious halt in their first conference game, which they lost by an embarrassing 39 points. While scores of overjoyed people flooded the streets in celebration across the nation and world, they failed to notice just who had beaten the Jackrabbits, and how that was a sign of more pain to come. The team that beat the Jacks was none other than Or*l R*b*rts, one of the four Summit teams in the “made the tournament” ranks, and they would proceed to merely try and recreate what the Jacks had done last year.

Thus far they have, with an unblemished 14-0 record, and the six NMTC members (five eligible) have fallen to the middle of the pack or below. Teams like South Dakota, who had so much preseason promise, and Denver, who turned heads in non-conference play, were back under the crushing weight of the crushing Summit League Curse. The league’s best shot remains Western Illinois, who has the nation’s best kept secret in Trenton Massner, a man who absolutely has that dawg in him, but even they sport a mere 8-7 conference record, good for third place. (Oh, by the way, South Dakota State, in its most disappointing season in years, rebounded to take second place because of course they did.)

Teams so bad that we need to mention them

For a while, it wasn’t really “teams” as much as “team”, and that team was Elon. They were the last team to win a Division I game and delayed us from having a proper “circle of suck”. But then they won four of five! Good for them and their standalone sports network! The new worst record among NMTC teams is Presbyterian.

And finally…

What if I told you…

At first, no one had even thought about it.

But then, four simple words started a movement.

People started saying it.

It was being said.

It continued to be said.

You heard it, more and more.

Now, #AtLargeChicagoState is defining a generation.

Yes, the Chicago State Cougars faced an impossible task as the NMTC’s only independent member this season. But Gerald Gillion’s crew has won 12 Division I games over the last two seasons, after having won just seven in the previous six years. A 9-18 record might not look like much to you this year, but to me it looks like they’re a *deep voice* top 10 team in America. (Too far?) We’ll hold off on “eliminating” them in our spreadsheet until their season finale at Gonzaga, because obviously if they win that game they’d have to be included in the field.

#AtLargeChicagoState #GiveChicagoStateaHOME

Thanks for tuning in, and look out for more articles coming soon.