When it comes to long NCAA tournament droughts, no one tops Army, St. Francis of Brooklyn, The Citadel and William & Mary. They are the Forgotten Four, the only programs that have never made it to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament despite being part of Division I since its inception.
The club lost a member last year when Northwestern finally broke through for its first NCAA appearance. And if any of the remaining teams could earn a place in the field of 68, it would be one of the most noteworthy developments of championship week.
Whether it can happen this year is questionable. Army (7-4) is off to a decent start and could emerge as a Patriot League dark horse, while forward Nathan Knight and William & Mary (7-3) figure to be in the mix in a deep Colonial Athletic Association.
Even if they can’t make their NCAA tournament debuts, there are other programs setting themselves up to snap droughts. None of the following 12 teams other than Texas Christian have the look of a top-20 team this season, but all of them have shown the potential to contend for NCAA berths once March arrives.
St. Bonaventure (Last NCAA bid: 2012)
The Bonnies (9-2) played their first six games without star senior Jaylen Adams, and it proved costly with an opening-night loss to Niagara. But Adams is healthy again and Mark Schmidt’s teams heads into Friday’s trip to Syracuse on a six-game winning streak.
St. Bonaventure already owns defeats of Maryland and America East favorite Vermont, but its chances of bagging an at-large bid are going to hinge on dominating an Atlantic 10 that has not acquitted itself well before league play. Still, Adams joins with Matt Mobley to create the kind of backcourt that can carry a team in a conference tournament, and the Bonnies are going to be dangerous the second weekend of March in Washington.
Clemson (Last NCAA bid: 2011)
Clemson (10-1) is off to its best start since 2008-09, Oliver Purnell’s heyday in Tigertown. It looked like a make-or-break year for eighth-year Coach Brad Brownell, and a tested, veteran backcourt featuring Gabe DeVoe, Shelton Mitchell and especially Marcquise Reed has thrived in the early going.
The Tigers have already defeated Florida, Ohio State and South Carolina, and there’s nothing wrong with a neutral-court loss to Temple. There are plenty of opportunities for quality victories in ACC play, and it’s best to remember Clemson wasn’t that far away last year; it went 4-12 in games decided by six points or less. Thanks to substantial defensive improvement, the Tigers will be more than simply a nuisance in the coming months.
Penn State (Last NCAA bid: 2011)
Coach Patrick Chambers invested a lot of last season getting experience for a promising crop of freshmen, a group that includes point guard Tony Carr, forward Lamar Stevens and center Mike Watkins. With that group now sophomores, the Nittany Lions (10-3) are poised to push into the top half of the Big Ten.
Penn State’s improvement is evident at both ends of the floor, but it boasts a top-20 defense according to KenPom.com. If the Nittany Lions are to make their first NCAA trip in Chambers’s tenure, they’ll need to remain stingy when league play resumes Jan. 2 at Maryland.
Houston (Last NCAA bid: 2010)
Kelvin Sampson already cranked out consecutive 20-win seasons with the Cougars, and he’s well on his way to another. Houston (10-2) has defeated Arkansas, Providence and Wake Forest, and gets home-and-homes against Cincinnati, Southern Methodist, Temple and Wichita State in conference play.
The Cougars don’t have the benefit of any on-campus games (they’re playing at Texas Southern while Hofheinz Pavilion is renovated into the Fertitta Center), but they’re defending better than they have in nearly a decade and do most things well. They’re not unbeatable — Drexel and Louisiana State have dealt Houston a couple unexpected setbacks — but it generally takes a good showing to knock them out.
Penn (Last NCAA bid: 2007)
Yes, it’s really been a decade since the Quakers last won the Ivy League. While they slid backward under Glen Miller and never got much traction under Jerome Allen, Harvard established itself as an Ivy power, Yale became a regular contender and Princeton remained Princeton.
Those three looked like the top tier in the Ancient Eight entering this season, but strong play from sophomores Ryan Betley and A.J. Brodeur has helped Penn to an 8-4 start with defeats of Navy, Monmouth and Dayton. Maybe this Quaker team doesn’t end the program’s decade-long drought, but third-year Coach Steve Donahue has the pieces in place to halt it in the next few years.
Central Florida (Last NCAA bid: 2005)
So much of the Knights’ hopes hinge on the healthy return of guard B.J. Taylor, who left the season opener with a foot injury and hasn’t played since. Central Florida (8-3) has acquitted itself well in his absence, beating Alabama and Nebraska while avoiding any silly losses. The Knights’ setbacks have come against Missouri, St. John’s and West Virginia.
Unlike some teams on this list, UCF harbors some at-large hopes, though it will need to beat some of the top teams in the American (notably Cincinnati and/or Wichita State) while avoiding inexplicable missteps against the bottom of the league. But between Taylor, 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall and an elite defense, the Knights will be heard from in the AAC.
Auburn (Last NCAA bid: 2003)
Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com took a deep dive into the Tigers that covers all the bases on a program long consigned to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference — and at the center of a bombshell FBI corruption investigation. Know this: The Tigers (10-1) are off to their best start since 1999-2000 and have played all season without suspended sophomores Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley.
Auburn doesn’t own a bunch of high-end victories, though beating Conference USA favorite Middle Tennessee was a more-than-credible triumph. While the Tigers are still pushing the pace like they have throughout fourth-year Coach Bruce Pearl’s tenure, they’re also playing some semblance of defense. They’ll be a curious team to follow once SEC play begins.
Navy (Last NCAA bid: 1998)
The Midshipmen (9-3) have the luxury of experience, starting with senior captain Shawn Anderson, and they’ve already bagged a victory over a power conference team (granted, it was Pittsburgh). Navy enters Thursday’s nonconference finale against Lipscomb on a five-game winning streak and could be a contender in the Patriot League.
The caveats are clear enough: Bucknell is the favorite in the Patriot until proven otherwise, and Navy needs to commit fewer turnovers (305th nationally in turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com) and defend the perimeter better. Still, this is coach Ed DeChellis’s best chance since arriving in Annapolis to win three conference tournament games.
Texas Christian (Last NCAA bid: 1998)
The Horned Frogs (11-0) are one of four undefeated teams left in Division I, though they won 13 in a row three years ago before getting splattered by the realities of Big 12 play. This team will take some lumps, but it also has a decent set of victories (Nevada, Southern Methodist and St. Bonaventure) and returned five starters from a team that won the NIT last year.
TCU does the things you expect from a Jamie Dixon team: It runs an efficient scheme and crashes the offensive glass, but it also pushed the pace much more than his Pittsburgh teams. With a veteran team and a tested coach, the Horned Frogs should hold their own in the deep Big 12. Simply getting a split of the league schedule probably books them passage to their first NCAA tournament in two decades.
Georgia Southern (Last NCAA bid: 1992)
The Sun Belt looks like it could have an entertaining three- or four-team race, with Georgia State possibly joining the Eagles, Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas-Arlington at the top of the standings. Georgia Southern built steadily around a junior class that includes smooth the smooth Tookie Brown (17.3 points per game, 5.4 assists per game), as well as center Montae Glenn and wing Ike Smith.
The Eagles (9-3) have upended Missouri State and Wake Forest and last week dealt George Mason its most lopsided home nonconference loss in 20 years. They have some flaws (not a great outside shooting team, and vulnerable to opponents’ offensive rebounding), but Brown’s the sort of guard who can effortlessly take over a game and will a team to an upset in March.
Towson (Last NCAA bid: 1991)
The Tigers’ 10-game winning streak came to an end Wednesday with a loss at Oakland, which might turn out to be the best team Towson faces all season. The strong start illustrated much of what Coach Pat Skerry has aimed for since taking over a laughingstock in 2011.
Towson (10-2) usually excels at offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line, though it hasn’t done either quite as well this year. But it enjoys a plethora of depth, and a rotation often extending to 10 players is especially valuable in a one-bid league tournament where a team must win three games in three days. Wings Zane Martin and Mike Morsell will help give the Tigers a shot at the Colonial title.
Loyola-Chicago (Last NCAA bid: 1985)
From Southern Illinois (2007) to Bradley (2006) to Evansville and Missouri State (both 1999), there is no shortage of potential Missouri Valley contenders with long NCAA tournament absences. But the Ramblers (10-2), who boast a six-point win at Florida, are worth highlighting even after a loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee over the weekend.
Loyola ranks eighth in the country in three-point shooting at 42.5 percent, and senior forward Aundre Jackson (13.2 points per game, 63.8 percent from the floor) is a handful at the offensive end. It’s also gone from being a subpar Horizon League team to the bottom of the Valley when it switched leagues in 2011-12. This is Porter Moser’s best Ramblers team yet and should be in the mix in what should be a wide-open league race.
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