William and Mary fans are well aware of their team’s history of getting close but not making it to the NCAA tournament. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

There are 351 teams playing Division I basketball, 160 of which have been in the NCAA’s top tier since it was formed before the 1948-49 season. Of those original members, five — Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis of Brooklyn and William and Mary — have never played in its signature event, the NCAA tournament.

For five weeks leading up to the conferenece tournaments, The Washington Post will examine each of them.

Today: William and Mary. Last week: Army.

Bobby Dwyer has worked at William and Mary for 30 years as the athletic department’s chief fundraiser. He understands the school, its alumni and fan base. Which is why he wasn’t the least bit surprised by the reactions he read and heard after the Tribe opened this season with a stunning 85-68 win at North Carolina State.

“I knew it was coming the minute the game ended,” Dwyer said with a smile recently. “All our fans were posting all over the Internet: ‘Maybe this is finally the year. Maybe if we don’t win the [Colonial Athletic Association] tournament, we can get an at-large bid. We were 1 and 0 and it was all about, ‘Can we get in the tournament?’ ”

There’s reason for that.

It isn’t just that William and Mary is one of the five schools that have been part of Division I since it was created in 1948 and haven’t qualified for the NCAA tournament; it is that the Tribe has been so close — heartbreakingly close — in recent years. In all, William and Mary has been one game away from the tournament nine times, dating from the 1958 Southern Conference final. Four times the Tribe lost in the Southern Conference final; once it fell in an ECAC South final; and, most recently, it has been defeated in four CAA finals — including the past two in a row.

“I understand why people feel the way they do,” Coach Tony Shaver said. “I certainly want to kick that door in. What bothers me is when I hear people say, ‘Maybe this will be the year.’ Fact is, I think the last two years were pretty special. We accomplished a lot.”

William and Mary Coach Tony Shaver looks on in the second half of the 2015 CAA championship game. (Gail Burton/Associated Press)
A recent rise in fortunes

The Tribe has had some very good teams, coaches and players in the past. In 1998, coached by Charlie Woollum, class of 1970, the Tribe won the CAA regular season title only to be upset by American in the conference tournament. Before that, brothers Bruce and Barry Parkhill had very good teams during the 1980s, including the 1983 team that, led by Keith Cieplicki, lost to a then-dynastic James Madison team in the ECAC South final.

“Bruce really built the program,” said Barry Parkhill, who took over as head coach after his brother left for Penn State. “He left me with some very good players and we had good teams. But my four years [1984-87] we were in the same league with David Robinson at Navy and John Newman at Richmond. They were just too good for us to get through and make the tournament.”

Shaver is the winningest coach in William and Mary history, having taken over in 2003 after Rick Boyages had gone 33-52 in three seasons. Shaver played for Dean Smith at North Carolina as a walk-on for four years, graduating in 1976. He was a successful high school coach at Episcopal in Alexandria, Va., for 10 years and then went 358-121 during 17 seasons at Hampden-Sydney that included 11 trips to the Division III tournament and two Final Fours — one ending in a double-overtime loss in the 1999 championship game to a Wisconsin-Plateville team coached by Bo Ryan.

Shaver was 49 when he took the William and Mary job, and the first three seasons were difficult — all with at least 20-losses. But his recruiting began to kick in during the fourth season (15-15) and by 2008, William and Mary had become a tough out. That season, the Tribe won three buzzer-beating games to get to the CAA championship game at Richmond Coliseum before running out of gas against a George Mason team that was two years removed from the Final Four.

Two seasons later, William and Mary was the only team to win at Maryland — the Terrapins tied for the ACC regular season title that season — and also won at Wake Forest. After falling to Old Dominion in the CAA final, the Tribe finished 22-11, including a close loss at North Carolina in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, the school’s second postseason appearance in history and its first since losing to Virginia Tech in the first round of the 1983 NIT.

By then, Shaver was recruiting better players and his efforts in that area paid a big dividend in 2012, when Bishop McNamara’s Marcus Thornton chose William and Mary over a number of big-time suitors.

“Marcus was another level of player for us,” Shaver said. “We’d had other good ones, very good ones, but Marcus was a step up. I really believed he could take us to a place we hadn’t been.”

He did. Thornton would score 2,178 points for his career, breaking a 65-year-old program record. In both his junior and senior years, the Tribe won 20 games and reached the CAA championship game. It is the 2014 final against Delaware that sticks in the throat of all William and Mary people like a bone.

William and Mary's Marcus Thornton shoots past James Madison's Paulius Satkus during a game in January 2015. (Nikki Fox/Associated Press)
A minute 20 is a lot of time

“I never — I mean never — let myself think a game is won until it is absolutely, 100 percent won,” Dwyer said. “I still think like a coach. I sit there and think of a thousand things that could go wrong. But that night I let myself think, ‘Finally, finally, we’re going to get to celebrate this moment.’ I still blame myself for doing that. I really do.”

Sitting a few seats over from Dwyer, Athletic Director Terry Driscoll still saw peril, even with his team seemingly in control of the game.

“I’m not sure if it’s the coach in me or the fact that I grew up a Red Sox fan,” said Driscoll, a standout player at Boston College in the 1960s, a 10-year pro player and William and Mary’s AD since 1995.“I just thought a minute and 20 was a lot of time.”

To be fair, most of the 5,414 fans at Baltimore Arena were probably thinking Dwyer was right. William and Mary had come from 12 points down early in the second half to lead 74-68 with 1 minute 21 seconds left after Omar Prewitt drained a three-pointer from the corner. Delaware’s Devon Saddler instantly cut it to 74-70 with two free throws.

Then came the sequence that ultimately cost the Tribe the game. Prewitt was fouled with 58 seconds to go. He missed the front end of the one-and-one. Jarvis Threatt quickly took the ball to the basket, scored and was fouled with 51 seconds left.

Now it was 74-73. Dwyer’s thoughts about celebrating had vanished. Thornton missed an open shot with 32 seconds left. Delaware called time out and Saddler, the team’s leading scorer, convinced Coach Monte Ross to get the ball to center Cyril Baptiste, who already had 22 points. Baptiste scored with 10 seconds on the clock to put Delaware up 75-74. William and Mary called time.

Everyone in the building knew Thornton would take the last shot. He had gotten William and Mary to this point. They would rise or fall on his ability to make a play.

“I thought they would double-team him,” Shaver said. “If they did, I thought we might be able to slip [center] Tim [Rusthoven] into the lane.”

Shaver was right. As Thornton dribbled toward the top of the key, two Delaware defenders came at him. As instructed, Rusthoven, who had come up to screen, slipped into the lane, hands up — wide open.

“Our first option was Marcus,” said Rusthoven, who was a senior playing what turned out to be his last game. “He should be the first option. I saw him make that shot hundreds of times. He had won games for us taking that shot.”

One of Thornton’s strengths was his ability to get his shot under pressure. That’s exactly what he did. He stepped back from his defenders enough to clear space and went up to shoot.

“It was a good shot,” Shaver said. “I can’t count how many times he made that shot — guarded — during his career.”

Not this time. The ball bounced off the back of the rim and the buzzer sounded.

Rusthoven paused. “I can’t say it wasn’t heartbreaking. We had all thought about what it would mean. The night before the game, even though you don’t want to, you can’t help but think about what it would mean. I knew before I got to William and Mary that the school hadn’t been in the tournament. I liked the challenge. I believed we could be the ones to do it. We came so close. . . .”

As Delaware celebrated, William and Mary players looked on in shock. They weren’t alone.

“I remember walking into the garage to get my car and not really knowing how I got there,” Dwyer said. “It was all a blank. I guess I just kind of stumbled out of the building. I was stunned.”

Driscoll found his way to the locker room to thank the players for their effort.

“They were all in tears,” he said. “Understandable. I think they may have wanted to win even more than they knew. It’s one of those things where so much good has happened for us in the last few years. There was a time when people thought we should leave the CAA and join the Patriot League because we’re an academic school on a limited budget.

“We had the chance to do that and decided against it. To begin with, the Patriot League schools are all private and we’re public. Plus, we thought the CAA was still the best place for us to offer kids a really good education and the chance to compete at the highest levels on the field.

“I do my best to calm the waters when our people get frustrated. I understand it completely. But all we can do is keep knocking at the door until the time comes that the breaks go our way and we finally knock it down.”

William and Mary's Daniel Dixon, (0), and Sean Sheldon watch in the final seconds of the 2015 CAA championship game. (Gail Burton/Associated Press)
‘You’re ready to do this’

A year ago, the Tribe reached the doorstep again. But it took them two overtimes to beat Hofstra in the CAA semifinals — Daniel Dixon hitting the winning shot from the corner after a double-teamed Thornton passed him the ball — and they were clearly exhausted the next night, losing, 72-61, to Northeastern.

This season has been much like the last two. Even without Thornton, the Tribe is still very much a factor in the CAA. After Saturday’s win over Delaware, they are 9-3 in league play, 17-6 overall. Instead of relying on one star, they have three solid, experienced players in Prewitt, Terry Tarpey and Dixon, who have all stepped up their scoring in Thornton’s absence. They are also deeper than in the past with eight players getting at least 14 minutes of playing time a night.

“We’re different without Marcus,” said Prewitt, a junior. “We have multiple guys who can get it done on different nights. We know what the deal is. We’ve been good the last two years. We’re all aware of what we have to do when we get to Baltimore.”

No one at William and Mary shies away from those last splinters on the door that doesn’t seem to want to go down. Shaver, in fact, has changed his approach to it in recent years.

“For a long time, I didn’t think we were ready for me to bring it up. We weren’t talented enough. But the last couple years I’ve said to them, ‘You’re ready to do this. You’re good enough to do it.’ ”

He smiled. “I want to do it for them but I also want to do it so I never have to answer the dang question again.”

Everyone admits they have fantasized about the moment when the door will finally be kicked to pieces.

“I know it will be the greatest moment of my life,” Dixon said. “I get a chill just thinking about it.”

Shaver has thought about it perhaps more than anyone. He knows his three sons will all be in the building, including middle son Austin, who is an assistant.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll hug my sons and [wife] Ann first,” he said. “Long hugs. I know there will be tears.”

He paused. He started to talk again, then stopped. And wiped away his tears.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.