It’s March. Time to get serious about college basketball.
Discussion and speculation abound on the potential top-four seeds, the final four in and the first four out. Suddenly, not only does everybody know Joe Lunardi’s name, we all know what he looks like, too.
But let’s leave all those discussions to the talking heads who air them out so well, so often and at such great length.
Today we focus on the Forgotten Five.
Of the original 160 members of the NCAA’s Division I, only five schools have never made an appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament.
The members of this gloryless group: The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis Brooklyn, William & Mary and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Linked, to date, in ignominy.
Yes, Army is on the list. Army, once coached by Bob Knight, who retired with 899 career wins, still third on the all-time list. He also rang up three NCAA tournament championships and five Final Four appearances. But none at Army.
West Point, also coached by Mike Krzyzewski, who at last count topped the all-time wins list with 1,009. Coach K has won four NCAA titles and taken 11 teams to the Final Four. But none came from West Point.
You’ve got to believe that if Knight and Krzyzewski couldn’t lead Army into the tournament, it can’t be done.
Certainly this won’t be the year. Army stands dead last in the Patriot League with a 6-12 record (15-14 overall). The Cadets have lost eight of their last nine, and lug a hefty RPI of 227. It’s impossible to imagine West Point slipping past Bucknell or Colgate to win the Patriot League tournament.
The Citadel also stands 6-12 in its league, the Southern Conference (11-18 overall). The Bulldogs haven’t improved since Pat Conroy played there in 1967, the year recalled in his book, “My Losing Season.”
The Citadel are tied for 252nd in points per game (64.2) and 339th in rebounding (29.03 per game). It’s dropped nine of its past 12 games, and totes an outrageous RPI of 322. The Bulldogs might survive the opening night of the conference tournament, when the four worst teams square off. But that’s as close as they’ll get to the Big Dance.
Northwestern, the only school from a Big Five conference on our list, certainly looks like it will remain there. The Wildcats (14-15, 5-11) recently lost 10 straight, then miraculously reeled off four straight wins. That streak ended Saturday with an abysmal, 86-60 loss to usually surmountable Illinois.
Northwestern is tied for 224th in rebounding (33.3 per game), an alarming stat for a team that shoots only 43.5 percent, 178th in the country. Nor does it bode well when you sit in 11th place in a league whose name acknowledges only 10 members.
But take heart! The final two members of the Forgotten Five have excellent chances to end their droughts.
William & Mary finished in a four-way tie atop the Colonial Athletic Association with a 12-6 record (18-11 overall). The Tribe, with a chance to win the regular-season title on Saturday, let history be their guide. They lost to Drexel, 80-66.
They’ve also lost 34 straight games to ranked teams, since upsetting No. 2 North Carolina, 78-75, on Dec. 7, 1977. They’ve played all of two postseason games, losing NIT openers in ’83 and ’10.
Here’s the killer: William & Mary has managed to lose all eight games it has played with a trip to the tournament at stake. Including last year, when the Tribe blew a six-point lead in the final 80 seconds, missed a shot at the buzzer and lost to Delaware, 75-74.
“We almost got there last year,” President W. Taylor Reveley III told Erik Brady of USA Today last month. “One shot that bounced off the rim. A demonically infested shot. So, I think this is our year. Time to go. Time to get this particular monkey off our back.”
That’s also the prevailing sentiment at St. Francis Brooklyn, the school formerly known as St. Francis of New York. The Terriers (21-10, 15-3) roll into the Northeast Conference tournament Wednesday night as the top seed. This means that all of the Terriers’ tournament games will be played at their cozy, 1,200-seat Daniel Lynch Gymnasium on the Peter Aquilone Court in the Generoso Pope Athletic Complex in Brooklyn Heights.
The Terriers began play in 1896, which makes theirs the oldest program in New York City. As well as the only one never to play in the Big Dance. This despite having a Valvano in their coaching tree.
Sadly, it wasn’t Jim, but his brother Bob, who compiled a 38-74 record from ’84 through ’88.
They’ve been close: one win away in both 2001 and 2003. But with Jalen Cannon, the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder leading the charge, this really could be the year.
“I try not to think about that,” Cannon told Brady. “That would be too much pressure.”
Yes, it’s a lot of history to overcome, but here’s hoping the Terriers and Tribe can finally reach the tournament, and leave the downtrodden Forgotten Five behind.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears weekly.