March Madness: 5 college basketball teams still seek their 1st trip
They are the five still waiting to be asked to dance. The only original Division I schools to never see the inside of the NCAA Tournament.
In alphabetical order, Army West Point, Northwestern, St. Francis Brooklyn, The Citadel, William & Mary. Still yearning for the March of their dreams. Some have come so very close lately in their conference tournaments. St. Francis was a three-point loser in the Northeast championship game last year; William & Mary a one-point victim in the Colonial Athletic Association title game in 2014.
Any early signs of breakthrough this season? Let’s take a look.
ARMY WEST POINT (10-5)
In his seventh year as coach, Zach Spiker is keeping company with some pretty heavy predecessors. His teams reached 15 wins in three consecutive seasons. The last Army coach to do that was named Bob Knight. Spiker won 25 games his first two years. The most since a guy named Mike Krzyzewski. If the Black Knights have another 15-win season, it will be the first time since 1924 they have done it four years in a row.
Spiker prefers to look forward.
"Today’s headline is tomorrow’s fish wrapper, right?’’ he said. "What we did to beat Monmouth doesn’t help us win the next game. Yesterday’s layups don’t count in tomorrow’s game."
Things have looked promising, with a 10-3 start and an offense that is tied for fifth in the nation in 3-pointers, 10th in assists and 17th in points. Army beat Monmouth, and neither UCLA nor Notre Dame nor Georgetown could do that. But recent home losses to Bucknell and Lafayette have not helped the cause. "We’re not playing defense like we’re capable of,’’ Spiker said. "We can do better.’’
The starting lineup is five seniors from five states. Put another way, since this is West Point, it’s two guys headed for the field artillery branch – leading scorers Tanner Plomb and Kyle Wilson -- two for transportation, and one for infantry. Their day starts with post-breakfast formation at 7:05 a.m. Their class rings include steel from the World Trade Center.
Along the way, they’d love to win the Patriot League and get Army – a program with eight NIT trips -- to a place it has never been before.
"You can go to a lot of schools and help them do something that’s already been done,’’ Spiker said. "I think there’s great significance and tremendous value for a young man to do something that’s never been done. To have that opportunity and get the best education at the best leadership institution in the world, that’s a really powerful combination for a young man.’’
Things were going swimmingly, with a 13-1 start that was the school’s finest since 1930-31. The Wildcats had been a model of efficiency and balance, and a fun offense to watch, with the third best assist-to-turnover ratio in the nation and six different players who had scored at least 20 points in a game. They came from 12 points behind to win their Big Ten opener at Nebraska, and were 3-0 in overtime finishes. All signs A-OK.
Then came consecutive home defeats by Maryland and Ohio State. Seven-footer Alex Olah is temporarily out with an injured foot, an inside force badly missed. A team dependent on its outside shooting has gone 8-for-45 in 3-pointers.
And now history clears its throat. Northwestern’s exhilarating 10-4 start last season ended up in the smoking wreckage of a 10-game Big Ten losing streak. Plus, for a program that needs to do some good things in its league if it ever wants to hit the jackpot in March, there are these disquieting numbers:
Northwestern has not had a winning record in Big Ten play since 1968, and has never won more than one game in the conference tournament. Coach Chris Collins is determined to change all that.
"We’ve hit a little bump in the road. Can’t get discouraged,’’ Collins said. "The thing about this league, you’ve got to try to avoid the extended losing streaks when you get out of touch with the rest of the league. You’ve got to stop the bleeding.’’
Starting Saturday, he hopes, at Minnesota.
ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN (4-11)
Oh, for some offense. At last count, the Terriers were 330th in the nation in both scoring and shooting percentage, and had just lost to Mount St. Mary’s 44-40. In overtime. That’s the lowest point total for a Division I winning team this season.
It’s not for lack of St. Francis trying, especially from the outside. The Terriers put up 49 3-pointers in a 92-86 overtime loss to NJIT, and are tied for 27th in the nation in 3-point attempts.
The 23 victories, NEC regular season title and NIT bid last season are still warm memories, but graduation losses were heavy, and seven losses out of its last eight games confirms the difficulty of St. Francis’ rebuilding job. It hasn’t helped that 11 of the first 15 games were on the road. With 1,200 seats, Pope Athletic Complex back in downtown Brooklyn might be tied for the fourth smallest gym in Division I, but it’s still home.
THE CITADEL (7-8)
The Bulldogs are never boring, whether they’re scoring 90.8 points a game, or giving up 92.3. Butler put up 144 against The Citadel, but the Bulldogs also had games when they hit 132 and 121.
So they lead the nation in scoring, and it’s a pretty ritzy neighborhood at the top of the list. Just behind The Citadel are Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
Such a feat is hardly surprising with Duggar Baucom in his first season as coach. His VMI teams led the nation in scoring six times in an eight-year span. The Bulldogs have taken 528 2-point shots and 538 3-pointers, and are third in the nation in steals. All designed to make the scoreboard sing.
Time will tell how much that improves the bottom line. The Citadel has had one winning season in the past 13, and averaged 22.6 losses the past five. The Bulldogs are flirting with .500, even with 10 of the first 15 games away from home.
WILLIAM & MARY (9-4)
The Tribe had a boffo opening act, rolling into Raleigh to start the season and beating North Carolina State for the first time since 1952. It was no fluke. Not with a final of 85-68. William & Mary also went to the wire at Dayton before losing 69-66. Another defeat was at Virginia.
Deficits do not bother the Tribe much. Its record is 5-1 when trailing at halftime. It helps to have Daniel Dixon, who besides his 137 3-pointers and 42.8 career long distance percentage, has at least one other notable topic of conversation. His mother was once a New England Patriots cheerleader.
The road to March will have to go through the CAA Tournament, and the early games would suggest the Tribe’s chances will be as good as anyone’s. It was 2014 when a six-point lead over Delaware in the title game vanished in the last 80 seconds. William was very frustrated, and so was Mary.
So in the end, Spiker was speaking for five schools and not just his own, when he talked of his hopes at Army.
`We want guys who want to make history, not repeat it.’’