In the long history of the NCAA tournament, a field that has now grown to 68 teams, there are still a surprising number of programs waiting to participate in their first March Madness.
If you go back to the tournament's inception in 1939, there have been 3,293 total spots available. Yet, of the 353 basketball teams currently in Division I, 43 have never played in the NCAA tournament.
Below is the full list, and where each stands in its conference tournament. A reminder, winning a conference tournament grants a team an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Gardner-Webb will make its first NCAA tournament this year after winning the Big South tournament.
|Team||Conference||Tourn. start||Tourn. end||Tourn. status|
|Gardner-Webb||Big South||March 5||March 10||Big South Champ|
|Abilene Christian||Southland||March 13||March 16||2 seed|
California Baptist and North Alabama moved to Division I this season. They are not eligible for the tournament until they complete the transition during the 2021-22 season.
The tournament has grown from an initial eight teams, moving to 16 in 1951 and then growing steadily until 1985, when it reached its familiar format of 64.
Play-in games have made appearances throughout the years, but became a permanent fixture in 2001, when the total number of teams was bumped to 65. In 2011, the play-in was expanded to create the First Four, an opening round that helped fill out the Round of 64. Thus, since 2011, 68 teams have made the NCAA tournament every year.
Two teams have made the NCAA tournament but haven’t been part of the bracket as most of us know it. Houston Baptist made the preliminary round in 1984, when there were 53 teams in the tournament, but lost to Alcorn State. Alabama A&M won the SWAC in 2005, earning the school’s lone automatic bid, but fell to Oakland 79-69 in the tournament’s play-in game.
There is another small, but more impressive group included in this list — the four teams that have been eligible for every NCAA tournament but have failed to make it to one.
In 2017, Northwestern gained plenty of attention as the Wildcats — previously one of the five original teams to never make the tournament — not only qualified for their first ever tournament, but actually picked up a win, and gave eventual runner-up Gonzaga a run for its money in the Round of 32.
The other four teams to have been eligible for every tournament and not been dancing once are Army, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary and The Citadel.
In 1968, Army actually did qualify for the NCAA tournament, but coach Bobby Knight thought the Black Knights would have a better shot in the NIT and turned down the invite. Army lost its first game in the NIT to Notre Dame.
|Conference||Teams that have never made NCAAT||Teams|
|WAC||6||California Baptist, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, UMKC, Utah Valley, UTRGV|
|Big South||4||High Point, Longwood, Presbyterian, USC Upstate|
|Summit||5||Denver, IPFW, Omaha, South Dakota, Western Illinois|
|A-Sun||4||Kennesaw State, NJIT, North Alabama, Stetson|
|AEC||4||Hartford, Maine, New Hampshire, UMass-Lowell|
|MEAC||3||Bethune-Cookman, Maryland-ES, Savannah State|
|NEC||3||Bryant, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (BKN)|
|Southland||3||Abilene Christian, Central Arkanasas, Incarnate Word|
|CAA||2||Elon, William & Mary|
|Big West||1||UC Riverside|
But of course, the list of 44 isn't made up of basketball's blue bloods. You'll find no Power 5 teams among the uninvited. For the most part, these aren't teams that will find themselves ranked in the AP Top 25 and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament on their resumes alone.
Realistically speaking, the best option for virtually any of these teams to make the NCAA tournament will be to win their conference tournament, a feat that grants an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the winners of all 32 conferences.