Earning a berth in the NCAA tournament is difficult. Stringing those appearances together is even more demanding.
Consider this: Since the NCAA tournament began in 1939 as a tidy eight-team affair, only nine Division I programs have made the field for 15 or more consecutive years. Sustaining excellence in college basketball is no easy task.
But four teams have active ongoing streaks that have lasted two decades. It’s been more than 20 years since Kansas, Duke, Michigan State or Gonzaga missed the NCAA tournament.
Other programs, like North Carolina and Cincinnati, are closing in on a decade’s worth of consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
Here’s a look at the longest active NCAA tournament streaks.
1. Kansas (30)
The Jayhawks’ run of consecutive Big 12 regular season titles ended in 2019, but their streak of NCAA tournament appearances continued on to Year 30. That run is unlikely to come to a halt this year with the Jayhawks sitting comfortably at No. 3 in the NET rankings on Jan. 26.
Kansas’ ongoing streak is the longest in NCAA history, currently two years longer than North Carolina’s run of 27 straight appearances from 1975 through 2001.
NOTHING BUT NET: The NET rankings, explained
This Kansas streak really begins in the 1980s. In 1988, Larry Brown coached Kansas to a national championship. Danny Manning had 31 points and 18 rebounds, leading the Jayhawks to a win over Oklahoma. After the win, Brown left to coach the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and Roy Williams became the head coach of the Jayhawks. In his first season at the helm, Kansas missed the NCAA tournament due to an NCAA-imposed postseason ban for recruiting violations.
From there out, Kansas has been in the Big Dance each season. In Williams’ second season, the Jayhawks won 30 games, finished the season ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll and lost in the second round to UCLA. Williams would remain the coach of Kansas until 2003, when he left to return home to Chapel Hill and coach the Tar Heels. Williams led the Jayhawks to four Final Four appearances.
The Jayhawks didn’t slip when Bill Self grabbed the head coaching reins. Kansas has been to three Final Fours under Self and captured a national championship in 2008.
2.) Duke (24)
Mike Krzyzewski is the only coach with two streaks of 10 years or longer. His first one ended in 1995, when recovery from back surgery forced him to step down and the Blue Devils plummeted to a 13-18 record. Krzyzewski returned the next year and started another NCAA streak at Duke.
Since then, he’s led the program to five Final Fours and three more national championships, bringing his total to five as he continues his 40th season as the Duke coach.
Along the way, Krzyzewski became the NCAA tournament career victories leader (97) and needs one more Final Four appearance to tie the legendary John Wooden at 13.
With a bevy of talented freshman, a poised lead guard in Tre Jones and a second consecutive season ranking top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, Duke is likely bound for the NCAA tournament again in 2020.
3. Michigan State (22)
Tom Izzo assumed command in East Lansing prior to the 1995-96 season, replacing his boss Jud Heathcote. The first two seasons didn’t go as planned, as the Spartans had a combined record of 33-28 and were relegated to the NIT each season.
But Izzo’s side broke through in a big way in his third season. In 1998, they took a share of the Big Ten regular season title and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Now, Izzo’s name is synonymous with postseason success. He has a 51-21 record in the NCAA tournament and has guided the Spartans to eight Final Fours. In 2000, Izzo’s Spartans won the whole thing.
2020 has come with ups and downs at Michigan State, but the Spartans will likely extend their NCAA tournament appearance streak, as they are ranked No. 10 in the NET and haven't lost outside of Quadrant I through 19 games.
4. Gonzaga (20)
How’s this for a coaching career? In 20 seasons as the top man in Spokane, coach Mark Few has reached the NCAA tournament every year and never won fewer than 23 games.
He’s won the West Coast Conference automatic bid 15 times and compiled a 568-122 overall record through the 2018-19 season.
The Zags’ impressive NCAA tournament streak actually started in 1999, when Few was an assistant to Dan Monson. That team won 28 games and reached the Elite 8. Monson headed to Minnesota and Few slid over one seat and elevated the program, making Gonzaga a perennial player on the national scene. Aside from the 2001-02 season, the Zags have been ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.
Speaking of which, the 'Zags haven't been ranked outside the top 10 of the AP Poll this season, as of Jan. 26, and own four Quadrant I wins before February, giving them a strong chance to keep the streak going.
Wisconsin had a streak of 19 straight appearances rolling, but that ended in 2018, as the Badgers finished the season with a 15-19 record. It was the first time since 1998 that the Badgers hadn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament, a stretch that included three trips to the Final Four.
The next longest active tournament streaks are Cincinnati and North Carolina, which both have qualified for nine in a row, then Villanova, with seven consecutive trips. In 2019, Wichita State and Arizona were spectators of the NCAA tournament.
There's still a lot of basketball to be played in 2019-20, but the Tar Heels and Bearcats both have work to do to avoid ending up on the wrong side of the cut line.
Brian Mull contributed to the original version of this story in 2015.
Mitchell Northam is a graduate of Salisbury University. His work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Orlando Sentinel, SB Nation, FanSided, USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times. He grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore and is now based in Durham, N.C.