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Mitchell Northam | | March 14, 2021

The longest active NCAA tournament streaks

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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 three schools have active streaks that have lasted two decades. It’s been more than 20 years since Kansas, Michigan State or Gonzaga missed the NCAA tournament.

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Another program, North Carolina, just reached a decade’s worth of consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.

Here’s a look at the longest active NCAA tournament streaks.

1. Kansas (31)

The Jayhawks’ run of consecutive, Big 12 regular season titles ended in 2019, but their streak of NCAA tournament appearances continued on to Year 31. KU was awarded a No. 3 seed in the 2021 NCAA tournament field.

Kansas’ ongoing streak is the longest in NCAA history, currently four years longer than North Carolina’s run of 27-straight appearances from 1975 through 2001.

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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.

Ever since, 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 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.

3. Michigan State (23)

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 program broke through in a big way in his third season. In 1998, the Spartans took a share of the Big Ten regular season title and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

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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.

In 2020-21, the Spartans went 15-12 and returned to the postseason — a familiar destination under Izzo. But MSU's journey this March will begin at the First Four, a place the program has never been before.

4. Gonzaga (21)

How’s this for a coaching career? In 21 seasons as the top man in Spokane, coach Mark Few has reached the NCAA tournament every year and never won fewer than 23 games in a season.

He’s won the West Coast Conference automatic bid 16 times and compiled a 625-124 overall record through the 2021 WCC tournament. 

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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 Eight. 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 in every season.

Speaking of which, the Zags went wire-to-wire at No. 1 in the AP Poll this season. Gonzaga was named the No. 1 overall seed for the 2021 NCAA tournament.

The Rest

Duke had the second-longest active streak in college basketball with 24 consecutive appearances, dating back to 1996. The Blue Devils went 13-11 in the 2021 season as their run came to an end following their fewest wins in a season since, you guessed it, the last time they missed the tournament in 1995. Wisconsin's streak of 19 straight appearances 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 streak is North Carolina, which has qualified for 10 in a row, then Villanova with eight consecutive trips. In addition to Duke's run, Cincinnati's nine-year NCAA tournament streak was also snapped after the Bearcats fell in the AAC title game.

Brian Mull contributed to the original version of this story in 2015.

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