Villanova. Kansas. UCLA. Gonzaga. Kentucky. The AP Top 25 rankings are filled with teams that you could see in the Final Four in Phoenix this year.
But 68 teams make it to the NCAA tournament. Here are five programs that have worked hard to rebuild their teams and make a run for March:
When Keith Dambrot took the reins at Akron in 2004, the program was hurting. The Zips were coming off four straight seasons without a winning record. They hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1986. Dambrot raised the program to a 19-10 record in his first year and has improved almost every year since. Now in his 13th season in Akron, Dambrot boasts an 88.2 win percentage and three trips to the NCAA tournament.
The Zips boast a 17-3 record (7-0 in the MAC) this season. With a win over MAC rival Eastern Michigan, Akron has won 27 straight games at home, the third longest home streak in DI basketball. The Zips broke the Akron record set in 1987 when Bob Huggins was head coach.
While we haven’t seen the Zips in the NCAA tournament since 2013, they pulled in an AP Top 25 vote in the last rankings and have a leg up in the race for the MAC's automatic qualifier. Their biggest MAC rival may be Ohio (12-6, 4-3 MAC), whom the Zips defeated on Jan. 17, 83-68. The Zips travel to Athens to face Ohio again on Feb. 4. The MAC tournament is March 8-11 in Cleveland.
Long Island University Brooklyn’s basketball team has had only seven winning seasons in the past 19, most of which were under the direction of Jim Ferry, who coached from 2002 to 2012. When Jack Perri took over in 2012, he immediately took the Blackbirds to the first round of the NCAA tournament. That was the last time LIU Brooklyn made it. This year, the Blackbirds are poised to make a run again. They're 13-8 and challenging for the Northeast Conference regular-season title.
The Birds are led by players like senior Jerome Frink, who has scored at least 10 points in 24 straight games (he's fourth in the NEC with 17.3 points a game). But everyone in the program knows that the NCAA tournament is far from a given. After a deflating loss on the road last weekend to NEC rival Fairleigh Dickson, the Blackbirds sit behind FDU and Mount St. Mary's in the NEC. LIU Brooklyn will need to win the NEC tournament and its automatic bid for a trip to the NCAA tournament.
The 2013-14 season was a rough one for the Golden Grizzles. They had just joined the Horizon League and went 13-20 overall and 7-9 in the conference, losing big to North Carolina, UCLA, Gonzaga and Michigan State and making it only to the second round of the Horizon League Tournament.
What was that ’13-’14 squad missing? Redshirt junior Jalen Hayes, redshirt junior Martez Walker and redshirt senior Sherron Dorsey-Walker. Hayes was diagnosed with mononucleosis, playing in only three games that year, Walker was playing for Texas at the time and Dorsey-Walker was playing for Iowa State. Today, the trio leads the team in scoring -- Hayes with 14.9 per game, Walker with 16.9 and Doresy-Walker with 12.3.
Now, at 15-6 (5-3 in conference), Oakland looks to make a run toward the NCAA tournament in March. But the Golden Grizzles, third in the Horizon, will have to take down Valparasio and Green Bay first. The Golden Grizzles play Green Bay (12-8 overall, 6-2 in league play) at home on Friday. Valpo (16-4, 6-1) leads the conference, and while Oakland won in the first meeting between the two teams in January, they battle again Feb. 17. The Horizon League tournament, where an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament will be up for grabs, is March 3-7 in Detroit.
The Seahawks have a history of change. About every four years, a new coach steps in to attempt to try to turn the program around. None had much success until Kevin Keatts took charge in 2014. Keatts assumed control of a program that hadn’t posted a winning record in six years. In his first year, UNCW went 18-14.
The 2015-16 season was even better. The team won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and made its way to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005-06. This year, they may go even farther.
Here's your updated CAA standings. Your Seahawks, now 19-2 and 8-0, perched at the top. pic.twitter.com/KjdZp8neVj— UNCW Basketball (@uncwmenshoops) January 22, 2017
The Seahawks are 19-2 overall and 8-0 in CAA play. They're on an eight-game win streak. They picked up 14 votes to join the AP Top 25 after a tough win over Drexel. They're in sole possession of first place in the CAA. If they can take home another CAA title -- the tournament is March 3-6 in Charleston, SC -- they'll be making their second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
During the 2011-12 season, the Eagles went 12-20. Since then, Pat Kelsey has taken over and slowly led the program to better records each year. But he hasn’t taken the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament … yet.
Behind a pair of solid scorers -- senior guard Keon Johnson, who averages 20.3 points a game, and junior guard/forward Xavier Cooks, who averages 15.1 -- Winthrop has posted a 15-4 record (7-1 in the Big South). The Eagles lead the Big South and are currently on a six-game win streak. They have a tough stretch ahead, though. Starting on Thursday with Gardner-Webb, Winthrop begins a string of 10-straight conference games where its standing in the league will be tested.
The Big South tournament winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney, too. The Big South title game is scheduled for March 5 at the site of the highest seed remaining.