Northwestern reached its first-ever NCAA tournament in 2017.
UMBC was the first-ever No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 last March when it shocked Virginia.
Those were two notable droughts that came to a significant, headline-making end in the last two NCAA tournaments.
And coming this March, four teams will break a drought of their own.
That’s right, I’m predicting that four fan bases will end their suffering with a win in March.
Nebraska will get its first NCAA tournament win — EVER.
TCU will get its first NCAA tournament win since 1987.
Virginia Tech will get its first NCAA tournament win since 2007.
Mississippi State will get its first NCAA tournament win since 2008.
To grasp how long these droughts have been, consider this:
- Nebraska has played 2,801 games all-time entering this season without an NCAA tournament win. The Huskers are 0-7 in the NCAA tournament going in 1986, ’91-94, ’98 and 2014.
- TCU has played 969 games since the last time the Horned Frogs won an NCAA tournament game in 1987.
- Virginia Tech has played 368 games since the last time the Hokies won an NCAA tournament game in 2007. The Hokies have been in the tournament twice since 2007 — the past two seasons, losing both times in the first round.
- Mississippi State has played 334 games since its last NCAA tournament win in 2008. The Bulldogs made one other NCAA tournament appearance after that win — the next season in 2009.
Why the optimism?
- Nebraska has a legit chance to win the Big Ten or compete in the top three with the return of seniors James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. and a monster-sized chip on its shoulder after falling short of the NCAA tournament last season despite winning 13 Big Ten games.
- TCU returns one of the more underrated point guards in the country in Alex Robinson, a stud who averaged 6.1 assists a game, prolific shooting guard Desmond Bane and Jaylen Fisher, once he’s healthy. Sure, the Horned Frogs are young in some key spots, but this team has the ability to be a tough out in March. TCU’s disappointing loss to Syracuse in the first round last season has motivated this crew even more.
- Virginia Tech has one of the top guards in the country in Justin Robinson — a legit ACC player of the year candidate. The rest of the Hokies are all in on Buzz Williams’ fight to make this team one of the tougher to play on a game-by-game basis. The Hokies haven’t made the second round in each of the last two seasons and Robinson isn’t about to end his career without some March success.
- Mississippi State returns Quinndary Weatherspoon, an SEC-player of the year candidate, Nick Weatherspoon and Aric Holman on a veteran squad that missed the NCAA tournament and reached the NIT semifinals.
Look, the reasons why the Bulldogs haven’t been back with a chance to win an NCAA tournament game can likely be blamed on coaching changes and lack of consistency in recruited talent.
The Hokies can point to something similar, coaching changes and roster upheaval as a result in a conference that continued to get stronger and deeper due to realignment.
But I’m a bit more intrigued as to what happened at Nebraska and TCU.
Why haven’t the Horned Frogs had a win in over 30 years? Why has it never happened for the Huskers?
So, I found two people who should know — Dave Hoppen, a former Husker and Jamie Dixon, yes, the current TCU head coach who was on the ’87 team that won the last NCAA tournament game at TCU.
Dixon scored 11 points in the 76-60 win over Marshall, playing 40 minutes.
“We were expecting to win our next game,’’ said Dixon.
TCU lost to Notre Dame by one, 58-57, as the Irish’s David Rivers scored 24 points. Dixon scored 10 for the Horned Frogs.
“We weren’t playing our best at the end,’’ said Dixon.
So what happened in the past three decades?
“Conference realignment had something to do with it, commitment and some bad luck,’’ said Dixon.
The Horned Frogs were in the Southwest Conference before it broke apart and TCU went to the WAC. TCU bounced to Conference USA and the Mountain West before landing in the Big 12.
TCU made one NCAA tournament between its tournament berths in 1987 and 2018, the latter with Dixon back as head coach. Billy Tubbs led the Horned Frogs to the 1998 NCAA tournament after a 14-0 record in the WAC. But TCU lost to Florida State in the first round.
Dixon said he thought TCU would advance last season as a six-seed before getting a hot Syracuse, which ended up reaching the Sweet 16 after beating the Horned Frogs and Michigan State.
“I was disappointed last year,’’ said Dixon. “But I told our players it was a big step for our program. But for me personally and our players, I felt we should have done more. I don’t want to take away the milestone and the progress but I thought we could have sustained the run in the tournament. We were a five seed and had done enough to believe that.’’
Nebraska may have never had this long a drought had it not been for Hoppen’s knee injury in 1986. Hoppen suffered a torn ACL in the final month of the season. He missed the last 11 games and ended his career as the team’s all-time leading scorer with 2,167 points.
“We had our best team at Nebraska my senior year,’’ said Hoppen, who lives and works in Omaha. “We were playing real well. I tore my ACL at Colorado, Feb. 2, 1986. We kind of floundered after that for a few games. We had to revamp the offense but we figured it out enough to make the NCAA tournament.’’
Nebraska lost to Western Kentucky 67-59 in the first round of the NCAA tournament in the Huskers’ first-ever NCAA tournament game.
"I would like to think we would have beaten Western Kentucky (had I not gotten hurt),’’ said Hoppen. “I thought the program was going to break out and get NCAA wins.’’
But by the time the 2019 NCAA tournament begins, Nebraska will be 33 years removed from that game in ’86 and still without winning an NCAA tournament game — even with six appearances since Hoppen’s senior season.
“I never would have thought the streak would have gone on as long as it has,’’ said Hoppen. “We’ve had some good teams and players in the interim. We just haven’t been able to get over the hump.’’
Hoppen, a regular at Nebraska games in Lincoln, is confident this is the season the drought ends.
“We’ve got a few guys who are going to have big seasons,’’ said Hoppen. “I think there is a lot of optimism.
“It’s not a tournament or bust for (coach Tim Miles), he’s done good things here. But (an NCAA win) would really boost morale. The basketball program gets looked at as second tier to football but right now the football program is a little down so the basketball team could pick them up.’’