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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | October 19, 2018

College basketball teams with the best chance to make their first NCAA tournament in 2019

Bethune-Cookman-basketball

Of the 353 teams currently in Division I basketball, 44 have never made the NCAA tournament.

Two years ago, Northwestern belonged to that group before the Wildcats broke their curse (and even won their first-round game). Last year, it was Lipscomb that earned its first invitation.

So which of the remaining 44 has the best shot at its first NCAA tournament this season?

RELATED: The 44 teams that have never made the NCAA tournament

We looked at how each team performed last season to get a good idea.

While any team is eligible for an at-large bid, the teams in this list will realistically have to rely on an automatic bid to get their invitation. That means winning the conference tournament.

So we had three criteria for a promising season:

  1. Finish in the top three of their conference last season
  2. Have an overall record above .500 last season
  3. Return at least three starters

That left us with four teams:

(Two of the 44 teams — North Alabama and California Baptist — will be playing their first seasons at the Division I level this season after moving from Division II, so we had no relevant data to look at).

Bethune-Cookman

Conference: MEAC
2017-18 record: 18-14 (12-4, 1st in MEAC)
2017-18 conference tournament result: Lost to Morgan State 78-77 in quarterfinal
Returning starters: Isaiah Bailey, Shawntrez Davis, Soufiyane Diakite, Malik Maitland

Bethune-Cookman bounced back from a 10th place MEAC finish in 2016-17 to win a share of the regular season crown. But after a first-round bye in the conference tournament, the Wildcats season was cut short when 7-seed Morgan State hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left to secure the one-point upset.

Bethune-Cookman lost MEAC Player of the Year Brandon Tabb, but return last year’s DPOY in Soufiyane Diakite, who averaged 10.5 points and 9.8 rebounds as a junior, and guard Isaiah Bailey, who had 16.1 points and 4.8 assists per game.

It helps that the MEAC looks a bit more open at the top this year. Savannah State — which also finished 12-4 in conference play — lost all but one of its starters from a team that only had a 15-17 overall record last season.

Grambling

Conference: SWAC
2017-18 record: 17-14 (13-5, 1st in SWAC)
2017-18 conference tournament result: Ineligible
Returning starters: Ivy Smith, Anthony Gaston, Devante Jackson, Axel Mpoyo

The Tigers have managed one of the most-impressive turnarounds in recent college basketball history. After going a combined 18-127 (.124 winning percentage) from 2012-2016, Grambling went 16-17 in 2017 and 17-14 in 2018 — the school’s first winning season since 2006. That included this absurd win against Georgia Tech:

The team went 13-5 in conference play last season, winning 13 of their last 15 games of the season. But they were ineligible for postseason play, and had to watch as Texas Southern — who Grambling had beaten twice in the regular season — won the SWAC tournament.

This season, the Tigers return four starters, including Ivy Smith Jr., who put up 16.7 points and 5 assists per game last season. 

South Dakota

Conference: Summit
2017-18 record: 26-9 (11-3, 2nd in Summit)
2017-18 conference tournament result: Lost to South Dakota State in championship, 97-87
Returning starters: Tyler Hagedorn, Trey Burch-Manning, Triston Simpson, Tyler Peterson

South Dakota faces one of the least enviable situations here. While they’ve posted back-to-back 20-win seasons, they happen to sit in a conference recently dominated by their rival — South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits have won the conference tournament three years in a row, and in five of the past seven seasons. 

But if anyone can challenge the throne that Mike Daum and South Dakota State hold, it’s the Coyotes. The two teams met three times last season. South Dakota won the first and barely lost the second:

Jan. 24 — South Dakota 87, South Dakota State 68
Feb. 22 — South Dakota State 76, South Dakota 72
Mar. 6 — South Dakota State 97, South Dakota 87

That final meeting was in the Summit League championship. Don’t be surprised to see a repeat of that matchup this year.

Hartford

Conference: AEC
2017-18 record: 19-14 (11-5, 3rd in AEC)
2017-18 conference tournament result: Lost to UMBC in semifinal, 75-60.
Returning starters: John Carroll, Jason Dunne, JR Lynch, Travis Weatherington

Last year, the America East’s NCAA tournament representative made history, as UMBC took down No. 1 Virginia as a 16-seed. Hartford finished third in the AEC last season, right behind UMBC and first-place Vermont, falling 75-60 in the AEC semifinals to the Retrievers. But the Hawks return four starters who happen to be the four highest scorers on the team. The 2017-18 seasons saw Hartford get above .500 for the first time in four years, and have its best conference record ever. With a solid returning core, the Hawks are likely to keep that momentum rolling.