Since the NCAA tournament started in 1939, there have been 3,361 total spots available. But of the 353 teams currently in Division I, 42 have never made the field.
Three of those teams have a pretty valid excuse. North Alabama (ASUN), California Baptist (WAC) made the jump to Division II to Division I ahead of the 2018-19 season. Merrimack (NEC) made the move before the 2019-20 season. Therefore, none of the three have been eligible for the Division I tournament.
And it’s important to remember that the NCAA tournament’s format has changed drastically throughout the years. The first tournament in 1939 only had eight teams and didn’t expand to 16 until 1951. The modern 64-team format didn’t appear until 1985, and it wasn’t until 2011 that the field expanded to the full 68 teams (including the First Four) that we’re familiar with now.
What’s more, the current process for selecting tournament teams is only three years old. In 2017, the Ivy League became the final Division I conference to adopt a conference tournament. Since then, each one of the 32 conferences in Division I decide their automatic bid by conference tournaments (the other 36 teams in the field are at-large bids — teams that did not win their conference tournament but have an impressive resume).
Even taking the volatility of the process into account, a small subset of these 42 teams stand out — the four teams that have been eligible for every NCAA tournament but have failed to make one.
In 2017, Northwestern gained plenty of attention as the Wildcats — previously one of the five original teams to never make the tournament — not only qualified for their first ever tournament, but actually picked up a win, and gave eventual runner-up Gonzaga a run for its money in the Round of 32.
Now, the four teams are Army, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary and The Citadel.
In 1968, Army actually qualified for the NCAA tournament, but coach Bobby Knight thought the Black Knights would have a better shot in the NIT and turned down the invite. Army lost its first game in the NIT to Notre Dame.
Last year, we tracked each of the then-44 teams that had never made an NCAA tournament through their conference tournaments. Four reached the championship game.
After falling in the WAC tournament championship game in 2019, Grand Canyon returned to the final again after a close semifinal win. However, the conference's No. 3 seed was unable to get by New Mexico State, losing 89-57.
Nebraska-Omaha looked like the Summit Conference tournament favorite after top seed South Dakota State was ousted early. The Mavericks finished 13-3 in league play and reach the tournament's championship game, but lost 73-63 as North Dakota State secured the league's automatic bid.
Last year, two teams graduated from the list — Abilene Christian and Gardner-Webb. First up, it was the Runnin' Bulldogs breaking through after a 20-11 (10-6, Big South) season. Gardner-Webb navigated through its conference tournament, knocking off the league's top two-seeds to earn its first-ever bid. The Runnin' Bulldogs were a 16-seed and eliminated in the Round of 64. For what it's worth, they led eventual national champion Virginia at the half.
A week later, Abilene Christian joined the party as another first-time participant. The Wildcats played a close semifinal game in the Southland Conference tournament before cruising to an automatic bid in the final. Abilene Christian earned a 15-seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament, a run that ended in the opening round following a 79-44 loss to Kentucky.
The departures of Abilene Christian and Gardner-Webb leave us with 42 teams that have never made the NCAA tournament.
Below is a list of all 42. We looked at the best season they’ve had in program history (not counting seasons played as an independent team), and their performance in conference play last year (where they finished in regular season standings and the conference tournament):
|N.J.I.T.||A-Sun||2018-19 (22-13)||5||Lost in semifinal|
|Kennesaw State||A-Sun||2016-17 (14-18)||8||Lost in quarterfinal|
|North Alabama**||A-Sun||2018-19 (10-22)||6||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Hartford||AEC||1996-97 (17-11)||4||Lost in semifinal|
|UMass-Lowell||AEC||2018-19 (15-17)||5||Lost in quarterfinal|
|New Hampshire||AEC||1994-95 (19-9)||9||DNP|
|Maine||AEC||1959-60 (19-4)||8||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Sacramento St.||Big Sky||2014-15 (21-12)||9||Lost in quarterfinal|
|High Point||Big South||2014-15 (23-10)||5||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Presbyterian||Big South||2018-19 (17-14)||7||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Longwood||Big South||2014-15 (11-23)||9||Lost in first round|
|USC Upstate||Big South||2014-15 (24-12)||11||Lost in first round|
|UC Riverside||Big West||2008-09 (17-13)||8||Lost in quarterfinal|
|William & Mary||CAA||1997-98 (20-7)||4||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Elon||CAA||2012-13 (21-12)||7||Lost in first round|
|Youngstown St.||Horizon||1997-98 (20-9)||6||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Quinnipiac||MAAC||2009-10 (23-10)||3||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Bethune-Cookman||MEAC||2010-11 (21-13)||5||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Maryland-ES||MEAC||1973-74 (27-2)||8||Lost in first round|
|St. Francis (BKN)||NEC||1955-56 (21-4)||5||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Sacred Heart||NEC||2007-08 (18-14)||3||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Bryant||NEC||2012-13 (19-12)||8||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Tennessee-Martin||OVC||2008-09 (22-10)||7||Lost in quarterfinal|
|SIUE||OVC||2014-15 (12-16)||8||Lost in first round|
|Army||Patriot||2015-16 (19-14)||6||Lost in quarterfinal|
|The Citadel||Southern||1958-59 (15-5)||10||Lost in first round|
|Central Ark.||Southland||2017-18 (18-17)||7||Lost in second round|
|Incarnate Word||Southland||2013-14 (21-6)||13||DNP|
|South Dakota||Summit||2017-18 (26-9)||6||Lost in quarterfinal|
|Purdue Fort Wayne||Summit||2015-16 (24-10)||3||Lost in semifinal|
|Omaha||Summit||2018-19 (21-11)||2||Lost in championship|
|Western Illinois||Summit||1994-95 (20-8)||8||Lost in semifinal|
|Grambling||SWAC||1979-80 (22-8)||4||Lost in semifinal|
|Utah Valley||WAC||2018-19 (25-10)||2||Lost in semifinal|
|Grand Canyon||WAC||2015-16 (27-7)||3||Lost in championship|
|UTRGV||WAC||1979-80 (19-9)||4||Lost in semifinal|
|Kansas City||WAC||2001-02 (18-11)||7||Lost in first round|
|Chicago State||WAC||2013-14 (13-19)||8||Lost in first round|
|California Baptist**||WAC||2018-19 (16-15)||T-5||DNP (Ineligible)|
* – Playing first Division I season in 2019-20
** – Played first Division I season in 2018-19, ineligible for NCAA tournament