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Andy Wittry | | February 17, 2020

5 men's basketball teams that might make the NCAA tournament for the first time ever this season

2020 March Madness bracket predictions after top-16 reveal

Almost 12 percent of Division I men's basketball teams — 42 out of 353 — have never made the NCAA tournament.

That number could dwindle this season.

I've identified five of them I think have a realistic shot at potentially competing in March Madness in 2020. Remember, the NCAA men's selection committee is the one that determines the field. Thirty-two teams qualify automatically by winning their conference tournaments. The other 36 teams are chosen by the selection committee.  Here's a refresher on how the field of 68 is selected every March.


Conference: A-Sun
Played DI basketball since: 1971-72 season
2019-20 record: 15-12 (9-3 A-Sun)
Current conference standing: 3rd
Best record ever: 22-4 (1974-75)

Stetson has won eight of its last nine games, allowing the Hatters to climb into sole possession of third place in the A-Sun and sit just 1.5 games behind first-place North Florida.

The Hatters have a 2.5-game lead over fourth-place Lipscomb and they're just one of four teams that have winning record in conference play, which puts them on the short list of seemingly viable candidates to win the conference tournament, although (of course) anything can happen in March.

Stetson's best win of the season was a 63-56 road win at South Carolina on Dec. 30 and four of its last six losses have been by four points or less.

The Hatters play at one of the slowest tempos in the country — 350th, to be exact — and some of their strengths include offensive rebounding (30.1%, 100th nationally) and free-throw rate (39.5%, 31st nationally).

William & Mary

Conference: Colonial Athletic Association
Played DI basketball since: 1905-06
2019-20 record: 18-10 (10-5 CAA)
Current conference standing: 2nd
Best record ever: 24-10 (1948-49)

This year's regular season Colonial Athletic Association race is a competitive one with five teams within 2.5 games of first place, which is currently held by Hofstra at 11-3. The Tribe ranks in the middle of the pack on both ends of the floor, ranking sixth in conference play in offensive and defensive efficiency.

While William & Mary is committing too many turnovers and forcing too few, its offense leads to good looks and it has the roster to take advantage of them. The Tribe is shooting 54.4 percent from 2-point range (24th nationally), 34.5 percent from three (107th) and 74.3 percent from the stripe (65th).

This is also an elite defensive rebounding team as William & Mary grabs 76.6 percent of available defensive rebounds, which ranks 21st nationally.

WHO'S NEXT? These are the 42 DI schools that have never made the NCAA tournament

Sacred Heart

Conference: NEC
Played DI basketball since: 1999-00
2019-20 record: 16-11 (9-5 NEC)
Current conference standing: 4th
Best record ever: 18-14 (2006-07 and 2007-08)

Sacred Heart is a relatively new DI program with its first season at this level coming at the turn of the millennium.

The Pioneers have only had two coaches in their DI lifetime, which helps prove our point. Sacred Heart is fourth in the NEC but luckily for the Pioneers, conference co-leader Merrimack isn't eligible for postseason play until 2024 since it's a new DI institution. That leaves Sacred Heart as potentially the third-best team in the conference tournament, behind Robert Morris and St. Francis (PA).

Based on advanced analytics, you could make the case that Sacred Heart might finish better than fourth in the conference standings. The Pioneers have the fourth-most efficient offense in NEC play and the third-most efficient defense.

They lead the conference in free-throw rate (FTA/FGA) and offensive rebounding percentage.

South Dakota

Conference: Summit League
Played DI basketball since: 2008-09
2019-20 record: 19-9 (9-4 Summit)
Current conference standing: 3rd
Best record ever: 26-9 (2017-18)

South Dakota State, North Dakota State and South Dakota have pulled away from the pack in the Summit League. The Coyotes are currently 1.5 games behind the two leaders in the conference, so this is very much a three-horse race.

South Dakota has won eight of its last nine games and 10 of its last 12, it has the third-most efficient offense in the conference and the fourth-most efficient defense. The Coyotes beat South Dakota State by 15 the first time they played and they lost to North Dakota State by just two points on the road, so South Dakota deserves to be mention in the same conversation as the two first-place teams.

The Coyotes take great care of the ball in Summit League play (a 12.9 percent turnover rate, 2nd nationally) and they get to the free throw line more often than any other team in the conference (45.8 free throw rate).


Conference: SWAC
Played DI basketball since: 1977-78
2019-20 record: 13-12 (7-5 SWAC)
Current conference standing: T-3rd
Best record ever: 22-8 (1979-80)

Grambling is just seven seasons removed from an 0-28 campaign in 2013 so if the Tigers manage to make the NCAA tournament for the first time ever this season, it'd be all the more impressive. They're 2.5 games out of first place in the SWAC behind Prairie View A&M.

After a four-game losing streak in conference play that dropped them to 3-4 in the SWAC, the Tigers rattled off four wins in a row, which puts them in the thick of the regular season race.

Grambling's strength is on defense, where it forces opponents to spend more time on offense (18.3 seconds) than any other defense in the conference. The Tigers also have the best defensive free throw rate in the conference, allowing their opponents to take just one free throw attempt for every three field goal attempts.

This team excels at making and defending 2-point attempts — 49.6 percent and 44.4 percent, respectively — which bodes well, especially for a team that isn't reliant on the 3-point shot.

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