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Daniel Wilco & Zach Pekale | March 14, 2021

The 44 teams that have never made the NCAA tournament

Go ahead, pick your bracket based on mascots — here’s how

In the long history of the NCAA tournament, a field that has now grown to 68 teams, there are still many programs waiting to participate in their first March Madness.

Since the NCAA tournament started in 1939, there have been more than 3,000 total spots available. But of the 357 basketball teams currently in Division I, 44 have never played in the NCAA tournament. In 2021, Hartford made program history and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time. Grand Canyon also secured its first tournament bid when it won the WAC in 2021.

It’s important to remember that the NCAA tournament’s format has changed drastically throughout the years. The first tournament in 1939 had only 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. 

Below is the full list of teams and where each finished in its 2020-21 conference tournament, if it played. A reminder, winning a conference tournament grants a team an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, if that team is eligible. 

Team Conference 202-21 Tourn. status
Maine* AEC DNP
New Hampshire AEC Lost in pod play
NJIT  AEC Lost in pod play
UMass-Lowell AEC Lost in final
Bellarmine# ASUN Lost in quarterfinals
Kennesaw State ASUN Lost in quarterfinals
Stetson ASUN Lost in semifinals
North Alabama** ASUN Lost in final
Sacramento State Big Sky Lost in first round
High Point Big South Lost in quarterfinals
Longwood Big South Lost in semifinals
Presbyterian Big South Lost in first round
USC Upstate Big South Lost in first round
UC Riverside Big West Lost in semifinals
UC San Diego# Big West DNP
Elon CAA Lost in final
William & Mary CAA Lost in quarterfinals
Purdue Fort Wayne Horizon Lost in quarterfinals
Youngstown State Horizon Lost in quarterfinals
Quinnipiac MAAC Lost in first round
Bethune-Cookman*** MEAC DNP
Bryant NEC Lost in final
Merrimack**** NEC DNP
Sacred Heart NEC Lost in semifinals
St. Francis Brooklyn NEC DNP
SIUE OVC Lost in first round
Tennessee-Martin OVC DNP
Army Patriot Lost in semifinals
The Citadel Southern Lost in first round
Central Arkansas Southland DNP
Incarnate Word Southland Lost in first round
Denver Summit DNP
Kansas City Summit Lost in quarterfinals
Omaha Summit Lost in quarterfinals
South Dakota Summit Lost in semifinals
Western Illinois Summit Lost in quarterfinals
Grambling SWAC Lost in semifinals
California Baptist** WAC Lost in quarterfinals
Chicago State@ WAC DNP
Dixie State# WAC DNP
Tarleton State# WAC DNP
Utah Valley WAC Lost in semifinals
UTRGV WAC Lost in quarterfinals
*Maine announced on Feb. 13 that it had opted out of the remainder of the 2020-21 season
**Will be eligible for the NCAA tournament starting with the 2022-23 season
***Bethune-Cookman announced on Oct. 27, 2020 that it would not play during the 2020-21 season
****Merrimack will be eligible for the NCAA tournament beginning with the 2023-24 season.

#Will be eligible for the NCAA tournament starting with the 2024-25 season
^Did not play during the 2020-21 season
@Suspended play during the 2020-21 season

California Baptist and North Alabama will be eligible for the NCAA tournament beginning with the 2022-23 season.

Bellarmine, Dixie State, Tarleton State and UC San Diego all moved to Division I this season. They will be eligible for the NCAA tournament beginning with the 2024-25 season.

MARCH MADNESS: Complete schedule and dates for the 2021 NCAA tournament

The tournament has grown from an initial eight teams, moving to 16 in 1951 and then growing steadily until 1985, when it reached its familiar format of 64. 

Play-in games have made appearances throughout the years, but became a permanent fixture in 2001, when the total number of teams was bumped to 65. In 2011, the play-in was expanded to create the First Four, an opening round that helped fill out the Round of 64. Thus, since 2011, 68 teams have made the NCAA tournament every year.

Two teams have made the NCAA tournament but haven’t been part of the bracket as most of us know it. Houston Baptist made the preliminary round in 1984, when there were 53 teams in the tournament, but lost to Alcorn State. Alabama A&M won the SWAC in 2005, earning the school’s lone automatic bid, but fell to Oakland 79-69 in the tournament’s play-in game. 

There is another small group included in this list — the four teams that have been eligible for every NCAA tournament but have failed to make it to 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.

GET READY: Download and print the official 2021 NCAA tournament bracket 

The four teams to have been eligible for every tournament and not been dancing once are Army, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary and The Citadel.

In 1968, Army actually did qualify 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.

Scroll to view the table in full

Conference No. of teams Teams
WAC 7 California Baptist, Chicago State, Dixie State, Grand Canyon, Tarleton State, Utah Valley, UTRGV
Summit 5 Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, South Dakota, Western Illinois
America East 4 Maine, New Hampshire, NJIT, UMass-Lowell
ASUN 4 Bellarmine, Kennesaw State, North Alabama, Stetson
Big South 4 High Point, Longwood, Presbyterian, USC Upstate
NEC 4 Bryant, Merrimack, Sacred Heart, St. Francis Brooklyn
Big West 2 UC Riverside, UC San Diego
CAA 2 Elon, William & Mary
Horizon 2 Purdue Fort Wayne, Youngstown State
MEAC 2 Bethune-Cookman, UMES
OVC 2 SIUE, UT Martin
Southland 2 Central Arkansas, Incarnate Word
Big Sky 1 Sacramento State
MAAC 1 Quinnipiac
Patriot 1 Army
Southern 1 The Citadel
SWAC 1 Grambling

You'll find no Power 5 teams among the uninvited. For the most part, these aren't teams that you will typically find themselves ranked in the AP Top 25 .

Realistically speaking, the best option for virtually any of these teams to make the NCAA tournament will be to win their conference tournament, a feat that grants an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the winners.

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