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|
|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|
|Bryant||NEC||Lost in final|
|Sacred Heart||NEC||Lost in semifinals|
|St. Francis Brooklyn||NEC||DNP|
|SIUE||OVC||Lost in first round|
|Army||Patriot||Lost in semifinals|
|The Citadel||Southern||Lost in first round|
|Incarnate Word||Southland||Lost in first round|
|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|
|Utah Valley||WAC||Lost in semifinals|
|UTRGV||WAC||Lost in quarterfinals|
**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.
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.
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|
|OVC||2||SIUE, UT Martin|
|Southland||2||Central Arkansas, Incarnate Word|
|Big Sky||1||Sacramento State|
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.