Time to start identifying the leading candidates for each level of the First Timers Club. Admission is simple: Boldly go where your program has never gone before in the NCAA tournament.
That means different things in different places, be it Purdue or Florida Atlantic. Or the new No. 1 team, Alabama. So here goes . . .
1. First national championship for Houston or Purdue
Houston and Purdue are both noted long sufferers waiting for their one shining moment. They’ve traded the No.1 ranking since late November and both have the tools to complete the mission. Houston doesn’t give up many points and Purdue sends out the guy who — no matter whether he’s tired or missing shots or has a headache — is still 7-4.
Houston has the two-toned honor of making the most Final Four trips of any program in the country — six — without winning a championship. Not a bad title to own, but still one the Cougars would love to shed. The offense sometimes wavers but the defense never does. “We got a great lesson of what elite basketball looks like on both ends of the floor,” Tulsa coach Eric Konkol said the other night after getting an 80-42 stifling by Houston. “They’re absolutely a national title contender.”
Purdue suddenly has a conspicuous question mark. Turnover-itis has been known to suddenly incapacitate the Boilermakers’ offense in the past, but they were hoping they were past that. Then they committed six in the final 200 seconds Sunday in their stunning collapse at Northwestern. “We weren’t very tough, both mentally and physically,” coach Matt Painter said. They had 12 turnovers in the second half the game before against Iowa, and 11 in the first half the game before that at Indiana. A worrisome trend for a team that has been the nation’s highest regarded much of the season, and one that must be quickly fixed.
Purdue has been to two Final Fours, but the most recent was during the Jimmy Carter administration 43 years ago. Matt Painter was a third grader.
2. First championship game for Texas
Some potholes you never see coming. The Texas Longhorns were merrily on their way this season when coach Chris Beard was suddenly gone after a domestic assault charge. Interim Rodney Terry regrouped the troops and has led them into first place in the nation’s toughest conference, their latest handiwork a 34-point throttling of West Virginia. They’re 13-4 since he took over and recently went 2-2 in a four-game stretch against top-11 teams, three of them on the road. They had never faced such a thing in their history. Terry’s appearance on the first Monday night in April would be a terrific story, echoing back to when Steve Fisher stepped in at the 11th hour for Michigan’s 1989 title run.
There are several intriguing features to Texas. The Longhorns have three comeback victories in the Big 12 from double digits behind, they’re 7-1 in games decided by five points or under or in overtime, and their second-leading scorer is guard Sir’Jabari Rice, who hasn’t started a game this season. The past five games he’s come off the bench to contribute 21, 21, 14, 12 and 24 points. Also, they recently made 30 free throws in a row.
Texas has not had much of a whiff of many national championship games — one Final Four in 75 years.
3. First Final Four for Tennessee or Alabama
Could it be Rocky Top or Roll Tide? Or both?
Tennessee has been to 24 tournaments, Alabama 23, and neither has been ever able to survive into the final week. For that matter, there are only two regional final appearances between them. The Vols’ past is particularly heavy with heartbreak — 10 NCAA tournament exits by three points or under or in overtime. Speaking of heartbreak, they’ve just taken 3-point buzzer-beaters in the teeth in consecutive games from Vanderbilt and Missouri.
Tennessee will try to make history with one of the best defenses anywhere, in the top three nationally in both scoring and opponent’s field goal percentage. But can they get there with an offense that is 257th in the country in shooting? And are three losses in four games an ominous sign or lousy luck?
Alabama can be a triple-digit fireworks show – 106 points against LSU, 103 against North Carolina, 101 on Vanderbilt – and is the only Power 5 team without a league defeat. The last time the Tide was 12-0 in the SEC was 1956. And as of Monday, they were No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 20 years. But the only Elite Eight was 19 seasons ago. The football team has won six national championships since then.
4. First Elite Eight for Saint Mary's
Saint Mary’s climbed to No. 15 in last week’s Associated Press rankings, one spot ahead of Gonzaga, so the Gaels have not only been leading their old rival in the West Coast Conference race but also the polls. There’s another place they want to match their pals from Spokane, and that’s in March. Saint Mary’s has been large in Gonzaga’s rearview mirror for years but while the Zags have charged to two national title games, the Gaels have one lonely Sweet 16 trip, and that was 13 years ago.
They recently won 12 in a row and played Houston to five points. They started 10-0 in the WCC for the first time in history and are fourth in the nation in scoring defense. The metrics slobber over them, at No. 6 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and No. 7 in kenpom. If that’s valid, an Elite Eight is perfectly reasonable.
5. First Sweet 16 for Northwestern
Northwestern was picked 13th in the preseason media Big Ten poll. Clearly, the Wildcats could call for a recount, since they’re now tied for second place after blowing past No. 1 Purdue Sunday with a 17-3 sprint the last 3 ½ minutes. They’ve also been a strikingly steady performer on the road, winning at Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The last one gave them their first sweep of the Badgers in 27 years.
They’re also 3-1 against ranked opponents, the loss by one point to Auburn. What part of the above does not sound like a Sweet 16 team?
Northwestern’s NCAA history is very brief. One trip. That was 2017 when the Wildcats promptly won their first game against Vanderbilt. They’ll almost certainly be back.
6. First NCAA tournament victory for Boise State or Florida Atlantic
Boise State is 0-8 in its NCAA tournament history, but that ought to come with an asterisk. In 2015, the Broncos were assigned to the First Four in Dayton and matched against . . . Dayton. They’re the only tournament team in the past 35 years forced to play a true road game, and they lost 56-55. One wonders if they would have won in any other arena in America.
This season could end the drought, with Boise State near the top of the Mountain West with a 19-6 record and No. 27 in the NET ratings.
Another hot name for this level is Florida Atlantic, a recent visitor to the top-25 and the owner of a shiny 24-2 record. The Owls have played one NCAA tournament game in their history, and that was 21 years ago.
7. First NCAA tournament berth for Youngstown State, Kennesaw State or Utah Valley
Who finally gets through the door by winning its conference tournament? A colony of Penguins, maybe. Youngstown State is tied for the lead in the Horizon League with a 20-7 record. The Penguins’ roster has combined to play in nearly 1,100 college basketball games. That ought to be good for one more in March.
Or Kennesaw State, tied for first place in the ASUN and living the dream. The Owls have already clinched their first winning season since moving up to Division I in 2005. Three years ago they were 1-28.
Or Utah Valley, atop the WAC and with wins over Oregon and BYU and an overtime loss at Wake Forest. Nobody in the country blocks more shots a game than the Wolverines.
A first title . . . a first win . . . a first berth. March is about knocking down the walls of the past. There are just a lot of different walls.