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Daniel Wilco | | March 1, 2018

Which teams are most likely to make it to their first NCAA tournament?

  Grand Canyon, which hasn't had a losing season since joining DI, is eligible for its first NCAAT in 2018.

The 2018 edition of March Madness comes with an opportunity for 43 Division I teams — the chance to make their first NCAA tournament.

Who will be this year’s Northwestern, which broke a 78-year curse to earn its first bid in 2017?

Before the 2017-18 season, we looked at all 43 teams that have never made the tournament. Only 14 had winning seasons last year, and only six of those won 20 games or more:

Team Conference Last season 2017 regular season conference rank Conference tournament
Grand Canyon WAC 22-9 2 Ineligible
South Dakota Summit 22-12 1 Lost in semifinals
Tennessee-Martin OVC 22-13 1 (West) Lost in finals
New Hampshire AEC 20-12 3 Lost in semifinals
Lipscomb A-Sun 20-13 2 Lost in semifinals
IPFW Summit 20-13 4 Lost in quarterfinals

Of those six teams, we identified three we think have the best chance to make their March Madness debuts.

Tennessee-Martin put together one of the best seasons of the 43 last year, with a 22-13 record, first-place finish in the West division of the Ohio Valley Conference, and a 66-55 loss to Jacksonville State in the conference championship — the second year in a row that the Skyhawks have lost in the title game. Can they break through for that one extra win in 2018?

Last season, South Dakota had its first 20-win season since joining the Summit League, winning the regular season title with a 12-4 conference record, but falling by three to Summit powerhouse South Dakota State in the conference tournament semifinal. In the offseason, the Coyotes lost starting forward Tyler Flack to graduation and starting guard Trey Dickerson to a transfer to Georgetown, but South Dakota does return every other player on its roster, and adds three freshmen. Experience goes a long way in winning automatic bids.

Also of note, Grand Canyon is the only team in the group of 43 to have never had a losing season in its DI history. The Antelopes made the jump to Division I before the 2013-14 season. Their last losing season was in 2007-08, when they posted a 12-15 record at the DII level. Since joining DI, Grand Canyon has gone 15-15, 17-15, 27-7, and 22-9. With the 2017-18 season comes the Antelopes' first eligibility for post-season tournament play, after their four-year waiting period finished last season. Now the Western Athletic Conference gets to see how Grand Canyon can perform in the conference tournament. Hint: probably pretty well. The Antelopes are 22-6 against conference foes the past two years.

But Grand Canyon isn't the only WAC team vying for its first trip to March Madness. The conference is one of three in Division I (the others being Atlantic Sun and Summit League) with five member schools that have never made the NCAA tournament. Of the 32 total conferences in DI, 17 have at least one school that has never been dancing.

Conference Teams that have never made the NCAA tournament Teams
A-Sun 5 Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, NJIT, Stetson, USC Upstate
WAC 5 Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Texas-Rio Grande Valley, UMKC, Utah Valley
Summit 5 Denver, IPFW, Nebraska-Omaha, South Dakota, Western Illinois
AEC 4 Hartford, Maine, Massachusetts-Lowell, New Hampshire
Big South 4 Gardner-Webb, High Point, Longwood, Presbyterian
Southland 3 Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Incarnate Word
MEAC 3 Bethune-Cookman, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Savannah State
NEC 3 Bryant, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (NY)
CAA 2 Elon, William & Mary
OVC 2 SIU-Edwardsville, Tennessee-Martin
SWAC 1 Grambling
Big Sky 1 Sacramento State
Big West 1 UC Riverside
Horizon 1 Youngstown State
MAAC 1 Quinnipiac
Patriot 1 Army
Southern 1 Citadel

Non-coincidentally, many of these schools have the misfortune of playing in conferences that have been dominated in recent years. 

RELATED: Which teams have never made the NCAA tournament?

New Mexico State has won the WAC tournament six of the last eight years. South Dakota State has won the Summit League’s tournament six years in a row. Albany and Vermont account for 11 of the past 15 AEC titles, and Florida Gulf Coast has three of the past five automatic bids from the A-Sun. In fact, of the 17 conferences that have a team that has never made the NCAA tournament, only six have had more than five conference champs in the past nine years — OVC, Southland, CAA, Big Sky, Big West, and Horizon.

The Southland is the only one of those six with at least three teams that have never made the tournament, meaining it is probably the most likely to see one of its member schools punch its first ticket. But most likely doesn't mean very likely. Stephen F. Austin has ruled supreme over the Southland in recent years, winning three of the last four conference tournaments, though the Lumberjacks did fail to win the regular season title and tournament last year.

Still, dynasties to have to end at some point. Valparaiso captured six Summit League tournaments in a row before Southern Utah won its first-ever conference championship in 2001 and made it to its only NCAA tournament in school history. Florida Gulf Coast's first-ever trip to the Big Dance came after winning the 2013 Atlantic Sun tournament, breaking a seven-year streak of either Belmont or ETSU taking the title.

With 43 schools in 17 conferences looking to get off the schneid, odds are that 2018's NCAA tournament will see at least one new face. The only question is who it will be.

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