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Daniel Wilco | | March 5, 2023

Tracking the teams that have never made the men's NCAA tournament

The absurd odds of a perfect March Madness bracket

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

If you go back to the tournament's inception in 1939, there have been well more than 3,000 total spots available. Yet, of the 363 basketball teams currently in Division I (352 eligible), some eligible programs have never played in the NCAA tournament. Note that more programs will be eligible after completing their transition to DI.

Kennesaw State has left the list after qualifying for the 2023 NCAA tournament. The Owls secured their first-ever appearance in the tournament with a Big South conference championship win and auto bid.

Two teams qualified for the first time in 2022: Longwood and Bryant. In 2021, Grand Canyon and Hartford made the tournament for the first time.

Below is the full list. A reminder, winning a conference tournament grants an eligible team an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Army Patriot
Bethune-Cookman SWAC
Central Arkansas ASUN
Chicago State WAC
The Citadel SoCon
Denver Summit League
Elon CAA
Grambling SWAC
High Point Big South
Incarnate Word Southland
Kansas City Summit League
Maine America East
Maryland Eastern Shore MEAC
UMass Lowell America East
New Hampshire America East
North Alabama ASUN
NJIT America East
Omaha Summit League
Presbyterian Big South
Purdue Fort Wayne Horizon League
Quinnipiac MAAC
Sacramento State Big Sky
Sacred Heart Northeast
St. Francis Brooklyn Northeast
SIUE Ohio Valley
South Dakota Summit League
Stetson ASUN
UC Riverside Big West
USC Upstate Big South
UT Martin Ohio Valley
Utah Valley WAC
Western Illinois Summit League
William & Mary CAA
Youngstown State Horizon League

*Bellarmine, Lindenwood, Merrimack, Queens, Southern Indiana, Stonehill, St. Thomas, Tarleton State, UC San Diego and Utah Tech are not eligible for the 2023 tournament, as they are still completing the transition into DI.

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, but more impressive 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 other four teams to have been eligible for every tournament and not been dancing once are Army, St. Francis Brooklyn, 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.

But of course, the list isn't made up of basketball's biggest names. You'll find no Power 5 teams among the uninvited. For the most part, these aren't teams that will find themselves ranked in the AP top 25 and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament on their resumes alone as an at-large contender.

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 of all 32 conferences.

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