Five still seeking first NCAA Tournament berth

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There are plenty of NIT banners in Army’s West Point gym, but not a single NCAA pelt.

In the NCAA Tournament, there are the haves and the have nots. Although there are more than 40 Division I schools that have never qualified for the tournament, many of them are relative newcomers to Division I. However there are five schools that have been around since March Madness began in 1939 and yet never played in the NCAA Tournament.

The hardly fabulous five features Army, Northwestern, St. Francis of Brooklyn, The Citadel and William & Mary. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. All of them.

Despite being led by two of the greatest in history – legendary coaches Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski – the Cadets have never made it. Army turned down an NCAA berth in 1968 because Coach Knight thought his team was better suited to the NIT. That decision still haunts the Black Knights of the Hudson.

Northwestern has won 20 games twice in its history, in 2010 and 2011. But the Wildcats finished well back in the Big Ten both seasons. Ironically, Bill Carmody, who coached those teams during a 13-year tenure at Northwestern, made this year’s tournament in his first year at Holy Cross. Carmody, who twice led Princeton to the NCAAs, is the second winningest coach in Northwestern history.

St. Francis and William & Mary both had close calls, but lost the automatic NAA bid in heartbreaking conference tournament finals losses. Just last year, St. Francis won the Northeast regular season title but lost at home by three points to Robert Morris in the finals. William & Mary was beaten by one point by Delaware in the 2014 Colonial championship final. The Citadel won 20 games in 2009, but is generally considered one of the weaker teams in the Southern Conference.

Other notables in the never made the tournament club include Bethune-Cookman, Maine, New Hampshire, Stetson and Youngstown State


Cinderella Holy Cross on magic NCAA run

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Holy Cross celebrates win over Army at West Point en route to NCAA Tournament berth.

Like most Holy Cross fans, I never saw this coming. During a dreadful regular season the Crusaders finished ninth in the 10-team Patriot League, wound up 10-19 overall, and failed to win a single league game on the road.

Then Holy Cross then beat Loyola of Maryland 72-67 in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Things started to get interesting when HC knocked off top-seeded Bucknell 77-72 in double overtime in the quarterfinals.

Looking for a bandwagon, I hopped on for the ride – namely a visit to West Point to see the Purple face Army in the semifinals. There the Crusaders jumped out to a 10-0 lead and never trailed, whipping the Cadets 60-38.

Miraculously, Holy Cross culminated its run through the Patriot League with a 59-56 win over second-seeded Lehigh. Again the Crusaders led wire-to-wire, and held on as Lehigh missed four straight three-pointers in the last 20 seconds.

Holy Cross became the first team in conference history to win four tournament games – all on the road – as well as knocking off the top two seeds in the tournament. The Cross has now won six Patriot League championships.

The Cinderella Saders are going to the Big Dance for the 13th time in their history. Bracketologists are speculating that they will face either Austin Peay or Farleigh Dickinson in a first round game, aka First Four, next week in Dayton, Ohio.

Holy Cross has had success in the NCAAs in the past.HC, led by a freshman point guard name of Bob Cousy, won the NCAA Championship in 1947, the school’s first appearance in the tournament. The Crusaders advanced to the Final Four in 1948, and made the Elite Eight in 1950 and 1953. In 1977 the Crusaders upset eighth-ranked Providence in an Eastern playoff before bowing out to top-ranked Michigan.

In recent years, Holy Cross suffered close, first-round losses to Kentucky in 2001, Kansas in 2002 and Marquette in 2003. HC dropped a first-round match to Southern Illinois in 2007.

Related Blog: Once upon a time, Holy Cross was king of hoops.


Wallflowers missing out on the ‘Big Dance’

Fans storm the court after Albany buzzer-beater denied Stony Brook its first NCAA ticket.

For dozens of big-time programs, an invitation to the NCAA Tournament is all but presumed every year. Failure to make the tournament is considered a huge disappointment. Coaches have been fired for less.

But not so for the vast majority of teams, some who have played Cinderella and many others who have never made the cut. Perfect example, Stony Brook. The Seawolves were literally less than a second away from the first NCAA berth in the team’s history when Albany State crushed their dreams with a dagger three-pointer at the buzzer in the American East championship game.Oh my.

Only five of the original 160 NCAA schools have never made the tournament, which began in 1939. They are Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis (NY) and William & Mary. St. Francis came close this year, advancing to the championship game of the Northeast Conference tournament this week, only to bow out to Robert (Bob) Morris, 66-63, on their home court in Brooklyn.

Army never made it despite being coached by two all-time greats, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. But Northwestern may be the most puzzling of all the NCAA wallflowers. Northwestern began men’s basketball in 1901, was retro-picked as national champion in 1931, and even hosted the first NCAA championship game in 1939 and the Final Four in 1956. Playing in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have not had a winning record in conference play since 1968, when LBJ was President. They finally managed their first 20-win season in 2009.

All told, there are 44 Division 1 teams that have never tasted March Madness. Some notables beyond the five originals mentioned above are Maine, New Hampshire, Hartford, Bryant College, Youngstown State, Grambling and Presbyterian.

Finally

Meanwhile North Florida, UC Irvine and Buffalo are going to the tournament for the first time. North Florida’s Ospreys got the automatic bid after knocking off another NCAA virgin, the South Carolina Upstate Spartans, 63-57 in the Atlantic Sun championship game. And the University of California-Irvine punched its ticket after beating Hawaii, 67-58, in the Big West title game. For the Anteaters, it’s the first tournament appearance in the 38-year history of the school’s basketball program. And Buffalo cracked the brackets with ts first Mid-American Conference Tournament championship, an 89-84 win over top-seeded Central Michigan

In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast, the 15th seed in the East, won the Atlantic Sun title, and ran off two straight wins in its first NCAA, beating second-seed Georgetown and seventh-seed San Diego State before losing to Florida in the round of 16.

Last year, both Cal Poly and North Carolina Central cracked the NCAA code with first-time tournament appearances.


Yes, UConn: Home office of college basketball

Think back 20 some odd years ago. Who would have envisioned the tiny little state of Connecticut, third smallest in the union, would one day be the center of the college basketball universe. Yet following the twin wins by the UConn men and women in the NCAA Tournament, is there any doubt that Storrs, CT, is the hoop capital of the country.

On the men’s side, no, it’s not Kentucky, despite stellar programs at UK and Louisville. Sorry Dorothy, but Kansas doesn’t cut it. Nor do the ACC kingpins Duke and North Carolina or top-ranked Florida, which lost to UConn twice this year. UCLA is old news.

The UConn women’s team now clearly dominates the territory once ruled by Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Volunteers, who won eight championships between 1987 and 2008. Baylor and Notre Dame have had strong women’s programs recently, but nothing close to the Lady Huskies.

Geno Auriemma’s UConn women have won nine championships since 1995. Included in that run are five undefeated seasons, capped by this year’s win over previously unbeaten Notre Dame in the title game that pushed UConn to 40-0. The UConn women have now won 46 games in a row, the third longest streak in school history — but far short of their NCAA record 90-game winning streak.

The UConn men have won four championships since 1999, three under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun and the final under second-year coach Kevin Ollie. That’s twice as many as North Carolina and Florida in the same 15-year span.

For the second time, the men and women have won NCAA championships in the same season. In 2004, the women won their third straight championship while the men beat Georgia Tech for their second crown.

Amazingly, UConn is a combined 13-0 in men’s and women’s championship games. There’s UConn…and then there’s everybody else.


53 years later, NCAAs return to the Garden

This week, for the first time in more than 53 years, Madison Square Garden will play host to March Madness.

In the day the old MSG, located on the west end of Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, was the mecca of college basketball. Between 1943 and 1950, seven NCAA championship games were held at the Garden. Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma State (twice), Holy Cross, Kentucky and CCNY were the winners. CCNY also won the NIT in 1950, the only team to win both tournaments in the same year.

  • Wyoming’s Kenny Sailors, pioneer of the jump shot, led the Cowboys to the 1943 title over Georgetown. Wyoming then beat NIT champion St. John’s in a benefit game for the Red Cross.
  • In the 1944 title game, Utah edged Dartmouth, which survived the East Regionals, also at Madison Square Garden. Utah was invited to participate in the NCAA tournament after an Arkansas coach was killed and two players were seriously injured in a car accident.
  • Oklahoma State, then known as Oklahoma A&M, won back-to-back championships at the Garden in 1945 and 1946. Center Bob Kurland was named the outstanding player each year, playing for coach Hank Iba.
  • In 1947, the Crusaders of Holy Cross defeated Oklahoma in the championship game at the Garden. Coached by Alvin “Doggie” Julian, the Cross was led by tournament outstanding player George Kaftan and a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy.
  • Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats defeated Baylor in 1948, the first of four national titles for the Baron.
  • The NCAA finals were held in Seattle in 1949, and returned to the Garden in 1950, where Nat Holman’s CCNY squad made history.

The following year, the NCAA tournament expanded from eight to 16 teams, and the Eastern Regional finals were held in New York for the last time.

On March 14, 1961, a first round tripleheader was held at Madison Square Garden. Princeton defeated George Washington, St. Bonaventure topped Rhode Island, and in the final game, Wake Forest trampled St. John’s. The Demon Deacons were led by Billy Packer, who was featured on the program cover that day and later made his mark as a CBS commentator.

St. Joseph’s (PA) won the East that year, but the NCAA later forced the Hawks to relinquish their third place finish in the tournament because of alleged student athlete involvement with a gambler.

All told, Madison Square Garden played host to 71 tournament games between 1943 and 1961, fourth on the all-time list behind the University of Dayton Arena (87), Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City (82), and the Jon M. Hunstman Center in Salt Lake City (81). MSG’s seven national championship games are second only to Kansas City’s 10.

The old Garden closed in early 1968, when MSG moved to its current location atop Penn Station.


We have a Cinderella, and she’s from Wichita

This year’s NCAA Cinderella is a Shocker. Ninth-seeded Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference knocked off #1 seed Gonzaga and #2 seed Ohio State in a surprising run to the Final Four. Wichita evoked memories of mid-majors like George Mason, VCU, and  Butler, other recent tournament darlings who made it to the last dance.

For Wichita, it’s been quite the NCAA drought. The last time the Shockers advanced this far, in 1965, LBJ was President, “The Sound of Music” was released, the Beatles played at Shea Stadium and gasoline cost 31 center per gallon.

That year Wichita State survived the in-season losses of two future NBA players, All-American forward Dave Stallworth and center Nate Bowman. Stallworth’s eligibility expired in the middle of the season, and Bowman was declared academically ineligible.

Still the Shockers persevered. They were ranked No. 1 in the country in December, won the MVC by two games, then beat SMU and Oklahoma State to reach the Final Four in Portland, Oregon

The Shockers lost to eventual champion UCLA, coached by the legendary John Wooden, in the semifinals. In those days, the semi losers played in a consolation game for third place.

Wichita fell to Princeton 118-82 in a game in which Bill Bradley, pictured above, scored a Final Four record 58 points. That night, Bradley made 22-of-29 field goals and 14-of-15 free throws to set a record which has stood for nearly 50 years.

UCLA, led by guard Gail Goodrich, went on to beat Michigan and All-American Cazzie Russell for its second consecutive NCAA title. The Bruins, sparked by Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and others, would go on to win 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year span.

Stallworth, Bowman, Bradley and Russell were all members of the New York Knicks 1970 NBA championship team. A year later, Stallworth was traded to the Baltimore Bullets along with Mike Riordan for Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. And Russell was dealt to the San Francisco Warriors for Jerry Lucas.

Bowman, who filled in for Willis Reed in that famed 1970 Game Seven against the Lakers and actually outscored the Knicks captain 6-4, was sent to the Buffalo Braves along with Mike Silliman for cash after the 1970 season. Bradley played his entire 10-year career with the Knicks and became both a Hall of Famer and a United States Senator.


One last dance for the Big East

Is the Big East primed for one last NCAA dance, a final run for old time’s sake?

The powerhouse Big East, which was founded in 1979, has produced six NCAA Championships — three by UConn and one apiece from Georgetown, Villanova and Syracuse. Big East teams have made 16 Final Four appearances since 1980, including a tour de force in 1985 when eventual champion Villanova, runner-up Georgetown and St. John’s all made it, the only time that’s occurred in the tournament.

Of the league’s current members, only South Florida has failed to make the Final Four, although Marquette, DePaul, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Pitt all made it before they became Big East members.

Only the ACC with 10 titles — Duke and North Carolina with four each, and NC State and Maryland with one apiece — has won more NCAA Championships since 1980. And no conference has sent more different teams to the Final Four during that span. That’s parity.

When the late Dave Gavitt, former Providence coach, founded the Big East in 1979, it consisted of seven charter members — Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse, Boston College and Connecticut. The first four along with Seton Hall, DePaul and Marquette will form their own BCS basketball league, taking the Big East name with them. But it won’t be the Big East as we know it.

The Beast of the East. What memories. Great coaches like Jim Boheim, Jim Calhoun, Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson, Rick Pitino. P.J. Carlesimo and Rollie Massimino. Great players like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Ray Allen, Mark Jackson, Kemba Walker, Walter Berry and Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. And so many great rivalries and games, arguably none better than “Six in the City” — the six overtime classic between Syracuse and UConn in the 2009 Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Maybe the Big East can do it again. Louisville is the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Georgetown, a #2 seed, is playing in the year of the Jesuit, as is third-seed Marquette. And perennials like Syracuse and Notre Dame are in the mix. Once more, for old time’s sake.