The college basketball community is gearing up for the most important weeks and games of its season.
North Carolina-Duke. Tennessee-Kentucky. Michigan State-Michigan. Kansas State-Baylor. On and on the list goes. Everyone is looking forward to these games.
Then come the various bubble games which will keep cropping up, the games between a quality team and an opponent searching for that difference-making bubble win. St. John’s got that kind of win earlier this week versus Marquette. Clemson will try for that kind of win versus Virginia Tech this Saturday. Those games aren’t Carolina-Duke, but they’re compelling and highly visible in the world of college basketball.
At this time of year, we naturally — and rightly — focus on the top seeds, the conference championship races, and the bubble.
However, in a sport with 351 Division I teams, this is also a time of year when hundreds of schools fade into the background.
They still have to play the games laid out on the schedule. They still have to hop on planes and make the next game destination. They still work and sweat and aspire to improve themselves. The reward at the end of the journey has to come from within. It won’t be an NCAA Tournament ticket, barring a run in the conference tournament.
It’s not a sin or even a flaw to focus less on these kinds of teams at this time of year. Yet, with 68 teams in the NCAA field, that leaves 283 teams which won’t get in. A few dozen teams are in the bubble hunt right now but will be left outside the candy store on Selection Sunday. Several other teams will be favored to win an automatic bid but will lose in their conference tournaments and be relegated to the NIT.
That still leaves at least 200 if not slightly more teams which simply and unavoidably live in the shadows of college basketball in early February.
One particularly sad example of this kind of program is the one which resides in a large conference, a conference large enough to get more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament, but can’t break through.
This team used to be TCU, which hadn’t been to the NCAAs in 20 years before Jamie Dixon brought it back to the big show last year. Rutgers hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Nebraska still hasn’t won a single NCAA Tournament game. I wrote about the Huskers earlier this week.
Another good example in this same vein: the Duquesne Dukes.
The Atlantic 10 is a multi-bid league in most years. However, if VCU either falls off the pace in the next few weeks or loses the conference tournament, this could possibly be a one-bid league this year. The A-10’s last year as a one-bid league was back in 2005. It has been very consistent in placing two teams in the NCAA field, usually because its top seed (or best team) doesn’t win its conference tournament but has a good-enough at-large profile to absorb that loss.
If you look at the 14 member schools in the A-10, almost all of them have had a March moment this century. Saint Louis had its fun under Rick Majerus and in the seasons immediately following his death. George Mason had its 2006 Final Four run before it joined the conference. Rhode Island almost made the Sweet 16 under Danny Hurley in 2017. George Washington makes a run once every several years. So does Saint Joseph’s. So do La Salle and Saint Bonaventure. Dayton, VCU, and Davidson have accomplished a lot this century. Richmond had an especially fertile period at the start of this decade. UMass was a 6 seed in 2014.
As for Duquesne and its fellow traveler, the Fordham Rams, there has been no “occasional run” or “fertile period.”
Both the Dukes and the Rams have made only one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971, and for Duquesne, the pain is particularly acute, since the Pittsburgh-based school hasn’t made any NCAA appearance since 1977. At least Fordham cracked the Dance in 1992. Duquesne has a Final Four in its history — back in 1940 — but that is of little comfort when the past 42 years have brought nothing to March Madness.
After Wednesday night’s excruciating 51-49 loss to Saint Bonaventure, it is becoming clear that Duquesne’s only possible route to Bracketville is to win the A-10 Tournament, and given the Dukes’ inability to rise to the top tier of the conference standings, they are losing the race to get a bye into the quarterfinals of this tournament, which means they will have to win four games in four days to snag an automatic bid, instead of only three games in three days.
Keith Dambrot, the man who coached LeBron James in high school and who turned Akron into a consistent winner, has followed a career path far different from a lot of talented head coaches. At age 60, he is trying to become the man who leads Duquesne out of the wilderness. In his second season, signs of progress exist for a program which is 15-8, but the possibility of an NCAA bid this year seems quite remote at this point. Dambrot might eventually succeed, but he is running into the enormity of his task right now. The pain of Duquesne won’t be healed in quick-fix fashion.
By all means, enjoy Carolina-Duke and Tennessee-Kentucky and the rest of the super showdowns which make this month sizzle. Yet, as the March to Madness intensifies, spare a thought for the Duquesnes of the college basketball world.
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