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The history of NCAA tournament bids: a four-period study

The NCAA tournament’s 68 teams have been announced, offering the latest picture of college basketball’s balance of power. How has this balance of power emerged over time? Plenty of fans are aware of programs’ histories on a general level — UCLA dominated in the John Wooden years, Kentucky roared under Adolph Rupp, and Indiana flourished under Bobby Knight. However, a deeper exploration of NCAA tournament history, dating back to the start of the event in 1939, paints a fuller picture of where various programs stand.

One specific and illuminating way to capture the history of the NCAA tournament is to divide this event into four distinct periods. These periods are very different in length, so the sample sizes are different. Nevertheless, this “four-period” approach unearths some fascinating facts about the longevity and success of various basketball schools.

From 1939 through 1952, the NCAA tournament field ranged from 8 to 16 teams.

From 1953 through 1978, the field’s size was no smaller than 22 teams, no larger than 32.

The field increased to 40 teams in 1979, which was also the first year in which the NCAA tournament was cleanly seeded. (A jumbled, cross-grouped seeding system emerged in 1978, but was not retained the next year.) The field expanded to 48 schools in 1980 and 53 in 1984. Therefore, 1979-1984 is its own separate period in NCAA tournament history.

Then, in 1985, came the expansion to the 64-team field which made March Madness what it is. The increases to 65 and (now) 68 teams have slightly altered the character of the tournament, but not enough to create a fundamentally new identity.

For the purposes of easy reference, we’ll refer to these periods in order:

1939-1952 is Period I.

1953-1978 is Period II.

1979-1984 is Period III.

1985 to the present day (including the 2016 tournament) is Period IV.

These four periods represent helpful markers in NCAA tournament history because they define four different levels of access for teams in various circumstances. Here’s what research unearthed about these four periods in the NCAA tournament era of college basketball:

Western Kentucky reached the 1971 Final Four in Houston's Astrodome, shown above. The Hilltoppers have been one of college basketball's more consistent programs over time, more than you might think.

Western Kentucky reached the 1971 Final Four in Houston’s Astrodome, shown above. The Hilltoppers have been one of college basketball’s more consistent programs over time, more than you might think.

We’re not going to dump a bunch of long lists on you, but a number of teams do need to be recognized for having made the NCAA tournament in all four of these aforementioned periods.

Some of the usual suspects naturally emerge on the list: Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, and UCLA are part of this group.

However, consider some of the other schools which also form a part of the list: Bradley made the NCAA tournament in all four periods. So did Holy Cross, New Mexico State, Utah State, and Western Kentucky, just to name a few.

Making Final Fours 36 years apart with the same school? No, not Jim Boeheim at Syracuse (26 years, from 1987 to 2013). The answer is Ray Meyer of DePaul.

Making Final Fours 36 years apart with the same school? No, not Jim Boeheim at Syracuse (26 years, from 1987 to 2013). The answer is Ray Meyer of DePaul.

DePaul makes sense as a program which would have made the Big Dance in all four periods. Coach Ray Meyer guided DePaul to two Final Fours 36 years apart… in 1943 and 1979. DePaul has made at least one appearance in Period IV, so the Blue Demons own a place on this list.

A program whose place on this list seems much more accidental is Pepperdine. The Waves crashed the Dance seven times in Period IV, but no more than twice in any of the first three periods. They merely picked their spots well in terms of covering all four periods.

What about the teams which made the most NCAA tournament appearances in each period? Are there any common threads or surprising twists?

In Period I, two teams are tied for the most NCAA tournament berths. They live on opposite sides of the tracks in modern college basketball. Kentucky made six appearances from 1939 through 1952… and so did Wyoming.

In Period II, Kentucky once again rose to the forefront, snagging 18 bids. UCLA claimed 17. Kentucky made more tournaments in the 1950s to offset UCLA’s primacy in the 1960s.

Would you be surprised if Notre Dame (15) and Marquette (13) came in third and fourth on this list of most appearances from 1953 through 1978? Remember that independent teams had more access to the NCAA tournament than conference teams.

Tom Crean made the Final Four at Marquette, and Buzz Williams probably would have if he had stayed for the long haul, but the Golden Eagles (formerly the Warriors) are historically associated with one coach more than any other: Al McGuire.

Tom Crean made the Final Four at Marquette, and Buzz Williams probably would have if he had stayed for the long haul, but the Golden Eagles (formerly the Warriors) are historically associated with one coach more than any other: Al McGuire.

This leads to another point: Connecticut, though not a historically significant program in Period II, played in the Yankee Conference and regularly won it. The Huskies made only one Elite Eight during this period, and no Final Fours, but they made 11 appearances, more than Cincinnati — a powerhouse in the 1960s — and North Carolina. The Bearcats and Tar Heels registered 10 appearances in Period II.

In Period III, which lasted only six years, four schools made the Dance in all six seasons: Arkansas, Georgetown, Louisville, and North Carolina.

In Period IV, which enters its 32nd NCAA tournament this week, only three schools have made 30 or more NCAA tournaments (none have made all 32): Kansas and Duke have hit 31 this year, and Arizona has reached its 30th Dance dating back to 1985 and the expansion to 64 teams.

Lute Olson IS Arizona basketball. See that guy next to him? He's not just the coach of the NBA champions; he was a member of Arizona's first Final Four team in 1988.

Lute Olson IS Arizona basketball. See that guy next to him? He’s not just the coach of the NBA champions; he was a member of Arizona’s first Final Four team in 1988.

These schools have reached at least 20 NCAA tournaments in Period IV, including Sunday’s arrivals: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Purdue, Syracuse, Temple, Texas, UCLA, Villanova, Wisconsin, and Xavier.

What noticeable disparities exist between or among periods for various programs?

Start with Period I and its 14-year span.

Wyoming made six of its 15 all-time NCAA appearances in this period. Dartmouth made four in Period I, and has made only three NCAA trips since the end of the period in 1952. Dartmouth’s last NCAA appearance came in 1959.

Arizona State head coach Ned Wulk, one of many coaches across the country who -- by themselves -- created the bulk of one school's NCAA tournament history and achievements.

Arizona State head coach Ned Wulk, one of many coaches across the country who — by themselves — created the bulk of one school’s NCAA tournament history and achievements.

In Period II, Arizona State made seven of its 13 appearances, a majority. Furman made five of its six NCAA trips in this period. Houston, in the age of Guy Lewis and Elvin Hayes, put together 11 NCAA appearances in this period. The Cougars own 19 all-time.

A few other small-conference teams flourished in this period, due to the NCAA tournament’s limited size, a product of the access given only to conference champions. Idaho State made the Dance 10 times in this period. The Bengals have made the NCAAs a total of 11 times. This was their only period of influence, and they made it count.

The even better small-conference example is San Francisco. The Dons of the West Coast Conference rose to prominence — and two national titles — under Bill Russell in the 1950s. They remained relevant and potent for two more decades. In Period II, they collected 11 NCAA tournament berths, a solid majority of their overall total of 16.

When San Francisco's Dons were the Don of college basketball.

When San Francisco’s Dons were the Don of college basketball.

In Period III, the six-season length makes it hard to offer anything new. Let’s move to Period IV.

Eight programs have reached at least 30 NCAA tournaments, and have made at least 20 of them in Period IV while making fewer than 10 in the first three periods combined. 

Those eight schools, which have been profoundly successful in the era of the 64-team (or more) field, are Duke, Texas, Temple, Arizona, Georgetown, Illinois, and two new arrivals, Michigan State and Oklahoma (which both hit 30 NCAA trips when their names were called on Sunday).

Next, consider this stat: While Northwestern is the only school from a Power 5 conference with zero NCAA tournament appearances, two schools made zero appearances in each of the first three periods, and didn’t make their first showing in the Dance until 1985 or later. Those two schools: Florida and Nebraska.
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The Gators got there in 1987, the Huskers one year earlier in 1986. Safe to say, though: Florida has done a lot more with its NCAA trips than Nebraska — the two schools are worlds apart. Florida has reached five Final Fours and won two national titles. Nebraska hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game, which puts the Huskers in a tie with Northwestern for fewest NCAA wins by a Power 5 school.

One more stat from Period IV to wrap up this survey of NCAA tournament bid history: With Oregon State (1990) snapping its NCAA tournament drought, only two Power 5 schools have not yet made the NCAA tournament this century. Rutgers (Big Ten) last made the Dance in 1991. TCU (Big 12) last made the tourney in 1998.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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