How hard is it to get a college basketball program to win one NCAA tournament game?
The Belmont Bruins are shown above in the cover photo for this story. They fell to Wisconsin in 2011, one of seven NCAA tournament losses without a single win for the program.
The Bruins are hardly alone.
At North Carolina, Kentucky, and similar schools, it’s not hard at all to win one Dance contest. At Michigan, Arkansas, and Oklahoma State, it shouldn’t be overly difficult. At schools such as Gonzaga, Cincinnati and San Diego State, the lack of depth in a conference should ordinarily lead to a steady stream of NCAA berths, which in turn increases the chances of being able to win a game at least once in a while.
However, if you’re not in any of those groups of schools, it can be very hard to win one NCAA tournament game.
On the eve of another round-of-64 Thursday — one of the best days of the sports year — let’s look at the many schools which have encountered supreme futility in March.
First of all, 48 schools have never made the Big Dance. The list was 50 entering Championship Week, but Stony Brook and Cal State Bakersfield broke through and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time. For those programs, winning in the round of 64 has been impossible — you can’t win if you don’t play.
That’s one chunk of teams. Next, just how many teams have played in the NCAA tournament at least once and have lost without ever tasting the feeling of victory?
How long would you say this list is? Keep in mind that there are 351 Division I basketball programs. Some have been around since the beginning of the NCAA tournament era in 1939, but many others have not.
The answer to the question: 88. That’s right — 88 teams have played at least one NCAA tournament game and have never walked off the court a winner.
For a number of these programs, only one or two NCAA appearances have materialized. Other schools have made at seven trips to the Big Dance — Belmont, Louisiana-Monroe, and Nebraska — without a single moment of victory. The leader in appearances without a single NCAA win is Eastern Kentucky, 0-8 in America’s favorite bracketed tournament.
Add these 88 teams to 48, and you get a total of 136 schools without a single NCAA tournament win.
Think that’s the whole story? Not quite.
We said above that it’s very hard — but not impossible — to win at certain programs. If 136 of them — more than a third — have not been able to dent the win column in March, what about the programs that finally earned one win… and stopped there?
Are there 10 such teams? What about 20? Do I hear 30? The answer is that 33 teams have won one and only one NCAA tournament game. Therefore, 169 teams — very nearly half of the 351 which play D-I hoops — have not gained even two NCAA tournament wins.
If you’re not in a power conference (which includes the Power 5 but also the Big East and The American, maybe even the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West if you want to stretch boundaries), and if you don’t have an established basketball culture, this business — winning one NCAA tournament game — becomes very difficult.
The introduction of the NCAA tournament play-in game in 2001 — part of the move from 64 teams to 65 — was followed by the installment of the First Four in 2011. Therefore, a total of 20 games have been played in Dayton between No. 16 seeds — before the round of 64 — over the past 15 years. Without those 20 games, a number of teams in the lists above would not yet have a single NCAA win.
Those schools: Florida A&M, Oakland, Monmouth, Mount Saint Mary’s, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas-San Antonio (UTSA), Albany, and Cal Poly.
Think the 16-seed First Four games are worthless? Not to those schools.
One other aspect of NCAA tournament wins for the impoverished classes is the weighty matter of win droughts. They extend for a long time, and not just for those 33 schools with only one win.
Oregon State hasn’t won an NCAA game since 1982. The Beavers are making their first appearance on the Dance floor since 1990.
Other teams in this year’s tournament with win droughts of more than a quarter of a century: Middle Tennessee, Austin Peay, Holy Cross, and Iona. Saint Bonaventure and South Carolina figured to be in the field, but they were snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Bonnies haven’t won an NCAA game since 1970. Had South Carolina been invited, it would have eclipsed Oregon State for the longest win drought by a Power 5 conference school. The Gamecocks haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973.
One final note — in this article, and on the larger subject of how hard it is to win NCAA tournament games — might blow you away: Houston hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1984.
That’s right: The program of Guy Lewis and Hakeem and Clyde and Phi Slama Jama has not won an NCAA tournament game since its victory over Virginia in the 1984 Final Four national semifinals in Seattle.
If Houston can go 32 years (and counting) without an NCAA bid, just imagine what life is like for the 136 schools seeking a first-ever win in March Madness, and the 33 looking for a second one.
This is a rough business, college basketball. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially this month.