College Basketball Teams Likely to Break NCAA Tournament Droughts in 2015-16

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 5, 2015

College Basketball Teams Likely to Break NCAA Tournament Droughts in 2015-16

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    There are dozens of college basketball programs that would love to just compete in the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than two decades, and teams like Columbia and Oregon State are primed to finally get over that hump this season.

    Heck, even Northwestern might finally break the seal this year.

    It might seem crazy to predict that a team will go dancing after a hiatus of at least 20 yearsor all of the years, in Northwestern's casebut there were actually four teams that pulled it off last year. Buffalo and UC Irvine made their first tournament appearances in school history while Northeastern and Southern Methodist made it for the first time since the early 1990s.

    Who gets off the schneid next March?

    From the list of approximately 60 teams that have failed to go to the NCAA tournament at least 20 consecutive times, here is our ranking of the top 11 with a shot at breaking that streak due to some combination of returning players, incoming players or a potential opportunity for advancement in their respective conferences.

    Teams at the bottom of our list are long shots, at best, but it would almost feel like an upset if at least three of our top five teams don't make the tournament.

11. Duquesne Dukes

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1977

    2014-15 Record: 12-19

    Let's just say it wasn't easy to find 10 good teams that have missed 20 consecutive NCAA tournaments.

    Louisiana Tech and Toledo were great candidates last year, but they each lose a ton of production to graduation. Same goes for Denver, IPFW and St. Francis (NY). Thus, we're left to throw a bone to a team that failed to win at least 10 games in half of the past 20 seasons.

    However, there are three reasons to buy some stock in Duquesne, the first of which is the addition of Butler transfer Rene Castro. When he signed with the Bulldogs in October 2012, he was supposed to be a pretty handy shooting guard for them for the next four years, but Castro barely lasted two months before skipping town and landing at Duquesne.

    In addition to Castro, the Dukes retain their two best players from last season: Derrick Colter and Micah Mason. They were both excellent three-point shooters who combined to average 26.0 points per game. The Dukes don't have much of anything in the frontcourt, but their backcourt should be quite strong.

    Finally, the A-10 could be a bit of a crapshoot. Davidson and Dayton will still finish near the top of the conference standings. Rhode Island and George Washington will probably be up there as well. But there isn't a single stone-cold lock for the tournament. That could open the door just enough for a team like Duquesne to sneak into the tournament picture.

    It's a long shot, but every team on this list has at least 20 years' worth of evidence not to believe in it.

10. East Carolina Pirates

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1993

    2014-15 Record: 14-19

    Unlike Duquesne, at least East Carolina has shown some signs of life over the past few seasons. The Pirates are seven games over .500 in the past five seasons under Jeff Lebothis coming on the heels of 13 consecutive seasons failing to finish above .500.

    Last year was a struggle for the Pirates, but that was to be expected. They were upgrading slightly from Conference USA to the American conference while also trying to figure out how to play without Akeem Richmond, who averaged 18.0 points per game as a senior in 2013-14.

    No such adjustments will be necessary this offseason, though, as East Carolina returns six of its top seven scorers from this past season, including all three of its studs: B.J. Tyson, Caleb White and Terry Whisnant. Redshirt sophomore forward Marshall Guilmette also came on strong toward the end of the year, finally able to consistently log starter minutes for the first time in his injury-plagued career.

    Will it be enough to win in this conference, though?

    SMU still has Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore. Tulsa's entire eight-man rotation is back for another season. Cincinnati also returns nearly everyone. And you're only kidding yourself if you think Connecticut won't be stronger than last year. Throw in Temple and Memphis as teams losing key players but seemingly always relevant, and that's more than half the conference that will likely be expected to finish ahead of ECU.

    It will be plenty difficult to get to 20 or 21 wins, but the Pirates just might have the horses to pull it off.

9. Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: Never (D-I school since 1992)

    2014-15 Record: 21-13

    Two seasons ago, the Skyhawks went 8-23. From that team, the leading scorer transferred to Ole Miss, the third-leading scorer graduated and the head coach was fired after the team's fifth consecutive abysmal season on his watchJason James went 37-117 as their head coach.

    They promptly improved their winning percentage by 360 points.

    So, yes, this is a team losing two crucial players in former Mississippi State and UNLV transfer Deville Smith and former JUCO transfer Marshun Newell, but it would hardly be the first time Tennessee-Martin played well following a transitional offseason.

    The Skyhawks still have a talented duo in Twymond Howard and Alex Anderson, and they will once again look to reload with a few JUCO transfers.

    Most importantly for this list, though, the Ohio Valley auto bid should be very much up for grabs. Murray State loses just about everyone of note from last year's roster, and Eastern Kentucky's top two players have also run out of years of eligibility. It will likely be Belmont winning the East division and Tennessee-Martin taking the West, putting the Skyhawks in solid shape to represent this conference in the Big Dance.

8. William & Mary Tribe

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: Never (D-I school since 1905)

    2014-15 Record: 20-13

    William & Mary advanced to the CAA championship game this past March but was unable to seal the deal on what was already a season with at least 20 wins. The Tribe did the same in 2014 and 2010, regularly coming so close to the first tournament appearance in school history.

    Could this finally be the year they get over the eternal hump?

    They're losing an extremely important piece of the puzzle in Marcus Thornton. He averaged at least 35.6 minutes and 18.7 points per game over each of the past three seasons, finishing his career with 2,178 points. He scored 20.0 per game last year while making slightly better than 40 percent of his 254 three-point attempts.

    Needless to say, he won't be easy to replace. 

    But they still have four very capable upperclassmen in Terry Tarpey, Omar Prewitt, Daniel Dixon and Sean Sheldon. They're also adding Colorado State transfer David Cohn and have a group of six 2014-15 freshmen from which at least one player is bound to flourishprobably Greg Malinowski.

    The rest of the CAA is nothing special either. Northeastern represented the conference in last year's tournament, but the Huskies will be without Scott Eatherton. UNC-Wilmington loses three key pieces. Hofstra and James Madison will probably be the two biggest challengers to William & Mary, and the Tribe went 5-0 against those teams this past season.

7. New Hampshire Wildcats

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    Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: Never (D-I school since 1961)

    2014-15 Record: 19-13

    Over the past 54 years, the state of D-I college basketball in the state of New Hampshire has beenhow do we put this lightly?stupendously horrific.

    Dartmouth and New Hampshire are the only tournament-eligible programs within state boundaries, and they have each missed the last 54 NCAA tournaments. They have a combined winning percentage of 34.1 during that time. Neither has won 20 games in a seasonmaking New Hampshire's 2014-15 season one of the most successful that any New Hampshire resident has witnessed.

    The Wildcats are desperately looking to finally put an end to the statewide drought.

    Even in the America East conference, it will not be easy. Stony Brook and Vermont both return all of their key players, so they should be every bit as good as the versions of their teams that finished one game ahead of New Hampshire in last year's standings.

    However, the Wildcats also bring back the bulk of their production. Tanner Leissner led the team in scoring as a freshman. Sophomores Jaleen Smith, Jacoby Armstrong and Daniel Dion weren't far behind him. That's a pretty respectable four-man attack that they should theoretically have together for another two seasons.

    And it's possible they were just getting warmed up last year. After a five-game losing streak that encompassed Christmas and New Year's, the Wildcats won 13 of their next 16 games. Two of those three losses came by a one-point margin, and that streak ended when they lost to Albany in the America East semifinals by one possession.

6. Rider Broncs

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1994

    2014-15 Record: 21-12

    It's kind of hard to believe that Rider's tournament drought is old enough to legally consume alcohol, because the Broncs always seem to be right there in the mix until the very end.

    Most of the teams on this list have been just plain awful for the bulk of the past two decades, but in the 21 years since their last tournament appearance, the Broncs have four regular-season titles and have finished with a winning record 15 times. There have been a couple of duds along the waymost notably the 8-20 season in 2005-06but Rider won the MAAC title the year before that and did so again two years later.

    This past season, Rider won 19 of its final 24 regular-season games before a disappointing loss to Saint Peter's in its first game of the MAAC tournament.

    But many of the key pieces from that team are back again. Teddy Okereaforformerly a benchwarmer at VCUfilled up the box score as a junior, averaging 11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game. Kahlil Thomas missed 13 games due to a stress fracture in his foot, but he leads a group of four will-be-juniors who each averaged at least 5.8 points per game in 2014-15.

    The big questionboth literally and figurativelyis whether Rider can remain strong without 7'0" center Matt Lopez. Every noteworthy MAAC team is losing at least one crucial piece this offseason, but Lopez might be the biggest void of all.

5. Yale Elis

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1962

    2014-15 Record: 22-10

    Yale shouldn't even be on this list. The Elis held a five-point lead over Dartmouth in the final 30 seconds of the final game of the regular season. A win would have given them the Ivy League crown, but they let it slip away before squandering several opportunities in the ensuing tiebreaker game against Harvard.

    Thus, here they are, still looking to go dancing for the first time in more than half a century.

    The good news: Harvard might finally be headed for a rebuilding year, opening the door for a new Ivy League champ for the first time in four years. Siyani Chambers and Corbin Miller are back, but a pretty huge chunk of the Crimson rotation has already played its senior season.

    The bad news: same goes for Yale. The Elis do retain an outstanding player in Justin Sears and a pretty fine role player in Jack Montague, but they lose four of their top seven scorers and four of their five best rebounders. And while we love to believe that some coaches can handle any rebuilding situation, James Jones has a winning percentage of just 49.9 in his 16 seasons as the head coach at Yale.

    Sears may very well be the most valuable player in the Ivy League this year, but will it be enough for consistent wins in the only league without a conference tournament?

4. Northwestern Wildcats

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Tournament Appearance: Never (D-I school since 1904)

    2014-15 Record: 15-17

    At long last, it's the team that has been a mandatory staple at some spot on this list ever since people started making such a list.

    Northwestern is easily the most (in)famous member of the "Never Been Dancing" club. The Wildcats are the only major conference team to never make the tournament. They are one of just five teams that has played at least 2,000 games without a tournament appearance, and with a winning percentage of 41.1, they have been consistently worse than each of those other four teamsCitadel (42.6), William & Mary (46.3), St. Francis NY (49.5) and Army (49.9).

    But the vast majority of those Northwestern teams didn't have Tre Demps, Alex Olah or Bryant McIntosh. None of them had Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren or incoming freshman Aaron Falzon.

    And though last year's Wildcats finished below .500, they were better than that. They went 0-7 in January, but six of those games could have easily gone the other way—particularly the losses to Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland and Ohio State.

    Northwestern should be better than it was in Chris Collins' second season. Meanwhile, the Big Ten should be about as strong as ever with Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin all likely to open the season ranked in the top 20.

    A win or two against those teams as part of a 9-9 conference record would probably be enough for Northwestern to finally pass the torch of most cursed college basketball program.

3. Loyola (IL) Ramblers

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1985

    2014-15 Record: 24-13

    With Northern Iowa losing Seth Tuttle, Nate Buss, Deon Mitchell and Marvin Singleton, it's going to be difficult for the Panthers to have a repeat of this past season when they won 31 games while earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    But save for two seasons ago when Wichita State went undefeated and ran rampant through the conference slate, there are almost always at least two Missouri Valley teams that vie for a tournament bid.

    Evansville is arguably the team most likely to step up and fill the Northern Iowa-sized void, but the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago will most certainly be throwing their hat in that ring, as well.

    In winning the 2015 CBI championship, Earl Peterson and Montel James stepped up their game in a huge way. Both players transferred in after two years at Coffeyville Community College, but they were a bit hit or miss for most of the year before four very solid performances to close out the season.

    Throw in Milton Doyle as one of the better guards that most people have never heard of, and the Ramblers have a pretty respectable rotation of veteran players heading into one of the more wide-open MVC seasons in a while.

2. Oregon State Beavers

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    Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1990

    2014-15 Record: 17-14

    The last time Oregon State made the NCAA tournament, Gary Payton was the star. Payton put up unthinkable numbers for the present-day game, averaging 25.7 points, 8.1 assists and 3.5 steals per game in carrying the Beavers to a No. 5 seed.

    And, well, wouldn't it be fitting if his son were responsible for ending a tournament drought of more than a quarter century?

    Gary Payton IIA.K.A. "The Mitten"did pretty much everything for the Beavers last season, accounting for 13.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.1 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in his first of two seasons playing D-I hoops.

    Unlike most of the teams on the list who should be pretty good despite losing one or two key players, Oregon State brings back everyone from what was supposed to be a rebuilding 2014-15 season. The Beavers are ahead of schedule and absolutely loaded with talented upperclassmen. They will have five seniors (and one junior) who averaged at least 7.8 points per game last season.

    Yet consistent scoring was their Achilles' heel. Oregon State was held to fewer than 60 points in more than half of its games last season, posting a 6-11 record in those contests.

    Given how much roster turnover there was from the previous season, it's not particularly surprising that they had some issues running a cohesive offense. If that jelling process is in the rearview mirror, though, this is a team that plays strong enough defense to legitimately contend for the Pac-12 title.

1. Columbia Lions

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Last Tournament Appearance: 1968

    2014-15 Record: 13-15

    Columbia has made a habit of making some noise early in the season. Two years ago in mid-November, the Lions darn near won a true road game against preseason AP No. 2 Michigan State. Last year in mid-December, they held a halftime lead in Rupp Arena against the Kentucky team that was No. 1 all season long.

    But it's been a long, long time since anyone was talking about Columbia in March.

    Last year probably would have been the year to break the streak if Alex Rosenberg hadn't suffered an injury before the season began. It was a fracture in his foot expected to keep him out for up to four months. And because redshirting is not permitted at Ivy League schools, he simply withdrew from the university in order to have one year left to play.

    "People have their own point of view, that I'm trying to find a loophole," Rosenberg told Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times. "But that's not the case. It's more about the injury itself."

    Not only were the Lions without Rosenberg, but Grant Mullinswho averaged 11.7 points per game as a sophomore in 2013-14missed the entire season, presumably due to the lingering effects of a concussion he suffered in February 2014.

    Both he and Rosenberg should be back this season, and they will join Maodo Lo and Kyle Castlin to form one heck of a formidable Ivy League scoring attack. And with Harvard presumably taking a step backward without Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi, Columbia figures to be the team to beat in that conference.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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