NCAA Men's Tournament Streaks and Droughts Most Likely to End in 2020
While a handful of men's college basketball teams have legitimate national championship aspirations, just getting to the NCAA tournament is a huge deal for most programs.
Twenty teams hope to build on a dancing streak of at least three years, while roughly 10 times that amount would love to end a drought of six or more years.
So which streaks and droughts are most likely to end in 2020?
Can Virginia Tech and Nevada extend their streaks after replacing basically all of their personnel?
Could Western Kentucky miss the cut yet again, despite getting back four players (one with a certain future in the NBA) who averaged at least a dozen points per game last season?
It's early to start this debate, but we'll take a look at the postseason hopes for those teams and several others as we hunt for both streaks and skids that may be snapped.
Virginia Tech Hokies' Streak (3 Years)
Let's open this up with a sure thing: Virginia Tech won't play in the 2020 NCAA tournament.
I have the utmost respect for head coach Mike Young and the job he did at Wofford, taking the Terriers to five NCAA tournaments in 10 years and nearly upsetting Kentucky in the second round last March. In due time, that should be an outstanding hire for the Hokies.
But as was the case when he unexpectedly departed Marquette a few years back, Buzz Williams left this program up a creek without a paddle.
Virginia Tech lost all five of its leading scorers—three as graduates, one as an early entrant to the NBA draft and one as a graduate transfer. Aside from Wabissa Bede, known commodities are virtually nonexistent. Isaiah Wilkins and P.J. Horne got some experience as reserves, but nothing to suggest that either one is the next big thing in Blacksburg.
The potential ace in the hole is redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II. The No. 67 recruit in last year's class, he should immediately be the go-to guy in Virginia Tech's frontcourt.
That's primarily because there aren't any other options, though.
Combining Nolley with a pass-first point guard in Bede won't be anywhere near enough for the Hokies to compete in the ACC. They went 11-22 in Williams' first season as Tech's head coach (2014-15), and that might be the best-case scenario in their first season under Young.
Illinois Fighting Illini's Drought (2013)
It feels like a lifetime ago that Illinois went from Lon Kruger to Bill Self to Bruce Weber and was a staple in the NCAA tournament. From 1997 to 2006, the Illini were a No. 6 seed or better and won at least one tourney game in nine out of 10 years. And who can forget that Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams backcourt that almost went undefeated and nearly won a national championship in 2005?
But 2006 was the last time they finished a season ranked in the AP Top 25, as well as the last time they suffered fewer than 10 losses in a campaign. And 2013 was the last time they even made the NCAA tournament. Aside from Penn State (2011) and Rutgers (1991), that's the longest current drought among Big Ten programs.
After back-to-back sub-.500 seasons to begin his tenure as the Illini head coach, though, Brad Underwood has something cooking.
For starters, every noteworthy player is back except for fifth-leading scorer Aaron Jordan. A career 41 percent three-point shooter who also ranked second on the roster in both rebounds and blocks last year, Jordan is a significant loss.
It's not an insurmountable roster change, though. Not with Trent Frazier, Andres Feliz and preseason first-team All-Big Ten guard Ayo Dosunmu in tow to lead the backcourt. And not with No. 46 recruit and 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn capable of more than replacing Jordan's rebounds and blocks. He and Giorgi Bezhanishvili will give the Illini a frontcourt tandem unlike anything we've seen since seniors Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale shouldered the load en route to the 2011 NCAA tournament.
We'll find out in a hurry if this team is capable of doing damage. Illinois plays at Arizona on Nov. 10—less than a week after the regular season begins. The Illini also draw Miami, Maryland and Michigan in consecutive early-December games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and the Big Ten's weird two-game "preview" of conference play.
Even if they go 1-3 in those four games with a couple of hard-fought losses, it'll be more promising than anything they managed in the first two months of last season. But look for them to win at least two of those contests in the process of putting the rest of the country on notice.
Nevada Wolf Pack's Streak (3 Years)
Similar to Virginia Tech, Nevada was forced to hit the reset button this offseason.
In addition to losing head coach Eric Musselman to Arkansas, six of the Wolf Pack's eight leading scorers were seniors. A seventh member of that octet was Jordan Brown, who transferred to Arizona.
As a result, they only have two returning players who scored a single point last season: Jazz Johnson and Nisre Zouzoua. Worse yet, Zouzoua—who averaged better than 20 points per game with Bryant in 2016-17—was a disaster, shooting 22.0 percent from the field and 10.3 percent from three-point range.
They still might sneak into the NCAA tournament, though.
For starters, this might be the best backcourt among non-major-conference teams. Johnson is a bona fide sharpshooter. Zouzoua was bad last year, but maybe he can regain his sophomore form. Three-year starting point guard Lindsey Drew is back after missing last season with a torn Achilles. Louisiana Tech transfer Jalen Harris is easily one of the country's most noteworthy sat-a-year transfers. And small forward Eric Parrish is a Top 10 JUCO transfer, per 247Sports.
Even though the frontcourt is a gigantic question mark, that could be enough to make the Wolf Pack relevant in the Mountain West. Utah State is looking like the team to beat, but Nevada may be the top challenger to the Aggies.
Moreover, the nonconference schedule is looking solid. The Wolf Pack will face USC, Utah, Davidson, BYU Saint Mary's and potentially Cincinnati in the Paradise Jam. They might win three of those games and enter league play with a 10-3 record.
But that's more "might," "could" and "maybe" than you'd expect to see from a tournament regular. Plus, second-best in the MWC hasn't meant much in recent seasons. Even after San Diego State stole an automatic bid in 2018, this has been a one-bid league twice in the past four years and was nowhere close to a three-bid league in any of those seasons. Securing a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament will be tough for Nevada.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers' Drought (2013)
Not only did head coach Rick Stansbury somehow convince Charles Bassey to play for Western Kentucky, but the No. 6 overall recruit in last year's class unfathomably returned for a sophomore season. (Quite the 180 from when Stansbury made waves by signing Mitchell Robinson the previous year but didn't get him to play a college game.)
Bassey averaged 14.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game as a freshman, and on behalf of all other fans of Conference USA basketball, it is nothing short of terrifying to think he felt like he had more to prove before going pro.
Equally terrifying is the fact that the Hilltoppers get back all four players who averaged at least 12 points per game last season and add transfers Camron Justice (18.6 ppg with IUPUI), Carson Williams (12.0 ppg with Northern Kentucky) and Kenny Cooper (9.8 ppg, 4.5 apg and 2.0 spg with Lipscomb).
It's still unknown whether Cooper will be ruled immediately eligible, but this roster is capable of running a freight train through C-USA without him. Adding the veteran guard to the backcourt rotation would be a healthy scoop of gravy.
Of course, there's the not-so-minor problem of Conference USA's being a one-big league in each of the past seven years.
Unless the Hilltoppers can stun Louisville on Nov. 29, there's a good chance they'll enter Selection Sunday without a single Quadrant 1 win and with a meager quantity of Quadrant 2 victories. If they don't secure the league's automatic bid, they probably need to go 30-4 to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid. Remember, Ja Morant-led Murray State lost its only marquee game (at Auburn), went 27-4 and probably would've been left out of the dance if not for the Ohio Valley Conference championship.
Still, this is the clear favorite in Conference USA, and it's high time that more people get a chance to watch Bassey do his thing in the post.
The 1-Bid League Streaks
New Mexico State (2017-19)
North Carolina Central (2017-19)
All three of these teams look like the preseason favorites to represent their respective conferences in the 2020 NCAA tournament, and not just because we've grown accustomed to expecting nothing less.
Iona brings back five of last year's six leading scorers, including top Gael E.J. Crawford. The lone departure from that group was significant, as Rickey McGill (15.8 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.4 spg) had more than twice as many assists and more than twice as many steals as any teammate. But head coach Tim Cluess has a trio of transfers—Mo Thiam from New Mexico State, Isaiah Washington from Minnesota and Isaiah Ross from UMKC—to help fill that gap. Washington was just ruled eligible and might be the best player in the MAAC.
Three of North Carolina Central's four leading scorers exhausted their college eligibility, but the Eagles lost all four after the 2016-17 season and still made the dance the following year. Backcourt help is on the way, too, in the form of transfers Ty Graves (Boston College and Saint Louis) and C.J. Keyser (Wichita State). Pairing that duo with Randy Miller Jr., Jibri Blount and Jordan Perkins should be more than enough to carry the torch in the MEAC.
And New Mexico State might be in the best shape of the bunch with two of the top three scorers and seven of the top nine returning from last year's 30-win squad. Former Ohio State point guard AJ Harris is the closest thing to a star on a team that tests the limits of depth. There were 13 Aggies who averaged at least 10 minutes per game last season, and that approach should work wonders again for head coach Chris Jans.
That just means they're the favorites for the No. 1 seeds in their conference tournaments, though, and the No. 1 seed only won 43 percent of the time (68 of 158) in the past five years. Moreover, of the 10 combined conference tournaments won by these three teams over the past four years, they were only the No. 1 seed for four of them.
Thus, even though they should be the best teams in their respective leagues, it all boils down to those conference tournaments, meaning their odds of missing the tournament are significantly higher than those of Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas or Kentucky.
Toledo Rockets' Drought (1980) or Bowling Green Falcons' Drought (1968)
It's hard to believe that two of the longest active NCAA tournament droughts belong to teams that have been in the same conference for the entirety of those dry spells.
Since Toledo represented the Mid-American Conference in 1980, Ball State leads the way with seven automatic bids from the league. Kent State and Ohio have six conference tournament titles each. Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Miami-Ohio have four apiece. Akron did it three times. Central Michigan and Western Michigan both have a pair of banners in their gymnasiums. And Northern Illinois did it once.
But Bowling Green and Toledo have both been shut out for nearly four decades.
As it turns out, though, Bowling Green is looking like the 2019-20 team to beat in the MAC East Division, while Toledo figures to be the top dog in the West. We could be headed for a conference-championship battle between teams desperate to finally appear in the bracket again.
It's not like either team looks great, though. They are just the most likely to make the best of a bad situation.
This conference was gutted this offseason. Of the 25 players from the MAC who accumulated at least 3.5 win shares last season, 15 graduated and two others transferred. That means there are only a handful of viable candidates for conference Player of the Year, and the Falcons and Rockets each have two of them.
Backcourtmates Dylan Frye and Justin Turner return for a 22-win Bowling Green that stunned Buffalo last February and that almost upset St. John's at the beginning of last season. Replacing Demajeo Wiggins (12.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg) will be no easy task, but four returning starters mean fewer holes to plug than most of this conference.
Toledo was hit harder by attrition, losing leading scorers Jaelan Sanford and Nate Navigato. However, the Rockets still have an excellent core in the form of point guard Marreon Jackson, big man Luke Knapke and rebounding specialist Willie Jackson. Plus, no one in Toledo's division was worth a darn last year. Central Michigan was the only other team to finish above .500, and the Chippewas also lost their top two scorers.
Again, we're talking about a near-certain one-bid league where anything can transpire during that one weekend in March. There's a good chance one of these two droughts ends, though.
Kansas State Wildcats' Streak (3 Years)
One year after teaming with Texas Tech to end Kansas' 14-year reign atop the Big 12 standings, Kansas State appears headed for a rebuilding season.
The Wildcats lost their three leaders in points and assists with the graduations of Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade, and this is not the type of program that can reload overnight with top-notch freshmen. In fact, KSU hasn't had a Top 50 recruiting class since 2013, which was (not coincidentally) the last time the Wildcats had a freshman average at least 10 points per game.
Seniors Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien will be the obvious leaders after combining for 67 starts last season. Junior guard Cartier Diarra should also be a key contributor and a mortal lock for the starting lineup. And perhaps this will be the year that Mike McGuirl has a prolonged breakout after showing occasional flashes over the past two seasons.
Beyond that, this roster is one question mark after another.
Maybe DaJuan Gordon or Montavious Murphy will rank among the handful of 3-star recruits who make an immediate impact as true freshmen. JUCO transfer David Sloan might be a significant backcourt contributor. Or perhaps Shaun Neal-Williams will have a big sophomore year at point guard.
Star power is noticeably lacking, though.
The good news is the Big 12 appears to be as wide open as it has been in at least a decade. Kansas is the clear favorite, and both Texas Tech and Baylor have Sweet 16 potential, but fourth and fifth place in a league that sends at least five to the tournament are anybody's guess.
But even if the Wildcats reprise last year's role as one of the stingiest defenses in the country, finding enough offense to win 20 games will be a challenge.
The Big Ten's National Championship Drought (20 Years)
If we didn't hear about this drought every April, it would be nearly impossible to believe: The Big Ten has not won a national championship since Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State did so in 2000.
The league has come so close so many times, placing at least one team in the Final Four in 12 of the past 19 years, including producing the national runner-up in 2002 (Indiana), 2005 (Illinois), 2007 (Ohio State), 2009 (Michigan State), 2013 (Michigan), 2015 (Wisconsin) and 2018 (Michigan).
During that same span, the Big East has gone 6-for-6 in national championships while the ACC is 8-for-10. The Big Ten's 0-of-7 mark is just atrociously bad luck that might finally end this year.
Michigan State is No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25 and the slight favorite to win the national championship. (Caesars Casino has the Spartans listed at +550, narrowly edging both Kansas and Kentucky at +600.) Led by Cassius Winston, Josh Langford (once his foot is healthy) and Xavier Tillman, the Spartans have a ridiculous amount of established talent to go with about a half dozen legitimate threats to become the Big Ten's biggest breakout sensation.
If Sparty can't get it done, Maryland is another viable contender at No. 7 in the AP Top 25. The Terrapins lost Bruno Fernando, but you won't find many better inside-outside duos than senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore power forward Jalen Smith. If they can get quality production from at least one of the three big men in this year's freshman class—Chol Marial and twin brothers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell—they'll be in business.
The Big Ten also has Ohio State and Purdue as fringe Final Four candidates in the back half of the poll.
The smart money is almost always on the ACC, but the depth of talent in the Big Ten might be enough to snap this dry spell.
(For what it's worth, the Pac-12 has an even longer championship drought, dating back to 1997, and it hasn't even produced a national runner-up since 2006, but that unflattering streak figures to remain intact for at least one more year.)
Cincinnati Bearcats' Streak (9 Years)
Of the tournament streaks that we've discussed here, Cincinnati's is by far both the longest and the one least likely to actually be snapped.
There are nine programs with an active NCAA tournament streak of at least six years: Kansas (30), Duke (24), Michigan State (22), Gonzaga (21), Cincinnati (nine), North Carolina (nine), Villanova (seven), Virginia (six) and Kentucky (six). Eight of those nine teams are in the Top 11 of the preseason AP poll and do not appear to be in any sort of danger of missing this year's tournament.
Cincinnati is the wild card.
The Bearcats received a few AP votes. Eight, to be exact. And they are marginally on the right side of the bubble in most way-too-early bracket projections, generally slotted as either a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. While Cincinnati is far from a guarantee to make the tourney, that consensus outlook is a whole heck of a lot better than it is for Kansas State, Nevada or Virginia Tech.
Nevertheless, the Bearcats lost three key players in Justin Jenifer, Cane Broome and Nysier Brooks, each of whom averaged better than 8.0 points per game last season. Considering there were only six Bearcats who fared better than 2.3 points per game, and Jarron Cumberland was the only one in double figures, that's a considerable amount of rebuilding that new head coach John Brannen needs to do.
Oakland transfer Jaevin Cumberland (Jarron's cousin) could be a big help following a breakout year in which he averaged 17.2 points per game. Freshman guard Zach Harvey is one of the highest-rated high schoolers that Cincinnati has ever signed, and Jeremiah Davenport was one of the best JUCO transfers available this year. If those three pan out, the Bearcats will be better than OK.
But they're also looking up at Memphis in the AAC and jostling with Houston and South Florida for second-best in a conference that may only send two or three teams to the tournament. This one may be a photo finish.
Recruit rankings via 247Sports unless otherwise noted.