The Open Man Q&A: Building College Basketball’s Weirdest and Wildest Conference

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From last Saturday through Thursday, I wrote approximately 14,000 words on college football for The Open Man, Athlon Sports and The Sports Xchange. That’s no exaggeration, as you can find the bylines and stories over the past week, nor is it a brag; merely a statement of fact to explain why this week’s Q&A is a single-topic, all-basketball reprieve.

I’ll take the concept one step further and limit it to programs that have never reached the NCAA Tournament, albeit with a few conditions. First: They must have been a Div. I program in the 20th century; no newcomers like UMass-Lowell, which has not had to endure the heartache of repeated Marches passing without hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.

Second: There must be a regional footprint. This ain’t a dang football conference, after all. We have to play games during the week, and travel more than five or six times a season.

Third and final caveat: Upon winning the conference championship and securing the automatic bid into the Field of 68, a program leaves the conference, at which point it’s replaced with new member lacking Tournament experience. And to this final point, my conference takes its name: Purgatory.

As Purgatory has to replenish its ranks, the threshold for entry will allow for younger Div. I programs to join, and at a certain point, the entire enterprise may have to move West — there’s a whole lot of NCAA Tournament virgins in the WAC, for example. But in the meantime, here are Purgatory’s 10 charter members.

ARMY

For a program once coached by both Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski to have never reached the NCAA Tournament is mind-blowing. If their careers are any indication, Zach Spiker will restore Big 5 member Drexel to prominence, parlay that into a spot with a blue-blood program, and win multiple national championships before hanging up the whistle.

OK, so that may be a bit much, but Spiker had Army trending in the right direction; the Cadets’ 19 wins in 2015-16 were a program-high dating back to the Krzyzewski-coached 20-win team of 1976-77. But then Drexel came calling, and Army regressed to 13-19 and 13-17 in Jimmy Allen’s first two seasons.

HARTFORD

Fun fact: When I was a kid, I owned a book entitled, “Names of the Game,” which detailed the history of and back story behind every (then) Div. I college athletic program nickname. I committed every university’s nickname to memory, and would wow my dad’s friends on poker night answering every school they threw at me.

I regale you with this story to explain that when the atrocious, Bruce Willis flop Hudson Hawk came into my consciousness, the first thing that came to mind was that college basketball had a team called the Hartford Hawks. But there’s more to this NCAA Tournament foreigner than a name that sounds sorta like a bad Bruce Willis film.

Vin Baker averaged nearly 29 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots per game for Hartford in 1992-’93; it wasn’t enough to get them into the Big Dance.

HIGH POINT

The southern-most outpost of Purgatory, High Point also barely comes in under the requirements for age. High Point made a splash in this college basketball offseason, hiring Tubby Smith after his acrimonious departure from Memphis. 

When Smith replaced Josh Pastner at Memphis, I assumed it was a given the future Hall of Famer would take the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament, marking six different programs Tubby’s taken to the Dance, which would give him sole possession of the record (he’s currently tied with Lon Kruger). While I was wrong in that instance, perhaps his tenure at High Point will make history in both that regard, and in landing the Panthers in their first March Madness. 

MAINE

Having covered the Football Championship Subdivision, I am well aware of several facts involving Maine football. Just this week, I wrote a long-form feature that focused, in part, on the Black Bears’ rivalry trophy game against New Hampshire. As a wrestling fan, I’m also well aware that Maine football produced one of the most underrated talents of the Attitude Era, D’Lo Brown.

My most closely associated college basketball moment with Maine basketball involves Marshall Henderson, who never played a second in the state. Henderson’s swan song at Ole Miss — a game that, appropriately enough, ended with him giving the Bronx Salute to some fans — came against a John Giannini-coached La Salle bunch. Like Army’s Zach Spiker above, Giannini parlayed a successful stint with one of college football’s Tournament-less programs into an opportunity at a Big 5 program.

Giannini’s tenure at Maine is far-and-away the program’s most prosperous. The Black Bears won 24 games in 1999-’00 — then were promptly blown out in the America East Conference semifinal against Delaware.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Of the various America East programs to never make the Tournament (since Stony Brook ended its own drought in 2016), New Hampshire has been the closest in recent years. The Wildcats won 19 games and 20 games twice in three of the past four seasons. New Hampshire’s yet another program in Purgatory with a Big 5 connection, though current coach Bill Herrion went in the opposite direction, coming to UNH from Drexel last decade.

NJIT

Yes, yes. I realize what I wrote in the introduction about having had to be a Div. I program dating back to at least the ’90s. Sometimes, however, you have to make exceptions. NJIT is a worthy exception.

The Highlanders were demonstrably the worst program in Div. I college basketball not long ago, going 0-29 in 2007-’08; and 1-30 the following season. With a grueling, independent schedule, NJIT became the Harlem Globetrotters of the NCAA — if the Harlem Globetrotters were instead replaced by the Washington Generals.

The program’s sudden rise under Jim Engles earlier this decade was one of the more fascinating stories in college basketball; as was his departure for Columbia, immediately removed from the Highlanders reaching 20 wins in back-to-back seasons.

QUINNIPIAC

The university best-known for its polls has never come close to factoring into college basketball’s polls. Still, the Bobcats have had some solid teams in recent years, winning 45 combined games in 2009 through 2011. Unfortunately for Quinnipiac, this prosperity coincided with Siena having one of the best low-major conference programs in recent history, and one of the most notoriously upset-riddled league tournaments (the MAAC) claiming the Bobcats as victims. 

Baker Dunleavy brings a coaching pedigree as Q’s new coach, and was the assistant coach for the first of Villanova’s two recent championship under Jay Wright.

SACRED HEART

Sacred Heart enjoyed a prosperous two decades in Div. II through the 1970s and into the 1980s, peaking with a national championship in 1986. The Pioneers now embark on their 30th year of hardwood disappointment, two decades of which have been spent toiling in Div. I without an NCAA Tournament appearance.

ST. FRANCIS

One of the original NCAA programs to never reach the Big Dance, the occasion of St. Francis actually having its name called on Selection Sunday will be cause for celebration — and not just from obnoxious SB Nation bloggers who will no doubt insist on referring to its Terrier mascot as a Very Good Boy incessantly.

St. Francis enjoyed a successful era in the 1950s, coinciding with the point-shaving scandal at neighboring LIU that nearly brought down college basketball in its early days. The NCAA Tournament was much smaller and more exclusive then, so even with a final ranking of No. 13 and a 21-4 record in 1956, the Al Innis-led Terriers did not participate in the entity that would later become March Madness.

WILLIAM & MARY

Of all the programs to never participate in the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern making it into the 2017 field leaves William & Mary as the most heart-breaking, to me. An original NCAA member, the Tribe were mostly awful from the mid-1950s into the 2000s. But by the latter-half of last decade, coach Tony Shaver turned the program around. 

William & Mary is a perennial contender in the Colonial Athletic Association now — which makes their repeated March failures all the more frustrating. The 2015 team in particular featured a bona fide NBA-caliber talent in Marcus Thornton, a rarity for a program like W&M to have on its roster. The Tribe reached the CAA Championship, and then…went colder than cold. It was a brutal watch as Jim Calhoun’s old program, Northeastern, danced onto another March Madness.