Tournament Woes Stalk Pioneers

Only 33 schools in all of D1, at least 10 years old, have never made it to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships, better known as March Madness.

DU is one of ‘them’.

The NCAA tournament has expanded a number of times throughout its history. This is a breakdown of the history of the tournament formats:

  • 1939–1950: 8 teams
  • 1951–1952: 16 teams
  • 1953–1974: varied between 22 and 25 teams
  • 1975–1978: 32 teams
  • 1979: 40 teams
  • 1980–1982: 48 teams
  • 1983: 52 teams (four play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1984: 53 teams (five play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1985–2000: 64 teams
  • 2001–2010: 65 teams (one play-in game to determine whether the 64th or 65th team plays in the first round)
  • 2011–present: 68 teams (four play-in games before all remaining teams compete in the first round)

While DU’s odds have gotten better over time, the Pioneers still sit on the outside looking in.

The Denver Pioneers are one of the more visible programs to not make ‘the dance’ along with sister school, Northwestern. Both were founded by John Evans and both are experiencing the pain of filling out brackets instead of filling up lanes. DU played D1 from 1948 to 1980 and then returned to D1 play again in 1999 while NU has been eligible the entire 76 years of the tournament. DU was eligible for tournament play 48 of those years.

Northwestern has experienced even more pain than DU, if that is possible. DU has always been in a 1-bid conference so the Pioneers had to either win the conference championship or, recently, win their conference tournament.  The Wildcats on the other hand are members of a Power Five Conference where a host of schools from each conference make the dance.  In the past 8 years alone  74% of the power conference members have made the tournament.

Army is in this also-ran group. They turned down the NCAA in 1968 to play in the ‘then’ prestigious NIT. They went undefeated in 1944 (15-0) but a war got in the way so they did not travel to the tournament. Ever since…zip.

Other programs on the outside looking in include The Citadel, William & Mary, St. Francis College, New Hampshire, Maine, UT-Pan American, Stetson (nice hats but bad at Bball), Grambling State, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Youngstown State, Bethune Cookman, Chicago State, Hartford, UMKC, Sacramento State, UT Martin, Jacksonville State, Elon, High Point, Sacred Heart, Stony Brook, Gardner-Webb, Savannah State, UC Davis, Utah Valley.

Earlier this year Denver played two no-bidders – UC Riverside and Lipscomb

The Pioneers are joined in The Summit League by another pair of no bidders – Western Illinois and IPFW

And finally, currently top-ranked Quinnipiac – in hockey – has also never made a trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

As for the state of Colorado – UNC, Colorado, Colorado State, and Air Force – led by Joe Scott, have made it. Only one state has never had a team in March Madness – Maine.

DU is usually out of the mix.

There was DU’s 2012-2013 squad. (22-10, 16-2 WAC) that ventured to Las Vegas for the league championship and an automatic bid. The one seed, Louisiana Tech, got bounced early giving #2 seed DU a clear path to the NCAA bid. However, in the Quarterfinals, DU was shot down by an upstart Texas State team. DU later accepted an NIT bid where they got their first tournament win against Ohio at Magness. In the next game they traveled to Maryland and held a solid double digit second half lead when DU star Chris Udofia was called for a questionable flagrant call, resulting in a rare 5 point play, that spelled eventual doom for the DU squad (52-62).

2011-12 DU (22-9, 11-5 Sun Belt) may have had an even better shot in taking the Sun Belt title the year before. Playing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, their last year in the Sunbelt, the Pioneers were a #3 seed. DU was bounced in the semifinals, 67-63, by an uncharacteristically poor Western Kentucky (16-19, 7-9 Sunbelt) team. Western Kentucky went on to win the Sunbelt tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament – with a sub-.500 record.

Denver students, fans, and community responded to these talented squads with strong attendance and support.

DU’s basketball history explains much of the current ambivalence around the DU basketball program. It is a cop out to say the reason DU basketball does not receive support because DU is a ‘hockey school’ or a ‘lacrosse school’ as voiced by some players and fans.  The DU and Denver community are fully capable of supporting more than one successful team at the same time – just look at the lacrosse scrimmage against Johns Hopkins. However, until DU hoops can break through, either as a conference #1 seed or as an upstart, it will be difficult for DU basketball to gain visibility, traction, and followers in an already saturated sports market.