The two universities founded by John Evans, Northwestern University and the University of Denver, have never made it to the NCAA basketball tournament. It has been 78 years for the Wildcats (20-7, 9-5 Big 10), the longest drought of any major conference basketball program. Members of the original 120 Division I teams to never make the NCAA tournament include Army, The Citadel, St. Francis (NY), William & Mary, and of course Northwestern. Denver’s futility is somewhat softened because the Pioneers were a Division II program from 1979 to 1998. Denver has whiffed all 59 years, though.
The NCAA tournament started in 1939. Prior to that time and in the early days of the NCAA tournament, universities saw the NIT as the most prestigious tournament. In fact, Army turned down a bid to the NCAA’s in the 1967-68 season under head coach Bobby Knight and point guard Mike Krzyzewski to go to the NIT. Beginning in 1939, only 8 teams made the NCAA tournament field. Qualifiers increased to 16 in 1951, 32 teams in 1975, and 64 teams in 1985. Today, 68 teams make the field out of the 351 DI basketball teams.
Denver and Northwestern have a different path to the dance. Denver (16-11, 8-6) must win their Summit League conference tournament at Sioux Falls, South Dakota in what has shaped up to be a 1-bid conference this year. Northwestern, playing in the Big 10, can get an at-large bid based on a high RPI or by winning the Big Ten Tournament. Prior to 1975, only one team per conference could make the NCAA tournament. Today, it’s not unusual to see 3-5 teams from the bigger conferences make the NCAA tournament in any given year.
That brings us to Northwestern’s chances.
The Wildcats are sitting fourth in the Big 10 at 9-6, trailing third-place Maryland by 1 game. They sit with a 43 rank in RPI. The Wildcats have signature wins over SMU, Michigan State, and Wisconsin and have hit the 20 win plateau. They have three conference games left. They face Indiana at Indiana. Then, a home game against Michigan and finish up with a home game against league-leading Purdue to end the conference schedule. Still more obstacles face the Wildcats in the Big 10 Conference Tournament when they can either earn critical wins or brutal losses to cement their NCAA bid or place them squarely on the bubble.
While the path is daunting for both programs, Northwestern has never been closer.
Denver plays their final home game tonight at Magness Arena at 7:00 pm MT against Omaha, hoping to secure a solid conference seed and momentum for the Summit League Tournament.
Maybe this is the year.