Some of us are still recovering from a weekend bender of couch surfing while watching March Madness…but yet again did so without watching the Denver Pioneers. We wait yet another year simmering in the juices of the Never Made it to the Tournament Club. We are not waiting for One Shining Moment, just a moment. Watching Farleigh Dickenson University (FDU) and Princeton win their first-round (and second-round in the latter’s case) games only makes the milestone more painful.
For people that argue facilities make the difference, just look at Farleigh Dickenson’s home arena. FDU’s home court makes Hamilton Gym look like the Taj Mahal.
For people that argue academics prevent basketball excellence, just look at Princeton moving on to the round of sixteen. They don’t even have athletic scholarships (wink, wink).
Getting into the tournament has become an obsession for some Denver fans, something akin to the first moon landing but even more complicated, mystical, and baffling. Theories explaining the repetitive shortfalls include institutional commitment, recruiting, conference, style of play, culture, history, and just plain (bad) luck. Regardless of the cause(s), DU is on the outside looking in yet again.
The NCAA Tournament’s inception was in 1939; since then, over 3,000 spots have been available. DU began playing basketball in 1904, playing primarily regional schedules until after WWII when it became an NCAA independent Division I program until 1979. In 1999, the program returned to NCAA Division I, where it became a member of the Sun Belt Conference until 2012 when it joined the Western Athletic Conference for one season before joining the Summit League in 2013.
The closest recent near-miss was in 2016 when Denver made it to the semifinals of the Summit League Tournament. South Dakota State rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to defeat Denver 54-53 and advance to the Summit League final. SDSU’s Jake Bittle converted on a free throw with 2 seconds left to give the Jacks the lead, but DU’s Joe Rosga was fouled on the ensuing play. A 90% free throw shooter, Rosga missed the 1-and-1 free throw for the Pioneers. The Jackrabbits went on to win the tournament and the auto bid for the Summit League.
The pain lingers eight seasons later.
While the tournament started out with fewer participants, 68 teams now make the tournament with auto bids and at-large invitations. The tournament has grown from an initial eight teams, moving to 16 in 1951 and then growing steadily until 1985, when it reached its familiar format of 64. In the long history of the men’s NCAA tournament, a field that has now grown to 68 teams (out of 352 eligible) with four play-in games, there are still a surprising number of programs waiting to participate in their first March Madness.
This season, Kennesaw State was the lone departure from the ‘club,’ qualifying for the 2023 NCAA tournament, losing to 3-seed Xavier in the first round. The Owls secured their first-ever appearance in the tournament with a Big South conference championship win and auto bid.
Two teams qualified for the first time in 2022: Longwood and Bryant beat our Pioneers to the dance. In 2021, Grand Canyon (or Grand Crayon for its academics) and Hartford made the tournament for the first time and exited the list. Grand Canyon made a repeat performance this season playing locally at Ball Arena where they were destroyed by Gonzaga this past weekend.
Unfortunately, Denver, an old and familiar face to the Club, remains cemented as a senior member, only surpassed by four schools that have had a Division I basketball program since the inception of the tournament in 1939 who have failed to make the tournament – Army, The Citadel, St. Francis (dropping DI sports after this season) and William & Mary. (Army actually got invited but elected to play in the then more-prestigious NIT)
While Oral Roberts went to the NCAA tournament this season, the Summit League has five teams that have never gone dancing. Kansas City, Omaha, South Dakota, Western Illinois, and, of course, Denver.
Below is the full club list:
|High Point||Big South|
|Kansas City||Summit League|
|Maryland Eastern Shore||MEAC|
|UMass Lowell||America East|
|New Hampshire||America East|
|Purdue Fort Wayne||Horizon League|
|Sacramento State||Big Sky|
|St. Francis Brooklyn||Northeast|
|South Dakota||Summit League|
|UC Riverside||Big West|
|USC Upstate||Big South|
|UT Martin||Ohio Valley|
|Western Illinois||Summit League|
|William & Mary||CAA|
|Youngstown State||Horizon League|
*Bellarmine, Lindenwood, Merrimack, Queens, Southern Indiana, Stonehill, St. Thomas, Tarleton State, UC San Diego, and Utah Tech are not eligible for the 2023 tournament, as they are still completing the transition into DI.
Still, we wait and hope. Next year is ours – or, you know, maybe not.