- Doug Williams
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The motto on the St. Francis College website claims the school is "The Small College of Big Dreams."
One of those big dreams is to play in the NCAA basketball tournament.
The Terriers of Brooklyn Heights have been playing intercollegiate basketball since 1901 and have been a Division I program since the 1947-48 season, when the NCAA established divisions. And, in the 1940s and '50s, St. Francis was a hoops hotbed, with a national ranking and 18 straight wins in 1955-56.
Yet St. Francis is one of only five of those original 160 Division I schools that has never gone to the tournament.
As the tourney prepares for its 75th tip-off this month, the Terriers and their four mates -- Northwestern, Army, The Citadel and William & Mary -- have had 75 chances, but are a combined 0-for-375.
Though the tournament has expanded from eight teams in its inaugural year of 1939 to 68 today, the un-Fab Five are the only original Division I teams left out of step with the Big Dance.
For St. Francis, finally earning an invitation would be a golden ticket. Few in New York remember the school's glory years.
"A lot of people don't realize we're Division I," said David Gansell, director of athletic communications. "We've never been in the national limelight, never been talked about. We've never been in bracket pools around the country. People don't know anything about us."
Each team has come close. All five have their tales of near misses, twists of fate or being on the bubble but watching it go pop. One of the five actually was invited to the NCAA tournament, but opted for the NIT instead.
At The Citadel, where coach Chuck Driesell has embraced the challenge and distributed a four-point credo within the program that lists the "Values to play by on the way to our FIRST NCAA Tournament," getting the Bulldogs into the tournament is a mission.
"It wouldn't be a gorilla, it would be like an elephant off your back," said Jon Cole, The Citadel's associate media relations director for men's basketball. "It would be one of those things, ‘Wow, we did it.' "
The Wildcats are the only original team from a power conference still on the outside looking in.
The program actually has been on the rise since 2008-09 under Bill Carmody, who is now out as the head coach, with a national ranking in 2009-10, two 20-win seasons and four straight trips to the NIT, but getting better has also meant raised expectations and more painful losses.
Last season, Northwestern appeared as if it might finally get in. The team won 10 of its first 11 games, beat No. 6 Michigan State in January and was considered by bracketologists to be a team on the bubble going into the Big Ten tournament. Then it fell in overtime to Minnesota in the first round. Hello again, NIT.
For Northwestern grad and longtime fan MacArthur Antigua, it was just another "so Northwestern" moment.
"It was painful," said Antigua, 38, who grew up in the suburbs south of Chicago and was hoping a hot run in the Big Ten tourney would finally put the team over the top. "It was there for the taking."
When the NCAA tournament was born, it seemed the 'Cats were destined for it. Northwestern was a basketball school. It won a Big Ten title in 1933 and its 1930-31 team went 16-1 and was named retroactive national champion years later by the Helms Foundation. Plus, Northwestern hosted the first NCAA championship game. So far, that's its only link to it.
Out of the elite conferences -- which regularly send multiple teams -- Northwestern is still skunked.
For decades, through the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s, the program's record book is littered with losing seasons, and it has been hard to climb in a conference of powerhouses. Plus, the school's stringent academic requirements can make recruiting difficult, as former coach Kevin O'Neil acknowledged to a reporter last year, speaking about his three seasons there -- and his 30-56 record.
"I was there three years and I felt like I couldn't get it done," he said.
Antigua, though long-suffering, is confident times are changing. He'll be glad when the Norhwestern's-never-been-in-the-tournament storylines are dead and buried.
"If you're a Northwestern fan, it's like breathing," he said of the topic. "You don't need to talk about it. It's the elephant in the room."
Football at West Point is wrapped in tradition, filled with stories about national championships and Heisman trophies and Red Blaik, Pete Dawkins, "the Lonesome End" and Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.
Basketball? Not so much.
This season's team is the first to have a winning record since the Black Knights were 16-13 in 1984-85 and, for the most part, Army's teams through the decades have been mediocre -- or worse.
Two exceptions came under coaches Bob Knight in the 1960s and former Army guard (under Knight) Mike Krzyzewski in the late 1970s.
In six seasons, Knight's Army teams had winning records and went to the NIT four times; three of Coach K's teams finished with records above .500, including the program's last 20-win season in 1976-77.
It was in the 1967-68 season that Army could have been expunged from the un-Fab Five. Knight's team was 20-5 and received an invitation from the NCAA tournament, but declined in order to play in the NIT.
In John Feinstein's book about the history of the NCAA tournament, "Last Dance: Behind the scenes at the Final Four," he wrote Knight chose the NIT because of its proximity in New York and the fact he believed his team had a better chance of winning, "In part because Lew Alcindor and UCLA were playing in the NCAAs."
Bob Kinney, the sports information director at Army at the time, who worked at the academy 32 years, laughed when he heard about the Alcindor reference.
"It may have been [part of his thinking], I can't say for certain that it was," he said. "Bob just felt that our chances of advancing in the NIT were superior to our chances of advancing in the NCAA. Plus, Madison Square Garden, we had a great relationship with the people down there. We liked to play at the Garden at least once a year and be able to bring the Corps of Cadets down as a sixth man, so to speak. That was an important factor for us."
Plus, Kinney said, the times were different. The NIT, with 16 teams, and the NCAA tournament, with just 23, were much more similar in quality of teams and prestige. NIT participation had been a regular stop for Army in the 1960s, with the Black Knights going four times from 1961-66, with three trips to the semifinals.
At the time, nobody really gave the decision a second thought, Kinney said.
"We were very happy to go to the NIT," he said.
The only thing Army wasn't happy with was how the NIT experience turned out.
"We were the first team picked to play in the NIT in 1968," Kinney said. "We drew Notre Dame on St. Patrick's eve night, with two Irish officials, and lost by four in the opening round. All of that is factual," he adds, laughing.
Not only have the Bulldogs never been to the NCAA tournament, they've been to the postseason only once, in 2009, to the Collegeinsider.com Tournament.
That was just The Citadel's second 20-win season (the other was in 1978-79), so the men's basketball program hasn't experienced the success that some other programs at the school have. The baseball team has been to the College World Series, and the football team played in the Tangerine Bowl after the 1960 season and has been in the I-AA playoffs (now FCS) three times.
In fact, as longtime fan (and former cadet) Matt Winslow of Columbia, S.C., notes, he doesn't really have a "most painful" moment in more than four decades of rooting for the basketball team, because it hasn't often been in position to get a meaningful win.
"We've never really had a situation where it looked like we would get to the NCAAs, only to have someone hit a miracle shot or something," he wrote in an email.
The Bulldogs came close in 2008-09 when coach Ed Conroy's team finished second in the Southern Conference South, but promptly lost in the conference quarterfinals.
In fact, Winslow said, that has been one of The Citadel's problems. It has a horrible record in the conference tournament. Going into this season, it was 11-59.
The school has played in just one tournament championship game, and that came back in the 1958-59 season, when Norm Sloan -- who later won an NCAA title with his 1973-74 North Carolina State team -- saw his team lose to a West Virginia team with All-American Jerry West that would go all the way to the NCAA final.
History says it's a tough road for The Citadel. Recruiting to a school where players aren't just student-athletes but student-athlete-cadets is hard. Few blue chippers arrive, and the program's most famous player is a writer, Pat Conroy (Ed's cousin).
Yet Bulldogs fans, including Winslow, are optimistic that things will change.
Coach Chuck Driesell, the son of Lefty Driesell who came aboard for the 2010-11 season, is energetic and motivated, and has adopted more of an up-tempo style rather than the Princeton offense used in seasons past. He's even dug into his dad's old reel-to-reel films to make DVDs of plays and drills his father used in taking four teams to the NCAA tournament: Davidson, Maryland, James Madison and Georgia State.
Driesell has not only passed out his four-point credo for success, but a sign on the halls of the athletic administration offices takes aim at the fact the school has never been in the NCAAs. It features a growling Bulldog, the NCAA logo and the phrase, "Let's Make History."
"I don't know if The Citadel will make the NCAAs in my lifetime, because I don't know how long I'm going to live," joked Winslow. "But will the Bulldogs make the Big Dance in the next few years? I think so."
The school in Brooklyn Heights is not to be confused with Saint Francis of Pennsylvania, which has one NCAA tournament appearance: a first-round loss to Arizona in 1991.
The Terriers of Brooklyn -- New York City's oldest college program -- have come close a couple of times over the past 15 seasons to getting into the tournament. The 2001 team won the Northeast Conference regular-season championship but lost by three points to No. 2 seeded Monmouth in the NEC tournament final. Two seasons later, the Terriers lost again in the final, this time to Wagner.
It was in the 2001 NEC finale that St. Francis fans thought they'd finally be dancing.
With 14 minutes to go, the Terriers were up by 20. Then everything unraveled and Monmouth won 67-64.
"When the engine shuts off, it's tough to turn it back on," St. Francis coach Ron Ganulin said after the loss. "We felt the momentum change. Something just happened and I don't know why."
Through the decades, winning seasons have been outnumbered by the bad, including a 1-26 mark in 1993-94 and 2-26 in 1983-84.
But Gansell, in athletic communications at the school, remains hopeful. He has seen it happen before. He was a student at University of Maryland-Baltimore County when it made the tournament for the first time in 2008. Though the Retrievers had to wait just 42 years for their first NCAA experience, Gansell said the school was ecstatic about it.
"That would be pretty awesome," he ways of St. Francis finally breaking through. "To see my alma mater do it and see us do it, too."
WILLIAM & MARY
Sometimes, a school is just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For three seasons, from 1948-49 to 1950-51, the Tribe had records of 24-10, 23-9 and 20-11, yet each time it finished behind Southern Conference champ North Carolina State, which had become a national power under coach Everett Case and went all the way to the Final Four in 1950.
William & Mary didn't have another 20-win season until 2009-10. It's also 0-for-3 in trips to the Colonial Athletic Association title game.
The first time, in 1983, William & Mary was undefeated in conference play and reached the tournament final against James Madison. The game was tied 38-all with less than a minute to go and William & Mary with the ball. But the Tribe turned it over and lost, 41-38, and William & Mary went to its first of two NITs.
In 2009-10 under coach Tony Shaver, the team was on the bubble for an at-large berth, but two unexpected late-season losses to weak teams and then a loss to Old Dominion in the CAA title game -- its third loss of the season to ODU -- bumped the team out of consideration.
Peter Hays, a student and member of the school's Tribal Fever group that tries to pump up enthusiasm for school teams, was at that title-game loss. He recalls that even before the game there was apprehension.
"Just because of our history of never having made it, and ODU really had our number that year," he recalls. "We're kind of like a little brother with ODU because they're right down the road from us and they always beat us. So [the attitude] was kind of hopeful, but at the same time I don't think a lot of people thought we had much of a shot."
After losing that CAA final, 60-53, Shaver noted his team lost to ODU, not history.
"I don't think this team should carry the burden of the past," he told a reporter.
Kris Sears, the Tribe's sports information director for men's basketball, said the program has the NCAA in its sights. It's a challenge to take on, not to avoid, and it will be sweet to overcome.
"It's not a negative," he said. "It's just another number that we're ready to re-set."
Said Hays, about the prospect of William & Mary one day being able to see its name on the Selection Sunday brackets: "I think it would be kind of a crazy moment. A lot of people partying, relief. Surprise would be a big emotion."