Which Major Conference Teams Could End NCAA Tournament Droughts in 2019–20?

For power conference programs, three years without an appearance in March Madness can feel like an eternity. But some enter 2019-20 closer than others to going dancing in the spring.
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March Madness 2020 Georgetown basketball

The dawn of a new college basketball season is nearly upon us, and, per usual, the best and brightest in the field are chasing the opportunity to wear oversized t-shirts and ugly hats while cutting down the nets to celebrate victory in the best tournament in American sports: March Madness.

In reality, only a dozen or so teams can harbor actual aspirations of winning it all. Most programs simply hope to secure one of the 68 coveted spots in the 2020 tournament, and many of them look to end tournament droughts ranging from three to 28 years. For the purposes of this list, we are looking at teams from the seven major conferences—the Power 5 plus the Big East and AAC (as well as a special guest from the A-10)—who have gone at least three seasons without a bid.

Last year, six teams that appeared on these rankings made the Big Dance. Ole Miss, St. John’s and Mississippi State bowed out after the first round (the Red Storm technically fizzled out in the First Four) while Washington and UCF got bounced in the Round of 32. LSU, the top seed from last year’s list, made it to the Sweet 16 before exiting stage left.

With those six temporarily relieved of any drought talk, nine programs make their debut on the watchlist, bringing the total to 23. It’s an interesting mix of perennial conference cellar dwellers, rebuilding teams with new coaches attempting to wrangle rosters full of transfers and freshmen, historically mediocre programs looking to get hot at the right time, consistent winners looking to take the final, most important step and one team with more pure talent than all the rest.

With that said, here they are, ranked from least to most likely to go dancing in March.

23. Tulane | Last Season: 4-27 (0-18 AAC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 1995

After a glimpse of brighter days in year two of Mike Dunleavy’s reign, Tulane bottomed out in year three. It failed to win a game after Dec. 17 and was one of four Division I basketball programs to go winless in conference play. Ron Hunter, formerly the head coach at Georgia State, took over from Dunleavy in March and will attempt to pick up the pieces without the four leading scorers from last season’s four-win team. With mostly freshmen and transfers in the fold, it projects to be another long season for the Green Wave.

22. East Carolina | Last Season: 10-21 (3-15 AAC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 1993

Another non-competitive season for the Pirates ended with the departure of most of their rotation; eight of the 10 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game for ECU last season are no longer on the roster. Leading scorer Jayden Gardner (16.3 points) is back, but backup forward Seth LeDay is the only other returner (and the only senior) who played significant minutes last season. The 78th-ranked recruiting class in the nation can’t be expected to change things overnight, and it appears ECU is headed for its sixth consecutive sub-.500 season as its overhauled roster finds its footing.

21. St. Joseph’s | Last Season: 14-19 (6-12 Atlantic 10) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

After the messy firing of Phil Martelli ended his 24-year run as head coach of St. Joe’s, sweeping changes began on Hawk Hill. Former 76ers assistant Billy Lange takes over a roster ravaged by decommitments and transfers, with eight players (including the top four scorers) from last year no longer suiting up for the Hawks. Depth is an issue across the board, but the backcourt will especially feel the sting of losing its top four guards. With junior forward Taylor Funk (8.4 points) as the leading returner, Year 1 under Lange will probably be one to forget for the Hawks.

20. Washington State | Last Season: 11-21 (4-14 Pac-12) Last Tournament Appearance: 2008

Another program in flux, the Cougars said goodbye to team leader Robert Franks (21.6 points) after another dismal year in the Pac-12 and welcomed new coach Kyle Smith from the University of San Francisco. A sore spot for Wazzu last year was a lack of scoring from its backcourt, but three of the four guards who clocked the most minutes are gone. Sophomore forward C.J. Elleby returns after a strong freshman campaign (14.7 points) and should get some help from a smattering of JUCO transfers and three-star freshmen, but this team lacks the top-end talent to make a tournament push in the Pac-12.

19. Nebraska | Last Season: 19-17 (6-14 Big Ten) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2014

After clocking in at third in these very rankings ahead of last season, the Huskers fell far short of expectations and watched Tim Miles receive his pink slip after a dismal conference slate left them near the bottom of the Big Ten. In comes former Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg, who faces an unenviable set of challenges his first year in Lincoln. The top nine scorers from last year are gone, replaced with seven freshmen and a handful of transfers. The best of the group are former Florida Gulf Coast guard Haanif Cheatham (eligible) and former Western Kentucky guard Dalano Brown (sitting one), both four-star recruits out of high school. Year 1 under Hoiberg will be full of growing pains for a young, inexperienced team playing in a deep conference.

18. Cal | Last Season: 8-23 (3-15 Pac-12) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

Another lost season for Cal found rock bottom during a 15-game conference losing streak that stretched through most of January and February. Cal logged just five conference wins across the last two seasons, and head coach Wyking Jones lost his job because of it. Former Georgia head coach Mark Fox is the new man in charge, and he must find a way to replace 25 points a night after losing leading scorer Justice Sueing and starting guard Darius McNeill. Senior guard Paris Austin (11.6 points) returns to lead the Golden Bears, who look thin in the frontcourt a season removed from finishing 307th in the nation in points allowed per game. The tournament may be too lofty a goal for this group, but improvements within the conference are attainable.

17. Utah | Last Season: 17-14 (11-7 Pac-12) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

Despite a decent season last year for the Utes, an offseason of upheaval drops them down this list. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak returns for his ninth year at the helm, but a rash of transfers and graduations reshaped his team. Krystkowiak lost four of his five starters and an additional five bench contributors. Forward Timmy Allen (12.2 points) is the top returner and will be joined by four-star point guard Rylan Jones, the 11th-rated prospect at his position in the class of 2019. However, with just one junior and one senior on the roster, the Utes are short on experience and appear likely to take a step back from last season.

16. Boston College | 14-17 (5-13 ACC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2009

The Eagles stumbled back under .500 with a weak showing in conference play after several seasons of gradual improvement under Jim Christian. The starting backcourt of Ky Bowman (19 points) and Jordan Chatman (13.2 points) is gone, and key backup Wynston Tabbs underwent season-ending knee surgery on Sept. 17. That leaves sophomore Chris Herren Jr. as the lone experienced guard, but the Eagles return most of a solid frontcourt unit led by senior Nik Popovic (14.5 points). USC transfer Derryck Thornton, a former five-star recruit from the class of 2015, is on his third college program and will need to contribute at guard with Bowman/Chatman/Tabbs out of the picture. The Eagles have enough returning talent to replicate last season’s unimpressive results, but they must improve within their conference to earn a bid.

15. Stanford | 15-16 (8-10 Pac-12) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2014

The Cardinal spent a third season in Pac-12 purgatory under Jerod Haase and slipped back under .500. Year 4 doesn’t look much better as Haase must replace 27 points of scoring a night after the departures of forward KZ Okpala and center Josh Sharma, his two most prolific scorers. The loss of starting guard Cormac Ryan should be soothed some by the addition of Tyrell Terry, a four-star commit from the 2019 class and the 10th-ranked point guard prospect in the nation. However, this is a young team with only one senior that didn’t pick up any impact transfers to inject leadership into its locker room. Expect more of the same in Palo Alto this season.

14. Georgia Tech | 14-18 (6-12 ACC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2014

Perhaps the most consistently mediocre team in the ACC over the last decade, Georgia Tech has not hit the .500 mark in conference play since 2006–07. After enjoying a 21-16 record his first season, head coach Josh Pastner turned in two sub-.500 campaigns in a row and may well be coaching for his job. The good news is Pastner returns his top four scorers and a defense that only allowed 66.6 points per game in 2018-19 (53rd in the nation). The bad news is Georgia Tech was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in college basketball last season, barely cracking 30% from three as a team. Reinforcements in that area come via the transfer portal in former VMI guard Bubba Parham (39.7% from three last season) and former USC combo guard Jordan Usher (four-star recruit from 2017). More bad news: as things stand, Tech is banned from the 2019-20 postseason, though the school is appealing and could see that status changed. The Yellow Jackets should be better than they were a year ago, but will it be enough to steal a bid in a strong ACC if its postseason ban were to be lifted? Until proven otherwise, the answer is no.

13. DePaul | 19-17 (7-11 Big East) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2004

Head coach Dave Leitao guided the Blue Demons to their first winning season since 2006-07, but it still wasn’t enough to make any waves in the Big East. Things don’t look much easier this year, as Leitao must replace 46 points per game after the graduation of his top three scorers, including the starting backcourt of Max Strus and Eli Cain. Former Kansas point guard and Chicago native Charlie Moore (four-star in 2016) and Arkansas forward Darious Hall (played all 35 games as a freshman) arrive via the transfer portal and will be joined by Romeo Hall, the 11th-rated power forward in the class of 2019. With the rest of the roster largely unchanged, the impact of those newcomers will dictate the success or failure of DePaul’s season.

Pitt basketball Xavier Johnson

12. Pitt | 14-19 (3-15 ACC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

The Panthers’ 2018-19 campaign was a tale of two halves; sitting at 12-5 through January 14, Pitt did not win another game until March 9. Head coach Jeff Capel’s second year should go smoother thanks to the return of five of his top seven scorers from a year ago. Xavier Johnson (15.5 points) leads a strong stable of guards, and the frontcourt will be bolstered by forward Eric Hamilton, a transfer from UNC Greensboro with past tournament experience, and four-star small forward Gerald Drumgoole. Pitt should improve on its 3-15 ACC record from last season, but it will be hard-pressed to steal a bid in a conference with four preseason top-25 teams.

11. Rutgers | 14-17 (7-13 Big Ten) | Last Tournament Appearance: 1991

As Rutgers inches closer to three decades without a tournament appearance, the signs that brighter days are coming continue to pop up. Though last season saw little change in the Scarlet Knights’ overall record, they played much better against the Big Ten. Head coach Steve Pikiell lost leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi but hung onto his next seven bucket-getters and enters his fourth year with the foundation intact from last season. Rutgers will add graduate transfer Akwasi Yeboah from Stony Brook, where he was the Seawolves’ leading scorer and rebounder as well as a member of the All-America East first team. Though the Scarlet Knights won’t leap to the top of the Big Ten and are still a longshot to earn a tournament bid, they are trending in the right direction.

10. Penn State | 14-18 (7-13 Big Ten) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2011

A team similar to Rutgers but with a bit more talent, the Nittany Lions stumbled to an 0-8 start in conference play that torpedoed their tournament chances last season. Head coach Patrick Chambers lost starting guard Josh Reaves and his backup Rasir Bolton but returns forward Lamar Stevens (19.9 points) and the rest of his starting five. Former Oklahoma State sixth man Curtis Jones should provide an experienced guard option to partially offset the departures of Reaves and Bolton, but a team that didn’t score many points last season (69.7 per game) must find consistent scoring from someone other than Stevens to push into the tournament conversation.

9. Indiana | 19-16 (8-12 Big Ten) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

The second year of Archie Miller saw an improvement in overall record for the Hoosiers but a dip in Big Ten record and overall finish within the conference. Replacing 32 points a night from the now-departed Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan will be difficult, but the other three starters are back along with most key bench contributors from last year’s unit. The Hoosiers beefed up the frontcourt in the offseason, adding four-star big man Trayce Jackson-Davis (30th overall in the class of 2019) as well as former Butler center Joey Brunk, who Miller expects to inject leadership into a young locker room. The frontline reinforcements should bolster an already solid defense (76th in the nation in points allowed last season) and help replicate Morgan’s scoring, but losing Langford hurts a middling offense immensely. It’s a big year for junior guard Al Durham and sophomore guard Rob Phinisee, Indiana’s top two options at the position who will need to score more than the 15.1 combined points per game they averaged last season for the Hoosiers to make a run at the tournament.

8. UConn | 16-17 (6-12 AAC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

The first year under a new coach is often a miserable one for college basketball teams, but Dan Hurley managed to keep UConn competitive as he began to lay the foundation for the program’s resurgence. He lost leading scorer Jalen Adams (16.9 points) and lead backup guard Tarin Smith but returns most of his frontcourt and the rest of the starting five. A solid core will be aided by the 18th-ranked recruiting class that includes a pair of four-star backcourt contributor: shooting guard James Bouknight (10th in the nation at his position) and combo guard Jalen Gaffney (15th at his position). They are joined by four-star power forward Akok Akok (15th at his position) and former Howard point guard R.J. Cole (sitting one), the MEAC player of the year in 2018-19. Hurley’s second year should be a step forward given the mix of experienced returners and talented freshman in the fold, but a suddenly deep AAC may delay the Huskies return to the Big Dance until next season.

7. Georgia | 11-21 (2-16 SEC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2015

Tom Crean’s first year in Athens was messy, but the ever-skilled recruiter responded by bringing in the nation’s 10th-best recruiting class for 2019-20. Gone is leading scorer and current NBA forward Nic Claxton, as is fellow starting forward Derek Ogbeide. The Bulldogs lost a total of 10 players from last year; six seniors, three transfers and Claxton to the draft. But the reinforcements brought in by Crean are impressive, led by shooting guard Anthony Edwards. One of the biggest recruits in school history, the No. 2 player from the class of 2019 is joined by four other top-100 recruits, headlined by small forward Christian Brown (70th overall). Georgia will also add a seasoned transfer in Northeastern guard Donnell Gresham, a starter for the Huskies who played in the NCAA tournament last season. Frontcourt depth may be an issue given the youth of the players expected to replace Claxton and Ogbeide, but the backcourt will be a point of strength for the Bulldogs. A strong season from the SEC (five likely preseason top-25 teams) could keep Georgia on the outside, but an extremely talented roster will bring it much closer than it was a year ago.

6. Oregon State | 18-13 (10-8 Pac-12) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

The Beavers kept pace in the Pac-12 last season and had their best year since the 2016 tournament appearance. Steady improvements in each season under Wayne Tinkle should continue in his sixth year as Oregon State brings back four of five starters led by senior forward Tres Tinkle (20.8 points) and junior guard Ethan Thompson (13.7 points). Frontcourt depth might be the only weakness for the Beavers, as they lost bench contributors at forward and center while bringing in a collection of three-star recruits that only features one forward. That said, the guard group will be bolstered by the addition of JUCO transfer Sean Miller-Moore, and Oregon State appears primed to end their brief tournament drought with a strong showing in Pac-12 play.

5. South Florida | 24-14 (8-10 AAC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

Some may be surprised to see the Bulls this high on the list, but Brian Gregory turned in the program’s first winning season since 2011-12 in just his second year at the helm. USF returns all five of its leading scorers, paced by the starting backcourt of junior David Collins (15.9 points) and senior Laquincy Rideau (13.4 points). The bench will be bolstered by the addition of a pair of three-star recruits, but the more important addition is former Oklahoma State guard Ezacuras Dawson II (No. 76 in the class of 2017), who is now eligible after sitting out last season. With a team largely unchanged from a year ago, the Bulls should challenge the top dogs in the AAC for a tournament bid. As with many teams on this list, that cannot happen unless USF gets above .500 in conference play, but a strong showing in January and February could see Gregory and the Bulls dancing in March.

Illinois baskeball Ayo Dosunmu Big Ten

4. Illinois | 12-21 (7-13 Big Ten) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2013

Despite logging a worse overall record than the year prior, the Fighting Illini did improve their Big Ten record in Year 2 of the Brad Underwood era. Four of five starters return to Champaign, led by sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, the No. 32 player in the class of 2018 and last year’s leading scorer. He will be joined by four-star center Kofi Cockburn and, after sitting one, transfer wings Austin Hutcherson (Wesleyan) and Jacob Grandison (Holy Cross). With their top four scorers returning, a highly touted freshman center and a pair of experienced transfers ready to go next season, the Fighting Illini are shaping up nicely to break their drought. Even if the tournament proves too elusive in 2019-20, they can certainly improve on the 4-7 non-conference record that sank their season last year.

3. Georgetown | 19-14 (9-9 Big East) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2015

Patrick Ewing finally got his alma mater above .500 in his first season as head coach. Getting them back to March Madness represents a more difficult challenge, but Ewing’s three key freshman contributors from last season—James Akinjo, Mac McClung and Josh LeBlanc—all return for their sophomore year. Gone is senior center and leading scorer Jessie Govan, but the Hoyas kept the rest of their starters. Without any splashy transfers or impact recruits, Georgetown’s best bet for making the tournament is facilitating the development of its young core. The Hoyas clocked in at .500 in the Big East last season, so a solid step forward from Akinjo, McClung and LeBlanc could propel their team into the conversation for one of the conference’s final bids.

2. Colorado | 23-13 (10-8 Pac-12) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2016

Another team that kept pace in the Pac-12 last season, Colorado has been quietly consistent throughout Tad Boyle’s tenure. In year nine, he gets his top six scorers back and will field a team largely unchanged from the one that clocked in at 66th in the nation in points allowed per game last season. Former JUCO guard Maddox Daniels (42 percent from three last season) fills out a deep, experienced roster featuring just one true freshman. Led by the all-junior backcourt of Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright IV (26.6 points per game combined), the Buffs should be dancing in March if they can avoid stretches of poor conference play (2-6 during January last season).

1. Memphis | 22-14 (11-7 AAC) | Last Tournament Appearance: 2014

Penny Hardaway appears poised to send his alma mater back to March Madness in just his second year as head coach. The most impressive achievement for him and his staff may have already happened—landing the best recruiting class in the nation for 2019. Hardaway’s haul features the No. 1 overall prospect, center James Wiseman, as well as the No. 15 overall prospect in small forward Precious Achiuwa. The class is rounded out by five four-star players—combo guards Damion Baugh and Boogie Ellis (No. 38 overall), shooting guard Lester Quinones (No. 58 overall), power forward D.J. Jefferies (No. 52 overall) and center Malcolm Dandridge. The youngsters will play immediately, as five of the top six scorers from last year’s squad are gone. However, Memphis is the only team on this list likely to be in the preseason top-25 for a reason, and Wiseman, Achiuwa and the rest should run roughshod through the AAC on their way to the program’s first tournament appearance since 2014.