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The Futile 42. UMaine is close to #1.

March 26, 2019

 

This time of year, even basketball neophytes know any reference to Sweet 16 is not a reference to a birthday party or the songs by Neil Sedaka and Billy Idol. 

 

March Madness is in full bloom and the countdown is on.

 

But while almost everyone from raucous roundball rooters to even the most completely sports-challenged among us, knows the difference between the Elite Eight and a V8 or the Sweet 16 and a 16-ouncer, there's one exclusive club that very few know about, want to acknowledge, or want to be in.

 

Say hello to the Frustrating Forty-Two: the 42 NCAA Division I men's basketball teams that have never qualified for or played in any NCAA Tournament game, first round or play-in, since the tournament began in 1939.

 

Most of the programs in this Hall of Shame lineup have only been members of the club for less than 20 years because they moved up from Division II or III, but with 89 seasons without an NIT or NCAA postseason bid, the University of Maine is among the "deans of the doormats."

 

The Maine Black Bears have been dribbling (literally and figuratively) in Division I since 1904. In that time, they have only been in position to play for a trip to the "Big Dance" a total of four times (1991 and 1994 in the North Atlantic Conference, and 2002 and 2004 in the America East Conference). By contrast, the Maine women's basketball team made its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance this weekend.

 

The most recent brush with a chance to be crushed by a No. 1 or 2 regional seed came in 2004, when the Bears lost to annual AEC title contender Vermont in the conference championship game. The top-seeded Catamounts thumped fourth seed Maine 72-53 on their home court in Burlington, and Vermont went on to get thumped by Connecticut. Since that season, the last of eight in the John Giannini head coaching era. Since Giannini left to become head coach of LaSalle (Pa.), the Bears have had just one winning season (19-11 in 2009-10), one .500 season (15-15 in 2010-11), and 13 losing seasons.

 

At least Maine isn't alone in its misery as the Bears have plenty of company with fellow America East Conference members New Hampshire, Hartford and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell all still waiting for their Big Dance cards to be punched by the tourney committee someday.

  

With a total of 351 men's Division I basketball programs competing this sneason, Maine and its fellow Futile 42 are part of the lower 12 percent. 

  

There are four other Division I programs of particular note in the faulty 42 worth singling out because of their long history that extends way beyond the NCAA Tournament itself:

  

Army, despite a long history of academic and athletic excellence, and even having legendary Hall of Fame coaches like Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski at different points in its history, has never graced a court with an NCAA Tournament logo or banner on it. The Black Knights did earn a bid and got an invitation to play in the 1968 NCAA Tournament, but Knight thought his Cadets had a better chance of winning in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and went there instead, only to lose to Notre Dame in the first round. 

 

The rest of the tough-luck and timeless group includes St. Francis of Brooklyn, N.Y., (first Div. I team fielded in 1896); The Citadel (1900) Bulldogs, who have only played in one postseason tournament of any kind ever; and William and Mary, which has been top seed in its conference tourneys (most recently the Colonial Athletic) before, but has never experienced cutting down the nets and doing "The Dance."

 

Don't totally despair, Maine fans, as there is legitimate hope in the form of another even older program that finally cracked more than a century's worth of tourney futility two years ago.

 

 Northwestern University finally ended a 113-year drought -- 78 with the NCAA Tournament -- in 2017 with a bid in the 64-team first round field and made their first trip worth the wait with a win before losing a close game to Gonzaga in the Round of 32.

 

Need even more recent reason for optimism? The Frustrated 42 was the Futile 44 before this year's postseason began, but both Abilene Christian of the Southland Conference and Gardner-Webb of the Big South made their NCAA Tourney debuts last week. History was short-lived, however, as both lost in the first round. 

 

 

 

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