For 37 college basketball programs, the March Madness hunt begins once again.
For these 37 programs, hope springs anew as summer grows near, with season records reset to zeroes and a future that has yet to be written. For these 37 programs, anything is still possible for these next six months, no matter what anyone says in the meantime. For these 37 programs, the holy grail stands at a distance that is simultaneously so close and yet so far away.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, these 37 programs comprise the list of Division I schools that are eligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament, but have yet to punch a ticket to the Big Dance.
This group goes by various names, perhaps most notably as the “Never Made the Tournament Club.” For our purposes here at Heat Check, we’ll refer to these bid-hunters as Schools Never Invited to Dance — “the SCHNEID list” for short.
As the corresponding adage goes, the goal for each of these 37 programs is to get off the SCHNEID list and grab that elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance. Last season, the players at Grand Canyon and Hartford took their schools off the SCHNEID and delivered them to the Promised Land, earning their rightful place in their respective pantheons in the process.
Which programs are poised to do the same in 2021-22? It’s a difficult question, but not an impossible one to answer.
To that elusive end, I looked at the recent performance of each program and current projections for next season, and then compared those numbers against the conference-average for each respective school. The resulting measurement – which is referred to here as the Off The SCHNEID (OTS) score – also accounts for offseason realignment and the existing perennial powers within each conference.
The data used for this study comes from KenPom’s final 2021 rankings, Bart Torvik’s 2022 projections (current at time of writing), and the overall KenPom program rankings for each school. An important note to consider is that the OTS scores are not probability-based, nor are the scores completely finalized. The projections from Bart Torvik will change over time as rosters are updated and schedules are released.
Without knowing the final roster and/or schedule for each school, it may not be entirely useful to try to predict next season; however, by looking at the current trajectory for each program in light of how its conference is trending, a clear picture begins to form, showing the teams most likely to finally reach the Field of 68. In order to help the information be more digestible, the SCHNEID listing below is ordered by OTS score, and then further broken out into tiers.
Without further delay, let’s take a look at which teams are most likely to make the NCAA Tournament next season.
TIER 1 (1.000+ OTS): “GET IN, LOSER. WE’RE GOING [DANCING].”
ELON — COLONIAL — 1.336 OTS
- 2020-21 Season Record: 10-9 (4-7, CAA)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 205
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 163
The Phoenix top our list of programs most likely to get off the SCHNEID list in 2021-22, thanks to some great momentum under head coach Mike Schrage. While last season’s record may not jump off the page, it was the first winning season since 2016-17 for Elon and their highest KenPom finish since that same season. In fact, in two seasons under Schrage, the Phoenix have jumped over a hundred spots in the KenPom rankings – from No. 309 in Matt Matheny’s final season to No. 205 last year.
According to Bart Torvik’s projections, that upward arc is likely to continue next season, as the early T-Rank projections have Elon as a slightly above-average team nationally. Leading scorer Hunter McIntosh returns alongside Darius Burford and Hunter Woods, but perhaps the most important return is that of Jerald Gillens-Butler, a former Butler transfer who averaged 15.7 points per game in three appearances in 2020-21 before a ruptured Achilles tendon cut short his season.
An important note here is that the Colonial may be as open as ever next season, with no teams projected higher than No. 100, but five teams logjammed in between 100 and 200, per Torvik. That means the path to an automatic bid doesn’t necessarily run through a particular league juggernaut, though Northeastern and James Madison are currently projected to have better seasons. Don’t forget, though, that Drexel broke their own long Big Dance drought last year by winning the CAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed (strangely, the Dragons were also the highest-rated team in KenPom). A similar storyline could become reality for Mike Schrage and Elon this year. If an NCAA Tournament invitation does come to pass, don’t be shocked to see Schrage on lots of shortlists during next year’s coaching carousel.
UC RIVERSIDE — BIG WEST — 1.259 OTS
- 2020-21 Season Record: 14-8 (8-4, Big West)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 106
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 94
As you may know, UCR athletics are in financial trouble. If there weren’t already enough parallels between the situations at Hartford and UC Riverside, consider this: their circles could overlap in the Venn diagram even more if UCR makes the Big Dance for the first time in school history next year, just as Hartford did in March. There’s something utterly Shakespearean about an underdog program winning its way into the public’s hearts and minds and then leveraging that limelight into a collective rebuke of anyone who threatens to harm the team. While the book remains open on the UHart situation, the school does appear to be starting a transition to Division III to protect its coffers. Conversely, it looks as though UCR has found a way to avoid putting athletics on the chopping block – for now.
It is hard to quantify the effect of playing under multiple black clouds for an entire season, and harder still to imagine that the financial situation at UCR didn’t seep into the minds of the Highlanders’ coaches and players from time to time. Nevertheless, interim head coach Mikey Magpayo and his staff did a remarkable of keeping the team focused, and the result was UCR’s best season of the KenPom era. After finishing with a sub-200 KenPom ranking for 16 straight seasons, the Highlanders clocked in at No. 106 last year and hopes are high again for 2021-22, as Bart Torvik has them pegged as a Top 100 team in his most recent preseason projections. While Arinze Chidom and Jock Perry are both departed from the team, Magpayo has made some savvy moves to bring in transfers JP Moorman (Temple) and Jhaylon Martinez (UNLV) to fill those gaps alongside a very solid group of returning contributors, including Zyon Pullin, Flynn Cameron, and Dominick Pickett.
There are certainly reasons for concern here, though – namely, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. The Big West, for all the quality basketball that is played in its name, has long been resigned to the fate of a one-bid league. That, of course, means the road to the Big Dance runs through the conference tournament and the automatic bid. With UCI and UCSB also projected by Torvik to be Top 100 teams next year, there will be plenty of stiff competition for the Highlanders to reach that elusive apex. Still, there’s an incredible story bubbling just under the surface here, and Mikey Magpayo may be poised to put UCR in the spotlight next March, just like John Gallagher did this year with Hartford.
BRYANT — NORTHEAST — 1.140 OTS
- 2020-21 Season Record: 15-7 (10-4 NEC)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 185
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 169
For all intents and purposes, the Bulldogs probably should not even be on this list. They were the favorites in last season’s NEC Championship game against Mount St. Mary’s, but they were unable to get past a feisty Mountaineers squad that won the league’s automatic bid despite being the lowest-seeded squad in the four-team event. Fret not, though, Bryant fans: Jared Grasso has made sure this program isn’t fading back into obscurity on his watch.
Not only is Grasso returning almost everyone from last year’s team – which earned the second-highest KenPom ranking in school history – but he also managed to bring in more talent, including some nice mid-major transfers in Tyler Brelsford (George Washington), Adham Eleeda (Northern Kentucky), Grant Coleman (Milwaukee), and Greg Calixte (George Mason). Don’t get too enthralled by the new names, though; the core of this team is in its returners, chiefly the trio of Peter Kiss, Charles Pride, and Chris Childs. Each of the three should score in double figures next year, and things could get even scarier if big man Melo Eggleston delivers on the promise that led to Wake Forest signing him out of high school.
One external factor that is working in Bryant’s favor is the fact that Merrimack still has only a provisional membership in Division I and is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Warriors, as it stands, are the only team ranked higher than Bryant in the current T-Rank projections, meaning there is a decent shot that the Bulldogs will end up as the top seed in this year’s NEC Tournament. MSMU will still hang around and cause trouble, but there is every reason to believe that this is Bryant’s year. If Grasso does pull it off, it is almost a foregone conclusion that this would be his final season in Smithfield, as his name was bandied about quite a bit in this year’s rumor mill. Enjoy it while you still can, Bryant fans.
TIER 2 (0.800-0.999 OTS): “DON’T SAY WE DIDN’T WARN YOU.”
INCARNATE WORD — SOUTHLAND — 0.994 OTS
- 2020-21 Season Record: 8-14 (5-9, Southland)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 343
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 304
Seeing UIW this high on the list was a bit jarring at first, considering how little noise the program has made in the Southland since 2015-16. Sadly for the Cardinals, the team had three consecutive winning seasons in its first three years of provisional D1 membership but has not registered a single winning record in the past five campaigns. Under current head coach Carson Cunningham, the team is 23-61 overall; however, Incarnate Word has improved in Southland play in each of the past three seasons under Cunningham. The main reason the Cardinals are here, though, is because realignment has turned the conference into a shell of itself.
As one of the schools that stayed, Incarnate Word now finds itself in a brave new world in the Southland. No longer will the conference boil down to perennial contenders like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State, and that upstart Abilene Christian program is the WAC’s problem now. With Nicholls getting hit hard by the transfer bug, the door could be open for UIW to make a move. Despite losing their own leading scorer in Keaston Willis, the Cardinals bring in a dangerous scorer in RJ Glasper, who just helped lead Oral Roberts on their miraculous NCAA Tournament run. Can he help another small religious school attract a little divine intervention?
LONGWOOD — BIG SOUTH — 0.970 OTS
- 2020-21 Season Record: 12-17 (10-10 Big South)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 247
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 158
The Lancers have yet to make the NCAA Tournament since joining a Division I conference in 2012-13 after nearly a decade spent toiling away as a D1 independent. In three years under head coach Griff Aldrich, however, Longwood has made notable strides, including consecutive .500 finishes in Big South play. The team also finished with its highest-ever KenPom ranking in 2020-21, so the state of the program is as good as it has ever been. For that improvement to continue in Aldrich’s fourth season, look no further than Justin Hill and Deshaun Wade, both of whom scored in double figures last season and will likely take on some of the offensive shares made available by the departure of leading scorer Juan Munoz.
Looking at the current state of the Big South, there may be a window for the Lancers to squeeze through for their first-ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament on the men’s side. Winthrop and Radford have both had plenty of recent success near the top of the league, but with both schools replacing their head coaches this past offseason, there is potential for some growing pains for new coaches Mark Prosser and Darris Nichols. Another school to watch for here is Gardner-Webb, who was on the SCHNEID list until 2019, and Campbell and UNC Asheville are generally in the mix, too. With the league in a period of transition – especially near the top – the planets may be aligning perfectly for Longwood to punch its first ticket to the Big Dance.
QUINNIPIAC — MAAC — 0.967 OTS
- 2020-21 Season Record: 9-13 (7-10, MAAC)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 285
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 217
While the school itself is best-known for its political polling, the men’s basketball program has recently been living in the shadow of the QU women’s team, which has made five Big Dances since 2013. Perhaps the Bobcat boys can hold up their end of the bargain this year, though. Head coach Baker Dunleavy’s tenure in Hamden hasn’t been the stuff of legend, but there are some indicators that Quinnipiac could break through. One of those indicators is the return of interior defender extraordinaire Kevin Marfo, who left the program for greener pastures at Texas A&M before returning to QU after the season ended. The Bobcats may also bring back Aussie senior Jacob Rigoni in addition to Tymu Chenery and Luis Kortright. JUCO guard Dezi Jones (17.5 ppg, 4.7 apg, 4.6 rpg at Moberly Area CC) will also be in the fold.
Of course, the big issue with getting a bid in the MAAC is finding one’s way past Iona. The Gaels’ dominance in the league predates Rick Pitino’s arrival in New Rochelle, and it’s hard to imagine that program getting worse on Pitino’s watch. Quinnipiac finds itself squarely stuffed inside the logjam below Iona, which consists of usual suspects such as Siena and Rider. Really, the Bobcats’ best hope probably lies in some early upsets in the MAAC Tournament and their own streak of luck. That’s not to say a regular-season title is impossible – but in a one-bid league, the conference tournament is always the coup de grace.
SOUTH DAKOTA — SUMMIT — 0.952
- 2020-21 Season Record: 14-11 (11-4, Summit)
- 2020-21 KenPom Rank: 159
- 2021-22 T-Rank Projection: 125
The Coyotes have steadily improved as a program over their 12 seasons at the Division I level, and head coach Todd Lee will try to make 13 a lucky number for the school as they hunt for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Perhaps the program will be newly motivated after watching conference foe Oral Roberts break the “Dakota State” chokehold that SDSU and NDSU have had on the Summit League and then making the absolute most of their opportunity in the Big Dance. The problem for USD? All-everything Stanley Umude is headed to Arkansas for his final collegiate season, leaving a gaping hole in the Yotes offense. Ostensibly, that void will be filled by returners A.J. Plitzuweit and Xavier Fuller.
The larger problem for South Dakota may not be their own roster, but the quality of the top three in the Summit League. Oral Roberts, North Dakota State, and South Dakota State should all be in the mix again next season, so the gauntlet is as prickly as ever. Optimistically, if South Dakota can find a way to navigate through the top three, Todd Lee could see his star begin to rise in the coaching ranks. Recall that former USD head coach Craig Smith parlayed success there into his gig at Utah State, which earned him the Utah job this offseason. One thing Smith could never do: take the Yotes to the Big Dance. Can Lee pull it off?
TIER 3 (0.600-0.799 OTS): “SO, WE’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE.”
PURDUE FORT WAYNE — HORIZON — 0.799 OTS
The Mastodons may have missed their best window a few years ago when they had John Konchar driving Horizon League defenses crazy. After putting in the program’s worst KenPom performance since 2005, PFW will look to bounce back in 2021-22. The problem? The league could have itself a moment next year, thanks to the talent oozing out programs such as Milwaukee, Wright State, and Cleveland State. Don’t sleep on the talent in Vermillion, though. Jarred Godfrey, Jalon Pipkins, and Bobby Planutis form the returning core, while transfer Damian Chong Qui (Mount St. Mary’s) brings his dynamic play – and amazing story – to Fort Wayne by way of Baltimore.
KANSAS CITY — SUMMIT — 0.771 OTS
Back to the Summit League, Kansas City is in something of a difficult spot. As noted above, South Dakota is going to be doing their best to break through the NDSU/ORU/SDSU triumvirate at the top of the conference – and the Roos are at least a step behind the Coyotes, program-wise. For that reason, it’s not likely that Kansas City will punch their first ticket in 2022; however, there are some interesting pieces on the team, such as Marvin Nesbitt, Josiah Allick, and Lamar transfer Anderson Kopp. Even still, it would take a series of unexpected events for the Roos jump into the field of 68.
NEW HAMPSHIRE — AMERICA EAST — 0.763 OTS
The America East produced one of the two teams to get off the SCHNEID list last season (Hartford), but it’s not exactly a good bet to assume the league can produce another in 2022 when Vermont is still hanging around as the AE’s resident bully. The conference has four teams that are still waiting to dance for the first time, and UNH is probably the most likely of the four to pull it off. The Wildcats have a legitimate All-AEC player in Jayden Martinez, and players such as Nick Guadarrama and Qon Murphy showed flashes of brilliance last season. Good luck with UVM, though.
SACRED HEART — NORTHEAST — 0.746 OTS
If the Torvik projections are to be believed, the Pioneers are poised for a hundred-spot jump in the rankings next season. Assuming Tyler Thomas and Aaron Clarke are still in tow next season, that kind of improvement is certainly not out of the question. Unfortunately for Sacred Heart, we’ve already identified an NEC team (Bryant) that appears much closer to getting itself off the SCHNEID list. Still, the Pioneers should be in the top half of the league, and once the conference tournament starts, a good Merrimack team won’t be there due to their provisional status. Just like last season’s America East final, it is not unrealistic to think we could easily see an all-SCHNEID conference championship between Bryant and Sacred Heart next season. What a dream.
WESTERN ILLINOIS — SUMMIT — 0.740 OTS
For the Leathernecks – whose only true success on the court has come in widely publicized video game seasons – a trip to the NCAA Tournament would certainly go a long way toward taking WIU off the laughingstock list. As it stands, they face the same staunch opposition in the Summit League as South Dakota and Kansas City. If all those schools falter, though, it could present Western Illinois with an opportunity to strike. Outside of that scenario – which would be absolutely chaotic, by the way – the Leathernecks may have to lower their aim and go for their first winning season since 2013.
NJIT — AMERICA EAST — 0.734 OTS
Another America East program checking in here. It took some time for the Highlanders to find their way into a region-appropriate conference, but now that they’re settling into the AE, NJIT needs to start making some noise unless they want to be consigned to an eternity of also-ran finishes. Losing senior guard Zach Cooks hurts a lot, and the squad is two years removed from its most recent winning season. NJIT has a better chance than some to break the streak, but if anyone is going to do it from the AE this year, it’ll likely be New Hampshire. Is anyone else suddenly thinking that a Wildcats-Highlanders title game would be tons of fun?
ST. FRANCIS BROOKLYN — NORTHEAST — 0.657 OTS
In addition to Sacred Heart throwing a wrench into Bryant’s plans to get off the SCHNEID, the Terriers will also be nipping at the Bulldogs’ heels in the NEC. Rob Higgins and Michael Cubbage form a nice pair of scorers for St. Francis, but someone else is going to need to step up if the NEC Tournament trophy is to make its maiden voyage to Brooklyn. An interesting candidate for that position is Patrick Emilien, who can showed some versatility and shooting ability in the Western Michigan frontcourt for three years prior to transferring to St. Francis. As an aside: if it isn’t already, “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” should be the team’s official song until they make their first NCAA Tournament.
THE CITADEL — SOCON — 0.654 OTS
One of two military schools to never make the NCAA Tournament (Army is the other), The Citadel was showing a ton of promise at the beginning of the 2020-21 season. Kaiden Rice and Hayden Brown were each scoring in bunches, Fletcher Abee was launching threes, and it started looking like the Bulldogs might be a surprise contender in the always-difficult SoCon. Eventually, conference play caught up to the boys in blue and the season went off the rails. Now, with Rice gone to Georgetown, it will be up to Brown and Abee to carry The Citadel into the Big Dance. Unfortunately, there are no fewer than six SoCon programs with a better chance to hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
UTAH VALLEY — WAC — 0.616 OTS
While UVU is on the rise as a program, their ability to get off the SCHNEID in the short term took a noticeable hit when the WAC voted to bring in a bunch of new blood, and yet another when the Southland voted to rip off the Band-Aid and expedite the transition process so that it starts next season. While New Mexico State and Grand Canyon have been battling out in recent years, UVU has quietly made strides up the leaderboard under Mark Madsen. However, even with BYU transfer Connor Harding in the fold, it may be tough for the Wolverines to surpass both NMSU and GCU in addition to new faces such as Abilene Christian, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin. Keeping the program on an upward trajectory will be hard enough, let alone making the NCAA Tournament.
TIER 4 (0.400-0.599 OTS): “HEY, IT COULD HAPPEN.”
- GRAMBLING — SWAC — 0.564 OTS
- ARMY — PATRIOT — 0.546 OTS
- UMASS-LOWELL — AMERICA EAST — 0.540 OTS
- UT RIO GRANDE VALLEY — WAC— 0.524 OTS
- MARYLAND-EASTERN SHORE — MEAC — 0.506 OTS
To save this from getting too long, we’ll start talking about these teams in slightly bigger clumps now, starting with the “sub-tier” of programs that logged an OTS score between 0.5 and 0.6. This list includes Grambling, which has performed well under Donte Jackson but seems to always be a step behind programs like Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M; Army, which finished last season inside the KenPom Top 200 for just the second time in program history but still faces a tall task in taking down Patriot League favorite Colgate; UMass-Lowell, which came tantalizingly close to making the Big Dance last year before falling to Hartford in the America East championship game; UTRGV, which looks to bounce back from the tragic loss of former head coach Lew Hill by earning the school’s first March Madness bid; and UMES, which places curiously high in this list considering the Redhawks’ longstanding tradition of futility.
- PRESBYTERIAN — BIG SOUTH — 0.479 OTS
- SIU EDWARDSVILLE — OHIO VALLEY — 0.479 OTS
- BETHUNE-COOKMAN — SWAC — 0.415
- YOUNGSTOWN STATE — HORIZON — 0.415 OTS
- STETSON — ASUN — 0.413 OTS
- SACRAMENTO STATE — BIG SKY — 0.412 OTS
- HIGH POINT — BIG SOUTH— 0.401 OTS
It’s getting harder and harder to stretch the optimism out for these squads in the 0.4 to 0.5 OTS range, but most of these programs are at least on a generally positive trajectory. The problem is that all of these programs are blocked by a number of intraconference foes locked into spots above theirs in the pecking order. Out of this group, there are a few notable things to point out, including that High Point is coached by former national champion Tubby Smith. Stetson showed some good promise in the ASUN last year and could return a dangerous trio of Chase Johnston, Christiaan Jones and Rob Perry. It maybe that a change of scenery helps out Bethune-Cookman, which moves to the SWAC starting next season. The odds are going to be long on this group for good reason.
TIER 5 (sub-0.400 OTS): “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?“
- WILLIAM & MARY — COLONIAL — 0.338 OTS
- CHICAGO STATE — WAC — 0.269 OTS
- OMAHA — SUMMIT — 0.247 OTS
- KENNESAW STATE — ASUN — 0.233 OTS
- USC UPSTATE — BIG SOUTH — 0.183 OTS
- MAINE — AMERICA EAST — 0.183 OTS
- UT MARTIN — OHIO VALLEY — 0.055 OTS
- CENTRAL ARKANSAS — ASUN — (-0.079) OTS
- DENVER — SUMMIT — (-0.117) OTS
OK, we don’t love being pessimists here, so we’ll first point out that there is potentially a lot of money to be made if some prodigious bettor were to take a chance on one of these schools to make the Big Dance for the first time next March. Further, the outliers that immediately stand out in this group are William & Mary, Omaha, and UT Martin, with each program having churned out respectable seasons in the not-too-distant past. The Skyhawks would be a particularly feel-good story, as they are still coping with the loss of former head coach Anthony Stewart just prior to the 2020-21 season. If any school in this tier is going to make the NCAA Tournament, it’s likely to be one of those three.
As for the rest of these programs, the circumstances are simply not present for there to be any expectation of a run all the way to March Madness. If any of them were to punch a ticket, there’s a very good chance that they would be doing so while boasting a losing record. For some of these programs, it will be difficult just to earn eligibility into their respective conference tournaments, much less to win them. Still, this is college basketball, so no eventuality can be written off completely. Just be careful out there if you do decide to put money on any of these teams.
TRANSITIONING PROGRAMS: “PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEEDED.”
- CAL BAPTIST
- NORTH ALABAMA
- DIXIE ST.
- TARLETON ST.
- UC SAN DIEGO
- ST. THOMAS
We would be remiss if we didn’t include an honorable mention for the eight programs currently trapped in NCAA purgatory as they proceed through their four-year transition to Division I. The list above is ordered by how close each program is to gaining eligibility for the NCAA Tournament, with Cal Baptist and North Alabama each suiting up for their fourth and final year in no man’s land. Merrimack, which won the NEC in its first year in D1, still has two more seasons to log before becoming eligible to dance. Bellarmine, Dixie State, Tarleton State, and UC San Diego will all enter Year Two of their transition in 2021-22, while St. Thomas will make their debut in the top division next year as the Summit League’s newest school.
For some of these schools, their stay on the SCHNEID may be very short-lived. Abilene Christian and Grand Canyon are both recent examples of teams that did not have to wait very long for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament once the provisional tag was lifted. Just as a stab in the dark, my money says that Merrimack and Bellarmine will be the next two programs from this list to make it off the SCHNEID – but don’t sleep on the Tommies, who bring a strong winning tradition with them from Division III.
For the other 37 programs, this season provides an opportunity to finally get off the SCHNEID list. While the best bets to pull this off are Elon, UC Riverside, and Bryant, there are another of other schools that are not too far off from their first bid – and as we know from experience, anything is possible when it comes to March Madness.
Whichever team is the next to make it off the SCHNEID will be met with great fanfare here at Heat Check CBB. Throughout the season, we’ll be keeping an eye on each of the 37 programs that could hear their name called for the first time. Connect with us on Twitter @HeatCheckCBB and let us know which school you think will punch its first ticket in 2022!