First Dance: Ranking the most likely first-time NCAA Tournament teams in 2022

UC Riverside and Utah Valley lead the group of 37 first-time NCAA Tournament hopefuls in 2022.

One of the joys every March is following along with D-1 programs, both new and old, that are vying for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Hartford and Grand Canyon picked up their first bids last March and Abilene Christian and Gardner-Webb did the same in 2019.

A total of 37 D-1 programs that have never appeared in a March Madness game are eligible for the 2022 NCAA Tournament, including four (Army, William & Mary, The Citadel and St. Francis Brooklyn) that have competed in D-1 for over a century. Our very own Andy Dieckhoff covered the topic in detail over the offseason, creating a metric to predict which programs were most likely to make the March jump.

With most of nonconference play under our belts, let’s check out the seven teams that have the best shot at hearing their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time this season.

Welcome to First Dance.

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7. Youngstown State Penguins (8-4)

The Penguins stole a pair of road wins to kick off Horizon action, knocking off Milwaukee and Green Bay to open December. Jerrod Calhoun‘s program takes care of the basketball and is weathering the storm admirably despite the season-ending loss of three-time all-league defender Garrett Covington (torn Achilles). A New Year’s date with conference favorite Oakland is a breakout opportunity for the YSU program.

6. New Hampshire Wildcats (5-4)

Located in the other Durham, UNH has made its mark in nonconference action. Bill Herrion, who has patrolled the Wildcats sidelines since 2005, had some close calls against quality competition.

New Hampshire led Marquette 62-61 with under five minutes remaining and was tied with Providence with 14 minutes to play back in November. Jayden Martinez is the star of the group — a 6-7, 200-pound forward who is one of the game’s unicorns. Martinez is averaging 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and is shooting a ridiculous 22-of-43 (.512 percent) from deep with just six turnovers in 309 minutes.

5. Bryant Bulldogs (5-7)

Bryant loaded up in nonconference play with matchups against Houston, Cincinnati, Clemson and Rhode Island and just three games at home in Smithfield, R.I.

Now settling into NEC play, the Bulldogs are one of the primary threats to represent the conference in March. An experienced group, upperclassmen guards Peter Kiss and Charles Pride combine for more than 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals a night. Once this up-tempo team starts to hit its perimeter shots (326th in 3P%; 16th in ’20-21), watch out.

4. Western Illinois Leathernecks (10-4)

Rob Jeter is guiding the Western Illinois program to new heights. Heading into this season, WIU had finished 290th or worse in KenPom in six of the last seven years. The Leathernecks currently sit 10-4 and 168th in KenPom, already the most total wins since 2018 and the highest KenPom rank since 2013.

Jeter’s style of play could prove to be a major factor in the sharpshooting Summit League. WIU ranks fourth nationally in opponent 3-point attempt rate, which will be helpful in limiting Oral Roberts‘ (No. 5 in 3PA rate) and South Dakota State’s (No. 3 in 3P%) lethal perimeter attacks.

3. Longwood Lancers (7-5)

Located in Farmville, Va., Longwood is hoping its 18th year as a D-1 program is a fruitful one. Griff Aldrich’s Lancers could be a factor in a wide-open Big South, a rarity for the conference in recent years.

Longwood is 19-19 in Big South play over the last two years. Before the ’19-20 season, the Lancers had a 28-92 (.233 winning percentage) all-time record since joining the conference. Following a sleepy transition to D-1, Longwood is no longer the league’s punching bag.

Former ACC contributor Isaiah Wilkins — previously with Virginia Tech and Wake Forest — leads the way in scoring. Wilkins is one of three starting guards shooting better than 37 percent from 3-point range. Despite the team’s jarring size disadvantage, Longwood ranks 22nd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.

2. Utah Valley Wolverines (9-3)

Mark Madsen‘s Wolverines could be a dangerous bunch in the WAC Tournament. Already with an upset win over then-No. 10 BYU and Pac-12 foe Washington in Seattle, UVU has shown up in a big way during nonconference action.

Fardaws Aimaq is the name to know. The reigning WAC Player of the Year is a rebounding menace, tallying 14.5 boards per game in 34 career appearances with Utah Valley.

Including UVU, the top five WAC teams are packed within 37 spots on KenPom. While new Mexico State is typically the overwhelming conference favorite and GCU has made its mark, don’t be surprised if Utah Valley makes some waves behind its star big man.

1. UC Riverside Highlanders (6-4)

The Highlanders have been a revelation since Mike Magpayo took over as head coach prior to last season. UCR is 20-12 (.625 winning percentage) under Magpayo’s leadership after a 198-369 (.349) all-time D-1 mark before his arrival.

After falling in last year’s Big West semis, UCR is back for more. Highlighted by a ridiculous buzzer-beating win over Arizona State in November, Magpayo’s group navigated a daunting nonconference slate and looks like a legitimate Big West threat.

Do-it-all guard Zyon Pullin leads the way as one of just four players nationally averaging at least 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game. UCR hangs its hat on perimeter defense, using length to take away 3-point looks. The nation’s seventh-tallest team is top 25 in both 3-point percentage defense and opponent 3-point attempt rate.