Following a season cut short due to COVID-19, every college basketball team in the nation enters the fall at least a year removed from its most recent March Madness appearance.
The upcoming college basketball season figures to be equal parts chaotic and entertaining. What we do know, though, is that several teams are eyeing return trips to March after lengthy absences.
Below are six teams that could erase long tournament droughts this upcoming season.
Most recent appearance: 1980
Furman’s elusive March Madness return is long overdue. The Paladins have finished no worse than third in the SoCon the past five years, going 66-24 in league play in the same span.
Bob Richey — one of the nation’s young coaches at just 37 — propelled Furman to its first AP poll appearance two seasons ago and now eyes a tournament bid. Richey’s team is fueled by swingman Clay Mounce and forward Noah Gurley, both of whom were all-conference selections in the spring.
Most recent appearance: 1991
Had a global pandemic not erased the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the Scarlet Knights would no longer be on this list. Much like the Daytons and San Diego States of the world, Rutgers’ storybook season ended without a proper conclusion.
Fortunately for Steve Pikiell’s group, the band is back for an encore. Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker lead the way for a Rutgers team that finished above .500 in league play for the first time since 1991, back when it was a member of the Atlantic 10. Not only are the Knights a lock to make it to March, but they could do some serious damage in their long-awaited return.
Most recent appearance: 1993
East Carolina still seems out of place in the AAC. A former member of the Conference USA and CAA, the Pirates have two March Madness appearances in program history, coming at the tail end of 13- and 14-win seasons, respectively. ECU has just two winning seasons since 1998.
Nevertheless, Joe Dooley’s crew looks like a sneaky underdog this coming season thanks to 96.4 percent of the team’s total minutes returning from ’18-19, according to barttorvik.com. Keep an eye on junior forward Jayden Gardner, an all-conference choice after leading the league in scoring at 19.7 points per game. ECU could reach the bubble conversation if Gardner’s supporting cast steps up.
Most recent appearance: 2010
Can you name the teams that finished ahead of Georgia Tech in the ACC last year? Turns out it was only Florida State, Duke, Louisville and Virginia. Even still, the Yellow Jackets didn’t receive much attention, which can probably be traced back to the program’s decade-long tournament drought.
Expectations are as high in Atlanta as they have been in years. Josh Pastner’s team returns the main nucleus in Michael Devoe, Jose Alvarado, Moses Wright, Jordan Usher and Bubba Parham. This defensive-minded squad could be a tough out in the ACC if it finds a way to improve its offensive efficiency a notch or two.
Most recent appearance: 2013
No team in college basketball won the offseason quite like Illinois. The expectation around Champaign was that either or both of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn would turn pro. Instead, Brad Underwood has his top two players back on campus in what could be a special season.
Illinois fans would tell you that it’s about time the program experienced some positive momentum. Had March Madness not been canceled this spring, the Illini would have ended its longest tournament drought since the 1970s. Expectations have skyrocketed for the coming season.
Most recent appearance: 2014
Stanford hung around the bubble at the time the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled, with 25 of 97 Bracket Matrix bracketologists placing the Cardinal on their final bracket. A tournament bid would have been the program’s second March Madness appearance since 2009 following a run of 13 bids in 14 years from 1995 to 2008.
Thanks to a loaded recruiting class — five-star swingman Ziaire Williams is the highest-rated recruit in program history — that ranks No. 11 on 24/7Sports and Pac-12 player of the year candidate Oscar da Silva, the Cardinal have the right mix of talent and experience. Jerod Haase hasn’t been back to March since his 14th-seeded UAB Blazers upset Iowa State in 2015.
Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.
Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.