Can These College Basketball Teams Ever Make It Back to the Big Dance?

Meet the undefeated 1955-56 NCAA champs, the University of San Francisco Dons: All-American Bill Russell (foreground) and his teammates (left to right), K. C. Jones (captain), Mike Farmer, Carl Boldt and Harold Perry.
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Can These College Basketball Teams Ever Make It Back to the Big Dance?

By Matt Foley


Because “idle” just means they’ve been waiting awhile. 

By Matt Foley

After scrolling through the list of NCAA Final Four appearances, you’d be forgiven for thinking that March Madness is merely a cruel means of squashing underdogs’ dreams. Since 1978, only George Mason in 2006 — the highest seed (No. 11) in men’s tournament history to make such a run — and Pennsylvania in 1979 qualify as true underdogs, but more intrigue awaits as we continue down the list.

Sure, traditional blue-blood programs have succeeded almost every season since the tournament’s inception in 1939, but it’s evident that before the days of Air Jordan, Magic and Hakeem the Dream, teams that would qualify as shocking Final Four participants today once played the role of powerhouse.

As we look ahead to March Madness, let’s stroll down memory lane. The schools below have appeared in Final Fours and played an integral role in the history of the game. However, for one reason or another, they’ve fallen off the deep end. So, now the question is, how do these clubs restore a winning tradition?

Some March dancing would surely help.


NCAA Titles: 1955, 1956
NCAA Elite Eight:1955, 1956, 1957, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1974

You may know that one of the greatest basketball players ever, Bill Russell, got his start at USF, but did you know that from 1955 to 1974, the Dons won two titles, went to three Final Fours and seven Elite Eights and made 10 Sweet 16 appearances? That level of dominance is typically reserved for Duke, North Carolina and UCLA. That’s the company that the Dons kept back then. Led by Russell and fellow Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, USF was the Bay Area yin to UCLA’s yang. And in 1979, led by future Chicago Bulls center Bill Cartwright, San Francisco achieved a No. 1 ranking after starting the season 29–0. However, the perennial contender soon had a downfall.

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In the 1955 holiday tournament in Oklahoma City, the University of San Francisco Dons crushed UCLA 70-53, and Bill Russell, hoisted here on his teammates’ shoulders, was named tournament MVP.

Source Bettmann/Getty

After the NCAA placed the school on probation twice in the late 1970s, USF president John Lo Schiavo warned that he would kill the program if recklessness continued. In 1980, when it was discovered that athletes in the program were engaged in fraudulent test-taking and boosters were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit and pay players, Lo Schiavo still held out. But when All-American Quintin Dailey was arrested for sexual assault, he’d had enough. Lo Schiavo voluntarily shut down the program — a first in NCAA history — and the Dons lay dormant until being reinstated in 1985. 

These days, the Dons are toiling at 14–13 in the West Coast Conference. Conference rival Gonzaga, the best mid-major program in America, is a major hurdle, but second best in the WCC is certainly doable. With the Golden State Warriors in town, the Bay Area is an exciting place for a basketball program to thrive. If USF can retain top regional prospects while recruiting overseas talent — much like neighboring St. Mary’s College has done — the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1998 will soon follow.


#2: LaSalle University

NCAA Titles: 1954
NCAA Final Fours: 1954, 1955

A member of Philadelphia’s storied “Big 5” — Villanova, UPenn, Temple, St. Joseph’s and LaSalle — the Explorers’ history covers every inch of the spectrum. Led by Hall of Famer Tom Gola, LaSalle won the NIT championship in 1952 and the NCAA title in 1954, and returned to the NCAA Final Four in 1955. But it also posted 12 straight losing seasons from 1993–2008. In total, La Salle has made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances and is one of only two schools (with Houston) to have two players in the top 25 in all-time NCAA scoring — Michael Brooks (’80) and Lionel Simmons (’90). Still, LaSalle has struggled to win consistently.

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La Salle forward Michael Brooks drives to the basket against Duquesne at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1980.

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From 1988 to 1992, led by NBA talent like Simmons and current ESPN analyst Tim Legler, LaSalle made the NCAA Tournament four times and finished the 1989–90 season ranked 11th nationally. “It was an honor to help restore La Salle basketball back to where it belonged,” says Legler. But those good tidings didn’t last. With the rising success of Temple, Villanova and St. Joseph’s in the 1990s, recruiting in the deep Philadelphia talent pool became tougher than ever, and LaSalle fell off.

Recruiting remains an issue today, but Philadelphia and the mid-Atlantic region is so talent-rich that LaSalle should always be competitive. Helping their cause is a surprise 2013 run to the Sweet 16 as a 13-seed. Villanova will always be the alpha in the Big 5, but with a storied history, adequate resources and recent flashes of success, LaSalle should consistently contend for a title in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Do that, and March Madness bids will follow.

#3: Loyola University Chicago

NCAA Titles: 1963
NCAA Sweet 16: 1963, 1964, 1985

Any exercise in college basketball hypotheticals must include a Chicago team, right? That’s my rule, at least. It’s a travesty that no university in the Tokyo of the Midwest has capitalized on arguably the best talent ground in the country. Each year, top recruits like Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Isaiah Thomas flee Illinois to attend school elsewhere. Given the rich history of hoops at both DePaul University and Loyola Chicago, it’s time for at least one of these sleeping giants to stage a revival. For our purposes, let’s go with LUC.

The 1966 Texas Western basketball team, immortalized in the Disney film Glory Road, is credited with integrating college basketball, but Loyola played a role in the movement too. “Loyola actually started integration,” says Gregg Spalding, an engineer at Loyola and lifelong Ramblers fan. “[Head coach George] Ireland didn’t care what the rules were, he wanted to win.”

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Center Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of the UCLA Bruins scores two on a layup against the Loyola University Ramblers during a game in Chicago, in 1967.

Source Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty

Three years before Texas Western’s upset of Kentucky, Ireland broke the unwritten rule of playing only three Black players at the same time by starting four in every game. Loyola was also the first team to play five Black players at once. That story doesn’t have quite the same Hollywood appeal as Texas Western’s, but the racial pioneering — and the ’63 title — briefly established LUC as Chicago’s premier basketball institution. Unfortunately, since 1968 the school has made only one NCAA tournament appearance (1985 Sweet 16), and the program has become an afterthought for local recruits

But now, the Ramblers look to be on their way back. At 21–5, Loyola has a commanding lead in the tough Missouri Valley Conference. A conference title will end the 32-year March Madness drought and the six local products on the Ramblers’ roster signal brighter times on the recruiting trail.

Honorable Mentions:

St. John’s
Boston College