Why you should care
After watching the postseason from their couches, these college basketball teams are hungry to return.
Three hundred schools compete in Division I NCAA men’s basketball. But between the NCAA Tournament and the smaller National Invitation Tournament, College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, only 136 teams take part in the postseason. That means 164 teams get sent home, though not always because of poor seasons. Some teams encounter bad luck along the way — losing streaks, injuries, strength of schedule — leaving them with lopsided records and ultimately left out of March Madness.
This season, six programs in particular that were victims of said bad luck are seeing their prospects look up. These schools have made improvements that will allow them to punch their card for the big dance once again.
Bradley Braves (20-13, 9-9 Missouri Valley Conference last season)
The Braves actually had a winning season last year (fifth in the MVC), the first under current head coach Brian Wardle and since 2010, when they nearly won the CIT championship. What kept them out last year was a simple lack of enough postseason bids to go around. Thankfully for the Braves, they return a ton of talent from last year (led by point guard Darrell Brown), and look to take advantage of Loyola-Chicago and Southern Illinois’ talent losses. Expect BU to snag at least an NIT spot in 2019.
Illinois Fighting Illini (14-18, 4-14 Big Ten last season)
After a 10-5 start, Illinois finished the 2017–18 season losing 13 of their last 17. Six of those losses were by eight points or less. Selection committees frown upon losses like that, especially in conference games.
“That’s life in general. There’s going to be ups and downs, but it’s all about how you respond to it,” says Illinois guard Aaron Jordan.
The Illini will return to the postseason this year because of one name: Brad Underwood. Last year was the only losing season he’s ever had as a Division I coach. Underwood has a proven track record of success as he guided both Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State to four consecutive tournament berths from 2013 to 2017. He won three Southland Conference titles while at SFA, with an overall record of 123-45.
The aforementioned Jordan, center Adonis De La Rosa and guards Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier will be the key players on whom the Illini pin their hopes this year.
Iowa Hawkeyes (14-19, 4-14 Big Ten last season)
Defense was a major issue for the Hawkeyes last season. They gave up 75 or more points in 24 of their 33 contests, leading to Iowa losing 13 of 18 to wrap up the season. The end result was only the second losing season of head coach Fran McCaffery’s tenure in Iowa City.
“We lacked consistency,” McCaffery says. “When you’re giving up high shooting percentages, it might be transition, it might be screens, it might be dribble penetration, but all of it is the same game. You have to consistently put forth the same effort defensively.”
Before last season, McCaffery guided the Hawkeyes to six straight postseason appearances (three NCAA, three NIT). He returns every player from last year, with center Luka Garza and forward Tyler Cook leading the way. Bet on his previous success combined with the talent at his disposal to bring Iowa back to prominence.
Northwestern Wildcats (15-17, 6-12 Big Ten last season)
The Wildcats rode their historic 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance to open 2017–18. They got off to a 13-9 start, but then lost eight of their last 11 games — six by nine points or less. In those losses, Northwestern made only 38 percent of its field goals and 30 percent of its 3-point attempts. Poor shooting down the stretch doesn’t equal wins … nor a tournament berth.
“To have to sit there on Selection Sunday … and not be a part of it, it stung me personally, and I know it stung a lot of our guys,” says head coach Chris Collins.
Northwestern has too much talent not to return to the Madness in 2019. Collins returns core contributors Vic Law, Jordan Ash, Dererk Pardon, Barret Benson and Aaron Falzon. He also brings in a solid freshman class in Pete Nance, Miller Kopp, Ryan Young and Ryan Greer.
SMU Mustangs (17-16, 6-12 AAC last season)
Southern Methodist University’s situation is unique. The Mustangs finished above the .500 mark but weren’t selected for either the NCAA or NIT as four of their conference rivals preceded them. Though invited to the CIT, SMU declined. Losing 16 of their last 22 regular-season games kept the Mustangs out of the bigger tournaments. Injuries to key players such as Jarrey Foster also played a role.
This year, SMU added talent to better compete with Wichita State and other AAC powers. Plus, head coach Tim Jankovich is just two seasons removed from a 30-win campaign that won SMU its last NCAA Tournament bid. Jankovich will make it happen again. He’s guided this team before, and he has the talent, with Foster and guard Nat Dixon leading the way.
I didn’t watch any of the tournament because of how bitter I was about [not being in it].
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin Badgers forward
Wisconsin Badgers (15-18, 7-11 Big Ten last season)
Greg Gard is preparing for his fourth season at the helm in Madison, but he’s fresh off experiencing his first losing season. The Badgers had a 9-7 record in the first half of last season but struggled once conference play began, losing nine of their first 11 Big Ten matchups. They finished the season winning four of six, but it wasn’t enough to keep dancing in March. Injuries didn’t help either.
“I didn’t watch any of the tournament because of how bitter I was about [not being in it],” Badgers forward Ethan Happ says.
Happ is one of 12 returning players. Gard has all the tools he needs to get the Badgers back into March Madness after snapping their 19-year appearance streak.