Northwestern finally looks ready to break its NCAA Tournament drought after cracking the Top 25 for the first time since 2009. But the Wildcats may not be the only team playing in their first-ever NCAA Tournament in March.
Along with Northwestern, here are five other schools most likely to be first-time dancers.
*Percentages from teamrankings.com
1. Northwestern (81.1%)
We all know Northwestern is the only high-major to never make the NCAA Tournament, and the Wildcats haven’t been close the last four seasons. Well, many people are already calling them a lock for the Big Dance with an 18-4 record entering February.
The analytics agree that Northwestern is a tournament-caliber team. The Wildcats are No. 32 in RPI, No. 30 in Kenpom, No. 23 in LRMC, No. 30 in Sagarin and No. 29 in KPI.
Barring a loss to Rutgers or getting swept by Illinois, the biggest potential obstacle for Northwestern actually has less to do with how the Wildcats play down the stretch. Their three best wins are against Dayton, Wake Forest and Indiana, all of which are bubble teams. If the Wildcats cannot snag a marquee win against Purdue, Wisconsin or Maryland and Dayton, Wake Forest and Indiana all fall out of the at-large field, then there could be some sweating on Selection Sunday.
Northwestern should get another quality win before the end of the year — they’ll be favored Feb. 15 against Maryland. And with their backcourt trio of Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law, this team has the potential to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament with the right matchups.
As of today, The Catch and Shoot has Northwestern as a solid No. 6 seed.
2. Fort Wayne (31.4%)
Okay, so Fort Wayne’s win over Indiana was something of a fluke. The Hoosiers are not as good as we thought it was. But, any team that beats Indiana is definitely capable of winning the Summit League, and Team Rankings gives the Mastodons a solid chance of doing just that in March.
The Mastodons are currently 2.5 games out of first place in the Summit League with a 5-4 record, but they are the conference’s highest-ranked team in Kenpom at No. 123. So put them in a neutral-site conference championship game against anyone else, and they’d be the favorite.
Fort Wayne is led by a quartet of guards: senior Mo Evans (17.8 ppg, 5.5 apg), junior Bryson Scott (16.8 ppg) and sophomores John Konchar (14.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.0 apg) and Kason Harrell (10.9 ppg). All four guys can shoot it well from the outside, and with Fort Wayne’s up-tempo system that makes for some entertaining basketball.
To be a real first round upset threat, they’d probably have to climb up to a No. 13 seed, and Team Rankings gives only a 4% chance of that happening.
3. Lipscomb (20.3%)
One of the biggest crimes in college basketball history is that Adnan Hodzic and Josh Slater never played in a NCAA Tournament. Here comes Garrison Mathews trying to avenge the Bison of yesteryear.
Lipscomb has not had a winning season since Hodzic and Slater graduated in 2010-11, but it should easily clear the .500 mark this year. The Bisons are 14-11 with a 6-2 record in the Atlantic Sun, putting them one game behind first place Florida Gulf Coast.
Can they beat Dunk City? Not likely. They lost to FGCU at home this season and will be big underdogs in Fort Myers next week.
Mathews, a 6’5″ sophomore who could be A-Sun Player of the Year, is an electric scorer, and he’s got a few experienced guards playing alongside.
With all the mediocrity in the Atlantic Sun this year, Lipscomb is set up for a run to the conference finals. If they get there and face Florida Gulf Coast, Mathews is capable of getting hot and carrying the Bisons to their first-ever tournament.
4. UC Davis (16%)
After missing the NCAA Tournament despite a 25-win season in 2014-15, UC Davis deserves its shot. If the Aggies make it this year, they are staring at a No. 16 seed, though, thanks to a 6-7 non-conference record against D1 teams and a Big West conference that ranks No. 29 out of 32 in RPI.
The Aggies have taken advantage of the weak league with a 5-1 start, placing them in a tie for first place with UC Irvine. UCD also just beat UCI at home on Saturday.
5. North Dakota (13.8%)
North Dakota played a tough non-conference schedule leading to a 2-5 record against Division I opponents, but the Fighting Hawks are still among the Big Sky favorites.
In non-conference play, North Dakota split its series with Summit League title contender North Dakota State as each team won the road. The Hawks also beat WAC title contender Cal State Bakersfield on a neutral site. They were the victims of Jeremy Morgan’s sensational 38-point half in a close loss at Northern Iowa, and they also played a fairly competitive game at Iowa before things got tense in the closing seconds.
At 7-3, North Dakota is one game behind Weber State for first place in the Big Sky, and the Fighting Hawks already won their first meeting with the Wildcats at home.
6. Denver (12.6%)
Only one team from the Summit League will make the tournament, but between Denver, Fort Wayne and even Omaha (9.1%) and South Dakota (8.6%), there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be seeing new faces cutting down the nets in Sioux Falls this March.
The Pioneers are on their way to a sixth winning season in eight years, but they are yet to break through to the dance. They are currently tied with Fort Wayne with a 5-4 Summit League record, 2.5 games out of first place. They blew out North Dakota State at home and lost a close game to Fort Wayne on the road.
Maybe this team is built for a Summit League tournament run. We’ll have a better idea in two weeks after they rematch the Bison and the Mastodons.