Now that February is in the rearview mirror and March is here, it’s time to eat, sleep and drink college basketball for the next few weeks. The NCAA Tournament, one of the most popular sporting events in America, always provides plenty of drama and upsets that even the casual sports fan can’t turn away from. For a three-week period from when the field of 68 is announced in mid-March to the championship final the first Monday of April, college basketball fans are able to see one team make a magical run of six straight wins to be crowned NCAA Champions.
However, before “March Madness” begins with the field of 68, tournaments of 32 different conferences take place giving any team a chance to make it to the “Big Dance” no matter what that school’s regular season record may have been. Every so often teams catch lightning in a bottle and reel off three or four consecutive wins and next thing they know they’re only six (or seven) games away from a national title. While these teams usually exit early from the NCAA Tournament losing their first or second game, it still brings hope that something miraculous can happen. Over the last 20 seasons there have been 14 teams to make the NCAA Tournament despite finishing the regular season (including the conference tournament) with a losing record. Unfortunately that means four of those teams had to be left off this list, so apologies to the 1996-97 Jackson State Tigers, the 2002-03 North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs, 2003-04 Florida A&M Rattlers and the 2011-12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers for not making the cut.
10. 2001-02 Siena Saints – Final Record: 17-19; Strength of Schedule: 227
Siena’s 2001-02 season had the upstate New York team hovering two to four games below .500 most of the season. Besides their 1-1 start, the closest the Saints would ever get to .500 during the regular season was in early January when they won a fourth straight games to make it to 8-10. As the season winded down though, Siena went 4-8 in their final 12 games heading into the MAAC tournament posting a 12-18 record. Despite finishing the regular season seventh in the MAAC standings, Siena went on to dominate their conference tournament winning all four games, three of which were by double digit margins of 11, 15 and 20. The Saints expanded their win streak from there to five wins when they won the play-in game against Alcorn State and then had to face eventual national champions Maryland Terrapins losing 85-70.
9. 1995-96 San Jose State Spartans – Final Record: 13-17; Strength of Schedule: 120
In San Jose State University’s final year as a Big West member before moving onto the WAC, the Spartans bid adieu in style by winning three conference tournament games over a three-day period to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Coming off a 4-23 season in 1994-95, SJSU played much of the same way for the first three-quarters of the 1995-96 campaign. After losing a pair of games the first weekend of February, the Spartans dropped to 4-15 having lost seven straight games. But something sparked the Northern California team as they finished the regular season winning six of seven games and then winning three more at the Big West Tournament including a 76-75 overtime thriller against Utah State in the championship game. The Spartans’ reward for running the table was a No. 16 seed and a date with Rick Pitino‘s Kentucky Wildcats team, which beat SJSU 110-72 on their way to a national title. Since that season 18 years ago, the Spartans have failed to make another NCAA Tournament appearance and have only recorded one winning season.
8. 2004-05 Oakland Grizzlies – Final Record: 13-19; Strength of Schedule: 142
Starting the season off 0-7, things looked bleak for the 2004-05 Oakland Grizzlies. However, the Grizzlies were able to pull it together to a certain degree once conference play started and finished the season in a tie for fifth place in the Mid-Continent Conference with a 7-9 conference record. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, Oakland had a paltry record of 7-18, but two wins prior to the conference tournament proved to be enough to give the Grizzlies the momentum they needed the next week. The Michigan-based school went on to win all three conference tournament games by a total of eight points, good enough to go dancing with a 12-18 record. Oakland was slotted for a Tuesday play-in game by the NCAA committee facing SWAC champions Alabama A&M, winning the match-up by a score of 79-69 for a fifth straight win. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies’ ride ended three days later when they had to face North Carolina–the eventual national champions–and lost by a margin of 28 points.
7. 1997-98 Prairie View A&M Panthers – Final Record: 13-17; Strength of Schedule: 236
The Prairie View A&M Panthers had a rough start to their 1997-98 campaign, going 3-7 in non-conference play and then dropping six of their first seven conference games to fall to 4-13. But once February hit, the Panthers proved to be a new team compiling a 6-3 record over the final nine games, which included a three-game win streak at one point, to enter the conference tournament at 10-16. Taking a two-game win streak into the SWAC tournament, the Panthers edged out Jackson State, Alabama State and Texas Southern by a total of eight points and headed into the Big Dance on a five-game win streak. Prairie View A&M’s hot play didn’t faze its NCAA Tournament opponent No. 1 seeded Kansas–not surprisingly–as the Jayhawks obliterated the Panthers 110-52. The 1997-98 season is the only time Prairie View A&M has been to the NCAA Tournament in the basketball program’s 37-year history and it doesn’t look like the Panthers will be returning anytime soon as they only have eight wins so far in 2013-14.
6. 1996-97 Fairfield Stags – Final Record: 11-19; Strength of Schedule: 172
Recording their third win just four games in to start 3-1, the Fairfield Stags would struggle the rest of the 1996-97 regular season going 5-17 from that point forward to finish 8-18. Ending the season with two wins in their final 10 games and having just lost three straight, it seemed as if the Stags were already looking toward future seasons. However, Fairfield had different plans in the MAAC Tournament, first by beating 22-6 league favorite Iona 80-71, then getting past St. Peter’s 73-61 and finally beating tournament host Canisius 78-72. The Stags’ play earned a date with No. 1 seeded North Carolina, who they actually competed with quite well losing by less than 10 points 82-74. In fact, the Connecticut-based school played the eventual Final Four squad to closer margins than two other North Carolina tournament opponents, Colorado (17 points in the round of 32) and Louisville (23 points in the round of 8). The Stags have yet to return to the NCAA Tournament since that 1996-97 season and are currently having their worst season in program history with only six wins thus far in 2013-14.
5. 1995-96 Central Florida Golden Knights – Final Record: 11-19; Strength of Schedule: 201
Long before the American Athletic Conference ever came calling, the University of Central Florida competed in the Atlantic Sun Conference alongside schools like Centenary University, Mercer University and Stetson University. After a 2-0 start for Central Florida in the 1995-96 season, the Golden Knights went on to lose the rest of their non-conference schedule to enter the new year with a 2-7 record. Winning their first conference game against Jacksonsville State, UCF then went on to lose five straight to fall to 3-12. However, over the final 11 regular season games, the Golden Knights went 5-6 to finish in a tie for third in the Atlantic Sun East Division with an 8-18 record. With the conference tournament beginning on leap day (February 29, 1996) Central Florida won three straight conference tournament games ending on March 2, winning each game by single digit margins. Going into the tournament with an 11-18 record, the committee matched Central Florida up with John Calipari’s one-loss UMASS squad and lost 92-70. The Golden Knights have made it back to the NCAA Tournament twice since 1996, but are still looking for their first NCAA Tournament win.
4. 1994-95 Florida International Panthers – Final Record: 11-19; Strength of Schedule: 220
Playing in the Atlantic Sun along with Central Florida in the mid-90s were the Florida International Panthers. Much like their league compatriot, Florida International had a less than stellar non-conference, going 2-6 before winning six league games and finishing the regular season at 8-18. The low point for the Panthers came in mid-February when they sat with record of 5-17 and little left to play for. But play they did, and sure enough Florida International went on to win three of their final four regular season games and three consecutive Atlantic Sun tournament games to get an automatic berth to the field of 64. Similar to others on this list, FIU got matched up with a team that would go on to win the national title that year as they faced UCLA who won rather easily 92-56.
3. 1998-99 Florida A&M Rattlers – Final Record: 12-19; Strength of Schedule: 299
Having never made it to the NCAA Tournament before, the Florida A&M Rattlers had no reason to believe that the 1998-99 season would be any different, especially after an 0-10 start, not winning a single game in November or December. After notching their first win on January 2 against Maryland-Eastern Shore, the Rattlers went on to win seven more games in the regular season finishing with an 8-18 record going into the MEAC tournament. Then over a six-day period, Florida A&M won four games including a 64-61 championship game victory against the MEAC No. 1 seed and favorite South Carolina State. Paired with their win in the last game of the regular season, the Rattlers had a five-game win streak going into the NCAA Tournament where they had to face tournament juggernaut Duke. Of course Florida A&M came up short losing by 41 points, while the Blue Devils went on all the way to the national title game. The good news for the Rattlers is that since their first appearance 15 years ago they have returned twice with improved records each time: 15-17 (2004-05) and 21-14 (2006-07).
2. 2007-08 Coppin State Eagles – Final Record: 16-21; Strength of Schedule: 285
After a 2-0 start and a 3-2 mark at the completion of five regular season games, the Coppin State Eagles went without a win over the next seven weeks, losing 11 straight games to fall to 3-13 by mid-January of the 2007-08 season. To think a team has the fortitude to come back from that and actually earn an NCAA Tournament bid is quite incredible and exactly what ended up happening. Finally breaking that 11-game skid with a win over North Carolina Central, Coppin State went on another losing streak of six games, but this one was much more gut-wrenching in a way, as they lost two games in overtime and two others by two points. At 4-19 what happened next was very unexpected as the Eagles reeled off eight straight wins before losing their regular season finale to finish at 12-20. Then in the MEAC Tournament luck found Coppin State as the Baltimore-based school won four games by a total of six points. At 16-20, the first ever team to make the NCAA Tournament with 20 losses, the Eagles earned a spot in the play-in game, where they fell to Mount St. Mary’s 69-60.
1. 2012-13 Liberty Flames – Final Record: 15-21; Strength of Schedule: 315
Beginning the season with eight straight losses was probably not what the Liberty Flames had in mind when the 2012-13 campaign began. Fortunately though, the Virginia-based school was able to record four wins in their next six games to head into conference play at 4-10. When conference play began, Liberty’s outlook didn’t get much better as they went 6-10 in conference play–with an additional non-conference win–to end up fifth in their division and finish the regular season with 20 losses. But heading into the conference tournament off of a win, the Flames added four more consecutive victories including wins against the both division winners High Point and Charleston Southern to win the Big South title. With a 15-20 record, becoming just the second team in history to make the tournament with 20 losses, Liberty was relegated to the play-in game against North Carolina A&T of the MEAC, whom they lost to 73-72.