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August 25, 2010

Twelve teams try to end tourney droughts

Last season marked the end of Arizona's streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. So could this be the year that some of the longest NCAA tournament droughts end?

That's what Northwestern and William & Mary are hoping. Neither of those schools ever has reached the NCAA tournament, but both programs have reason for hope after reaching the NIT last season.

Northwestern and William & Mary aren't the only programs that have been left out of the dance for quite some time. Here is a list of the teams with the longest NCAA tournament droughts from each of last season's top 12 conferences in the RPI. We took a look at each of those teams to see whether any have a realistic shot of earning that long-awaited invitation this season.

ACC: North Carolina State
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2006
2009-10 record: 20-16 overall, 5-11 ACC. Reached the second round of the NIT.
The buzz: North Carolina State heads into the 2010-11 season with arguably the highest expectations of any team on this list. The Wolfpack return three starters, including second-team All-ACC forward Tracy Smith. North Carolina State also welcomes a recruiting class that ranks fifth in the nation and includes three of the nation's top 36 prospects in 6-foot-8 forward C.J. Leslie (No. 14), 6-1 guard Ryan Harrow (No. 19) and 6-5 guard Lorenzo Brown (No. 36). With just about every ACC team other than Duke facing major questions, the Wolfpack have a chance to make a major move up the league standings. The Wolfpack may need to end this NCAA drought for embattled coach Sidney Lowe to keep his job beyond this season.
Atlantic 10: Duquesne
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1977
2009-10 record: 16-16 overall, 7-9 Atlantic 10. Lost in the first round of the CBI.
The buzz: The good news for Duquesne is that it's coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since reaching the NIT in 1980 and '81. The bad news? Duquesne's two postseason trips were to the NIT and the CBI. The Dukes have reason to believe they could reach a more prestigious tournament this season, though the Atlantic 10 again should be tough. Duquesne returns four starters, including first-team all-league performer and Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year Damian Saunders, a 6-7 forward. He was just two steals away from being the first Division I player taller than 6-6 to lead the nation in that category. Duquesne did suffer a blow this offseason when swingman Melquan Bolding transferred to Fairleigh Dickinson. Bolding averaged 11.8 points last season despite missing 13 games with a fractured wrist.
Big 12: Nebraska
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1998
2009-10 record: 15-18 overall, 2-14 Big 12
The buzz: It's tough to imagine this drought ending anytime soon. Nebraska hasn't posted a winning record in Big 12 competition since the 1998-99 season, though the Huskers made back-to-back NIT appearances in 2008 and '09 before missing out on the postseason last season. Nebraska must replace Ryan Anderson, who led the Huskers in scoring, rebounds, 3-pointers and steals last season; Anderson was the only Nebraska player who averaged in double figures last season. Nebraska has some size and should get a boost from the return of guard Toney McCray, who sat out last season with an elbow injury. But this team still will have a tough time escaping the Big 12 cellar.
Big East: Rutgers
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1991
2009-10 record: 15-17 overall, 5-13 Big East
The buzz: Rutgers made a step in the right direction by hiring Mike Rice, a promising young coach who led Robert Morris to back-to-back NCAA appearances. But it could take a while before Rice makes Rutgers competitive in the Big East. Senior forward Jonathan Mitchell, a member of Florida's 2007 national championship team, is the only returning player who had a double-figures scoring average last season. Rutgers is particularly thin in the frontcourt following the departure of second-round draft pick Hamady Ndiaye, the 2009-10 Big East defensive player of the year. Rutgers figures to battle it out with DePaul and Providence at the bottom of the Big East standings.
Big Ten: Northwestern
Last NCAA tournament appearance: Never
2009-10 record: 20-14 overall, 7-11 Big Ten. Lost in first round of the NIT.
The buzz: Northwestern is the only Big Six conference team that never has made the NCAA tournament, though the Wildcats have reached the NIT in each of the past two seasons. The Wildcats were a popular pick to end the NCAA drought before senior forward Kevin Coble announced last month that he was giving up basketball. Coble had led Northwestern in scoring and rebounds in each of his first three seasons on campus before missing the 2009-10 season with a foot injury. The Wildcats still return four starters, and junior forward John Shurna earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season. Senior guard Michael Thompson's 381 career assists rank second in school history. Sophomore swingman Drew Crawford was the Big Ten's freshman of the year. But without Coble, this looks more like an NIT team than a legitimate NCAA contender.
Colonial: William & Mary
Last NCAA tournament appearance: Never
2009-10 record: 22-11 overall, 12-6 Colonial. Lost in first round of the NIT.
The buzz: William & Mary nearly ended its NCAA drought last season, but a 60-53 loss to Old Dominion in the CAA tournament championship game forced the Tribe to settle for the NIT. The Tribe must replace second-team all-CAA guard David Schneider, who made 99 3-pointers and averaged a team-high 15.5 points per game last season. But they do return swingman Quinn McDowell, who averaged 13.9 points and 4.3 rebounds. William & Mary's non-conference wins over Maryland and Wake Forest last season will prevent the Tribe from sneaking up on anyone this season, but they should be dangerous again. Look for William & Mary to battle Old Dominion, VCU, George Mason and Northeastern for Colonial supremacy.
Conference USA: Southern Miss
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1991
2009-10 record: 20-14 overall, 8-8 Conference USA. Lost in first round of the CIT.
The buzz: Southern Miss has plenty of reason for confidence. The Eagles lost their first four conference games last season but still managed to scrap their way to a .500 league record. Now they return all five starters from a team that improved as much as any in C-USA from the start of the season to the finish. The list of returnees is headed by 6-8 forward Gary Flowers, who ranked 10th in the league in scoring (15.0), sixth in rebounding (8.3) and fourth in blocks (1.8) last season. Conference rivals Tulsa, Marshall, UAB and UTEP suffered major offseason losses, so Southern Miss could make a big move up the standings. An NCAA bid is a realistic goal, though an NIT, CIT or CBI berth seems more likely for coach Larry Eustachy's team.
Missouri Valley: Illinois State
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1998
2009-10 record: 22-11 overall, 11-7 Missouri Valley. Lost in first round of the NIT.
The buzz: Illinois State has won at least 22 games and has reached the NIT in each of the past three seasons, but the Redbirds might struggle to keep each of those streaks alive this season. Illinois State must replace its top three scorers from last season, including first-team All-MVC guard Osiris Eldridge. Coach Tim Jankovich has built the type of program that should be able to withstand the loss of key performers, but it's tough to imagine the Redbirds ending their NCAA tournament drought when they're heading into a season of transition.
Mountain West: TCU
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1998
2009-10 record: 13-19 overall, 5-11 Mountain West
The buzz: This drought is likely to continue for at least one more season. TCU returns second-team All-MWC guard Ronnie Moss and two other starters from last season, but this program is a long way from competing with the teams in the upper half of this conference. If the Horned Frogs can make it back to the right side of .500, it would represent substantial progress. If they make a legitimate run at an NCAA bid, they would be one of the season's biggest Cinderella stories.
Pac-10: Oregon State
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1990
2009-10 record: 14-18 overall, 8-10 Pac-10. Lost in first round of the CBI.
The buzz: Maybe the Pac-10 got accustomed to Oregon State's Princeton-style offense. Maybe the Beavers weren't ready to deal with increased expectations. Whatever the reason, one of the nation's most improved teams in 2008-09 was one of the Pac-10's biggest disappointments last season. Oregon State now must try to regroup while replacing two of its top three scorers. The Beavers could show improvement this season and have a realistic shot at a winning mark, but an NCAA bid likely will be out of reach.
SEC: Ole Miss
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2002
2009-10 record: 24-11 overall, 9-7 SEC. Reached NIT semifinals.
The buzz: Ole Miss has reached the NIT in three of the past four seasons. In two of those seasons, the Rebels earned a trip to Madison Square Garden by reaching the semifinals. But they haven't earned an NCAA bid since 2002, at least in part because of their struggles in conference play. Ole Miss' 9-7 SEC record last season marked the first time since 2002 the Rebels finished above .500 in conference competition. The SEC West remains wide open this year, but the Rebels could struggle to capitalize. Terrico White entered the NBA draft and big man Murphy Holloway and guard Eniel Polynice transferred after the 2009-10 season. The return of senior guard Chris Warren should make the Rebels competitive, but another trip to the NIT seems more likely than an NCAA invitation.
Western Athletic: Idaho
Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1990
2009-10 record: 15-16 overall, 6-10 WAC
The buzz: Idaho arguably has the smallest NCAA tournament hopes of any team on this list. The Vandals must replace the top four scorers from a team that finished below .500 last season. The top returner is 6-8 junior forward Luiz Toledo, who averaged 7.4 points and led the WAC in shooting percentage (.638) last season. The Vandals also are hoping 6-6 senior forward Brandon Wiley can make a successful comeback after a back injury limited him to three games last season. Even if Toledo and Wiley have big seasons, it's tough to imagine Idaho finishing in the top half of the WAC standings.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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