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Never Made The Tourney Club 2017 Finale: O BRAVE NEW WORLD

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2017 saw a record five teams leave the club. Let’s talk about the journey.

NCAA Basketball: North Dakota at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Miranda:

O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in't!

Prospero:

'Tis new to thee.

The Tempest Act 5, scene 1, 181–184

What a year this has been.

Somehow, against all odds, we have seen four of our compatriots leave the club via automatic bids, and we ourselves shall be leaving the club as well when the selection show makes it official. Northwestern, Jacksonville State, Northern Kentucky, and now, North Dakota and UC-Davis have all earned their way into their first NCAA Tournament. A full 7.3% of the teams playing in this year’s Big Dance will be doing it for the very first time. For comparison, only 19% of teams in D1 are playing in the tournament at all. That’s an incredible showing by The Club.

The North Dakota Fighting Hawks kicked off our evening last night and they did it in jaw-dropping fashion. After leading early and then giving back the lead to Weber State, the Fighting Hawks found themselves down 81-75 with 51 seconds left. Then they got a steal. An offensive rebound. A bucket. Then another steal. Another bucket, this one an and-one. After Quinton Hooker, who finished with 28 points, missed the foul shot, North Dakota elected not to foul, even though there was just an 8-second differential between shot and game clock. Weber State took a shot with 15 seconds left, missed, and Geno Crandall took the rebound, went coast to coast, hung in the air for 3 seconds, and laid it home through the contact. The Fighting Hawks had forced overtime.

Riding that high, North Dakota would control the extra period. As the final buzzer sounded, the Fighting Hawks emerged, bloodied and bruised, with a 93-89 victory. You know what time it is.

The late game, and I do mean late, was top-seeded and heavy Big West favorite UC-Irvine against the UC-Davis Aggies. Inside NU has written about the idea of #FUNBAD before. This game was more #FUNBAD than M00N, and I would wager that it is not even close.

The score at halftime was 24-16 UC-Davis. If it were not for a flurry of points (five of them) in the last minute of the half, the Anteaters would have had more turnovers than points in the opening period. As it was, UC-Irvine had 13 turnovers, only four of which were caused by a UC-Davis steal.

UC-Davis was no better. It shot 10 of 29 from the floor. The Aggies had seven turnovers of their own, including five from Lawrence White, a normally steady-handed ballhandler who averages just 1.4 turnovers in 27 minutes of action a night. The plague had spread and there would be no containing it.

There were GIF-able moments galore. UC-Irvine’s 7-foot-2 center, Ioannis Dimakopoulos, was doubled underneath the basket, spun baseline to escape the pressure, and instead of just laying it off to his unguarded teammate under the basket, he tried a right-handed, underhand scoop shot while falling out of bounds. It hit the corner of the bottom of the backboard.

UC-Davis threw the ball straight out of bounds trying to get an inbound in at the end of the half.

UC-Davis had an unguarded three from the top of the key that missed dead left and clanged harmlessly off the backboard.

Every UC-Irvine possession was not just bad, it was an existential struggle. Any pass that didn’t hit an Aggie hand was cause for celebration. Every pass that bounced harmlessly into the crowd (and lo, there were many) was just business as usual.

There are moments of history you dream of witnessing. The Gettysburg Address. The Fall of Berlin. The Tennis Court Oath. The first half of UC-Irvine vs UC-Davis was one of those moments. Never again will two teams with so much to gain, playing so hard, accomplish so little. It was art.

The second half was no longer fun bad.

It was simply bad bad.

UC-Irvine threw the first set of punches and took a five-point lead with less than six minutes left, which I genuinely thought was insurmountable. But brick by brick, flop by flop, lucky bucket by lucky bucket, UC-Davis got it back to even. They kept attacking the rim, they kept locking up on D, and they somehow took the lead. They would not look back. Yes, on the final day of NMTC action in 2017, we went 2/2 in championship games. Remarkable. For the last time, DJ, hit the music.

EPILOGUE

BEN: As usual, the journey of chronicling the travails of this unique group of teams has been a treat. Dipping into the world of low-major basketball is truly a treasure. There is a unique kind of atmosphere to these games. Unlike the major conferences, where resumés are being built and much of the late tournament drama is either about seeding or the amorphous honor of being a conference *tournament* champion, these games have an almost tangible significance to them.

In these leagues, these games are, quite literally, the only ones that matter. UC-Irvine could be 30-1 coming into the Big West title game last night and would still need a win to go to the tournament. Virtually none of these players are boosting their draft stock. There’s a beauty in the simplicity here, and it is incredibly rewarding to watch these players, coaches, and fans all apply their trade. I love it dearly.

I was working during The Pass from Nate Taphorn to Dererk Pardon. I will remember where I was, but I will not remember seeing that happen live. But what I will remember from this month is Youngstown State’s slip to the basket. I remember UC-Davis’ buzzer-beater to defeat CSU-Fullerton, and then coming back a night later to watch UC-Davis’s transfiguration of a basketball game into a performance art of horror. I’ll remember North Dakota’s furious comeback to force overtime. Those moments were genuinely incredible.

For fans of those teams, those moments will be even more incredible. But for two or three or six games a night over two weeks, I got to be in those shoes. It’s an incredible amount of fun, and everyone should do it.

TRISTAN: For me, writing this column every night has been a joy. I have watched so much bad basketball and written many incoherent words. By the end of this, I just came to assume that for every instance of human greatness, there are 10 instances of human folly. The process of “screwing up” is sea of unmovable commuter traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway that surrounds a few luxury cars. Every CBS-marketed “shining moment” in March comes with a bevy of inexplicably bad plays.

Oakland sent five guys to cover a shooter only for Youngstown State, a sub-.500 regular season team, to find a wide-open man for the upset. Utah Valley committed silly turnover after silly turnover to blow it against Cal State Bakersfield. Remember when UC-Davis hit a buzzer beater to make the final against UC-Irvine? That buzzer beater came off an airballed three that missed so badly it bounced off the bottom of the backboard and fell right into the hands of Chima Moneke. It was one of the worst shots of the season for UC-Davis. It somehow worked out. Folly, the foundation of greatness, was on full display.

Every Kris Jenkins buzzer-beating three to win a championship is built upon the backs of these unforced errors from the past. And yet, it never gets old, and when the teams finally do succeed, it is sweeter than Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

To me, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been waiting for eternity (Northwestern) or get in on your first try (Northern Kentucky). The reward is worth it. For North Alabama and Cal Baptist, who will step into the circle next year, it will be worth it. When each team, hopefully, gets in, it will understand that the waiting was worth it.

For someone like me, a snarky, cynical writer who doesn’t trust hope on most days, I believe watching a pile of human folly become solid gold has knocked some sense into me. Sure, taking it too far is arrogance, and letting it persist for too long is incompetence. But, for once, maybe those campy, optimistic Saturday morning cartoons were right. Maybe drills really can break through the heavens, stupid failures can lead to one moment of sheer joy. It won’t happen every time, but it can happen.

BEN: Of course, this does bring us to the team that explains why this series exists on this website and not some forgotten, dusty corner of the blogosphere. Northwestern has all but officially left this group. In that, the essence of being a Northwestern fan has changed. There will be actual expectations now. Dreams of postseason runs are no longer to be laughed off. The team has changed (for good and bad). And thus we have changed. And thus the Never Made The Tournament Club has changed forever.

This is now a mid-major club only. Someday, it will be a low-major club only. And then, hopefully, there will be no members in the Club to write about. Until then, we will be documenting their journeys, wherever they will let us.

To the readers who have joined us, we thank you. We hope you’ve enjoyed the games as much as we have. PENGUINSZN will return. We can’t wait to see you there.

Teams that have escaped:

JACKSONVILLE STATE, GAMECOCKS FOREVER

AND THE (NORTHERN KENTUCKY) NORSE, BRING BACK THE DANCING VIKING GUY

NORTH DAKOTA FIGHTING HAWKS, THE BIRDS ARE BACK IN TOWN

THE AGGIES OF UC-DAVIS, WHOSE MASCOT IS A MUSTANG, IT’S FINE, IT WORKS.

AND, YES, THE NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS WILL BE THERE TOO.

Teams that will be back next year:

UMKC
Maryland Eastern Shore
Utah Valley (sobs)
Grambling State
UT Rio Grande Valley
UC Riverside
Chicago State
Central Arkansas
Sam Houston State
Nebraska-Omaha
South Dakota
Youngstown State (PENGUINSZN)
New Hampshire
IPFW
Denver
William and Mary
UT-Martin
Western Illinois
Elon
Gardner-Webb
Kennesaw State
Lipscomb

High Point
Army
Quinnipiac
Maine
Hartford
Bryant
Sacred Heart
Presbyterian
Longwood
Stetson
NJIT
SC Upstate
Abilene Christian
Grand Canyon
SIU Edwardsville
St. Francis (NY)
UMass Lowell