Appalachian State not only tourney team back after long drought

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 17, 2021

By Dan Gelston

AP Sports Writer

PHILADELPHIA — The last time Drexel basketball made more than local headlines, TMZ was on the scene because Philadelphia 76ers’ All-Star Ben Simmons and model Kendall Jenner were in the bleachers for a game on the West Philadelphia campus.

Maybe real basketball junkies remember when Zach Spiker’s 2018 team rallied from a 34-point, first-half deficit to stun Delaware in the biggest comeback in Division I men’s basketball history.

The rest of Drexel’s tradition doesn’t have a whole of March Madness in it. Spiker, though, had to cut off a suggestion that he took over a program in 2016 devoid of much hoops history, noting the Dragons did represent the North Atlantic Conference in the NCAA Tournament three straight years.

“Timeout. Timeout,” Spiker said by phone. “We won three straight titles from ’94 to ’96. I mean, we beat Memphis in the tournament, you know?”

Long the outsider in Philadelphia’s rich basketball scene, the Dragons snapped that 25-year streak with a Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship that earned them the No. 16 seed and a game against No. 1 Illinois on Friday.

Drexel is back in the bracket — and some long-forgotten teams have tagged along.

Remember Appalachian State? The Mountaineers have only two previous NCAA appearances — under coaches Bobby Cremins (1979) and Buzz Peterson (2000) — and ended a 21-year skid.

One piece of advice seems universal: Enjoy the moment, and that applies as well to the two tourney newcomers (Grand Canyon and Hartford).

“At the high-major level, guys just want to get to the NBA. At our level, guys just want to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Appalachian State coach Dustin Kerns. “And there is an element now of, ‘Hey, how can I get the NBA?’ But we told them when we got here, ‘Hey listen, App State has been to the NCAA Tournament. This program has been twice. So if we can go before, we can do it again.’”

For every mid-major dreaming of blossoming into the next Gonzaga — or pulling off a UMBC — the reality is, most of these one-bracket wonder programs fall back into obscurity and won’t pop up on Selection Sunday for years or decades to come.

That won’t stop the fun this weekend.

Look at Drexel. The Dragons aren’t part of Philadelphia’s famed Big 5 — Villanova, Penn, La Salle, Temple and Saint Joseph’s comprise the city’s 65-year-old rivalry series —  and let former coach Bruiser Flint stick around for a 15-year run without an NCAA Tournament appearance.

So when the Dragons clinched a berth in the face of the pandemic, the school partied like it was 2019. The Dragons returned to campus with a police escort and students lined sidewalks cheering them on. Drexel put up a big screen outdoors and threw a watch party with music, giveaways, and fire pits for the selection show.

“Even though it’s a pandemic, we want our guys to have an experience, and have a moment,” Spiker said. “By doing little things like that, we’re able to do that.”

Oral Roberts is also part of March Madness for the first time since 2008, Cleveland State returned for the first time since 2009 and Morehead State snapped a drought that dates to 2011. UC Santa Barbara made consecutive NCAA tournaments as a No. 15 seed in 2010 and 2011 and is back as a 12 seed. Georgia Tech is back for the first time since 2010.

Those are drops in the 3-point basket compared to Rutgers making the field for the first time in 30 years.

Most of these teams weren’t in the NCAA mix last season when the tournament was canceled before it began because of the pandemic. Rutgers, though, went 20-11 and seemed a safe bet to make the 2020 field. before it was waved off the court moments before its Big Ten Tournament opener. The Scarlet Knights, who received a No. 10 seed, pushed forward this season with Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Jacob Young to go 15-11 and end the drought.

“None of us were alive,” guard Paul Mulcahy said. “But there’s also been a lot of people who have supported the program for 30 years through the ups and downs. I’m just really happy for those people, that they finally get to experience this as well.”

Rutgers had a taste of March success in the 1970s under coach Tom Young when they played in four tournaments from 1975-1983 and reached the 1976 Final Four.

The playing field between perennial power programs with their Hall of Fame coaches and one-and-done first-rounders and the everyone else was somewhat flattened this season. In other cases, it was finding the right coach.

Before Dennis Gates was hired in 2019, Cleveland State’s program had endured five straight seasons of at least 21 losses. The Horizon League champs went 19-7 and might lean on their postseason past when they play second-seeded Houston.

In 2009, the Vikings knocked off No. 4 seed Wake Forest in the first round. In 1986, they stunned Bob Knight’s Indiana team and made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to Navy on a last-second shot by David Robinson.

“It’s a glimpse of hope,” Gates said of his team’s tourney berth. “It’s a glimpse of excitement and building and innovation. I think it will carry and be talked about for a long period of time.”

College athletics is big business and the boon from making the tournament often goes well beyond more invested fans in office pools.

The repetition of school names on the ticker and social media — and maybe a stunning upset or two on national television like Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” Sweet 16 run in 2013 — has often led to increased interest among potential students and donors to dip into their pockets.