The NCAA tournament, as I argued last week, is the most democratic of all American sports events. Almost everyone in the country gets a chance to participate, and with a field that large, no matter where you are, you have your moment for the entire sporting world to notice you. Sixty-eight teams make it every year, and that's 68 teams who an average office worker, at least for half a second, looks at your school's name. On a Thursday or Friday in March, you are royalty. Somebody, somewhere, has picked you to win, even if they've never seen you play. You matter.
Making the tournament is a fait accompli for some schools; Kansas is about to make its 25th consecutive tournament, second all time. (Two behind North Carolina's 1975-2001 run.) Some schools are too new to Division I to have sneaked their way in yet but will eventually get their chance. And then there are the Original Five.
There are five teams that have been in Division I since its virtual creation in 1948 and have never made the NCAA tournament. Every year, they've had the opportunity to make the field, and each time they've fallen short. No administrative assistants have ever written their name in a bracket. These schools' historical futility is statistically improbable; it is hard to miss the tournament for nearly 60 consecutive seasons even if you are trying. There's a wild party every March, and these teams have never, ever been invited. It's like making the team but never being given your own number.
Army, which lost Saturday to Boston University in the Patriot League semifinals.
The Citadel, which lost Saturday to Wofford in the Southern Conference quarterfinals.
Northwestern, which will tipoff in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday night as the No. 11 seed against Iowa.
St. Francis Brooklyn, which lost Wednesday to Mount St. Mary's in the Northeast Conference quarterfinals.
And William & Mary, which plays Monday night in the Colonial Conference championship game against Delaware.
They are The Forgotten Five. And Monday night they could become The Forgotten Four.
This is not an unfamiliar place for William & Mary. Monday night, in fact, will be the eighth time in school history the Tribe will be one win away from the tournament. They're 0-for-7 so far. This is try No. 8. William & Mary fans are not unaware of their history of pain, as evidenced by this video.
(The William & Mary fan who put that video together has this amusing video description of his/her creation on YouTube: "This year, we have the most talented team in school history on paper, but in order to turn this talent into skill, we are going to have to suffer the excruciating pain of hard work; pushing yourself past your "limits", saying no to junk food, giving up sleep to grind in the gym, taking no days off, and making no excuses. This is our best chance we'll ever have at winning an NCAA Championship. We MUST work not only hard, but work the hardest. We must not only never give up, but never give in. And we must not only be tough, but be tough to beat." No junk food, boys.)
William & Mary is coached by a man named Tony Shaver. He is 60 years old, has a glorious mustache and it is safe to say that getting William & Mary into the NCAA tournament has been his life's work. He has been coaching The Tribe for 11 years now after spending 17 seasons at Hampden-Sydney in Division III; he was also a walk-on player for Dean Smith at North Carolina. (He played with Mitch Kupchak and Walter Davis.) He is not a young up-and-comer trying to make his name before moving on. This is the best job he will ever have. This has been his one goal. He doesn't try to go over the top with it -- "That's not this team's burden. It's unfair for me or anybody else to take that history and place it on these guys' shoulders," he said at the beginning of this conference tourney -- but he knows this is what he will be known for. He now has 494 career victories in his collegiate coaching career. But only one will matter. He will be the one who took William & Mary to the NCAA tournament for the first time. It's a small piece of immortality, but it's a real one.
There is not much else for William & Mary to hang onto, basketball-wise. They've had two NBA players in their history, most recently Brant Weidner, who played eight games for the Spurs in 1983. (He had a shot blocked by Kareem.) They haven't beaten a ranked opponent since 1977 (North Carolina), and until this year, they haven't even played once since 2005, losing by 39 to UNC. (They lost to Wichita State by 17 earlier this year.) This is the whole deal, right here.
The Tribe were only a No. 3 seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and will be the underdogs against No. 1 seed Delaware Monday night. If they lose, it will be the third time in the last seven years, and the eighth time total, they've come just one game short. They have an extremely likable dreadlocked shooting guard named Marcus Thornton, who takes every shot he can and seems to be in eight different spots on the court at once. This is the team that should do it. These opportunities come so rarely. You never know when they're going to pop up again.
They are one of The Forgotten Five. They can drop that designation forever Monday night. The game begins at 7 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports Network, and if you're in Baltimore, there's a pregame and viewing party at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel. If William & Mary has a lead late, and you're nearby, you should get over there. Because it will be one helluva party.
(A brief note on William & Mary's "Tribe" nickname. The school once had a Cleveland Indians-esque mascot named "Wampi," but someone finally explained to them it was pretty racist. The NCAA allows them to continue to use the name "Tribe," but they had to get rid of the mascot. In 2010, they introduced the "Griffin" as their mascot, which beat a pug and actual physical manifestations of people named "William" and "Mary" in a contest. I wish they would have gone with "William" and "Mary.")