First Four 2013: Middle Tennessee, La Salle, and others end tourney droughts

Stephen Dunn

Each of four First Four games features a team that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, the four longest droughts in the NCAA Tournament.

Four teams that haven't made the NCAA Tournament this century are dancing again, although they might not be there for long. The three teams with the longest tourney droughts in this year's field are all in the First Four, and each faces an opponent that has been dancing much more recently.

It's not surprising that teams that struggled to make the NCAA Tournament would slip into some of the field's final spots, but it's an impressive coincidence that all four First Four games feature a team that hasn't been to the tourney in almost two decades. This is exactly what the extra games were made for: an opportunity to get a few more teams, and a few more stories, into the tourney without hurting its competitive balance.

If you're looking for an underdog story in the First Four games - tilts that sometimes aren't the most interesting - here's a look at each squad.

No. 16 North Carolina A&T

Last NCAA Tournament Berth: 1995

Plays Liberty, 6:40 p.m. Tuesday

North Carolina A&T is one of the least likely teams in the 2013 field. The best team in the MEAC, the 30th best of the 31 bid-giving leagues per Ken Pomeroy, was by far Norfolk State, as the team that dispatched Missouri in last year's 15/2 shocker went 16-0 in their conference regular season. But the Spartans fell to eighth-seeded Bethune-Cookman in the league tournament quarterfinals, leaving the MEAC's auto-bid open for the taking. Seventh-seeded NC A&T seized the opportunity, riding a strong defense into the NCAA Tournament.

This is the tenth big dance appearance for the Aggies, and a win Tuesday night would be their first in the event. They Although Pomeroy's numbers consider NC A&T the second-worst team of the 68 available, it's their opponent, Liberty, which is the worst.

No. 11 Middle Tennessee

Last NCAA Tournament Berth: 1989

Plays St. Mary's, 9 p.m. Tuesday

The Blue Raiders seemed like this year's biggest losers with regards to the conference tourney system. Middle Tennessee absolutely dominated the Sun Belt all season long, going 19-1 in league play. They ended up winning the conference by five games, an almost unheard of margin in college hoops.

Still, it seemed like one game was going to cost them a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. The Blue Raiders lost 61-57 to No. 4-seeded FIU, a loss which made it likely that an otherwise brilliant season would go unrewarded.

The selection committee, however, chose to throw MTSU a life raft. They smiled on the team with the No. 33 Kenpom ranking in the country, giving them an invite with one of the last four at-large spots, allowing MTSU to go dancing for the first time in 24 years. It's a nice reward for 11th year coach Kermit Davis after dong a great job the last two seasons.

They face Matthew Dellavedova and St. Mary's on Tuesday in the late game. The Australian point guard is considered the best pick-and-roll player in the country, so it will be interesting to see if the Blue Raiders' defense - No. 20 in the nation, allowing just 89.4 points per 100 possessions - can shut him down.

Team: No. 16 James Madsison

Last NCAA Tournament Berth: 1994

Plays LIU Brooklyn, 6:40 p.m. Wednesday

The Dukes had sucess in the early '80s, making the tournament in back-to-back-to-back years, but it's been hard for them to make it out of the CAA since. During a period of great success for the conference - George Mason and VCU both crashed the Final Four - James Madison was basically a non-factor. But the Dukes took advantage of a CAA that was down to just seven postseason-eligible teams this year, and wound up knocking off top-seeded Northeastern for the tourney title.

Unfortunately, there's been bad news for the Dukes since then: leading scorer and rebounder, Rayshawn Goins, who led the team in the title game win with 14 points and 13 rebounds, was arrested Sunday while celebrating his team's selection and will be suspended for the first half of the first round game.

Team: No. 13 La Salle

Last NCAA Tournament Berth: 1992

Plays Boise State, 9 p.m. Wednesday

The Explorers switched from the conference now known as the MAAC to the Atlantic 10 in 1995, and since then, a team that had been used to going to the NCAA Tournament has struggled. In a tougher league, they had managed just two winning seasons heading into 2012-13.

Things were different this year, thanks to a strong backcourt of Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duren, who averaged 17.0 and 15.0 points, respectively. They beat Villanova in non-conference play and were strong once the A-10 season rolled around, knocking off tourney teams Xavier, Butler and VCU. A loss to Butler in their first A-10 tournament game seemed like it could do the Explorers in, but they managed to earn an at-large bid.

Their first NCAA Tournament trip in 21 years will begin with a matchup against Boise State, which also earned a fifth bid out of a non-BCS conference.

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