Just a few weeks back we were engulfed by March Madness, a consuming disturbance that left some dreams dashed and lifted others to memorable heights. Understandably, other than a couple of so-called NCAA bubble teams, we gave little thought to the 283 Division I schools that were excluded. Yet, for a select few, not receiving a bid was almost as noteworthy as the streaks of consecutive NCAA appearances enjoyed by big boys Kansas (28), Duke (22), Michigan State (20), Gonzaga and Wisconsin (19 each).
The absence of four specific mid-major programs – Army, The Citadel, St. Francis College of Brooklyn and William and Mary – got unusual attention thanks to Northwestern, the Big Ten school coached by former Blue Devil Chris Collins. The Wildcats made the field for the first time since the NCAA tournament began in 1939, leaving the ambitions of the dwindling members of the “Forgotten Five” conspicuously unrequited.
“Now we’re down to four, and we want to get out of that club as soon as possible,” says Bobby Dwyer, senior associate athletic director for external affairs at William & Mary. “It’s something that we talk about around here frequently. Our alumni are very in tune with that fact. We’d love nothing better than to finally make it one of these years.”
Like Dwyer, head basketball coach Tony Shaver admits to disappointment at falling just short of NCAA inclusion in recent seasons, but denies there’s any jealousy of Northwestern’s escape from the roster of original wanderers in the tournament wilderness. “I’m just so happy for Chris,” Shaver says of Collins. “I’m really happy for him. You have a lot of thoughts. It inspires you a little bit. It shows you it can be done. At the same time you think, there’s another team off that list.”
Shaver grew up in High Point and played at North Carolina under Dean Smith, whose Tar Heels ran off 23 straight NCAA appearances starting in 1975, when multiple entrants from the same conference could be invited. The year the streak began, a back injury ended Shaver’s playing career. According to UNC records, the recruited walk-on participated in a single game as a sophomore in 1974, notching a personal foul.
Shaver finished his undergrad days helping at varsity practices and with the freshman team, then pursued a coaching career founded on Smith’s teachings. So, for a time, did teammates Phil Ford, Dave Hanners, John Kuester and Randy Wiel. “He kept you on your toes, that’s for sure,” Shaver says of Smith, whom he emulates in many ways, including practices choreographed down to the minute.
Shaver found the Hall of Famer’s instruction during timeouts – taken sparingly by Smith, like his protégé Roy Williams – to be particularly illuminating. “He was remarkable in timeouts, in my opinion,” recalls the 14-year William & Mary coach. “It’s just one of the things I tried to learn the most from. He just was so poised and so confident in what he told us. If you were getting your brains beaten a little bit, his only comment, he’d look at you and smile and say, ‘Won’t this be a great game to win? Wouldn’t it be a great feeling to win this game?’ ”
Shaver’s teams enjoyed that feeling regularly, starting at the high school level, then at Division III Hampton-Sydney in Virginia, which reached the NCAAs 11 times during his 17 seasons at the helm. Twice his Tigers got to the D-III Final Four, losing the 1999 title game in double-overtime to a team coached by Bo Ryan, subsequently much-lauded as Wisconsin’s coach.
Eleven years later, Shaver’s William & Mary squad faced his alma mater in the opening round of the NIT, the only time during Williams’ tenure the Heels failed to reach the NCAAs. The Tribe actually had a higher RPI than UNC, with wins on the home courts of ACC members Wake Forest and Maryland. But they were spurned by the NCAA selection committee and sent to Chapel Hill, where they lost narrowly.
Four times in the past eight seasons, including 2010, William & Mary lost in the final of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament; the winner gets the league’s automatic bid. The 2013 effort remains vividly etched in memory. Shaver’s squad frittered away a late lead, then had a chance to win with the ball in the hands of its best player. “He had his favorite jump shot,” says Dwyer. “The ball was in the air when the buzzer went off. It just barely ticked the back rim or we would have beaten Delaware.”
Failure in those circumstances is particularly frustrating in leagues a step below the power elite, which rarely get more than one NCAA bid. A victory over N.C. State in Raleigh to open the 2015-16 season provided William & Mary a boost in one regard, but made it less likely lower-echelon opponents in major conferences would risk scheduling the CAA squad. That in turn limits the Tribe’s ability to fashion a power rating high enough to merit an at-large NCAA invitation. Without an NCAA appearance on the resume, a team’s accomplishments lack validation in many eyes, even at a level where prolonged absence isn’t a firing offense for the coach.
“Maybe it’s driven a little bit by where I’m coaching, but I just think it’s a very unfair thing,” says Shaver, 63. “One game, one shot, one call, one turnover can impact that whole (reputation). Our last four years here we won 20 or more games three times. We won 17 this year. Nobody’s going to tell me those weren’t great seasons that meant a lot for our players and fans even though we didn’t make the NCAA tournament.”
Clearly, though, receiving an NCAA invitation would have a singular meaning for Shaver’s program. Applying the motivational skills he learned from Smith, he seems content to avoid hyperbole, sloganeering, or other deviations from a business-as-usual approach to “knock down the door,” the favored phrase at William & Mary for gaining entrance to the NCAA’s promised land. Nor does he intend to hold up Northwestern’s success as inspiration to escape membership in a fraternity sure to command additional scrutiny in anticipation of next March’s 80th NCAA tournament.
“It’s impossible not to think of it, because of the number of times it’s brought up,” Shaver admits of the program’s NCAA drought. “I just don’t want our team, I don’t want it to be our only focus. Obviously we’d like to do it. I remember the first couple of times we made the (CAA) championship game, and it was such a talked-about issue. My comment was, ‘I don’t want history to be this team’s burden.’ It shouldn’t add more pressure to these young men the fact that history has spoken this way.”
Dwyer, the senior associate AD, played basketball at Wake Forest from 1972-74 and served for eight years as an assistant coach at Army and Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. He says he especially roots rooting for Army and recalls with empathy a close loss by St. Francis in the 2015 Northeast Conference tournament final. Surveying the entire Frustrated Four awaiting their NCAA moment since Division I was delineated in 1948, Dwyer says with a mixture of optimism and charity, “I hope everybody gets in next year.”