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February 29, 2004

Cinderellas Waiting For Their Glass Slippers

FROM MARCH MADNESS ARCHIVES comes the revelation that, of the 326 colleges currently participating in Division I basketball, 54 have never played in the NCAA tournament since its debut in 1939. "The Big Dance" is like a prom to which they've never been asked.

Conference tournaments decide 29 automatic berths in the 65-team field. The Ivy League regular-season champ gets a berth, and there are 34 at-large bids.

The Red Sox of Division I (or should we say the Cubs?) is Northwestern, the only school in the seven power conferences—ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA, Pac-10 and SEC—never to make an appearance.

Some of that has to do with bad luck, but some of it has to do with rigorous standards at Northwestern. "The ingredients that make . . . great institutions are the same ingredients that make it difficult to win in basketball," says Citadel AD Les Robinson.

Pride is not the only motivator. A tourney spot often provides the patina that helps propel a school into the elite, leading to increased alumni giving and increased applications.

Example: the University of Connecticut—known as UConn in the Northeast—was practically unknown west of the Mississippi. After a couple Elite 8 and Final Four appearances everyone became aware of UConn. And UConn benefited from higher caliber students in its applicant pool and dramatically increased alumni support.

And UConn is trying the same thing with its football team, which made the jump last year from I-AA to I-A. And a state-of-the-architects $92 million stadium was waiting for them.

It has been estimated that a school playing in a regionally televised first-round game gains exposure worth an estimated $100,000-$200,000. A nationally televised first-round game would be equal to about $500,000.

As the years stretch into decades for alumni and faculty, the pain of nonparticipation gets magnified.

"It is sort of like being 45 years old and going to wedding after wedding and always being a bridesmaid and always buying a gift," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

Among the long time bridesmaid schools are Northwestern, Army, California-Irvine, New Hampshire, Texas-Pan American, Denver, William & Mary and American. All of these schools have been D1 programs for at least 25 years. Some—Northwestern, William & Mary, Army—have gone uninvited for almost 60 years.

In typical American rich-get-richer fashion, the schools at the other end of the spectrum—with the most tournament invitations—include Kentucky (44), UCLA (36) and North Carolina (35).

Didn't the man with the thick twitchy eyebrows, the eyeglasses and the all-the-time cigar have something profound to say about not wanting to be part of a club that would admit him as a member?

(This 454 word excerpt was distilled from a 1461 word article in USA TODAY.com of 2-27-04. A supporting source was the Official 2004 NCAA-Basketball Records.)