Saluting the nation’s most masochistic fans

Which program is the polar opposite of these guys?

Which program is the polar opposite of these guys?

One thing I’ve always respected highly is the ability to faithfully support a team that’s consistently terrible. Today I want to salute the fans of the worst major-conference program in the nation.

Not merely the worst team at this moment, mind you. I’m after something more enduring, the program that can make the best case that it is nothing less than ontologically hapless. 

For example, it’s well known that Northwestern is the only major-conference program that has never made an appearance in the NCAA tournament. Does that mean the Wildcats are the “winners” of this exercise?

They’re certainly in the discussion. Here’s a list I’ve alluded to before:

Nebraska, Northwestern, Oregon State, Providence, Rutgers, and South Carolina.

All of the above have failed to win an NCAA tournament game this century. (I’m not including recent major-conference arrivals like Houston, SMU, TCU, and UCF here, all of whom are also winless this century in the big dance. Such programs may indeed be enduring stretches of futility, but it’s not fair to compare them to other programs that have long enjoyed the advantages of major-conference membership.)

And once we toss in the one-tournament-win-this-century programs, our list looks like this:

Oregon State
St. John’s
South Carolina
Virginia Tech

That’s a pretty good list of nominees. If you ask who’s the worst team at this moment that’s not on this list, it’s probably one of the following: Seton Hall, Mississippi State, or Auburn. I’m going to exclude the Pirates and Bulldogs from further consideration here and now. Tommy Amaker took SHU to the 2000 Sweet 16, and there are elderly people reading this right now who can even remember the Pirates playing in the 1989 national championship game. Mississippi State’s been to the Final Four within the last two decades (1996), and the Bulldogs also earned a No. 2 seed as recently as 2004.

Auburn? You stay put for now.

As long as I’m excluding programs from consideration, I’ll also remove Arkansas (national title within past 20 years), Clemson (115-53 from 2006-07 through 2010-11), Colorado (currently in the AP top 25), Iowa (see “Colorado,” plus a No. 3 seed as recently as 2006), Minnesota (received an at-large bid and won a game in the 2013 tournament), St. John’s (12-6 in the Big East in 2011), South Carolina (2009 SEC East regular-season co-champions), Virginia (2007 ACC regular-season co-champions), and Virginia Tech (a No. 5 seed as recently as 2007).

With our remaining nominees, let us now turn to how well they’ve done within their respective conferences over the last 10 years.

Standings, 2003-04 through 2012-13
Conference games only

               W   L    Pct   GB
Providence    65  107  .378   --
Nebraska      59  105  .360    2
Georgia       57  105  .352    3
Northwestern  57  115  .331    8
Auburn        52  110  .321    8
Oregon St.    53  127  .294   16
DePaul        49  123  .285   16
Rutgers       45  127  .262   20

Now we’re getting warm. Providence has simply won too many conference games — including a 10-8 record in 2009, and even an 11-5 in 2004 — to merit further discussion. The same can be said for Nebraska (.500 in the 2009 Big 12), Georgia (9-9 just last season, for goodness sake — how did the Dawgs make it this far?), and even Auburn (10-6 in 2009). And while Northwestern does indeed set the standard for career NCAA tournament futility, the basketball team was actually somewhat respectable from 2009 to 2012, compiling a 27-42 record and winning 39 percent of its games in the tough Big Ten.

Note as well the clear separation in the 10-year standings below Auburn. I say this can now be classified as a three-program competition: DePaul, Oregon State, and Rutgers.

There’s a case to be made that DePaul’s actually much more futile than what’s being shown in these standings. There are two years of Conference USA competition baked into those figures for the Blue Demons, and, as it happens, DePaul joined the Big East for the 2005-06 season fresh off a highly encouraging 22-10 close to their C-USA career. (It seems strange now, but believe me when I say people really did think the Demons were going to make a go of it in the Big East. Top conference, Chicago talent base — anyway, that was the talk.)

Let the record therefore show that no major-conference program’s been as hapless as DePaul’s been the past five seasons, winning just seven times in 90 tries in Big East play. I’m eliminating the Blue Demons from further Most Masochistic Fans consideration anyway, for two reasons: 1) a recent NCAA tournament win (that’s a disqualification right there: DePaul beat Dayton 76-69 in two OTs in the 2004 round of 64); and 2) the program’s relatively short history as a major-conference heavy.

Factor (2) bears on fan expectations: DePaul freshmen newly arrived for orientation and thirsting for a good basketball team to support know in their hoops heart of hearts they could have chosen any number of fine Catholic institutions of higher learning situated in urban settings, starting with but not limited to Villanova or Georgetown. If a more pastoral venue is acceptable, Notre Dame awaits.

Conversely at this moment there are future accountants in Bergen County, New Jersey, or aspiring engineers in Portland who want to: a) pursue their career goals at a state-supported institution; and b) see good basketball. But the Scarlet Knights and the Beavers have made this a very difficult combination to achieve. Rutgers hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since March 18, 1983. Meanwhile Oregon State hasn’t experienced that sensation since…one year earlier to the day, March 18, 1982. This is getting eerie.

Both fan bases are clearly well-versed in the ways of masochism, but one program stands alone in terms of recent and thoroughgoing futility. As recently as 2010, after all, the Beavers very nearly went .500 in the Pac-10, settling instead for 8-10 after a Senior Day loss to Washington in Corvallis. Rutgers can only dream about a near-miss at breaking even, having failed to even come within five games of .500 in Big East play every year since 2005-06 (7-9).

No team has performed worse in major-conference play over the last 10 years than Rutgers. The Knights have lost home games this season to Seton Hall, William & Mary, and Fairleigh Dickinson. Lastly, everyone in Piscataway is now suing everyone else. Only a masochist could faithfully support this men’s basketball program, and next year the whole hot mess gets exported to the Big Ten.

Long-suffering Rutgers fans, I salute you! Truly, you define devotion in the absence of any encouragement. It’s what happens in sports.