We’re one week away from the beginning of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness, aka a scourge to intra-office cordiality across the land. It’s maybe the most exciting sports event of the year, one that even non-sports fans get wrapped up in. The outcomes are so random and unpredictable that just about anyone can fill out a bracket and win some jelly beans when the Final Four turns out to be three teams from mid-major conferences and whichever mercenary band of one-and-done talent John Calipari is coaching that year.
And there’s a local squad that is on the precipice of its first-ever entry into the NCAA Tournament: the St. Francis Terriers, who tonight play for the championship of the Northeast Conference. The NEC is too small for more than one team to get into the NCAA tournament, but conference champions get automatic invites. So those are the stakes for St. Francis tonight: win, and they go to March Madness. Lose, and the season’s over.
St. Francis’ run thus far is a pretty great story. A tiny commuter school in Brooklyn Heights, St. Francis is one of only five eligible programs to have never qualified for the NCAA tourney, since Division I athletics was organized in 1948. They play their home games a couple blocks from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in the Pope Physical Education Center, which has plastic bleachers, no concessions stands or video displays, and barely seats 1,000 visitors, who pay $15 per ticket. It’s the fourth-smallest Division I basketball arena in the country.
It’s also the sight of tonight’s conference championship, since St. Francis wrecked the NEC this year and secured the top seed for the conference tournament. After starting the season with five straight losses, St. Francis went 23-5 (15-3 against teams in their conference). They’ll look to crown their season tonight against the NEC’s second-best team, the Colonials of Robert Morris University, which is a small private school located in a place called Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
St. Francis’ basketball program was founded in 1896, making it (quite possibly) the oldest one in the city. They had only four winning seasons between 1967 and 1998. Over the five-year tenure of current head coach Glenn Braica, the team has posted stronger regular seasons, only to fall short in the NEC tournament. (Last year was particularly painful: St. Francis held a 19-point lead over Mount St. Mary’s with ten minutes left in the first round, only to lose on a last-second shot when Mount St. Mary’s had an extra player, who went unnoticed by refs, on the court.)
This is the closest St. Francis has come since 2003, when they lost in the NEC conference tournament final. They also lost in the final in 2001. Tonight’s game is sold out (didn’t take long), but will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. The school is also opening up Founders Hall for a viewing party. Tickets are $10.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.