- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2012

Many notable college basketball teams have passed through the Washington area this season. Few looked as worthy of postseason play during their trip to the capital region than South Florida.

The Bulls had a scoring drought of more than 10 minutes and at one point committed turnovers on nine straight possessions in what became a 75-45 loss to Georgetown on Feb. 4.

South Florida fell to 13-10 after that late morning tip-off. The Bulls haven’t started a game before noon since. They also haven’t lost.

It makes Stan Heath’s team one of several that could end extensive NCAA tournament absences. South Florida (17-10, 10-4 Big East) has not reached the tournament since 1992 (when it was a member of the old Metro Conference and coincidentally lost to Georgetown in the first round).

The Bulls have some numbers working in their favor. They cracked the top 50 of the RPI after completing a season sweep of Pittsburgh on Sunday. Their strength of schedule is decent (No. 40 according to CollegeRPI.com). They do well at home, which is important with postseason contenders West Virginia and Cincinnati due to visit Tampa.

They’re far from a sure thing, but in chasing history there’s another curious tidbit: No Big East team with 12 league victories has missed the NCAA tournament. If the Bulls collect a couple of more victories, they’ll certainly hope that doesn’t change.

South Florida isn’t the only team looking to end a long NCAA tournament absence.

Here are a few others with a chance to make long-awaited postseason appearances:

Saint Louis (most recent NCAA appearance: 2000). The Billikens (22-5) make up for in quantity what they lack in quality. Rick Majerus’ best team since coming to the Atlantic 10 school owns just one top-50 victory (Saint Joseph’s), though it also has beaten Washington, Xavier, Villanova, Oklahoma and Boston College — all of which would mean more in most seasons.

Brian Conklin averages 13.9 points for Saint Louis, which has won nine of 10 and boasts a healthy RPI (22) entering the regular season’s final stages.

Drexel (1996). Few teams are hotter than Bruiser Flint’s Dragons, who have won 21 of their past 22 and can lock up the No. 1 seed in the CAA with a pair of victories this week. A more offensively capable team has Drexel in the hunt for its first NCAA trip since leaving the current America East. There’s just one problem: The Dragons are 4-10 all-time in the CAA tournament. Without a great nonconference resume, Drexel’s path to the postseason lies in three days in Richmond.

Southern Mississippi (1991). Brett Favre U. hasn’t visited the NCAAs since the days of Clarence Weatherspoon, and it’s no sure thing this year. Nonetheless, Larry Eustachy’s bunch is 22-5 and tied atop Conference USA with league heavyweight Memphis. The Golden Eagles are an RPI darling, entering the week ranked 11th in the all-important metric. Southern Mississippi isn’t quite that good, but a smattering of solid victories (Memphis, Colorado State, South Florida) provide something of a resume.

Harvard (1946). The first team into the field could be the Crimson, who can create further separation in the Ivy League race with Penn and Princeton coming to visit this weekend. In any case, Harvard could become the Ivy’s fourth NCAA representative in six years, a stark change from Penn and Princeton controlling the Ancient Eight over the decades.

Northwestern (Never). The Wildcats are one of five programs to play Division I basketball since the 1940s with no NCAA bids to show for it; Army, The Citadel, St. Francis (N.Y.) and William & Mary are the others. But that distinction could soon change. Northwestern (16-10, 6-8 Big Ten) suddenly has a better profile than fellow Big Ten bubblers Illinois and Minnesota. It possesses some useful victories (Seton Hall and Michigan State). No egregious losses stain its resume. The key down the stretch? Snagging wins at Penn State and Iowa. Already blessed with a top-10 strength of schedule, the Wildcats might find themselves in the field just by avoiding bad losses the rest of the way.