Mid-Major Notebook: Fordham Basketball Flirting With March Madness

Mid-Major Notebook: Fordham Basketball Flirting With March Madness

With its first 20-win season in 32 years, Fordham is aiming for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1992.

Feb 17, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
Mid-Major Notebook: Fordham Basketball Flirting With March Madness

"Every coach that's come in here," Fordham coach Keith Urgo said in his press conference following a Feb. 15 win over St. Bonaventure, "Has said that this is something different." 

An energy not felt at Rose Hill Gymnasium in The Bronx for years — decades, really — radiates in 2023. Credit Fordham basketball for creating that energy, as the Rams continue to build on a level of success not experienced at the university in more than 30 years. 

Their 78-63 win over the Bonnies improved the Rams to 21-5, extending the program's first 20-win season since 1990-91. Fordham sits in second place of the Atlantic 10 Conference with less than a month to go in the regular season, and gets a shot at the league leader, VCU, Feb. 18. The Rams head into Presidents' Day Weekend in a three-team tie for second with Saint Louis and Dayton, and each trails VCU by just a game. 

Fordham lost to Dayton on Jan. 10, but beat Saint Louis on Jan. 31, in its lone meetings head-to-head with the two. The A-10's race to the finish is crowded, including a Duquesne team that's been a surprise in its own right looming at 8-5 in league. The Dukes and Rams face March 4 in the regular-season finale that could, against all preseason odds, determine the conference title. 

While a regular-season A-10 championship doesn't guarantee Fordham inclusion in the NCAA Tournament — the '91 Rams learned that the hard way, losing a play-in game that denied them a bid — beating VCU certainly helps its case for a first bid since 1992. 

"That has a lot to do with the commitment from the board of trustees, and president [Tania Tetlow] and [athletic director] Ed Kull and the entire administration," Urgo said of the program's reversal of fortunes, during Wednesday's postgame press conference. "It's a community-at-large right now, and everybody's pumped about it."

The theme of community, and the excitement evident in the crowds packing Rose Hill, speak to a history Fordham can recapture.  

New York is ostensible the cradle of college basketball thanks to the post-World War II exhibitions featuring top teams from across the country, held at Madison Square Garden, and the importance of the National Invitational Tournament for the '40s, '50s and '60s. Fordham never quite reached the heights of neighboring counterparts like CCNY or St. John's, but it flirted with becoming a power under Digger Phelps in the early '70s. 

The bevy of prep basketball talent that comes from the New York area suggests it might be easy to sustain such success, but a half-century of results prove otherwise. 

This Fordham team, however, is bucking the trend in part because of local products: 15.2-point and 6.7-rebound per game-averaging forward Khalid Moore comes from Elmont, and spark-plug guard Will Richardson is from the ballyhooed Bergen Catholic prep program in Teaneck, New Jersey. 

However, Fordham has "caught lightning in a bottle," as Urgo put it, with "the right student-athletes to fit what Fordham is" like Antrell Charlton and Darius Quisenberry. Quisenberry, a Youngstown State transfer from Ohio, leads the Rams at 17 points per game. Charlton, from Florida, played a year of JUCO ball before arriving in The Bronx a year ago. 

Charlton credited the buzz as starting with Urgo. 

"He doesn't let up. Every single day, he comes in, he's got the most energy out of everybody," Charlton said. "Doesn't matter if we had a long trip, the next day in practice, Urgo's bringing all the energy." 

And that energy just might translate into Madness. 

First-Timers Club 

Kennesaw State's 88-81 win over Liberty on Feb. 16 vaulted the Owls into first-place atop the ASUN with just a week remaining in the regular season. The conference tournament determines the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, meaning KSU still has work to do, and the ASUN Tournament has been particularly interesting: Bellarmine, a program ineligible for March Madness due to a quizzical rule (more on that momentarily), won the 2022 edition. 

But with an outright regular-season title in sight, Kennesaw State has never been closer to its first trip to the Big Dance in program history. 

"This year was definitely the year, man,” Owls guard Chris Youngblood told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ve already been through all the learning experiences. The tough losses, ugly wins, pretty losses, all that type of stuff. So I knew it was time this year." 

If 2023 is indeed Kennesaw State's time for its first time, the Owls may not be alone. Joining them among programs to never reach the NCAA Tournament are some notables also alone in first atop their conferences. 

Youngstown State has pulled ahead of the logjam in the Horizon League, where Milwaukee, Cleveland State and Northern Kentucky all sit a game behind the Penguins. YSU dispatched Milwaukee by 29 points on Thursday, almost two weeks after an 18-point victory over Northern Kentucky. 

"You've seen it from the Oakland game [a 77-73 YSU win on Jan. 27], steam picking up," Penguins coach Jerrod Calhoun said following the Milwaukee win. "These kids being talked about, deservedly so. ...It's what it's about. It's about the community, it's about bringing people together." 

The impact an NCAA Tournament contender can have on a community is profound. In Orem, Utah, nearly 6,000 were in attendance for Utah Valley's 90-83 win Feb. 11 over Southern Utah, a victory that helped the Wolverines extend their advantage in the Western Athletic Conference. 

Utah Valley is 20-6 and 11-2 in a tough WAC that features six teams with NET rankings of 138 or better. The Wolverines have never reached the Big Dance, but head coach Mark Madsen knows all about the Madness: He led Stanford to the Final Four in 1998. 

Now on the sideline, Madsen oversees a team that plays with the same "Mad Dog" defensive intensity, ranking fifth nationally in defense against 2-point shot attempts and No. 11 in percentage of defensive possessions with blocked shots, per KenPom.com metrics. Seven-footer Aziz Bandaogo is among the nation's best rim-protectors, and the duo of Trey Woodbury and Le'Tre Darthard give Utah Valley a potent outside shooting combination. 

Do Away With The Reclassification Rule  

Another program never to play in the Div. I NCAA Tournament that currently leads its conference is Stonehill of the NEC. However, the Skyhawks cannot compete for the Northeast Conference's automatic bid into the Big Dance. 

Neither can Merrimack, the NEC's second-place team. Merrimack won the NEC regular-season title in 2019-20, going 14-4 in the league and 20-11 overall in its first season as a Div. I member. The Warriors are in the final year of the four-year ineligible period programs moving up must wait before competing for national championships, a rule that's a real head-scratcher. 

The spirit of the reclassification rule makes sense, as it's designed for the NCAA to assess the university's commitment and ability to field Div. I programs. But that naturally begs the question, what more significant benchmark of such commitment and ability is there than winning? 

Bellarmine, a perennial Div. II powerhouse under coach Scott Davenport, played in the College Basketball Invitational at the conclusion of a successful first D-I season. The Knights followed that up last year by winning the ASUN Tournament, despite being ineligible for the league's automatic bid. Bellarmine has pretty immediately demonstrated its commitment, yet the payment associated with reaching the NCAA Tournament was denied it to further that commitment.