by Seth Gruen
There are few certainties in college basketball. Among them, raucous student sections, Dick Vitale screaming and Bobby Knight’s sweaters.
While the helter-skelter of the tournament allows little room for guarantees as far as individual team success, North Carolina and Connecticut have been the models of consistency in recent history. Since 1999 the two schools have combined for four National Championships, seven Final Four appearances and 52 Tournament wins. Since 1975, the Tar Heels have been truant from the Tournament twice while the Huskies have missed it six times.
Typically at this point in the college basketball schedule the two teams are vying for No. 1 seeds. This year, they’re vying for their tournament candidacy. North Carolina has only three conference wins with North Carolina State the only buffer between the Tar Heels and the bottom of the ACC. Connecticut, which had to endure a seven-game health reprieve for head coach Jim Calhoun, is 5-8 in conference which is good enough for 12th in the Big East.
It’s unlikely the Tar Heels or Huskies will get to dance barring either team winning its conference tournament, which could still happen. But basketball purists still hope that they’ll be two in the field of 65 because leaving these two teams out of the Tournament would be like hosting the Winter Olympics without snow (woops). North Carolina and Connecticut fans are probably so depressed that the cheerleaders will go watch the “Notebook” to cheer up.
Numerous factors have contributed to sub-par seasons for two of the most dominant teams in sports—yes, all of sports. Most point to the drastic turnover elite college basketball teams undergo when players enter the NBA Draft. I contend that teams are relying more on younger players who need time to acclimate to the college game.
But none of it matters. This season isn’t a trend starting in Chapel Hill or Storrs, just a minor hiccup in the two programs’ storied histories.
More paramount is the effect their absence might have on the college basketball landscape. While the Tar Heels and Huskies dominate the headlines with other programs like Syracuse, Duke and Kansas, this year may be an opportunity for successful, yet less recognized programs to purge the national discussion. No team may benefit more than Michigan State.
With all the hub-hub surrounding recruiting, ranking and high school showcases, the teams that land the more well-known recruits tend to get more attention. Spartans head coach Tom Izzo does little to covet the über-egomaniacal 18-year-old and generally recruits within three hours of East Lansing.
Yet Izzo has managed to get each of his four-year players to the Final Four. I don’t understand why any top-level recruit wouldn’t go to Michigan State. You’re guaranteed a Final Four appearance unless you leave early which means that you’ve likely made it to the NBA.
What more can the Spartans do? The formula for recognition in sports used to be simple: Win. But the 24-7 news cycle requires much more than that. It’s about glitz, style and marketability.
Look across sports at some of the most mediocre athletes and coaches who have become superstars—Danica Patrick and Lane Kiffin to just name two.
It even exists in college basketball with the puffery regarding discussions of the Big East. Nobody seems to crow when the Big Ten or SEC have multiple teams in the Final Four. Michigan State has simply been too plain in its winning ways.
But Michigan State’s winning could become too overwhelming to ignore this year. The Spartans are certainly on the shortlist to contend for the title. Couple a championship with last year’s runner-up finish and the Spartans may be considered the decade’s best.
I last interviewed Tom Izzo at the Midwest Regional of last year’s Tournament where he continued to reiterated a desire to be mentioned with the country’s elite programs. This year they could get defacto headlines.
North Carolina and Connecticut can’t be discussed if they’re not participating in the post season. It seems elementary, but in order for Michigan State to garner the spotlight, it needs to first come off other programs.
Beating those programs certainly helps, but a team can’t get more than six chances at that each post season. So for the Spartans it won’t hurt if the Tournament Committee gives them a head start.
Seth Gruen is a sportswriter based in Chicago with experience covering every level of basketball. He can be reached at SethGruen@gmail.com.