March Moment: A Pearl of Wisdom

Posted by jstevrtc on March 17th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, RTC contributor and bracketologist-in-residence Zach Hayes illustrates one of the many reasons why the NCAA Tournament is the greatest event in American sports — a good deal of the time, it’s not just about basketball:

There’s something different about growing up rooting for a mid-major.

It’s elementary rooting for perennial powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Michigan State, teams that may experience hardship once a decade but can always be counted on to reload sooner than later, similar to playing the Rookie level on Madden.

When that special season comes along for a mid-major, the urgency is palpable, the intensity unmatched, the hope for that perfect slipper fit lingers. Fans of mid-majors often see their small, unknown program wallow in the depths of obscurity playing in front of 1,000 fans for years, unable to migrate up the standings. Then that miracle-working coach comes along, diamonds in the rough begin to fill out the roster, and finally the school faces that one opportunity to achieve the previously unthinkable.

For me, that team was the 2002-03 Milwaukee Panthers. For me, that coach was Bruce Pearl.

As any college basketball fan knows, the conference tournament is the be-all and end-all for mid-major programs. A team can suffer through a losing regular season, reel off three straight wins and find themselves in the Big Dance. But on the flipside, a team can coast to the regular season title, play one bad 40-minute stint and miss out on a chance that may never present itself again.

That was the situation facing the Panthers during Pearl’s second season at the helm and my first season with season tickets at THE MECCA, the downtown arena that Kareem and Oscar formerly patrolled for the Bucks back in the early-70s. The middling Horizon League program had been lingering in the shadow of Marquette in our own city and Butler in our own league for the bane of our Division I existence.

Then the perfect concoction came together for that 2002-03 season. We found a legitimate post player in Dylan Page, a sharp-shooting 2-guard in Clay Tucker, a steady point guard in Ronnie Jones and complimentary players like Jason Frederick and Nate Mielke that executed Pearl’s patented full-court press to a tee. It was a team incredibly easy to get attached to at 12 years old. Just me, my dad, our favorite coach and a mid-major trying to make a name for themselves.

Our Panthers ended up toppling mighty Butler in the Horizon finals. The court filled in a matter of seconds with gold-clad students lifting players into the air. The previously unimaginable had been accomplished. But all I remember from that moment is hugging my father and the beaming smile that covered his face. He’s taught at Milwaukee since 1982 and had experienced the lowest of lows with the program. It was for him.

We ended up losing to 5th seeded Notre Dame in the first round nine days later after Page missed a game-winning layup at the buzzer. The game ended around 11 PM on a school night, but of course my father let me stay up for the end. When Page’s miss trickled around the rim and out and the Irish celebrated at center court, I remember expecting the tears to stream down my face.

Instead, a smile of appreciation broke out. I looked over at my dad and he began to applaud.

We were too proud of them to do anything different.

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March Moment: Morrison And The Zags

Posted by jstevrtc on March 17th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game. For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment. A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.” Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents: what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan? What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

In this submission, RTC Big 12 correspondent Patrick Sellars illustrates one of the great aspects of being a college basketball fan — how a team with which you have no rooting interest or affiliation can somehow find its way into your heart:

It was my freshman year in high school, and I would say I was a modest college basketball fan at best. I watched the big games, the conference tournaments, and of course the “Big Dance” but I wasn’t a diehard like I am today. The team, but more importantly the player, that changed this all for me was Adam Morrison and his 2005-06 Gonzaga Bulldogs. The first game I watched the Zags play was the 3OT thriller against Michigan State in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, Morrison put up 43 points in the Gonzaga win. After this game I was hooked on Morrison, this shaggy haired, awkward, lanky, peach fuzz mustache flaunting kid with diabetes was draining NBA range threes over athletic guards, and he did it with passion and intensity that I haven’t seen in college basketball since.

Over the course of the season I saw every single game they played, I even talked my parents into buying the Fox College Sports West TV package so I could stay up late for all of their WCC contests. I lived and breathed Gonzaga basketball, and as a kid from Wisconsin with no affiliation to the school all my peers called me a “fair-weather-fan”. However, I didn’t care, because I was so enticed by the Gonzaga team.

As the rest of the season unfolded there were many great moments. Everyone remembers the Oklahoma State game with Morrison’s bank in three, Gus Johnson screaming at the top of his lungs “LARRY BIRD!!!! BABY!!!” I was euphoric, ironically Gus Johnson would make another call later in the year that still haunts my dreams to this day.

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March Moment: Tending the Hardwood

Posted by jstevrtc on March 16th, 2010

Few college basketball fans are born with their love for the game.  For most aficionados, at some point on the way from infancy to college hoops fan, there is a moment.  A single play, shot, player, game, or event at which point they say to themselves, “I will always have this in my life.”  Because it is the time of the season that carries the most gravitas, these things often happen in March. We asked some of our friends and correspondents:  what was the thing that turned you into a lifelong college basketball fan?  What was your…March Moment? We’ll be posting some of their answers for the rest of the month.

Our first submission comes from a friend living in California who grew up a George Mason fan and, at an early age, was given an important job:

Basketball players are really tall. And the “big men” generally live up to their name. Especially from the standpoint of a twelve-year-old sitting beneath the basket.

Long before Fairfax, Virginia adopted them as their very own Cinderella, the George Mason Patriots were working to perfect their “run-and-gun” style of play that earned them more victories than defeats in the Colonial Athletic Conference. It was during this earlier era that I was bestowed the high responsibility of drying the floor of player sweat in between plays. A trivial task? Maybe to non-12-year-olds. As they say, the harder they come, the harder they fall. And I don’t think the originator of that old saw considered leaping ability in the equation. When these guys fall, you hear it and you feel it. And if the fall had something to do with a wet spot – which for that day comprised the entirely of my existence – then you’d better have a good reason as to why that wasn’t taken care of when the ball was at the other end of the court. In these matters age most certainly does not matter.

Our author would gladly have wiped the sweat from Coach Larranaga. (AP/Jack Dempsey)

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Team of the 2000s: Wrap-Up and Honorable Mention

Posted by rtmsf on August 23rd, 2009

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Direct Links to the Top Ten.

1.  UNC
2.  Kansas
3.  Florida
4.  Duke
5.  Michigan St.
6.  UConn
7.  UCLA
8.  Memphis
9.  Syracuse
10.  Maryland

Intro.  Welcome back.  We wanted to use this post to wrap up the loose ends with an endeavor such as this one.  Let’s talk about our methodology, the teams who were easiest/most difficult to place, the Memphis quandary, and the teams who were on the outside of the top ten looking in.   As always, feel free to disagree in the comments.

Defending Our Methodology.  One of the more interesting things about releasing these rankings has been the reaction from various fan bases. Some have been very measured in their response and criticism (such as the people in Lawrence, Kansas) while others have been a little more vitriolic (fans of another program in the center of the country). Most of the criticism has been directed at our methodology. There seemed to be quite a bit of confusion on this, so let’s clear it up immediately.  Some people have misinterpreted our table (below) as if the listed criteria were all considered totally and equally in how we ranked teams. Nothing could be further from the truth – rather, the table  was intended to be used as a tool showing the universe of relevant statistics that our panel might find useful when making their decisions.  There was no formula that a panelist was obliged to follow – instead, each panelist had complete discretion to consider or ignore any statistic he deemed important (or irrelevant).  Once each panelist submitted his list, we then took a holistic view of the world when determining where to rank certain teams.  Obviously we all considered winning percentage, NCAA Tournament success, conference achievements, etc., but in varying degrees.  That’s what makes these debates work – while one panelist may think that the NCAA Tournament is all that really matters and wants to weight teams almost exclusively on that metric, another panelist may want to give more substantial weight to the regular season.  Here’s the thing, though – reasonable minds always differ, and both conclusions are completely ok.  We believe that this sort of subjective analysis – review the available stats, pre-rank a list, reconvene to discuss, finalize the rankings – gives such a ranking system more credibility than simply weighting and re-weighting a formula until everything “feels” right.  For those of you who wanted a completely “objective” ranking system… well, here’s an example we did last spring that shows how the BCS formula would have applied to the NCAA Tournament.   Hint: F4 participants Villanova and UConn wouldn’t have even been invited to the Ball. In sum, we think that our methodology resulted in a solid, defensible list of the top ten programs of the 2000s.  Not everyone can be happy, but we’re comfortable with the results.

team2000s final list

Hardest Teams to Peg.  There were three teams that the panel had the hardest time nailing down – #4 Duke, #5 Michigan St., and #8 Memphis.  Both Duke and MSU received a #1 vote in our initial analyses, although to be fair, those were outliers among the panel.  Memphis was equally contentious, with half of the panel initially placing the Tigers in the top seven, while the other half didn’t even have them ranked at all.  It probably makes sense that we’ve received the most criticism based on these difficult-to-peg teams.

Easiest Teams to Peg.  On the other hand, the top three teams – #1 UNC, #2 Kansas, #3 Florida – were unanimous in order (although not in ranking).  Every panelist rated those three in the same order relative to one another, and the lowest any of the four teams were rated was fourth.  Interestingly, criticism died down on the placement of these teams.  Perhaps our panel was representative of what Average College Basketball Fan would choose as well?

What About Memphis? After the news that the NCAA vacated Memphis’ 38 wins and title appearance from the 2008 season, there was some buzz about what we should do with our list.  By our estimation, Memphis was rated as the #8 program of the 2000s, but if we removed that year, they most undoubtedly would have dropped out of the top ten.    After some internal discussion, we’re unwilling to go there.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First and foremost, we don’t want to.  We watched Memphis play its way into the national finals, we saw Derrick Rose clang his first FT with nine seconds left, and we remember the shocked look on Calipari’s face in the interview room afterwards.  We also remember Michael Redd’s shooting in 99, Marcus Camby blocking everything in sight in 96, C-Webb calling timeout in 93, and several other vacated performances over the years.  Those games and moments happened.  They’re seared into our memory.  The NCAA can vacate whatever it wants, but we’re not going to join forces with them in their legal fiction.  Which brings us to our second point on this topic.  The NCAA’s application of these penalties is so wantonly inconsistent that if we gave credence to this one while ignoring such wholesale violations known to the general public – Sam Gilbert at UCLA and Reggie Bush at USC should immediately come to mind – that we’d be doing our readers a disservice.  We recognize that cheating at some level happens nearly everywhere, but our stance is that if the NCAA doesn’t catch it and punish the school prior to the games affected, then we’re not going to join them in their after-the-fact erasures.  Sorry.  Memphis stays at #8.

The Celebrated RTC Panel
The Celebrated RTC Panel

Honorable Mention (in no particular order).

  • Pittsburgh.  Pitt was an oddity when it came to evaluating them for our countdown.  There was considerable variance among the voters as to where the Pitt program landed, and because of that they were one of the first teams to whom we awarded this “honorable mention” status.  Still, after the votes had been submitted, in the ensuing discussion it wasn’t that hard to move Pittsburgh out of the Top 10.  Make no mistake, it’s been an excellent ten years for the Pitt program, but in order to make a decade’s-end Top 10 list there are certain things you simply HAVE to get done.  Of their eight trips to the NCAA tournament, six of those saw Pittsburgh with at least a 4-seed (five of them were #3 or better).  The result?  Zero trips to the Final Four and only one Elite Eight.  It’s not like the Panthers didn’t have their chances.  True, it’s not easy to lose a coach like Ben Howland (who took Pitt to the Dance in 2002 and 2003) and the program deserves credit for a hire like Jamie Dixon, who didn’t miss a beat. And it’s not easy to lose to a Howland-coached UCLA team in 2007 in a #2-vs-#3 seed Sweet 16 game when you’re playing them in San Jose.  But if you want to be considered among the elite, you HAVE to beat 10th-seeded Kent State in the Sweet 16 when you’re a #3 (2002).  You HAVE to beat Pacific in the first round of 2005, even if you are on the low side of an #8-vs-#9 game.  You CANNOT LOSE to 13th-seeded Bradley in the second round when you’re a 5-seed (2006).  And perhaps the most painful — when you’ve earned a 1-seed after an incredible 28-4 season playing in the Big East, when you’re playing in your first Elite Eight in 35 years, you MUST beat the 3-seed, even if it is an in-state rival in the form of a very tough-nosed Villanova squad.  Dixon faces a bit of a rebuilding task in the upcoming season, but they ended the 2000s strong.  It’s because of that strong finish, that trend of improvement, that people – especially Pittsburgh fans – may be surprised to not see the Panthers in the Top 10 for the last decade.  As we start the new decade with the upcoming season, Dixon has the Pittsburgh program poised to move into that elite category.  As far as the last decade, though, they came up just short.
  • Illinois. On three of our personal Team of the 2000s rankings, Illinois barely missed the cut, meaning if the Bruce Weber-led 2005 squad managed to topple North Carolina for a national championship, they’d likely be included in the top ten. Illinois has also flamed out a bit at the tail end of the decade, finishing with a losing record in 2007-08 (16-19) before rebounding to a 24-10 mark in 2008-09 and eventually falling victim to a 12-5 upset by Western Kentucky. Bill Self and Bruce Weber have built a phenomenal program throughout the decade, though. The 2004-05 team featuring Deron Williams, Luther Head, Dee Brown and James Augustine was one of the top teams of the 2000s, flirting with an undefeated mark until Ohio State knocked them off in Columbus, then pulling off one of the most sensational comebacks in NCAA Tournament history in the Elite 8 against Arizona. Illinois has tied or won the Big Ten three times in the 2000s and finished as high as second three more times. What holds Illinois back from garnering a spot on the list? They haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament or won a conference title since that special 2004-05 campaign. Borderline teams have experienced more success in March, both in the Big Dance and in conference tournament play, than Illinois. For example, Maryland has two Final Fours, a national title and never finished with a losing record in the decade. Illinois hasn’t won the Big Ten Tournament since 2004-05. With packed recruiting classes ahead and a top-notch leader in Weber, Illinois will look to turn around a program that hasn’t been nearly as feared since watching Carolina cut down the nets on that fateful April night four years ago.
  • Gonzaga. The Zags undoubtedly were the most successful mid-major of the decade (moreso than Xavier and Butler), but their overall profile simply didn’t have enough juice to vault Gonzaga into the top ten. They dominated the WCC, winning the league eight times en route to an average of 26+ wins per year, an outstanding 80% winning percentage, and ten straight NCAA appearances.  But when it came to the NCAAs, Mark Few’s squads were only able to make it to the Sweet Sixteen four times.  And how many times in the decade were they able to advance past the third round?  Um, try zero.    Nevertheless, we believe that Gonzaga rates a tick higher than other such notable programs as Louisville, Wisconsin, Arizona and Oklahoma (all of whom made one F4) because they were so consistently good despite their scheduling limitations.  The worst Zag team (2006-07) still had 23 wins, and as a result of the weaker schedule of the WCC, their average NCAA seed was easily one of the lowest on our list.  Yet, as we all know, Gonzaga has tried to load up on high-impact RPI games during the nonconference slate, and we give them credit for that.  Fans of the other programs may quibble with this selection, but we can live with including at least one mid-major for consideration as the Team of the 2000s, and Gonzaga is our choice.
  • Arizona.  The obvious question here for Wildcat fans is how can a team that made the NCAA tournament every year for the past decade (and 25 straight if you don’t take away their vacated 1999 appearance) not be considered one of the top ten programs of the 2000s behind four teams that failed to make the tournament twice, two teams that failed to make the tournament three times, and another team that failed to make the tournament four times?  While the answer probably won’t satisfy Wildcat fans, it comes down to a few key things for us:
  1. Barely having a winning percentage at 70% despite playing in the Pac-10. Save the whining, West Coast people. The Pac-10 has only been one of the best conferences in the nation once in the past decade (2008 comes immediately to mind).
  2. Averaging 1.7 wins per NCAA Tournament appearance, which is lower than any other team in the top 10. The only team that they are close to is Syracuse and the Orange have a national title (wouldn’t be in the top 10 without it).
  3. Mediocre performance in the Pac-10. The Wildcats had 2.5 regular season conference titles (one being a split title) and 1 postseason conference title (since it was started in 2002). Like we said before, the Pac-10 might have the most attractive co-eds in the nation (although the SEC has a strong case), but the Pac-10 pales in comparison to the ACC, Big East, Big 12, SEC, and the Big 10 over the past decade in terms of the quality of their basketball teams.
  4. You could argue that the Wildcats got lucky with many of those NCAA tournament bids, most notably two years ago when they got in ahead of an Arizona State team that had a very strong case for being in above their rival.
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Team of the 2000s: #1 – North Carolina

Posted by rtmsf on August 21st, 2009

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Ed. Note: check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

And so we reach the pinnacle.  Ladies and gentlemen, prep yourselves, as this will come as a complete shocker… but your #1 program of the last decade is the North Carolina Tar Heels.  We know that you were probably thinking it was Gonzaga or Pittsburgh, but alas, the fine programs from Washington and Pennsylvania will have to wait another decade for the RTC Good Hoopskeeping seal of approval.

Be sure to check back Monday as we’ll do some clean-up on the series, including a look at some of the programs who just missed the top ten.

#1 – North Carolina

team2000sunc2

Overview.  Maybe we should just call it the Decade of Roy Williams.  After all, most of Carolina’s success in the 2000s is directly attributable to Ol’ Roy.  If you consider his 111 more wins at Kansas, three more trips to the NCAA’s second weekend and two additional F4s in the decade, you’re looking at a coaching juggernaut.  But Roy isn’t North Carolina and UNC isn’t Roy – it only feels that way.  This is about UNC, and despite a one-season blip in 2001-02 that time has forgotten, mostly accounting for their relatively poor overall winning percentage, the Heels have the goods in almost every other way.  Were they as consistent as Duke or Michigan State?  Nope.  Were they as much of a conference titan as KU or their hated rival in Durham?  Nope again.  But their numbers stack up very well in all categories across the board, and they’ve utterly dominated the second half of the 2000s in much the same way that Duke/Kentucky lorded over their respective halves of the 90s.  From 2005-09, the Heels have won two national championships with completely different casts, went to another F4, lost in OT in an Elite Eight and lost in the second round against the biggest Cinderella of the last quarter-century.  Not.  Too.  Shab.  The Heels didn’t have as much success during the first half of the decade, but they still managed to tack on another F4 as an absurd #8 seed in 2000, as well as two other second round appearances and an NIT appearance.  All the while continuing to produce a slew of  all-americans and NBA draft picks.  What separates Carolina in our eyes is the second championship that Roy hung next to the others in 2009.  Florida’s 06/07 back-to-back was extremely impressive, because everyone knows just how difficult it is to repeat in college basketball.  But in our view, it’s even more impressive to endure massive defections of NBA talent the likes of which UNC had from 2005-07 and still be able to climb the mountaintop a mere four years later.  A reasonable argument could be made that UNC was the best team in the country in four of the last five seasons (2005, 2007, 2008, 2009), and it wouldn’t necessarily render you a nutjob to contemplate it.  So North Carolina is our choice for the top program of the 2000s, and with the second championship currently shimmering in the Chapel Hill sunlight, we’re not convinced that any other school should be higher.

unc title 2005

Pinnacle.  The 2005 national championship.  Just three short years removed from the worst Carolina season in modernity (more on this later), UNC was once again the king of the college basketball world.  What seemed a million and one miles away under Matt Doherty’s tenure felt like a natural outcome under the coolest of cats, Roy Williams.  One of the very proudest fanbases in America could once again claim basketball supremacy, and after what they had been through, it must have felt like raining gold coins from heaven.   Carolina’s fourth national championship team was led by Sean May, Rashad McCants and Ray Felton, but it was a long, lean freshman by the name of Marvin Williams who saved the Heels from a trademarked (at the time) Roy collapse when he rebounded a wild reverse layup from the sometimes-erratic McCants and punched it back in for a 72-70 lead.  A Felton steal later and several desperation three attempts by the Illini, and the monkey was most definitely off of Roy’s back.  His back is so light right now that he turned around and did it again in 2009 and looks primed to have several more shots at it before he retires a Carolina hero.

Tailspin.   Without question, the 2001-02 UNC team represents the worst season for a traditional powerhouse school in two decades.  But just as Duke was Team of the 1990s despite the Pete Gaudet Incident; UNC made up for its one bad year with plenty of success the rest of the decade.  In ACC circles, UNC’s record of 8-20 is still brought up as a euphemism for terrible.  And that team was terrible – eight of their twenty losses were of the 20+ point variety as teams who had long been pushed around by UNC wasted no time in returning the favor, if only for a year.  It began with three straight opening losses to the likes of Hampton, Davidson and Indiana, continued with a series of whippings by Kentucky, Maryland, Wake Forest, Duke and Ohio (at home), but the most embarrassing part of the entire season had to be the Heels’ last game of the year in the ACC Tournament.  Deciding that UNC simply couldn’t stack up talent-wise with the defending national champion Blue Devils (who had defeated them by a total of 54 pts in their regular season meetings), Matt Doherty decided to slow the game down to a veritable crawl, holding the ball until under-ten on the shot clock before running a play.  The typically entertaining and high-scoring Duke-Carolina showdown was bastardized into a 28-22 at the half Big Ten game.  Doherty got one more year to turn the ship around, but a near-mutiny at the end of the 2002-03 season led to the Roy Williams era.

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Outlook for 2010s:  Grade: A+.   Roy Williams is 59 years old and is showing no signs of slowing down.  Unlike other coaches his age, he seems to embrace recruiting and it pays off year after year with NBA caliber talent coming through his program.  By our count, Williams has recruited an absurd THIRTY McDonald’s All-Americans in his twenty-one years of coaching (average: 1.4 per year) at Kansas and UNC, and there are no signs of this receding (14 at Carolina already, including four incoming freshman for 2009-10).  Duke is the only other program with thirty or more.  Furthermore, there’s absolutely no chance of Williams taking any other job, NBA or college – he’ll be at UNC until retirement.  We fully expect UNC to continue to make F4s and compete for championships throughout the next decade, and the Heels may be right here on top of this list again ten years from now.

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Team of the 2000s: #2- Kansas

Posted by zhayes9 on August 19th, 2009

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Ed. Note: Check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

Stepping away from this decade’s rankings for a moment, one could make the argument that the runner-up recipient on our list would top a list of the greatest college basketball programs of all-time. Sure, UCLA and Kentucky fans may quibble, but the combination of legendary players (Lovelette, Chamberlain, Manning, Pierce), pantheon coaches (Naismith, Allen, Brown, Williams) and an arena that every true college basketball fan should visit (Allen Fieldhouse) could surely provide enough ammunition to make an argument to head an all-time list. The successes of this program’s basketball has extended into the current decade, complete with Final Fours, national championship heartbreaks and a comeback for the ages. Let’s take a closer look:

#2 – Kansas

team2000skansas

Overview. As one can tell from the chart above, Kansas has been the model of consistency over the course of the decade. Not even a Hall-of-Fame coach departing for his alma mater could deter the Jayhawks program in the 2000s. In fact, Kansas is the only school to reach the top-five in every single category considered, including a runner-up rank in Sweet 16s and Final Fours reached with seven and three, respectively. Other teams on the list have gone without a losing campaign and reached the NCAA Tournament each season, but none of those schools lost a coach midway through the decade. After Roy Williams departed, Kansas made a tremendous hire, luring Illinois coach Bill Self to Lawrence. He’s responded by capturing a Big 12 regular season title each season with the exception of 2003-04, a year in which he finished second and reached the Elite Eight (ho hum). The peak for Kansas may have come in the early part of the decade under Williams, though. The Jayhawk squads from 2001-03 were truly memorable. The 2001-02 club is still the only team in Big 12 history to finish conference play undefeated, a Drew Gooden-led group that finished first in the nation in field goal and winning percentage. A year later, Kansas led the nation in scoring margin and reached the national title game.

Pinnacle. KU’s only national championship in the decade would not have occurred if Derrick Rose or Chris Douglas-Roberts had sunk one more measly free throw during the thrilling 2008 National Championship Game in San Antonio. You know the story: Memphis leads Kansas 60-51 with two minutes left, the national title within their grasp…only to experience heartbreak of the highest order. Give the Jayhawks credit, though, for going perfect from the field and line during those waning minutes. Mario Chalmers’ game-tying three-point shot with 2.1 seconds left will forever be etched in the mind of college basketball fans and may be the single greatest moment in Kansas basketball history (from the wayback machine: RTC’s “morning after” analysis of the game). And that’s saying something. Long known for NCAA Tournament chokes, (we’ll delve into that in a bit) Bill Self finally reached the pinnacle, a pinnacle that is still going strong today. That national title squad was stripped of nearly every contributing player besides sixth man Sherron Collins and little-used big man Cole Aldrich, yet Self’s superb coaching led Kansas to another Big 12 title and Sweet 16 appearance in 2008-09. As the preseason #1 team in the land entering the next decade, the pinnacle has yet to conclude.

Tailspin. Many fans would immediately point to the heartbreaking loss to Syracuse in the 2003 National Championship game (you remember the infamous Hakim Warrick block), a last hurrah for Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Roy Williams gone awry. But I’d be shocked if diehard Kansas fans didn’t select the consecutive first round losses in 2005 and 2006 to Bucknell (as a #3 seed) and Bradley (as a #4 seed) as the lowest points of the decade. The 2004-05 Kansas team completely collapsed after starting the season 20-1 and reaching the top spot in the polls, a squad led by Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles during Self’s second season. They would go on to lose six of their last nine games before the shocking Bucknell last-second upset. The following season was different yet finished eerily similar. After a rough start, KU rebounded to win 15 of their last 17 games and the Big 12 tournament before falling to Bradley in the opening round. After the loss, Bill Self was labeled a perennial March choke artist and many questioned whether the Kansas program could ever return to prominence.

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Outlook for 2010s: Grade: A+. Kansas has returned to prominence. The Jayhawks enter the 2009-10 season as the near-unanimous favorite to raise another rafter in Allen Fieldhouse, a feat that would complete the quickest rebuilding job in the sport’s history. Aldrich appears to be one of the early favorites to win the Naismith Award and Self lured another McDonald’s All-American into the fray for next season in talented wing Xavier Henry, coupled with two more top-ten players at their respective positions in Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson to go with Tyshawn Taylor, Marcus Morris and Collins. Self is a recruiting machine and appears to be the frontrunner for Harrison Barnes, the top player in next year’s class. Kansas is the height of the coaching chain and, barring an unforeseen flameout, Self should be the KU coach for years and years to come (especially after rejecting a monster package from his alma mater, Oklahoma State). The March monkey is off his back and the future is extremely bright for one of the most storied programs in college basketball.

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Team of the 2000s: #3 – Florida

Posted by jstevrtc on August 18th, 2009

teamof2000(2)

Ed. Note: Check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

As we move into the top three teams of the 2000s, we reach rarefied air.  The team we review today at the third spot was one of the absolute toughest to place, for reasons that will be described below.

#3 — Florida

team2000sflorida

Overview.  When Billy Donovan arrived at Florida in 1996 he brought with him all of two years of head coaching experience, a mere 35-20 record as the head bull at Marshall.  In its previous 81 seasons, the Florida program had gone through 18 different head coaches and known the joys of only a single Final Four, coming in 1994 under Lon Kruger.  Nevertheless, much was expected of Donovan.  Because of his leadership skills displayed as a point guard at Providence and an assistant at Kentucky (serving head coach Rick Pitino in both capacities), Donovan was quickly anointed as the Next Big Thing in terms of young, up-and-coming college coaches.  He delivered quickly, getting the Gators to the championship game in 2000 (falling to Tom Izzo and the Flintstones) and establishing himself as an unbelievable recruiter.  But, despite the Blue Devil-like stable of stars, Florida in the early 2000s couldn’t manage past the second round at best in the NCAA Tournament; true, they had made themselves into a formidable power in the SEC, culminating in their first-ever (?!?) SEC Tournament title in 2005 – the first of three straight – but because of their troubles in the Big Dance people began to wonder if Donovan really had what it took to “win the big one.”  The best evidence to this was the fact that in each of their appearances from 2001 to 2005, Florida lost to a lower-ranked opponent, and usually quite handily.  The only non-double-digit loss during that span was a double-overtime defeat to Creighton in a 12-vs-5 game in the first round in 2002.  Those Florida teams may have had top-flight recruits but seemed to lack a physical toughness (with the possible exception of David Lee) required of a true NCAA title contender, and this resulted in the Gators frequently getting pushed around in early tournament games.

74728926_UCLA_v_Florida
Just as soon as people began to truly doubt Donovan, though, the coaching “potential” and the talent on the floor seemed to meld perfectly in the 2005-2006 season.  While fellows like Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, and Corey Brewer were all prized recruits during their high school careers, they weren’t quite as highly regarded as some of the players Donovan had on his comparatively disappointing squads mentioned above.  What those fellows did indeed possess was the physical toughness, killer instinct, and coachability that Donovan’s system requires, and this perfect fit resulted in Florida’s first national basketball championship in 2006.  Donovan and his Florida program still had their detractors who claimed that they merely lucked into an easy draw — four of their six victories in that tournament came against teams seeded 7th or worse — and that their 2006 title was just a fluke.  Surprisingly, the “Oh-Fours” (the collective nickname that Brewer, Horford, Noah, and Green had given themselves for obvious reasons) all decided to return to campus the following year despite the certain looming promise of NBA riches.  Flipping a gigantic middle finger to the aforementioned detractors, they proved that the previous season’s title was certainly no fluke by becoming the first repeat champions in 15 years.  When considering the two straight titles, Billy Donovan’s recruiting prowess, and his intact image as a young coach with an increasingly bright future, everyone from ESPN anchors to sports-talk radio hosts began tossing around that dangerous word — “dynasty.”

Then, just like Keyser Soze, poof — they were gone.  Proving that Florida is a program so bipolar that it should be on Lithium, after repeating as champs, the Gators missed the last two tournaments of the 00s.  So, let’s recap the decade in order:  a final, five early exits to lower-ranked teams, two national championships, two missed tournaments.  Florida basketball…your prescription is ready.

Pinnacle.  This has to be the night of the repeat championship in 2007.  The second title officially took care of any idiots who felt the 2005-06 championship was a fluke.  Also, we know how hard it is to repeat in this sport.  A case could be made that the true pinnacle was that pep rally after the first championship when the Oh-Fours all announced that they were coming back to college the next year, and of course after the second title everyone pretty much knew that those guys were gone.  But in this era of college basketball I don’t see how there can be any higher pinnacle than the very moments right after repeating as national champions — a peak brought into even greater relief by the decline that followed.

Tailspin.  It started on Selection Sunday in 2008.  Yes, Florida lost a lot of talent after the second championship, to say the least; they were left with a 2007-08 team consisting of two juniors, three sophomores, and seven incoming freshmen.  But with Walter Hodge, Marreese Speights and arguably the nation’s best recruiting class headed to Gainesville for the 2007-08 season, you’d think they could at least have made it back to the NCAA Tournament (to their credit, they did post a 24-12 record, 8-8 SEC).  The 2008-09 squad was also a young one, with 11 of the 14 players in either their freshman or sophomore years, but there was enough talent there to make the Dance.  To be honest, Florida basketball is still in its tailspin.

Will Billy the Kid Find Another Group Like the Oh-Fours?

Will Billy the Kid Find Another Group Like the Oh-Fours?

Outlook for 2010s: Grade: A-.  I wouldn’t go shedding any tears for Donovan or his Gator program.  Donovan will always get big-time talent, and, above all, it’s big-time talent that wins championships.  Most likely, Florida fans can rely on this continued steady diet of…unsteadiness, meaning a cycle of deep tournament runs followed by NIT births.  But if Donovan can find a way to keep the player defections (for whatever reason) to a minimum and get to the point where he can develop teams with some upperclassman leadership, you’ll see a longer string of consecutive years where Florida doesn’t just have great incoming freshman classes but a solid foundation of a few juniors and seniors — and it’s in this manner that legendary runs are built for a program.  It could very well begin with the upcoming season as Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy come to town to lend their assistance, comprising a smaller yet still highly skilled recruiting class.  Most likely they’ll all have people forgetting how to pronounce “Calathes” by Christmas.

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Team of the 2000s: #4 – Duke

Posted by nvr1983 on August 17th, 2009

teamof2000(2)

Ed. Note: Check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

As we mentioned in our earlier “Team of the 2000s” posts, we felt that the top-tier programs fell into a few clear clusters. There was some debate amongst the RTC braintrust about where certain teams fell within those clusters so we can understand if you disagree with where a team is ranked (that’s what the comment section is for). Teams in the top five either have made it to every NCAA tournament this decade (a sign of at least being respectable every season) or have a 2nd championship to bolster their case.

#4 – Duke

team2000sduke

Overview. This will be the most controversial selection on the list because it is Duke. Love them or hate them (and I’m pretty sure that most college basketball fans hate them), the Blue Devils remain the standard that other programs are judged against. That is not to say that they are the best program of the decade (there are still three teams ahead of them), but much like the New York Yankees, who are experiencing a similar title “drought,” every fanbase judges their success against what the guys in Durham are doing. To be completely honest, I ranked Duke lower than any of the other voters, but in the end their consistency (particularly during the regular season) won out and put them ahead of some of the other elite programs. The case for Duke being ranked above the teams below it in our countdown: 82.6% (regular season winning percentage–Gonzaga is the only other team to crack 80% and they don’t play in the ACC); 7 post-season and 4 regular season ACC titles (just an absurd number when you are competing against UNC although UNC’s inconsistency helped inflate this); 10 NCAA tournament trips (look at the above summary to see how often many excellent programs have missed the NCAA tournament this decade); 8 Sweet 16 appearances (maybe Duke hasn’t been that successful during the 2nd weekend, but they have gotten there more than anybody else); and 1 national title (more on this in a bit). The case against the Blue Devils? I alluded to it earlier, as Coach K’s teams have struggled mightily in the NCAA second weekend making it to the Final 4 “just” two out of the eight times they made it to the Sweet 16. In addition, Duke’s absence of a 2nd title prevents it from claiming a spot in the top 3. Out of the team’s below it, Tom Izzo‘s Michigan State Spartans have the best argument, but Duke’s vastly superior winning percentage (82.6% vs. 72.1%) and huge edge in conference titles combined with playing in a better conference (the ACC may be down, but you never see an abomination like this come out of the ACC) and NCAA-best 8 trips to the Sweet 16 (versus 6 for the Spartans) are just enough to make up for Michigan State’s edge in Final 4 appearances (4-2 although both teams were only able to seal the deal once).

battier j-will duhon

Pinnacle. As it is with any team that won a single title this decade, the choice here is simple: the 2001 title. After coming up just short with one of the most talented teams in recent history in 1999, Coach K reloaded with a class featuring Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Carlos Boozer. Although not quite as dominant as the group that left just before they came in (Elton Brand, William Avery, and Corey Maggette – I know he was a year after the other two, but I wasn’t going to include Chris Burgess in there), the former was able to do something the latter failed to do – win a title.  Together with Shane Battier, who led the Blue Devils emotionally and in taking flops, this group made it to the Sweet 16 in 2000 before being upset by Florida. The following year the Blue Devils were able to give Coach K his 3rd title, but not before surviving three marginally tough games (vs. USC in the Elite 8, vs. Maryland in the national semifinals, and vs. Arizona in the championship game) to claim the title. The defining moment of that title game was Dunleavy Jr.’s 3-point barrage (three 3-pointers during an 11-2 run) that re-established Duke’s control of the game. One thing that will stick with Blue Devil fans forever though is their four games against Maryland, which were some of the best college basketball games you will ever see, the most memorable being the 10-point comeback in the last minute at College Park (although we are willing to debate with someone who argues that the 22-point comeback in the national semifinals might be better).

[Warning: Maryland fans may want to avoid this video.]

Tailspin. Other than the two UNC titles? The 2006-07 season. A rather mediocre Duke team went 22-11 in a season that included two separate four-game losing streaks. The latter of those losing streaks came to finish the season with the final insult coming courtesy of Eric Maynor and VCU. Much has been made on this site and others about the lack of elite talent in Durham lately, but fielding a team whose four best players were DeMarcus Nelson (junior),  Josh McRoberts (sophomore), Greg Paulus (sophomore), and Jon Scheyer (freshman)… you are in big trouble. The primary explanation for this was that outside of Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick, the Blue Devils had a long string of McDonald’s All-American busts from 2002 on, with Shavlik Randolph, who left prior to that, being the most famous example.

Outlook for the 2010s: Grade: B+. Duke is still Duke and can land 5-star recruits, but it’s not like it was at the end of the last decade when Duke had its choice of McDonald’s All-Americans. Back then, one of the big controversies was if Coach K made the right choice taking Mike Dunleavy Jr. instead of Casey Jacobsen (for the younger generation of readers trust us when we say they were both actually very good college basketball players). Now it is a big deal when Duke lands the #3 shooting guard in next year’s class instead of John Wall. Duke will still be able to get a couple of top-notch recruits every year because of their tradition (it goes back to before Coach K, youngsters), Notre Dame-like TV deal with ESPN, Coach K’s stature, and the fact that it’s one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country (mothers like to brag about the Duke degree even if it is for the infamous Sociology major). However, the Blue Devils have fallen a notch below UNC in the hearts and minds of elite recruits and that will only get worse when Coach K retires (gasp!) as their is no clear successor in line for his throne.

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Team of the 2000s: #5- Michigan State

Posted by zhayes9 on August 15th, 2009

teamof2000(2)
Ed. Note: Check the category
team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

With the first five teams of our Team of the 2000s countdown here at Rush the Court out of the way, we can truly delve into the class of the decade. These are teams that didn’t just experience a couple years of peak success, but sustained prominence and positive standing throughout the ten seasons that are being considered. These are programs that first pop into the head of basketball fans when considering the cream of the crop not only in recent years, but throughout the annals of the sport’s illustrious history. The midpoint takes us to the Midwest. In fact, they’re the lone team from their conference on the list- the Michigan State Spartans.

#5 – Michigan State

team2000smsu

Overview. While the Spartans did experience certain success during the Jud Heathcote era extending nearly 20 years in East Lansing, Michigan State battled through nine seasons of .500 or worse basketball in conference play during his tenure. Enter longtime assistant Tom Izzo, a passionate and in-your-face personality that immediately made marked improvement for the program, sending the Spartans to the NCAA second round in 1996 and 1997, followed by a Sweet 16 in 1998, a Final Four in 1999 and culminating in the program’s second national championship to kick off the decade of the 2000s. From there, Izzo has continued to deliver, sending the Spartans to the Final Four yet again in 2001 and winning 20 games every season in the decade with the exception of 19 and 18 wins in 2001-02 and 2003-04, respectively. Unlike some teams preceding the Spartans that have faded out of contention, Izzo has sent Michigan State to the tournament every single season in the 2000s (they didn’t have one losing season, either) and only two programs – Kansas and North Carolina – have averaged more NCAA wins than Michigan State (2.5 per tournament).

4390903142048_Ohio_St_v_Michigan_St[1]

Pinnacle. Only two programs have sent their basketball teams to the Final Four on four separate occasions in the decade – North Carolina and Michigan State. The 2001 run is slightly tainted because the Spartans had to defeat a 16, 9, 12 and 11 seed to reach Minneapolis only to get throttled by Arizona, but give that team credit for collecting a #1 seed. The 2005 run is famous for the thrilling double-OT win over Kentucky involving Patrick Sparksfoot-on-the-line game-tying three. That Spartans team led at halftime against eventual champion UNC in the national semis before faltering. The 2009 run was also memorable with a gut-check win over Kansas and the dismantling of #1 seeds Louisville and Connecticut (gives me an excuse to show this). But the pinnacle is fairly easy to determine – the 2000 national title run behind Mateen Cleaves, Jason Richardson, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell takes the cake. That juggernaut won every single NCAA Tournament game by double digits. Hey, even if it took place three months into the decade, it still counts.

Tailspin. Michigan State has been so consistent as a program over the course of the decade, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific tailspin similar to, say, Syracuse missing the tournament two years in a row. The one knock on Izzo has been his inability to win Big 10 conference regular season and tournament titles. This might stun you, but the Spartans did not win a single regular season title for six consecutive seasons in the middle of the decade and hasn’t won a Big 10 conference tournament since the 2000 national title season. My vote goes to 2005-06 and 2006-07: 16-16 in Big 10 play including a first round loss to George Mason in 2006 (that team faded away right after said upset).

Outlook for 2010s: Grade: A. Seriously, the Spartans are in TREMENDOUS shape as long as Tom Izzo is leading the charge, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Unlike Gary Williams’ struggles to recruit within the D.C./Baltimore region, Izzo perennially raids Michigan of its elite talent. Five and four star recruits Durrell Summers, Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green and incoming center Derrick Nix are all from Michigan and Izzo has extended his boundaries throughout the Midwest. Izzo not only collects lauded recruits, but they immediately buy into his hard-nosed system that has proven so effective. Izzo has run a notoriously clean program that graduates players at a high rate. The Breslin Center is one of the loudest arenas in college basketball. What’s not to like here? With another potential top-five team gracing the hardwood again this season, the future for Michigan State in the next decade is very bright.

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Team of the 2000s: #6 – UConn

Posted by nvr1983 on August 13th, 2009

teamof2000(2)

Ed. Note: Check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

As we mentioned in our earlier posts, when we were putting together our list of the top teams of the past decade it became pretty clear that there were definable clusters of teams meaning that a solid case could be made for moving a team up or down a few positions depending on how much weight you put on various elements of a program’s resume (overall excellence versus a big tournament run or 10 years of excellence versus 1 year of greatness). As we mentioned yesterday, now that we have moved into the top seven we have crossed into the truly elite programs.

#6 – UConn

team2000uconn

Overview. In a little over two decades, Jim Calhoun has turned the Huskies from an also-ran into one of the premier programs in the country. In fact if the parameters of our decade were shifted just one year to include the 1999 season, the Huskies might end up in the top 3 with the inclusion of their 1999 title. Even without that title, the decade has been a solid one for Husky fans even if some of Calhoun’s teams haven’t lived up to expectations. The Huskies get the nod over UCLA because of the fact that they won a national title (and haven’t had a losing season), which makes up for the fact that they have 1 less Sweet 16 and Final 4 appearance than the Bruins. The thing that keeps the Huskies out of the group right above it is that they failed to make the NCAA tournament twice including one season where they didn’t even make the NIT (more on this in a bit).

okafor uconn

Pinnacle. This one is pretty simple. As much as we like to act like college basketball gurus, we aren’t going to try to outsmart ourselves here. The answer is the 2004 national championship. Even though the team did not live up to the preseason hype in terms of how it would rate all-time (“only” going 33-6), this team beat Duke and Georgia Tech in the Final 4 to claim Calhoun’s 2nd title.  While we normally would celebrate  a team  that wins a national title unconditionally, we have this weird feeling that a group featuring Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, and Charlie Villanueva should have been more special. Having said that, the group managed to pull it together at the right time winning its last nine games to capture the Big East and NCAA tournament titles. During the NCAA title run, they only had one truly competitive game, which happened in the national semifinal against Duke in a game that the Huskies won 79-78 following a spread-busting 3-point heave by Chris Duhon at the buzzer. All three of the previously mentioned Huskies from that team have gone on to have solid if not spectacular NBA careers.

Tailspin. There are actually more choices here than you would expect for a program of this caliber, but our pick is the 2006-07 season where the Huskies went 17-14, losing in the 1st round of the Big East tournament as the 12th seed. That’s right. The 12th seed in the Big East Tourney. This was one of the worst teams of the past 20 years for Calhoun. When you compound that with the fact that the previous year one of Calhoun’s most talented teams ever lost in the Elite 8 to George Mason it is enough to “top” two other low points in the program’s history: losing in the second round of the 2001 NIT to Detroit-Mercy and the Nate Miles scandal.

How Much More Does Calhoun Have in the Tank?

How Much More Does Calhoun Have in the Tank?

Outlook for the 2010s: Grade: B-. Speaking of that scandal, that is just about the last thing we heard about the Huskies other than their flop against Michigan State in the Final 4 (and Calhoun’s bicycling adventures). We don’t have that much faith in the NCAA following up on the outstanding work by Yahoo! Sports, but there is always the possibility that the NCAA may come to its senses and actually punish a program for once (ok, I didn’t expect this to happen to a midwestern titan as I was writing this post). As for more realistic threats, we are concerned about UConn’s ability to stay at this level in the next decade. Even though the Huskies have a solid incoming class, we aren’t that confindent in the program’s ability to succeed AC (After Calhoun). Although Calhoun hasn’t set a definitive retirement date, given his well-documented health concerns and his age (67 years old), we can’t imagine that he’ll be coaching all that much longer. When he retires, we doubt that UConn will be able to find somebody to replace him in terms of status and recruiting prowess on the sidelines in Storrs. Nothing against the good people in Storrs, but without Calhoun the program (and the area) would appear to lack the appealing factors a recruit would look for when deciding where they want to spend the next four (ok 1-2) years.

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Team of the 2000s: #7 – UCLA

Posted by rtmsf on August 12th, 2009

teamof2000(2)

Ed. Note: check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

As we were going through the list of candidates for the top programs of the 2000s, we found that teams tended to fall into similar statistical cohorts.  Among the top twelve programs, we found three such delineations where teams within each group were largely indistinguishable, and our discussions over rankings got more intense as a result.  The group involving #8-#12 was one such cohort, and as we’ve noted in the comments, the rankings within that group came down to slicing hairs.  The next group where teams were very similar begins today with our seventh choice, and continues through to the fifth selection early next week.

#7 – UCLA

team2000sucla

Overview.  The nation’s program with the most all-time championships failed to win one during the 2000s, but under the wise direction of Ben Howland, integrity and pride was restored in Westwood during this period.  Whereas Maryland, for example, started off the decade with a bang and ended on a whimper, UCLA took the opposite track.  The decade for the Bruins began better than you probably remember under Steve Lavin, with disappointing regular seasons followed by runs to the Sweet Sixteen (as a #8 and #6 seed in two of those years), but then the bottom fell out – the Jason Kapono-led team of 2002-03 wilted during a nine-game midseason losing stretch to end up with the first sub-.500 season in Westwood in over fifty years.  Out with much-maligned Lavin and in with the studious Ben Howland from Pittsburgh.  After one year gaining traction (11-17) under the new regime, things have been on the uptick ever since, as UCLA has been to five straight NCAAs with three consecutive trips to the final weekend sandwiched in the middle.  In two of those years, the Bruins ran into the buzzsaw Florida teams that went back-to-back: we often wonder whether UCLA would have cut down the nets had they avoided the Gators in either of those years.  In terms of UCLA’s placement on our Team of the 2000s list, it’s clear that the dominance they showed in the NCAA Tournament from 2006-08 has had an effect on people to the extent that the two losing seasons were largely forgiven.  Six trips to the second weekend and three trips to the final one, while doing so with a generally weaker seed than its contemporaries on the list, is enough for us.  UCLA was the seventh best program of the 2000s.

Pinnacle.  Since UCLA has yet to win the brass ring under Howland, we’re going to go with a well-known incident in the 2006 NCAA Tournament that announced to everyone in college basketball that UCLA was “back” and would have to be dealt with.  You’ll remember it well.  UCLA was down nine points with 3:26 to go against America’s mid-major darling, Gonzaga, and their NPOY candidate Adam Morrison.  Gonzaga had been the dominant team for the entire game, but UCLA’s pressure defense was just getting started.  When it was all said and done, UCLA had finished the game on an 11-0 run, Morrison was left crying on the floor of the Oakland Coliseum and pangs of long-dormant hatred were welling up across America for the celebrating team in white and gold.  UCLA would go on to the NCAA finals where Florida cleaned their clock (Act 1), but Ben Howland had established UCLA as a national powerhouse once again and recruits started lining up at the gates.  Let’s reminisce with Gus Johnson’s call, shall we?

Tailspin.   A UCLA fan would reply with “the Steve Lavin era,” but that’s a little unfair from an objective viewpoint.  In Lavin’s seven years at the helm, he took UCLA to four Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight in six NCAA appearances.  Yet there was always a sense that his teams underachieved given the NBA talent they had on the floor (the fact that Lavin suffered ten losses of 25+ points supports this view).  Still, the writing was on the wall during the 2002-03 season when UCLA started out 4-14 before rallying late to win eleven games (including a Pac-10 Tourney victory over #1 seed Arizona) – UCLA was on the ropes.  Frankly, given the number of coaches that the Bruin program has gone through since the Wizard retired in 1975 (seven prior to Howland), it was no guarantee that their next hire would be a good one.  Dan Guerrero made a shrewd choice in going with the rough-and-tumble style of Ben Howland – the rest of the Pac-10 wasn’t ready for Big East basketball on the west coast.

howland with wooden

Outlook for 2010s:  Grade: A+.   It’s simply a matter of time before Howland hangs #12 up in Westwood.  There’s an unbelievable amount of talent in Southern California, and now with USC and Arizona out of the way (for a while, at least), the Bruins should even further dominate the market.  According to Scout’s team rankings, Ben Howland has brought in a top 25 class in each of his last five years at the school, and the last three years were all in the top twelve.  And with six first-round NBA draft picks in the last four seasons, Howland has established a clear prep-to-pro pipeline that keeps young players interested in playing near the beach.  Furthermore, Howland, at age 52, has no designs on another position.   He’s stated numerous times that he’s currently coaching at his dream job, and unlike other coaches who shall remain nameless, we actually believe this guy.  His next ten years should be the apex of his career, and UCLA should feel especially lucky to have gotten him.

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Team of the 2000s: #8 – Memphis

Posted by jstevrtc on August 11th, 2009

teamof2000(2)

Ed. Note: check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.

We already know that this selection is going to cause some consternation among teams that weren’t selected as high.  It’s ok.  We get it.  The selection process ultimately comes down to a matter of taste, and Memphis blended with our palates a little better than the others.  If you disagree, let us know…

#8 – Memphis

team2000memphis

Overview. In the period from 2000-2009, few college basketball programs “felt” bigger than Memphis.  John Calipari showed up to run the show in 2000 and everyone knew what was to come — big-time recruits, lots of one-and-done types, scads more wins, deeper advancement in the NCAA.  Also on the way, whether justified or not, was that dirty feeling that comes with knowing that your program is being led by a fellow on whom you always feel you — or maybe a private detective you’ve hired — need to keep a close eye.  In terms of the on-the-floor expectations, Calipari delivered exactly what was expected of him; after a couple of warm-up years things improved and then really took off in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons when Memphis and their collection of ridiculous interchangable-part type athletes rode Calipari’s Dribble-Drive Offense to consecutive regular-season 30-3 records and Elite Eight apperances.  As a basketball power, Memphis was taken more seriously than it ever had been and it looked like Calipari was building a Leviathan.  The 2007-08 squad validated this by putting up such impressive numbers as achieving the school’s second-ever #1 ranking, a 38-win season (jeez), and its first Final Four since the days of Keith Lee and Dana Kirk back in 1985.  Then, in the championship game…well, in case you didn’t see it….about two minutes to go, up by nine, they….um….well, just check this out.  Even with this, even if you didn’t agree with all of their methods, the Memphis program had still reached elite status in the college hoops world.

calipari coaching memphis

Pinnacle. No question, things were sweetest in Tigerland when they posted that 37th win and made it to that 2008 Final Four.  That particular Memphis team, with Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose and a litany of other high-flying gazelles — you remember the likes of Joey Dorsey, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, I’m sure — was so athletic that you forgot about any possibility of, er, shadiness.  For the most part, you just enjoyed the show.  A case could definitely be made for a co-pinnacle for this program mere days later when they were, as noted above, up by nine in the final with only a couple minutes left between them and the true goal inherent in any lofty expectations — a title.

Tailspin. The 63-63 tie that resulted from Mario’s Miracle.  When Mario Chalmers hit that jumper, things were never the same therafter.  You could feel it coming.  Kansas was on fire in that stretch and Memphis couldn’t hit a free throw, but it was that shot, that boot to the forehead, that has started the Tiger program on its tailspin.  The next season (2008-09) was a disappointment by comparison, ending with an upset loss to Missouri in the Sweet 16 even though Memphis was again a popular and sexy pick for the Final Four.  Then came the departure of John Calipari to Kentucky and the NCAA allegations of Derrick Rose’s test-taking naughtiness.

Outlook for 2010s:  Grade: C. While Calipari seems to be pretty much off the hook in this Rose business — and Derrick Rose as well, just because he moved on — in the near future the Memphis program could still possibly feel the NCAA’s bitch-slapping pimp hand, and that Pinnacle as described above could be erased from the history books altogether, meaning Memphis might have to pack up the Aerostar and vacate their ’08 Final Four and all 38 of those victories like they never happened.  Enter former Arizona (and single-season at Memphis) assistant Josh Pastner.  Already known among coaching insiders as a hell of a recruiter, he knows what it takes to win; he was a walk-on on Arizona’s 1997 championship team.  It’s not like he’s going to let the post-Calipari roster totally collapse, and he’ll most certainly bring in his own high-level studs.  The question is, given the recent achievements of this program, how much time will he be allowed?  It’s difficult to speculate as far as an outlook for this program until the NCAA decides what they’re going to do to them, if anything.  The buzz around the program is more positive than you might expect, and that’s because of Pastner.  If he’s allowed the time to get over any penalties the NCAA might unload on the program, it will still be quite a while before they return to the level they achieved in the late 2000s.  But, in the end, I’ll bet that this program will do a little better than, say, to go the way of their former home — the now-empty Memphis Pyramid, previously the residence of the NCAA’s Tigers, NBA’s Grizzlies, numerous concerts and conference tournaments, and more recently (but no longer) the home of the biggest and most oddly-shaped Bass Pro Shops you’ve ever seen.

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