A team enters the season with 8 freshman and 5 sophomores. Every analyst in the country has labeled them as "very young and very talented." They are ranked 18th in the preseason polls. After tearing through their November and December schedule they find themselves at 11-0 and ranked 9th in the national polls. Young, energetic and excited about the national attention, they open their conference schedule with a loss on the road. They climb back by winning their next 2 out of 3 conference games, but sandwiched in-between those games is a road loss to an out of conference ranked opponent. They are now sitting 12-3, ranked 23rd in the national polls. They win an easy road game against a bottom-feeder conference foe to rebuild confidence and momentum. With 14 games left in the season the young team runs out of steam. They lose 10 out of those 14 games, including 8 to unranked teams. The stretch consists of a five game losing streak and ends with a three game losing streak. They lose in the first round of their conference tournament and do not go to a post season tournament for the first time in twenty years. The season is a major disappointment and fans of the program wonder what went wrong.
This team was the 2006-2007 UConn Huskies. A program three years removed from winning their second National Championship in a six year span. Two years later that same group of young and talented freshman and sophomores are now experienced and NBA-bound juniors and seniors. They have won 26 out of 28 games so far this season, been consistently ranked as one of the top five teams in the nation and are on the brink of being ranked #1 in the country on Monday.
Sticking with the UConn program, two years after winning the first national championship in school history in 1999, they failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They eventually lost in the second round of the NIT to the Titans of Detroit Mercy. I will repeat. The Detroit Mercy Titans. Three years after that shocking and embarrassing loss, they won the national championship again.
One of the most storied and legendary basketball programs in NCAA history has a similar story. In 2005, North Carolina won its fourth national championship. This was also the school's 16th Final Four appearance, a record at the time. The team was led by a talented group of juniors and seniors who as freshman, failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. They ended the 2003 season by losing to Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
The UNC story is also a good way to address a point Anonymous made after the Louisville game. In response to my argument that a program wins national championships, not a team, Anonymous responded "Agree, but this team will hurt the program by scaring recruits away." The three UNC juniors that won in 2005 were recruited to the program in 2001-2002. While being recruited, they saw Matt Doherty run the storied program into the ground. While seniors in high school, UNC failed to qualify for a post-season tournament and accumulated a 8-20 record, the first losing season in 40 years for the program. They stuck with their commitment, even after the coach that had recruited them was fired and those three Doherty recruits ended up bringing the UNC program back to national prominence.
Recruits commit to a program, a coach, a system and a story. And not all of those have to stay constant for them to remain interested in a particular school. I am hard-pressed to believe that a high school player is scared away by a losing season. A look at the recent post-season tournament history of the current top 25 illustrates that point:
# 2 Connecticut - Nothing in 2007
#3 Oklahoma - NIT in 2004
#4 Memphis - NIT in 2005
# 6 Louisville - NIT in 2006
# 8 Missouri - Nothing in 2006, 2007, 2008; NIT in 2004, 2005
#10 Marquette - NIT in 2004, 2005
#11 Arizona St. - NIT in 2008; Nothing in 2006, 2007
#12 Villanova - NIT in 2004
#13 Clemson - NIT in 2006, 2007
#14 Wake Forest - Nothing in 2007, 2008
#16 Purdue - Nothing in 2006
#18 LSU - Nothing in 2007, 2008
#19 UCLA - Nothing in 2004
#20 Illinois - Nothing in 2008
#21 Washington - CBI in 2008, Nothing in 2007
#22 Xavier - Nothing in 2005
#23 Butler - NIT in 2006
#25 Florida St. - NIT in 2008, 2007, 2006
So 75% of the teams voted to be the Top 25 teams in the country today have some point in the last 5 years failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Nearly 50% have failed to qualify at some point in the last 3 years. And nearly 30% failed to qualify last year alone. Now I realize five or any stretch of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is indeed a great feat but the above is to just refute the point that a bad season scares recruits away. If this were the case, none of the teams that failed to make even a post-season tournament appearance in previous years would be able to attract recruits to bring them to a Top 25 ranking today.
All teams go through dry spells. That is what happens when you have a work force that loses it's most experienced workers every year. But what creates a program is the ability for players to learn and build off of a bad year.
Consistent programs get to the Sweet Sixteen every year. They have good underclassmen and reliable upperclassmen. Great programs win National Championships. They take those good underclassmen and mold them into unstoppable upperclassmen. The jury is still out on which program JT3 runs.
The Sky is Falling - Part Three: Expectations to come later.