Monday, January 25, 2021

An NCAA Tournament Without the Blue Devils or Big Blue?

By Ross Lancaster

Two of the three most prestigious college basketball programs of my lifetime (since 1988) have been Duke and Kentucky (the other is North Carolina). For a vast majority of those years, one or both have been in national championship or Final Four contention.

Incredibly, the only year from 1988 to 1999 that neither Duke nor Kentucky made the Final Four was 1995. In my life, they've combined for 8 national championships, 19 Final Fours, and more than 40 All-Americans.

While each was dominant for a time in the 1990s, they continued to dominate the 2010s. Again, along with UNC, they're one of the three biggest brands in the sport that can be seen night after night on national TV throughout each winter.

But now, as the quirky and unprecedented 2020-21 college hoops season continues to unspool, Duke and Kentucky are each struggling. The Wildcats are currently 4-9 and need to turn things around quickly, or they'll be out of the hunt for an NCAA bid by Valentine's Day. The SEC and a non-conference game against Texas will provide opportunities for profile-boosting victories, but even a 9-3 record in (currently) scheduled games would merely get Kentucky to 13-12 — not traditionally a tournament-worthy mark.

At the time I'm writing this, Duke is one game above .500 at 5-4, but doesn't have anything close to a quality win. However, after playing just four non-conference games, Duke still has quite a few games left over the next six weeks, and star freshman Jalen Johnson returned from an injury in a loss to Pitt last week.

If Duke can't turn it around and Kentucky can't be nearly flawless through early March, it would mark the first time since 1976 that neither Duke nor Kentucky has been in the NCAA tournament.

That 1976 tournament had 32 teams. Rutgers made the Final Four and VMI made the Elite 8. Coach K was in his first season — at Army. Yes, this season will end up being a few weeks shorter than a usual one. Also, where most teams would have played about 20 games overall by late January and have about 10 left in a typical season, most have played 15 or fewer to this point and have about half their scheduled games remaining. But at the same time, more than 2,100 games have been played and Duke and Kentucky aren't worthy of the championship tournament at this point in time.

Programs — including the best, most consistent ones — do have down years. Even in the 68-team era of March Madness where we listen to bracket guys complain about the quality of the bubble every year, only four schools have a current 20+ year streak of making the tournament — Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga. Even Kentucky has missed the dance twice this century — once in the doldrums of the Billy Gillispie era in 2009 and the second when Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in 2013.

But Duke and Kentucky each having years well below their respective standards at the same time is curious to me in a broader sense. John Calipari brought college hoops into a new era in his first year in Lexington in 2009-10 with the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins/Eric Bledsoe group of freshmen. They didn't make the Final Four thanks to an ice-cold shooting night in the Elite Eight, but their dominance over five months meant that top programs could recruit one-and-done players as the backbone of their team and compete for championships. Two years later, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led the Wildcats to a 38-2 season and a national championship.

By the middle of the decade, Coach K, who had won the title Kentucky had sights on in 2010 with a traditional core of juniors and seniors, had latched onto the trend. Then Duke won a title in 2015 with Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow.

There's no overwhelming evidence that this is the beginning of a decline for Duke and Kentucky — especially after each would have been a relatively high seed in the 2020 NCAA tournament had it been played. And of course, playing through the worst pandemic in more than a century in the U.S. can make for a natural outlier of a season. But at the same time, the sport is undoubtedly changing.

The one-and-done rule may yet live beyond its original 2022 or 2023 date of expiration thanks to the pandemic and NBA/NBPA politics, but that's not going to stop elite prospects like Jalen Green from playing in the G League for a year and learning the professional game a year early.

As I wrote almost three years ago, college hoops seems to be evolving into something different. Perhaps this means an era of more volatility and competitiveness as the best, most-hyped young prospects increasingly head to true professional minor leagues and top-conference college players are a mix between developing talent and experienced players unlikely to play professional ball at a higher level than Europe or Asia.

Duke and Kentucky will still play some major role in that future, but it's very possible that neither makes the NCAA tournament this season.

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