NCAA Tournament: Sculpting That Winning Definition

For some, the prefect NCAA tournament is a mix of chaos early and greatness late. This year's edition seemed to deliver that process. Nine double-digit seeds won in the first round. Four of them made it to the second weekend, including 15th-seeded Oral Roberts. As we reach the national semifinals, though, the nation's best teams have showed their resolve.

Champions usually follow some kind of trend as well. After a while, programs establish themselves as perennial title contenders. With a built-in cache of historical relevance, television exposure, and professional placement prowess, ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, and other high-profile programs can work their way into consistent title shots. But the same seven or eight teams can't lift the trophy year after year. This time around, three school have a chance to place their names on that championship list. The fourth could end a really long title drought. So, what would this trophy mean to each participant?

Houston: Always the Best Man, Possibly the Groom?

This program may be the best to never win a national championship. Yes, the majority of its success came within a four-season period centered around the Phi Slama Jama phenomenon of the early 1980s. But there's a reason Guy V. Lewis coached his way to whatever Hall of Fame you can think of when it comes to teaching hoops.

In the late 1960s, the Cougars rose to national prominence behind Lewis and his legendary All-American center Elvin Hayes. In 1967, they lost to UCLA in the national semifinals. In January of 1968, Houston got their revenge in the Astrodome. In what was billed as the "Game of the Century," Hayes led the upset of the top-ranked Bruins, ending their 47-game winning streak. Unfortunately, UCLA got the last laugh, winning the rubber match, again in the national semifinals.

During the early '80s, Houston got back to their winning ways, making three straight Final Fours and two consecutive championship games. Those title matchup losses (to N.C. State and Georgetown) would be the last chances for Lewis to win it all (he retired after going 30-28 the two seasons after the Georgetown loss).

Behind Kelvin Sampson, the Cougars have reached heights not seen since the 1984 title game. In a weird way, this achievement validates all of the hard work that Lewis put in some many years ago (by us saying that Houston has returned to the glory of the late coach's peak years). If they can finally get over that last hump, the current coach won't just solidify his own career, but will also solidify the history of a program just steps away from the sport's ultimate prize.

Baylor: Redemption Road, Plain and Simple

If I were to ask you, "which colleges would be best positioned to win national titles?" as the calendar approached January 1st, 2000, which schools would come to mind? I'll tell you right now, Baylor University would not be one of them. In terms of athletic relevance, Baylor was lacking in many ways. There were shining standouts in the Bears' sleuth, the most notable being multi-Olympic Gold medalist Michael Johnson. Team success, though? Not so much.

In 2004, the men's tennis team got the school its first-ever NCAA crown. The next year, Kim Mulkey brought the department its first women's basketball title. That total's been tripled, thanks to efforts in 2012 and 2019. The two biggest sports, however, have had up-and-down histories over the last 20 years. The football program continues to recover from a sexual assault scandal that saw the former head coach (Art Briles), athletic director (Ian McCaw), and school president (Ken Starr) get tossed out in 2016. Repercussions from that continue to this day (the NCAA Committee on Infractions just held a hearing on this in December).

The men's basketball program suffered through their own scandal in 2003. The murder of forward Patrick Dennehy eventually opened up a can of worms that peaked the NCAA's interest. The resulting scandal forced coach Dave Bliss to resign, leaving many wonder who would even pass through Waco to interview for the job. Enter Scott Drew.

At the time, Drew only had one year of head coaching experience (at Valparaiso). The first few years were rough (lengthy probation, one-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions, etc.). But he made it out of that period, starting to thrive in the 2007-2008 campaign. Monday night, the coach made a third Regional Final appearance during his tenure ... and he finally made good on the result. In my mind, Scott Drew has overseen one of the biggest reclamation projects in the history of the sport. Topping it off with a title only stamps "Greatest" on the folder.

Gonzaga: A Win For the Middle Man?

How many people knew exactly where Spokane, Washington was before 1995? That was the first year the Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament. Hell, the program already had a future Hall of Fame alum in its history. But for all of John Stockton's status, he couldn't even get the school into March's Main Draw. Four years after that first game of tourney experience, the Zags returned to the Dance. They haven't left since.

A surprising run to the 1999 West Regional Final was a sign of things to come. Over the past 22 years, Gonzaga has built itself into one of the nation's most prolific programs. They've raised the profile of the West Coast Conference. Over the majority of this Zags run, their league gained enough respect to garner multiple tournament bids. They've now reached the point where they get Duke- and Kentucky-esque eye-rolls when the school's name appears on Selection Sunday.

And with all of this comes pressure. A valve was released in 2017, when the program finally broke through to their first Final Four appearance. They were actually less than two minutes from taking that last step. An 8-0 North Carolina run wiped out the Bulldogs' two-point advantage in that 71-65 Tar Heel victory. Because of that, the pressure is still there ... and it's for more than the school and fan base.

The last time a school outside of the power conferences won it all was the vaunted UNLV team from 1990. Yes, Gonzaga has technically separated itself from the rest of the mid-major field. Doesn't mean they'll keep their current status forever. The Runnin' Rebels haven't been the same since Jerry Tarkanian resigned in 1992. The Zags' run won't last forever, and opportunities like this aren't given. So, for the Belmonts, San Diego States, and Loyola-Chicagos of the sport, will the Bulldogs experience a confetti shower 22 years in the making?

UCLA: Building an Extension to the Mountain Top Home

Who is the blue blood of all blue bloods in college hoops? Some would argue Kentucky. Others might say Kansas. Maybe Indiana tops the list. For those that values championship trophies, there's only one answer. The Bruins' dominance from 1963-1975 created a title chasm that no other school has still been able to cross. For all the dominance of the 12-season run, there isn't a lot of prestige outside that late stage of the Wooden era (and he didn't win a title until his 16th year in Westwood).

Yes, the school did win a title in 1995, which, being a Missouri fan, we will not (NOT!) talk about that. Other than that mid-'90s crown, bupkis. Since Wooden stepped off the court for the final time, this is only the ninth run the Bruins have made to the Regional Finals or better. Most years started full of promise and ended with utter disappointment.

But this tournament has offered UCLA a different storyline. The Bruins was one of the last four at-large teams to make the field, having to play fellow stalwart Michigan State for a spot in the main draw. The Spartans forged an 11-point halftime lead. In the second 20-minute stanza, the Bruins reversed the scoring to the number and sent the game to an extra 5-minute showdown. Mick Cronin's squad pulled away in overtime, and they haven't looked back since. Wins over BYU, Abilene Christian, Alabama, and Michigan placed the baby blues in their first Final Four since 2008.

Out of those nine deep runs (since 1975), this is only the second time the program got this far without being a 1- or 2-seed. The other time, they reached the championship game as an 8-seed. Unfortunately, that 1980 run under Larry Brown (yes, that Larry Brown) was eventually vacated. This one will stay in the annals of Bruin lore forever. Now, can they return to full glory?

COVID robbed fans everywhere of the NCAA tournament's 2020 edition. It could have been very special, with Dayton, Gonzaga, San Diego, and Baylor among the main contenders for the title. It's been 30 years since first-time champions won back-to-back tournaments (Michigan in 1989, UNLV in 1990, Duke in 1991). Will someone shore up Virginia's 2019 title? And if UCLA wins, that'll make a good headline, too.

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