Playing Poorly For the City

We're about a month away from the end of college basketball's regular season. While fans of the sport are sitting through another stanza of rotating favorites, I've started to notice one theme that separates college hoops from its professional "big brother." Big city life ain't it for this year's campaign.

I know that the essence of collegiate athletics is the small-town, close-knit feel teams experience on campus. Heck, I lived it myself. But, when it comes to roundball, the aura of the "city influence" has always provided an enticing draw to the sport. To me, the asphalt or blacktops creates more of an appeal to learning that particular game than the sandlots of baseball, the fields of football and soccer, or the frozen ponds of hockey. The cities are where the old Big East, Metro, and Pac-8 Conferences honed their growth. This time around, however, I see a dearth of schools from the biggest cities making any impact on the season itself.

Overall, the northeast isn't bereft of prestige. That region boasts the defending national champion, who is probably the odds-on favorite to become the first repeat winner in more than 15 years. But UConn isn't located in one of the country's biggest metropolises. Speaking of 15 years ago, that's the last time Boston College made the tournament. The Eagles are repeatedly trying to rekindle the magic that left when Al Skinner was let go, but it hasn't worked so far. In New York, a coaching legend hopes to build up the city's pride and joy. St. John's has made the NCAAs sparingly over the last decade. However, Hall-of-Famer Rick Pitino is working on ending that trend in what could be the last stop of his lengthy (and somewhat infamous) career.

Keep heading south on I-95 to find the last-closest thing to a D-I dynasty. When Jay Wright left Villanova, the school had a tall task to keep the momentum of 2 national championships rolling. The team missed out on last year's festivities and, at 11-9, look poised to do the same this year. In the District of Columbia, the most famous alum couldn't take on the role of program savior. Patrick Ewing's tenure at Georgetown was a disaster. Save a wildly unexpected run to the Big East Tournament title, the Hoyas didn't sniff any other NCAA appearances. Now, Ed Cooley will take his shot at restoring respectability after arriving from a conference rival.

Heading further south, Georgia Tech doesn't have the most-storied history. There's has been potential, though, for this Atlanta-based university. That was rediscovered on Tuesday night, when the Yellowjackets upset third-ranked North Carolina. This followed an early-season upset of Duke. Even with those huge wins, the Jackets are only 3-7 in ACC play. Baby steps. Miami rode a ton momentum to their first Final Four bid last April. Unfortunately, that momentum is fading as this season goes along. The Hurricanes should still be on the "Make It" side of the tournament committee, but stemming the tide would be helpful.

In the midwest, Detroit big-time team has hit the skids. After a very promising start to the Juwan Howard era, Michigan is having its worst campaign under the Fab Five alum. Wolverine fans are hoping this is only a reset year, not the beginning of a drought. Having lived up here for the past decade-plus, I feel like I have a sense of the Minnesota Gophers. Most seasons begin with a fight to stave off apathy. That feeling usually grows as the games pile up. And while a few months of March end with hope of a surprising tourney run, the disappointment always wins out.

Out west gives us the biggest loss of that city connection. The two schools located in the Bay Area have lost their way. Ahead of their transfers to the ACC next season, both Stanford and Cal are stalled out. Neither program has earned an NCAA ticket since 2016, and that trend doesn't appear to change in 2024. Washington is also stuck in the mud, with one tournament bid since 2011.

But the most shocking results are coming from the City of Angels. Andy Enfield can count some successful seasons under his belt. However, he hasn't totally transformed USC into Dunk City West, as some may have thought when he left Florida Gulf Coast. The Trojans currently sit at the bottom of the Pac-12.

Nearby, we knew this would be a season of talent turnover at UCLA. The Bruins, though, are the type of program that expects to reload. Mick Cronin's team is finding its way (winning 3 of their last 4), but a 6-10 start doesn't bode well for a postseason berth.

Don't get me wrong. There will be some big city representation once the conference tournaments wrap up. Chicago's Northwestern have two of the best wins on the season, defeating (then-#1) Purdue and Illinois in Evanston. TCU should give Dallas some pub with its rise in the Big XII standings. And Houston is once again a top title contender. However, it looks like ample entrants from the big-time city programs will have to wait as the programs restore their coffers.

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