Outlook for five college basketball programs that have fallen off sharply
These teams were once major players, but can they ever get back to the top?
There are college basketball programs that have been consistently great for a long time almost regardless of the coach in charge or players enrolled. Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State, Arizona and Louisville come to mind. But, for the most part, the winning comes and goes -- if it ever comes at all. And it really is striking how some programs that once dominated in this sport are now nowhere close to what they once were.
Here are five such programs ...
The history: The Razorbacks made six trips to the Sweet 16 in a seven-year span from 1990 to 1996 under Nolan Richardson, advanced to the Final Four three times and won the national championship in 1994. Arkansas was, at the time, a top-five program in the country, undeniably. And yet the Razorbacks haven't been back to the Sweet 16 since ... 1996. Can you believe that? Arkansas made the national championship game in 1994 and 1995 but has failed to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for 20 consecutive years. And the Razorbacks have only been in the NCAA Tournament once in the past eight seasons.
The future: Mike Anderson returns three of his top four scorers from last season, meaning the Razorbacks should be better in 2016-17 than they were in 2015-16. And the recruiting class he's set to sign in November is currently ranked 10th in the nation, according to 247Sports. So it's possible good things, or at least improved things, are on tap. But the idea of Anderson ever approaching the consistent success that his old boss, Richardson, enjoyed in the 1990s still seems unlikely -- if only because that bar is incredibly high, and because the list of coaches throughout history who miss the NCAA Tournament in four of their first five years at a school but then breakthrough and become fixtures in March is very, very short.
The history: The Hoyas made 14 straight NCAA Tournaments from 1979 to 1992 under John Thompson, advanced to six Elite Eights in that span, three Final Fours, and they won the national title in 1984. These were the days of Patrick Ewing, Reggie Williams, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning -- all of whom were college stars and top-five picks in the NBA Draft. But things haven't been nearly as great at Georgetown recently. The Hoyas haven't enrolled a 247Sports five-star recruit since 2008, have only had one top-five pick in the NBA Draft in the past nine years, have missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and haven't advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2007.
The future: To be clear, the big picture under current coach John Thompson III is still mostly solid. He advanced to the Final Four in 2007 and reached the NCAA Tournament seven times in an eight-year span from 2006 to 2013. That's not bad. But recruiting has fallen off -- proof being that only one of Georgetown's past four classes have ranked in the top 25 nationally, according to 247Sports. And unless that changes it's going to be difficult for Georgetown to even return to what it was early under JT3, and the glory days of Big John will remain a distant memory.
The history: Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Lou Carnesecca had St. John's operating at the highest of levels from 1976 to 1992 -- when he led the school to 15 NCAA Tournament appearances in a 17-year span. He made four Elite Eights in that stretch and advanced to the 1985 Final Four. But St. John's has now missed the NCAA Tournament in 14 of the past 16 seasons, and the Red Storm finished 8-24 overall, and 1-17 in the Big East, last season in what doubled as the first year of the Chris Mullin era. Carneseca, for what it's worth, never finished worse than five games above .500 in 24 seasons at St. John's. And only once did he finish outside of the top five in the Big East standings.
The future: The next five to eight years at St. John's will ultimately be determined by whether Mullin proves to have the goods as a college coach or shows himself to be little more than a famous alum who was a desperation hire, and the so-called jury is still very much out on that. As always, we'll see. But what's fascinating about St. John's fall to irrelevancy is that it roughly coincides with the school building dormitories in 1999. Prior to that, St. John's could provide sizable stipends to players because NCAA rules permitted any school without dorms to cover living expenses for student-athletes. Often, players would get these big checks, live at home, on the cheap or with multiple teammates, and pocket a lot of cash, which provided St. John's with a significant recruiting advantage. But once the dorms were built, that recruiting advantage vanished. And St. John's really hasn't been the same since.
The history: Young people won't remember this. And they might not believe it. But Stanford really did have one of the nation's most consistently good programs for a 10-year period from 1995 through 2004. The coach was Mike Montgomery. And, in that span, he led the Cardinal to 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances that resulted in three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights, one Final Four and four Pac-12 regular-season championships. Now contrast that with this: the Cardinal has missed seven of the past eight NCAA Tournaments and only finished in the top two of the Pac-12 once in the past 12 seasons. Stanford's average finish in the Pac-12 in the past eight years -- AKA, the Johnny Dawkins era -- was 6.8. Dawkins was 66-78 in the Pac-12 in those eight years.
The future: It's possible the discrepancy between that remarkable 10-year stretch from 1995 to 2004 and the past eight years of nothing is simply a testament to the greatness of Montgomery and the not-quite-greatness to date of Dawkins, who is now the coach at UCF. And that's why it's impossible to predict the future at Stanford -- because Jerod Haase is now the coach, and the future will be determined by whether the former UAB coach is good working at the high-major level or not-good working at the high-major level. In other words, with Stanford, right now, a wait-and-see approach is the only fair approach.
The history: The Demon Deacons made the NCAA Tournament 12 times in a 15-year span from 1991 to 2005, and they advanced to the Sweet 16 four times in that stretch -- first under Dave Odom, then under Skip Prosser. But Prosser died in July 2007 from a "sudden massive heart attack" after a jog on a track near his office on campus, and it's reasonable to suggest the program hasn't been the same since. Yes, Dino Gaudio inherited a nice situation (under awful circumstances) and guided Wake Forest to the NCAA Tournament in both 2009 and 2010. But he was subsequently fired and replaced by Jeff Bzdelik, who never finished better than tied for ninth in the ACC before he was fired after four seasons. Meantime, Wake Forest hasn't participated in any postseason tournament -- not the NCAA Tournament, not the NIT, not the CBI, not anything -- in any of the past six seasons.
The future: I genuinely believe Danny Manning is the right man to return Wake Forest to respectability, and his reputation in basketball circles is strong. But this job is so much more difficult than it was back when Odom and Prosser had things rolling. Duke and North Carolina are as overwhelming as they ever were; that hasn't changed. But what has changed is that Tony Bennett has built Virginia into an ACC power, Virginia Tech has invested in Buzz Williams, Jim Larranaga has made Miami a consistent threat, and the league has added big brands like Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pitt. In other words, I'm not sure exactly where Wake Forest ranked among ACC jobs in, say, 2004, but I know it ranks several spots lower now. And that means even a good coach might have trouble breaking through in Winston-Salem.
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