Gotta say, I can't find too much to complain about this season in college basketball. We're well past the halfway point of the 2016-17 campaign, and it's been a season filled with entertaining teams, power programs thriving, one-and-done wunderkinds and a lot of compelling storylines.
But no season is without its drawbacks. So allow me, a kid from the Northeast who grew up in good portion on Big East basketball, to lament for just a moment. No, I'm not going to critique the league. The current state of the Big East is plenty fine. If anything, the conference is downright thriving after realignment in 2013 allegedly threatened its relevancy in a sport the Big East helped redefine in the 1980s and 1990s. No. 1 Villanova has a great chance at repeating as national champs, while Creighton, Xavier and Butler have maintained enough success over the past three years, and been ranked almost all of this season, to vault the Big East over the likes of the SEC and Pac-12.
But for those who still see the names "Syracuse" and "UConn" and automatically, by default, still associate them as Big East programs (and I know that's tens of thousands of you), then yeah, we've got a surprising and depressing turn of events.
For those just really sinking their teeth into this season, there's a trio of old-school Big East squads faring terribly, and so we're headed for a rare college hoops coincidence in 2017. Unless one of these teams undergoes one of the most miraculous second-half turnarounds in college basketball history, or if one of the three steals an automatic bid by way of winning its league title, then for the first time since 1993 -- and for just the second time since 1972! -- UConn, Syracuse and Georgetown will all miss the NCAA Tournament in the same season.
Only one of the three is beyond .500 at the moment, and that's Syracuse with its neck just above the water at 11-9. Georgetown is 10-10 and UConn is 8-11. All three programs are tracking to astonishingly sub-par, forgettable seasons.
This gives off a dispiriting pang for those who've become accustomed to seeing at least two, if not all three teams look good-to-really-good almost every single season. There are six national titles, 16 Final Fours and 101 NCAA Tournament appearances between the three historic programs, with 51 of those (so more than half) Big Dance showings including Sweet 16 runs. Pretty grand.
For more than four decades, these three teams have helped elevate East Coast college basketball both regionally and nationally. All of them have made a Final Four within the past decade. And as the Big East was getting ready to be earthquaked into a new format a few years ago, this troika had become an intriguing triangle of rivals. Syracuse and Georgetown have hated each other longest, of course, but Cuse and Connecticut developed a conflict even more fierce in the past 15 years. And UConn and Georgetown, the weakest friction of the three, is still a great rivalry, sparked in some part by a fusion of loathing for Syracuse.
And now we're going to most likely have an NCAA Tournament without any of 'em. This year's Big Dance will be fine, I know, but still, it's worth noting and also a little pitiful. What makes this even more remarkable is that these teams weren't expected to be bad this season. Just the opposite, in fact. In a quote that now rings confusion and ire in the heads of Orange fans everywhere, Jim Boeheim said last offseason that this 2016-17 SU roster had the potential to be one of the best teams he's coached in ages. Cuse and Connecticut were cuddling in the preseason rankings: the Huskies 18th, the Orange 19th.
After losing its first two games of the season, at home against Wagner and Northeastern, UConn promptly disappeared from the polls and hasn't been heard from since. Syracuse whistled past the graveyard for a month, earning a 4-1 mark, but it's been MIA from the rankings since just after Thanksgiving. What's even more glaring for the Orange is how they've yet to win a game away from the Carrier Dome. People, it's Jan. 23! Syracuse hasn't gone this deep into a season without at least one win away from home in more than 54 years.
Let's take a closer look at what's gone wrong:
- In October, UConn was thought by most to be the the best team in the American. Now the Huskies are projected by KenPom.com to finish the regular season at 13-17. Failing to hit the .500 mark seems inevitable for the Connecticut, and when it happens, it will mark the first time in 30 seasons that the Huskies lost more games than they won. Jim Calhoun was in his first year in Storrs the last time UConn was this bad.
- The Huskies have taken on some season-ending injuries that have altered the course, no doubt, but remember that Kevin Ollie and his team opened the year as fully healthy ... and 0-2 after those awful home losses to Wagner and Northeastern. From there, freshman stud guard Alterique Gilbert wounded his shoulder, ending his season. The same for Terry Larrier (ACL), who was UConn's best player in November. The Huskies are 3-4 in the American and have an offense that ranks 226th in efficiency. They're shooting just 30.7 percent from 3-point range and foreboding 66.6 percent from the foul line.
Maligned Syracuse is trying to keep alive the longest season-over-season success streak in college basketball: 40 straight years with a winning record under the same coach. It's been an astounding run for Boeheim, but because the Orange unexpectedly made last year's Final Four as a No. 10 seed, and looked to have a stronger and deeper roster this season, 2016-17 is amounting to perhaps the most disappointing year in program history.
- The Orange went from a top-20 team in October to losing at home to St. John's, falling by 15 at Boston College, and taking an awkward 52-50 loss against UConn in the Garden. They've failed to lose by fewer than 10 points against all projected NCAA Tournament teams they've played. Given how strong the ACC is and the fact Cuse is yet to win away from the Carrier Dome, this could well be SU's first season at .500 or below since 1970. Boeheim was a first-year assistant under Roy Danforth then. The Orange are projected at KenPom.com to finish the regular season at 15-16.
SU's had many a season wherein it's thrived after expectations were waist-high. Now, with hopes of a return trip to the Final Four, this team instead will need to win the ACC tournament in order to play in the field of 68.
- The Hoyas are still in the Big East, of course. Georgetown wasn't ranked in the preseason, but the Hoyas were picked fourth in their conference and absolutely considered NCAA Tournament-good. But they didn't look like a Big East team when they lost at home to Arkansas State in the second game of their season. Since then, the fans have increased their vocality against John Thompson III heading up the program.
- Georgetown finished below .500 last season, going 15-18, amounting to the worst season for the program since Craig Esherick's final go-round, in 2003-04. But the Hoyas could mess around and land below .500 again this year. KenPom.com's forecast is a 14-17 ending. The last time GU was a sub-.500 team in back-to-back seasons was the early 1970s. It's dire in D.C. right now. Make Georgetown Great Again.
- The Hoyas also lost junior Isaac Copeland to transfer after just seven games this season. For diehard G'town fans, Copeland will go down as one of the biggest whiffs in JT3's tenure. As for Thompson, he's probably going to miss his third NCAA Tournament in four years, and if you look to tournament success, he's won just three NCAA tourney games since making the Final Four in 2007. The Hoyas are 1-6 in the Big East and have to play Creighton and Butler next. It's not going to get better.
For Hoyas fans, the only bright spots are the wins over Connecticut and Syracuse this season.
So while this season is presenting tremendous moments, big wins and hard pushes for high seeds in the NCAAs for almost all other classic college hoops power programs, it's ironically been disappointment after disappointment for this triad of former East Coast kings. For many, the old Big East was stabilized by three pillar programs: the Hoyas, the Huskies, the Orange. Now, less than three years removed from UConn's 2014 national title and not even 10 months after Syracuse shocker Final Four blitz, it's staggering to see how much has changed so quickly.