— Selection Sunday can’t get here fast enough for fans in New York and Los Angeles. The same is true in Chapel Hill and Storrs and Tucson, locations that are familiar and famous on any college basketball map.
There will be a sense of normalcy when the field is announced for the 2011 NCAA tournament. Fans who filled out their office pool were puzzled last season when so many familiar programs were missing from their bracket sheets.
Not this time. This year, one segment of the selection show could be devoted to last year’s MIA squads. Welcome them back and cue Arnold Schwarzenegger for the introductions.
Get ready to welcome the return of UCLA, North Carolina, Connecticut, Arizona and, yes, even St. John’s. The Johnnies have been gone so long some fans might still call them the Redmen instead of the Red Storm. Coach Steve Lavin and his senior-heavy roster ensured St. John’s will be dancing for the first time since 2002.
That’s big news in the Big Apple, where the prolonged absence had turned college basketball followers numb to disappointment.
Not so in those other locales. Arizona had made 25 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament — until 2010. UCLA made three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-08. UConn had advanced to the Final Four in 2009. North Carolina won the national championship in 2009.
Then they all whiffed in 2010.
Headlines labeled them “Down and Out.” How strange was that? The voices were heard last spring belonged to coaches named Calhoun and Williams and Howland.
“This will not happen again,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after his Huskies finished 18-16 and lost to Virginia Tech in the second round of the NIT. That was a bitter pill to swallow for a program that won it all as recently as 2004.
There was an echo down on Tobacco Road.
“The experience we went through last year, I never want to go through it again,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
When summer rolled around, UCLA coach Ben Howland went out for a walk, returned home, slipped on the front porch, and ruptured his Achilles’ tendon. Sometimes pain comes in a multitude of forms. Coaches have to heal fast — and so do programs. By late summer, Howland was saying that he no longer gave any thought to UCLA’s 14-18 record in 2009-10.
“I’m just looking forward,” he told Blue Ribbon Yearbook. “The past is the past. We’re moving forward here.”
That may be the most important requirement in the coaching profession. If you look back, others will certainly keep gaining on you. So give Howland, Williams, Calhoun and Sean Miller at Arizona a lot of credit for moving forward. They poured their hearts and souls into the 2010-11 season, and now they will be rewarded with NCAA bids.
These are elite programs, part of the fabric of college basketball. But the only thing harder that reaching that level is maintaining it. Fans jump off the bandwagon when things go wrong. And often when something vital is taken away, it requires even more effort to get it back.
Calhoun missed seven games with health issues during the 2009-10 season. The NCAA investigation into recruiting violations (that will ultimately result in Calhoun’s three-game suspension next season) hung over the program the entire year. But when UConn held a press conference to announce Calhoun’s contract extension, he was totally focused on making the sun shine again in Storrs.
That requires a season with more than 20 victories — and a bid to the NCAA, something that has become routine for UConn since Calhoun became coach of the Huskies in 1986. He was most bothered by the erratic play of the Huskies last season. Even late in the regular season, he thought UConn had a chance to find the leadership and chemistry necessary to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But it didn’t happen.
“We didn’t do the things that we needed to do to be the kind of team that we’ve always been,” Calhoun said. “That can’t happen again. … We want to get back to what we think is not necessarily our rightful place, but the place that we’ve had in college basketball.”
Kemba Walker’s remarkable start in Maui was exactly what UConn needed. The young Huskies went undefeated in non-conference play, but then struggled at the end of the Big East schedule to finish 9-9 in conference play. Even so, the Huskies should be a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and if their legs hold up, could find themselves in the Sweet 16.
North Carolina’s path was the exact opposite. The Tar Heels started 4-3 and fell out of the national rankings. Then the season may have hit its lowest point with a 78-58 loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 16. But freshman Harrison Barnes started to mature and Kendall Marshall replaced Larry Drew II at point guard. With just one loss in their last 13 games, the Tar Heels battled back to win the ACC regular season championship with an 81-67 victory over Duke Saturday.
“It’s been a wonderful year,” Williams said, “so far.”
Hard times do make you appreciate what you once had. And while prognosticators thought Arizona and UCLA would finish in the top half of the Pac-10, nobody had them lining up 1 and 2 at the end of the regular season. When Washington faltered, Miller’s team seized the opportunity and won the title outright. The rapid development of sophomore Derrick Williams was the key to that.
“I can’t imagine it being any better anyplace else,” said Miller, who has brought stability back to the coach’s office at Arizona.
Reeves Nelson caught fire for UCLA, and Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt head the supporting cast. No one is expecting the Bruins to add a 12th national championship banner, but they will be back in the tournament, probably as a No. 6 or 7 seed. Arizona should be slightly higher, maybe a No. 5.
If you had to pick one of these teams to do the most damage in March, it could be the Tar Heels.
North Carolina is a dangerous bunch again and the Tar Heels appear to be a No. 2 seed. St. John’s is on a mission and the Red Storm has shown it can handle ranked teams. But even with a No. 4 seed, the task will be tougher for Lavin’s squad because none of the players have any NCAA experience.
But when you look at the big picture, seeds don’t really matter. These proud programs have returned to their rightful place. They will be dancing once again.
As Williams said, it has been a wonderful season.