How the Ducks (or Someone New) Wins the Final Four
I’m out of words. I’ve complained about my disinterest in a national championship involving teams I couldn’t care less to watch. I’ve complained about how college basketball is worse off when John Calipari’s programs succeed. Yet those things continue to happen in college sports, so lots of good my complaining does.
Rather than picking between two schools who, despite their 7th and 8th seeds, have won six of the previous eighteen championships and are on their way to a seventh by overcoming a season’s worth of lazy, mediocre play by getting hot for three weeks, it’s best to just move on and think about next year, hoping that someone new can win it all.
Someone new: that would be refreshing. There have been 75 champions since the NCAA Tournament began, yet there have been only 16 first-time winners in the last half-century. Worse, the chasm between the championship programs and the challengers seems to be widening: After a two-decade span from 1984-2003 when half the titles were won by first-time schools, only one school (Florida in 2006) has done so since.
Those champions that win again don’t have to wait long, either. The longest drought for a previous NCAA champion that won again was Kansas in 1988, which went 36 years between titles. With five Final Four appearances during that span, it appears that Kansas’s “drought” was more a product of bad luck than any decline in relevance.
What about programs such as Oregon’s, which currently holds the longest NCAA Championship drought? Since winning it all in 1939, they are riding a 75-year drought, more than twice as long as Kansas’s streak. So how do we classify Oregon’s struggle to get back on top: Are they in a long-term drought? Or is their climb akin to that of a program that has never won?
Only one of the programs that won its first title in the last half-century started its basketball program after the inception of the NCAA Tournament (UNLV’s program began in 1969) meaning that for programs that haven’t won a title, the struggle is primarily every bit as difficult as Oregon’s attempts to get back to the top.
And if the struggles are the same for a long-suffering programs as they are for programs that have never won, then they qualify every bit for the designation of “someone new.”
So what does it take for “someone new” to win it all? I looked up the history of the achievements necessary for schools to win their first championship to see what is necessary for a program to break through amidst the oligarchy of college basketball.
1) 24 Wins Entering the Tournament
Why 24? Because winning a championship takes six wins, and those six wins would get a team to 30 – the magic number for the minimum number of wins a team needs to win its first national championship. Only two schools in the last 35 years have managed that feat without winning 30 games in a season. Of course, they got around that 30-win barrier by …
1a) Having a Coach at the Same School for Over a Dozen Years
The two universities who won their school’s first title without 30 wins (Villanova, 1985 and Arizona, 1997, also the two lowest seeds ever to win the title, prior to tonight) did so under the guidance of a head coach who had been there for at least twelve seasons. Still, not reaching 30 wins in a school’s first championship season was rare, though not as rare as not having …
2) A Recent Final Four Appearance
If but for Gordon Hayward’s heave against Duke in 2010, teams might enjoy a loophole to glory. Instead, the possibility that any school without a history of deep runs could ride a hot streak through a single postseason on the way to a championship isn’t realistic. Instead, there’s some historical precedence of success that has to be set before a title can be achieved, and that is making a previous Final Four relatively close to your title run.
Only one school in the last 35 years has failed to go to a Final Four within fourteen years prior to its championship run (that may sound like a long time, until you remember that the Luke-and-Luke era at Oregon began fourteen years ago), UConn in 1999.
Of course, that Connecticut team made three Elite Eight runs within the previous 8 years, and also was the school that had the fewest losses (2) of any first time champion in the last forty years, and still had to pull one of the most monumental upsets by defeating a heavily-favored Duke team that was 37-1 going into the championship. A run to the Final Four, or many nearly as deep, is essential to winning it all.
That Connecticut team, though, had something that every first-time championship team needs …
3) An Iconic Coach with 500 Career Wins
I can’t help but think of Butler again, and their two consecutive, and ultimately unfruitful, runs to the National Championship. What if Butler had won? Would Brad Stevens have stayed in college basketball, even stayed at Butler? Or would had have gone to the pros anyway, as he did in 2013?
Had Stevens won a championship at Butler, only to go to find success in the NBA (or never return to college basketball), he would have been a massive outlier amongst coaches of first-time championship-winning schools. Stevens’ 166 wins would have been less than a third of the ending career win totals of any of the coaches that had won a first championship for a school in the last 35 years.
The only two coaches to do so without eventually getting to 500 career wins are Steve Fisher (Michigan, 1989) and Billy Donovan (Florida, 2006); both of whom are active coaches that should both reach the 500 wins plateau some time next season. (Fisher is currently at 497, with Donovan at 486.) While there have been some forgettable coaches with less-than-sparkling career marks among those who took their school to a national championship, the career success of coaches leading their schools to their first championships is remarkable.
What does all this mean for the Oregon Ducks? That despite the loftiness of the goal, it is historically attainable. They can get to 24 wins heading into the tournament, as they did in 2002, 2007, and 2013. They have a great coach in Dana Altman, one who got his 500th win this season. And, while they haven’t made the Final Four since that 1939 championship, I doubt anyone would consider “only” making it to the Final Four next season a disappointment. If that happens, fans can begin dreaming about something bigger being raised to the rafters in Eugene in the years to come.
Top image courtesy of Kevin Cline