It is easier to determine when programs start becoming blue-bloods, rather than when they stop being blue-bloods.
When Villanova won its second national title in three seasons, completing a string of highly dominant regular seasons with another authoritative March run, that sealed the deal for me and many others. Annual excellence is expected. Villanova under Jay Wright should always be in the mix to some degree.
Arizona eventually reached this point of significance and heft in college basketball at some point — you could argue that it was 1997 (the school’s national title) or 2001, but Arizona did reach a point at which it had an accomplishment worthy of a blue-blood (a national title IS a prerequisite; two could be a reasonable standard, but one national title is an absolute must, accompanied by relentless high-level consistency over a long period of time). That accomplishment coexisted with annual relevance in the sport. Blue-bloods bring achievements and annually high stature to the table.
The mixture of the two is easy to see when it emerges.
When a storied program fades into irrelevance or — at the very least — a prolonged period of struggle, that’s when it’s a lot harder to answer the “blue-blood or not blue-blood?” question.
The difficulty of judging when a program retains blue-blood status or drops out of the fraternity is tricky. This usually happens not because past feats or glories cease to be substantial, but because present-day struggles become commonplace without being transformed or (at least) minimized.
As another college basketball season concludes, the two most obvious examples of “blue-blood blurry lines” are the UCLA Bruins and the Indiana Hoosiers.
Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Connecticut, Louisville, Kansas — these are definite blue-bloods, without any question whatsoever. They have all achieved at a very high level recently and with enough consistency to be regarded as the elite fraternity. UConn fell into a ditch after its 2014 title, but that doesn’t end blue-blood status built up over the course of four national titles.
North Carolina messed around and fell to the NIT under Roy Williams. It went seven years without a Final Four appearance. Something like that doesn’t suddenly revoke blue-blood status. Dean Smith went nine years between Final Fours from 1982 to 1991. From 2005 through 2014, Duke made one Final Four. Kentucky went from 1984 to 1993 without a Final Four.
At UCLA and Indiana, one can at least begin to formulate an argument for emergent blue-blood evaporation and revocation.
UCLA hasn’t made an Elite Eight in 11 seasons. It has missed the NCAA Tournament in six of the past 17 seasons. At its worst, it has experienced a level of slippage greater than the various blue-bloods mentioned above with the possible/partial exception of UConn this decade, when the Jim Calhoun era crashed and burned. The combination of the slippage and the inability to achieve at a higher level naturally raise questions.
The one thing everyone can agree on: If UCLA doesn’t make an Elite Eight (let alone a Final Four) in the next six to eight seasons, with spotty regular-season records under the new coach or coaches who come along, people will wonder about the program’s blue-blood status, much as people wonder about the blue-blood status of Nebraska and Tennessee in present-day college football.
However, for as much as UCLA has failed to make the Elite Eight, it still did make three straight Final Fours just over a decade ago. It still did make a pile of Sweet 16s before those Final Fours (under Steve Lavin) and after them (under Steve Alford). UCLA still shows that relatively average coaches can still make second weekends of the NCAA Tournament. The three Final Fours in a row under Ben Howland show that the program still carries weight. If the question is hard to resolve, it is also hard to clearly answer in the affirmative: No, UCLA has not forfeited blue-blood status.
Indiana is the example which comes much closer to the revocation of blue-blood status.
Indiana has one clearly aberrational run to the national championship game in 2002. Other than that, the program hasn’t made a single Elite Eight since 1993. That is a true vast canyon of failure. Tom Crean did make three Sweet 16s, but against the backdrop of just over a quarter-century of misery, that isn’t a whole lot. UCLA’s height over the past 22 seasons has been a run of three straight Final Fours with a national title game. Indiana’s height was a single season in 2002 under a coach who proved he couldn’t sustain a significant level of quality.
I will say that Indiana has played its way into “blue-blood uncertainty” more than UCLA has. However, I can also note that basketball culture in Indiana is a million times more worthy of a blue-blood program than what exists at UCLA. Even if Indiana doesn’t have blue-blood results, it has blue-blood reverence for basketball success. That shouldn’t be idly tossed aside here.
See, even with two programs which have done precious little in 20-plus years, it is hard to revoke blue-blood status. Can you make convincing arguments that UCLA and especially Indiana aren’t part of college basketball royalty anymore? Yes… but it would be foolish to think these are clear-cut cases.
Blue-blood status is not revoked or returned as easily as a spectator with a ticket passes through a turnstile.
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