The elite college basketball programs in the United States expect to make the Final Four on a consistent basis. However, not every program is a Duke, North Carolina, or Kentucky. The realistic aspiration for a lot of college basketball programs — which is also the realistic measurement of upper-class status in the sport — is the Sweet 16.
It makes sense. If you get to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament with a more intense media spotlight, you have crossed a significant threshold and elevated your program to a much higher level compared to the first weekend.
When the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament begins on Thursday, there are 64 teams. So many stories and questions and uncertainties exist, and games such as UCF-Duke suck so much of the oxygen out of the national conversation that there is little air for other teams breathe. Yet, while Duke naturally dominated most of the radio segments and TV discussions the past 24 to 48 hours, the larger picture of the Sweet 16 fell into place.
This week — more precisely, these next three days before the start of the Sweet 16 on Thursday — represent a great time to take stock of programs. This is the ideal moment in March to see which teams are making the cut and which ones aren’t. This is also a time in which coaches might be changing expectations of what should be normal and what is still overly optimistic at a program. One can also make the point that some programs are not being ambitious ENOUGH, given their decisions to retain certain coaches.
With that in mind, let’s consider various schools which haven’t been in the Sweet 16 very often in recent years, but should be appearing in the Sweet 16 often enough for us to notice. These programs are falling short of standards they ought to meet.
There are layers to this examination. Some programs should be in the Sweet 16 most of the time. Others shouldn’t necessarily be there most of the time, but they should be making it every three or four years.
I will select notable examples from the Power Five conferences plus the Big East and the AAC.
In the interests of keeping this article short, I won’t make exhaustive arguments. We can continue the conversation on Twitter: @MattZemek.
The two programs which need to become better in order for the AAC to realize its potential are Memphis and Connecticut. These programs should certainly be in the Sweet 16 at least once every three years, and a fair case could be made for “most of the time.” Resources, culture, expectations, history — these programs should rock.
Wichita State has been elevated to a program with the budget and resources worthy of a Sweet 16 program. Cincinnati should exist here if Wichita State is on the list. Cincinnati should also exist here if Xavier (see below in the Big East) is on the list.
North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech shouldn’t make the Sweet 16 in MOST seasons, but they should certainly make the Sweet 16 once every three or four years. Basketball is too important in the state of North Carolina, and talent in Atlanta is too abundant, for these schools, all with rich basketball histories, to languish in mediocrity or worse. Duke and Carolina are the No. 1 and No. 2 seed-level programs in the state of North Carolina and in the ACC, so it’s not as though these programs should be expected to be top seeds in March. However, these programs should all be able to be a 4 seed and get to the second weekend — you know, the way Leonard Hamilton has done at Florida State this season.
Villanova has achieved far more than anyone could have hoped for in 2015 or 2014. That program has reached the stratosphere. Should anyone expect another Big East program to match what Jay Wright has accomplished? No… but we can certainly expect a Sweet 16 standard from a few.
The obvious candidates in this conference: St. John’s and Georgetown. Come on. New York and Washington, D.C. Storied traditions. Icons as head coaches. A Sweet 16 on a regular basis is hardly too much to ask. I would also add Xavier, given over 30 years of program building. The Musketeers might not be a program where “Sweet 16 MOST of the time” should be expected, but certainly “once every three or four years.”
Indiana is the obvious — and big — example here.
The Hoosiers did meet this Sweet 16 standard from 2012 through 2016, but over the past 25 seasons (1995-2019), they have made four Sweet 16s. Indiana is a blue-blood name with LSU-like results.
— Make the NCAA Tournament every year.
— Make the Sweet 16 most years.
— Make the Elite Eight about half the time (every other year balanced out over a longer period of time).
— Make the Final Four once every several years.
That is the three-point blue-blood program standard, which assumes the ability to be a top-two seed in the NCAAs, which explains the point about making the Elite Eight half the time. As a 2 seed, you are expected to make the Elite Eight. Indiana should certainly be a 2-seed-level program on a relatively frequent basis.
Maryland has way too much tradition and way too much access to elite high-school talent to not be in the Sweet 16 at least once every three or four years.
The same goes for Illinois.
The same goes for Ohio State. The Buckeyes get some slack due to the transition of coaches. I have little doubt Chris Holtmann will meet the Sweet 16 standard in the coming years.
The same goes for Iowa. I wouldn’t expect large numbers of Sweet 16 appearances, but certainly once every three or four years. Fran McCaffery hasn’t been terrible, but he has never gotten a seed higher than 7 in the NCAAs. He has not yet made one Sweet 16 at Iowa. He isn’t underperforming by a large margin, but he is underperforming relative to what that program achieved in the past.
I know Iowans hate Steve Alford, and I don’t blame them one bit for doing so… but Alford DID make Iowa a No. 3 seed. It’s the only time in the past 20 seasons that Iowa has been a top-five NCAA seed. The last previous Iowa coach to get a top-five NCAA seed before Alford in 2006? Doctor Tom — Tom Davis — in 1999.
Texas is and has been the big failure in the Big 12 this decade. If Shaka Smart can’t win one NCAA Tournament game next season, he should be gone — at least, if I was athletic director in Austin.
Oklahoma State should be a Sweet 16 program once every three to four years. One can only wonder what might have been if Brad Underwood had stayed.
Oklahoma should fit in the same basket, but Lon Kruger made a Final Four, which certainly balances out some round-of-64 losses. I would advise Kruger to get a 5 or a 4 seed in the NCAAs again and make a Sweet 16 in the next two years.
The other programs in the league are generally hitting their targets if not exceeding them. I will be interested in seeing how Bruce Weber handles next season without some of the veterans who have helped him the past two seasons.
UCLA is the obvious failure here. If that goaltending call against SMU had not been made in 2015, the Bruins would be looking at two Sweet 16s in the past 11 seasons. As it is, they have three, with no Elite Eights or Final Fours.
UCLA is a blue-blood. The standard articulated above for Indiana applies in Westwood.
Arizona isn’t consistently failing to make Sweet 16s; the program had been meeting most of the requirements of the blue-blood standard under Sean Miller before the controversies of recent seasons. I expect Arizona to get back on the bike and return to normal next season, provided Miller stays on the job.
Arkansas, as I have written many times, should make the Sweet 16 once every few years. It has not yet made a Sweet 16 in eight seasons under Mike Anderson and has not made the Sweet 16 since 1996.
It will be very important for Mike White and Florida to make the Sweet 16 next season. He made the Sweet 16 (and Elite Eight) two years ago, but Florida should definitely be a high seed on a regular basis. One can allow for a brief dip, but next season has to put the pieces back together again.
Alabama should also be here. Wimp Sanderson often make the Sweet 16. Mark Gottfried turned Bama into a 2 seed and guided the program to the Elite Eight. A “once every four years” Sweet 16 standard is not unreasonable in Tuscaloosa.
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