SPORTS BKC-MIAMI-VILLANOVA 16 KC (2)

A history of Final Four appearances: the starving class

We’ve looked at Final Four appearances solely through the lens of the SEC, but what about the Power 5 conferences in general?

The bluebloods and old-money powers are schools you know about. What can be said of the Power 5 schools at the other end of the spectrum?

Not a single Final Four school this year is a first-time participant. The most recent first-time school was VCU in 2011. The most recent first-time Power 5 school was Maryland in 2001. As you can see, it’s not easy for first-timers to bust through. Where do they still lurk?

Arizona State lost to John Wooden's last UCLA team in the 1975 Elite Eight. That's as close as the Sun Devils have been to the Final Four.

Arizona State lost to John Wooden’s last UCLA team in the 1975 Elite Eight. The Bruins went on to meet Louisville in the national semifinals. That’s as close as the Sun Devils have been to the Final Four. They’re the only Pac-12 team still searching for that first berth.

The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national title since Arizona in 1997, but the league has only one team without a Final Four, the smallest number of the Power 5 conferences. That fact offers the appearance of strength; over the course of the entire 78-season NCAA tournament era, that’s true. In a more modern context? Not nearly as much.

Seven Pac-12 programs have made the Final Four no later than 1963: Oregon State, California, USC, Washington, Colorado, Washington State, and the first national champion, Oregon, in 1939. Utah (when not even a Pac-12 member) and Stanford last made the Final Four in 1998. Only Arizona and UCLA have reached the Final Four this century.

Yet, while the league’s history has been spotty, it’s barren for only one program: Arizona State. The Sun Devils were blessed with one great coach, Ned Wulk, and the problem was that Wulk coached in the same era as John Wooden, which was also an era in which the NCAA tournament didn’t have an expansive field. ASU had to go through UCLA to win the West Regional, and it wasn’t able to collect a large number of bids. Wulk just might have broken through in the 64-team field introduced in 1985, but his career had ended by then.

011216-CBK-Texas-Tech-Tubby-Smith-PI-CH.vadapt.664.high.90

The Big 12 has two schools which have never made the Final Four, and in one case, a school which has never even made the Elite Eight.

Texas Tech made the Sweet 16 in 2005 under Bobby Knight, but lost to West Virginia. The Red Raiders also cracked the Sweet 16 in 1996, but Georgetown and a man named Allen Iverson were too much in an East Regional semifinal. The folks in Lubbock are still waiting for a Final Four appearance, but they have to get an Elite Eight first.

TCU made the Elite Eight in 1968, but has not been back since.

Nebraska was a 3 seed in 1991 against 14th-seeded Xavier, but the Cornhuskers still couldn't win their first NCAA tournament game. Nebraska is the only Power 5 conference team to have made the NCAA tournament without winning at least once. Northwestern has also failed to win an NCAA tourney game, but the Wildcats have never made the event.

Nebraska was a 3 seed in 1991 against 14th-seeded Xavier, but the Cornhuskers still couldn’t win their first NCAA tournament game. Nebraska is the only Power 5 conference team to have made the NCAA tournament without winning at least once. Northwestern has also failed to win an NCAA tourney game, but the Wildcats have never made the event.

The Big Ten takes its basketball seriously, and yet somehow, not only have two of its schools not made the Final Four; they haven’t won a single NCAA tournament game after all these years. Parties will be thrown when Nebraska and Northwestern win a single Dance contest. The Final Four isn’t even on the verge of becoming realistic.

Florida coach Lon Kruger gets a piece of the net after his Florida Gators defeated Boston College in the NCAA East Regional Finals in Miami, Sunday, March 27, 1994 by a score of 74-66. (AP Photo/Hans Deryk)

Florida coach Lon Kruger gets a piece of the net after his Florida Gators defeated Boston College in the NCAA East Regional Finals in Miami, Sunday, March 27, 1994 by a score of 74-66. (AP Photo/Hans Deryk)

*

See that coach to the left? That’s Lon Kruger, the last time he reached the Final Four before this past Saturday. Back in 1994, Kruger led Florida to its first Final Four, boosting the non-Kentucky, non-Arkansas identity of the SEC.

What Kruger also did on that day in Miami was to deny Boston College its first-ever Final Four berth. The Eagles were not in the ACC back then, but because of that loss, they remain one of four current ACC member schools without a Final Four on the ledger sheet. Virginia Tech, Miami, and Clemson have also failed to hit the Final Four. Alongside Boston College, Virginia Tech (1967) and Clemson (1980) have reached the Elite Eight. Miami, beaten in the Sweet 16 by Villanova last Thursday, is still searching for a first Elite Eight.

We mentioned earlier that seven Pac-12 programs owned Final Fours from a distant era (more than 50 years ago). How do other Power 5 conferences stack up in this regard?

The Big 12 has three programs which haven’t made the Final Four since 1964 or earlier: Kansas State (1964), Baylor (1950), and Iowa State (1944).

The Big Ten has just one such program, Penn State (1954).

The ACC has two programs in that category: Wake Forest (1962) and Pittsburgh (1941). Florida State (1972) and Notre Dame (1978) aren’t exactly recent achievers in their own right, but their droughts pale in comparison to others. Notre Dame has come within one win of snapping its drought the last two seasons. Like poor Virginia (1984), the Irish had a chance to snap a drought of over 30 years on Sunday, and missed. Virginia, though, will lose a lot more sleep than the Fighting Irish…

As for the SEC, there are no especially long droughts to mention, primarily because few non-Kentucky teams made any Final Fours in the SEC before 1981.

*

As you know, in this year’s tournament, Texas A&M and Miami — neither with an Elite Eight or Final Four — both made the Sweet 16… and got pounded. Two historically starved programs came a long way, and yet for all they achieved, all they did to stir hearts and lift hopes, they never even arrived at a point where the Elite Eight became a particularly distinct possibility — in terms of being one win away, yes, but neither was allowed a sniff at an in-game opportunity by Oklahoma or Villanova. Both schools, it turned out, needed the bracket break Notre Dame received when Wisconsin beat Xavier… or which Syracuse received when Middle Tennessee beat Michigan State.

That might be what A&M and Miami need to finally get to an Elite Eight, let alone the final (April) weekend of the college basketball season.

Yes, making the Final Four — even once, just once — is an extremely hard thing to do.

The schools with long droughts know this well.

The schools which have never been there know it even more.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

Quantcast