College basketball differs from college football in so many ways. One of them: time.
Basketball coaches might not have an abundance of time on an overall level — look at North Carolina State, Memphis, and other teams which were essentially finished as at-large candidates before February even began. That said, basketball bosses have so much more time in which to reach their teams before the postseason. In college football, a bad September or a two-game conference losing streak in early October will sabotage a season as far as one’s bowl destination and playoff hopes are concerned.
College basketball doesn’t provide an endless stream of opportunities for teams, but as long as they win enough important games, a three- or four-game losing streak — a genuine descent into rubbish performances and disjointed displays on the court — does not mean the end of a season and its aspirations… especially not at the power-conference level.
Maryland, after its unfathomable loss to Minnesota on Thursday night, finds itself in the dumpster in terms of its level of play. It seems very difficult to imagine the Terrapins as a Final Four team right now. If a Minnesota team which entered Thursday’s game with an 0-13 Big Ten record could beat Maryland, what does that say about the state of the team’s mindset, and the degree of coordination found in each lineup combination coach Mark Turgeon puts on the floor?
It’s very easy — and understandable — to think that Maryland is irreparably broken right now, much as Melo Trimble’s jumper is broken. To be sure, many teams that go into a mid-February nosedive don’t rescue themselves in time. However, Maryland fans — and fans of other teams in similar positions — history shows us that plenty of teams have halted a tailspin. Coaching pilots at the controls have avoided a crash and steered their team not only to safety, but to the glamorous intended destination known as the Final Four.
Kevin Ollie and Connecticut produced a magical run in 2014, but Ollie has not yet shown if that was a one-hit-wonder moment or not. Shaka Smart did something amazing and unprecedented with VCU in 2011, and he might very well take Texas to great heights, but for the moment, that’s still an isolated occurrence in his young coaching career.
What’s worth looking at in this piece are the instances in which proven coaches took flawed and flailing teams in the middle or latter portions of the regular season and got them to play their best when it mattered. For Maryland and Mark Turgeon; Texas A&M and Billy Kennedy; Frank Martin and South Carolina; Fran McCaffery of Iowa; and other non-Final Four coaches who are currently immersed in very rough periods with their teams, here’s a reminder of how the masters in the profession turned frowns upside-down:
* Last season, Michigan State played noticeably labored basketball for much of the Big Ten season. Injuries entered the picture at times, but the Spartans still seemed to have the formula for victory in their hands on a number of occasions, and simply couldn’t pour it into their games. In March, however, Izzo managed to get his team to defend at a very high level, and his shotmakers did not allow the defensive end to detract (enough) from their offensive arsenals. The Spartans ran to the Final Four as a 7 seed.
* Kentucky lost at South Carolina on March 1, 2014. John Calipari’s team seemed dead, dead, dead. A week later, the Wildcats came within an eyelash of snapping Florida’s 25-game winning streak at the SEC Tournament. Two weeks later, they knocked off top-seeded and unbeaten Wichita State. Three weeks later, they punched their ticket to the Final Four. They narrowly missed winning the national championship.
* The two teams that met in the second national semifinal at the 2013 Final Four both rallied from rough late-season stretches. Michigan lost six of its last 12 games under John Beilein. For more than a full month, the Wolverines played like an NIT team. This wasn’t just a quick 10-day stumble; the Maize and Blue fell into a prolonged funk. In March, however, Trey Burke found his game again (and, sure, a 35-foot hoist late in the regional semifinals against Kansas). Michigan played for the national title and nearly toppled Louisville.
The 2013 Syracuse crew not only lost three in a row and four of five; it did so in late February and early March. The Orange lost to Georgetown, 61-39, in the final game of the regular season, before the Big East Tournament. Syracuse could not have looked more pitiful and powerless on a basketball court.
The Orange proceeded to make the Big East Tournament final and then smother four opponents en route to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
* The 2012 Louisville Cardinals endured not one, but two nasty losing spells. In late December and early January, the Cards were decked five times in a seven-game sequence. In late February and early March, Rick Pitino’s pupils were pulverized in four of six games. Yet, when the team got off the plane in New York for the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden, the light went on for UL. The Cardinals took flight on defense, winning four games in the Big Apple to take home the Big East tourney. They carried that magnificence to the latter half of March, rallying past seventh-seeded Florida to earn a date in New Orleans for the Final Four.
* Brad Stevens and Butler lost three straight games in the middle of the 2011 regular season. Given that Butler was a Cinderella the year before, surely the Bulldogs — a bulls-eye much more firmly affixed to their backs — were not going to be able to pull off another March run for the ages.
Oh, but the world didn’t yet know just how special Stevens is as a coach. He marshalled his team and its collective resources in a way few others could, leading Butler back to the national title game for the second season in a row.
You can see the names of the men who have worked their magic in March. One of the great dramas of the upcoming NCAA tournament consists of coaches who have not yet reached the promised land, and must find a way to get their teams to be at their best when it counts.
Maryland, Texas A&M, and others have time in which to make course corrections. We’ll know a lot more about these teams and coaches in five weeks. It will be endlessly fascinating to follow them on this perilous and exciting journey.