The all-time marquee programs of college basketball: North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, U.C.L.A.
One of these names doesn't belong right now. And you only have to look at this week's games and this week's news coverage to demonstrate it.
Wednesday night's featured matchup between #9 Duke at #5 North Carolina was nationally televised on ESPN and was hyped all week leading up to the game. Besides the longstanding ACC rivalry, both teams were in their usual spots within the Top 10, adding to the hype surrounding the game. The Dean Dome was packed with 22,000 raucous fans, nearly all dressed in identical Carolina Blue and provided an intimidating home court advantage for theTar Heels. Duke valiantly followed the lead of their star freshman guard. And like any good rivalry game between two great teams and legendary programs, this one came down to the last shot.
Nestor already put up a fanshot of the amazing finish. The game led the morning edition of Sports Center and you can watch the coverage here (beware of Stuart Scott trying to upstage the highlights with his commentary). Big teams. Big game. Big finish. Big news.
Only slight less newsworthy this week was #10 Kansas getting a decisive road win at #6 Baylor. #2 Syracuse beat their hated rival #11 Georgetown in front of 28,000 orange clad fans. And Kentucky solidified its #1 ranking by beating #7 Florida by 20. More big teams. More big games. More big news.
Contrast these games to last night's meeting between U.C.L.A. and Stanford. While the country still buzzed over the Instant Classic in Chapel Hill the night before as well as the other Top 10 matchups, hardly anyone noticed that the Bruins and The Cardinal were battling for 6th place in a really bad conference. The Bruins drew a relatively large crowd of about 5,000 to their decrepit temporary home, all dressed in a variety of colors and bearing little semblance to an intimidating home crowd advantage. They watched a pretty sloppy basketball game that virtually no one else in the the country saw, including the people in Palo Alto, where the local provider elected to carry the Cal State Northridge vs U.C. Davis game. The Bruins and the Cardinal were relegated for a 6-15 CSUN team and 1-21 UCD team? Incredible.
It reminded me of that old saying: if a U.C.L.A. team plays a game in the L.A. Sports Arena and hardly anyone is there to watch it and no one sees the telecast, does it still count in the standings? Or something like that. Luckily, the game did count, and our Bruins took sole possession of that 6th place spot. But that's not the only story to come out of this game.
I'm not much about birthrights. I believe that success must be earned. Unfortunately for all of us, the Bruins haven't earned success in a manner we would hope for. I'm not going to be so arrogant to say that U.C.L.A. should be mentioned with UNC and Duke and Kansas and Kentucky (well, at least until Coach Cal has this year's wins vacated) simply by virtue of its own existence. Our current existence doesn't even match Syracuse or Missouri or tOSU, schools with periodically great teams, but who don't belong in the same tier as those elite four. So while I expect the Bruins to include themselves in that lofty group, they still have to deserve to be there, and they haven't done that.
And they haven't done it now for the fourth year in a row.
Now, even these great programs suffer a down year from time to time. UNC had a sub .500 season in 2002 and missed the tournament in 2002 and 2003. At that point, they replaced their coach. They have won 2 titles since. Duke last missed the tournament in 1995 when Coach K was out for a year with back problems. They haven't missed it since and have won 2 titles themselves. Kansas last missed the tournament in 1989 because they were on probation. They have since won a title. Kentucky missed the tournament in 2009 for the first time in 18 years. They replaced that coach and have gone to the Elite 8 and the Final Four in the two years since. As mentioned above, they are the #1 team in the country.
You just can't keep a good program down. As soon as these programs experienced a drop from their expected level of success, they leveraged their mighty tradition to make bold changes that immediately restored them to the upper elite of college basketball.
U.C.L.A.'s great tradition now serves only to magnify the utter mediocrity of our program today. Every comment that harkens back to the glory days of Coach, or the amazing run by Ed O and Tyus and company that brought home #11, or even the 3 consecutive Final Fours simply shines the spotlight on the chasm that separates those memories from the present status of the program.
If we were still great, we wouldn't have to say, "Remember when...?"
So while the country watches and rewatches the epic contest between UNC and Duke, no one in Palo Alto watches U.C.L.A and Stanford. Coach Howland and his team muddle about in the middle of an awful Pac-12 Conference and look to be light years away from that elite group that we want U.C.L.A. to rejoin. The difference between those two games simply highlights our continued slide into irrelevance, a slide which has occurred under the watch of our overpaid AD Dan Guerrero and Chancellor Block. I have zero faith in either of these men to do anything about it at all. They don't care.
And there is the real reason that U.C.L.A.'s name doesn't belong with those other four.