The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College basketball’s blue bloods run cold during this NCAA tournament

Coach John Calipari acknowledged there are “a lot of happy people” over Kentucky's rare losing season. (James Crisp/Associated Press)
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Let’s hear now from those poor, obscure, devastated men’s basketball programs peering through a locked gate at the NCAA tournament.

At Duke — yes, that Duke — Coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted this week to feeling “a little bit empty” after the Blue Devils didn’t make the tournament for the first time since 1995. At Kentucky — yes, that Kentucky — Coach John Calipari took his gulp of humility, acknowledged “a lot of happy people” celebrating the Wildcats’ misery and warned of a dramatic comeback. At Louisville — yes, the Cardinals, too — Coach Chris Mack promised changes and then got rid of two assistants, Dino Gaudio and Luke Murray, the son of actor and comedian Bill Murray. In the Bluegrass State, basketball mediocrity is no joke.

It’s a bad year to be considered an elite school. Indiana, which just agreed to pay $10 million to ditch Coach Archie Miller, is at home, watching a tournament being played in its state. Arizona is absent and hoping to evade major NCAA punishment. Of the 20 winningest programs entering this season, only seven made the field. Only four of the top 10 made it.

March Madness 2021: All the latest news and analysis

There also was a handful of prominent programs that barely slipped past the bouncer. What could illustrate this wonderful wonky season better than turning on the television Thursday night, realizing that the First Four was happening and seeing giants UCLA and Michigan State tussle in a glorified play-in game?

“I think it will be one of the all-time great play-in games,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo declared beforehand.

It did turn out to be great — for UCLA. The Bruins rallied to beat the Spartans, 86-80, in overtime. Now the plucky, anonymous 11-time national champions hope to be the latest First Four winner to make a spirited tournament run. What does that make them? A majestic underdog?

First Four: UCLA plots a comeback to oust Michigan State in overtime

This aberrational Big Dance deserves a title: “The 2021 NCAA men’s tournament: Requiem for the Blue Blood.” Without the storied teams bogarting the spotlight, we’re left with a March medley and an experiment during a covid-19 time in which sports don’t dominate interest like they usually do. The television ratings are destined to be lower, and remember that is a pandemic trend, not an automatic indicator the nation doesn’t embrace Gonzaga and Baylor as favorites. It would have been ideal to have the fame of Duke and Kentucky, but if we truly love this tournament for its unpredictability, the madness should make up the difference.

Mitch Barnhart, the Kentucky athletic director and chairman of the tournament selection committee, tried to preempt any doubts about how compelling the next three weeks would be.

“I think if you followed the tournaments, you followed college basketball, especially down the stretch here of the regular season and tournament play, you saw buzzer-beaters, tournament runs, people jumping around on the court, enjoying, celebrating together with coaches, locker room celebrations,” Barnhart said. “That’s what we’ve missed. We’ve missed that. It’s time to get that going again. We’re looking forward to celebrating with the young people in the game of college basketball here. It will be great.”

There could be more at play than a random substandard year for the royals. Arizona, Kansas and Louisville are among the major programs awaiting word of penalties stemming from a corruption scandal. In addition, teams that have relied heavily on one-and-done super freshmen should revise their thinking quickly as the G League, Professional Collegiate League and Overtime enter the competition for blue-chippers, offering six-figure opportunities and more options to skip college. In general, young folks don’t seem as obsessed with iconic institutions. They are challenging norms, expressing a preference to go their own way and revising the importance of tradition in recruitment.

The legendary coaches can’t stay around forever, either. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse is 76. Coach K is 74. Roy Williams at North Carolina is 70. Izzo is 66. Heck, Calipari is suddenly 62. Their schools have something in common: the lack of a no-brainer successor in the family. As attractive as these jobs will be, the hires won’t be easy to get right, not with all the pressure, politics and sentimentality involved.

There always has been this strange, excessive exclusivity about the sport’s elite. Most purists consider only six programs worthy of being called blue bloods: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, Kansas and UCLA. Point the comparable or even greater accomplishments of others, and prepare an onslaught of “Yeah, but . . .” for the rest of the day. Nobility can afford the best security.

But not even the college basketball world is small anymore. We’re deep into a current wave of so-called mid-majors (a true sports term thrown around too loosely) making deep tournament runs and Final Four appearances. Nontraditional powers from big conferences, such as Baylor, are rising, too.

Not getting to experience a diversity of favorites was one of the great disappointments of last season’s tournament cancellation. Baylor, Dayton and Gonzaga were probably going to occupy three of the No. 1 seeds. San Diego State and Creighton looked like solid No. 2s. Seton Hall was back in a big way and could have been as high as a No. 3. And if your interest requires the big names, those schools mostly had their normal seasons in 2019-20. That tournament had everything, except for an understanding of the novel coronavirus. But the great clash had to wait.

Then the giants didn’t do their part this season. Their problems were deeper than the pandemic, but struggles containing the virus magnified their struggles. At the end of its season, Duke bowed out of the ACC tournament because of positive tests.

“You have to earn your way in,” Krzyzewski said on his SiriusXM radio show Tuesday. “We didn’t do enough, and then right there at the end, look, there is no right time to get the virus.”

At Louisville, Mack turned introspective.

“I think having as much humility as you can to try to figure out, like, what do I need to do better?” he said. “Where do I need to grow as a coach? How can I put the best coaching staff forward that works together to help our team improve? I ask those questions in the offseason every year. And they probably have to be a lot more critical questions after this year.”

At Kentucky, Calipari turned defiant.

“I’m not satisfied,” said Calipari, whose team plummeted from a No. 9 preseason national ranking to a miserable 9-16 record. It was his first losing collegiate season since 1988-89, when he was a rookie head coach at Massachusetts. “My whole mission now is to put this behind us. It’s going to take some time, but let’s put it all behind us. So let’s continue to say: ‘This is Kentucky. This is a standard.’ There were a lot of happy people out there that we had this kind of year. And you know what? Hey, enjoy your time now. Next year’s going to come soon enough.”

Back of the line, blue bloods.

Nobility doesn’t suffer for long. But over the next three weeks, next year will seem so torturously far away.

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