Buzzer 'Bag: The best program to never win a title, Purdue is the new Virginia, mega-conference schedules, and what GMs do
Massive mailbag ahoy!
The college basketball offseason is much better now. This is yet another — minor, mostly inconsequential, but still extant — reason why the transfer portal is good: Interesting stuff happens for much longer than it used to.
Time was, when players couldn’t transfer so easily and NBA draft decisions were draconianly final, coaches were done moving by April and rosters were settled in May. Then you had months and months of dead time where, if you were responsible for, say, coming up with regular college hoops content, beyond recruiting tidbits you were either sitting around waiting for Rick Pitino to do something self-destructive or else just making stuff up. High concepts. Lists. A countdown of the best programs of all time. Whatever.
These days, the interesting bits happen for much longer! Now the offseason doesn’t feel interminable. There’s always something going on, to the point that you don’t really have to force stuff anymore. (There’s a big opportunity for college hoops media to figure out the transfer portal and make it a genuinely interesting mini-NBA free agency burst of interest, if we can all get our act together. Early days yet. Also, should probably just save that idea for me. Anyway!)
And still: August remains pretty rough. Even as TV networks callously carve up the future of college sports like the 1920 Allied powers looking at a map of the old Ottoman Empire, actual college hoops stuff has been pretty minimal. (Kansas looks really good in Puerto Rico?) It’s a good time for a mailbag.
Here we are: A raft of subscribers’ excellent questions, enthusiastically answered, deep in the nitty-gritty.
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(Note: If your question wasn’t answered, I will get to it at some point, either in the original comments or maybe even a longer piece. Some of the questions were so good I didn’t want to have to cram them in.)
What's the top-tier college basketball program, historically, that has never won a national championship? Texas? Houston? Illinois? Purdue? Who am I missing? — Will Leitch
What about Gonzaga? There’s a bit of recency bias baked in here, because Gonzaga as national powerhouse is a very recent phenomenon. Or, well, we say that, it feels that way, but Gonzaga’s rise in the mid-1990s makes them a nearly 30-year-old newcomer by now. (Which, yikes. I’m old.) Point being: Even if Gonzaga practically didn’t exist as a basketball entity before the 1990s, they have been ridiculously good for long enough now that their lack of a national title is really glaring. This program hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Save their lone 2012 slip, they’ve won the WCC regular season title every year in that span. Thirteen Sweet 16s. Six Elite Eights. (Three fewer than Illinois has in its history.) Two Final Fours in the last five (contested) seasons. Look at KenPom’s program ratings from 1997-2023. For all intents and purposes, Gonzaga is a blueblood now, or at least the modern equivalent thereof.
Winning a national title is extremely hard.
Still: It’s pretty weird Gonzaga hasn’t won that national title yet. UConn has won five! This has been a more compressed but arguably more impressive period of title-free success than boasted by any other team on this list.
The question is whether the weight of the past 25-ish years is enough to put them on the top of the all-time group. Texas always makes the NCAA Tournament, and seemingly always has, but rarely does anything to make you think they blew a national title shot. They haven’t been to the Final Four since (checks notes) 1980, which is … astounding. (Even Kevin Durant, who averaged 26 and 11 on 40 percent 3-point shooting as an 18-year-old, couldn’t get them out of the first weekend.)
Pre-Kelvin Sampson Houston wasn’t a consistently average program for much of its existence, though the heights have been extremely high, and with all due respect to NC State, Phi Slama Jama should have won that title. That might be my pick for No. 2, in honor of the Dream, and because Purdue and Illinois have spread their relatively limited tournament success out over very lengthy periods of uninterrupted Big Ten time. But I think Gonzaga’s extended modern stretch of dominance just about puts it No. 1.
Mark Few will be thrilled to hear this, no doubt.
As a fan of a not UConn Big East team, should I care that they are likely leaving again? It definitely feels different than last time. — Matthew Hutson
Dan Hurley said something interesting at one of the Final Four press conferences about this.
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