Few things in college hoops are more painful than the slow decline into mediocrity. Even worse is being unable to bust out of it.
If Connecticut and Oklahoma aren’t careful, they’ll join George Washington and Southern Illinois in that territory. Call ’em the four programs on the wane.
First, the two stragglers.
George Washington won 77 games and reached three straight NCAA tournaments over a three-year span. Karl Hobbs’ team has been unable to recapture that form, finishing in the bottom half of the A-10 each of the last three years, mostly because of a middling defense and improved conference competition. (GW’s best years came when the league trailed the MAC, WAC and West Coast in overall strength. That’s not the case today.)
It’s not getting better anytime soon. Hobbs’ 2010-11 roster returns four starters from a 16-15 squad, but nothing to match the A-10’s top teams in terms of talent. If Dayton and Rhode Island can’t break into the Top 4, GW isn’t doing so anytime soon.
Southern Illinois has gone through a similar decline. The Salukis won at least 22 games between 2004 and 2007, capping the four-year run with a 29-7 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. Three seasons later, they finished ninth in the Missouri Valley.
Again, blame the defense. Chris Lowery’s defenses once were among the nation’s stingiest. Even an 18-15 record in 2007-08 belied the ‘D’ that forced turnovers and kept opponents off the boards. They’re now merely average. The overall record could improve because of three juco transfers, but until Lowry recruits better, the Salukis will keep dragging the bottom half of the MVC.
Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel made his name through his high-profile recruits like Blake Griffin, Willie Warren and Keith Gallon. Unfortunately for Capel, Griffin was the only game-changer of the bunch and when he left, the Sooners stunk it up. Warren, Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin all went pro.
Now Capel’s left with decent, not great talent. And that’s an issue when you’re a good recruiter and a so-so coach. The Sooners’ defense plummeted last season, as Oklahoma failed to challenge shots, force turnovers or block shots. Most of that lies with Capel’s failure to either motivate his guys or teach them.
Part of the problem is that Capel, 35, is still learning how to coach. His team’s performance last season was a reflection of his abilities. But there aren’t any fabulous talents headed to Norman soon. That means Capel either becomes a much better coach quickly, or the Sooners are going to be stuck in the bottom of what’s about to be a much tougher Big 12.
Then there’s UConn.
UConn’s coming off an 18-16 season and is unlikely to improve on that after losing three starters and a key talent (Ater Majok). It’s not the Huskies are going to start dragging the bottom of the Big East. It’s that they don’t have any room for error.
Consider these factors:
- Jim Calhoun’s age
- NCAA sanctions
- The brutal Big East
Calhoun’s 68 and has had a bevy of health problems through the years. It’s a testament to his reputation and the Huskies’ program that four-star recruits still head to Storrs. How long it continues with his age and the NCAA penalties (more looming?) remains to be seen.
The Big East is no place for teams trying to tread water, either. Other programs – St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence – have been stuck in the league’s bottom half for years, while consistent teams like Marquette and Notre Dame can’t seem to break through.
If the Huskies aren’t winning, they’re losing ground. Such is life in the Big East.