The day when a bubble pops, or when a miserable slog ends with a loss in a second-round or quarterfinal conference tournament game, elicits a wave of grumbling from basketball fan bases. A team with NCAA Tournament talent trudges to the NIT. A group which looked good on paper never came together. A program in a major market destroys morale and reinforces a strongly held belief that the current coach isn't making the grade.
These outpourings -- and the thought processes which feed into them -- are not inherently bad. We are aspirational beings. We are made to want to achieve. We were not given this one life to be mediocre. We might live quiet lives, but quiet is not the same as average. The smallest thing can be done well. The less glamorous job can be executed with skill. The less exciting career path can still unearth opportunities for growth, innovation and advancement. We are supposed to -- as Paul McCartney said 50 years ago -- "take a sad song and make it better."
The relevant question for college basketball fan bases drowning in disappointment at this time of year: Are our struggles acceptable?
This question is asked not with the intent of accepting failure or implying that mediocrity is okay. The question is meant to allow for the occurrence of wayward seasons, which can and do occur in a sport played by 19- and 20-year-old males under immense pressure in a very public spotlight.
Among teams which did not make the NCAA Tournament this year, which failures are more acceptable... and less?
(Teams believed to be in the bubble conversation will be excluded from this survey.)
While Josh Pastner and Danny Manning deserve patience in their respective situations, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest simply should not be relentlessly mediocre in college basketball. The prestige of the ACC, the abundance of talent in Atlanta, and the cultural importance of college basketball in the state of North Carolina should not allow these programs to flounder the way they have this decade. To be sure, the presence of North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Virginia, and North Carolina State in the ACC should prevent Georgia Tech or Wake fans from thinking they should be Final Four programs or make the Sweet 16 on a relatively constant basis, but these schools should be parking themselves in the NCAA field of 68 at least half the time.
The two schools, since 2010, have one NCAA appearance combined (Wake in the First Four last year).
Memphis and Connecticut are obviously falling well short of the targets they should hit each season. This is why Tubby Smith needs a new start somewhere else (as perhaps the final stop of his illustrious career), and why Kevin Ollie should reasonably sit on the hot seat next season. These are not complicated situations in terms of answering the "Is this acceptable?" question. The same applies to St. John's and DePaul in the Big East.
A more complicated pair of examples: Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers have done very little in their histories. Yet, they exist in a cash-rich Big Ten and are therefore expected to make use of added resources. Nebraska poured money into a brand-new basketball arena, which confers upon a program a higher set of standards. Penn State has Tony Carr, who looks like an NBA-quality player. It can be argued that these teams should be in the NCAA Tournament this March. Therefore, their (expected) absences can be viewed as unacceptable in a more narrow analytical context.
Compared to their predecessors, Pat Chambers (PSU) and Tim Miles (NU) are not performing poorly. Yet, in the adjusted landscape of the present-day Big Ten, it can reasonably be argued that their mistakes -- Chambers not winning a handful of games against manageable opponents (Wisconsin, Rider, Minnesota without Reggie Lynch), Miles not gaming the RPI properly (Delaware State says hello!) -- were severe, not moderate.
It is hard to justify fan anger at coaches in programs which have been historically poor. Yet, the money and brand name of the Big Ten -- with all the advantages built into such a situation -- can give fans substantially legitimate reasons to be displeased with more NCAA misses.
Another complicated example: Utah, which crashed out of the Pac-12 Tournament -- and into the NIT -- on Thursday against Oregon. The Utes have been very strong for a long time, far longer than the Rick Majerus years.
You have to be a Utah diehard, a WAC/Mountain West lifer, or a college basketball historian (or maybe a Salt Lake City resident who has been around longer than most) to know the names Jack Gardner and Jerry Pimm, but they made Utah great well before Majerus. Gardner led Utah to two Final Fours in the 1960s, while Pimm took the Utes to four Sweet 16s in seven seasons from 1977 through 1983.
Utah, it can reasonably be said, has been a strong program for most of its post-World War II history. With that being the case -- the opposite of a place such as Penn State -- more pressure SHOULD exist when new coaches take over.
The complicating factor for the current Utes: Larry Krystkowiak has been a good coach for the program. He revived Utah after several stagnant seasons under his two immediate predecessors, Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen. Rescuing a program and making a Sweet 16 should buy Krystkowiak some leeway... but the past two seasons have eroded some of that trust.
Utah has lost Pac-12 Tournament games it should have won. The Utes haven't been able to win the two or three home games which would make the difference between the Big Dance and the NIT. Utah shouldn't be a giant, but it should -- similar to Georgia Tech and Wake -- make the NCAAs at least half the time. Krystkowiak inherited nothing from Boylen and his unfruitful tenure, but even if one tosses out the first two seasons of Krystkowiak's stay in Salt Lake, he would still be 2 for 5 in making NCAA Tournaments after this season. Krystkowiak is a solid coach, but he has to begin (again) to show as much.
Georgia shouldn't repeatedly miss the NCAA Tournament. This is why Mark Fox will soon be gone.
Mississippi State is a harder place to win than Georgia, akin to Oregon State in the Pac-12. This is not a quick-fix job, and should be treated as such.
LSU has way too much talent -- and access to more talent -- to languish the way it has. This is why Johnny Jones was appropriately dismissed, and why Will Wade has a chance to become a star in this profession.
One last example of a program falling well short of the standards it should maintain: UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels haven't made a run and haven't pulled off a rebellion in the past five seasons, missing the NCAA Tournament each time. Second-year coach Marvin Menzies inherited a mess and -- therefore -- just completed his "first" season. Next year, he will need to get it right, because a program so enduringly strong should rightly expect to be a tournament team in most seasons. Gonzaga's possible entry into the Mountain West might make it harder for UNLV to get an annual bid, but with or without the Zags, the UNLV brand is supposed to be robust enough to forge strong seasons in a Mountain West Conference which rarely puts more than three teams into the Dance. UNLV -- which HOSTS the MWC Tournament every year -- should be one of those three teams.
Is your college basketball program not measuring up, or is it merely going through the growing pains which are an organic part of this volatile sport? Consider the examples above a guide, but not a definitive verdict on, your own program's journey relative to its prestige, its history, and the work of its current head coach.