By Sunday evening, the NCAA men's basketball tournament will be two-thirds complete and the 77th Final Four will be set. And for the 76th time -- a fairly representative sample size, wouldn't you agree? -- the four teams absorbing the national spot light will not include Georgia, Auburn or Alabama.
Yeah, I know. Not exactly breaking news since Georgia was bounced in the first round while Auburn and Alabama failed to make the tournaent.
That in itself, though, is the point. In football, most people consider it a down year when any of those schools fail to finish in the top 10. And that's just the very minimum. Most fans expect those teams to at least be contending for a national championship by November. Georgia's Mark Richt gets criticized and lampooned for ONLY finishing in the top 10.
In basketball, most fans of our three SEC schools celebrate just snagging a No. 10 regional seed. It's like Kentucky football fans when the Wildcats land a bowl destination more appealing than Shreveport.
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That's just the way it is.
The question is
Why have these schools struggled so mightily to gain national prominence in men's basketball?
Sure, the obvious answer is lack of talent. There are basically two ways to build a Final Four team. One is to assemble a collection of seven to nine very good players who fill all the essential roles -- scoring inside, scoring outside, distributing the ball, rebounding, defending the post and defending a perimeter scorer. The other way, which is less common because it's less reliable, is to develop a team of role players around one dominant. That worked for Indiana State with Larry Bird, but didn't work with LSU and Shaquille O'Neal.
Kentucky's John Calipari has invented a third way. He has patterned it after Nick Saban -- sign the best players in the country every year and let everybody else sort through the leftovers.
Georgia, Auburn and Alabama have NEVER placed anyone on the Associated Press All-America first team. The two best players in their collective history -- Georgia's Dominique Wilkins and Auburn's Charles Barkley -- never made it. Wilkins was third-team in 1982. Barkley made second team in 1984 on the National Association of Basketball Coaches team, as did Georgia's Vern Fleming.
Only two players made the AP second-team: Auburn's Chris Porter in 1999 and Alabama's Erwin Dudley in 2002. The only other AP All-America selection was Alabama's Ennis Whatley, third team in 1983.
But digging deeper, I ask again
Why have Georgia, Auburn and Alabama struggled to consistently recruit talent? Again, a team just needs about seven or so very good players who know their roles and do them well.
Georgia Tech went to the Final Four in 1990 on the strength of Lethal Weapon 3 -- Dennis Scott, Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver. But they had three others who played vital roles -- Malcolm Mackey and Johnny McNeil, a pair of hard-nosed post players, and Karl Brown, a great perimeter defender and capable 3-point shooter off the bench.
It seems like it would be easier to at least luck up once in a while in basketball than in football, where contending teams need about 40 players. But the evidence would suggest that's not the case. Just going back 20 years, several programs that never enjoyed much success have risen to varying degrees of national prominence. Oregon has had eight top-10 finishes and has played in the national championship game twice. Kansas State, once regularly one of the worst programs in Division I, has had six top-10 finishes. So has Virginia Tech. Wisconsin has had five. Stanford and TCU have had four each. Now Baylor, a respected program under Grant Teaff but never a national player, has joined the party.
Georgia, Auburn and Alabama have had moments in basketball, but only a precious few. Most of that success came in the 1980s. The Bulldogs made the Final Four in 1983. They won three games in that tournament and have won only four games in their next 11 tournaments since then. They did come within a 3-pointer of beating Syracuse in 1996 and reaching the Elite Eight.
Auburn has made the tournament only eight times but has at least enjoyed more consistent success. The Tigers made the Elite Eight in 1986 and reached the Sweet 16 three other times, most recently in 2003.
Alabama has been to the NCAA Tournament 20 times -- the same number of times Duke has reached the Elite Eight. The Tide made it as far as the Sweet 16 six times, but only once, in 2004, did they go to the Elite Eight.
Mark Fox has Georgia's program headed in the right direction. Bruce Pearl re-energized Auburn's program in his first year. Whether he can consistently recruit at a high enough level remains to be seen. Alabama is looking for a coach after firing Anthony Grant. The Tide has the money to pay a good coach. But whomever gets the job will struggle to land the blue-chip recruits.
That's just the way it is.
So next weekend, we can watch other teams bask in the Final Four limelight. College football kicks off in five months.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org