In Friday’s editions, I wrote about the struggles these days around Washington State basketball – fourth-year coach Ken Bone’s 24-42 record in conference games and the modest talent in the program.
Both in compiling that piece, and in reaction to it, I’ve heard the familiar song that it only takes a couple of key players to rebuild a program and get it turned around.
To a point, that’s true. And because many basketball players have less of a physical transition to make than football players in becoming contributors, a program can improve relatively quickly.
But that comparison loses steam along the way, and here’s why:
For most major-college football programs, the competitive yardstick is getting to a bowl game. That’s generally the benchmark that keeps the fans and the boosters happy. (Of course, there are degrees, and the best programs want more than the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.)
It’s different in basketball, and the reason is, the NCAA tournament is the Holy Grail. The recipe for most programs: Make it, and the season is considered a success (obviously the elite programs want more, but we’re focusing on the more marginal ones).
And the bottom line is, once the rebuild has commenced, it’s harder to make the NCAA tournament than it is to go to a bowl game.
In March, there’s the NCAA tournament, and then there’s a bunch of teams slogging through tournaments nobody’s very interested in – the National Invitation, the College Basketball Invitational, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Anybody give a rip, unless your favorite team is participating?
In football, it’s not like that. There are a select few participating in BCS bowls, but after that, the distinction between bowls is mostly blurry. Yeah, the Holiday Bowl is a better destination than the Fight Hunger, but they’re related – while the NCAA and the NIT are fourth cousins, once removed.
Let’s use the WSU example. If Mike Leach can resurrect the football program, and let’s say, this year or next, begin a run of four bowl games in five years, the Cougar faithful would no doubt be happy with that. And he can do that merely by going 6-6 or 7-5 every year. (It’s true that by the end of that, the fans might be lusting for something bigger.)
So what’s the basketball equivalent of going to a low-level bowl game? I’d argue you’ve just seen that in Ken Bone’s last two years with WSU. The Cougars went to the semifinals of the NIT in 2011, and last year, to the final of the CBI. And here he is, under scrutiny in his fourth year.
It’s because those are relatively ho-hum tournaments, and there’s a distinctly more prominent one going on at the same time. If you get to one of the Pac-12’s lowest-level bowl games, it’s also pretty much ho-hum – except you’re always on national TV, and the game’s probably going to be plugged on ESPN spots for a few days, and you’ve passed the threshold for at least a modicum of success. You’ve been to a bowl game. End of story.
There are annually two or three examples of FBS schools winning only two conference games, but qualifying for a bowl game because they went 4-0 against North Dakota State, Eastern Michigan, Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Lafayette. There’s no quality-control element in football, other than the requirement of winning six games. But in basketball, the selection committee gets together and weeds out the teams that have fattened up on weak sisters.
Last fall, eight Pac-12 football teams went to bowls. In the best years, six of 10 conference basketball teams went to the NCAA tournament, and the average over time is actually about four a year.
So yes, a couple of players can make a dramatic difference in a basketball program. But unless you get to the place where everybody wants to be, the NCAA tournament, you’re really nowhere.