Two quick facts I’d like you all to know:
1 – Only five schools have won a game in each of the last five NCAA tournaments: Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, Gonzaga and Wichita State
2 – Only 10 schools have made NCAA tournament appearances the last six seasons: Kansas, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Wichita State, Michigan State, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Duke, Iowa State and our very own VCU Rams
As you can see, only four teams in the country have danced the past six seasons AND won at least one game: blue bloods Kansas and North Carolina (whose histories and resources are unmatched in college hoops) and Wichita State and Gonzaga, two relative newcomers to the college hoops radar who have managed to keep their hot coaches despite annual attempts to lure them away by BCS programs.
Think about that. That’s four teams out of 351 in Division I college hoops. Two (KU and UNC) seem like obvious candidates while the other two have managed something not even a slew of blue bloods could accomplish.
YEARS COACHING AT CURRENT INSTITUTION
Roy Williams (UNC) – 14
Bill Self (Kansas) – 14 (took over for Roy Williams)
Mark Few (Gonzaga) – 16
Greg Marshall (Wichita State) – 10
Marshall and Few have helped turn Gonzaga and Wichita State into college hoops programs that are a fixture of March Madness. Both have made it to the Elite 8 within the past three seasons with Wichita State advancing to the Final 4 in 2013 as well. Both are worshipped at their schools and have reached near god-like status in their towns and on campus. And as each sticks with their current institution, each will increase the recruiting profile of their school as well as their ability to lure transfers away from BCS programs (see: Gonzaga’s loaded roster), thus making their paths to more tournaments and more wins even easier.
Crazy stat: Gonzaga made their first ever NCAA tournament appearance in 1999 under then-head coach Dan Monson (a trip to the Elite 8). Mark Few took over the following season and the Zags have danced as a No.1 seed twice including in 2013 when they lost in the second round to…you guessed it, Wichita State.
“But Mat, neither has a real chance to win a National Championship at those schools!”
Is that right? Well, let’s look at who has won the national championships the past 20 years. I mean, let’s gets some real perspective here (and I’m mostly talking to all you BCS fans out there because I’ve heard that sentence almost annually since Jeff Capel led the Rams to the 2004 NCAA tournament).
NATIONAL CHAMPS 1997-2016
That’s 11 schools claiming all of the national titles the past 20 seasons with just five schools hogging 65% of the championships the past two decades. Even the mighty Kansas Jayhawks were somewhat of an outlier, having claimed “just” one title the past two decades despite winning the Big 12 the majority of those seasons. ONE!..at Kansas, with an endless selection of McDonald’s All-Americans to rebuild with each year. Tom Izzo and Jim Beoheim, just one championship each during that time as well, a combined 40 seasons between the two of them to win it. Indiana, UCLA, two of the biggest of blue bloods, account for zero championships during that stretch despite boasting two of the best histories in college hoops. Texas and Ohio State, the nation’s two biggest athletics budgets, have not only won zero hoops titles during that 20-year stretch, but you’d have to go all the way back to 1960 for the last title between the two of them.
Here’s the point: it’s incredibly hard to win in the NCAA tournament…for anyone.
Hell, it’s hard to even get there, which is why schools like Illinois, LSU, NC State and Washington are all looking for new head coaches and will no doubt mention VCU’s Will Wade as a potential candidate (note: NC State hired UNCW’s Kevin Keats Friday afternoon). It’s why Shaka Smart went from the darling of March to having to read annoying articles like this in his second season at Texas after failing to advance into the 68-team tournament.
But I am of the opinion that what Gonzaga’s Marks Few and Wichita State’s Greg Marshall (and hopefully VCU’s Will Wade) are doing is creating a new type of college basketball program. Credit to them for being smart enough to figure it out and do it.
We so often hear the term “mid-major” associated with anyone outside of the power-5 conferences (meaning the main football conferences) and now with the new versions of the Big East (both the Big East and the American Athletic Conference that features former Big East members who split for football reasons) that somewhat straddles the line, but I think — and I’d argue most national analysts would agree — there needs to be a new term for the likes of a Gonzaga, Wichita State and yes, VCU.
These programs are basically “sweet spot” programs with large recruiting and spending advantages over the majority of their conferences. They are the Dukes and Kansas’ of the WCC, MVC and A-10 and are willing to pay coaches even more than what many power conference coaches are being paid, but also offer a much easier path to consistent winning (let’s be honest). They are as Will Wade would say, “at the top of the food chain” in their respective conferences and thanks to recent success and more TV exposure for non-power conference teams, are grabbing more hoops headlines than even their BCS counterparts, not to mention top-100 recruits that once stayed away from those types of schools.
In short, coaches at those three schools can all win, get paid and do both with half the stress of available jobs the like ones I previously mentioned.
Like Gonzaga and Wichita State, VCU only improves with consistency at one position: coach.
VCU’s loss of Shaka Smart saw the departure of three top-100 players from future Rams teams: Terry Larrier, who transferred to UConn (ESPN No.43 out of high school), Tevin Mack, who followed Smart to Texas (ESPN No.48) and Kenny Williams, who reopened his recruitment and opted for UNC (ESPN No.84). The Rams also lost Jordan Murphy with Smart’s departure, a 6’6 big who averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds at Minnesota and was one of three of those players to average double-digits for their school.
Wade was forced to fill those voids with a last-minute three-man 2015 class, with only one of those players still currently filling a VCU roster spot (Samir Doughty). Since getting his feet under him however, coach Wade has signed three top-100 players in back-to-back strong classes for VCU, including this year’s class ranked 21st nationally by ESPN.
That class is the only top-40 class in the Atlantic 10 and with four-star Kevin Easley already committed to VCU’s 2018 class, the Rams show no signs of slowing down.
Again, sweet spot.
Like Gonzaga under Mark Few and Wichita State under Gregg Marshall, VCU has a chance under Will Wade to not only make continued appearances to college hoops biggest event (March Madness), but to build a roster that can consistently do some damage when they get there.
Sweet spot is defined as “an optimum point or combination of factors or qualities.” At Gonzaga, Wichita State and VCU, Mark Few, Gregg Marshall and now Will Wade coach at schools that consistently sell out their games, consistently win, consistently make NCAA tournaments and do so while getting paid million dollar contracts with the full support of their fans.
Optimum combination if I’ve ever seen one. Sweet spots, all of them and they’re only getting better.