College basketball fans have grown accustomed to seeing certain teams each and every March duking it out in the NCAA Tournament. Even with all the Cinderellas crashing the party the past few seasons, many teams kept long tournament streaks alive.
This year, however, some of those perennial powers might need an unlikely run in the season’s last few weeks to get to the Big Dance. Here are six teams, one from each of the big six BCS conferences, who have been dancing often in the past but have a lot of work to get to the tournament this season.
Although they haven’t got past the round of 64, the Tigers had four consecutive NCAA Tourney appearances heading into this season. It became quickly apparent that this year would be a much tougher journey when the Tigers dropped back-to-contests in pre-conference play to College of Charleston and Coastal Carolina.
ACC play hasn’t been much kinder. Clemosn is currently sitting at 13-13, 5-7 after Saturday's loss at North Carolina. The Tigers did have a win against Virginia, which was in the Top 25 at the time, but it’s likely too little, too late for a fifth straight spot in the Dance.
With 13 straight NCAA appearances coming into this season, Rick Barnes and Co. have been extremely successful at a university considered a football school. The Longhorns were expected to keep rolling this season with a highly-coveted recruiting class, but the youngsters have taken a much longer time to gel than expected.
On the plus side, UT strung together four wins in a row to get above .500 in Big 12 play — including a win over Kansas State that is their best resume win — but then gave up 90 points in a loss at Oklahoma State Saturday. With games remaining against Baylor (Monday) and Kansas, the ‘Horns still might get the signature win they’re lacking.
Villanova is another Big East team that has fallen on hard times, but the Panthers are the choice from the conference, considering their 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The signs of trouble were there in the non-conference schedule, when Pitt dropped home games to Long Beach State and Wagner.
The Panthers then collapsed with seven straight losses to start Big East play, rallied to win their next four, and then stumbled again to South Florida and Seton Hall. With no eye-opening wins outside of a victory against Georgetown, the NIT might not even be guaranteed.
With 12 NCAA spots in the last 15 years, including a Final Four appearance, the Fighting Illini were one of the most consistent Big Ten performers. This season looked like it would end with another trip to the dance for sure, especially after Brandon Paul’s brilliant 43-point performance helped stun Ohio State.
But Bruce Weber’s club has cratered since, losing seven out of eight with hard-to-figure losses to Penn State and Northwestern in that span — and an embarrassing 23-point loss at Nebraska Saturday. This is a team loaded with talent, but Illinois needs to right the ship quickly since it is now under .500 (5-9) in the conference.
The Bruce Pearl era may have ended in scandal, but it also ended in six straight tourney bids, which included one Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 runs. New coach Cuonzo Martin has had a much tougher go of it with an inexperienced squad.
A brutal non-conference schedule did the Volunteers no favors, and they’ve followed that up by hovering around .500 in SEC play (14-13 overall, 6-6). The good news is that they’ve won four of their last five and have two big wins over Florida. Their tough schedule will work in their favor come Selection Sunday if they can put together a solid late streak.
Much of the Pac 12 is scuffling, but no school is more emblematic of the conference struggles than USC. The Trojans entered the season with four tournament appearances in the last five seasons. Although they didn’t do much damage with those appearances, they still were someone to reckon with in March.
This season? Not so much. USC (6-21 overall) is off to a horrible 1-13 start in the conference, but that should have been foreshadowed by a non-conference loss to Cal Poly. The preseason injury to point guard Jio Fontan was just the beginning of the long nightmare that this season has been for the Trojans.
Next week, we’ll reverse it and look at some teams unlikely teams headed for the Big Dance. ‘Til then, Happy Hoops!