Friday, March 25, 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin'

It probably seems odd to say this, but the defending college basketball champion is in a decline.

I am speaking, of course, about Duke, the team that beat upstart Butler in the national championship game last year.

In the last two or three decades, Duke's basketball program has sort of filled the vacuum that was left at UCLA after John Wooden retired in the 1970s. Sure, UCLA has won a few national titles since then — but nothing close to what the Bruins were doing when Wooden was running the show.

In those days, UCLA was in the national championship game almost every year. The NCAA Tournament field was much more exclusive then — typically only the conference champions and a few independents — so just being in it was an achievement for just about any other program.

But UCLA always expected to win it — and win it UCLA did. UCLA won 10 tournaments in 12 years — seven in a row between 1967 and 1973.

The closest thing we've seen to that since Wooden's retirement has been the Duke program.

Most people would tell you — and they're probably right — that Duke's coach, Mike Krzyzewski, deserves the credit. He's been the coach there for more than 30 years. He's taken Duke to 11 Final Fours (second only to Wooden), and he's won four national titles.

When he wins three games next season, he will be the most successful coach (in terms of victories) in NCAA Division I history. Barring something that is totally unexpected at this point, it is a sure bet that he will reach that milestone — probably sometime before 2011 is over.

He could have achieved it much sooner, though. If his Blue Devils had gone to the NCAA Tournament championship game, he would have won enough games to earn that distinction.

But they lost to Arizona last night, and now they must wait until next season to see him overtake the leader, Bob Knight.

During the late '80s and early '90s, Duke won half of the national titles it has claimed in the Coach K era — and made more than half of its Final Four appearances.

Those were the glory years for the Blue Devils.

Since the 1995–96 season, Duke has returned to the Final Four at a less imposing clip — roughly once every four years (and only twice in the last decade).

Far more frequently, Duke has made it to the regional semifinals (the "Sweet Sixteen"), where the Blue Devils have gone down half a dozen times since 2002. This year, it was to Arizona. In 2009, it was Villanova that eliminated Duke. In 2006, it was LSU. The year before that, Duke lost to Michigan State. In 2003, Kansas turned back Duke. The year before that, Duke lost to Indiana.

There was a time when Duke, like UCLA before, was an automatic pick for everyone's Final Four. But no more.

The times they are a–changing.

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