March Madness is a bittersweet moment when your team isn't participating. The action is always good (and it certainly was tonight watching Harvard upsetting our old conference nemesis New Mexico), but it does make the withdrawals harder to take.
While there was improvement with this year's Runnin' Utes team, the fact we're spending March home, again, is disappointing. It always will be - no matter how much progress the team makes in a season. Sure, no one expected playing in the NCAA Tournament this season (though, I suspect it briefly crossed our minds when Utah upset Cal in the second round of the conference tournament) - but even when the expectations are limited, it still doesn't mean I don't miss the action.
The fact remains, Utah hasn't had a first-round tournament win in eight years and has only made two tournaments in that same stretch. For a program that built its name through two Final Fours under Jack Gardner, a handful of Sweet Sixteens in the 70s and 80s and a decade of dominance in the 90s, missing the excitement of the NCAA Tournament is still difficult to accept.
It's not fun watching all these teams celebrate upset victories and close calls. It's not fun filling out brackets and not checking to see how far Utah might go. It's not fun finding yourself rooting for another team because your team is nowhere to be found - again.
That's why this rebuilding process is both exciting and nerve-racking. The potential for this leading to something good is what keeps us going. We hope that one day, maybe not next season or even the season after that, it'll be us dancin' and potentially putting together a Utah-like run in the NCAA Tournament.
But getting to that point is tough because it's all unknown. We think this team is going to improve to the point where it will potentially become a fixture in the tournament like the Runnin' Utes of old but until that happens, the process is only fueled by hope and that's about it.
You know, I look at Utah basketball in two incarnations. There was the old Runnin' Utes - the 10th most successful program in college basketball history and then there is the current Runnin' Utes. They're the guys who've not done much the last ten or so years. These two programs don't feel the same to me. What Utah did in the 90s is becoming as foreign and distant to me as what Bill Clinton did in the 90s. So, there has to be something that bridges the gap between these two eras of Utah basketball and my hope is that we're seeing the formation of that bridge.
Right now, though, every success we've had feels like it occurred in a different life. This program does feel like it's started from scratch again and everything we witness will be fresh and new because the success of the Old Utes is almost separate of everything we do today. I'll be honest with you, each year makes it that much harder to remember how it felt beating Oklahoma in the second round to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. It wasn't that long ago, so, the memories are fresher than, say, the championship game run in 1998, but I know with each passing year that those memories will also pass. Which means, sooner or later, Utah basketball is going to have to create new memories to replace those that time forgot.
For so long, our friends to the south were often the butt of many jokes because their last trip to the Sweet Sixteen came years before I was even born. For their fans, the celebration of a deep NCAA run was limited to 1981 and a player named Danny Ainge. That drought of not making it beyond the second round, even though they were a constant in the NCAA Tournament for so long between 1981 and 2011, is mind-boggling to me. That's thirty-years of stalling out before the first few days of the tournament end and yet, here I am disappointed it's only been eight years since the Utes' last semi-decent run in the NCAA Tournament. But now I realize, something I didn't fully grasp in 2005 because Utah had yet to bottom out, how easy it is to stagnate as a program. I mean, I'll be absolutely honest, the Cougars were a fairly good team throughout that thirty-year span - good enough to win the WAC and then the Mountain West and it just never translated into tournament success until a guy named Jimmer came along. But that just shows you how quick things can stagnate to the point where eight years turns to twenty and then you're the butt of the joke.
BYU still remains the team with the most wins to never play in a Final Four and I'm sure that'll continue at least a few more seasons. They're not bad, though, and definitely a better program than a handful of teams that have made the Final Four since the 1960s. But they have their lot in life and, for whatever reason, it's something they haven't been able to really change. I mean, it's not obscene to suggest the Cougars don't make another Sweet Sixteen until 2031.
I guess what I'm saying is that time flies pretty damn quickly. It didn't feel like that long ago Utah was in the Sweet Sixteen and narrowly losing to Kentucky (again) with Andrew Bogut, who won the Wooden Award, as a semi-Cinderella after upsetting Oklahoma in the second round. But then I thought about it - and dammit if I didn't realize it was eight years ago. Eight years without winning a NCAA Tournament game. Then I realized we're almost a decade from our last Sweet Sixteen appearance and soon enough, if things don't get better, we'll be pushing that thirty-year mark just like BYU. Scary ... right?
So, it goes back to this idea that it does feel like Utah basketball is two different programs. It's hard to imagine Utah going eight years without a tournament victory. But right now, that is the new normal. The new normal that suggests it could be even longer before we make the NCAA Tournament again. After all, this is the first time since the 1961-'65 seasons the Utes have gone this long without making a postseason tournament. Those Utes, the ones that belong to Program A, managed to make the Final Four their year back to postseason play after a four-year drought. I don't expect quite the leap from these Utes, you know, Program B.
But that just shows you how different things are today. Program A would never go eight years without a tournament victory. Program B will and maybe even extend that drought to nine or ten years.
Fortunately, Program B is still evolving. So, I don't know what the new normal will be for this new program. It might revert to the same type of success the original program experienced and maybe it doesn't. Still, hopefully the ride is fun and when the Utes inevitably make it back to the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully win a game or two, we won't take those victories for granted because no one really knows what the future holds ... good or bad.