Sleeping Giants: Programs on the Rise

    
October 24th, 2006
Not so long ago, at least for some of us, the only reason to watch University of Connecticut basketball was to see how many points Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin could rain down on them.  The Huskies had always been a Big East laughingstock, a school where it was often rumored to be only a matter of time before they were booted out of the conference in favor of a more competitive program.  Two national championships and 700 wins later, UConn is now one of the nation’s elite college basketball schools that, as the saying goes, “doesn’t rebuild, they reload.”

 

Down in College Station, Texas A&M basketball used to be only something Aggie fans watched to bide their time before spring football.  About once a decade, it seemed, Aggie basketball would be competitive, but any hopes of reaching the Final Four, or even the Elite Eight, would always come to a swift end come March.  Now Coach Billy Gillespie is coming off a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and has his team poised to be a Top 10 program and a national title contender. 

 

In both instances, a program with little or no winning tradition emerged out of nowhere to achieve national prominence thanks to brilliant coaching hires and breakthrough recruits. 

 

So who’s next?  I don’t mean one year wonders like George Mason.  I mean teams that are ready to take their program to the next level, to climb onto the national stage and remain a fixture there for the foreseeable future.

 

Who will go from playing games for money to playing games for higher tournament seeds?  Who will be the next school to go from perennial conference doormat to repeat conference champion? Who knows?  But here are three teams that have the best chance.

 

Baylor Bears

 

Next time you gripe about your team having a lousy season, or feel depressed after your alma mater loses a big game, try to imagine being a diehard basketball fan in Waco, Texas.

 

Waco is the home of the Baylor University Bears, a school that has been to the Dance just once (in 1988) since the Truman Administration. 

 

A few years ago, the team began to show signs of life under Coach Dave Bliss.  However that was because he was paying the tuition of two players – in effect giving him more scholarship players than the team was allowed to have.  After initially attempting to frame a kid who was recently murdered to cover up these payments, enlisting two of his players to lie to investigators, and even impersonating a player’s father, among other things, Coach Bliss was let go.  Baylor, for its part, was put on probation for two years and was banned from the postseason for the 2003-04 season. 

 

In addition, the NCAA also gave every player on the roster an immediate release from their basketball commitment to the Bears.  Four players left the program as a result:  Kenny Taylor - who went on to become an important contributor to the Longhorns, Tyrone Nelson who averaged almost 18 points a game for New Mexico State last season, Lawrence Roberts who became an All-American at Mississippi State, and John Lucas who later led the Oklahoma State Cowboys to the Final Four.  

 

As a result, Coach Scott Drew had the unenviable task of suiting up seven or fewer scholarship players for his first two seasons, and having the dubious distinction of being the first basketball program in the modern era to only play half a season last year – with zero non-conference games.

 

Fell better about your team yet?

 

Well don’t pity Baylor fans much longer. 

 

Coach Scott Drew may well be on the verge of pulling off one of the most improbable, and underappreciated, coaching feats anywhere in the nation. 

 

Despite all the handicaps he has been given, Coach Drew has been able to recruit tremendous talent, such as potential Big 12 player of the year Aaron Bruce.  Last season saw his team play with 11 scholarship players, including three freshmen previously rated among the Top 100 high school recruits in Henry Dugat, Kevin Rogers, and star-in-waiting Curtis Jerrells. 

 

On top of that, the Bears have the 17th best freshmen class in the nation coming in this year, according to rivals.com, led by point guard Demond Carter and seven footer Josh Lomers.  In 2007, the Bears will have potentially their best freshman player in its history when LaceDarius Dunn arrives on campus.  Its possible Coach Drew could have three straight seasons where Baylor has had a Top 30 recruiting class.  Simply amazing. 

 

As long as Coach Drew sticks around, there is no telling how far from the lowest depths Baylor basketball can climb. 

 

 

Arizona State Sun Devils

 

In the past five seasons, Herb Sendek won more ACC games than any team besides Duke, winning 53 regular season and ACC tournament games.  His team has also gone to the NCAA Tournament in each of those years, something – again – no other ACC team not named Duke has been able to do. 

 

But that wasn’t enough for the insatiable NC State fans, who had apparently forgotten than the Wolfpack endured five straight losing seasons prior to Sendek’s arrival.  So Coach Sendek left for the Valley of the Sun, where fans would give their right arm to have that kind of record.  They may not have to wait much longer. 

 

Despite inheriting a team that was last in the PAC-10 in overall defense and second-to-last in offense, and fielding a very young team, Coach Sendek could potentially reach the post-season in his first year. 

 

Jeff Pendergraph, who recovered from early-season surgery to earn PAC-10 all-freshman honors last season, is ready to have a breakout year.  His friend and fellow sophomore Sylvester Seay may be ready to live up to his potential this season.  They also will have four freshmen in the lineup who could contribute immediately, including local favorite Christian Polk. 

 

As for 2007, the Sun Devils already have the 20th rated overall class according to scout.com, led by James Harden, a 6-5 scoring machine out of Lakewood, CA.  The Sun Devils will also have Eric Boateng, a 6-10 center who transferred from Duke and will have to sit out this season.  Boateng would be the first McDonald’s All-American to play in Tempe in two decades. 

 

However, Coach Sendek’s first barometer of success might well come down to one day - February 25, 2007.  That is the date of Arizona State’s home game against their hated rival Arizona.  The ASU-UA rivalry is one of the most bitter and long-standing in sports, and has been decidedly one-sided in favor of Lute Olsen’s team as of late.   

 

A victory on that day, or in Tucson on January 24th, would in all likelihood do more for the future of ASU basketball than anything outside of winning the PAC-10.  It would generate the kind of fan enthusiasm and media buzz that usually precedes a team about to take their program to the next level.

 

Virginia Tech Hokies

 

The Hokies have been to the NCAA Tournament just twice in the past 20 years, and have not made it past the second round since their first appearance in 1967.  They joined the Big East with hopes that it would be a boost to their recruiting and fan enthusiasm, but they managed just 17 wins in four lackluster seasons in the conference and fan interest continued to be focused almost entirely on the post-Vick era of Hokie football.

 

Then they joined the ACC.

 

Debate what you will about the actions of the ACC and Big East during that whole messy saga.  What is indisputable is what the move has done for Hokie basketball.  In their last season in the Big East, where they posted their best league record of 7-9, the average attendance at Cassell Coliseum was 6,342 a game, or 84th overall in the nation.  In 2004-2005, their first in the ACC, attendance jumped to 9,405 a game, the biggest increase anywhere in the nation.  Last season saw attendance rise yet again, to 9,763 a game, despite only a 4-12 conference record. 

 

Moving to the ACC has simply transformed Virginia Tech’s basketball program.  It not only made more sense geographically, but put them in a conference that is the home of their hated rival, the Virginia Cavaliers.  Recruiting has been given a huge lift, with more and more top Virginia prep players deciding to remain in-state.  Above all else, it has boosted fan interest more than anyone could have predicted.  There’s no denying that fans get far more fired up about #1 Duke coming to Blacksburg than #1 UConn.

 

2006-07 could be a banner season for the Hokies, with seniors Coleman Collins, Zabian Dowdell returning – both honorable mention All-ACC last season – as well as defensive whiz Jamon Gordon.  A winning ACC record and an NCAA berth are entirely possible.  Coach Seth Greenberg also has the 12th rated recruiting class for 2007 according to scout.com, who just last week landed a commitment from shooting guard Dorenzo Hudson, who picked the Hokies over the likes of Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland. 

 

The future is very bright for Hokie basketball.