Another Sweet 16 is about to begin without Kentucky. Here’s how bad it looks for the Cats.
Even with the Kentucky Wildcats sitting at home, March Madness will go on.
And that’s the way it’s been at this juncture in the past three NCAA Tournaments, a forgettable stretch for the UK men’s basketball program amid worrying signs for the John Calipari era.
How bad has this string of postseasons been for the Wildcats, historically speaking?
This is only the third time since Kentucky advanced to its first Final Four in 1942 — three years after the NCAA Tournament was created — that the program has failed to make the Sweet 16 in three consecutive tournaments.
The last time it happened was actually a four-year drought that included the final two years of Tubby Smith’s decade-long tenure in Lexington and the first (and only) two seasons of the Billy Gillispie era. In that stretch, Smith led the Cats to back-to-back first-round wins as an 8 seed, only to be bounced by No. 1 seeds in the round of 32 in both tournaments. Gillispie lost in the first round as an 11 seed in his first year and then made the NIT in his second and final season.
(Calipari took over after that, immediately leading UK to an Elite Eight in year one and then advancing to the Final Four in four of the next five seasons.)
The only other instance of Kentucky missing out on the Sweet 16 in three tournaments in a row came in 1989, 1990 and 1991 — the final, disastrous season of the Eddie Sutton era and the two years of probation that followed. It’s worth noting that UK had the best record in the Southeastern Conference and finished at No. 9 in the final AP Top 25 poll during that second season of probation, so Rick Pitino’s bunch would have been projected to make the Sweet 16 in 1991, had the Wildcats been eligible for the postseason.
And that’s the entire list of three-year Sweet 16 droughts, dating back World War II.
Making the current skid look even worse, a total of 35 different college basketball programs have advanced to at least one Sweet 16 in the three years that UK has been watching from the sidelines. That list includes a who’s who of the sport, as well as some surprising names.
The full rundown of teams that have made the Sweet 16 over the past three years: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Baylor, Creighton, Duke, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, Gonzaga, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Loyola (Ill.), Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oral Roberts, Oregon, Oregon State, Princeton, Providence, Purdue, Saint Peter’s, San Diego State, Southern Cal, Syracuse, Tennessee, Texas, Texas Tech, UCLA, UConn, Villanova and Xavier.
That’s a long list. And several schools are on it more than once.
Alabama, Creighton, Miami, Michigan and Villanova have all been to two Sweet 16s in the past three years. Arkansas, Gonzaga, Houston and UCLA have all been to three over that span.
And Gonzaga — a program that often gets dinged for supposed failures in March Madness — qualified for its eighth straight Sweet 16 this week. Only North Carolina (13 straight from 1981-93) and Duke (nine straight from 1998-2006) have done better than that.
So, for all of the talk of parity and how difficult it is to consistently advance in the NCAA Tournament these days, other programs are still doing it, including some teams in UK’s own league.
And while there have been some other big names in college basketball that have failed to make it beyond the first week of the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three years, Kentucky is by far the biggest.
Others that haven’t been to a Sweet 16 in a while include:
▪ Indiana, which hasn’t advanced that far since beating Kentucky in the second round in 2016. (The Hoosiers have been to the Sweet 16 only twice in the past 20 years.)
▪ Louisville, which hasn’t been since 2015, when Pitino was the head coach.
▪ Virginia, which won the national title in 2019 but hasn’t advanced past the first week of March Madness since.
▪ Ohio State, which hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 in 10 years.
▪ Wisconsin, which went to six Sweet 16s between 2011 and 2017 but hasn’t returned since then.
▪ Notre Dame, which hasn’t been since 2016 and has advanced to the Sweet 16 just twice in the past 20 years.
▪ Florida, which had stretches of greatness during the Billy Donovan era but has been to the Sweet 16 just once (in 2017) since he left for the NBA eight years ago.
Kentucky also lost its title as the winningest program in college basketball amid this stretch, with Kansas passing the Wildcats during last year’s NCAA Tournament, on its way to the 2022 title. The Jayhawks will go into next season with 10 more all-time wins than UK — 2,385 to 2,375.
And Kentucky will go into next season trying to avoid the longest Sweet 16 skid in program history.
Two years ago, it was the 9-16 season. Last year, the first-round loss to Saint Peter’s. And Sunday afternoon, a defeat at the hands of Kansas State to make it three in a row.
Meanwhile, Arkansas, Gonzaga, Houston and UCLA — the program that pursued Calipari in 2019, the last time he made it beyond the first week of the tournament, leading to a 10-year deal with Kentucky — will all be playing in the Sweet 16 for the third straight postseason.
For a program that hangs banners only for Final Fours, a Hall of Fame coach who says throughout every season that March is what matters, and a fan base that rarely settles for anything less than championships, it’s been a tough run.
NCAA Sweet 16 on TV
6:30 p.m.: Kansas State vs. Michigan State (TBS)
7:15 p.m.: Connecticut vs. Arkansas (CBS)
9 p.m.: Tennessee vs. Florida Atlantic (TBS)
9:45 p.m.: UCLA vs. Gonzaga (CBS)
6:30 p.m.: Alabama vs. San Diego State (TBS)
7:15 p.m.: Houston vs. Miami (CBS)
9 p.m.: Creighton vs. Princeton (TBS)
9:45 p.m.: Texas vs. Xavier (CBS)
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