For some programs, recent Final Four was the last shining moment
ATLANTA -- Before Georgia Tech lost to Connecticut 82-73 in the championship game of the 2004 Final Four, Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt warned his players that their unexpected run through the NCAA tournament would guarantee them nothing in the future.
"This means nothing," Hewitt told his team. "As you move forward in life, everything is going to be a new challenge. You've got to approach it like you've never done anything before."
Who knew how prophetic Hewitt's warning would be?
After Georgia Tech's surprising success in the 2004 NCAA tournament, in which it upset traditional power Kansas in the regional finals and beat Oklahoma State in the national semifinals, the Yellow Jackets seemed on the verge of becoming college basketball's next big thing.
Hewitt, who guided Siena to the NCAA tournament before replacing Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech, is one of the game's great statesman and a top-notch recruiter. In Hewitt's eight seasons with the Yellow Jackets, four players have been selected in the first round of the NBA draft: Chris Bosh in 2003, Jarrett Jack in 2005 and Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young last year.
But since the night Georgia Tech lost the national championship to the Huskies in San Antonio's Alamodome, the Yellow Jackets have struggled to rekindle that magic. They've missed the NCAA tournament twice in the past three seasons.
In fact, in the four seasons since reaching the Final Four, Georgia Tech has a rather mediocre 66-58 record and has failed to produce a winning record in ACC play each season. The Yellow Jackets reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2004-05 and lost to UNLV 67-63 in the first round last year.
"I've always recognized the difficulty [of getting to the Final Four]," Hewitt said. "I don't think I appreciate it any more or any less. What it does is reaffirm in my mind that past success means nothing."
Since reaching the Final Four, the Yellow Jackets have been hampered by unexpected personnel losses more than anything else. Jack departed for the NBA after his junior season, and then Hewitt was left short-handed at point guard when the New York Yankees gave prized recruit Austin Jackson a nearly $1 million signing bonus to play baseball that same summer.
Without a proven point guard, Georgia Tech labored through an 11-17 season in 2005-06. Crittenton took over at point guard last season, after Zam Frederick transferred to South Carolina, and the Yellow Jackets improved to 20-12 and reached the NCAA tournament. But when Crittenton and Young each left after only one season, Hewitt was forced to play freshman Maurice Miller and much-traveled Matt Causey at point guard this season.
The Yellow Jackets finished 15-17 and 7-9 in ACC play, losing five games by two points or fewer.
"We should be doing better, no question about it," said Hewitt, in an interview before the end of the regular season. "We should be better this year, and we should have done better two years ago. There are so many good teams and so many good players out there, the margin for error is much thinner. All it takes now is two or three one-point losses and you're on the bubble."
The Yellow Jackets aren't the only team that flamed out after reaching the Final Four in recent seasons:
Indiana (2002): With a myriad of perimeter shooters, the Hoosiers reached the finals of the 2002 NCAA tournament, losing to Maryland 64-52 in the Georgia Dome. Mike Davis, the popular assistant who took over after legendary coach Bob Knight was fired before the 2000-01 season, led the Hoosiers to the national championship game in only his second season.
The Hoosiers lost to Pittsburgh 74-52 in the second round of the NCAA tournament the next season, then missed the NCAAs altogether in 2004 and 2005. Davis resigned before the 2005-06 season ended, and then Indiana reached the second round of the 2006 NCAA tournament, losing to Gonzaga, 90-80.
Sampson guided the Hoosiers to the second round of the NCAAs last season in his only postseason at the school. This season, Indiana lost four of its last five games under interim coach Dan Dakich, including a disappointing 86-72 loss to 9-seed Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers hired former Marquette coach Tom Crean to get the program back to the top.
Maryland (2002): The Terrapins beat Indiana 64-52 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome to win the 2002 national championship. Maryland won at least 19 games in each of the next five seasons but has failed to go beyond the second round of the NCAA tournament after reaching the Sweet 16 in 2003.
With a 19-15 record this season, Maryland bowed out in the NIT's second round to Syracuse.
"I think the difficulty is there are really quality programs that are really very even," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "A lot more schools around the country that don't have football have figured it out that if you pour most of your budget into men's basketball, it's going to generate a tremendous amount of income. The level and the numbers are way up compared to 10 or 15 years ago in terms of teams that take it serious enough to be good enough to play in the NCAA tournament."
Oklahoma (2002): Kelvin Sampson guided the Sooners to the 2002 Final Four, where they lost to Indiana 73-64 in the national semifinals. The Sooners came close to returning to the Final Four the next season, losing to eventual national champion Syracuse 63-47 in the regional finals.
Oklahoma hasn't gone past the second round of the NCAA tournament since, missing the tournament altogether with a 16-15 record last season. Sampson left for Indiana after the 2005-06 season (where he resigned last month for alleged NCAA rules violations). Jeff Capel has guided the Sooners to a 23-12 record this season, good enough for a 6-seed in the NCAA tournament, where they bowed out to Louisville in the second round.
Syracuse (2003): Freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara guided the Orange to their first national championship in 2003, but Syracuse has produced little noise in the NCAA tournament since. Anthony bolted for the NBA after only one college season. McNamara helped lead the Orange to two victories in the 2004 NCAA tournament before losing to Alabama 80-71 in the Sweet 16.
The following season, Syracuse was upset in the first round by No. 13 seed Vermont 60-57 in overtime. Syracuse then lost to No. 12 seed Texas A&M 66-58 in the first round in 2006. The Orange were left out of the NCAA tournament field in each of the past two seasons, although many believed they were worty of an at-large bid in 2007, when they finished the regular season with a 22-10 record, 10-6 in Big East play.
Oklahoma State (2004): After losing to Georgia Tech in the 2004 national semifinals, the Cowboys finished 26-7 and reached the Sweet 16 the next season, losing to Arizona, 79-78.
Oklahoma State labored through the next two seasons, however, after coach Eddie Sutton left the team during the 2005-06 season for health reasons. He was replaced on the bench by his son, Sean Sutton, who had been named the head coach designate in 2003. The Cowboys went 17-16 and played in the NIT in 2005-06. Last season, Oklahoma State was ranked as high as No. 9 in the country before fading badly down the stretch. The Cowboys finished 22-13 and were 6-10 in Big 12 play for the second straight season, failing to win a true road game. Oklahoma State lost to Marist 67-64 in the first round of the NIT, and Sutton resigned as head coach on Tuesday after only two seasons.
The Cowboys again lost in the NIT's first round this season, finishing with a 17-16 overall record and a 7-9 Big 12 mark.
Illinois (2005): The Illini, led by veterans Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell Jr. and Deron Williams, tied an NCAA record with 37 victories during the 2004-05 season. Illinois didn't lose until the final game of the regular season at Ohio State, then fell to North Carolina 75-70 in the 2005 championship game.
Illinois has struggled to replace the core of that great team. After losing to Washington in the second round of the 2006 NCAA tournament, the Illini were beaten by Virginia Tech in the first round last season. This year, Illinois' 16-19 season was its first losing campaign since 1998-99.
Coach Bruce Weber hopes the struggles are just a bump in the road. The Illini were especially hurt when prized recruit Eric Gordon reneged on his commitment to Illinois and signed with Indiana, and after returning guard Jamar Smith pleaded guilty to DUI and was forced to redshirt.
LSU (2006): Has any Final Four team fallen faster and further than the Tigers? Led by forwards Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas, LSU stormed into the Final Four of the 2006 NCAA tournament, knocking off No. 1 seed Duke and No. 2 seed Texas along the way. The Tigers lost to UCLA 59-45 in the national semifinals.
Davis returned to LSU the next season, but Thomas entered the NBA draft after only one season in college. With Davis battling injuries last season, the Tigers finished 17-15, 5-11 in SEC play. Things got worse this season, and coach John Brady was fired Feb. 11 after his team lost 13 of its first 21 games. Interim coach Butch Pierre led the Tigers the rest of the way.
"Last year's team, with Glen coming back, had a lot of accolades and was ranked in the top five in the preseason," Pierre said. "One of the hardest things to do is to sustain that, particularly when sights are high."
So high that Brady couldn't recover after the Tigers never came close to matching their three-week run at the end of the 2005-06 season.
When LSU athletics director Skip Bertman announced Brady's firing last month, his reason for the coach's dismissal was simple.
"They just didn't win enough basketball games since the Final Four," Bertman said.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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