When the NCAA Selection Show reveals the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament on March 13, there are going to be notable absences. There are bubble teams that won’t receive an invite to the biggest party of the year, a mid-major or two is going to be slighted and other programs will be reminded of just how far they have to go.
But for those living in Washington, D.C. the anticipated absences of their local teams will be more poignant. For just the second time in 44 years, there likely won’t be a D.C.-area men’s basketball team in the Big Dance at all barring an incredible run in a conference tournament this week.
Neither Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason, George Washington, American nor Howard - the six teams within the immediate metropolitan area - is poised to make March Madness this season. It’s a drastic reality, one that no one would have envisioned just a decade ago with the standard-bearers Maryland and Georgetown locks almost every season.
What’s concerning more than anything is the two occurrences in 44 tournaments will occur in a five-year span. Every tournament from 1979 to 2018 saw no less than one team from the District and immediate surrounding metropolitan area. That’s 40 tournaments in a row. The next streak was only two tournaments before the local programs were shut out again.
Much of the former streak can be attributed to the long-standing success at Maryland and Georgetown. A majority of the nearly four-decade span had John Thompson II leading the Hoyas and either Lefty Driesell or Gary Williams guiding the Terrapins. Those are three Hall-of-Fame coaches for two schools located 10 miles apart.
“You had remarkable stability and good coaches. And you're talking about three Hall of Fame coaches… and a coach that did really good work, really steady work for the most part, up until his last couple seasons in John Thompson III, so you had a reliability there,” Washington Post contributor Patrick Stevens told NBC Sports Washington.
During that time, all of those coaches had a huge part in establishing what those historic programs would come to be. No successor will be able to fill the massive shoes those pillars of each program left. Both the Hoyas and Terps would attest that replacing a legend is never easy. Chasing those legacies probably leads to much of the blame for the recent dip.
“I don't think this Georgetown will ever be what Georgetown used to be. I don't think that Maryland will necessarily ever be what Maryland used to be, but that doesn't mean they can't be great programs,” Sports Illustrated college basketball reporter Kevin Sweeney told NBC Sports Washington.” It doesn't mean it can't be perennially in the NCAA Tournament conversation. That doesn't mean they can't hire good coaches and recruit really good players and have success. I think you can do something very good at both of those programs. I mean, those are top-25 jobs in the country.
“I'm not sure that they're going to ever live up to a John Thompson standard or live up to a Gary Williams standard again and you're going to forever kind of chase that ghost, just like I think Indiana is chasing the ghost of Bob Knight. And North Carolina, I think, will chase Dean Smith and Roy Williams. I think it'll be very hard for them.”
Coaching issues are at the crux of the current D.C. landscape beyond not having one of the sport’s behemoths at the helm. Maryland is in-between coaches. After making the NCAA Tournament last season, Patrick Ewing’s squad just had, historically, the worst season in Big East history. Look down at GW and Mason to see it’s not just the Power 5 programs. Other reasons for the lack of a tournament, though, can be attributed to the dwindling importance of local recruiting.
Throughout the John Thompson II era and the Driesell-Williams eras at Maryland, local recruiting was a big feather in those programs’ caps. Mark Turgeon’s perceived lack of convincing homegrown recruits to stay ‘at home’ was a big detriment to winning over Terps’ fans. It should go without saying, though, that the recruiting game is far different than what led to the Georgetown dynasty in the 1980s and Maryland's success in the early 2000s.
An advantage of your backyard being one of the most fertile high school basketball areas in the country is suddenly not as advantageous as it once was.
“College basketball recruiting, in particular, is just so nationalized right now. The best players in high school basketball, wherever they are, play in the same big AAU events over the summer, Peach Jam and all the other Nike circuit games. And then in many cases, (the recruits) play at the same prep schools” Sweeny said. “So it becomes I think a little bit harder to break through and to dominate because of your location…"
Added Sweeney: "I think Georgetown and its access to players and its history matters less than it used to and, seeing the success of the SEC, I think there's places where they used to be seen as having basketball as an afterthought, have invested and they made themselves much better jobs in basketball in much easier places to win…. it is just harder to break through at a place like Georgetown, a place like Maryland, or really just in the DMV generally I think it's just harder to break through because of that.”
“In certain parts of the country still, you grow up someplace and there is a significant attachment to ‘Big State U,’ if you will," Stevens said." Like if you're in Ohio, Ohio State is a big deal. If you grow up in Texas, the University of Texas is a big deal, and this isn't just a basketball thing. But this is something too that has been brought up many, many times - and I can remember Gary (Williams) bringing it up many, many times - the DC metropolitan area, there's a lot of stuff to do. And there probably is not that greater, significant great community-wide attachment to ‘State U,’ to the University of Maryland as there is at other places. There just isn't."
Since 1979 - the beginning of what began the initial 39-year NCAA streak - it’s undeniable that the success of D.C. basketball would not exist without the Terrapins and Hoyas. Georgetown has 28 NCAA Tournament appearances in that span with a championship in 1984, Maryland has 26 with a title in 2002, the other four schools combined have 20. It’s never been just one school carrying the banner.
Of the 44 NCAA Tournaments, including the upcoming 2022 event without any projected D.C. teams, there have only been 16 tournaments where only one school received a bid. Eight tournaments saw three teams make the Big Dance - three of which happened consecutively from 2006-08.
Mid-majors are a part of the equation here, but nowhere near the pull that the other two programs have and the consistency year-over-year.
The instability of the coaching across the board is what makes this absence of the tournament more concerning than the last. Sure there were the local-adjacent programs of Virginia and UMBC who stole the narrative in 2018 with the only No. 16 vs. No. 1 upset ever, but the gravity of the situation didn’t show a decline.
“I think in some ways it is maybe a little more egregious four years ago. When it wasn't so much that Georgetown and Maryland were terrible - they weren't good - but they weren't dreadful," Stevens said. "It was more, you had some of those other teams that maybe weren't quite on the right spot in their rebuilding efforts. But this year, it stands out even more."
And while Maryland is in a down year, looking for their next captain to steer the ship, Georgetown appears to be bottoming out. Even though the transfer portal and Ewing’s success on the recruiting trail allow for quicker turnarounds, the free fall is unprecedented.
That plunge could lead to the omission of D.C. men’s hoops programs repeating itself in the short term.
“I think Georgetown's decline is obviously the big story there,” said Eamonn Brennan, a college basketball writer for The Athletic.
“During John Thompson III's tenure, they were regularly in the tournament. They were good. They had years where they were really good and they had years of they had disappointing losses in the first or second round of the tournament. But they were still there and the decline in the last five years under Patrick Ewing has reached a level that is not easy to recover from and that takes out one of these sort of big tentpole teams.”
When Georgetown missed seven of eight tournaments from 1998 to 2005, Maryland made every tournament they missed except for 2005. When Maryland’s season didn’t continue into March from 1989-1993, again Georgetown made all but one of those tournaments. Always one team was good enough to keep the success going. Even in 2018, Maryland was expected to be right at the top the next season.
No need to get ahead of ourselves, if Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown remains on pace for his tenure, really only Maryland of the six is a team that can compete for an at-large bid. A team that currently doesn’t have a coach.
Certainly, George Washington and George Mason are ascending, but still are at least a year or two removed from jumping to the top of the Atlantic 10. American and Howard, no matter how good they are, will always have to rely on winning at least three games in a row to even have a chance at their conference’s auto-bid. The Terps are all that is realistically left to be relied upon.
This leads to conclusions where the next handful of seasons could be more like this one and 2018 than the previous four decades.
“There are more schools that are invested in basketball than there had been before. And when you throw in the portal and all that, kind of leveling things out, it's a bigger scramble than it's ever been,” Stevens said. “I think the days of seeing teams put together streaks like the ones that Kansas and Gonzaga have right now… It's going to be even harder to pull off things like that just because the ability to maintain continuities is going to be a lot tougher.”
There’s no magic formula for a rebuild. More than ever, building back a program can be expedited with the right coach. The transfer portal can flip the script in one offseason. One or two top-50 recruits can raise the ceiling of a season immediately.
And the great thing about March is that there’s still hope despite the darkness. Five of the six teams can run through either the Big Ten, Big East, Atlantic 10 or MEAC Tournaments and steal the automatic bid away. This concern about the dip in D.C. basketball would be muted and go into the annals like 1993 and 2005 when the Colonials were the only D.C. program playing in the tournament.
But hope is a dangerous game and not a familiar place for Georgetown and Maryland.