As Conference Play Begins, North Carolina’s Basketball Middle Class Suffers

It’s early yet, but it looks like college hoops teams in North Carolina are going through a recession of their own. In a state that routinely sends multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament, 2009 could be one of the leanest years in a while, even leaner than the last two years, which saw only the familiar trio of Duke, UNC, and Davidson as the state’s representatives.

While Duke, UNC, Davidson, and Wake Forest are all well on their way to the big dance as conference play begins this season, there’s no guarantee that those four will make it. The rough-and-tumble ACC could quickly prove fatal for Duke or Wake Forest, and Davidson discovered just how tough this year’s road to the tourney could be with a slim win over SoCon foe Chattanooga on December 13th that required a 100-point performance.

While we are spoiled with so much fine basketball and a wealth of tourney-worthy teams here in the Old North State, the current season has me wondering where the middle class has gone (and not just the one currently being effected by unemployment and the economic crisis). The new millennium has certainly been kind to our teams up until this point, and not just to the big boys.

After having the championship trophy come its way in 2001(Duke) and 2005 (UNC) and sending 4 teams to the tourney in 2000, 5 teams in 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005, and an amazing six teams to the 2002 event (oddly enough, not including perennial contender UNC), the state of North Carolina has hit a bit of a rough patch by its lofty standards. The state sent only 3 teams in 2007 and 2008, its fewest representatives since 1999 when only Duke, UNC, and Charlotte made the dance.

The reasons? Well, the dumbfounding release of NC State coach Herb Sendek stopped the Wolfpack’s tourney appearance streak at 5 (2002-2006), and they’ve yet to find their way back under alum Sidney Lowe. The unthinkable passing of Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser in the summer of 2007 certainly affected their 2007-2008 campaign, though they are now building steam under former assistant Dino Gaudio.

Beyond the big-time programs, the downturn in numbers can be attributed to the steady decline of tournament regulars like UNC Wilmington and Charlotte, along with the continued struggles of former tourney teams like UNC Greensboro, East Carolina, and Campbell. Even UNC Asheville and Appalachian State have made appearances in the last decade that they haven’t been able to build on. Things aren’t looking up for this scrappy group this season, either.

East Carolina looks to be the strongest of the bunch, boasting an 8-2 record with great wins over recent tourney teams VCU and Winthrop (the latter of which is very, very down this year) and a close loss to recent Final Four team George Mason. However, as soon as they came knocking on a big door, that of NC State, things went sour. They were never really a threat to win Wednesday’s game in Raleigh, despite hanging tough with the resurgent Wolfpack for a half. Now they must face a four game stretch in which they’ll play two top-25 schools in Wake Forest and Clemson and start Conference USA play against a tough Tulane squad. Assuming the Pirates handle a lesser Coastal Carolina team and scrap past Tulane, there’s a good chance they’ll be 10-4. At that point, coach Mack McCarthy’s team will have their work cut out for them to put together enough wins or a conference tournament run that would get them into the NCAA tournament.

Things look much worse for the rest of the state’s tourney hopefuls. UNCs Wilmington and Greensboro, both of who have been manhandled by ECU this season, seem to have even less of a shot than normal at getting in without winning their conference tourneys, as both have already dropped 7 games in this young season. UNC Asheville, having scheduled for this year under the assumption that they would still have 7-foot-7 Kenny George in the middle, has fallen victim to their brutal schedule, dropped 6 of their last 7 games and will have to run rampant over their Big South Conference foes to have a shot at dancing this March. Campbell doesn’t look to be a threat in the Atlantic Sun after dropping their first two conference games, Charlotte’s tough schedule has put them in need of a serious turnaround after sustaining a 6-game losing streak, and uber-cinderellas Elon and Appalachian State have to contend with each other as well as SoCon buddy and virtual tourney shoo-in Davidson.

The silver lining to the dark cloud of the past few years is that all of these teams still have a shot, even with less-than-stellar conference play, to get in by virtue of winning their conference tournaments. There’s still a chance for North Carolina to be the dominant state of the NCAA Tournament in the first decade of the millennium, and I for one can’t wait to see how it all works out.