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6 college basketball streaks in serious jeopardy

A strange season in college basketball has the potential to get a whole lot stranger in the months to come.

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The 2019-20 college basketball season has already featured two No. 1 teams losing on their home floor to unranked mid-major opponents, more losses by top-five teams in the opening two months of a season than any other, and more different No. 1 teams before January than any season before it. With all this being the case, it feels right that some of the sport’s most strange and notorious streaks appear to be in serious jeopardy this season.

Let’s look at six streaks you should have an eye on as we start to dive into the second half of the season.

The West Coast Streak

In news that might shock anyone born after the turn of the century, three of the 10 NCAA tournaments that were played in the 1990s were won by teams that resided West of the Rocky Mountains. The news might stun a teenager because the last of those three — Arizona’s upset of Kentucky in 1997 — also marks the final time that a team from the West Coast (regardless of what your definition of that area is) has claimed college basketball’s top prize.

The assumption at the beginning the last decade was that when this streak was mercifully brought to an end, it would be one of the traditional Pac-12 powers who would be bringing solace to the West Coast. After all, it had been since UNLV in 1990 that a West Coast team that wasn’t UCLA or Arizona had cut down the nets.

Gonzaga emerging as a consistent and legitimate powerhouse has changed that thinking in recent years, especially after the Zags advanced all the way to the national title game in 2017. Now we’re in the middle of a season where not only is Mark Few’s team No. 1 in both human polls. but where San Diego State is one of two remaining undefeated teams and is No. 3 in the current NET Rankings, the grouping tool the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses to seed the Big Dance.

It isn’t just Gonzaga and San Diego State though. Oregon, which also participated in the 2017 Final Four, is a legitimate top 10 team with a national Player of the Year front-runner in Payton Pritchard. After last year’s down season, Arizona has bounced back with a vengeance and has the type of electric guard play necessary to play deep into March and perhaps beyond. Stanford has also been one of the sport’s most pleasant surprises, and currently sits at No. 16 in the NET.

This “down” season for college basketball is shaping up to be a resurgent one for the West Coast.

The Rutgers Streak

No team from a power conference has a longer active streak of missing the NCAA tournament than Rutgers, which hasn’t heard its name called on Selection Sunday since all the way back in 1991. Perhaps even more embarrassing is the fact Rutgers hasn’t even finished with a winning record in a season since 2005-06. The Scarlet Knights were a truly abysmal 16-76 over their first five seasons in the Big Ten.

This season has been beyond different for Steve Pikiell’s team. After taking down No. 20 Penn State on Tuesday, Rutgers sits at 12-3 overall and 3-1 in conference play, the best start for the program since its Final Four season of 1975-76. While predicting that the Scarlet Knights are going to repeat history and head to Atlanta this April might be a bit ambitious, there is reason to believe that they’ll be partying in Piscataway when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed.

In addition to the win over Penn State, Rutgers has league W’s over Wisconsin and Nebraska, and a 20-point victory over a nationally-ranked Seton Hall team. The Scarlet Knights are No. 21 in the latest NET Rankings, a spot which would almost have them comfortably in the field of 68 if the NCAA tournament started tomorrow.

The Pat Chambers Streak

Even with the previously mentioned loss to Rutgers, Penn State is off to an awfully impressive start itself. The Nittany Lions are 12-3 and own four wins over top-50 Ken Pom teams in Georgetown (46), Alabama (50), Maryland (7) and Iowa (20).

Penn State’s most recent appearance in the NCAA tournament came in 2011, when they earned a 10-seed and lost in the first round to Temple. Following that season, Ed DeChellis stunned everyone by announcing that he was leaving his alma mater to take over as the head coach at Navy. Pat Chambers was named the program’s new head coach days later, and remains the man in charge of Nittany Lion basketball at the present moment.

What makes Chambers’ tenure at Penn State unique is a fact he’s looking to change. This is Chambers’ ninth season in Happy Valley, and he has yet to bring the Nittany Lions to the NCAA tournament. There is no other active coach in Division I who has been with a power conference program for more than five seasons who has yet to take that program to the Big Dance.

The NIT championship run in 2018 was ... something, but with this rock solid start and with a bonafide star in Lamar Stevens playing in his final college season, it certainly feels like the time is now or never for Chambers and the Nittany Lions.

The North Carolina/Cincinnati Streaks

The four longest streaks of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances — Kansas (30 years), Duke (24 years), Michigan State (22 years) and Gonzaga (21 years) — all seem certain to live on until at least 2021. The two programs that are tied for fifth on that list, however, are both swimming in much choppier waters.

North Carolina and Cincinnati have each been to nine consecutive NCAA tournaments and have done so with fairly little drama. If either extends their respective streak to 10, it will have happened after a considerable uptick in uneasiness.

Despite climbing as high as No. 5 in the national rankings back in November, North Carolina actually appears to have the rockier path to traverse of these two teams. The Tar Heels are 8-7 overall, they’re just 1-3 in ACC play, and they’ve lost four of the six games they’ve played without Cole Anthony, the star freshman who many believe may not return to the team even after his right knee injury has healed.

If you’re looking for comfort from Roy Williams, you’re not going to find it. The longtime UNC head coach — who is still stuck one win away from passing Dean Smith on college basketball’s all-time wins list — recently referred to this Tar Heel team as “the least-gifted” squad he’s ever coached, and then stuck by those words days later.

Cincinnati’s situation is different. The Bearcats returned a fair share of production from the team that won 28 games and the AAC tournament a year ago, but it lost head coach Mick Cronin to UCLA. New head coach John Brannen (formerly of Northern Kentucky) has clashed some with star Jarron Cumberland, and the rest of the Bearcat team has struggled to adapt to a new system that is wildly different from the one they’d gotten to know under Cronin. As a result, the team sits at 9-6 overall with ugly losses to Colgate, Bowling Green and Tulane.

There’s still time for both Cincinnati and North Carolina to get their acts together, but the window for that evolution is certainly closing. At the moment, the Bearcats are 75th in the NET and the Tar Heels are a lowly 108th.

The Clemson Streak in Chapel Hill

One of the most well-known facts in college basketball is that despite both programs being charter members of the ACC, Clemson has never beaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The official record is 0-59, a remarkable run which has included more than a handful of absolute heartbreakers that have combined to form a streak of futility which seems to defy every law of averages.

The two teams will meet inside the Dean Dome on Saturday afternoon, a location where North Carolina has now lost consecutive games to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. If this is the year that one of the ACC’s most famous streaks comes to an end, it’ll be an especially bitter pill for UNC fans to swallow considering that this is also one of the worst Clemson teams in recent memory. Brad Brownell’s Tigers are coming off of a solid win over NC State, but they’re still just 7-7 overall and losers of six of their last eight. A win Saturday and Clemson fans won’t care at all about those other numbers.

The Big Ten Streak

Despite a whopping eight trips to the Final Four, Tom Izzo’s lone national title remains the run Michigan State made in 2000 where Mateen Cleaves carried Sparty to its second NCAA tournament championship. Even with a fairly astounding seven appearances in the national title game — Indiana in 2002, Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007, Michigan State in 2009, Michigan in 2013, Wisconsin in 2015, Michigan in 2018 — no team from the Big Ten has won it all since.

The top contender to break the Big Ten’s two decade long streak of futility is, of course, Michigan State. The Spartans are the only undefeated team remaining in league play, and are finally playing like the team that was a near-unanimous preseason No. 1. But if Izzo doesn’t capture that ever-elusive second national title, there’s still hope for the Big Ten.

Maryland is a top-15 team with one of the best inside-outside combinations in the country in Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith. Ohio State looked like it might be the best team in the league over the first month and a half of the year, and is hoping to work its way back to that place once it gets fully healthy. Michigan has also cooled off a bit in recent weeks, but is still the only team in the country to knock off Gonzaga, something the Wolverines did decisively in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game.

By every measure but one, the Big Ten has been one of the two or three best conferences in all of college basketball over the last two decades. The league will take another run at trying to rectify that one outlier in a couple months.