It takes a weird kind of sustained excellence to lose three college basketball conference championship games in a row.
That’s where Winthrop is right now. The Eagles have the Big South's best combined record in February and March the last three season and can be pleased with a 23-win season and a third consecutive appearance in the Big South tournament final. But the program and its supporters are left with the emptiness of being a whole ’nother season adrift from a goal that was just 40 minutes away on March 6.
Make that 20 minutes; the Eagles led UNC Asheville at halftime before the Bulldogs roared back in the second half to win the game and book a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“When it comes down to a 40-minute game, you never know what can happen,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said afterward.
It’s happened before, college basketball programs losing three or more consecutive conference championship games.
If you think Kelsey and his players felt badly 12 days ago, spare a thought for A.B. Williamson and Howard University. The Bison lost six MEAC championship games in a row in the 1980s, all to N.C. A&T.
Some of the country’s best college basketball coaches – Roy Williams, Rick Barnes, John Chaney and Lefty Driesell – have suffered through similar fates. Driesell’s powerful Maryland squads lost five different ACC finals before finally winning in 1984. His reaction after beating Duke revealed how draining repeated jiltings at the ACC championship alter were.
“When I was younger,” Driesell said, “I’d a probably taken the trophy, put it on the hood of my car and pulled into every driveway in (North Carolina) honking my horn ‘till people came out to look. But I’m too old for that now. I’ll probably just go home and sleep.”
Fourth time the charm
Tournament final losses don’t usually impact the NCAA tournament chances of schools like UNC, Texas, Maryland or Temple.
A more identifiable case to cheer up Winthrop fans is the run of Ray Giacoletti and Eastern Washington. Giacoletti led the Eagles to three consecutive Big Sky championship games from 2000-01 through 2002-03, only to fall in the final each year.
The Big Sky – like the Big South – is a one-NCAA bid league. Unlike the Big South, the Big Sky gave tournament hosting rights to the regular season champion. After finishing second each of the first three years of Giacoletti’s reign, Eastern Washington broke through in 2003-04 to win the league’s regular season title, thanks in part to an 11-game Big Sky winning streak.
That proved crucial in the postseason. With a first round bye and tournament games played at Eastern Washington’s Reese Court, Giacoletti’s team dispatched Weber State by 19 points in the semifinal to get back to the title game.
Eastern Washington cruised to a 12-point victory over Northern Arizona and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
“I guess it’s how one game can change the perception of a community, an institution and a basketball program,” Giacoletti said in a 2004 news story. “We’re no different, the community is no different and the institution is no different. But by winning one game last Wednesday night, the perception is different now.”
Winthrop’s basketball success, particularly its NCAA tournament exploits, has been tied to former coaches Gregg Marshall and Randy Peele. A Big South championship and NCAA tournament appearance removed from those two would further enhance the perception of Winthrop’s program, and that of its current coach.
‘Thank God Reggie Lewis is graduating’
Boston University offers another happy ending for a program that suffered through three consecutive conference finals losses. The Terriers fell in 1985, ’86 and ’87 to Northeastern University – coached by Jim Calhoun, who later coached Connecticut, and led by future NBA star Reggie Lewis. John Kuester coached the Terriers in ’85, before Mike Jarvis – who went on to coaching success at George Washington and St. John’s – lost the next two. After the third straight loss, Jarvis had one thought on his mind:
“‘Thank God Reggie Lewis is graduating,’” he told The Herald earlier this week.
Winthrop was unlucky to face Coastal Carolina in consecutive Big South finals on the Chanticleers’ home deck, an advantage that Cliff Ellis’ team didn’t earn in the regular season, but rather through a monetary bidding process. In many of these three-in-a-row cases, it’s a matter of wrong place, wrong time. That certainly was the situation for Boston U. Lewis was so good in March that the America East Conference tournament’s MVP award is named after the late Boston Celtic great.
That didn’t lessen the blow any, though.
“I was very grateful that we had a good year and every year we got to the championship game. That in itself was a great accomplishment,” said Jarvis. “So, we were building and I just knew it was a matter of time and the kids did as well. Our kids were tough and resilient and when Reggie graduated, we said, ‘hey, it’s our time.’ And we took advantage of it.”
Northeastern beat Boston again in the 1987 final, but instead of taking his kids off the floor to the locker room, Jarvis did something different: they stayed on the court and watched their opponents cut down the nets.
In 1988, the Terriers were the last team left on the court, after beating Niagara to win the tournament title. Through it all, Jarvis kept one thing in mind, crucial for any coach and program that finished second so many times.
“You mentioned a key word, faith. You’ve got to believe,” said Jarvis, a devout Christian. “I’ve got to believe in God first, and I’ve got to believe in myself. And I’ve got to have faith in my kids and believe that those kids, who chose me as a coach, we’re gonna win together.”
Get back after it
After losing to UNC Asheville 11 days ago in Buies Creek, N.C., Kelsey didn’t seem as downtrodden as he had the previous year in Conway. Instead, he was alternately pugnacious and wistful. Almost every thought ended with some version of “ready to get back at it.”
“You can see it, you can visualize what it’d be like with the confetti falling and cutting down the nets. You can see it,” said Kelsey. “It hurts. Dust yourself off. Get back after it.”
Junior forward Josh Davenport was seated at the dais two seats down from Kelsey. Davenport has ended each of his three seasons in college basketball with a Sunday heartbreak. He’s one of a large group of returning players that will try again next year.
Mike Jarvis didn’t follow Winthrop closely enough to offer precise advice. But he did say this:
“Winthrop is a winning, championship program. My advice would be just be Winthrop. I don’t think there’s anything special they have to do; they know how to build championship teams. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t see them in the tournament next year. I wouldn’t draw as much on the negative as much as I would the positive.”
Jarvis pointed out the obvious: Winthrop can’t win a conference championship without first reaching the final.
All Kelsey’s Eagles can do next season is get back to the final again and give it another shot.
College basketball teams that lost three or more conference tournament championship games in a row
▪ Maryland (1972-74) - Terrapins coach Lefty Driesell hated the ACC’s Tobacco Road schools and his program’s empty three-year stretch from 1972 to 1974 is a microcosm for why. The Terps lost ACC Tournament finals to N.C. State in ’72 and ’74, with a loss to UNC sandwiched in between. Driesell’s teams won 73 games those three years, but the ’74 final summed up their misfortune. It was the last tournament played where only the ACC champion made the NCAA tournament, and State and Maryland produced an overtime classic that incredibly had no turnovers in regulation, according to a Washington Post article. The Wolfpack prevailed 103-100, but Driesell finally won an ACC title 10 years later.
The next year: Maryland lost in the first round of the ACC tournament to … N.C. State
▪ UNC (2011-13) - The Tar Heels were thumped by Duke in the 2011 final, narrowly lost to Florida State in ’12 and then completed the hat trick by losing to Miami by 10 in ’13. Roy Williams’ teams still reached the Elite Eight the first two of those three years, and last Sunday the Heels won their first ACC title since 2008 by beating Virginia.
The next year: lost in first round of ACC tournament to Pitt
▪ Boston University (1985-87) - The Terriers ran into Northeastern and future NBA standout Reggie Lewis three straight years in the final of the now defunct ECACN tournament. Former North Carolina Tar Heel John Kuester coached the first Boston U. team, before Mike Jarvis - who would go on to success at George Washington and St. John’s - coached the next two. The Terriers lost the three championships to Northeastern by 13 total points.
The next year: Boston got back a fourth year and won the America East, playing Duke in the first round of the 1988 NCAA tournament.
▪ Temple (1993-96) – Another fruitless run that featured losses to the same opponent. The Owls dropped four Atlantic 10 tournament finals in a row while coached by John Chaney, all to a UMass program coached by a young John Calipari. There was no love lost between Chaney and Calipari; the legendary Temple coach once told Calipari he would kick his ass and that he was gonna kill him (’94);
The next year: Temple lost in the 1997 Atlantic 10 tournament semifinals.
▪ Texas (2006-08) - Texas went to the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2008 and had a future NBA star named Kevin Durant on its 2007 club. But the Rick Barnes-coached Longhorns lost Big 12 tournament finals in each of those years.
The next year: lost to Baylor in the third round of the 2009 Big 12 tournament.
▪ Eastern Washington (2001-03) – Ray Giacoletti’s Eagles lost Big Sky championship games to Montana (2001 and ’02), before Weber State pinned a third straight title game loss on Eastern Washington.
The next year: The Eagles won the fourth year in a row they made the Big Sky final; Giacoletti left to take over at Utah 11 days after Eastern Washington’s NCAA tournament first round loss to Oklahoma State.
▪ Northern Arizona (2006-08) – The Lumberjacks won the Big Sky regular season in 2005-06, earning the right to host the conference tournament. But Montana beat NAU by 13, and Mike Adras’ Lumberjacks had to play Big Sky tournament finals on the road the next two seasons, losing to Weber State in 2007 and Portland State the following year.
The next year: The Lumberjacks didn’t make the Big Sky tournament the following season, 2008-09.
▪ Winthrop (2014-16) - Winthrop made nice Big South tournament runs as the No. 5 and No. 4 seed in 2014 and 2015 before falling short in the final against Coastal Carolina both years. This year might have felt like the year to break through with the tournament moved from Coastal to Campbell, but the Eagles - seeded No. 2 - again fell short on championship Sunday, fading in the second half in a loss to UNC Asheville.
The next year: ?
▪ Howard (1982-87) – Between 1972 and 1987, Howard finished second in the conference tournament 11 times, with 10 of those losses to nemesis N.C. A&T. Six straight were suffered in the mid-1980s, all of them to the Aggies from Greensboro. Three of the five finals were played in Greensboro, including the ’87 final. Howard brought an NCAA-best 17-game winning streak into that contest, but still couldn’t get over the hump.
“It’s pretty embarrassing to have lost six in a row,” Williamson said in a Washington Post article from the ’87 game. “But we did all we could. When you give it your all and lose, there’s nothing else you can do.”
The next year: In 1988, Howard again lost to N.C. A&T in the MEAC tournament; that matchup was in the MEAC semifinals.
▪ Miami (OH) (1998-01) – The RedHawks dropped four straight Mid American tournament finals around the turn of the century. Eastern Michigan beat Charlie Coles’ team in ’98, before Miami fell to Kent State in ’99; that RedHawks team made the Sweet 16, before losing to Kentucky. Miami struggled the following year but still made it back to the conference final before losing to Ball State, then made it four straight losses in 2000-01 after another loss to Kent State.
The next year: Miami (OH) didn’t make it back for a fifth straight final, losing in the second round of the 2001-02 conference tournament.
▪ American (2002-04) - The Eagles lost to Holy Cross in the Patriot League finals in 2002 and 2003, before Lehigh got the best of Jeff Jones’ team in ’04 with a 59-57 win. Lehigh scored with 3.9 seconds left to win the game and the league’s NCAA bid.
“It’s really painful to lose,” Jones told the media afterward. “We all understand it would be a big thing, and one of these days we’ll break through.”
The next year: Bucknell dropped American in the Patriot League semifinals in 2005. But Jones’ program did eventually reach the NCAA tournament, making back to back trips in 2008 and 2009.
▪ Illinois-Chicago (1992-94) - Bob Hallberg’s Flames lost to Eastern Illinois, Wright State, and Wisconsin-Green Bay in consecutive Mid-Continental Conference finals.
The next year: The Flames’ finals run ended with a loss to Northern Illinois in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament’s second round. Hallberg is now the athletics director and coaches the women’s basketball team Saint Xavier University in Chicago.
▪ Western Illinois (1995-97) - The Leathernecks lost in the ’95 Mid-Continental Conference tournament final to Valparaiso in triple overtime. Valpo thumped Western Illinois in the tournament final the next year by 23 points, before the Crusaders made it three straight with a four-point win over Jim Kerwin’s Western Illinois program in ’97.
The next year: The Leathernecks lost in the first round of the Mid-Continent Conference tournament to Buffalo. Kerwin is now on the selection committee for the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament.
Western Athletic Conference
▪ Tulsa (2000-02) – Tulsa went through an unusual three-year stretch where a different coach led the Golden Hurricane to the Western Athletic Conference tournament final, only to lose each season. Bill Self started the run in 1999-00, Tulsa making the NCAA tournament despite a loss to Fresno State in the WAC final; the Golden Hurricane advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, finishing the season with 32 wins. Buzz Peterson took over the next year, but Hawaii beat Tulsa in the conference final; Peterson then led his team to the NIT championship before leaving to take the head job at Tennessee. John Phillips then took over and again led Tulsa to the WAC final before another loss to Hawaii completed the unfortunate hat-trick.
The next year: Tulsa and Phillips finally won the WAC tournament, beating Nevada 75-64 in 2003.