The March Toward March: How success and expectation apply to college basketball

In the final edition of “The March Toward March,” we answer the ultimate question: What is success in college basketball?

USC stands side by side during the national anthem.

“The March Toward March” is a column by Curran Rastogi about men’s college basketball teams and their journeys to March Madness.

After the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated from the 2023 NBA Playoffs, a distraught Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked if he considered this season a failure. As he kept his composure and attempted not to unleash his frustration at the reporter, he said, “It’s not a failure, it’s steps to success.” The entire idea is that we shouldn’t look at each season with the expectation that our favorite team should win the championship and then declare the season a failure when they do not. Success can be found in more ways than just the results at the end of the season.

But how does this translate to college basketball? Giannis has the ability to play for the Milwaukee Bucks as long as he wants to. For college basketball players, that is not the case. These college players are only at school for five or six years at most, with the best players leaving after one or two years. So it begs the question, what does success look like in college basketball? Has every team that didn’t win a national championship or even their conference championship failed?

College basketball is an incredibly difficult sport in which to define success by virtue of the unpredictability of its postseason tournament. Since the tournament expanded in 1985, only 40% of No. 1 seeds have even made it to the Final Four. While this seems like a relatively high percentage, remember that there are four No. 1 seeds each year, meaning that just one or two will even make the Final Four each year. These No. 1 seeds are meant to be the best teams in college basketball and with them not even making the Final Four, it demonstrates this unpredictability.

It can therefore only be concluded that success can only be evaluated based on constantly shifting expectations. So, let’s take a look at some interesting teams this year and attempt to determine whether or not they had truly successful seasons.

USC Trojans

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the USC Trojans as a team to evaluate. Looking at the way the team played this season, it was pretty obvious that they were the third best team in the Pac-12. Arizona and UCLA were just in a class ahead of the Trojans from the start of the season to the end. Coming off a first-round exit to Miami in last year’s NCAA tournament, the expectation was that a mostly similar roster might be able to improve and make it a little further. Well, that didn’t happen and the Trojans were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament again.

This wasn’t a season where the Trojans over or underachieved. They may have fallen just short of preseason expectations, but this isn’t the type of season that will see head coach Andy Enfield fired. However, next year, a similar season may see the Trojan head coach on the hot seat. A projected top-15 roster before the year means that the Trojans cannot have a similar season to this next year.

North Carolina Tar Heels

UNC’s season was an unmitigated disaster. The team ranked No. 1 in the preseason after a wild March Madness run last year but completely missed this season’s tournament. They definitely underachieved and head coach Hubert Davis is on the hot seat.

With mostly the same roster as their Final Four team, the Tar Heels were the first team in college basketball history to ever be the preseason favorite and miss the tournament entirely. They lost to Duke at both Cameron Indoor Arena and their home, the Dean Smith Center. It’s obvious that things need to change quickly or else the blue blood reputation will be tarnished.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State was a very interesting college basketball story this year. The Nittany Lions had pretty low NCAA tournament hopes until they went 8-2 to finish conference play, including a Cinderella run to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament. So was their season a success? Well, if you ask the Notre Dame athletic director, he would answer with a resounding yes. Penn State’s head coach left the team after their season and moved to South Bend, taking over for long-time head coach Mike Brey. Penn State’s season, despite ending in the second round of the NCAA tournament, was quite memorable and also marked their first tournament appearance in 10 years.

To recap, success for anyone, especially in sports, is mostly based on expectations. It’s like Zendaya said in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “If you expect disappointment, you won’t ever be disappointed.” Plenty of teams across the country had successful seasons, that at the very least their coach can build on. Maybe Giannis’ statement does apply to college basketball too.

“The March Toward March” runs every Thursday.