5 college basketball fanbases with most at stake in 2024 men’s NCAA tournament

The line between glory and indignity is brutally thin in March.

One bounce of a ball can be the difference between a contract extension and a trip to the unemployment line. The difference between never having to buy a drink in a college town again, or having to hit the transfer portal before the team bus arrives back on campus.

One week ago, there was buzz that Kevin Keatts was a loss to Louisville away from being fired. Five days later he was headed to the NCAA tournament with a hefty bonus and an automatic 2-year extension to his contract.

March is fickle, which makes it tough on every fan base affected.

Here are the five that the most to gain and the most to lose over the three weeks ahead:

1. Purdue

I don’t think No. 1 on this list is up for discussion.

This is the year. This has to be the year. If it isn’t the year, Purdue fans might just start getting really into miniatures or bonsai trees during the winter months moving forward.

Purdue has 28 conference championships to its name, it has 35 NCAA tournament appearances since 1969, it has one of the most passionate fan bases in all of college basketball, and it’s about to have the sport’s first back-to-back Naismith Award winner since 1983.

Understandably, there’s been more talk leading up to this tournament about what the Boilermakers don’t have.

Purdue has never won a national championship, and the Boilermakers haven’t been to a Final Four since 1980. But the fan base’s angst leading up to this March has rested more with the program’s recent history.

In every tournament since 2016, Matt Painter’s team has been a top 5 seed. That string of regular season success has produced little reward during the sport’s most important month. Purdue has advanced to the Elite Eight just once under Painter, a soul-crushing overtime loss to eventual national champion Virginia in 2019. In the last three tournaments, the Boilermakers have been eliminated by a 13-seed, a 15-seed and, most famously, a 16-seed a year ago.

In the 12 months that have transpired since Fairleigh Dickinson shocked both Purdue and the sports world, Boilermaker fans have been comforted by a single thought: The only other time this happened, the embarrassed party — one with a lengthy reputation for March failures — turned right around and won their first national championship a year later.

This year’s Purdue team has mimicked that 2018-19 Virginia squad in so many ways.

First, just as Tony Bennett was able to do six years ago, Painter was able to convince nearly every key contributor from last season’s Purdue team to return for another year. Neither team made any drastic changes to style or philosophy, and both dominated their conference in a fashion nearly identical to what they had done the season before. After winning dual conference championships the season before, both 2019 and 2024 Purdue followed up their regular season conference championships with an upset loss in the conference tournament semifinals.

Virginia’s win total entering the 2019 NCAA tournament: 29.

Purdue’s win total entering the 2024 NCAA tournament: 29.

If Purdue happens to be trailing its first round game at halftime, Boilermaker fans should probably feel comforted, not alarmed. Easier said than done.

2. Tennessee

The only fan base within shouting distance of Purdue when it comes to teetering the fine line between “desperate for a breakthrough” and “one loss away from a complete and total breakdown” is Tennessee. Naturally, UT is the No. 2 seed in Purdue’s Midwest Region.

Relatively speaking, the Volunteers have an extremely proud college hoops tradition. They’ve won 16 conference championships (the most recent being locked up earlier this month), advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament nine times, and have more all-time wins than programs like Virginia, Georgetown and Marquette.

From “The Fearless Five” era to the “Ernie and Bernie Show” to the modern success under Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes, there’s plenty for UT fans to thump their chests about.

The chest thumping comes to an abrupt halt when the topic of college basketball’s largest stage is brought up.

Find any list of “best college basketball teams to never make a Final Four” from any site during any time period, and Tennessee is certain to be at or near the top.

Not only have the Volunteers never played in a national semifinal, but only once have they advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. In 2010, as a 6-seed, their dreams of finally breaking through to the first weekend of April came crashing down with a soul-crushing 70-69 loss to Michigan State in the Midwest Regional final.

A season ago, it seemed like Tennessee might be poised to break through. The Volunteers boasted not just the most stifling defense in the country, but one of the top adjusted defensive efficiency marks in the Ken Pomeroy era, which dates back to the beginning of the century.

What Barnes’ team did not have was an equally potent offense. UT’s backcourt lacked a pure scorer it could turn to during dry spells, an issue which became doubly troubling when starting point guard Zakai Zeigler re-tore his ACL just before the calendar flipped from February to March.

Despite all this, Tennessee earned a No. 4 seed for the NCAA tournament and bullied trendy Final Four pick Duke out of the Big Dance in the second round with a dominant 65-52 victory. With the top two seeds in the East Region out before the tournament’s second weekend, it looked like the seas to the Final Four may have finally parted for UT. Instead, the lack of a consistent scoring threat doomed them one last time. While the Volunteer defense kept high-flying Florida Atlantic largely in check, the offense shot a woeful 33.3 percent from the field and misfired on 17-of-23 three-point attempts as the team saw a 27-22 halftime lead turn into a 62-55 defeat.

Fast forward 12 months and hope should once again springing eternal in Knoxville.

The Volunteers are the third best defensive team in the country, Zeigler is healthy and playing the best basketball of his college career, and Barnes addressed his program’s scoring issues by going out and getting a First Team All-American in Dalton Knecht who just might be the best pure scorer in the sport. UT is a 2-seed in a fairly open region where the 1-seed has had just as many recent postseason struggles as they have.

You’ll have to forgive UT fans were maintaining an unjustified level of pessimism. It’s not just their program which seems cursed this time of year.

Only three active coaches in Division-I have more career wins attached to their name than Barnes, who resurrected a Tennessee program that had won just one SEC tournament since 1979 and just one regular-season title since 2008 when he arrived in 2015. Barring something remarkably unforeseen, this will be the seventh straight year he’s led the Volunteers a to a winning record, the sixth time he’s taken them to the NCAA tournament, and the third straight season he’s guided them to at least 20 wins.

But then there are the struggles in March, a list which Tennessee fans know by heart at thus point. The buzzer-beating loss to Loyola in 2018, the overtime loss to Purdue in 2019, falling to 12-seed Oregon State in 2021 and then to 11-seed Michigan a year later, and then the heartbreak against Florida Atlantic last season. Toss in the facts that Barnes’ last six NCAA tournament teams failed to make it out of the opening weekend and that he’s 1-12 all-time in the Big Dance against better-seeded teams, and yeah, you can see how a reputation has been formed.

The narrative is always the narrative in college basketball, until it isn’t. Tennessee has everything necessary to win at least four consecutive games in the weeks ahead. If it doesn’t, everyone with a creamsicle wardrobe will say they should have seen it coming.

3. Kentucky

It’s been nine years since the last time John Calipari led Kentucky to the Final Four, and 12 years since the only time the Wildcats have cut down the nets this century.

In “Kentucky years,” those numbers may as well be 25 and 30 years.

What was once the perfect marriage between Calipari and Big Blue Nation has dissolved in recent years. Every loss has elicited cries that the man who was once the figure in college basketball hasn’t figured out a way to (or has simply refused to) evolve with the times. Calipari has countered with rumors of a potential departure over multiple offseasons, a not so subtle reminder that if Lexington doesn’t want him anymore, there are plenty of places that will open both their arms and their pocketbooks.

At the heart of this hot and cold relationship are the failures of the last handful of years.

There was a soul-crushing Elite Eight loss to North Carolina at the buzzer in 2017, a missed opportunity with a wide-open South Region in 2018, and another heartbreaker in a regional final against Auburn in 2019. But what has really raised the stakes for Kentucky this season is what the the Wildcats have done in the post-COVID world.

Kentucky won just nine games in 2020-21, a fact that sent some Wildcat fans into a state of hysteria and left others brushing it off as the product of a season doused in unprecedented levels of weird. Then there was the stunning first round NCAA tournament loss to Saint Peter’s in 2022, Cal’s first opening round defeat at UK. A year later, the Wildcats struggled (by their standards) to a 6-seed in the dance, where they defeated Providence before falling to Marquis Nowell and third-seeded Kansas State.

All told, Kentucky has won just a single game in the NCAA tournament since 2019. Its lack of success in the SEC tournament — where it has also won just one game since the pandemic — has not helped matters either.

All can be made well with a run over the weeks ahead.

Kentucky fans are in love (even more than usual) with their 2023-24 Wildcats. UK plays an absurdly fun brand of basketball, one which has made the Cats the second highest-scoring team in the country. They feature a veteran leading scorer in Antonio Reeves, what looks to be a can’t miss future NBA star in Rob Dillingham, and the product of Kentucky basketball royalty in the homegrown Reed Sheppard,

It is the most-loved team the Bluegrass State has thrown its eight behind in quite some time.

For now.

The weeks ahead are certain to throw the Calipari-BBN relationship in one of two extreme directions. Either “Swaggy Cal” is officially back and the Wildcats are going to win multiple national titles over the next hanful of years, or the Cal era has run its course, and the man who once set the Commonwealth on fire needs to find a new home for his final act.

There will be no in between.

4. Arizona

Arizona fans have experienced three types of torture over the last decade.

First, there were the back-to-back Elite Eight losses to Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015, the ones that had head coach Sean Miller’s ability to “get over the hump” existing as one of the biggest questions in the sport.

Second, there was the program being in the middle of the FBI’s probe into college basketball, an event which left U of L in an unprecedented state of uncertainty, and which ultimately led to Miller’s ouster.

Most recently, there has been Arizona’s immediate and elite level of regular season success under new head coach Tommy Lloyd … and then its embarrassing NCAA tournament flops.

The Wildcats earned a No. 1 seed in Lloyd’s first season at the helm in 2022. After struggling to an overtime win over TCU in the second round, Arizona was manhandled in the Sweet 16 by a tougher and more physical fifth-seeded Houston team. It got worse a year later, when ‘Zona was stunned in the first round by No. 15 seed Princeton.

Now, after yet another Pac-12 championship, Arizona is back on the 2-seed line again. Lloyd deservedly seems to have the fan base’s full backing, but a third straight loss to a decided underdog — especially if it comes in the first weekend for a second straight year — might send Tucson into a full-blown state of panic.

Two times you can explain away. Three times is a trend.

5. Duke

Don’t let anyone tell you any differently: This is a massive month for Jon Scheyer.

Taking over for arguably the greatest college basketball of all-time at the program that currently serves as the face of the sport was always going to be a challenge. So far the early returns on Scheyer have been … mixed.

He certainly hasn’t been bad enough to warrant a mutiny or anything like that.

After an uneven debut regular season, Scheyer led Duke to an ACC tournament championship and a 4-seed in the Big Dance, where they were a trendy pick to make a run to the Final Four. After a dominant win over Oral Roberts in the first round, the Dukies were manhandled by Tennessee (65-52) two days later.

That performance was quickly forgiven as Scheyer landed both the nation’s top-rated recruiting classes and commitments from his top 2022-23 performers to return to Durham for another year. The assembled roster made Duke more than a few people’s preseason pick to win the national title, and the No. 2 team in the Associated Press preseason top 25 poll.

They have not quite lived up to that billing.

While the pitchforks and torches aren’t out yet, Blue Devil fans are at least a bit restless after a regular season that featured eight losses, a sweep at the hands of arch-rival North Carolina, and then a one-and-done performance in the ACC tournament.

For the second straight season, Duke will be a 4-seed in the Big Dance. A trip to the second weekend will be greeted with a golf clap and hope that even better days are right around the corner. An elimination in round one or two and the talk that taking a flyer on a 30-something who had never been a head coach before was an error in judgment will grow from a murmur to a shout.

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