STORRS — The last time the UConn basketball team missed the NCAA Tournament in successive years was 1988-1989. Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas. The Red Sox were still cursed. And the "Lethal Weapon" sequels had only reached 2, on their way to 5.
Yes, it has been a long time.
So there was a real sense of joy Sunday for the Huskies to get another chance at a national championship, even after a one-year absence. The Huskies were put in the NCAA penalty box for lousy academics last year. There was the Nate Miles scandal, too. There were transfers and defections to the NBA. After three national championships, the program was in some danger of foundering.
"It has been a great journey," said coach Kevin Ollie, who has 46 wins under his belt over two seasons, yet only Thursday at 6:55 p.m. against Saint Joseph's in Buffalo does he get his first chance at an NCAA victory. "There were some dark days there. Everybody in life is going to have dark days. I'm just so proud of the guys. They stayed together.
"We're back where we belong."
Yet the joy of opportunity Sunday was mitigated by a wicked slap to the face by the NCAA selection committee to a conference where UConn has found itself because of the shameless money grab of conference realignment.
The NCAA committee has its metrics. The NCAA has its explanations. The NCAA has its rationalizations. The NCAA also spat on the American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies may be back where they belong in the NCAA Tournament, but when you see what happened to the AAC, you've have to wonder are they where they belong in a conference that is getting a short shrift by the NCAA power structure? Or at the very least, conference members giving the league the short shrift through insufficient scheduling?
Defending national champ Louisville got a No. 4 seed? It's unbelievable. Forget a 4 seed. I've got them in the Final Four with Florida, Michigan State and Arizona. Louisville has been the hottest team in the country over the past dozen games.
If you don't believe me, ask Dick Vitale.
"Unbelievable!" Vitale screamed on ESPN. "I cannot believe that Louisville, based on an eye test, is a No. 4 seed. Louisville definitely, definitely got a raw deal."
"To suggest that Louisville isn't one of the top 12 teams in the country just boggles the mind," he said on ESPN.
And Seth Davis on the CBS selection show?
"Absolute shock," he said. "In my 11 years being on the selection show, this is the most surprised I've been. We thought they might be a 1. They end up a 4."
Back at Gampel, UConn took a more holistic view of the shaft. The Huskies had a critical eye top to bottom. Virtually every analyst had UConn at a 5 seed, at worst a 6. The Huskies got a 7. SMU, which beat UConn twice and was ranked in the Top 25 for a good portion of the season, was left out completely.
"I don't know what their criteria are," Ollie said. "I never know. It's always a little different every year. I feel bad for Larry Brown [SMU coach and a mentor].
"Louisville, 4 seed, I mean that team beat us three times. I think they are one of the best teams in the country. But in the end, seeding doesn't matter. It's what you do on the floor."
When the Huskies walked away from the AAC final in Memphis on Saturday night, beaten by double digits for the third time by Louisville, nobody was saying the Cardinals were, oh, the 14th-best team in the nation.
"Louisville is a really great team with a really great coach," DeAndre Daniels said. "A lot of people feel they should be a 1 or 2 seed. I was surprised by the 4 seed."
"That's crazy," Daniels said. "That blew my mind. I saw lot of teams [in the tournament] that SMU is a lot better than."
"I'm definitely surprised Louisville got a 4 seed."
"I don't get into seeding. Those guys have a hard job. But I'm surprised SMU didn't make it. Their collection of work is good and they beat us twice."
Evidently, SMU's collection of work wasn't good enough.
On the selection show, Wake Forest's Ron Wellman, chairman of the selection committee, said SMU's strength of schedule was lacking.
"SMU had an outstanding resume, but their nonconference strength of schedule was in the 300s, which is not very good obviously," Wellman told CBS. "Their overall strength of schedule was 129 and next the lowest SOS in the field was 91. It still remained a very difficult decision. When you give them the eye test, they were very impressive to the committee."
Obviously, not impressive enough.
I was having a little late bite to eat at a Denny's near the Memphis Airport on Saturday night — yes, Denny's, but it was a heart-healthy cranberry apple chicken salad — and reading all the tweets and reports about the Big East championship at Madison Square Garden. Writers and fans seemed to rejoice at Providence's victory, how Dave Gavitt must have been looking over PC and the how fans were partying like it was St. Paddy's Day. I continued to scroll through stories how the ACC is finalizing details to play its conference tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn as early as 2017. I'm sitting there thinking, "Two conference tournaments in New York and the UConn banner isn't flying at either of them? Man, does that suck."
Villanova of the Big East is 2 seed and Creighton is a 3 seed. Louisville would spank either of those teams. Believe it.
UConn can beat St. Joe's. And if the Huskies do, they are capable of beating Villanova in round of 32. So they don't have to moan about the matchups. Yet Virginia, Iowa State and Michigan State are in the East, and they cannot be considered favorites against any of those teams. Beyond that, Cincinnati, UConn and Memphis of the AAC are jammed in the East as the 5, 7 and 8 seeds. If that's not an invitation by the NCAA to get lost, what is? Could you imagine if that happened to the Big Ten or ACC? They'd be threatening to leave the NCAA.
Recruiting, APR, winning, selling football, getting into a Power Five conference, the fight is nonstop for UConn. To say otherwise is a lie. On the field, in the scheduling, in the boardroom, the AAC must put constant pressure on itself to succeed and constant pressure on others to get respect.
Without the Big East, granted, Louisville's schedule didn't measure up to previous seasons. There were early losses to North Carolina and Kentucky. But Wellman had talked about the eye test.
"I think if you ask anybody, Louisville is playing as well as anyone and the committee certainly agrees with that," Wellman told CBS. "However, we look at the total body of work. And throughout the season in comparing everything they did from November through March, we feel that every time we scrubbed that seed, Louisville ended up right at the same place every time."
The Big East got 11 teams into the tournament in 2011 when Kemba Walker led UConn to the national title. We were spoiled. Yet all of those teams, except for Cincinnati, will be scattered to the NCAA wind for UConn by next season. When Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said Saturday night if you want to blame anybody for Louisville's strength of schedule problems, blame football, you know what? He's not wrong. The dynamics of the two sports don't always support each other.
UConn has to fight like crazy to make sure football does not become a curse for its basketball jewel.
"I'm so proud our guys, what they've done, how they kept this program afloat," Ollie said. "You always want to get a lower seeding, but I'm happy for our team. This is their prize for having a great season. Now we're going to see what we're going to do with our prize."
Yes, the joy of opportunity still exists.