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Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Could UConn ever become a blue blood?

By Eamonn Brennan

UCLA. Kentucky. Kansas. North Carolina. Indiana. Duke.

Any reasonable college hoops fan will recognize those six programs as the sport's true "blue bloods." Each is steeped in enough history, tradition, success, resources and fan interest to qualify as the elite of the elite in the sport. They're the six jobs every college hoops coach dreams of one day obtaining, the six teams you always expect to be good, the six programs that spend huge amounts of money and effort each and every year assuring that their fan bases never have to confront the frightening notion that the "good old days" are lost and gone forever.

UCLA, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Indiana and Duke are the all-time college hoops aristocracy. It might be hard to remember in this topsy-turvy modern college hoops world, in which talent is diffused and resources are widespread. Fans of college basketball's other 300-plus programs might not like the idea. But even in the midst of modern struggle, the blue-blood label remains. For the past 25 years (since 1986), at least one of those six programs has been represented at the Final Four.

Connecticut Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun
Since Jim Calhoun took over in 1986, the Huskies have won 603 games and been to four Final Fours.
Now becoming a college hoops blue blood is a little like becoming a tenured professor. Or a member at Augusta National. Or a reporter for "60 Minutes."

It's not easy to get there, but once you're in, you're seemingly in forever.

But what is a blue blood, exactly? How do you become one? What threshold must a program cross to earn that distinctive label?

And, more to the point: Will a program like Connecticut's ever be able to cross it?

If Jim Calhoun's Huskies were to win the national title this year, UConn fans might have a reason to take a step back, survey the historic college hoops landscape and ask, "Why not us?" A win in 2011 would give Connecticut its third national title in the past 13 seasons. Since Calhoun took over in 1986, the Huskies have won 603 games, been to four Final Fours, notched nine Big East regular-season championships, and recruited the best young college basketball players in the country on an annual basis.

If you were born around the time I was born -- August of 1985, to be exact -- you don't remember a time in which Connecticut wasn't one of college hoops' elite powers. You remember Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Rudy Gay. You remember the always-cool uniforms with that unique UConn print. The Huskies are sort of like Florida is in college football. Although both have some proud "ancient" history, both really came on to the national scene around 1990 or so. So for my generation and younger, all we remember from those two is nothing but high-level success.

Does that make Connecticut a blue blood? Of course not. Would another national title seal the deal? Or is that exclusive club essentially closed to "outsiders" forever?

Answering these questions isn't exactly easy. "Blue blood" is a vague term. It doesn't come with a list of criteria. It's hard to quantify the opaque qualities we think of when we picture college basketball's elite. Before we delve into UConn, then, let's look at each team's all-time résumé and see exactly what level of success this term entails.

UCLA
NCAA titles: 11
All-time wins: 1,709
Final Four appearances: 18
Defining coach: John Wooden
Defining era: From 1960 to 1975, the Wooden-led Bruins won 10 national titles, had four 30-0 seasons and built a nigh-untouchable record for consecutive wins at 88.

Kentucky
NCAA titles: 7
All-time wins: 2,052
Final Four appearances: 14
Defining coach: Adolph Rupp
Defining era: Rupp coached UK from 1930 to 1972, and his consistent success (four national titles, 27 SEC regular-season championships, 876 total wins) and occasional brushes with controversy gave berth to the modern Kentucky hoops powerhouse we've seen since.

Kansas
NCAA titles: 3
All-time wins: 2,038
Final Four appearances: 13
Defining coach: Dr. F.C. "Phog" Allen, Dr. James Naismith
Defining era: Kansas gets two defining coaches because one literally invented the game of basketball (Naismith), while the other (Allen) won the school's first national championship in 1952 and helped organize the first NCAA tournament.

North Carolina
NCAA titles: 5
All-time wins: 2,033
Final Four appearances: 18
Defining coach: Dean Smith
Defining era: In 36 years as UNC's head coach, Smith didn't just recruit Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford, Sam Perkins and the rest of UNC's long line of first-round NBA draft picks. He also invented a handful of college hoops strategies that have since dug their way into the fabric of the game, while positioning North Carolina, like Kentucky and Kansas, as the epicenter of a state's collective consciousness.

Indiana
NCAA titles: 5
All-time wins: 1,663
Final Four appearances: 8
Defining coach: Bob Knight
Defining era: From 1971-2000, Bob Knight lorded over Indiana basketball with a hegemony most sports figures never achieve. He also won. Knight coached the Hoosiers to 24 NCAA tournament appearances, three national titles, and the last undefeated season (1975-76) the sport may ever see.

Duke
NCAA titles: 4
All-time wins: 1,944
Final Four appearances: 15
Defining coach: Mike Krzyzewski
Defining era: When Coach K took over at Duke in 1980, the Blue Devils had become a second-fiddle hoops program at a school known more for its elite academics than for its rowdy Crazies. Thirty years, 900 wins and four national titles later, Duke is the most recognizable program in college basketball.

How do UConn's all-time numbers stack up? The comparison is favorable in some areas, less so in others:

Connecticut
NCAA titles: 2
All-time wins: 1,547
Final Four appearances: 4
Defining coach: Jim Calhoun
Defining era: Calhoun's 603 wins at UConn account for more than a third of the program's all-time total. In 25 seasons, the occasionally grumpy coach with the trademark Boston accent has transformed Connecticut from a middling Big East program (and before that, a little-known Yankee Conference stalwart) to one of the truly elite powers in all of college basketball.

There are some strong arguments to be made for the Huskies. The wins total is competitive with Indiana's and Duke's. And if UConn wins the national title this season, it would tie Kansas with three national titles and be but one championship behind the Blue Devils. (Speaking of which, how does Kansas only have three national titles?)

Perhaps the best comparison is with Duke: Both programs were unknowns before iconic coaches took over, and both programs have dominated the sport in the decades since. But UConn hasn't been quite as dominant in the NCAA tournament: In 30 years, Coach K has taken Duke to 11 Final Fours, while the Huskies are making just -- ha, "just" -- their fourth appearance in that span.

Of course, all that only covers each program's sheer success. It's much harder to define what those programs mean to fans, how they're perceived throughout college basketball, and how the nature of their place in the sport affects that vague blue-blood status.

Is UConn a blue blood? Why? Why not? And how many more titles would they need to win and how many years would need to go by before the Huskies are considered a historic program? Even with all the history in front of you, this is not an easy question to answer. The year 1990, after all, won't always be considered "modern times."

One thing is clear: If Connecticut wins the 2011 national title, not only will Jim Calhoun go down as one of the greatest coaches the sport has ever seen, but the program he built from the ground up will deserve a place in the conversation -- if not in the pantheon -- as one of college hoops' greatest and most historic entities.

It's a hard club to crack, but UConn might just have a shot. Your move, Huskies.