This past season a group of teenage girls at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois barked out plays gilded in gold.
"We ran all the old Coach Wooden/UCLA stuff," said Woodlands coach Larry Farmer. "I had 16-year-old girls who were yelling out 'L Cut! UCLA Cut!'
Even though it's over the phone, it's obvious Farmer is glowing while relating the story. The former UCLA forward under John Wooden is from a different age at an advanced age. Now 72, he remains a direct descendant of college basketball's greatest dynasty.
In the early 70s, Farmer played on three consecutive national championship teams -- part of Wooden's 10 overall -- going 89-1 as a player. It matters less at the small Catholic girls' high school he coaches now that Farmer's Wildcats finished 10-13. It matters more the lessons they learned.
"We would be in team meetings and talking after a practice," Farmer recalled to CBS Sports. "They would say things like, 'Be quick, but don't hurry.' 'It's amazing how much can be accomplished when no one is concerned who gets the credit.' "
Those enduring chestnuts are the foundations of Wooden's team-building philosophy. Now they are Woodlands' too.
"The legacy," Farmer added, "is alive and well."
That legacy also serves as a reminder in this year's NCAA Tournament how unlikely – almost impossible – sustained championship excellence can be. This season marks a half century since UCLA last won consecutive titles. It has been accomplished only twice since then: Duke in 1991-1992 and Florida in 2006-2007.
Kansas is trying to become only the fourth team to do it in the last 50 years.
Whether back-to-back titles will ever be won again is wrapped in the vagaries of the modern game. Transfer portal, one-time transfers, injuries. Pressure is to win it all annually is a given at bluebloods like North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and UCLA.
"That standard is still the same," Farmer said. "When you practice every day or play every game and there are 11 banners hanging over your head [at UCLA], it's like being a Celtic or a Packer."
The defense rests
How the NCAA Tournament champions have fared since the Florida Gators won back-to-back championships in 2006-07.
|Year||Champion||The following season|
|2007||Florida||Lost in the NIT semis to UMass|
|2008||Kansas||Lost in Sweet 16 to Michigan State|
|2009||North Carolina||Lost in NIT championship to Dayton|
|2010||Duke||Lost in Sweet 16 to Arizona|
|2011||UConn||Lost in first round to Iowa State|
|2012||Kentucky||Lost in NIT first round to Robert Morris|
|2013||Louisville||Lost in Sweet 16 to Kentucky|
|2014||UVonn||Lost in the NIT first round to Arizona State|
|2015||Duke||Lost in Sweet 16 to Oregon|
|2016||Villanova||Lost in second round to Wisconsin|
|2017||North Carolina||Lost in second round to Texas A&M|
|2018||Villanova||Lost in second round to Purdue|
|2019||Virginia||No tournament held|
|2020||No tournament held||N/A|
|2021||Baylor||Lost in second round to North Carolina|
The evidence against a repeat of a repeat is foreboding. Since Florida won those consecutive championships, no defending champion has advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
Not one. You would expect some level of carryover in that 15-year span. There has been little. Four defending champions didn't make the tournament the next year, being relegated to the NIT. A year after winning it all in 2012, a 12-loss Kentucky was bounced out of the 2013 NIT in the first round by … Robert Morris.
One championship (Louisville, 2013) was vacated by the NCAA. UConn lost in its 2012 NCAA Tournament opener after winning it all in 2011.
Virginia went from being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 (in 2018) to national champions (2019). But the Cavaliers never had a chance to defend its title after the 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.
Eleven teams won championships from 2007-2022. North Carolina, Duke, UConn and Villanova did it twice in that span (but not in a row). The combined NCAA Tournament record of those 11 teams the next season is a middling 12-9.
"You have to be blessed to win it all," Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
The Jayhawks are now on the clock in Year 16 since Gators ruled the earth. After taking their fourth national championship last year, the Jayhawks have followed up winning their 17th Big 12 regular-season Big 12 title in Bill Self's 20 seasons. As this season progressed, his players talked openly of winning consecutive national championships.
"Once you see the light," freshman forward Ernest Udeh said last weekend. "Now you're like, 'Hold on, we've got a chance to do something going back-to-back.' "
There were cruel reminders of the task ahead last weekend. Self was hospitalized having two stents inserted to open clogged heart arteries. Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar Jr., one of the Jayhawks best defenders, was hampered by back spasms. Kansas advanced to the Big 12 Tournament Championship Game under interim coach Norm Roberts then – without Self and McCuller -- were clobbered by 20 points by Texas.
"They [Kansas] have a chance," said Taurean Green, a point guard on those Florida championship teams. "but they have to avoid the upsets of March Madness."
For starters. We may never see planets align like they did at Florida those two years. Billy Donovan had just turned 40, looked 15 years younger and ruled the college basketball world. After winning it all in 2006, his stars Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford decided to come back.
"They were all going to be first-round picks," Green said. "Joe [Noah] was possibly going to be the No. 1 pick that year. Corey had the most to gain for his family and all that stuff. He decided to come back. Al was like, 'Shit yeah, let's run it back.'
"We all decided we came in together and we were all going to go out together."
UCLA was a victim of the Gators in both years. Coach Ben Howland and the Bruins had front row seats to history. They were in the middle of three straight Final Four appearances from 2006-2008. Florida beat UCLA in the 2006 national championship game and again in a 2007 national semi.
"To think that Horford and Noah came back for another year, that just won't happen," Howland said. "It doesn't happen. It was a miracle it happened then."
That was during a time when Howland had Russell Westbrook for two whole years. Luc Mbah A Moute -- who played 12 years in the NBA – was a three-year starter. Guard Jordan Farmar was the Pac-10 freshman of the year in 2005, all-Pac-10 and honorable mention All-American in 2006. Guard Arron Afflalo played three years, was a consensus All-American in 2007 and became a first-round draft choice.
Try hanging on to that much talent these days.
Villanova might have come closest to history the last 15 years. Jay Wright's Wildcats won two titles in three years (2016 and 2018). But after each season they lost second-round tournament games. In between, North Carolina won it all in 2017.
Mike Krzyzewski went out with a flourish, retiring with a Final Four appearance in 2022. After his last championship in 2015, the Blue Devils went to a Sweet 16, two Elite Eights and that Final Four. That standard mentioned by Farmer has now been inherited by Jon Scheyer.
"We didn't have a watch party," Farmer said of the UCLA days. "We knew we were going. It was a matter of we had to do what the teams before us had done. It wasn't getting to the Final Four. It was winning the national championship."
While the transfer portal is largely to blame, college basketball has been adept in that space for years before the portal debuted in October 2018. The one-time transfer rule that debuted in August 2021 made it more of a roster management game for all coaches.
"If you have a good team it's hard to have that great team the following year," Drew said. "If you do have a talented team, they probably don't have the experience the following year because they've left.
"If you look at Florida, that was unique when they repeated. Those guys chose to not go in the draft. They chose to return. That's probably the last time you had that much talent return that were first and second-round picks."
Drew's 2021-2022 Bears were coming off a dream season. The previous season they had fought through COVID-19, lost only twice and advanced to the program's first Final Four since 1950 in 2021. Baylor then ended Gonzaga's bid for an undefeated season in the championship game. That was the first time two No. 1 seeds had met in the championship game since 2005.
The Bears looked like they were going back-to-back starting 15-0 the next season despite the loss of four players to the draft. Then injuries hit hard. Three players went down with season-ending injuries, the Bears went 11-6 down the stretch and were knocked out in the 2022 second round by North Carolina.
"If you have a good team, it's hard to have a great team …," Drew said of a repeat. "You have to have the momentum, the confidence, the chemistry and stay away from key injuries."
Kansas believes it has the goods to go all the way again. Forward Jalen Wilson came back himself and became the Big 12 POY. Point guard Dajuan Harris was named the league's defensive player of the year. Self has laid down the mantra for the season: The faces may change, the expectations don't.
"I've been thinking about [repeating] all year, honestly," McCullar said. "It's no surprise around here, that's what we're playing for."
Kansas' losses seemed too much to overcome. Ochai Agbaji was the Big 12 player of the year in 2022, consensus All-American, Final Four most outstanding player and first-round draft choice. There is a reasonable discussion to be had whether 6-10 Dave McCormack was arguably the Final Four's best player. He had a combined 40 points and 25 rebounds in the two games.
Shooting guard Christian Braun averaged 14 points and was drafted in the first round by Denver.
The repeat talk would not be a discussion point had not the Jayhawks rallied from 15 points down at halftime against North Carolina in the championship game. Self is known for being one of the best in-game coaches. But his player development is equally amazing. One of the criticisms early on of this team was lack of production in the middle and secondary scoring.
The post is getting more production as 6-7 sophomore KJ Adams and his backup, the 6-11, Udeh mature. Have freshman Gradey Dick emerged as that next scoring option and is expected to be a one-and-done. What does it all mean?
Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Maybe never again.
"Billy, I'll never forget it, it must have been after the first championship," former Florida AD Jeremy Foley said of Donovan. "He said, 'If you started the tournament the next day, you'd get totally different results.' The tournament is so frickin' hard."