It has become a bit of a tradition around these parts, when a professional sports season ends, to rank the most tortured fan bases, bottom to top, in each sport. The idea is to define which fan base deserves a championship the most, which one has most earned it. Here's the explanation:
It's a ranking of every team's fan base, from most to least spoiled. I want to find out who deserves it the most: who you, as a disinterested party, should be cheering for next year. Lots of factors are involved here: fan loyalty, passion, historical success, particularly painful eras, near-miss title chances, current roster, any ineffable notion that just occurs to me while I'm putting this list together.
We looked at baseball, the NFL and the NBA. (We'll be updating that NBA one come June.) In college sports, though, it's obviously more difficult: College football has 128 teams in Division I, and college basketball has 351. Fortunately, those sports have a way of whittling down the number of teams we have to discuss. This season, for the first time, we'll get four semifinalists in the College Football Playoff, and, of course, in the NCAA Tournament we have the Sweet Sixteen.
So rather than looking backwards like we do in the pro sports, let's look forward. Let's take a look at each of the 16 teams remaining and figure out which fan base, which institution, deserves a championship the most. Which ones have waited the longest, have been through the most to earn it. Let's dig in.
16. Louisville Cardinals. (Final Fours: 10. Championships: 3. Last championship: 2013.) It had been a long time in the relative wilderness for the Cardinals until last year's breakthrough, and as fun it might be to see them go for the first back-to-back titles since Florida's 2006-07 teams, it doesn't have the same zing to cheer for the rich to remain rich. Two titles in a row would just be spoiling.
15. Kentucky Wildcats. (Final Fours: 15. Championships: 8. Last championship: 2012.) Speaking of the rich getting richer, the Wildcats this year answered the question, "Hey, will a No. 8 seed ever beat a No. 1 seed and have it not only not feel like an upset, but also have you actively rooting for the No. 1 seed like they were a scrappy underdog?" This Kentucky team is gelling at just the right time, which would feel like a likable story if it weren't, you know, Kentucky.
14. Connecticut Huskies. (Final Fours: 4. Championships: 3. Last championship: 2011.) The Huskies are going for their third championship in a decade, though they've had their fair share of turmoil in the last few years, from bringing in a new coach to having to sit out the tournament all together last year. Considering they're stuck in the AAC while everyone else has found another chair, you almost want to have some sympathy for them.
13. Florida Gators. (Final Fours: 4. Championships: 2. Last championship: 2007.) Billy Donovan has come all the way around: He was once the unlikable upstart slickster and now feels like a grown adult with perspective and maturity. He's just a lot more likable than he used to be. That said, does Florida really need another championship so soon on the heels of their back-to-backs?
12. UCLA Bruins. (Final Fours: 18. Championships: 11. Last championship: 1995.) All right, so it has been almost 20 years since the Bruins won a title, and they've only won two in 40 years. They've still won freaking eleven total, and their insistence that they can make it 1968 again by science or magic has led to some unrealistic expectations that can be grating to the outside observer. Plus: Steve Alford might be kind of a bugger?
11. Michigan State Spartans. (Final Fours: 8. Championships: 2. Last championship: 2000.) As has been oft-told, this is the last chance for Tom Izzo to make sure that every graduating senior during his tenure as coach makes a Final Four. That's quite a line on a resume, and whether you want him to get it depends on how much affection you have for Izzo and his program. The Spartans are still the last Big Ten team to win a championship, and the conference would like to maybe grab one sometime this century.
10. Arizona Wildcats. (Final Fours: 4. Championships: 1. Last championship: 1997.) Arizona has had some historically cruel tournament exits -- this one was the worst, though depending on your perspective, it could be the best -- and every Wildcats fan is always afraid another one is coming. That said: They've also had a championship in their lifetime, and considering how hard it is to get one of those, the comparative pain involved is relatively low.
9. Michigan Wolverines. (Final Fours: 7. Championships: 1. Last championship: 1989.) The Wolverines came just one game short last season and have perhaps been even more impressive this year, particularly after overcoming Mitch McGary's injury. They have to be at this spot on the list, though, because they're the last of the Sweet 16 teams remaining to have won a championship in the last 70 years.
8. Baylor Bears. (Final Fours: 2.) Scott Drew is never given enough credit for how much he did to turn this whole organization around, but original sin is still sin: There's still a certain segment of the college basketball world that's going to continue to think of Baylor as the team whose coach accused a murdered player of being a drug dealer. How Drew has cleaned up this program is commendable, though, and a breakthrough of a Final Four should finally garner him the respect he's had coming to him.
7. San Diego State Aztecs. (Final Fours: None.) This is only the Aztecs' second-ever trip to the Sweet 16. (The first game in 2011.) They probably should have made it last year, but the Dunk City monster came up and bit them. It's sort of amazing the job that Steve Fisher -- who has won a championship -- has done here, and this is probably his best team.
6. Tennessee Volunteers. (Final Fours: None.) Sort of strange that the Volunteers have never made it to the Final Four, isn't it? They've only made it to the Elite Eight once, in 2010, and until 1976, they'd only made the tournament itself once. They'd be higher on this list, but it's still a football school, and most of their tournament success was when Bruce Pearl was coach, and honestly, those shouldn't count.
5. Stanford Cardinal. (Final Fours: 2. Championships: 1. Last championship: 1942.) When it has been that long since you won a championship, you haven't really won one at all. (The Cleveland Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948.) Coach Johnny Dawkins was considered by some to be on the hot seat coming into this year -- the Cardinal hadn't even made the tournament since 2008 -- but he's certainly safe now.
4. Dayton Flyers. (Final Fours: 1.) This is the first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years for the Flyers, who are boosted by one of the best, most avid fan bases in all of college basketball. They also just beat Ohio State and Syracuse in successful games; suffice it to say, Flyers fans love Buffalo more than just about anyone on earth. But is it enough to just have them in the Sweet 16? No matter what: It surely won't be 30 years until the next one.
3. Iowa State Cyclones. (Final Fours: 1.) Considering all the success the Cyclones have had in their history, from the Johnny Orr era to Tim Floyd to Larry Eustachy to Fred Hoiberg, it's sort of crazy this is only their fourth-ever Sweet 16 appearance. This is a basketball-mad school, coached by its best-ever, and most beloved, player, and their NCAA tournament history has been universally disappointing. If there were ever a year for them to finally bust through, it's this year. They have it coming.
2. Wisconsin Badgers. (Final Fours: 2. Championships: 1. Last championship: 1941.) No team throughout the country has been more maligned despite more success than the Badgers. They've made the tournament 16 consecutive years, and have now made the Sweet 16 three out of the last four. Yet still no one ever believes in them, preferring to assume they can't score (not true anymore) and play boring basketball (never true). Bo Ryan is the most underrated coach in the country, but he's never made that Final Four. Badgers fans are intense about their team, and they've waited a long time for this. Here's hoping this is finally the year.
1. Virginia (Final Four appearances: 2. Championships: None.) Virginia is such an underrated basketball school. They've got a lovely home arena, a fan base that's stuck around since the Ralph Sampson days and have had to be the ACC punching bag for years. How great is it that the big year of the ACC, the year Syracuse and Pittsburgh came in to make it a super league, the Orange are gone, Duke is gone and North Carolina is gone ... yet there's this tremendously likable Virginia team. They've waited the longest of anyone in this final 16, and they've been through the most. They're the pick.