The regular season wasn't boring, that's for sure
College basketball started fast, the season opening with a night to remember in Chicago. And that big night at the Champions Classic was only the preamble to a wild regular season, filled with unforgettable performances (we're looking at you Doug McDermott) and wild finishes (that would be you, Syracuse) and the pursuit of perfection (hello, Wichita State).
Sure, it's Champ Week, with conference titles and tournament bids on the line. But before we turn our eyes to the Madness of March, it seems only right to look back at the madness that was.
It has been the year of Doug McDermott
The 2013-14 regular-season gave us a career 3,000-point scorer, a 34-0 team and more good games than I can remember. If the NCAA tournament is half as good, my head might explode. Before that happens, let's take a look back.
Most memorable moment: It's a testament to Syracuse's excellent and occasionally strange season that so many of my runner-up moments are Orange-related. The best game of the season was Syracuse's double-overtime win over Duke. The best coaching ejection of the season belonged to Jim Boeheim, whose once-in-a-career blowup in Cameron Indoor Stadium (and the memes that followed) will forever be sealed into my memory. And the shot of the season was Tyler Ennis's 35-foot buzzer-beater to drop Pitt on Feb. 12 in a stomach-punch the Panthers still haven't recovered from.
But the moment I'll remember best, and longest, came Saturday night in Omaha, Neb. Doug McDermott's chase for 3,000 career points, and the legends he surpassed on the way, was the story of the season. That McDermott managed to write his finish at home, on senior night, with a career-high 45 points on 25 shots, in front of rapturous Bluejays fans, with a lead big enough to afford a late hug with his dad and coach -- it was the kind of moment you remember not months but decades down the line. What a player.
Player of the year: Doug McDermott, of course. This one should be fairly obvious, given the above paragraph and the nearly two months of Wooden Watches I've written with McDermott affixed in the top spot; the kid's Wooden Award is so locked in no one's even trying to be contrarian. In a sports culture built on argument, this kind of unanimous consensus is rare and refreshing -- and as good a way as any to demonstrate McDermott's once-in-a-decade brilliance.
Coach of the year: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State. People make mistakes. It's what we do. We drop our phones. We forget to run the dishwasher in time for dinner. We set our alarm clocks for 8 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. All it takes is one little innocent slip-up and bam: phone broken, deadline missed, dinner ruined. Now imagine that every time you leave your house, everyone around you is completely engaged in the process of making you drop your phone. Imagine spending five months without making even one little error. Imagine the intense and unceasing focus that would require. Wichita State just finished a college basketball regular season and conference tournament with a perfect 34-0 record. They just spent five months without making a meaningful error. Marshall is the coach of the year, and it's not close.
Biggest surprise: This was supposed to be the season that San Diego State finally stepped back and rebuilt. The Aztecs lost three seniors and star Jamaal Franklin from last season's 23-11 team; their best returning player was Xavier Thames, a little-known senior guard yet to submit an above-average offensive season in his career. You know what happened next: Thames emerged as a hyper-efficient, high-usage offensive weapon. The Aztecs morphed into the best defensive team of Fisher's career. And Fisher's team lost three games -- and became the first nonconference opponent in 68 tries to win at Kansas -- en route to a 27-3 season and a Mountain West regular-season title. No one saw that coming.
Biggest disappointment: In October, yours truly penned a feature about the Kentucky Wildcats. More specifically -- and, if I may be a tad defensive, this is the part people forget -- the story used Kentucky's sky-high preseason expectations, stoked by coach John Calipari himself, to dig into the larger undefeated "debate." Why were fans and writers so reflexively dismissive? Why did the idea draw so much ire? A few months later, it's clear we should have been talking about Wichita State, not Kentucky. The former might yet finish 41-0. The latter hasn't come close to their own coach's expectations or anyone else's.
Wichita State did everything perfectly
Let's start with a public service announcement: Regardless of what Wichita State does in the NCAA tournament, its historic run through the regular season is worth celebrating just like the rest of the college basketball season.
Most memorable moment: There were plenty of great moments to choose from, staring with Syracuse's 91-89 overtime win over Duke before 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome; Iowa State's triple-overtime win at Oklahoma State; North Carolina's Marcus Paige using his 34 points to outduel N.C. State's T.J. Warren 35 points by making the game-winning layup with 0.9 seconds.
But no moment matched one particular night of college hoops. The Champions Classic double-header on Nov. 12 -- with Kansas beating Duke and Michigan State beating Kentucky -- perfectly framed the college basketball season. On the big stage we saw a great duel with Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker. We saw Kentucky's Julius Randle shine, and the Spartans' experience prevail. The games lived up to the considerable hype, which is rare by today's standards.
Player of the year: Doug McDermott, Creighton. He's consistently brilliant to the point that scouting reports have shifted. Some teams no longer try to stop McDermott, they concede that he's going to get his average so they just aim to make sure his teammates don't go crazy. It's a shame that the Bluejays' switch to the Big East probably did more to boost McDermott's profile than the work he has done on the court the past four seasons. But at least he's finally getting his due.
Coach of the year: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State. Guiding the Shockers through an undefeated season pretty much speaks for itself. Marshall still finds ways to keep his team "playing angry," despite all of the national love they've been getting in terms of polls (they received 14 first-place votes in the Associated Press poll this week) and publicity (they've already taken photo shots for their second Sports Illustrated cover).
Biggest surprise: I'll take Nebraska over SMU here. For coach Tim Miles to have the Cornhuskers on the verge of an NCAA tournament berth is nothing short of remarkable. After losing four of their first five Big Ten games, the Huskers are one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 10 of their past 12. That stretch includes wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Huskers clinched their first winning season since 1999-2000; their win over then-No. 9 Michigan State was their first over a top-10 opponent since beating No. 7 Iowa on Feb. 22, 1997. And they did it again by beating No. 9 Wisconsin in the regular-season finale. Nebraska's fourth-place finish in the Big Ten is its best since the 1997-98 season, which happens to also be the last time it made the NCAA tournament.
Biggest disappointment: Kentucky has fallen from preseason No. 1 to not mentioned at all. The Wildcats are looking more and more like a reincarnation of the 2011-12 Connecticut squad. The Huskies, coming off a national title, had an uber-talented roster led by NBA lottery picks Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb. But those Huskies never learned how to play as a team even though everyone kept waiting for their talent to kick in. They ended up as a No. 8 seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament and lost their opening game to Iowa State. Kentucky has more talent, on paper, than that UConn team. But the Wildcats seemed destined for the same level of underachievement.
A season remembered for one shove
The college basketball season began with the hype of the Champions Classic, and the drama never waned with one of the better regular seasons in the past few years.
Let's hope the postseason doesn't disappoint.
Most memorable moment: Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart pushing Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr. This was a bizarre situation that ended up touching off a conversation about fan-player behavior and was a precursor to the ugly incident at Utah Valley and UC Santa Barbara. It also cost Smart a three-game suspension and contributed to a seven-game losing streak for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys will now be seeded more to their record than their talent.
Player of the year: Doug McDermott, Creighton. McDermott came back to college to play for his dad, Greg, the school and to deliver another NCAA tournament berth. He returned for all the right reasons and answered every challenge. He was sensational from the opening tip to the final buzzer on Senior Night. McDermott finished the regular season in seventh place on the all-time scoring list with 3,011 points by pouring in 45 in the victory against Providence. He crushed Villanova in two games. He scored the winning basket against Butler and St. John's when everyone in each arena knew he was going to take the shot. He helped Creighton's transition to a new conference and followed up his prolific scoring in one conference (the Missouri Valley) by doing it in another (the new Big East). He rewarded his father, his teammates, his school and a city that supports him with a sensational season.
Coach of the year: Billy Donovan, Florida. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall deserves this honor as much as anyone for going undefeated. Arizona's Sean Miller did a sensational job reinventing the Wildcats after Brandon Ashley was injured. But Donovan went undefeated in the SEC, the first team to go 18-0 in league history, and will likely earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gators had to deal with an early suspension to Scottie Wilbekin, attrition, injuries and, later, the addition of Chris Walker. The Gators handled it all with a complete buy-in from seniors on down. This has been his best coaching job in what has been an illustrious career.
Biggest surprise: Virginia. The Cavaliers were blown out by Tennessee 87-52 on Dec. 30. The Cavs looked offensively challenged and lost. Since then, Virginia twice -- at Duke by four and in the regular-season finale at Maryland -- and won the ACC regular-season title outright. Virginia could make a case for a No. 1 or 2 seed if it were to win the ACC tournament. The veteran team was selfless, was fully invested into the defensive posture needed and found a second gear offensively in the second half of the ACC season.
Biggest disappointment: UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels are oozing with talent and yet had befuddling losses, mostly in conference. UNLV could never string together a streak to have them believable as a real contender to San Diego State and New Mexico. The Rebels can redeem themselves with a Mountain West Conference tournament title on their home court.
So what happened to Kentucky, after all?
Well, it's time to hand out some hardware for the 2013-14 college basketball season.
Most memorable moment: I still don't know how he made the shot. There were a bunch of Pitt defenders around Tyler Ennis and they were certainly terrified of fouling him. But somehow, Ennis hit that ridiculous buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a 58-56 win over Pitt on Feb. 12. The freshman will be featured on highlight reels for years to come as a result of that shot. If you replayed that shot 1,000 times, he'd probably miss 999 of his attempts. On that night, however, Ennis had the magic.
Player of the year: Doug McDermott, Creighton. How about the guy who just topped 3,000 points for his career? McDermott has been racing alone for months. Sure, Jabari Parker and Nick Johnson and other standouts around the country have produced admirable stat pools this season, but McDermott's numbers (123.4 offensive rating, per Ken Pomeroy) have been historic. It's a tremendous conclusion to a unique career. He's averaging 26.5 PPG and 7.2 RPG. He'll earn his third consecutive first-team All-America honor from the Associated Press, something that hasn't been accomplished since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing did it 30 years ago.
Coach of the year: Larry Brown, Southern Methodist. If I can pick only one -- because I'd rather pick a few -- I'll go with the veteran who managed to secure an at-large bid for an SMU team that hasn't danced since 1993. Even in 1993, Brown had already left college basketball following a national title run with Kansas. But he's back and, like a vintage wine, he has proven that he can still coach with the best of them. First, he attracted the talent (mostly, to date, via transfers) who've boosted the Mustangs this season. But he has also enhanced this team in ways that few coaches could. SMU wasn't even in the top-150 of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive and deficiency ratings last season. This season they're 89th and 12th, respectively. What can Brown do for you? Well, he can turn your program around.
Biggest surprise: Tony Bennett's program wasn't given much credit as it walloped the ACC's second-tier by double digits for about month. Sure, the Cavaliers could play with the rest, just not the best, right? Those doubters were silenced when Virginia punched Syracuse in the mouth during a 75-56 victory on March 1 and subsequently won the ACC championship. Now, Virginia might even make a case for a top seed, depending on what happens in the conference tourney.
Biggest disappointment: Too easy. Kentucky began the season with a No. 1 ranking. The Wildcats were compared to the "Fab Five." The Final Four seemed like a formality. And then, the season began and we realized the Cats weren't who we thought they were. This team is thriving on reputation. The Wildcats have a win over Louisville and a lofty strength of schedule. But if you stripped the name "Kentucky" off its jerseys, more folks would probably question its presumed status as a lock for the Big Dance. Kentucky is the biggest disappointment of 2013-14. And it's not even close.
Nobody saw Larry Brown, SMU coming
My overall impression of this season: wacky. Maybe we should have expected it, what with so much reliance on freshmen, that tend to be only slightly more reliable than toddlers, but this season has been chaotic, charged and impossible to predict. Hopefully March won't be much different.
Most memorable moment: The back of the rim rattler that would have been Rodney Hood's winning dunk in the first go-round of Duke-Syracuse. Which wins by the narrowest of margins over Rasheed Sulaimon's unbelievable 3-pointer that forced overtime. The NCAA tournament will be hard-pressed to match the intensity and execution of that sensational game, one that went overtime but that most everyone in the packed Carrier Dome would have been glad to see go even longer.
Player of the year: Doug McDermott, Creighton. There are plenty of players who have distinguished themselves this season, but none can touch McDermott. It's not just the numbers -- the 26.5 points per game, the 52 percent from the floor, the rewriting of the record books -- it's the fact that he has done all of that even though everyone in every gym knows he's The Guy for Creighton. Living up to expectations is hard. Exceeding them is amazing.
Coach of the year: Billy Donovan, Florida. Outside of Tom Izzo, no one has had to juggle more moving parts in his lineup than the Florida coach. Some of it self-inflicted from suspension, some bad luck via injury. Regardless the Florida coach hasn't so much as flinched, going about the business of coaching his team and winning games. Put Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith in the lineup against Wisconsin and there's a chance that the Gators are staring at a one-loss season.
Biggest surprise: Southern Methodist. When the school hired Larry Brown, I honestly thought it was a cheap and easy publicity grab. I forgot one small item: that Brown is a Hall of Fame coach for a reason. The quick resurrection of the previously flat-lined and thoroughly irrelevant Mustangs might be the most staggeringly impressive work on Brown's staggeringly impressive resume. In two short seasons, Brown has SMU headed to its first NCAA tournament in 21 years.
Biggest disappointment: This is disappointment with a caveat, because a good March run can cure a lot of ills and turn a disappointing season into a memorable one. But as it stands right now, it's hard not to tag Kentucky with this one. The Greatest Recruiting Class Ever Assembled instead has dovetailed into an unranked, none-loss team. It's not just the number of losses or even, frankly, who the Wildcats have lost to. It's how they've looked doing it -- disjointed, sometimes disinterested and with little evidence of improvement -- that puts the albatross around UK's neck, at least for now.
Andy Katz's Weekly Honors
Coach Of The Year Race
We couldn't boil down the list. That was the amazing thing.
Every year, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association board members and district representatives get together on a conference call to boil down the candidates for player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year. Usually it's not terribly complicated. This year it was.
Not for the first two, but for the third. There were so many choices, we were worried we'd leave someone off.
Which got me to thinking, what would coaches say? Who among their peers would they deem the most worthy?
So I decided to ask. I polled 22 different coaches -- from big conferences and small, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest and South -- and asked them (anonymously so they wouldn't feel strange) to name their national coach of the year and why he earned their vote.
No surprise, there wasn't a consensus.
A majority, yes, but not a consensus.
Each week we release the Freshman Tracker, and each week there are new names and movement.
Andrew Wiggins finished the regular season with a career-high 41 points on Saturday afternoon, and then Jabari Parker put up a career high (30) as well. Wiggins has made his move, but it wasn't quite enough to take over the top spot.
Check back each week, as we'll have updates on how the top freshmen did on the floor and give you the rundown on the top first-year players in the country in a season in which the young guys wasted little time taking center stage.
Here is our updated ranking of the 10 best freshmen in college basketball.
The Blue Devils forward had a double-double in their loss to Wake Forest, with 19 points and 10 boards, and then went for 30 points and 11 rebounds in Saturday's win against North Carolina.
Stats: 19.2 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 49 percent FG, 38 percent 3-pointers | Previous rank: 1
Wiggins was quiet in the Jayhawks' win over Texas Tech with just nine points, but then went ballistic in a loss at West Virginia, going for 41 points and grabbing eight rebounds. It wasn't enough to overtake Parker, however.
Stats: 16.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 45 percent FG, 35 percent 3-pointers | Previous rank: 3
Ennis finished with 18 points and dished out seven assists, but the Orange fell at home to Georgia Tech, marking their fourth loss in the past five games.
Stats: 12.3 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.4 RPG, 2.0 SPG | Previous rank: 2
Planning For Success
Here's a random question: Before Friday, when Harvard cinched its third-straight Ivy League title, when was the last time you heard about the Crimson?
Unless you're a die-hard Ivy League hoops fan, it's safe to guess the last time was Jan. 21. That's when Harvard lost at Florida Atlantic, 68-53, and officially ended any and all hope it had of earning an at-large NCAA tournament bid. More than that, the loss at FAU -- a genuinely bad loss to a genuinely bad team -- had the effect of cooling almost all of the hype that accompanied Harvard before the 2013-14 season began.
Back then, the Crimson were coming off a first-round No.3/No.14 upset over New Mexico, and re-adding previously suspended seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey to a young team that had already shown glimpses of its bright future. When Harvard went to UConn on Jan. 8, the Crimson were a reasonable upset pick. When they lost by five in Gampel Pavilion, suspicions of quality seemed confirmed. And then the FAU thing happened, and the record scratched to a sudden halt. Harvard kind of just ... went away.
College Hoops' Best Players
Planning For Success
Exactly one year ago, Iowa finished its Big Ten regular season 20-11 overall and 9-9 in league play. That record earned the Hawkeyes the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, where they faced No. 11-seed Northwestern. When they won -- and they did -- they moved on to face the No. 3 seed Michigan State.
Exactly one year later, there seems to have been a glitch in the matrix.
The Hawkeyes' 66-63 loss at Illinois on Saturday, the most disappointing of Iowa's five-losses-in-six-games slide, made the Hawkeyes 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. On Thursday, Iowa, the No. 6 seed, will play Northwestern, the No. 11 seed, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. If Iowa wins, they'll earn a matchup with -- you guessed it! -- No. 3-seed Michigan State.
No statistic could more accurately or hilariously sum up the frustration of Iowa's 2013-14 season than the above. For all of the promise of this season -- for as well as Iowa played for whole swaths of the calendar and for as thrilling and efficient as it often was -- it has, in the end, found itself exactly where it was one year ago. It's not really worth calculating the odds, so don't, but seriously: What are the odds?