This college basketball season has been one of mixed emotions.
We’ve celebrated the careers of legends Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian while mourning their passing. We watched Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Philadelphia’s Herb Magee celebrate their 1,000th win. We’ve watched day-in and day-out greatness at Kentucky.
Yet we’ve also watched another Hall of Fame coach see his legacy tainted and the future of the program thrown into doubt due to NCAA violations, and Jim Boeheim wasn’t alone in dealing with off-court issues when programs should be gearing up for postseason.
Amid all of this, March Madness and the unpredictability of tournament season is here. Remember, at this point last season, Connecticut was on no one’s radar as a national championship contender. Neither was Kentucky. A series of upsets, though, led us to UConn winning a national title. Madness, indeed.
For any fan just getting into college basketball in time for championship week and office pools: What took you so long?
You have some catching up to do. By waiting until the final weeks, you’ve missed a historic season. Every season is historic for one reason or another, so maybe this season will be among the most memorable even before the NCAA Tournament.
You may need to catch up a bit, but that’s what you’ll learn here.
Kentucky is going for perfection
College basketball hasn’t had a story like this since — when, exactly? Kevin Durant vs. Greg Oden in the first year of one-and-done in 2007? The Christian Laettner Duke years? This is the No. 1 story in college basketball as Kentucky tries to match Indiana’s undefeated national championship team in 1975-76. Only five teams since have entered their league tournament undefeated, and only 1991 UNLV could claim to be as divisive. No fan base is more invested than Kentucky’s, and John Calipari may be the only coach to match Mike Krzyzewski as a love-him or hate-him figure in the sport. One way or another, Kentucky will make history in this Tournament — either by becoming the first team to go 40–0 or being on the wrong end of a monumental upset.
The Player of the Year race may go down to the wire
Maybe it’s for the best that the race for the Wooden or Naismith awards doesn’t get the same hype as the Heisman Trophy. A year after the Player of the Year award was a season-long coronation for Creighton’s Doug McDermott, the sport has a legitimate two-player race between Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Both play center for national championship contenders, but they don’t fit the same profile. Okafor, who does his best work around the basket, has been a contender for the No. 1 overall draft pick since he was in high school. Kaminsky, who is more of a threat from the perimeter, was a virtual unknown two years ago. This will be the most heated Player of the Year race since Duke’s J.J. Redick and Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison shared the award in 2005-06.
A Final Four drought could end out West
The two best coaches who have never reached the Final Four both reside out West, and both may have their best chance to reach the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga’s Mark Few has a 30-win team that may be better than his Bulldogs team that was a No. 1 seed in 2013 or the team with Adam Morrison in 2006. Meanwhile, Sean Miller’s Arizona team recent wrapped up another Pac-12 championship and will enter postseason with one of the best rosters in the nation. Miller has been to the Elite Eight three times in his career, once with Xavier and twice with Arizona.
Mike Krzyzewski reached 1,000 wins and should keep adding more
Earlier this season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski became the first Division I coach to reach the 1,000-win mark, and he has a team that should be able to build upon that total in the NCAA Tournament. He has Okafor anchoring the center spot, but his backcourt of freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook may be the most clutch duo in the country. Depth and defense remain an issue for the Blue Devils, so there’s hope for the Duke haters who enjoyed the Devils’ recent Round of 64 losses to Mercer (2014) and Lehigh (2012).
Tony Bennett is college basketball’s newest miracle worker
Virginia hasn’t been this good since Ralph Sampson played for the Cavaliers, but what’s most remarkable is that the Cavs aren’t doing it with a ton of stars or flash. Virginia has won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles and enters conference tournament season with just two losses. Coach Tony Bennett has done this without a five-star prospect or a McDonald’s All-American and without his top player, Justin Anderson, for the final eight games of the regular season. The style isn’t for everyone — Virginia ranks 349th of 351 team in terms of tempo — but it is effective.
Villanova is the best team no one is talking about
Villanova has only lost two games yet is flying under the national radar — a bit puzzling for a program that has won a national championship, been to a Final Four in recent years and has a star coach on the bench. The reason? Maybe it’s because the Big East doesn’t get much exposure from ESPN since most its games are on FOX Sports 1. Or possibly because Villanova lost last season as No. 2 seed in the Round of 32. Whatever the reason, don’t hold it against this year’s Villanova team. The Wildcats are in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a trademark of teams that go on to win the national title.
The Hall of Fame announcement will actually be interesting
Speaking of Bo Ryan... the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame probably isn’t something even the most ardent fans spend time pondering, especially during the week of the Final Four. This season, though, the announcement may carry more weight than usual. Active coaches John Calipari and Bo Ryan are on the ballot this year. The announcement of new inductees will be made April 6, the same day as the national championship game. Will one or both be involved?
Off-court issues threaten to mar a great tournament
Speaking of Hall of Famers, this has not been a good year for Hall of Fame coaches. Krzyzewski dismissed a player who was later revealed to be facing sexual assault allegations. Syracuse banned itself from the postseason months before the NCAA hammered the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim for a wide range of violations. North Carolina coach Roy Williams has an athletic department embroiled in an ongoing academic scandal that seems to get worse every passing week. SMU coach Larry Brown hasn’t had his best player eligible all season. Kansas’ most highly touted freshman and pro prospect might not play again this season while the NCAA investigates possible contact between his family and an agent. Why don’t we all get back to basketball for a bit.
You’re going to get annoyed at officials
The NCAA Tournament is the crown jewel of the college basketball season and the only college athletics event that comes close to rivaling football. If that’s the case, then why is the product sometimes so crummy? If you’re just checking in with the sport, be prepared: Officiating is inconsistent, defensive players are allowed too much contact and the end of games take for-ev-er due to too many team and official timeouts. This, unfortunately, is the norm.
Power teams will be at home
Hope you didn’t expect to tune in to watch Syracuse, UConn, Memphis and Florida in this field. They’re home. Sorry. UCLA and Texas are also flirting with the NIT.
Big names will be back
In the place of those powerhouses, you should be able to welcome back Larry Brown, who hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1988. Brown’s SMU team was snubbed last season, and now the Mustangs are ready to be in the field for the first time since 1993. Other powers due to be back from long absences: Purdue (2012), Maryland (2010), Utah (2009) and Arkansas (2008).