Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Court Report: Ranking the 20 biggest stories in men’s college basketball for our 2021 year-in-review

On Jan. 2, college basketball’s greatest pass of 2021 happened. It was delivered by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs. This is what it looked like. If you’ve not seen this before, you’re welcome. 

Wizardly mildly marred by the fact that the layup was not converted. Anyway, I bring this up because I can’t believe that was only 12 months ago. It honestly feels like that happened in Suggs’ second game at GU. That’s what a pandemic can do to one’s sense of time. As we do every year in the final Court Report of December, it’s time to recap the previous 12 months and give you an overview of the biggest stories that mattered in men’s college basketball. A few that narrowly missed include: the tragic death of former Kentucky player Terrence Clarke; Georgetown winning the Big East Tournament for the first time since ’07; Michigan’s COVID pause stoking bad blood in the Big Ten; and the NCAA denying Oklahoma State’s appeal of a postseason ban. 

20. No. 5 Duke upsets No. 1 Gonzaga in Las Vegas (Nov. 26). Best game of the ’21-22 season to date. Potentially the No. 1 and No. 2 NBA picks in 2022 squaring off. Then factor in nine lead changes, six ties and high-level offense between two title contenders making for the best nonconference affair of Mike Krzyzewski’s final season with the Blue Devils. Only a few games in a given year qualify as one of the biggest headlines in the sport, but this one — which came the day after Thanksgiving — was so good it rated as the most-watched pre-January ESPN college hoops tilt since 2018. The reason I’m listing it: the win solidified Duke’s credibility as a title contender this season, an important development after the Blue Devils failed to make the NCAA Tournament earlier this year, its first miss since 1995.

19. Emoni Bates joins Jalen Duren in reclassifying, committing to Memphis (Aug. 25). This story evolved over the course of six weeks. It first got legs when we reported in mid-July that Duren (No. 1 recruit in 2022) was going to reclassify, and he committed to Memphis on Aug. 6. Nineteen days later, Bates (the No. 2 recruit) reclassified and followed suit, giving Memphis the No. 1 class in 2021 and making the Tigers the most interesting/noteworthy/hype-worthy team last offseason. The commitments vaulted the Tigers into the preseason top 10. Fast-forward to the end of December, and yeah, it’s not gone to plan. Like, at all. COVID issues, locker room issues, coaching issues and a 6-4 record. Penny Hardaway is yet to coach an NCAA Tournament-worthy team. This season was supposed to be different. We’ll see if 2022 can be.

18. Luka Garza is consensus National Player of the Year (April 3). The Hawkeyes had their best season in school history, earned a No. 2 seed and Garza was the wire-to-wire pick for best player. That RARELY happens. He had his number retired and led the nation in points scored (747), PER (35.6) and ranked in the top 10 nationally in 15 of the 48 statistical categories tracked/listed by Sports Reference. Iowa failed to reach the Sweet 16, but that doesn’t change how great Garza was for four-plus months — especially considering how many really good big men were stampeding around the Big Ten. 

17. Mark Turgeon steps down at Maryland (Dec. 3). A stunner. How often does a coach walk away in the middle of the season when there is no clear successor in line? I can’t remember that happening. Turgeon walked into the Maryland athletic offices a day after losing at home by four points to Virginia Tech — when he was again incessantly booed — and said he would not go for another game. So ended a tenure that began in 2011 and saw the Terps go 226-116 with five NCAA Tournament trips and one Sweet 16 run. The Maryland job is top 20-value in the sport; when Turgeon left I published an initial list of candidates the school should consider. Expect a new name or three to emerge in the next two months. 

16. Former Louisville assistant Dino Gaudio charged with extortion attempt (May 18). Only Louisville provides conveyer-belt reliability for the absurd. If you’re reading a college hoops notebook in late December, there’s no chance you missed this story, but here’s the short of it. After Louisville was the surprising snub of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, coach Chris Mack shook up his staff and did not renew the contracts of two of his assistants. One of them was Gaudio, who, by the way, goes so far back with Mack that he recruited the Cardinals coach to Xavier when Gaudio was an assistant in the 1990s. Gaudio was so thrown by Mack’s decision he threatened to out the program’s rule-breaking. Mack secretly recorded the meeting then turned the tape over to his bosses. The move would eventually lead to Louisville suspending Mack for six games for violating school policy. Gaudio’s allegations led to even more investigations into Louisville’s already-on-probation program. A mess. Gaudio eventually got off lightly (was he ACTUALLY going to extort his former boss/longtime friend?) and Louisville still awaits whatever sanctions could come in 2022.

15. Mark Few arrested for DUI (Sept. 6). On the heels of a 31-1 season, one of the biggest names in the sport was taken into custody the Sunday of Labor Day weekend after drinking and driving. Few left his lake house in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on his way back to Washington, when he was spotted driving erratically. It’d been a long time since a college basketball coach made headlines for a DUI. 

“I’ve just tried to use it as a huge jump-off point for positive action and positive change,” Few told the media in early November. “To try to make myself better and try to help as many other people as I can.” 

Few paid a $1,000 fine and served 24 hours of community service. He was suspended from Gonzaga’s premier preseason event (Kraziness in the Kennel), two exhibition games and the team’s season-opener vs. Dixie State. He returned for game No. 2, a highly-anticipated home tilt vs. No. 5 Texas, which brought some criticism for being too light of a punishment. 

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Oral Roberts became the second 15-seed to reach the Sweet 16. USATSI

14. Oral Roberts reaches Sweet 16 (March 21). Had the NCAA Tournament had fans, this one might have been a little higher. (There’s no denying that a Cinderella story is enhanced by the indelible scenery of the crowd going batty when a huge underdog pulls off an upset or two over the big boys.) ORU, the No. 4 seed in the Summit League tourney, became the second No. 15 to win two games in the NCAA Tournament, joining Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. That’s a big story unto itself. All these months later, it seems like people have forgotten the Eagles were one shot away from making the Elite Eight! Max Abmas’ 3-pointer vs. Arkansas was just a little left. Otherwise, we’ve got a top-three Cinderella run in history. 

13. Historic coaching carousel turnover (March, April, June). Five of the top 10 jobs announced changes. This had never happened before within a calendar year. In chronological order, this is how it happened: Indiana fires Archie Miller on March 15. Shaka Smart leaves Texas for Marquette on March 26, which opens the job for Chris Beard to take it on April 1. An even bigger story happens shortly before the Beard news on April 1: Roy Williams announces his retirement. Six days later, on April 7, Arizona fires Sean Miller. That’s four jobs. The fifth comes not with an immediate change but is the biggest announcement of all. On June 3, Duke announces that Mike Krzyzewski will retire in 2022. There were more than 60 coaching changes in 2021, including Marquette, Oklahoma, Utah, Cincinnati and Iowa State. College hoops had never seen such consequential movement in one year like ’21.

12. Big 12 realignment brings Houston, UCF, Cincinnati and BYU to league (Sept. 3). Power-conference realignment is big news, but it’s not as big in basketball as it is in football, so the next two stories fall short of the top-10 threshold. The Big 12 did well for itself — as well as it could have — in sustaining its relevance and power after losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. It also fell into actually having 12 teams again. Houston, Cincinnati and BYU are all trending up in men’s basketball. UCF should only get better. Bob Bowlsby managed an unexpected crisis quite well. The schools will start joining in 2023.

11. Texas, Oklahoma bail on Big 12 for SEC (July 30). I don’t think any headline listed caused more of a stir or caught more people by surprise than when word first leaked on this in late July. But as I wrote above, the realignment moves were catalyzed by football, and therefore hold more relevance to football than men’s basketball. That’s why I’ve got them outside the top 10. The Big 12 can keep Texas and Oklahoma to their contracts until 2025, but there is skepticism the union holds that long. Additionally, I’m skeptical a 16-team SEC will be a positive thing for college sports.

10. Gonzaga, Baylor separate from the pack (January-February). Let’s put aside the title game. (That’s coming.) Think back to 11, 12 months ago. Prior to Baylor going on a two-week-plus pause in February, the Bears and Zags elevated themselves from the rest of the sport. As you can see in the link three lines up, it became the story in college basketball for about a month. After losing their matchup in December 2020 to COVID precautions, the teams continued to dominate others, going undefeated into February. There was no assurance they’d ever meet in the postseason. It gave us one of the best 1-vs.-2 plot points in a season in the past 20 years. No telling when we’ll have two high-profile teams last well past Valentine’s Day without a loss again. 

9. John Chaney dies at 89 (Jan. 29). College basketball misses John Chaney. Maybe the best coach to never make a Final Four. The man who defined Temple and changed the way a lot of coaches approached scheduling. My obituary is linked there, but the definitive piece on the man was written in 1994 by Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith. Put aside 45 minutes soon and transport yourself back to when longform sportswriting could produce something this good about college basketball and help define the contours of a season in the process.  

8. Women’s NCAA Tournament inequities vs. men’s NCAA Tournament (March 18). Oregon superstar Sabrina Ionescu was one of the best women’s players of the past decade. But it’s a tweet she sent out on March 18 that set into motion everlasting change in her sport. 

This ties into men’s hoops, as the glaring lack of resources of one event vs. another prompted an equity review of the women’s tourney vs. the men’s, plus ongoing discussions about improvements to make the women’s event bigger and better. One is inarguably more popular than the other — and so more resources have been and should be applied to that — but it doesn’t mean the women’s event can’t be substantially enhanced. 

7. Roy Williams retires (April 1). If I’m putting this at No. 7, you know it’s a huge year. Thirteen days after Williams lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career, North Carolina released a statement that he’d coached his last game. Being that it was April Fools’ Day, there was a pump-fake for plenty in the media at first. But daggumit, this was it. Ol’ Roy had been plotting this for a time, kept it under wraps and left a life of college coaching after 43 years, the final 18 at his alma mater. Williams retired with three national championships, nine Final Fours and 903 wins, ranking him fourth all-time in D-I wins behind Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. 

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Roy Williams’ retirement on April 1 stunned the sports world. USATSI

6. Supreme Court case sets table for long-overdue NIL legislation (June 21, June 30). Two HUGE offseason stories that thread together. On June 21, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against NCAA in the Alston case, which determined college athletes were eligible for academic-related benefits the way everyday students receive them regularly. That ruling set the tone for inevitable NIL rules to change on June 30, as many states’ legislation were going to allow it beginning July 1. After narrow-minded opposition for decades over players being able to profit off their talents while in college, and without federal law to fall back on, the NCAA put in a temporary rule to allow schools and leagues to govern themselves. The rule is still in place. There is no going back. And college sports hasn’t been hurt one bit by the long-overdue evolution to its amateurism model.

5. Omicron puts college basketball’s season into chaos again (ongoing). No need to ramble here, as we’re still living in this story. It’s roughing up all our sports heading into 2022. At the time of the Court Report’s publishing, more than 90 schools in men’s basketball have gone on COVID pause this season. More than 50 of them are paused now. We’ve lost more than 150 games and can only hope that a year from now when I’m recapping 2022, nothing tied to COVID lands in the top 20 of the biggest stories of the year. But who am I kidding?

4. Jalen Suggs’ 37-footer beats UCLA in OT of Final Four (April 3). In the spring of 2020, I took a week of my life to research and write out the 101 greatest NCAA Tournament games since 1985 (when the field expanded to 64 teams). I didn’t rank those 101 games, but if I did and if I expanded to include the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the national semifinal between Gonzaga and UCLA would rank in the top three. Blueblood vs. new blood. Gonzaga trying to become the first undefeated national champion since 1976 — and needing to beat storied UCLA, which made the shocking run from the First Four to the Final Four, to do it. UCLA gives Gonzaga its best game of the season to that point. High-level competition on the biggest stage. Johnny Juzang helps get it to OT, then ties it off his own miss with seconds to go. No timeout. Jalen Suggs is scurrying. He’s stopping. Shot is up, finds the glass and in goes what now could be considered the best buzzer-beater in tournament history.

3. Coach K retirement announcement (June 3). He’s leaving after Duke’s season ends in 2022, but the mere news of this, even if nine-or-so months in advance, easily rates as one of the biggest headlines. For many, John Wooden is the greatest coach in history due to winning 10 national titles. But Wooden coached at a time when you didn’t have to win more than four games to win the NCAA Tournament. Krzyzewski won five by needing to win six, guiding Duke over four decades and through different phases of an evolving game. When you factor in his work with Team USA and coaching the United States to three gold medals, you can make the case that Coach K is the best coach in college basketball history. His retirement will leave a void in the sport, and seeing Duke enter into a new phase without him will be fascinating.   

2. Baylor ends Gonzaga’s undefeated season (April 5). More times than not the NCAA Tournament fails to give us a championship game with the two best teams. It’s the feature and the flaw of a 68-team bracket. So it was poetic and, frankly, karmic in the midst of a pandemic that the tourney gave us the top two in the last game of the season. Then Baylor went out and dismantled 31-0 Gonzaga. Perfect season no more. Baylor wins its first national championship. Scott Drew completes one of the best rags-to-riches coaching stories ever in college athletics. And now, as we sit here today and Baylor is the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 again, it must be said: Baylor is the best program in the sport.

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The 2021 NCAA Tournament setup was unique — and hopefully never needed again. USATSI

1. Unprecedented single-site NCAA Tournament successfully completed in Indianapolis (March 18-April 5). Sixty-eight teams, with 67 of them getting to play a game. (VCU was forced out because of COVID.) Sixty-six games in seven venues, with some fans allowed, and a quasi-bubble environment. North of $70 million spent on what could be argued is the most logistically challenging non-Olympics sports event ever held on American soil. The NCAA did it in Indy for the men and San Antonio for the women. It was necessary. It was unique. It was a daily news event, considering the size and scope after not having a tournament in 2020. In many ways, it was also fun for how it brought all the teams together and made it feel like a huge AAU tournament. There were a lot of great things about holding the 2021 tournament under stressful and unwanted conditions. So for all the strange appeal this single-site event had, all reasonable minds can agree: we never want to have to do something like that ever again.

Final shots

• With the omicron variant posing an everyday threat to teams and leagues everywhere, a quick congrats to the Missouri Valley — the only league in 2021 to play every conference game. 

• The NCAA sent word to membership last week that it won’t be making a decision on amended game-minimum policies for 2022 tournaments in winter sports until mid-January at the earliest. Current number is 25. My dart throw more than three weeks out is it gets reduced to 18.

• Up until a week ago, Houston was a viable Final Four contender. Now the Coogs — who are on pause — have lost their leading scorer (Marcus Sasser) and another key starter (Tramon Mark) for the season, in addition to not having Kyler Edwards in the short-term due to a tender ankle. 

• A league that’s been better than you think: the Mountain West. Its .695 nonconference win percentage ranks fifth, and all 11 teams in the league have a .500-or-better record. The only others that can claim the same are the Big 12 and Big East. What’s more, the Mountain Wes has 10 wins over the Big 12, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC. Will be a three-bid league, minimally.

• The American and the A-10 amended their forfeit policies this week, but there is another league that stuck with it: the MAAC, which joins the WAC in staying firm. Rumblings out there that the Missouri Valley is also moving off a firm forfeit protocol.

• Still three teams without a win this season: Fairleigh Dickinson, Mississippi Valley State, Prairie View A&M.

Harvard becomes the latest school (joining Yale) in updating its attendance policy in January. General public no longer allowed.

• “Baylor is obviously well right now, but to me, the championship goes through Lawrence, Kansas, until otherwise said.” Who said it? Texas’ Chris Beard. By the way, Baylor has the best win percentage in college basketball since 2019 and went 32-2 in the year 2021. They won’t forget this is Waco, Chris!

• Let’s close with some year-end content on the music side of things. Looking back, 2021 feels like one of the weaker years for releases in the past decade. Here are five of my favorite LPs of 2021.

  1. Silk Sonic, “An Evening with Silk Sonic”
  2. Low, “Hey What”
  3. The Weather Station, “Ignorance”
  4. The War on Drugs, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore”
  5. Elbow, “Flying Dream 1”

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