Season in Review: Top 15 Storylines From 2010-11Posted by rtmsf on April 8th, 2011
From Jimmer to Kemba to a Blue Devil toe that wouldn’t heal and a Rocky Top saga that wouldn’t end, it’s been another wild season for college basketball fans from coast to coast. As we bask in the afterglow of 68 teams down to UConn’s championship, let’s take a look back at the top 15 storylines (in no particular order) of the 2010-11 season.
- Kemba vs. Jimmer. The national Player of the Year race hasn’t been this exciting since Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and JJ Redick of Duke took turns outdoing each other from opposite ends of the country back in 2006. Yet these two one-name guards, Kemba from the Boogie Down Bronx and Jimmer from a tiny town in upstate New York, electrified fans nationwide with their unique ability to take over games at Connecticut and BYU, respectively. Kemba Walker, the cocksure Husky guard with the ball on a string and a crossover dribble to make defenders cry, carried UConn to 32 wins, a sterling 14-0 record in knockout games and the school’s third national championship in what was supposed to be a “down” year. Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer at 28.9 PPG and owner of a deadeye jumper pure out to 30 feet, inspired fans to call their cable companies to add The Mountain to their channel lineup. While it was The Jimmer who swept the NPOY awards (which are based on regular season performance only), we here at RTC factored Kemba’s Big East Tournament MVP and NCAA Tournament MOP performances into our selection of the UConn superstar as our 2010-11 Player of the Year.
- A Tourney to Remember, a Championship to Forget. On the opening Thursday of the NCAA Tournament, still the first “real” day of the Dance to most people, five of the first eight games of the day ended on the final possession. In addition to close games, there were upsets aplenty in the first weekend, as Butler (knocking out #1 seed Pittsburgh), VCU, Marquette, Florida State and Richmond all broke through as double-digit seeds into the Sweet Sixteen. The fun didn’t stop there, wither Arizona and Kentucky beating #1s Duke and Ohio State, respectively, in the Sweet Sixteen, followed by VCU shocking the world with its destruction of #1 Kansas in the Elite Eight. The combined seed total of #3 Connecticut, #4 Kentucky, #8 Butler and #11 VCU was the highest ever in a Final Four, and although the two semifinal games were hard-fought and exciting, the 53-41 championship tilt between UConn and Butler was widely regarded as an ugly finish to what had been a tremendous tournament. Butler’s 18% shooting for the game was the worst-ever in a championship, and the meme that the national sports media was that such a dud represented some kind of fault in the sport itself. Last year’s Duke-Butler championship and 2008’s Memphis-Kansas games were awesome — where were those people then?
- Kyrie Irving’s Toe. In early December, there was some talk that preseason #1 Duke, with All-Americans Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler returning to join wunderkind point guard Kyrie Irving, could go unbeaten this year. All of that discussion ended on December 4 when Irving sprained his toe during what appeared to be a routine play in a win over Butler. The young player with an explosive extra gear in the open court suffered damage to a ligament and bone that made cutting, running and jumping without pain very difficult. Subsequently, after sitting out over three months resting and rehabilitating the unusual injury, Irving returned to the court during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. While at first it appeared that Irving could be the x-factor needed to put Duke into the driver’s seat in a crowded field of national title contenders, there was some question as to whether his return to the lineup threw off the delicate chemistry that Coach K and his players had engendered throughout the season. The Devils were thoroughly dominated by Arizona and Derrick Williams in the Sweet Sixteen — Irving played well with 28 points against the Wildcats, but his backcourt mate Nolan Smith only managed eight points while committing six turnovers.
- The Tourney, It is a Changin… As part of last summer’s $10.8B blockbuster partnership between CBS and Turner Sports to televise the NCAA Tournament for the next fourteen years, some major changes accompanied this year’s Big Dance. First, expansion. The NCAA added room for three more at-large teams (and Virginia Tech still wasn’t invited), slotting the last four at-larges and the last four automatic bids into a “First Four” series of play-in games on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights before the rest of the Tournament’s start. Secondly, the addition of Turner Sports’ cable channels TBS, TNT and TruTV to the viewing options allowed every Tourney game to be broadcast live across the entire spectrum, with CBS/Turner staggering tip times to ensure that games with compelling finishes would occur at different times. Fans proved to like the new and more flexible format, as television ratings during the first weekend were up 15% over last year and finished up seven percent overall, its highest rating since the 2005 Tournament.
- Continuing Impact of Fab Freshmen. The impact of Kyrie Irving on Duke is well-documented, but in a sign of these one-and-done times, multiple other collegiate rookies led their teams to great seasons this year. The best among a strong crop was Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, a 6’9, 280-lb manchild who averaged 17 PPG and 10 RPG while manning the post for Thad Matta’s #1 Buckeyes — in OSU’s season-ending upset loss to Kentucky, the big man who claims he’ll be back in Columbus next season went for 21/16. Other star freshmen included North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes, a talented wing who came on strong in the last third of the year (including a 40-point game in the ACC Tournament and 21/8 averages in the NCAAs), Kentucky’s duo of Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones (both all-SEC selections and integral to the Cats’ Final Four run), and Texas’ pair of Canadian imports, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. Additionally, while Kemba Walker rightfully got most of the credit for UConn’s magical run through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments this year, it was UConn’s freshman class of Jeremy Lamb (11/5), Shabazz Napier (8/3/3 APG) and Roscoe Smith (6/5) who enabled him to do his thing in key spots.
- Coach K Chases History. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski won 32 more games this season, a number that brings the total to 900 victories in his illustrious career. With two more wins in 2011-12, he will tie his coaching mentor, Bob Knight, for the all-time record for wins in Division I; his third victory next season will give him sole possession of the record. Despite losing the nation’s most dynamic playmaker, Kyrie Irving, barely a month into the season, Coach K adjusted his offense to run through Nolan Smith and guided his team to yet another ACC Tournament title and NCAA #1 seed. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how good Krzyzewski has been for so many years, but as a brief reminder: in 31 seasons in Durham, his teams have averaged 26.7 victories and have made the Final Four every third year. Without a doubt, on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaching legends, Coach K is second only to Wooden to ever teach young men this game.
- Butler Pulls Another Butler. In ESPN’s Tournament Challenge this year, only 0.2% of over 5.9 million brackets submitted picked Brad Steven’s Butler Bulldogs to get back to the national title game. And yet there they were last Monday night, after having vanquished Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Florida and VCU in succession on its way to another chance at the championship. Unlike last year’s game against Duke, though, there would be no halfcourt heartbreaker this year as the Butler shooters all went cold en masse and UConn ran away from the Bulldogs in the second half. Still, the odds of a mid-major program such as Butler (having lost lottery pick, Gordon Hayward) making it to consecutive national championship games is astronomically small, even in an era suggestive of more parity than ever. Brad Stevens has shown every sign that he he is committed to remaining in Indianapolis, but the true mark of his success there will be the long-term sustainability of BU as a national player after the core group of Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Hayward are gone.
- Bruce Pearl’s Sordid Saga. It all started last summer when NCAA investigators received a photo taken at Bruce Pearl’s house with a recruit there while on an unofficial visit to Tennessee. When queried by those gumshoes about the possible violation, Pearl initially denied knowledge of the visit to his house before later retracting his position when confronted with the picture. In a tearful September press conference, Pearl vowed to not make any more mistakes and took responsibility for his actions. The school then terminated his contract (although he remained head coach) and the SEC subsequently suspended the jocular coach for the first eight conference games of the season. The Vols started off strong, defeating Big East powers Pitt and Villanova in the pre-conference schedule, but sputtered the rest of the season (19-15) before getting obliterated by Michigan in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round. After further allegations of more violations involving extra tickets for a player and a possible substance abuse cover-up came to light, Tennessee decided to fire Pearl, the most successful coach UT has had in a generation, in March.
- From First Four to Final Four. When the brackets were released on Selection Sunday, howls of disdain were heard throughout the college basketball universe when Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams were placed on the board as a #11 seed and slotted into the First Four. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas notoriously stated that the selection of the CAA runner-up as an at-large into the NCAA Tournament didn’t even pass the “laugh test,” much less the “eye test.” Undoubtedly using his and other media slights for motivational fodder, the likable Rams team led by Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez reeled off wins over BCS conference teams USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to make its first-ever Final Four two weeks later. During the run, we learned about the awesomeness of the VCU pep band, the PhD track not taken by head coach Smart, and that a mid-major from Richmond, Virginia, might just have brought more fans to the Final Four in Houston than powerhouse Connecticut.
- Big East Sends Eleven Teams Dancing. Much of the talk during February and early March centered on how many teams the powerful Big East Conference would have invited to this year’s NCAA Tournament. Sporting a boffo RPI and as many as eight ranked teams in the national polls, the league of sixteen schools managed to secure a record eleven bids to the Big Dance, shattering its previous record of eight achieved in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Fortunately for haters of “east coast bias” everywhere, only two of those eleven – Connecticut and Marquette – survived the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, suggesting that the strength of the conference this season was in its depth rather than elite teams at the top. UConn’s run to the national title, of course, quieted some of that talk, but the fact remains that the Huskies were the only ones left carrying the league flag this season. In fact, six of the nine “biggest upsets” of the first weekend, according to Nate Silver at the New York Times, involved Big East teams as losers – the Big Least, indeed.
- Robbie Hummel’s Tough Break. Purdue star Robbie Hummel tore the ACL in his right knee in February 2010, ending his junior season early and dashing the Boilermakers’ title hopes mere weeks before the NCAA Tournament that year. Stud teammates E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson eschewed the lure of the NBA and returned for their senior seasons in 2010-11, and with a fully recovered Hummel, Purdue was considered in the pre-season to be one of the few teams with enough talent and experience to challenge Duke for the national title. On October 16 — the first full official day of practice of the new season — Hummel, a presumptive first team All-American, re-tore the ACL he had just spent months rehabbing, this time ending his season before it even began. Moore and Johnson led Purdue to an admirable season culminating in the Third Round with a loss to upstart VCU, but premature exits in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments will always have Boiler backers wondering what might have been if Hummel had been healthy. Luckily, he will be back for his redshirt senior season in 2011-12.
- SDSU’s Dream Season. Before this year, the San Diego State Aztecs had sold out Viejas Arena eight times in the building’s 13-year existence. This year: a school-record 13 sellouts. It’s all because Steve Fisher, in his twelfth season as head coach at SDSU, has built a championship-caliber squad full of long, quick, athletic players. Chief among them was sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, an eventual NBA lottery pick whose combination of power, speed and finesse makes him a pleasure to watch and sets the tone for the whole team. We knew Fisher’s Aztecs would be good this season, but nobody knew they’d be this good. The 20-0 start to the year, the shared Mountain West Conference title (with BYU), the postseason MWC Tournament championship and a run to the Sweet Sixteen have given San Diego sports fans a reason to smile, especially after they suffered through a late-season swoon by the Padres and a non-playoff year for the Chargers. The Aztecs stand to lose quite a bit of talent from this year’s squad, but with Fisher continuing to recruit well and the positive publicity gleaned from this year’s team, don’t be surprised if we hear from SDSU again very soon.
- Don’t Believe the Midseason Hype. At the midseason point, several brand name teams appeared in the midst of a spiral that would leave them on the outside looking in come March. Notably, perennial powers such as Gonzaga, Kansas State, Butler and Michigan State looked like teams headed to the NIT or worse. K-State star Jacob Pullen even noted in a January interview that he had no interest in playing in a postseason tournament without the letters N-C-A-A in it. Partially because of a weak at-large field this season but mostly because each team found itself down the stretch of the season, all four rallied to make the NCAAs, and in Butler’s case, produce another scintillating run at the national title. The lesson here is that sometimes it may take a little longer for excellent coaches to make wine from water, but they usually find a way, as Mark Few, Frank Martin, Brad Stevens and Tom Izzo all did this year.
- Lavin Makes NYC Hoops Matter Again. Prior to this year, St. John’s’ last trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 2002. In eight seasons between then and now, the Red Storm had become a Big East doormat, never finishing in the top half of the conference. Many New Yorkers adopted Syracuse or UConn as their home team just so they could identify with a winner. Enter Steve Lavin, the former UCLA boss who decided to trade his ESPN analyst’s mic for the job out in Queens. He took 13 players he’d never met (including eight seniors) and molded them into a disciplined yet athletic club that was a blast to watch as they accumulated victories over supposedly better foes, culminating with a blowout win over Duke on January 30. They won 21 games, finished fifth in the Big East, and restored some college basketball pride back into the Big Apple. The past was present as the Garden rocked in 2010-11, and with the recruiting class Lavin’s already lined up next year, the future looks bright at the intersection of Seventh Ave. and 32d Street.
- Derrick Williams Revives a Desert Powerhouse. It had been a few years since Arizona had been a player on the national scene, but Sean Miller and his superstar forward Derrick Williams revived hopes of glory in the desert again this year. A 30-7 season culminating in an emasculation of Duke in the Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight appearance where the Wildcats were the team closest to knocking off UConn was as unexpected as it was rewarding for the Pac-10 regular season champions. Williams may not have gotten the publicity that others received throughout the year, but there was no better wing forward anywhere. The talented sophomore averaged 19.5 PPG and 8.3 RPG while shooting nearly 60% from the field and an equally ridiculous 57% from beyond the arc. Still, the “Whole Enchilada of La Mirada” took the basketball universe by storm with a 25-point first half against the defending champion Blue Devils and several eye-popping dunks that vaulted him to the pinnacle of nearly every mock draft list for this coming summer. Even if Williams exercises his option to enter the NBA Draft pool this summer, it’s become clear that Sean Miller is well on his way to establishing the Wildcats as an annual powerhouse again.