Wrapping Up the 2012-13 Season: The 10 Biggest StoriesPosted by Chris Johnson on April 12th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The awesomeness of the national title game almost makes you wish the season had another five months of games to offer us. It doesn’t, of course, which means it’s about time we start glaring into the blank expanse of another long offseason. But before we move ahead, before we start counting down the months, weeks and days until tip-off 2013 (Midnight Madness!), let us go back and review the stories that defined the 2012-13 season. I’m talking about the headlines with the most resounding impact – not always the rosiest or most enjoyable developments. That means good and bad, but hopefully more good. If you kept a pulse on the game this year, the following tropes will strike a familiar note, positive or otherwise; if not, then where exactly have you been since November? In the interest of not dragging out this preamble, let’s turn to the matter at hand and count off 10 of the 2012-13 season’s biggest storylines.
(* in no particular order)
Kentucky. The domination and instant stardom of Kentucky circa 2012 had the poll voters convinced: the Wildcats had perpetually solved the one-and-done riddle, and everything that happened during that Anthony Davis-led title season would become something like a yearly occurrence for John Calipari’s team. Calipari would recruit the best players, mold them into a national champion-caliber outfit, and repeat the whole process again the next year. Clockwork. So Kentucky entered the reason ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll. This seemed like a reasonably fair assessment at the time; another loaded recruiting class, the residual winning momentum of the previous season, a once-recruiter turned excellent head coach who seemed to have this recruit, develop and draft thing figured out was evidence enough that the Wildcats would turn in another deep-Tournament run with the same freshmen-lead constitution that had brought the BBN so many good memories during the first few years of Calipari’s tenure. Kentucky needed to get to the Tournament first, and as the season wore on and the flaws of UK’s roster construction – almost zero experience to speak of, the absence of a true leader, the realization that not all highly-recruited freshmen are Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – became evidently obvious, reality sunk in: Kentucky wasn’t going to make it.
A season-ending ACL injury to star center Nerlens Noel in February doomed the Wildcats’ chances, but the speculation hung right up until Selection Sunday, and when the Wildcats were passed over by the likes of Middle Tennessee, La Salle and Saint Mary’s, the only question remaining (a minor one, to be sure) was how motivated John Calipari’s team would be in a prospective NIT matchup at eight-seed Robert Morris. Yes, Kentucky, college hoops royalty at its purest, was being asked to finish its season on the road in Moon Township, PA., Calipari’s home town. And yes, Kentucky fell to the Colonials, prompting a rare NIT court storm from a packed Charles L. Sewall Center, a fitting end to a season that never lived up to the one preceding it. The backdrop to UK’s sudden plunge was that Calipari, seemingly undeterred by the chaos of the regular season, was assembling a recruiting class for the ages, built on six five-star commitments and still waiting word on the player many consider to be the best high school product since LeBron James, Andrew Wiggins. The BBN will be back in 2013, rest assured, but their dramatic fall from grace this year is not lost.
The Big Ten Was Awesome. We began the season with the highest of expectations about the Big Ten. Five of its teams (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin) began the season in the top 25, Indiana was a unanimous pick for preseason No. 1 and the top-to-bottom depth, just as much as the upper-tier quality, were huge selling points for a league many billed to not only outclass every other major conference this season, but also go down as one of the most dominant versions of any league in recent memory. The Big Ten didn’t disappoint us. Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin waged intense wars in blaring campus gyms on a weekly basis, shocking upsets were sprung (Penn State over Michigan, Northwestern over Minnesota, Wisconsin at Indiana, etc.) and the league grew to corner the market on the most exciting brand of high-powered, tense, must-watch hoops in the country. It was good from start to finish, all the way up to the NCAA Tournament, where four teams survived the first weekend to land a spot in each of the four regional sites.
In the end, only one made it to the Final Four – ironically, of the four Big Ten teams left standing, Michigan was probably the biggest surprise of them all; they were widely pegged to lost their round-of-32 bout with VCU – and after fending off a nightmarish Syracuse 2-3 zone no one else had managed to decode during Tournament play, the Wolverines lost a close but thrilling national championship game. The lasting memory from the 2012 Big Ten, beyond all the consistent regular season drama and Victor Oladipo’s star turn and Trey Burke’s brilliance and Wisconsin’s remarkable year-to-year consistency, will be Spike Albrecht – for the sheer fact that Albrecht, on the last and most important date of the season, not only scored an unfathomable 17 points in 16 minutes while NPOY-sweeping Burke, hit with two early fouls, was fixed to the bench. It was awesome because Albrecht followed up his once-in-a-lifetime night by milking every last drip of his newfound celebrity: Spike tweeted at international modeling icon Kate Upton after learning of Upton’s attendance at the national championship game. Like I said, Big Ten: Awesome. There’s no confusion here.
Officiating Controversies. There is no escaping one lamentable truism about the 2012-13 season: the referees were not very good. Overall, on a composite game-by-game measure, the quality and consistency of officiating was rather low. Even if that’s just an arbitrary and fuzzy subjective measure, I can take it one step further. Just off the top of my head, I can point out three calls that directly affected the outcomes of important game. The first happened in Colorado’s January 3 road game at Arizona. The Buffaloes took the No. 3 Wildcats to the wire, and on the final possession, with the game knotted at 83, Colorado reserve guard Sabatino Chen banked in a wild three at the buzzer. GIFS and close-ups slowly made the rounds on Twitter, and most every angle confirmed what the real-time game tape appeared to say: Chen’s shot was good. The zebras thought otherwise – the shot was discounted. We later learned that standard definition replay monitors (the Pac 12 doesn’t use HD screens as a cost-saving measure) may have impaired the referees’ ability to clearly determine whether Chen’s shot went off before the buzzer. Like, Really? Incident No. 2: Kansas’ road win at Iowa State, wherein guard Elijah Johnson’s drive into Cyclones forward Georges Niang, resulting in an objectively false block call, actually merited an independent review from the Big 12 conference. Or, even better, we can talk about the national championship game, where Trey Burke’s perfectly clean block on Peyton Siva with just over five minutes remaining put the game seemingly out of reach for the Wolverines.
I’ve never felt comfortable pinning the outcomes of games entirely on the backs of officials; teams decide the games, referees impartially monitor the proceedings and anything that gets in the way is but another challenge in a game full of them. Everything evens out in the end, on balance. But then you get calls like Burke’s block and Niang’s blocking foul and the countless gaffes I failed to mention above, and it gets to a point where the competence and on-sight decision making of the most important third-party in sports is called into serious question. The Ed Rush Pac-12 officiating scandal only added more stink to the skeptical aura surrounding the entire profession. Officials are going to make mistakes. Judgments will be misguided. The human element of the game is not infallible. True. True. True. When the neutrality of those officials becomes a topic of debate, and we can’t wholeheartedly confide in those officials to respect the integrity of the game, the problem transcends mere block-charge minutiae or ticky-tack holding calls. The whole premise of a level playing field in college athletics is thrown into sharp scrutiny.
Shabazz Muhammad. It began almost precisely one year ago on the dot. Muhammad held one of those ESPNU-hosted selection shows, and after some brief late speculation he might undergo a change of heart, he elected to play his college season – emphasis on singular noun; nobody actually thought Muhammad would stay in college longer than a single season – at UCLA. There were rumblings about what may or may not have happened, what illegal money may or may not have been involved, during his recruitment, but those issues didn’t really take root until the beginning of the season, when Muhammad was forced to sit out while the NCAA sifted through files and interviews regarding Muhammad’s path to UCLA. The assumption that Muhammad received extra benefits was well-noted, and when Muhammad returned after missing three games and was forced to repay 1,600 dollars, everyone’s suspicions were confirmed. It wasn’t Muhammad accepting impermissible benefits so much as it was the NCAA’s obtuse mishandling of the case itself that confounded the nation’s interested parties. It caught the attention of rock stars, coaches, fans and – in what has grown into an almost seasonal obligation over the past year – NCAA bashers in the media, who came down on the organization for its opaque operations and veiled rationales. Muhammad was “freed”, but the drama was far from over.
There were flashes of true stardom from the nation’s No. 1 recruit, signs of the athletic and talent highlights that explain his high market *value* on the recruiting circuit, but there were also stories of selfishness and unhappiness, of a me-first individual just biding his time in the college game and doing everything to improve his own lot (and nothing to improve his team’s) in the hopes of raising his draft stock. The Shabazz story appeared to have fizzled out when the eminently flawed Bruins were bounced by 11-seed Minnesota in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, but a front-page spread in the LA Times questioning Muhammad’s age and detailing his father’s managerial influence on his recruitment brought the whole thing full circle. We began the season calling for Shabazz’s arrival; by the middle of March, it was very clear he had worn out his welcome in the college ranks.
Dunk City. It was easy to poke fun at Miami when the Hurricanes lost their second game of the season at Florida Gulf Coast back on November 13. I mean, who is Florida Gulf Coast, anyway? The Hurricanes had a major wart on their nonconference resume, and we had every right to believe that loss – even without star guard Durand Scott, even as the Hurricanes reeled off their most successful season in decades – would haunt Jim Larranaga’s team all the way into Selection Sunday. Miami’s Tournament position was never truly compromised.. The Hurricanes earned a No. 2 seed and the nation casually forgot about that unknown Florida school that simply got lucky and caught big ,bad Miami off guard in the second game of the season. Stranger things have happened; it’s whatever. That Statement took on new meaning during the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles soon revealed the foolishness of misinterpreting their upset for randomness and early-season unpreparedness on behalf of Miami. This team was good, and they were willing to prove it. But it was how FGCU went about proving it that turned the Eagles into one of the biggest stories of the season.
In their opening-round game with Georgetown – a brutally tough defensive team with a brutally tough backcourt figurehead, Otto Porter, and a team-wide discipline that, at its face, did not appear prone to any sort of wacky early-round defeat; the Hoyas were a safe pick to get out of the first round, in other words – the Eagles forced every tournament-watching soul to stop what they were doing, tune into FGCU-Georgetown and witness the free-flowing brilliance of Brett Comer and Sherwood Brown and dunks on dunks on dunks. That FGCU actually beat No. 2 Georgetown was only a minor subplot to the sheer joy and aesthetic attractiveness of the Eagles’ style of play – all alley-oops and dunks and sideline two-stepping and funky chicken gesticulations. Coach Andy Enfield’s Wall Street experience, his supermodel wife and eventual decision to bolt for greener pastures and take on the long vacated USC job complemented the shock factor of the on-court product. For the first week of the Tournament, over two wins, everyone wanted to see Florida Gulf Coast. Everyone wanted to know about Dunk City.
Goodbye Big East. Over 34 years, the Big East grew into college basketball’s preeminent conference. It meshed a tough, inured, northeast-based identity with legendary coaches and genuine rivalries to produce an annually thrilling selection of competitive games and national championship contenders. From Boeheim to Calhoun to Thompson to Pitino, the Big East set the standard. Every other league was just trying to catch up, and in most years, unsuccessfully so. Soon football entered the equation, and as the league increasingly sacrificed its natural identity for lucrative partnerships with CUSA castoffs, the original Big East felt more and more like a dying breed. The terms of decline were clear: athletic directors were moving the Big East away from its humble origins. Football money and geographic footprint and cable viewers were the new principles of conference management. There was no place for cultural and academic propriety, for geographic proximity, for natural rivalries.
The dominoes had already begun to fall, and with teams formally announcing their intentions to join new leagues left and right, the non-football members were left to make an utterly crucial decision: remain in this mutated hodgepodge of transnational muck or go back to what we know. The latter was the more reasonable and more respectable option, and so the Big East’s seven non-football schools decided to break off and form their own basketball-only league. The Catholic Seven, as it was originally termed at its inception, soon added Xavier, Butler and Creighton, took the “Big East” naming rights to appropriately mint their new league, and formalized the divorce this year. The new Big East is an excellent concept, and I’m all for making basketball a priority, and eliminating the greed and overarching agendas of football-motivated presidents and conference commissioners, but the downside of this transaction – the destruction of the great league we once knew and loved – is just as distressing as the new Big East is promising.
Gonzaga Reaches The Mountaintop, and Falls. Mid-Majors are defined by perception, not principle. The term is constructed, not legislated, or even enforced into conference demarcation. Gonzaga just so happens to be a member of the non “Power-Six” West Coast Conference, so dating all the way back to when people first actually started caring, sometime around former coach Dan Monson’s remarkable Elite Eight run, the Zags have been known as the flagbearer for all things mid-major – even if, when you think about it, they aren’t anything like your average mid-major. They are as much defined by “Power” as any team in one of the so-distinguished six leagues can rightfully claim. In 2013, the preeminent “mid-major” transcended the small school realm and rose all the way to the top of the national polls. They ripped off a dominant regular season that included 30 wins, just two losses and the emergence of a deep and talented lineup well-equipped to combat any of the top teams in the country. Gonzaga was rewarded with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, their decade-long climb peaking in plain sight, until it all came crashing down.
The Zags barely survived their opening-round Tournament game against Southern; Doubters licked their chops and prepared for the inevitable. Next came Wichita State, and a ridiculous second-half shooting streak that saw the Shockers erase an en eight-point deficit with a barrage of threes. Gonzaga fell, critics reveled in the postgame after glow, and the program whose one unshakable criticism under Mark Few has been its inability to translate regular season success into Tournament wins saw its dream season come crashing down, all in one fell swoop – thanks to a Wichita State team that, as we later found out, was a lot more than your average nine seed. It was a bumpy ride for the Zags, a season-long dualistic tragedy that mixed unprecedented regular season dominance and national relevance with utter disappointment and harsh backlash in the postseason. The Zags had a chance to finally disabuse the notion of a fun but ultimately fluky program built on powder-puff wins and bloated RPI figures. Instead, They ran into a hardened Final Four outfit on a mission, and their national perception remains mostly unchanged.
No One Wants To Be No. 1. It’s not unusual to see changes at the top of college basketball’s two big polls (AP and Coaches). This season gave change and unpredictability an entirely different denotation. In poll world, this season played out like a concert featuring rotating tracks from The Beatles “Abbey Road” and Nas’ “Illmatic”. Or whatever that would sound like. It was absolutely, positively, bewilderingly insane, is what I’m saying. The change at No. 1 became so prevalent, and so frequently mind-numbing, that each week one would wake up only to be surprised not to see a new name bearing the top spot. It wasn’t this way the entire season. Indiana opened up as the consensus best team in the country. Duke took over for a while, but that made the most possible sense: the Blue Devils compiled one of the most impressive nonconference resumes of all time. Duke was good. No. 1 was rightfully theirs. It was when Duke first lost, a Jan. 12 road game at NC State, that the top AP Poll degenerated into a weekly free for-all. After Duke it was Louisville, then back to the Blue Devils, next Michigan, Indiana and Gonzaga.
No one seemed all too enthused about the weekly right of being called the best team in the country, and as the chaos ensued it grew into a narrative that has long since carved a cavernous hole into the side of my brain. There is no dominant team! College basketball has so much parity! Where are all the good players! And on, and on, and on. Taken alone, I found the weekly change oddly refreshing. Not only because great games and great upsets were fueling top-end fluidity, but because the uncertainty created a suspenseful dynamic about NCAA Tournament seeding, to the point where no No. 1 seed was truly locked in until about a week or two before opening Thursday. That’s just a personal preference – most people would probably prefer some more constancy at the No. 1 spot – but the accompanying narrative turned an exciting and altogether unpredictable weekly poll reveal into a national lament on the state of talent in the game and the individual quality of players on the best teams. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy upsets and unpredictability and court stormings. So do you – only it has to fit the time and setting specifications of a first-round NCAA Tournament game. The regular season tumult invited the typical madness of March to the party a little earlier than usual….why is that so horrifying?
Louisville Wins It All. In one brief and retroactively irrelevant week, Louisville lost three games in a row. First was a two-point defeat to visiting Syracuse, followed up by a stunning slip-up at Villanova and ending with low-scoring grinder at Georgetown. The Cardinals had fallen to 4-3 in the Big East, 16-4 overall, and the preseason buzz of national championship potential was frequently and openly questioned. How foolish. What followed contextualized Louisville’s three-game skid, and the readjusted picture was as sweet as can be. That Georgetown loss was Louisville’s last in regulation time for the rest of the season. The Cardinals stormed through the back half of their Big East docket, bulldozed the final rendition of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. After a season spent decrying the absence of a “dominant team” – that phrase is, just, ugh – Louisville did enough down the stretch to measure up as the obvious favorite heading in, and the Cardinals’ comfortable early-round victories over North Carolina A&T, Colorado State and Oregon reflected were clear affirmations of their relative stature. Then came an Elite Eight bout with Duke, two legendary hall of fame coaches and (it should be said) quite possibly the two best teams in the country squaring off for a trip to Atlanta. The Cardinals advanced but the outcome was reduced to a minor sidebar as the biggest story of the night gripped TV and Youtube-tethered eyeballs across the country.
As reserve guard Kevin Ware leapt out to contest a Tyler Thornton three towards the end of the first half, he landed awkwardly and suffered a gruesome double-compound fracture to his right tibia. His famous words – “Just win the game. I’m OK. Just win the game.” – inspired the Cardinals as they routed Duke in a second-half laugher. His instant celebrity, ethical questions about Adidas creating Ware-branded T-shirts, an appearance on “The Late Show” combined to make Kevin Ware as visible and publicly identifiable a component of Louisville’s title run as any active player, coach or secondary storyline. The Cardinals’ run ended with a thrilling championship game against Michigan, and with George Mason transfer Luke Hancock winning the Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award after a massive Final Four reawakening, and Rick Pitino becoming the first coach in history to win national championships at different schools. The Louisville Cardinals were consummate champions, elite from wire-to-wire, a positively “dominant” team.
Indiana’s Return To the Top. This is an extension of a climb that began last season, when Indiana occasioned its return to the college basketball world by knocking off No. 1 Kentucky in insanely thrilling fashion. But the Hoosiers were never legitimately viewed as a national title contender, mainly because their 64th ranked efficiency defense was too easily exposed in conference play and too imbalanced for the vagaries of a single-elimination NCAA Tournament format. This year was not only supposed to be a better year, but the year when Indiana spread its wings and soared into national hoops elite-dom. The Hoosiers were tabbed as preseason No. 1, and but for a few shaky stretches, they met the hype and then some, winning their first outright Big Ten title since 1993 – and not just any Big Ten title, but a Big Ten title in a year when the Big Ten featured a handful of the nation’s very best teams, first-round NBA talent in droves and more middle and lower-rank quality than ever before. Indiana did everything a preseason No. 1 team should do over the course of a regular season: dominate. The Hoosiers’ remarkable season was impressive to look at, with wins and RPI and efficiency glamor adorning a star-studded lineup. It was even more impressive to appreciate historically; after nearly a half-decade of losing seasons and scholarship reductions and a tortured fan base, Indiana had finally climbed out of the post-Kelvin Sampson abyss.
The long-awaited return of one of the sport’s true blueblood powers had been completed, red and white pinstripes flooded retail outlets in Eastern Europe (or something like that) and college basketball felt purely whole once again. The Hoosiers came up against a brutal matchup in the NCAA Tournament, a hot Syracuse zone peaking just in time for a deep March run, and, well, that’s going to happen every now and then. #modernoneseedproblems. The Hoosiers Tournament exit fell short of a national championship, but if anything below title-winning season is a missed season altogether, then your expectations – aside from like, I don’t know, Wooden-era UCLA teams – are grossly out of touch with the diffuse realities of today’s game. The fact is, it’s really, really hard to win a national championship these days, simple and elementary as Kentucky’s freshmen rockstars may have made it seem last season. Indiana made it back to the top, and even if the last bit left a feeling of disappointment or missed achievement, it’s hard to deny this season wasn’t an unqualified success and a definitive step towards the permanence and constancy of national-contending quality Hoosiers fans have become accustomed to.