Biggest college hoops stories of '11
Kemba Walker-led UConn's improbable title win was one of 2011's best moments
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski broke mentor Bob Knight's wins record on Nov. 15
Butler, VCU showed the magic of mid-majors in their impressive tournament runs
A look at the biggest college basketball stories of a year that, depending on your preference, belonged to Kemba, Jimmer, Coach K, or mid-major magic. (And we can only hope that, after a scandalous November and December, the sport can produce as much positive drama in 2012's NCAA tournament as it did in 2011's.)
1. Kemba and the Miracles. Remember where UConn, your 2011 national champion, was on the eve of the Big East tournament? The Huskies had lost four of their previous five games to finish 9-9 in conference play, and were relegated to a No. 9 seed at Madison Square Garden. They were being written off as non-contenders in the Big East's bracket, much less the NCAA's ... until Kemba Walker put a crew of youngsters on his back and delivered one of the greatest league-tourney performances in history. Five days, five wins, 130 points scored, millions of viewers left in awe. He kept enough energy in store to carry UConn to six more wins and an improbable NCAA championship -- a feat of leadership unseen since Danny Manning willed Kansas to the 1988 title. The 2011-12 season may be oozing with talent, but the game lacks a star with Kemba's combination of grace and crunch-time confidence.
2. The crowning of K. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would have preferred to break his mentor Bob Knight's all-time wins record for a Division I men's coach during the 2011 NCAA tournament, because it would have meant the Blue Devils were advancing to the national title game. The script wasn't that perfect: They lost in the Sweet 16 to Arizona. Regardless, when he earned victory No. 903 at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, with a 74-69 win over Michigan State, it was a special moment, with Knight analyzing the game for ESPN and many of Krzyzewski's former players able to attend due to the NBA lockout. (At a private, postgame gathering outside the MSG locker rooms, he told them, "I hope all you former players still view me as your coach the way I still view Coach Knight as mine. I've never called him anything else." Taking into account Krzyzewski's 2008 Olympic gold medal, 2010 NCAA title, 2011 FIBA Worlds gold medal, this milestone, his Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year selection and the fact that his current team is ranked in the top five, we are truly in the coaching age of K.
3. Wunderkind coaches, More mid-major madness. The Butler Magic that made the 2010 NCAA tournament one of the most memorable of all time was expected to be a one-year phenomenon -- a fairy tale only fit for the Bulldogs' hometown of Indianapolis. And then it happened again, in more improbable fashion. Three seed lines lower this time (at No. 8), Butler had to prevail in back-to-back, down-to-the-buzzer games against Old Dominion and top-seeded Pitt (an upset that featured the most absurd, foul-ridden ending I've ever seen), solve Wisconsin's hyper-efficient offense and then survive overtime against Florida to reach the Final Four ... where it turned out the Bulldogs weren't even the biggest surprise in Houston.
VCU, one of the teams in the inaugural "First Four" -- a nice way of saying it was among the last teams picked for the newly expanded field of 68 -- reeled off a string of five upsets to become the first 11-seed to reach the Final Four since George Mason, in 2006. The Rams introduced the nation to Team Swag, and the motivational tactics and charisma of 33-year-old coach Shaka Smart made him an overnight star. The only coach who could derail the VCU express was the game's preeminent wunderkind, 34-year-old Brad Stevens, who completed one of the greatest feats in modern tournament history by getting Butler to back-to-back title games. That the Bulldogs lost the finale in miserable fashion shouldn't overshadow that achievement.
4. Pat Summitt's greatest battle. The Tennessee coach, who has more wins (1,078) than Krzyzewski or anyone else in the college game, is facing the most difficult season of her life: At 59, Summitt is battling memory loss related to early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which she was diagnosed with at the Mayo Clinic in May. Rather than retire, she has defiantly and courageously remained on the sideline, delegating some coaching duties to her assistants but remaining a major presence at the helm of the Vols. As Sally Jenkins wrote in The Washington Post, "Now [Summitt] is tearing down the stereotype of what it is to have Alzheimer's and building up a new version and the new version is that you don't crawl into a hole." Not only that, but Summitt also has chosen to help lead the greater fight against the disease; the SI in which she's named our 2011 Sportswoman of the Year details not only her distinguished career but also the recent founding of her eponymous foundation.
5. Jimmertime! Before being captivated by Kemba, hoops nation went into raptures over BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who reached Mormon rock-star heights of which Mitt Romney can only dream. Jimmertime was Tebowmania before there was Tebowmania, except Jimmer actually posted monster numbers, with 16 30-plus-point performances (and one 52!) and a D-I high average of 28.9 points per game. Far from just a gunner -- even though the true extent of "Jimmer Range" became a running joke -- the 6-foot-3 Fredette had killer moves off the dribble, enough so that he was drafted No. 10 overall as a combo guard by Milwaukee (which traded his rights to Sacramento). His defense may have been non-existent, and the untimely suspension of the Cougars' best frontcourt player, Brandon Davies, derailed their hopes of a Final Four run, but during January and February, there was nothing more entertaining than the Jimmer Show.
6. Farewell to Gary. Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams did not get the farewell tour from Maryland that he deserved, but that was his own doing. In May, with little warning, he chose to step down from the Terrapins after 22 seasons, two Final Fours and one national title. The 66-year-old was reportedly frustrated with the compromises required to compete in the increasingly shady world of modern recruiting; with a clean NCAA record, he built an ACC powerhouse that rivaled Duke and North Carolina in the late '90s and early 2000s, and finished with 668 D-I wins. Williams was one of the game's fieriest sideline presences, but also a shrewd identifier of under-the-radar talent and a respected practitioner of an uptempo version of the flex offense.
7. All hail A&M. The 2011 women's tournament was almost as unkind to No. 1s as the men's: Top-seeded powerhouses UConn (32-2) and Baylor (31-3) failed to reach the national title game, as was widely expected. The bracket's breakout star guard, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, balled hard enough to have Weezy wearing her jersey, leading the Irish to upsets of Tennessee and UConn -- but not a championship. In the end, it was Texas A&M, led by low-post star Danielle Adams (30 points, nine rebounds), that knocked off Notre Dame and won the school's first title in women's hoops. The Aggies were a No. 2 seed, but in a sport that's been dominated by a small cadre of teams for decades, their achievement was more of a surprise than the title won by UConn's No. 3-seeded men.
8. One-and-done not for everyone. The impending NBA lockout no doubt had something to do with it, but the freshman class of 2011 exhibited unprecedented patience for the one-and-done era, as seven of its potential first-rounders -- Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Baylor's Perry Jones, UConn's Jeremy Lamb, Florida's Patric Young, Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Kentucky's Terrence Jones -- passed on the 2011 draft. The quality of early-season play in 2011-12 has been noticeably higher, because many of the elite teams don't need extended acclimation phases. The sheer volume of stars will make the task of choosing All-America squads in March exceptionally difficult, and while these stars' mere presence doesn't guarantee a brilliant NCAA tournament, it does mean that the talent level in this year's bracket should be immense. At least the odds of a loaded Final Four are promising.
9. No. 1, with a damper. Syracuse was so excited about ascending to No. 1 in the Dec. 12 Associated Press poll that its players sported (highly questionable) commemorative T-shirts. Coach Jim Boeheim has the makings of a great team, in no small part because his sixth man, sophomore guard Dion Waiters, is a better all-around player than most opponents' stars, and it has the country's best 1-through-9 rotation. But the majority of news out of Orange country this season has been ugly, due to the coming-to-light of sexual abuse allegations by two former ballboys against Boeheim's longest-tenured assistant coach, Bernie Fine. Despite the statute of limitations on New York state criminal charges having passed, the local district attorney said he believed the claims had merit, and Fine was fired during the investigation. Boeheim's job appears to be safe, but only after he did severe backtracking from his regrettable early statements about the allegations -- saying the ex-ballboys were only out for money. In a year where the Penn State abuse scandal is marring college football, the Fine case is college hoops' parallel black eye.
10. Crosstown punchout. What should have been the defining moment of this young season occurred on the night of Dec. 10, when Indiana knocked off No. 1 Kentucky on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Christian Watford, and a glorious court-storming ensued at Assembly Hall. Yet a story from earlier that day made more national news -- that of the disgraceful brawl that forced the Xavier-Cincinnati Crosstown Shootout to be called off with just under 10 seconds left. The Musketeers led by 23 points on the scoreboard, but it was a game that everyone lost.
Bearcats power forward Yancy Gates will go down as the biggest villain, for the vicious, bloodying sucker-punch he landed on Musketeers center Kenny Frease's cheek. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin delivered an impassioned press conference full of proper perspective on the embarrassing nature of the incident ... and then suspended Gates for only six games, allowing him to return in time for the Bearcats' second Big East contest. Xavier's Tu Holloway was one of the brawl's prime verbal instigators, and showed no remorse for the fight in his own postgame remarks, which included a reference to his teammates being "gangsters." He was suspended for just one game, and equally culpable teammate Mark Lyons was held out for two. For all the trivial eligibility matters the NCAA meddles in, it lacked the jurisdiction to demand more appropriate penalties for something that truly has no place in the sport.That just seems a little wrong, doesn't it?