- C.L. Brown, College Basketball Reporter
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Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.
With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:
Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.
Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.
Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.
Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by kenpom.com for a second straight season.
Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.
Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.
Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.
Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.
Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.
Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).
Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season.