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Monday, April 9, 2012
Updated: April 10, 12:21 PM ET
Playing the what-if game?

By Eamonn Brennan
ESPN.com

The 2011-12 season is in the books. There is no changing it now. We've moved on to the next new things: Recruits signing or not signing, players staying or leaving, coaches being hired, coaches being fired.

But for every fan base but one -- in 2011-12's case, Kentucky's Big Blue Nation -- there are doubts. Second guessings. What ifs. The shot that didn't go in. The game that slipped away. The player who could have changed it all. In recent seasons, these questions were everywhere. This season is slightly less ripe for these sorts of scenarios than usual, I'd wager, if only because the team that was clearly the nation's best (Kentucky) followed through on that status all the way to the national title. Still, the less blue portions of the nation's hoops fandom won't be able to shake the creeping suspicions that had circumstances conspired in their favor rather than against, they'd be looking back at their season from a much more favorable vantage point.

Kendall Marshall
North Carolina's title hopes fell by the wayside after Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist against Creighton.

So let's play our little annual offseason game, in which we examine some of the biggest what-if scenarios from the college hoops year that was.

(A brief reminder: Yes, we know this exercise is essentially pointless. No, that doesn't diminish its enjoyment. In fact, it only enhances it. In either case, it's all in good fun. Before you hit send on that irrationally angry comment, please try to keep that in mind. Deal? Deal.)

What if Kendall Marshall didn't get hurt?

North Carolina fans will always wonder: What if the Tar Heels were at full strength for the NCAA tournament? They have reason to. If any team in the country was equipped to deal with Kentucky's immense size and athleticism, with its remarkable collection of NBA talent throughout its starting five, that team was North Carolina. But when point guard Kendall Marshall suffered a scaphoid fracture in the second half of UNC's second-round win over Creighton, the Tar Heels lost not only their best perimeter player but the player most single-handedly capable of managing and facilitating their offensive attack.

Instead, the Tar Heels were forced to give Marshall's minutes to little-used freshman guard Stilman White, whose late errors against Kansas were among the reasons -- hardly the sole reason, of course, but among them -- UNC fell to the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight, who eventually played their way to a national title matchup with Kentucky. What if that had been Marshall? Or, concurrently, what if the Tar Heels hadn't lost Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland to injuries prior to Marshall's Creighton tumble? Would the Tar Heels have gone as far as the Jayhawks? It's hard to say. But if any team could have matched Kentucky's interior play in the late stages of the NCAA tournament, it was UNC -- and if there is any fan base that will look back on 2012 with a would-have-could-have mindset, it's this one.

What if Fab Melo had been eligible?

Except, perhaps, for Syracuse fans. The Orange were not without their flaws throughout 2012, but there's no mistaking how very good they were throughout the season -- with swat-happy center Fab Melo patrolling the paint, they weren't just the nation's deepest team. They were also one of its best. But when Syracuse needed its big man more than ever -- the NCAA tournament -- his academic standing rendered him ineligible, and left his teammates to chase a national title without him.

Jared Sullinger
Fab Melo's absence left a void that Syracuse was unable to fill -- and one Jared Sullinger was eager to exploit.

It didn't go quite as planned. Syracuse still made a quality run to the Elite Eight, where it eventually fell to a very good Ohio State team; there's no shame in that. But what if Melo had been around to challenge OSU forward Jared Sullinger in the paint? Would Sullinger have dislocated the Orange interior so easily and effectively? Would Syracuse have progressed to take on an occasionally turnover prone and always interior-oriented Kansas team, one that may well have struggled with Jim Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone?

(Oh, and speaking of which, what if the refs hadn't made that East Regional final more about them and less than about the players on the court? This probably deserves its own subsection, but we'll leave it alone, at least for now.)

What if the NBA hadn't locked out last summer?

Now this is a tricky one. There are a maybe a dozen different potentialities here, some of which are hard to gauge. Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones -- three of the top would-be 2011 draft picks -- may have all come back to school at least in part because of the lockout, according to the reasons they gave at the time of their decisions. Perhaps the lack of a lockout would have affected those title and/or development-minded decisions. It's possible. At the very least, it seems fair to say a few more top-end talents would have left for the draft last season, safe in the knowledge that their first season in the NBA wouldn't have been spent sitting around waiting for the guys in suits to finish arguing over decimals.

It's safe to say at least one thing: Kentucky forward Terrence Jones probably wouldn't have come back to school -- his mother admitted the lockout played a major role in her son's decision last summer -- and, as such, Kentucky would have likely found itself playing freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer, and backup center Eloy Vargas, many more minutes during its quest for a national title. Could the Wildcats still have taken the title? Sure. When you have Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague in your starting five, you're a national title contender. Besides, Wiltjer, minimal as his role was in 2012, was a top-20 recruit in his own right upon arriving at Kentucky. He would have made an impact.

But Jones was Kentucky's best defender -- and often its best player -- throughout his freshman season. Slotting him between Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, as we saw in the national title game against Kansas forward Thomas Robinson, was a borderline unfair configuration. In large part, UK fans have the lockout to thank.

Speaking of Kentucky … what if Christian Watford's 3 didn't fall?

With apologies to Austin Rivers, it was the shot of the season, the one that reignited (for real this time) a previously depressed Indiana fan base and led to every Indiana fan's favorite commercial (the WatchESPN ad in which Watford's shot is seen across laptop and iPad and iPhone screens over and over and over again). But what did that shot do to Kentucky?

Cody Zeller, Tom Crean
Cody Zeller's impact at Indiana can't be measured in just wins and losses, though he helped the Hoosiers to plenty of those this season.

It may have been a good thing. Jones was a no-show in that Indiana game, and Davis was saddled with foul trouble; the Wildcats learned early on that neither outcome was acceptable if John Calipari's group was going to accomplish its ultimate goal. Davis spent the rest of the season maintaining his block rate while limiting his foul trouble. Jones never truly failed to show up again. But more than that, the Wildcats didn't have to play their entire season with the kind of mind-exploding, stress-laden pressure that comes with the undefeated chase. Just look at Murray State, whose undefeated exploits earned our attention despite much of their record coming in Ohio Valley Conference play. Imagine if that was Kentucky. From both a local and national perspective, the sheer metaphysical pressure would have been immense.

But Watford's shot also robbed us of a potentially historic season. (Sure, Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final … but what if the Wildcats had an undefeated record on the line? Wouldn't that have changed the game's stakes?) If any team was seemingly good enough in its own era to blow through an entire season never losing to an opponent, it was this Kentucky team. And if Calipari -- who said after UK won the title that his next goal was an undefeated season -- had seen that possibility in his headlights, surely he would have chased it, no?

Watford's shot, and the Indiana loss in general, was no doubt a good thing for Kentucky's special batch of freshmen and sophomores. But it might just have cost us a shot at witnessing real-life hoops history, a season-long countdown toward immortality. Alas, I guess you can't win them all. Literally and figuratively.

And what if Cody Zeller had chosen North Carolina?

Before choosing his home state school -- and becoming not only the best, but also the most symbolically important freshman in the program's past two decades -- the Indiana native had narrowed his other choices to Butler and North Carolina. The UNC choice made sense: Cody's brother Tyler Zeller was already there, already familiar with the program and his teammates and the Chapel Hill area, and Cody would have had the chance to play alongside his brother, in so far as playing time would have been available.

Indiana wouldn't have been nearly as good as it was. Obviously. Zeller was a dominant player in his first season, and his size and rebounding made the Hoosiers better all over the floor. (Watford got to play a more natural perimeter position, where he excelled; Indiana's interior defense improved by leaps and bounds; its scoring became more multifaceted, and so on and so forth.) But Zeller's significance was a far bigger deal. He was the first big-time Indiana recruit to choose the once-proud, now-recovering program in years, and the first major recruit of coach Tom Crean's tenure. Without him, does Crean's 2012 class -- comprised almost entirely of Zeller's former Indiana Elite AAU teammates -- decide to join up en masse? Does the program gain the momentum it currently has, wherein it is currently ranked No. 1 in the country in most early 2012-13 polls? Do the Hoosiers miss the tournament and have another middling season, and does Crean come under fire? Does the fan base's pining for Butler coach Brad Stevens go from scattered murmur to low roar?

Without Zeller's commitment and subsequence excellence, all of these answers may be "yes." And the Indiana we know as of April 9 looks far different from what could have been -- both on the court and off.

What if Northwestern had closed out just one of its last four games?

It would have gone to the NCAA tournament, and the ignominious streak would have ended. Instead … well, you know.

What if Illinois didn't have to wait nine days after its upset win over Ohio State?

Brandon Paul
Brandon Paul's 43-point outburst against Ohio State was one of the few bright moments for Illinois this season.

This is slightly more interesting: Looking back on Illinois' 79-74 win over Ohio State on Jan. 10, it looks like the outlier of all outliers -- the one game in which the Illini offense not only managed to be better than average, but was actually out of this world. The typically inefficient and trigger-happy Brandon Paul scored 43 points (43 points!) on 8-of-10 from 3 (8-of-10!) and the Illini were, if only for a moment, scorching.

And then … downtime. Nine days passed until the Illini's next game. They visited Penn State, the offense reverted to its usual form, Paul & Co. lost to Penn State 54-52, and the long, ennui-filled decline toward coach Bruce Weber's eventual dismissal began. But what if Illinois had a chance to maintain that momentum? It's a long shot, sure; as Vin Scully likes to say, momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher. (In less abstract terms: Momentum is nothing more than matchups, and Illinois couldn't score on anyone pretty much all season.) But hey … you never know. A butterfly flaps its wings in Champaign, and all that.

What if St. Bonaventure didn't beat Xavier in the A-10 tournament final?

This much is true: The Bonnies stole a tournament spot from someone. That at-large spot could very well have gone to the Drexel Dragons, who lost precisely three games, and won precisely 21, after Jan. 1. Could the Dragons, one of the nation's hottest teams, have become the Colonial's latest Cinderella story? What about Oral Roberts, which was 27-6 after losing in the Summit League tournament to Western Illinois and had to settle for the NIT?

What if Minnesota had [fill in what-if scenario of choice here]?

Tubby Smith's tenure at Minnesota has been defined by this very question. This season, there were two major what-ifs of note. The first: What if guard Devoe Joseph -- who starred at Oregon this season -- hadn't transferred in 2011, before guard Al Nolen lost the remainder of his senior season to injury. The second, and by far the most important: What if Trevor Mbakwe hadn't torn his ACL? The Gophers managed to put together a decent late-season run, and a solid path through the NIT (excepting the last loss, a 30-point blowout to Stanford, of course) even without Joseph and Mbakwe. What if either player had been available? That's a tournament team, right?

And let's not forget about the loudest silence in Gophertown … the one coming from the power forward position, where Minneapolis native Royce White could have been. White, who struggled silently with anxiety disorder, spent his entire freshman season at Minnesota mired in bizarre trouble and outspoken distrust. Eventually, after attempts at reclamation, Smith let White get away. What if he had stayed? What if he had developed and displayed his remarkable NBA-ready talent -- his rare mix of size and quickness and guard-like ball skills -- in his hometown? What if he had the chance to do so alongside Mbakwe? That's one of the nation's best frontcourts, hands down.

Instead … nothing. Such is life in The Barn these days, unfortunately. The Gophers' fortunes are a microcosm of every fan base's lot when the discussion is not about what was, but what may have been. It's a painful place to be.

But then again, the sun always comes out tomorrow, the offseason is always a route to rebirth, and the new season always begins before we know it. For subjects of the above questions -- and so many more -- November can't come quickly enough.