For many sports fans, there is nothing that can compare to the incredible spectacle that is March Madness. With a full slate of conference tournament action in the coming days and Selection Sunday less than a week away, this is the time of year where college basketball really kicks it into high gear.
Of course, the four months prior to March are always filled with incredible games, performances, and upsets as well, and this year was no exception.
So as March Madness closes in, let’s take a look back at the best (and worst) the 2013-14 regular season of college hoops had to offer:
Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton
Before the 2013-14 season, most of the college basketball hype revolved around the large number of outstanding freshman across the country that looked poised to take the nation by storm. But despite all the freshman hype, it was Creighton’s stellar senior Doug McDermott who stood atop the college basketball world.
In his final season with the Bluejays, McDermott has put an exclamation point on his historic collegiate career by leading the country in scoring at 26.5 points per game. Just as impressive as his unbelievable offensive output is the remarkable consistency with which he has been able to do so. In Creighton’s 30 regular season games, McDermott has only shot under 40 percent from the field four times.
He has had several phenomenal performances this season, including 39-point games in wins over Villanova and St. John’s, with a game-winning jumper to boot in the latter.
However, he saved his best performance for his final home game, when he dropped a career-high 45 points against Providence, during which he also became the eighth player in Division I history to reach 3,000 career points.
Honorbale mention: Jabari Parker, Duke; Nik Stauskas, Michigan; Russ Smith, Louisville; Shabazz Napier, UConn; Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Freshman of the Year: Jabari Parker, Duke
Considering all the hype surrounding this year’s freshman class, which was considered by many to be one of the best of all-time, the group as a whole has been a little disappointing. Of course, the expectations for them were a little ridiculous to begin with, because they are still freshman. That being said, there still have been a number of freshman whose stars have shone brightly, none more so than Duke’s Jabari Parker.
Parker leads the ACC in rebounds, averaging nine per game, and is near the top in several other statistical categories as well, including points per game (19.2, second), field goal percentage (.486, third), and blocks (42, eighth).
Just for good measure, he scored a career-high 30 points to lead the Blue Devils to a victory over archrival North Carolina in the regular season finale.
His outstanding play on both ends of the floor earned him a spot on the list of Wooden Award finalists, and the case could be made that he is the most deserving candidate for the award among players not named Doug McDermott.
Honorable mention: Tyler Ennis, Syracuse; Andrew Wiggins, Kansas; Julius Randle, Kentucky; Joel Embiid, Kansas
Breakout Player of the Year: Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Coming off runner-up finish in last year’s NCAA tournament, the Michigan Wolverines were ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll, despite losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA. But after getting off to a mediocre 6-4 start and losing star forward Mitch McGary to season-ending back surgery, it appeared as if their season was headed for disaster.
Luckily for the Wolverines, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas stepped up his game to another level when his team needed it the most.
Thanks in no small part to his outstanding play, Michigan caught fire and rattled off 10 straight wins, including an eight-day span where they defeated three top-10 opponents.
Stauskas has improved his play immensely during his sophomore season and now boasts an impressive offensive arsenal that includes tremendous ball-handling skills and phenomenal passing ability. That makes him one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten. He ranks second in the conference in field goal percentage (.489), third in 3-pointers made (71), fourth in points per game (17.4), and second in minutes played per game (35.2).
Simply put, the Wolverines wouldn’t have won the outright Big Ten title since 1986 without Nik Stauskas.
Honorable mention: Casey Prather, Florida; Xavier Thames, San Diego State; Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin; Jerami Grant, Syracuse
Coach of the Year: Tony Bennett, Virginia
In a year with no shortage of deserving Coach of the Year candidates, Virginia’s Tony Bennett stood above the rest of the pack.
Under Bennett’s guidance, the Cavaliers have overcome a rough start to the year in their non-conference schedule (including a 35-point loss to Tennessee) to finish 16-2 in ACC play, including a 14-game winning streak. To put that in perspective, Virginia had only reached double-digit wins in conference play twice in the 26 seasons prior to Bennett’s arrival in Charlottesville in 2009. He’s turned the program around by instituting a strict motion offense and the “pack-line” man-to-man defense that was popularized by his father, Dick Bennett.
Bennett has molded this squad of lesser-known players, led by preseason all-ACC guard Joe Harris, into the best team in the ACC, topping national powerhouse programs such as Duke, Syracuse, and North Carolina. All of their hard work culminated in Virginia’s first outright ACC title since 1981, when the legendary Ralph Sampson was still playing for the Cavaliers.
Honorable mention: Steve Fisher, San Diego State; Jay Wright, Villanova; Gregg Marshall, Wichita State; John Beilein, Michigan; Billy Donovan, Florida; Sean Miller, Arizona; Tim Miles, Nebraska; Larry Brown, SMU; Rick Barnes, Texas
Most Surprising Team: Villanova Wildcats
The Villanova Wildcats entered this season with four returning starters from last year’s squad that made the NCAA tournament, so there were expectations that they could return to the Big Dance. However, it’s hard to imagine that even the most optimistic Villanova fans would have expected them to win a conference title and be ranked sixth in the country as the regular season comes to a close.
Many figured the Wildcats would be a middle-of-the-pack team in the new-look Big East, after being picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason.
But none of that mattered to Jay Wright’s squad, who came flying out of the gates to get off to an 11-0 start. Impressive wins over No. 2 Kansas and No. 23 Iowa in the Battle 4 Atlantis thrust the Wildcats into the national spotlight, and they were able to carry that success over into conference play.
Behind contributions from a group of unheralded players such as Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell, and Darrun Hilliard II, Villanova went 16-2 in conference play to win their first outright Big East regular season championship in 32 years.
Honorable mention: San Diego St. Aztecs, Cincinnati Bearcats, Michigan Wolverines, Nebraska Cornhuskers, SMU Mustangs
Most Disappointing Team: Kentucky Wildcats
After missing the NCAA tournament and being bounced in the first round of the NIT last season, Kentucky headed into this year with the expectation of contending for a national championship. John Calipari put together one of the most highly-touted recruiting classes of all-time and it looked like Kentucky was headed for big things.
The young Wildcats, ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, had an intense amount of hype surrounding them as the season approached, with many people calling them potentially Calipari’s best team ever. Some fans even embraced the idea that this team could go a perfect 40-0.
Of course, those expectations were ridiculous for a team consisting of so many inexperienced players, but Kentucky still has failed to play even close to its potential. Calipari, who did nothing to quell the talks of a perfect season, has blamed the media for over-analyzing his team and even blew off his press conference after being ejected in an embarrassing loss to a South Carolina team that was rated 178th in the RPI.
Barring a surprise deep run in the NCAA tourney, this Kentucky team will go down as one of the most disappointing teams in recent memory.
Honorable mention: Marquette Golden Eagles, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Ohio State Buckeyes, Oklahoma State Cowboys
Game of the Year: No. 2 Syracuse 91, No. 17 Duke 89 OT (February 1, 2014)
The most highly-anticipated matchup of the college basketball season was the ACC showdown between Syracuse and Duke. It was a game that featured the two winningest coaches in Division I history and a pair of the nation’s premier programs. A raucous, record-breaking crowd of 35,446 fans packed the Carrier Dome to watch undefeated Syracuse take on the Blue Devils in the teams’ first meeting as ACC foes.
A cold-blooded 3-pointer at the buzzer by Rasheed Sulaimon to force overtime, career performances by Syracuse’s C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant, and a controversial no-call a blocked dunk attempt by Duke’s Rodney Hood late in OT were just a few of the highlights of this instant classic.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has been with the Orange since the Carrier Dome opened in 1980, summed up the game best:
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a better game in here where both teams played at such a high level. Both teams just went after it,” Boeheim said. “We’ve had a lot of games that have been here that are great. There’s never been one as good as this one.”
And if this game was any indication, Duke-Syracuse could very well become one of the country’s marquee rivalries for years to come.
Honorable mention: No. 16 Iowa State 98, No. 19 Oklahoma State 97 3OT; No. 21 San Diego State 61, No. 16 Kansas 57; No. 5 Michigan State 72, No. 3 Ohio State 68 OT; No. 2 Michigan State 78, No. 1 Kentucky 74
Best Moment: Tyler Ennis’s (Syracuse) game-winning shot vs. Pittsburgh (February 12, 2014)
Syracuse and Pittsburgh – who’ve had a penchant for playing great games against one another – showed that their rivalry didn’t lose any of its luster in the move from the Big East to the ACC when they squared off at the Petersen Events Center.
After playing a back-and-forth game almost the entire way, Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna hit two free throws to give the Panthers a 56-55 lead with just 4.4 seconds to go. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon immediately called a timeout to set his defense, which also gave the Orange a chance to draw up a play.
The ensuing inbounds pass went to Syracuse’s superstar freshman Tyler Ennis, who weaved his way through several Panther defenders and pulled up for a shot from about 35 feet away. Ennis buried the desperation heave just as time expired, moving Syracuse to 24-0 on the season while leaving Pitt fans, players, and coaches in utter disbelief.
Honorable mention: Rasheed Sulaimon’s (Duke) buzzer-beating three to force OT vs. Syracuse; Shabazz Napier’s (UConn) game-winning buzzer-beater vs. Florida; Michael Qualls’s (Arkansas) putback dunk to beat Kentucky in OT; Askia Booker’s (Colorado) buzzer-beating three to beat Kansas
Upset of the Year: Boston College 62, No. 1 Syracuse 59 OT (February 19, 2014)
Arguably, college basketball’s greatest quality is that the country’s elite teams can fall to an inferior squad on seemingly any given night. A perfect example from the 2013-14 regular season was Boston College going into the Carrier Dome and taking down the top-ranked, unbeaten Syracuse Orange.
Sure, the Eagles entered this year as a team picked by many to possibly be a surprise team in the ACC, but things hadn’t turned out that way at all for Steve Donahue’s squad. The Eagles came into the Carrier Dome with a dismal 6-19 record overall, and a disappointing 2-10 record in conference play. In fact, their only two conference wins had come against last-place Virginia Tech.
Against all odds, Boston College overcame a 13-point second-half deficit and forced overtime after Olivier Hanlan’s layup with 47 seconds left in regulation.
In OT, the Eagles took the lead with less than a minute to go on a layup by Patrick Heckmann and held on to score the improbable victory over Syracuse. In doing so, they also became the first team with a sub-.500 record to beat the AP No. 1 team on the road since 1955.
Honorable mention: Northwestern 65, No. 14 Wisconsin 56; Nebraska 60, No. 9 Michigan State 51; Arizona State 69, Arizona 66 2OT; UAB 63, No. 16 North Carolina 59; Penn State 71, No. 24 Ohio State 70 OT