After failing to consistently get quality seeds in the NCAA Tournament, it was inevitable for the Wichita State Shockers to join the American Athletic Conference.
The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball program has tried to have its cake and eat it as well. Since 1996, former Syracuse guard Mike Hopkins has been an assistant coach at his alma mater and he’s become one of the better basketball minds in the nation. And although that Jim Boeheim is entrenched as the head basketball coach at Syracuse, Hopkins has had his in hand in the dealings of the program. Hopkins has been Syracuse’s main recruiter which has led to the likes of C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams joining the program. In 2007, Syracuse named Hopkins as the head coach in-waiting to one day replace Boeheim as a way to convince him to not leave Central New York. Hopkins has gone on to be a good soldier as he has helped Syracuse remain as one of the top basketball programs in the nation which included trips to the Final Four in 2013 and 2016. However things have changed recently for Hopkins, Boeheim, and the Orange.
On March 19, a bombshell was dropped in the college basketball world when Hopkins agreed to become the new head basketball coach of the Washington Huskies. The move by Hopkins came as a shocker since Boeheim was expected to retire in the next year or two. However Hopkins who is a West Coast guy as he is from Laguna Hills, California, now has an opportunity to run his own program in the Pac-12 Conference, while leaving Syracuse to pick up the pieces.
Hopkins’ departure is a huge blow for Syracuse as the school had it all mapped out for him to succeed Boeheim. And now with Hopkins at Washington, Syracuse and Boeheim worked out a contract extension past next season. However the departure of Hopkins still leaves a huge void recruiting wise as the Orange look to keep up in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
After Syracuse finished second in their inaugural season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, they have not finished higher than eighth ever since. The Orange were on probation in 2015 which hurt them on the recruiting trail and the last thing that they can afford to do is fall further behind the likes of the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils within the conference.
Syracuse found themselves in a very tough situation as typically when the head coach in-waiting tag is attached to an assistant, within a few years that person will take over the reigns. However in the case of Syracuse, they wanted to keep Hopkins, but it could have been a public relations nightmare had they forced Boeheim out of the door.
But now it is time to play the waiting game as we’ll have to see how things will work out for Hopkins with Washington, and if Boeheim does step down soon, would he come back to Central New York in order to assume the post that he was groomed for?
In eight years as the head basketball coach of the Arizona Wildcats, Sean Miller has compiled a record of 220-66 with four Pac-12 Conference Championships. Six of the last seven years have seen Arizona make the NCAA Tournament as they are one of the premier basketball programs in the nation, but there is one thing has continued to allude both Miller and his Wildcats.
Arizona’s last trip to the Final Four came in 2001 when they were the runner-up to the national champion Duke Blue Devils. Since then Arizona has gone on to remain as a hotbed for future NBA talent, but they’ve been unable to get back to the Final Four.
Former Arizona head basketball coach Lute Olson led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2003 and 2005, but he was denied his sixth trip to the Final Four and fifth with the Cats. After Olson retired in 2007, Arizona’s program took a step back before they lured Miller away from the Xavier Musketeers in 2009.
In five years with Xavier, Miller showed his ability to lead a program as he got the Musketeers to the Elite Eight in 2008. It didn’t take Miller that long to get Arizona back on the national scene as he led them to the Elite Eight in 2011. But heartbreak would await the Cats in the West Regional Final where they fell to the Connecticut Huskies 65-63. After failing to make the NCAA Tournament in 2012, the Wildcats would storm back in 2013. This time Arizona would lose by three points in the Sweet Sixteen to the Ohio State Buckeyes. 2014 and 2015 would each see the Cats make the West Regional Final. But each time Arizona was denied a trip to the Final Four.
This season the Wildcats were projected to once again have a strong team as they began the season ranked tenth in the Associated Press Poll and they lived up to the hype. Arizona went 16-2 in the Pac-12 Conference with their only losses coming against the UCLA Bruins and Oregon Ducks. The Cats would also go on to win the Pac-12 Tournament for the second time in the last three years. The Cats finished the regular season with a record of 30-4 which earned them the second seed in the West Region for the NCAA Tournament. And although that the Gonzaga Bulldogs were the top seed in the region, Arizona was still the favorite to advance to the Final Four.
The Wildcats would easily take care of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in the first round before they survived against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in the second round. And with the West Regional taking place in San Jose, California, the Wildcats were expected to coast over Xavier who was an 11-seed.
With just over two minutes left in the contest, Arizona had a 71-64 lead and they appeared to be set to meet Gonzaga in the West Regional Final. However the Wildcats would not score again while Xavier would as the Musketeers finished the game on a 9-0 run to stun Arizona 73-71. But unlike Arizona’s other stumbles under Miller in the NCAA Tournament, this one stings a little more since this was arguably the Wildcats best path to the Final Four since 2001.
The Wildcats had a team comprised of future NBA players such as sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and freshman forward Lauri Markkanen leading the way, but they were unable to reach the Final Four which will be played in Glendale, Arizona which is just two hours away from their campus in Tuscon. Now including Miller’s time at Xavier, he is now 0-4 in the Elite Eight, and in spite of the fact that he is one of best coaches in the nation, he cannot shake the fact that a trip to the Final Four is still not on his resume.
However Miller can take solace in knowing that it took some of the game’s best coaches a long time to reach the Final Four and eventually win a championship. Jay Wright became the head basketball coach at Villanova in 2001 and it took him until 2009 to make his first trip to the Final Four. And after years of disappointments in the tourney, Villanova was finally able to break through and win the national championship last year. It took former Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun 13 years to break through and win a national championship as he had previously gone 0-3 in the Elite Eight.
There’s a possibility that Markkanen and Trier could be headed to the NBA Draft, but Miller has done an excellent job of recruiting since he took over in Tuscon. The Wildcats have another solid class coming in next year which includes center DeAndre Ayton as this will once again make Arizona one of the top teams in the nation. The abrupt ending to a stellar season for Arizona will sting, however hope always springs eternal.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs came out of nowhere to make the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1999. Gonzaga would lose to the eventual national champions in the Connecticut Huskies in the West Regional Final, but only by five points. The surge by Gonzaga would see their head basketball coach Dan Monson leave to become the head basketball coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers which paved the way for assistant coach Mark Few take over.
For a decade Few was an assistant coach at Gonzaga and he has gone on to make the most of his opportunity at the tiny school in Spokane, Washington since he’s been running the show.
In 2000, the Zags got back to the NCAA Tournament, and to show that 1999 wasn’t a fluke , they were able to reach the Sweet Sixteen. In each year under Few, the Zags have made the NCAA Tournament joining the Michigan State Spartans, Wisconsin Badgers, Duke Blue Devils, and Kansas Jayhawks as the only men’s basketball programs to reach the tourney in each year over that stretch. But unlike those basketball powers, the Zags were never able to reach the Final Four.
From 1999-2016, Gonzaga would reach the Elite Eight twice, while always being the team that nobody wanted to face as they became the nation’s top “bracket buster”. The Bulldogs would also earn the respect of the tournament’s selection committee as they periodically would receive a high seed in the tourney, but they were unable to get over the hump. In 2013, Gonzaga was the top seed in the West Region, but they fell in the second round to the Wichita State Shockers.
Success for Few and Gonzaga has led to him getting quality players going to Spokane as players such as forwards Robert Sacre, Adam Morrison, and Domantas Sabonis have gone on to play in the NBA. But even these players were unable to get the Zags to the Final Four. However 2017 has been the year where it has all come together for Gonzaga.
The Zags began this season ranked 14th in the Associated Press’ Poll as they were once again expected to be the team to beat in the West Coast Conference. And being that the WCC is not looked at as a power conference for basketball, Gonzaga has to always take care of their business in the non-conference portion of their schedule.
This season the Bulldogs would knock off the Florida Gators, Iowa State Cyclones, and Arizona Wildcats who all went on to make the NCAA Tournament which paved the way for them to steam roll the competition in the West Coast Conference.
The team that was expected to give Gonzaga the biggest problem within the West Coast Conference were the Gaels of St. Mary’s. However in three meetings this season which included the WCC Tournament, the Zags defeated the Gaels by a combined 51 points. Gonzaga only tasted defeat once this season as they lost at home to the BYU Cougars 79-71 on February 25. And when the loss occurred, Gonzaga’s skeptics wondered if they could beat out the Pac-12 Conference to get the top set in the West Region.
However the selection committee would reward the Bulldogs and give them the top spot in the West Region. Just like 2013, the Zags began the NCAA Tournament by playing in Salt Lake City, Utah. And after defeating the South Dakota State Jackrabbits by 20 points in the first round, they would meet an upstart Northwestern Wildcats team in the second round.
Northwestern had never made the NCAA Tournament prior to this in spite of the fact that their basketball program has existed since 1905. Northwestern’s tournament debut brought out their fan base in droves as there was a sea of purple in Salt Lake which included actress and alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Gonzaga would race to an 18-point halftime lead and it eventually reached 25. But Northwestern would claw back into the game which saw the momentum shift to their side. And the tighter that the game got, the more that the fans in the arena shifted to the Wildcats. This was reminiscent of what we saw in 2013 at the same venue when Gonzaga was unable to overcome the surge of Wichita State. However this time Gonzaga would have enough to advance to the Sweet Sixteen as they defeated Northwestern 79-73.
The Zags would then travel to San Jose, California to meet the West Virginia Mountaineers whose full-court press was expected to give the Bulldogs some problems. But it was Gonzaga’s defense that answered the bell as they limited West Virginia to just 26% shooting and got the 61-58 win. And for the second time in the last three years, the Bulldogs were going back to the Elite Eight.
But unlike 2015 when Gonzaga had to deal with Duke who would go on to win the national championship, this time they had to hold off the upstart Xavier Musketeers. Xavier entered the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed, but they didn’t play like it as they upset the Maryland Terrapins, Florida State Seminoles, and Arizona. Arizona was the team who was expected to give Gonzaga the biggest problem in the West Region, and with them eliminated, the Zags were off to the races.
Gonzaga took a 10-point lead to the locker room at halftime over Xavier and they never took their foot off of the throttle in the second half as they cruised to an 83-59 victory which will see them participate in the Final Four for the first time in school history as this is the cherry on the top for the work of Few.
Over the years bigger schools around the nation have attempted to lure Few away from Spokane, but to no avail as he is happy where he is at. Unlike some coaches who chase the money, Few has chosen to build a program at a school where there is no pressure. And although that there have been critics of Gonzaga when they’ve fallen short in the NCAA Tournament, they are eating some humble pie right now.
Make no mistake about it that Gonzaga won’t be intimidated of being on the big stage when they step on the court this Saturday at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona to meet the South Carolina Gamecocks who are also making their first trip to the Final Four as both squads will be out to show that they belong. But for Few and his Zags, this is another opportunity to show that they are among the elite basketball programs in America in spite of the fact that they are not a traditional power.
You can expect former Gonzaga players such as Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton along with his son David who played under Few, and countless others which includes Morrison, Sacre, and Blake Stepp to be in attendance as this Final Four appearance will be a culmination of their hard work and contributions to this program as current players such as junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss who leads the team in scoring at 16.7 per contest and senior center Przemek Karnowski who gives the Bulldogs a burly low-post presence will have the spirit of former players with them.
But for Few he is living the American dream as he and his team are a part of a Final Four in 2017 that represents the little guy. And Gonzaga winning it all would mark the second consecutive year in which a small Catholic school was crowned as national champions.
You have to go back to the 1982-1983 men’s college basketball season to find the last time that the Texas Longhorns lost 22 games, but that is what they just finished doing. The Longhorns finished this college basketball season 11-22 as they were last in the Big 12 Conference. The ‘Horns began this season ranked 21st in the Associated Press Poll, but things went downhill very quickly.
Texas would win their first three games of the season, but they would follow this up by losing their next three which included a 72-61 home loss to the Texas-Arlington Mavericks of the Sun Belt Conference. The ‘Horns were never able to recover as they limped through Big 12 Conference play with a record of 4-14. Texas finished last in the Big 12, and even though they were able to save a little face by upsetting the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the first round of the conference tournament, this was a season to forget in Austin.
In two years as the head basketball coach at Texas, Shaka Smart has compiled a record of 30-34. Smart was able to lead Texas to the NCAA Tournament last year, but they were eliminated in the first round by the Northern Iowa Panthers. Overall the Longhorns have not won a tournament game since 2014, while they’ve been unable to reach the Sweet 16 since 2008. Those struggles led to Smart’s predecessor at Texas in Rick Barnes being dismissed in 2015 in spite of the fact that he compiled a record of 402-180, along with a Final Four appearance in 2003. And if the powers that be in Austin would give up on Barnes in spite of making Texas a national power, there isn’t that much hope for Smart if he is unable to turn things around.
But what Smart has going for him is that he had a very young team this past season. Texas only had three seniors on their squad with none of them being key contributors. There is the possibility that freshman center Jarrett Allen could declare for the NBA Draft after he averaged 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds en route to being named to the Big 12’s Third Team. And even if Allen decides to forego his final three years in Austin, Texas should be a very improved team next season.
Smart has one of the best recruiting classes in the nation heading into next season which includes point guard Matt Coleman from Norfolk, Virginia, center Jericho Sims from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and power forward Royce Hamm from Houston. And once you tie that in with the return of sophomore guard Tevin Mack who led Texas in scoring this past season at 14.8 per contest and freshman guard Andrew Jones who was third on the team at 11.4 per game, the Longhorns could be one of the most improved teams in the nation.
The struggles of this past season for the ‘Horns wasn’t for a lack of effort as they lost nine games by five points or less. And a few breaks here or there could have made the difference for them.
Texas doesn’t necessarily need to overtake the Kansas Jayhawks as the team to beat in the Big 12, but as long as they are able to hold their own within the conference and get among the upper echelon of teams there, it will be a step in the right direction for Smart. Smart is starting to get players that fit into his system in Austin as he has a proven track which includes leading the Virginia Commonwealth Rams to the Final Four in 2011.
And if the Longhorns are able to get off to a better start next season, it could be the elixir needed to make the burnt orange supporters forget about one of the worst seasons in the history of Texas basketball.
The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team program currently find themselves in a rough patch. The Illini haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. And after this season’s 19-14 campaign, head basketball coach John Groce was fired. In five years in Champaign, Groce compiled a record of 95-74, while he was only 37-53 in the Big Ten Conference. Illinois had one NCAA Tournament appearance under Groce and they never finished higher than seventh in the Big Ten. Overall it’s been a struggle for the Fighting Illini as since they made the NCAA Title Game in 2005, they’ve been unable to at least make the Sweet 16. And for the next head basketball coach in Champaign, his main focus must be recruiting.
Of the Illinois team this season, 11 players were from the State of Illinois. However the Illini have struggled to keep the top talent home in recent years.
The past few years have seen Illinois lose out on Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor who each committed to playing for the Duke Blue Devils of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Parker and Okafor were both from Chicago, but they chose Duke since playing for Mike Krzyzewski would give them the better chance of reaching their ultimate goal which was to play in the NBA. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last McDonald’s All-American who committed to play basketball for the Illini in forward Jereme Richmond. However after just one year with the Fighting Illini, Richmond declared for the NBA Draft. And after Richmond went undrafted, legal troubles derailed his once promising basketball career. The last six Mr. Basketball Award winners from the State of Illinois have elected to play for schools in other conferences, while since 2000, the Illini have only had three players win this award and play for them as being in Champaign isn’t one of their top priorities.
Whether or not the Illinois likes it, they must accept the fact that they are an afterthought in the Big Ten as you have to go back to 2011 to find the last time that they were able to finish better than seventh in the conference standings. The Illini are second-class citizens to the Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Maryland Terrapins, and Michigan Wolverines who have nationally recognized programs that are always pushing for the top spot in the Big Ten. And the cherry on the top is that the Fighting Illini’s in-state rival in the Northwestern Wildcats are set to make their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament this week.
The State Farm Center which is the Illini’s home court recently underwent renovation as a way to spark recruiting. However the Illini have still been unable to keep up with the top teams that the Big Ten has to offer.
For Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman, his next head coach must be someone that is going to be able to ward off the Michigan State’s, Duke’s, and Kentucky Wildcats of the college basketball world in order to get the top high school basketball players from the Windy City to make the short trek to Champaign as opposed to catching a flight to another part of the country.
Some names that could be thrown around in the head coaching search for Illinois are Dayton Flyers head basketball coach Archie Miller, Illinois State Redbirds head basketball coach Dan Muller, Butler Bulldogs head basketball coach Chris Holtmann, and Wichita State Shockers head basketball coach Gregg Marshall.
Miller has compiled a record of 140-62 in six years at Dayton, and he has the Flyers making their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. In recent years schools from Power Conferences have attempted to lure Miller away from Dayton to no avail, and I am not sure if Illinois would be any different should they want him.
Muller seems more likely for Illinois to get rather than Miller after he had the Redbirds on the cusp of making their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. Illinois State pushed Wichita State for the top spot in the Missouri Valley Conference and they were the only team to defeat the Shockers within the conference. However a weak strength of schedule hurt Illinois State’s effort to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. And after losing to the Shockers in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Final, Muller could be ready to take over a bigger program where he would not have that problem.
There’s no pressure for Holtmann at Butler as he has a team that can make the Sweet 16. But the fact that Butler was able to defeat the Villanova Wildcats twice this season has raised his profile in college basketball circles which could also make him attractive to Illinois.
And it would be a long shot for Marshall to leave Wichita State as he is 260-89 in ten years there, along with having a Final Four appearance on his resume. Like all of the other head coaches mentioned, there isn’t any pressure on Marshall at his current job, and he would be giving up security in order to get into the pressure cooker of the Big Ten.
You also cannot rule out Jamall Walker who is currently serving as the interim head basketball coach at Illinois while they participate in the National Invitation Tournament. And a run to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals in the tournament could get Walker some support to get the full-time job in Champaign.
It is going to be very interesting to see what direction that Illinois will go in with their next hire. But for Whitman he has a chance to find someone that will allow his program to compete in the Big Ten, while also appeasing the alumni in Champaign.
The Big Ten Conference was the last power conference to get on the conference tournament bandwagon in men’s basketball. The inaugural Big Ten Tournament took place in 1998 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois and it was won by the Michigan Wolverines. From 1998-2016, the Big Ten Tournament alternated between Chicago and Indianapolis which gave it that classic Midwestern vibe. But recently the Big Ten decided to extend its brand by adding three schools in the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Maryland Terrapins, and Rutgers Scarlet Knights to become a 14-school conference as they’ve expanded to the Eastern Region of the United States with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. To accommodate this, Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany decided to have this year’s conference tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., while next year it will be at Madison Square Garden in New York City. And although that there is money in both of these cities for the Big Ten, it might be time from them to rethink this.
Aside from Michigan’s improbable run to the Big Ten Tournament Title, this year’s edition of the tourney lacked a spark due to the fact that the fan bases for the majority of these schools were not out in full force as there were some empty seats at the Verizon Center. Although that Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis would theoretically pose an advantage for the Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers, it’s always common to see the folks who support the Michigan State Spartans and Ohio State Spartans make the trek to Indy. The same can be said for the United Center which would pose an advantage for the Illinois Fighting Illini and Northwestern Wildcats, but the people who support Michigan and the Iowa Hawkeyes will always be out in full force in the Windy City. And with Rutgers and the Penn State Nittany Lions losing in the second round of this year’s edition of the Big Ten Tournament, while local favorite Maryland was knocked out in the quarterfinals, the bubble for Delany had burst.
These mega conferences have thrown out the tried and true normalcy of conferences being a regional thing as it more about capitalizing on big media markets in order to secure larger television deals. And I understand that conference commissioners are attempting to make it as fair as possible for all of their members, but at some point you are simply stretching yourself too far.
Maryland and Rutgers knew what they were getting into when school administrators at these respective institutions prostituted themselves to get more money for their universities, and more importantly themselves. Rutgers has always been that school in Northern New Jersey that could never cut it in the Big East Conference as they always struggled to keep local high school talent to remain in the Garden State. Maryland was always the little brother of the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they knew how to hang in there and compete.
Maryland has had success on the hardwood in the Big Ten as they’ve made the NCAA Tournament in each year that they have been affiliated with the conference. But why should the Big Ten have to accommodate Maryland for the conference tournament when they are going out of their way to make the majority of their road trips during the season as a few night during the month of March in Chicago or Indianapolis won’t hurt them, while the same can be said about Rutgers.
When you think of the Big Ten, the Midwest region comes to mind. And although that the Big Ten was late to the conference tournament party, they’ve gone on to produce one of the best which is due to the energy that is involved.
Hopefully after next year’s trip to the Big Apple for the Big Ten Tournament, Delany and the school presidents within the conference will sit back and decide to go back to their Midwestern routes as opposed to chasing the almighty dollar. However recent years have shown what college athletics are all about the money more than ever. And since that is the case, I wouldn’t be surprised to one day see the Big Ten have its conference tournament in Los Angeles.