The tournaments are upon us in college basketball, with league tournament action starting in the power conferences tomorrow and of course March Madness itself beginning with Selection Sunday this weekend. But before we begin on that, how about we pay tribute to the teams that proved themselves over a haul that lasted two-plus months and won a conference championship?
Our current sports culture has reduced the whole of college basketball to whatever happens after Sunday. If you’re a team that ends up making the Final Four, I get that. But why would, for example, making the Sweet 16 be considered more noteworthy than winning a conference championship?
The point of college basketball is to fill your trophy case and hang banners. A league championship does that. Conference tournaments also do it, although I would hope it’s an obvious point that one good weekend of play is not more impressive than two-plus months. You have to at least win a regional and get to the Final Four to do the same in the NCAA Tournament.
All of which is not to demean the excitement of March Madness, which I’m as ready for as anyone. Rather, it’s an imploring not to demean the achievements of the regular season that end with a championship. Thus, TheSportsNotebook salutes the 2014 college basketball regular season conference champions in the power leagues.
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ACC: Virginia—No story was more impressive than the Cavaliers stepping up and winning their first outright ACC championship since 1981 and the days of Ralph Sampson. Virginia did it first and foremost with rock-solid defense. They only have two double-digit scorers, Malcolm Brogdan and Joe Harris, but that was all they needed.
Tony Bennett’s team has players who know their roles. Akil Mitchell, the 6’8” senior, did the dirty work of rebounding and freshman point guard London Perrantes distributed the ball. And everybody did the dirty work of defense. We should note, in fairness, that Virginia only played Syracuse and Duke one time apiece, splitting the two games. But they beat the Orangemen by 19 points to clinch first place and also beat North Carolina. Furthermore, the last loss, at Maryland, came after the race had been settled.
Big Ten: Michigan—The Wolverines aren’t far behind UVA when it comes to an impressive story. Michigan lost national Player of the Year Trey Burke to the NBA draft, along with Tim Hardaway Jr. They lost Mitch McGary for the season with an injury. The play in arguably the nation’s toughest conference. But not only does Michigan win their first outright championship since 1986, they do it going away, with a three-game margin.
John Beilein’s team centers around three wing players that go 6’6”. Glenn Robinson III does his damage inside the arc, with a solid 15-foot jumper. Caris Levert goes outside and knocks down the trey. And Nik Stauskas simply does everything, leading the team with 17 ppg. Michigan won at Wisconsin on January 18, at Michigan State on January 25 and closed the season with five straight wins, including one more over Sparty.
SEC: Florida—Billy Donovan’s march through the south might as well go up there with General Sherman’s in the Civil War. Donovan’s Gators went 18-0. They were only challenged twice, an overtime game at Arkansas and a battle at Kentucky where Florida trailed by seven with 11 minutes to go.
Florida has a balanced team, with Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin in the backcourt, each able to knock down the three-ball and scoring in double figures. Casey Prather, a 6’6” senior forward, leads all scorers with 15 ppg and hits 40 percent from behind the arc. Patric Young goes 6’9”, gets six rebounds a game and his a nice perimeter jumper himself. Dorian Finney-Smith, the 6’8” sophomore, cleans up the glass. These five led Florida to their second consecutive outright SEC championship and third in four years.
Pac-12: Arizona—The Wildcats started fast, with an 8-0 league start and cruised to their first championship since 2011 at 15-3. The losses were by a bucket at Cal, in double-overtime at Arizona State and this past weekend at Oregon when the championship was clinched and the Ducks were playing to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid. All this in spite of losing forward Brandon Ashley, their best three-point shooter.
Arizona is a big team, as head coach Sean Miller brought in Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a pair of forwards that go 6’9” and 6’7” respectively, and combine for 21 points/15 rebounds per game. They have a true post player in 7’0” sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, who averaged 10/7. Nick Johnson, a junior guard, leads the scorers with 16 ppg. If Ashley hadn’t gotten hurt, this team might have duplicated Florida’s feat and ran the table in a relatively manageable conference.
Big East: Villanova—Villanova might not have been able to handle Creighton—giving up 197 points in two lopsided losses to their nearest rival—but the Wildcats handled everyone else in claiming an outright championship in the first year of the basketball-only Big East.
Jay Wright’s team is big on the perimeter, with 6’6” backcourt players in James Bell and Darrun Hilliard II. The two players combine for 29 ppg and each can shoot from downtown, sitting near 40 percent from behind the arc. JayVaughn Pinkston, a 6’7” forward, provides some frontcourt punch at 14/6, and Daniel Ochefu, a true post player, doesn’t score, but he doesn’t need to—and Ochefu chips in valuable rebounding help.
Big 12: Kansas—You can make a great case that this is the most talented team in the country. In an era of backcourt-heavy teams, KU is big. Joel Embid, the 7’0” freshman, has NBA scouts lathered up, with 11 points/8 rebounds/3 blocks per game and draws comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. Alan Wiggins came to campus last fall as one of the most hyped freshman in the game, and averaged a 17/6. Perry Ellis, a 6’8” sophomore, produced a 13/6. You aren’t going inside or getting many rebounds against this group.
Head coach Bill Self has a good backcourt in Wayne Selden and Naadir Tharpe running the show. Tharpe in particular knows his role as a playmaker, but with a 39 percent shooting average from trey range, he’s effective enough to make you come up to guard him and thereby open the passing lanes. Kansas lost four games after February 1, though Embid’s iffy back and the quality of the Big 12 are the big reasons why.
Mountain West: San Diego State—This race ended up closer than everyone thought at the start of the year. San Diego State was supposed to win in a walk, but ended up in a winner-take-all battle with New Mexico on Saturday night. Then the Aztecs trailed by 16 with twelve minutes left. Head coach Steve Fischer switched them to a 1-3-1 zone to make up for a size mismatch and they pulled out a 51-48 win.
In fairness to San Diego State, the surprisingly close race was more about New Mexico coming through rather than the Aztecs falling short. Fisher’s team went 16-2 in league play. Senior guard Xavier Thames led the way with 17 ppg, and the combination of Winston Shepard and J.J. O’Brien provided both scoring and rebounding. And nobody rebounded like 6’8” senior Josh Davis, who muscled up to the tune of ten boards per game. It was enough to give San Diego State its first outright championship since 2006, and continued a string of success that also saw them share recent titles each year from 2009-11.
Atlantic 10: St. Louis—The Billikens made this one interesting. St. Louis got off to a 12-0 start in league action, highlighted by a 65-49 win at a good St. Joe’s team. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett, a pair of seniors, each averaged 14 ppg. Rob Loe provided something of a post presence at 10/6, and 6’0” Mike McCall knocked in 10 ppg.
St. Louis lost three games down the stretch and looked ready to give away at least part of the championship. They were tied 62-62 at UMass this weekend, another quality opponent. Jett drove the lane for a layup with three seconds left to give Jim Crews and the Billikens their second straight A-10 crown.
American: Cincinnati/Louisville—It was the only shared championship among the power leagues. Each team won on their other’s home floor. After the Bearcat win in Louisville on January 30 it looked like Cincy might run away with the league, but the Bearcats dropped three of their last seven. Sean Kilpatrick, their prolific senior guard, drained 21 ppg, while forwards Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson combined for 14 rebounds a night.
Rick Pitino and Louisville came on strong after that January 30 home loss, winning nine of their last ten games. Senior guard Russ Smith had another big year, averaging 18 ppg. Luke Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player at the 2013 Final Four, kicked in 12. The big breakout came from sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell, who averaged a 14/8. Harrell’s play made up for the dismissal of Chane Behanan and the inability of Wayne Blackshear to step up to a higher level.
TheSportsNotebook doesn’t consider the Missouri Valley Conference a power league, not after Creighton left for the new Big East and there will be no at-large bids coming out of the MVC. That doesn’t mean Wichita State isn’t a heckuva power team though, and the Shockers got their own tribute for their undefeated season, which you can read here.