Virtually every major conference championship race came down to the wire this weekend. Whether it was UCLA sneaking off with the Pac-12, St. Louis pulling out the Atlantic 10 or Indiana’s wild win over Michigan to secure the Big Ten crown, teams were claiming championship hardware. But perhaps no championship was more improbable than the one Marquette secured in the Big East. With the regular season in the books, the Golden Eagles lead TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage, on a night we celebrate the winners.
Marquette escaped losing at St. John’s in overtime, 69-67, and became one of three teams to share the Big East title. The win itself wasn’t what made MU’s championship so improbable. It was that a team pieced together around one good guard—something not uncommon in college basketball—and one decent power forward—could rise to the top of one of the nation’s best conferences.
Yet that’s what Marquette did. Vander Blue led the way with 14 ppg, the last two of the season coming on a driving layup with one second left that claimed his team a title. Davante Gardner averaged 12 points/5 rebounds a game as the only real frontcourt player. Somehow head coach Buzz Williams made it all go and brought his school its first Big East championship, even if came divided in thirds.
Louisville and Georgetown joined MU in the winner’s circle. The Cards beat Notre Dame to grab their third of the pie. Rick Pitino’s team overcame a midseason slump and got great guard play from Russ Smith all year long, to go along with Gorgui Dieng averaging 10/10 per game in the low post. The success of Pitino’s team was expected, but that was not the case for Georgetown Hoyas and John Thompson III. The Hoyas head coach had to overcome the loss of key frontcourt piece Greg Whittington to suspension. Not only did Georgetown survive, but they played their best basketball after Whittington was gone. Otto Porter stepped up and became a candidate for national Player of the Year and the Hoyas beat Syracuse twice down the stretch to seal the deal.
Here’s a look at the nation’s seven other major conferences and the teams that won them…
Big Ten: Indiana has been in the national spotlight all year, and I’ve expressed my doubts many times about whether they are really national title material. This article is not meant to quibble over team’s flaws, it’s about celebrating the strengths that produced a championship. With Indiana it was the great play of Cody Zeller (17/8) down low, and some magnificent three-point shooting. If you have one player who can hit 45 percent from three-point range, you have a threat. Indiana had three shooters who hit at least 48 percent in the starting lineup in Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford.
ACC: Miami came under some fire in recent weeks for starting to slump. Let’s set that aside until it’s time to handicap the conference or NCAA Tournaments. For now, how about acknowledging that no one ever expected the Hurricanes to go 15-3 and take the ACC title outright from Duke. And before Blue Devil fans point to the loss of Ryan Kelly, remember this—Miami blistered Duke by thirty, and no one thinks Kelly would have made up that difference. And Duke barely escaped in the rematch despite Kelly playing the best game of his life. We also don’t know if Miami would have lost focus had their conference lead not gotten up to three games. To make a long story short, the ‘Canes are a worthy champion and the key player was point guard Shane Larkin, who’s lights out from downtown.
SEC: Florida pulled away from the crowd and had this one wrapped up prior to their loss at Kentucky. The Gators have a balanced offense, with Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario in the backcourt, along with Erik Murphy and Patric Young up front. Murphy can also step up and hit the three-ball, giving the offense an added dimension.
Big 12: It was a co-championship between Kansas and Kansas State. Both teams lost this weekend, making it a little bit of a downer. K-State is almost as unlikely a champ as Marquette. Bruce Weber put this team together entirely around two-guard Rodney McGruder and point guard Angel Rodriguez. Weber showed the folks in Illinois who ran him out of town that he can still coach. Kansas churned out another championship year in predictable fashion. Jeff Withey dominated the low post, while Ben McLemore and Travis Releford were both outstanding shooters on the perimeter.
Pac-12: UCLA snuck in and took this one away from both Arizona and Oregon down the stretch. The Bruins beat the Wildcats eight days ago in a Saturday night ESPN prime-time affair and then watched the Ducks fall apart in the final week. UCLA rode the skills of freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad, who averaged 19 ppg and will almost certainly roll into the NBA next year. Jordan Adams chipped in 16 ppg and head coach Ben Howland got his trademark physicality from freshman forward Kyle Anderson, along with the Wear brothers, Travis and David.
Atlantic 10: St. Louis’ season started with the death of head coach Rick Majerus and point guard Kwamain Mitchell being hurt. The team banded together, Mitchell came back, and the Billikens produced a well-balanced offense. All five starters were in double figures and all within a couple points of each other. Dwayne Evans was the best all-around player, while Mike McCall was deadly from behind the arc. The Billikens aren’t a big team, but they played together, pulled away from Butler and finally outlasted Virginia Commonwealth to win an outright championship.
We can also go beyond the major conferences and offer a tip of the cap to schools like Memphis, who ran the table in Conference USA. Or Creighton, who won the Missouri Valley, and then solidified it this weekend by winning the conference tournament. And there’s a team in the West Coast Conference that might deserve some mention. Yeah, Gonzaga had kind of a good year too.
The college basketball world has become so focused on the NCAA Tournament that it’s become easy to lose sight of how hard it is to win a conference championship or just what a long, consistent stretch of basketball it takes to achieve it. These championships mean something—not because of a seed in a tournament, but because it’s a significant accomplishment for a team in of itself, even if disappointment is around the next corner. Whatever happens the rest of the month and the early part of April, the schools we celebrate here tonight already know that a banner will be hung to commemorate the 2013 season.