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Did a Marvelous 2018-19 Season Put College Basketball Back on Top?

2019 NCAAM Champions
It’s time to stop acting as though the level of play – graded on a scale of 1-through-10 from average Pee Wee level to LeBron James – is the #1 factor in whether a sports league is popular or not.

Look at the gridiron. The Alliance of American Football (and most certainly Vince McMahon’s XFL) has fielded rosters that could take apart most FBS teams. Almost every athlete on the “bubble” of NFL consideration was a standout with his college program. Yet an “inferior” brand like Boise State or Central Florida is well-known among fans, while almost nobody will remember the Orlando Apollos.

That’s why the criticism of NCAA basketball over the past 5-10 years has been mostly misguided. Sure, things can be done to improve any division of any sport. But the idea that people were getting turned off to college hoops just because the NBA Draft filches a few would-be upperclassmen is…shallow.

It’s the brand that had to recover. One “expert” says in print that college basketball sucks any more, and another copies them, and another, and another. Soon the casual fan believes she has to repeat the same tripe or else become out-of-step with what the cool kids are saying. It’s part of the “negative is cool, positive is uncool” culture that has inflected sports in the 21st century. All teams “suck” and “choke” except for the champions, who “got lucky.”

There was even the idea of giving the NCAA a 24-second shot clock. Wow, what a great idea! Let’s make the college hardwood into a pale imitation of the NBA!

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. A 30-second shot clock maintains the suspense and rhythm of the college game.

And after an amazing 2018-19 season that ended with one of the most dramatic March Madness showdowns in history, there won’t be any more carping about how the game has lost its luster.

At least not for a while.

Here’s just 5 stories that propelled Division 1 cagers to world-wide headlines and acclaim in 2018-19.

Virginia’s Ultimate Redemption

UVA’s historic loss to #16 seed UMBC in the 2018 NCAA Tournament sent the Virginia Cavaliers into a land of misery. A #1 overall seeded-squad getting decimated in a shocking upset would have sent many programs into a tailspin for years.

Not Coach Tony Bennett’s outfit, though.

The Cavaliers accepted and used what the program’s head coach called “a painful gift.” Images of that dreadful night were a constant reminder of why Virginia’s talented team needed to work hard in 2018-19 – and for heaven’s sake, some reliable offense would be nice too.

UVA found its steady attack with a 3-headed backcourt monster and the continued inside presence of Jack Salt and other monsters grabbing boards. But a year and another #1 seed later, the “Hoos” were experiencing déjà vu. Down by 14 to #16 seed Gardner-Webb, a relentless comeback set the wheels in motion for a fairy tale ending to the 2019 season.

Bennett’s team scored heart-racing comeback victories in the final seconds against Purdue in the Elite Eight and Auburn in the National Semifinal. The title run culminated in the program’s shining moment with De’Andre Hunter’s late bomb sending the championship game to OT prior to a dominant 5-minute coda against the excellent Texas Tech Red Raiders.

Ultimate redemption – and the ultimate finish to a star-studded Final Four.

Coach K’s Masterpiece

The 2018-2019 season was a thrill ride for the Duke Blue Devils. The favorite to bring home a national title throughout the season, the team’s hopes for a late-season ACC win seemed bleak, given a 23-point 2nd half deficit against Louisville. The Blue Devils were dead in the water!

With the #16 ranked Cardinals firmly ahead and under 10 minutes in regulation, Coach K made a brilliant move, switching to an unfamiliar zone defense that encouraged Louisville’s hot shooters to take more shots from downtown.

When the upstarts began missing, Duke went on a run of epic proportions.

Everything that could go wrong for the Cardinals did. The Blue Devils caught fire, shooting 58.8 percent from the field, forcing 9 Louisville turnovers, and capitalizing from the charity stripe by nailing 11 of 13 free throws in the final 10:00.

The #2 ranked Blue Devils won 71-69 in front of a stunned crowd at KFC Yum! Center…who likely had no appetite for fried chicken or anything else.

The Most Talked-About Knee in Basketball

Coach K wasn’t just turning games around with devilish tactics. He was also tasked with nurturing top NBA prospect Zion Williamson, who tumbled to the floor with a knee injury against North Carolina.

The Blue Devils lost the battle for Tobacco Road supremacy, but all eyes were on Zion’s knee.

The freshman phenom soon recovered. An NCAA Tournament win wouldn’t be in the cards, but a string of legendary performances against Syracuse, North Carolina, and Florida State guided the Blue Devils to an ACC Tournament championship and kept Zion in line for a top “lottery” selection in the NBA Draft.

Sea Change in the Big 12

One of the most extraordinary streaks in basketball met its demise during the 2018-19 season – the Kansas Jayhawks’ incredible streak of Big 12 regular season titles. For 14 straight seasons the Jayhawks found a way to finish on top in the heartland. Only 4 of the titles were not outright wins.

What went wrong for Bill Self’s team this season? A combination of star players missing extended action and inconsistent play on the road was a recipe for disappointment. A 3-8 record in away games would lead to a 3rd-place finish for the Jayhawks in the conference they have dominated since the Bush era.

Ironically, this year’s Big 12 regular season co-champion, Texas Tech, was just seconds from walking away with a national championship.

Auburn’s Historic NCAA Tournament Run

The Auburn Tigers captivated alumnus Charles Barkley (and most of America’s basketball-watching public) with a fast-paced attack that stifled every higher-ranked school standing in the way. Finishing the season with an SEC Tournament triumph, the Tigers became the hottest upstart in March Madness.

Auburn avoided an upset against New Mexico State, then ousted legendary programs Kansas and North Carolina to set up a showdown with conference-rival Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Motivated by a horrific injury to Chuma Okeke, Bruce Pearl’s team snuck past UK in a 77-71 OT victory for the program’s first appearance in the Final Four.

The Tigers’ magic would sadly run out in the Final Four as a controversial end to the thriller against Virginia ended the historic campaign.

But it’s like we’ve written on the blog before. With exception of teams that lose in embarrassing fashion (and don’t come back to win a title the next year like UVA), there are no “losers” in the NCAA Tournament.

Auburn isn’t a program that lost in the title game but a team that reached the Final Four.

That’s all the T-shirts have to say…and they’re still selling like hotcakes.