It was the Year of Duke. But almost Wisconsin, and almost Kentucky.
It was the year we said hello to Ben Simmons, and goodbye to Bo Ryan. The year Mike Krzyzewski won his 1000th game as a coach, and Chris Mullin his first. The year Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian were both gone inside of five days.
It was the year of continual spotlight -- shining upon the mighty bluebloods from Durham to Lexington to Lawrence to East Lansing to Chapel Hill. But there was room on stage for the ongoing floor show that is the Monmouth bench. And the man who earned his own Bobblehead doll coaches at Georgia State.
Here are 13 moments, chronologically, that helped define 2015.
Jan. 25: Madison Square Garden and Mike Krzyzewski seem made for one another. It was there in midtown Manhattan in 2011, he accumulated his 903rd victory to pass Bob Knight for the Division I record. And it was on this winter Sunday that his Blue Devils came from 10 points behind in the final 8:15 to beat St. John’s 77-68, pushing Mt. K to the 1000-win elevation. ``I like my place, Cameron,’’ he said when it was over, surrounded by seven of his grandchildren. ``But this is a magical place.’’
Feb. 7: After years of retreat into twilight as his memory faded, Dean Smith died peacefully at the age of 83, not far from the North Carolina arena that bears his name. ``Dean Smith was the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been,’’ Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. Four days later, Tarkanian passed away at 84. Eleven days later, there was a fitting tribute to Smith; a classic renewal of the Tobacco Road rivalry, with Duke edging North Carolina 92-90 in overtime. ``He might not have liked the result of the game,’’ Krzyzewski said of Smith, ``but I’m sure he liked the way both teams played.’’
March 14: With the America East NCAA tournament invitation at stake, Albany’s Peter Hooley buried a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left to beat Stony Brook 51-50. It was the only 3-pointer of the game for the Great Danes, and came six weeks after Hooley had temporarily left the team to return to Australia to spend the last days with his dying mother. ``When you’ve got angels watching,’’ Hooley said the night of his shot, ``you can do anything.’’ March had no better story.
March 17: Talk about your boffo opening acts. Mississippi State trailed BYU 49-32 at halftime at the First Four, then went on a 62-point tear in the second half to win 94-90. The NCAA tournament was underway. Said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, ``Welcome to March Madness.’’
March 19: What’s a first Thursday in the tournament without upsets? First, 15-loss UAB stunned No. 3 Iowa State 60-59, uniting a campus and community rocked by the recent scuttling of its football program. It so enlivened the school, football eventually was given a reprieve. Next, Georgia State scored the last 13 points of the game to erase a 56-44 deficit in the last three minutes and shock No. 3 seed Baylor 57-56. The winning shot came at 2.7 seconds; a 3-pointer from R.J, Hunter that produced the most endearing image of the month. The replays never stopped of coach and father Ron – who could not walk because of a torn Achilles -- tumbling back off his rolling chair in joy. How charming was that? By the fall, Ron Hunter and his chair had become a Bobblehead doll.
March 22: They had not played since 1993, but fate – and the NCAA Tournament bracket – finally put Wichita State and Kansas together in the third round. The Shockers rolled 78-65 against the school that had steadfastly refused to play them. It might have been impossible to exaggerate how good it felt for Wichita State. ``We don’t have McDonald’s All-Americans, we don’t have guys that have been in the spotlight and been given that pedestal,’’ the Shockers’ Fred VanVleet said. ``We work for everything we’ve got, from managers to coaches to our preacher, to whoever. We’ve scrapped and fought our whole lives.’’
March 28: Notre Dame, playing in its first regional championship game in 36 years, took Kentucky to the wire before losing 68-66. The Wildcats had to hit their last nine shots to survive. Suddenly, 38-0 Kentucky did not look quite so invulnerable. ``We’re undefeated,’’ John Calipari said, ``but we’re not perfect.’’ The truly prophetic words came from Irish coach Mike Brey: ``Wisconsin’s a little bit like us.’’
April 4: Turned out, Wisconsin was quite a bit like Notre Dame – plus a few points better when it came to playing Kentucky. The Wildcats shot 48 percent, committed only six turnovers and were 9-for-10 from the line. Hardly the handiwork of an upset victim. But the Badgers would not be stopped, hitting nearly 48 percent against Kentucky’s feared defense, and pounding the Wildcats in rebounding 34-22. Kentucky could not hold a late 60-56 lead and Wisconsin, with 20 points from player of the year Frank Kaminsky, went rushing past 71-64. The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers could stand down. There would be no unbeaten champion. Calipari stressed his team should not forget what it had accomplished, but the postgame words from Tyler Ulis were telling of a title-or-bust mission: ``The season was a waste.’’
April 6: Meet the new Duke. He might be 68, but a thoroughly modern Krzyzewski had seen the light as far as the value of one-and-done talent, and rode on the shoulders of NBA-bound freshmen to his fifth national championship. The irony in the Blue Devils’ 68-63 win over Wisconsin was the least heralded Duke freshman – Grayson Allen, and his four-point average – had to pull the Blue Devils out of the fire with 16 points, nearly single-handedly wiping out a 48-39 Badgers lead. ``I haven’t loved a team,’’ Krzyzewski said, ``any more than I’ve loved this team.’’
Nov. 17: Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine might just as well have called a press conference to announce his candidacy as national player of the year. Instead, he went for 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists to triple double Kansas into a 79-73 Spartans victory. ``There’s a million things he’s not good enough at,’’ Tom Izzo said of Valentine. ``But winning is something he’s good enough at. Work ethic is something he’s good enough at. And basketball IQ is something he’s good enough at.’’ It was a hint of where the power might be for 2015-16. By late December, Michigan State was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, Kansas No. 2.
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Nov. 29: Another day, another upset for Monmouth. USC was shelled 83-73, so the Trojans were added to UCLA and Notre Dame as Hawk trophy wins. But Monmouth was no garden variety underdog. The Hawks’ story came complete with production numbers, as a variety of creative in-game celebration skits by the reserves caught the nation’s fancy. Monmouth suddenly had the most famous bench in the game.
Dec. 15: It seemed just another one of those early-season non-conference games, Wisconsin pulling away to beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 64-49. Then Bo Ryan sat in front of the media afterward and announced he was retiring. Now. Once the team heard, Nigel Hayes mentioned how he had sensed something amiss before the game, from the expression on Ryan’s face, ``The saddest look I’ve ever seen him have,’’ Hayes said. Assistant Greg Gard took over, and so ended one of college basketball’s more amazing success stories. Ryan had taken Wisconsin to 14 NCAA Tournaments in 14 seasons. Before that, the Badgers had made it seven times in 43 years. In one night, the Big Ten power structure trembled.
Dec. 26: The only game in town – heck, the only game in the country – on the day after Christmas was Kentucky-Louisville. Why not? The Wildcats edged the Cardinals 75-73 to show – some recent wobbling notwithstanding – they were still in charge of the Bluegrass, and a national force. Even if the hottest freshman in the SEC was Ben Simmons at LSU.