What a year for college basketball. Here are the standouts from nearly five months of insanity:
Player of the Year: Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Brunson averaged 19 points and 4.8 assists a game. The numbers are solid, but may not wow you. They don’t need to. Villanova coach Jay Wright said on the NCAA.com/Turner sports podcast March Madness 365 that Brunson dominates the game by controlling each possession.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona: He was a force of nature this season. He averaged 19.9 points and 11.4 boards. He also probably altered more shots than he blocked. Arizona doesn’t win the Pac-12 regular-season title without him. It’s not even close.
Marvin Bagley III, Duke: Bagley III was as fierce at times as Ayton. If Bagley was around the basket, look out below. He could be unstoppable. A knee injury slowed him and forced him to miss four games but he came back with a vengeance and was dominant again. He averaged 20.7 points and 11.2 rebounds for the Blue Devils, numbers he could probably match or exceed in the NCAA tournament.
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State: The Big Ten player of the year was the reason the Buckeyes were in contention for the league title. He returned to be a given for the Buckeyes. He averaged 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds. He was a leader throughout the season. Stud.
Devonte Graham, Kansas: Graham was the consensus Big 12 player of the year. He continued a trend of Kansas players who continue to develop into stars for Bill Self. Graham averaged 17.6 points and 7.2 assists per game. If the Jayhawks needing something positive to happen, Graham was there to deliver.
Trae Young, Oklahoma: Young put up crazy numbers throughout the season. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.9 assists. But the Sooners’ slide probably pushed him off the perch for first-team/Big 12 POY honors. He had a sensational freshman season when you consider the numbers he produced while being the focus of the opposing team’s scout every time the Sooners played.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue: Edwards led the Boilermakers with 18.5 points a game and 3 assists a game. He dropped a cool 40 on Illinois in Champaign at the end of the season. He was the waterbug who continued to get in the lane and create havoc for opposing teams. He could be a major pest for the opposing teams. And when Vincent Edwards got hurt, Carsen was there to step up even more. He was the perfect compliment to Isaac Haas’ space eating in the middle. Teams had a hard time deciding who and how to defend.
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech: Evans was one of the main reasons the Red Raiders had a special season. Evans averaged 17.4 points and 3.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists a game. The Red Raiders defended extremely well under Chris Beard’s coaching but Evans was a difference maker for this squad. If Texas Tech advances deep in March, look for Evans to be the reason why.
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: The Musketeers won the Big East outright. That means they knocked Villanova off its perch. While they didn’t beat the Wildcats, Xavier was the better team for the two-month conference season. And one of the main reasons why was Bluiett. He was a big-time scorer/shooter who could get hot in minutes. Bluiett averaged 19.4 points and 5.6 boards for Chris Mack and has been a staple for him throughout his four seasons.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Bridges decided to come back to East Lansing to win a national title. He also wanted to improve. He wasn’t ready to become a pro. And so far he has accomplished one of his goals. He’s a much better shooter and a more consistent player. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 boards for the Spartans. He hit the game-winning 3-pointer to beat Purdue. He has become a go-to scorer on a talented and potentially national champion Spartans team.
Luke Maye, North Carolina: Maye hit the biggest shot of his life to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight last March and launch the Tar Heels back to the Final Four where they eventually won the national title over Gonzaga. And he didn’t disappoint this season. He averaged 17.7 points and 10.1 boards. He became a tough matchup defensively and continued to improve. One could make the argument that he has become one of the more improved players under Roy Williams during his tenure in Chapel Hill.
Jevon Carter, West Virginia: Carter is the perfect Bob Huggins player. He loves playing for Huggs. He gets him. He can embrace the defensive intensity. He never stops playing. Every possession is as if it’s his last. Carter delivered with 17 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists this season.
Mo Bamba, Texas: Bamba was a joy to watch. He averaged 13 points and 10.6 boards. Oh, and he also averaged 3.8 blocks. But his presence altered so much in and around the basket. He was constantly involved in every play. He did have some injury issues at the end of the season, but his presence was the reason the Longhorns were in games. If he’s healthy and the Longhorns make the NCAA tournament he’s got a chance to really affect the game.
Marcus Foster, Creighton: Foster was the go-to scorer for the Bluejays. He lit up teams and could make big shots and last-second ones too. The Kansas State transfer has made himself quite a home at Creighton. He averaged 20.3 points and 3.8 rebounds and helped offset the loss of injured scorer Martin Krampelj. The Bluejays had a chance this season because Foster was on the floor.
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Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure: Adams missed the first six games with a sprained ankle. He made up for it big-time he was something special this season, leading the Bonnies with 20.5 points and 5.6 assists a game. He was as big-time a scorer as anyone on this all-American list. He kept the Bonnies in each and every game. And he’s the one to ride into the NCAA tournament. The Bonnies need to make the field so the rest of the country can appreciate his talent.
Coach of the Year: Tony Bennett, Virginia
Bennett led the Cavaliers to the ACC regular-season title, winning the league by FOUR games. Seriously. This was a rout. And don’t start with the unbalanced schedule. Virginia’s one Duke game was at Cameron and the Cavaliers still won. The only loss was an overtime home loss to Virginia Tech by one.
This is Virginia’s third ACC regular-season title in the past five seasons. Remarkable. Virginia consistently ages well. This team improves defensively with each possession it seems. When Villanova coach Jay Wright corrected me on our NCAA.com/Turner Sports podcast March Madness 365 when I said there was no dominant team this season. He said Virginia has dominated everyone defensively. He’s right.
Our leader leads off a long list of well-earned @accmbb honors.— Virginia Men's Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) March 4, 2018
4th outright ACC regular-season title
ACC-record 17 league wins
ACC-record 9-0 league road mark
First No. 1 ranking since 1982
Congrats TB! #GoHoos pic.twitter.com/77u8PG0kcF
The Cavaliers weren’t supposed to be this good, this season, and certainly not better than Duke, when they don’t have a player on the roster who is a lock for the NBA. They have had NBA players in the past. Virginia is likely going to be the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA tournament selections/seedings are unveiled on Sunday. That is quite remarkable based on all the preseason projections.
Comeback Player of the Year: Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Bates-Diop was the Big Ten player of the year. He played in only nine games last season due to a leg injury. He finished averaging 19.4 points a game this season. He hit the game-winning put-back to beat Purdue at Mackey Arena. He was an anchor for the Buckeyes.
Bates-Diop has been high-character for Ohio State. He’s a fourth-year junior and if this is it for him he has given plenty to the Buckeyes. He may have more to accomplish this month if he can take the Buckeyes deep this month.
Best game: St. Bonaventure-Davidson, Feb. 27
The Bonnies beat the Wildcats 117-113 in a triple overtime classic. Peyton Aldridge scored 45 points for Davidson. Kellan Grady, one of the best freshman in the country that gets no love, scored 39 for Davidson.
The Bonnies had three scorers over 30: Jaylen Adams scored 34, Matt Mobley 33 and Courtney Stockard scored 31. This game was what makes college basketball special. Everything about this game was perfect: Great atmosphere in Olean, a great watch on CBS Sports Network and highly-competitive play from both teams.
Best new rivalry: Cincinnati-Wichita State
When the American added the Shockers, the consensus was that they would immediately have a rival in the Bearcats. Both coaches are intense, highly respected and winners. The programs pride themselves on tough defense. They love to be physical. And the crowds can be angry — in a good way with their passion outwardly displayed for each team.
Well, this was a home run for the American. It may go down as one of the best basketball alignment decisions. The American desperately needed another basketball power. They had football-only member Navy so there was no reason to pause on adding a program for all sports except football.
Most surprising team: Auburn
The Tigers won a share of the SEC with Tennessee (another surprise but not as much) despite a myriad of issues. The Tigers played without suspended players Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley. They had to go without injured forward Anfernee McLemore for the last four games (2-2) and still managed to stay atop the SEC.
Auburn didn’t play a strong non-conference (although the wins over Middle Tennessee State and at Murray State look better now) and entered the SEC 12-1 with the first game at Tennessee. And the Tigers went into Knoxville and won by 10. Auburn won handily at Missouri, beat Kentucky by 10 and enter the SEC tournament in St. Louis with a 25-6 record, 13-5 in the league. Bruce Pearl may have done his best coaching job since he had to deal with limited numbers.
Best first-year coaching job: Chris Holtmann, Ohio State
After Thad Matta's departure, it seemed the Buckeyes were heading for a transition season. But in stepped Chris Holtmann, who took over a proud program and didn’t miss a step. The Buckeyes finished 24-8 and 15-3 for second in the Big Ten and are poised to be a 5 or 6 seed possibly in the NCAA tournament next week.
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Holtmann was/is the perfect fit for Ohio State. He is self-assured but not bombastic. He blends well into a massive athletic department that is dominated by football. Holtmann will have the Buckeyes as a consistent threat in the Big Ten for years to come. He has strong recruiting ties in the Midwest and clearly has shown he can coach with anyone in the country.
St. John’s beating Duke and Villanova back-to-back: The Red Storm didn’t win a game in the month of January. They were 0-11 in the Big East. But then, out of nowhere, St. John’s shocked Duke 81-77 at Madison Square Garden and then took that act on the road and won its first Big East game of the season four days later at Villanova, 79-75.
Shamorie Ponds scored 33 points in the win over the Blue Devils. Ponds scored 26 in the win over the Wildcats. Ponds was sensational in both games and put himself on the national map. He also helped get the national attention for a program that has desperately needed it the past decade.
Minnesota, 5 on 3, against Alabama. I was there in Brooklyn on Nov. 25. This was hard to believe. Foul issues. An injury and players leaving the bench led to only three players being available for Avery Johnson.
But the right three were on the floor, mainly freshman Collin Sexton. Sexton finished with 40 and helped Alabama cut a 14-point deficit down to three in the final 10 minutes before losing by five.
Shot of the Year
Penn State's Tony Carr buried a banked 3-pointer to beat Ohio State 82-79 in Columbus, on Jan. 25, moments after Keita Bates-Diop hit a wild 3-pointer to tie the game. The exchange was reminiscent of the North Carolina-Villanova national title game.
WHAT. A. FINISH. pic.twitter.com/SlrdKFfnQZ— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 26, 2018
Marcus Paige hit a game-tying 3-pointer but seconds later Kris Jenkins won the game on a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The win over Ohio State changed the season for Penn State and gave the Nittany Lions hope that they could reach the NCAA tournament. We’ll see if it helped on Sunday, but it was the first of three wins over the Buckeyes.
Toughest Player of the Year: Brad Davison, Wisconsin
The freshman guard became the leader of the Badgers once D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King went down with season-ending injuries. But it was Davison playing with a shoulder that popped out, according to him, eight times, that makes him tougher than most.
Wisconsin trainer Henry Perez-Guerra said he’s never seen a tougher player.
Best performance: Markus Howard, Marquette
Howard made 11 threes and scored 52 points in a wild 95-90 overtime win at Providence. Howard got to the free-throw line seven times, making all seven. He was 11 of 19 from deep, 17 of 29 from the field. He played 44 of 45 minutes. The win over the Friars gave this team hope that it could make a run to the NCAA tournament. And the Golden Eagles do enter the Big East tournament week with a chance to earn a bid.
Best comeback: Drexel over Delaware, Feb. 22
Both teams were at the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t provide the most interesting game of the season.
Drexel came back from 34 points down to beat Delaware 85-83 at the DAC. It was the largest comeback in NCAA Division I history.