Well, wasn’t that an eventful 2021 in college basketball, and not always for a good reason.
March Madness was crowded into one state for the first time ever, more or less huddled against the COVID storm. Baylor, a program that had not seen the Final Four in 71 years, ended up champion. North Texas, Oral Roberts and Abilene Christian won first round games in the NCAA tournament, but it wasn’t a pleasant month for bluebloods. North Carolina, with Roy Williams headed out the door, lost in Indianapolis by 23 points, Kansas by 34. Duke and Kentucky weren’t even invited.
Now here comes 2022, and the virus is lurking with new variants. The sport is back to games being canceled and created at the 11th hour, back to the reality that a major question each day is not who will win, but how much will COVID get in the way? Who’s on pause and who isn’t?
Still, the storylines are bubbling nicely as 2022 dawns.
Baylor’s run at a repeat, with the Bears now operating from the No. 1 position.
Mike Krzyzewski’s last ride through the ACC.
A potentially chaotic SEC race. Kentucky and rebounding machine Oscar Tshiebwe — he had 28 his last game and is averaging nearly two more a game than next best in the country — will have to deal with Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee. All five are in the top-24 of the latest NCAA NET rankings. Will this, at last, be Gonzaga’s shining moment? Or Purdue’s? Or the West Coast’s? The West has not produced a national champion this century, but four residents — Gonzaga, UCLA, Arizona and USC — are ranked in the top 10 the final week of 2021.
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Something special should happen. Something usually does in years that end in 2. Look at all the special anniversaries to mark in 2022.
Ten years ago . . . Kentucky gave John Calipari his first national championship. Everyone assumed there’d be more. There hasn’t been. Yet. The funny thing about that night was Anthony Davis getting named Most Outstanding Player. He was 1-for-10 shooting. But 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals against Kansas were pretty convincing.
Twenty years ago . . . Maryland finally broke through for a championship. The year before, the Terrapins played in their first Final Four in history, and blew a 22-point lead against Duke. They were back in 2002 for atonement.
Thirty years ago . . . Duke 104, Kentucky 103, OT. Christian Laettner. Need we say more? We should. That was for the regional championship and a quarter-century later arguably remains the gold standard game in tournament lore. But the next week’s Final Four was a landmark, too. The Blue Devils gave Krzyzewski his only repeat. Michigan’s Fab Five said hello and Indiana’s Bob Knight said goodbye. The all-freshman Wolverines made it to the title game. Meanwhile, Indiana lost to Duke 81-78 in the semifinals, and he would never again coach in the Final Four.
Forty years ago . . . Georgetown led by one point in the final 30 seconds and North Carolina was down to a last chance in the Louisiana Superdome. The ball went to a freshman on the wing. His name was Michael Jordan. You know the rest. It had taken Dean Smith seven trips to the Final Four to leave at last with the trophy.
Fifty years ago . . . The Bill Walton era officially arrived, with 24 points and 20 rebounds in UCLA’s 81-76 championship win over Florida State. That made six titles in a row for the Bruins. Walton and co-star Keith Wilkes were sophomores, UCLA had gone 30-0 and it looked like it might never end. But what should also be remembered is Florida State’s pluck. The unheralded Seminoles, then an independent and making only their second appearance in the tournament, upset heavyweights Kentucky and North Carolina to get into the ring against the mighty Bruins. They led by seven points early and lost by five, and you have to look at UCLA’s results that season to understand what an effort Florida State had made. The steamrolling Bruins won 22 of their 30 games by at least 25 points, and had only one other victory settled by under 13.
Sixty years ago . . . Two teams from the same state played for the championship, with Cincinnati beating Ohio State. For that matter, they had done the same thing the year before. It’s never happened again since. Also of note was the team Cincinnati edged 72-70 in the semifinals; a newcomer to the big stage with a mild but earnest coach. UCLA and John Wooden. First Final Four. They’d be back.
Seventy years ago . . . Kansas’ first title came with an 80-63 win over St. John’s, highlighted by 33 points from Clyde Lovellette, the nation’s leading scorer, and no points off the bench by a Jayhawk reserve named Dean Smith. There was something novel about this tournament. Someone came up with the idea of having the final four teams gather in once place to decide the championship. That had never been tried before. It seemed to catch on.
Eighty years ago . . . Stanford won its first and still only championship in the early days of World War II. Things were a little different in 1942. Dartmouth traveled three days by train to get to the championship game in Kansas City. Back on campus, there were blackout curtains on the dorm windows, in case of a Japanese air raid. This was not four months after Pearl Harbor, and the real world had cast a shadow on college basketball.
Just like now.