Wednesday, April 4, 2012

After the Madness: Final Thoughts

By Jean Neuberger

Sixty-eight teams began a trek for a national title three weeks ago. And to the surprise of few, the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats were the one team left standing at the end.

As we put a close to the 2011-2012 season, we need to remember the things we've learned from this season, as well as this tournament and get excited already for the 2012-13 slate.

We'll start with the two teams who played Monday night. First things first, you have to tip your hat to Kentucky's John Calipari. The coach, who lost in the 1996 Final Four to Rick Pitino and in the 2008 title game to Bill Self and Kansas, had to defeat both coaches this time to finally capture his first national title.

John Calipari's system works. Yes, he runs his program like a basketball factory, where players are recycled each year for the newest high school phenoms. Academic progress seems completely foreign to Calipari, who said during his post-game press conference that he hoped Kentucky had six NBA first round picks this year. If they did, no doubt the Wildcats will continue their recruiting dominance and remain a consistent threat to win it all every year.

UK wanted national titles. Shoot, they wanted to get back to national prominence after the epic failures of Billy Gillispie in Lexington. They collected on their massive investment in Calipari. And, unless the NCAA changes their rules concerning the APR and players leaving early, the dividends for Big Blue Nation will keep on rolling.

As for Kansas and Bill Self, they'll be back. Count on it.

While Calipari might've been holding the trophy at the end, Bill Self did an outstanding coaching job this season. Kansas wasn't predicted to go this deep in the preseason. The Jayhawks battled with Missouri in two incredible matchups to scratch out their eighth straight conference title. KU was a good team to start. However, under Self's guidance, they finished a great one. Thomas Robinson was every bit the interior force the Jayhawks needed, Jeff Withey became a blocking machine, and Elijah Johnson became a deadly offensive target. Tyshawn Taylor won't be back next year, but Kansas will reload and continue to hold serve in the Big 12.

Who was the coach of the year this season? My pick goes to Indiana's Tom Crean. Believe me, there was more beneath the surface of Indiana's 27-9 year. Crean left a great situation at Marquette to repair the ruins of the IU program that Kelvin Sampson left behind. Crean didn't take shortcuts to lay down a new foundation and brick by brick, he has brought the Hoosier program back to the national picture. IU was relentlessly tough at home, fought valiantly to the Sweet 16 and brought waves of hope for next year throughout the state.

On the flip side, it looks as if UConn's Jim Calhoun is nearing the end of his career. Maybe it will be next season, or a couple of years from now. With Calhoun, one never knows for sure. However, UConn's ban from the tournament next year, mixed with the academic issues that the Huskies have faced and are continuing to face, as well as Calhoun's health problems say that the timing might be right to pass the torch on in Storrs. Calhoun's tenure is one for the ages. No doubt, his three national titles have defined his time at UConn and etched the Huskies among the great programs in college basketball. However, the neglect of the student in student-athlete has put a major tarnish on his legacy. No doubt, Calhoun wants to leave the right way. The question is whether he will be able to accomplish such an exit.

While coaching changes are natural in the postseason, one last thing to note is the lack of mid-major coaches heading for jobs in major conferences. Shaka Smart again chose to stay at VCU. Gregg Marshall announced he wasn't leaving Wichita State. Brad Stevens fended off rumors again and is holding firm at Butler. The exception to the rule: Ohio's John Groce, who left for Illinois. On a side note, with Shaka Smart and John Groce, is there any doubt Illinois wants to shake up the tempo of Big Ten basketball?

Despite the lack of mid-majors going deep in the tournament this year, the parody of college basketball is still alive and well, not only in talent but also in coaching salaries. VCU, Wichita State, and Butler are basketball schools willing to pay well to keep quality coaches. And Smart, Marshall, and Stevens enjoy the job security while knowing they can still recruit talent that can take them pretty far come March. This simple fact should keep hope alive for those who enjoy mid-majors spoiling the Big Dance. It should also send a red flag to major schools, who now realize they need to work that much harder to land a quality coach should they decide it's time for a change.

The 2012-13 season will bring a lot of questions and hopefully a lot of suspense. But for now we'll set it all aside in anticipation and let Big Blue Nation savor the spoils of victory.

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