Monday, April 12, 2021

Wrapping Up This Hoops Season

By Jean Neuberger

The season is over and it's the year of the Bear, as Baylor claimed their first national title.

It was a year unlike any other in college basketball, and here's the final thoughts of this memorable season.

Baylor was better. I did think Baylor would win the national title solely on the basis that Gonzaga would have a natural letdown following one of the best basketball games ever played with UCLA. I didn't think the Zags would be able to emotionally bounce back, let alone most teams. However, after the game, it's hard to imagine that Gonzaga could have beaten Baylor in any circumstance that night. Baylor threw a haymaker right from the beginning and never let up, making what could've been an instant classic an easy romp.

Scott Drew is the Bill Snyder of college hoops. Bill Snyder will always be remembered for going to a school that for decades had been a complete dumpster fire of a football program and miraculously making them into winners. Scott Drew came to Baylor when its basketball program couldn't be any lower. There was drug use and improper payments that led to harsh NCAA violations and worse, there was the murder of Patrick Dennehy by his own teammate, Carlton Dotson. It was a situation that no one would envy.

Eighteen years later, Baylor is the national champion.

What Scott Drew did was Snyder-esque. It's an absolute miracle to see how far Baylor has come in two decades.

Gonzaga should hold their heads high. A remarkable season for the 'Zags, who just ran into a buzzsaw that couldn't be stopped. Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme were incredible, the game over UCLA is one for the ages and the 'Zags only lost one game all year, while beating a slew of good teams. Credit Mark Few for scheduling a tough non-conference slate for a team he knew was special.

While the ACC was down, the Pac-12 served notice that elite basketball wasn't limited to schools in the Central and Eastern time zones. UCLA served notice that they're back on the scene, and their run from the First Four to the Final Four was lightning in a bottle and entertaining to watch. USC and Oregon State's Elite Eight run definitely caught some eyes, especially Oregon State, who'd been picked to finish dead-last in the preseason. Wayne Tinkle did an outstanding job coaching this team this season. Oregon had a fantastic win over Big Ten power Iowa, as well. Mired in mediocrity for years, the Pac-12 had a much needed return to respectability.

The SEC is more than Kentucky. The Wildcats were missing from this year's Big Dance, but the SEC still had a solid showing without them, led by Arkansas's run to the Elite Eight and Alabama's run to the Sweet 16. UCLA's run showed that Alabama, who lost in OT to the Bruins, was up there with the nation's best. Meanwhile, while Houston and Gonzaga could never respond to Baylor's early blitzkriegs, Arkansas took Baylor's best shot and fought back, clawing to within four before running out of gas. The Hogs were the only team Baylor didn't beat by double digits in the tournament. Both teams should be loaded again next year.

Oral Roberts was the best 15 seed in NCAA history. Sorry, FGCU. You've been replaced. The Golden Eagles were two points away from the Elite Eight and took out Ohio State and Florida in the process. They were the gutsy, scrappy Cinderella that everyone had to stop and watch. No one in the tournament made more of his time there than Max Abmas. ORU was underseeded, but they'll go down in history regardless.

The Big Ten's early exit. The main excuse heard for most of the Big Ten taking an early exodus from the tournament was that the conference was so good, they beat each other up and were too battered from conference play to win big in March.

Somewhere, Nick Saban, fresh off a national title from playing nothing but Power 5 teams, 11 of which were SEC opponents, had a hearty laugh.

The Big Ten, with the exception of Michigan, just wasn't as good as advertised. They were out-played, out-hustled and in most cases, thoroughly out-coached (again, with the exception of Juwan Howard and the Wolverines). Upsets were a plenty this tournament, and the Big Ten suffered a wrath of them.

Shaka was Smart... to get out of Texas. Smart's move to Marquette provides a fresh start that he needed, in a conference where basketball reigns supreme. Marquette is a solid brand name that Smart can certainly build a good team from quickly.

Texas grabbing Chris Beard from Texas Tech was also a great move, as Beard will take a talented team and make them mentally tougher right away. Losing to Abilene Christian is something Texas won't forget for some time (and ACU won't forget, ever).

Another great Big 12 hire was Oklahoma grabbing Porter Moser from Loyola. Moser proved that his Final Four run with Loyola was no fluke, and his game plan for Illinois was perfectly executed and left no doubt who the top program in the Land of Lincoln truly was. If Moser can lure top Chicago talent to Norman, he could build a monster at Oklahoma.

Finally, kudos to the NCAA and Indianapolis. It's not often you can give the NCAA credit for anything (and usually, for me, they only get props for the College World Series, as that is the tournament that they run better than anything else). But Indianapolis did a great job hosting all 66 games and only one team, VCU, had to forfeit due to COVID reasons. It wasn't the easiest or most fun of situations, but the most important goal was reached: a tournament was played, and a champion was crowned.

Also, the national anthem before the title game was awesome. Simply awesome.

P.S. Don't let that get to your head, NCAA. Just about every Comfort Inn has a better gym than what you gave the women in San Antonio. You failed on that one. Big.

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