Are we already at the midway point of the 2011-12 college basketball season? Are those seed lines and brackets coming into view? Before we ready ourselves for the home stretch to March Madness, here are my awards for the best and worst -- and everything in between -- from the first half of the season.
Best game: Indiana 73, Kentucky 72, Dec. 10.
I'm happy to say there were a lot of great candidates. Kentucky's win over North Carolina was probably the best-played game from possession to possession, and it had an exciting ending. For a great atmosphere featuring two big brands, Duke's win over Kansas in the championship of the Maui Invitational was time-capsule good. If you think size matters, then Stanford's four-overtime triumph over Oregon State last weekend was right up your alley. And if you're all about the buzzer-beater, then none was more dramatic and improbable than the half-court heave by Damen Bell-Holter that allowed Oral Roberts to beat Arkansas-Little Rock on Dec. 13.
But the Hoosiers' triumph over Kentucky, which was punctuated by Christian Watford's epic three-pointer, had all of those elements. It had a beautiful storyline -- the return of one of the country's most historic programs from a bitter four-year sentence in purgatory. I've never seen a fan base stand by its team through lean times like the Indiana fans did for their Hoosiers. That win was richly deserved.
Best athletic director: Mark Hollis, Michigan State.
We usually define this job as it relates to hiring coaches and raising money. In Hollis' case, he gets the nod for coming up with the idea for the Carrier Classic between Michigan State and North Carolina that took place aboard the USS Carl Vinson on Veterans Day. Coming just two days after the firing of Joe Paterno, the Carrier Classic was a great moment for America, but also a great moment for college basketball. Hollis is on the verge of joining the NCAA's men's basketball committee, so he will soon have an even bigger platform to voice to his wacky and wonderful ideas.
Worst story: Bernie Fine.
Just as the world seemed to be moving on from the Paterno story, we were greeted with yet another child abuse scandal from an assistant coach at a prominent college program. The shock of the allegations made against the longtime Syracuse assistant led to painful questions about the way Jim Boeheim reacted, the responsibility he had and whether the media properly fulfilled its job as the public's watchdog. Worst of all, Fine will escape criminal prosecution because the statute of limitations has expired for his alleged crimes. Syracuse has obviously performed admirably on the court since this story broke, but the fallout will be felt for many years to come.
Best performance: Doug McDermott vs. Bradley, Jan. 7.
The Creighton sophomore scored 44 points -- the most by any player in a game this season -- on the road in a conference game. He also had eight rebounds and two assists in the nine-point win. And it was no aberration. McDermott is the best mid-major player college hoops has seen since ... well, since Jimmer Fredette played for BYU last year. McDermott doesn't have the same cool name ("The Doug" just doesn't have the same ring to it), but he is both younger and taller than Fredette was last year. Like Fredette, McDermott will be in the national player of the year chase all season.
Best half: Isaiah Canaan vs. Austin Peay, Jan. 7.
Maybe we should just call Jan. 7 the best day to see great individual performances. Many people watching Murray State's game on ESPNU probably hadn't seen the Racers play before, but Canaan, a 6-foot junior, didn't disappoint. He exploded for 25 points in the first half on 7-for-7 shooting from three-point range. Canaan scored 10 more in the second half as the Racers prevailed, 87-75, to remain unbeaten.
Worst decisions to transfer: Khem Birch and Jabari Brown (tie).
We're used to seeing players transfer if they're not getting any playing time, but both these guys are freshmen who were part-time starters at Pittsburgh and Oregon, respectively. Brown soon revealed that he will attend Missouri while Birch announced this week that he is headed for UNLV. Both players were heralded recruits coming out of high school, so we know they have talent. But what happens when the going gets tough again? Will they keep running for the hills?
Biggest grinch: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's.
It would be nice if Martelli had gotten into the Christmas spirit and decided to give his former backup center, Todd O'Brien, a release to play at UAB. But Martelli is sticking by his guns, and O'Brien is still sitting out. Even worse is Martelli's repeated refusal to justify or explain his position, instead hiding behind federal privacy laws that are totally irrelevant in this case. Martelli has always been viewed as an excellent coach with high ethics, but this case has sullied his reputation.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately, there were also a lot of strong candidates for this category, including Memphis, Florida State, Texas A&M, Washington, UCLA and Villanova. The fact that I'm giving Pitt the nod is kind of a backhanded compliment (or maybe it's a complimentary backhand). Out of all those programs, Pitt has enjoyed the most consistent excellence the last decade under Jamie Dixon and Ben Howland before him. To see this team lose at home to Long Beach State and Wagner as well as DePaul on the road is truly shocking.
Biggest surprise: Georgetown.
Indiana is a little too obvious, and at least Missouri, UNLV and Virginia got some recognition in the preseason polls. The Hoyas didn't even make it into others receiving votes. Yes, they've come back to Earth with losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati (which you saw coming if you read my Stock Report), but there's little doubt Georgetown will be in the thick of things by the time we get to March. Raise your hand if you saw that coming.
Biggest upset: Davidson 80, Kansas 74, Dec. 19.
I realize this was at the Sprint Center in Kansas City and not Allen Fieldhouse. I also realize Davidson is not exactly chopped liver. But this was still a de facto road game for a top-15 team, and the Wildcats were coming off a 23-point loss at Charlotte. (They also followed up this upset with a 12-point loss at UMass.) It didn't help Kansas that its starting point guard, Tyshawn Taylor, was playing in his first game following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, but the bottom line is the Jayhawks did not play with nearly enough intensity to overcome a miserable shooting performance.
Coach of the half-year: Tom Crean.
Again, lots of good candidates here, but Crean gets my nod because his team's success is the culmination of his blueprint to patiently rebuild things literally from scratch. By focusing on recruiting good high school players instead of looking for a quick fix through transfers, Crean laid a foundation that will ensure this level of winning for many years to come.
Freshman of the half-year: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Some people might argue that Kidd-Gilchrist is only the second-best freshman on his own team, but I'm not one of them. Yes, Anthony Davis makes spectacular plays, and he may be the most unique player in America (not to mention the surefire No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft). But there's not a freshman in the country -- heck, there may not be a player in the country -- who makes more impact plays in more areas of the game than Kidd-Gilchrist. He may still be a teenager, but he plays with the intensity and competitive spirit of a grown man.
Best power conference: Big Ten
This one's actually pretty easy. During a season in which most every other power conference is having a "down" year, the Big Ten is stronger than it has been in quite a while. The league has elite teams at the top (Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State) as well as depth through the middle. Even the bottom is pretty strong. Minnesota lost its best player (Trevor Mbakwe) and still almost won on the road at Illinois before falling in overtime, and Penn State and Nebraska aren't pushovers.
Worst power conference: Pac-12
Can I vote for them twice?
Best moment: Coach K and Bob Knight, Nov. 15.
It was incredible enough that a man would pass his college coach, mentor and close friend to become the all-time winningest coach in men's Division I. For that coach to be on hand -- in Madison Square Garden, no less -- really was truth strangling fiction. Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight have had a rocky relationship over the years, but it came full circle when Duke defeated Michigan State to give Coach K his record-breaking 903rd win. As the two broke from their embrace, Knight cracked to his former player, "Boy, you've done pretty good for a kid who couldn't shoot."
Worst moment: The Cincinnati-Xavier brawl.
This game was ugly even before the fight broke out. The posturing and trash talking had been so bad that the referees had to separate the teams on their way to the halftime locker room. The fight was made worse afterward by the apparent lack of remorse expressed by Xavier guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, not to mention the light punishments handed out by the respective schools. Moreover, both coaches and the three officials involved all escaped suspension or public reprimands.
Strangest moment: Wisconsin's non-buzzer beater.
I confess I did not know that the clock above the basket is official, while the clocks around the arena are unofficial. That's because in all my years of watching college basketball I had never seen a situation where it mattered. But that's the situation that arose at Wisconsin on Jan. 3 when Badgers junior swingman Ryan Evans banked in a three-pointer that apparently sent the game into double overtime. When the officials went to the monitor to review the shot, the replay indicated that the clock above the basket showed 0.0 seconds while the clock in the arena behind it showed 0.2 seconds still remaining. Even the announcers didn't know which one to go with. Fortunately, the refs did -- it was the clock above the basket, and Evans' attempt was waved off. Bo Ryan was apoplectic, but the zebras got it right.
Ten storylines to watch in the second half of the season:
1. How long will Murray State go undefeated? And if the Racers do enter the NCAA tournament unblemished, where should they be seeded?
2. Will Baylor be able to break Kansas' run of seven straight Big 12 titles?
3. When will those young Hoosiers come back to Earth -- and how will they respond?
4. Which mid-major conference will place the most teams into the NCAA tournament? Will it be the Atlantic 10, the Missouri Valley, the WCC? How about the Mountain West?
5. Will Kentucky freshman Marquis Teague prove to be a championship-level point guard, or is he not ready for primetime?
6. How many more coaches will get fired before the end of the season? Is there no reversing this regrettable trend?
7. Will Vanderbilt mount a legitimate challenge to Kentucky now that Festus Ezeli is nearing full strength?
8. Who will be the next player to transfer even though he's getting playing time? Will his coach "release" him?
9. Can Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Villanova recover in time to get into the NCAA tournament?
10. George Mason, Butler and VCU have all made the Final Four from mid-major conferences. Is this year finally Gonzaga's turn?