SI's 10 favorite things in college hoops this year
From Aaron Harrison's daggers, to Dougie McBuckets, to Lauren Hill's emotional night, these were SI's 10 favorite things about college basketball in 2014:
• There are players who've entered NCAA tournament lore for just one great shot: UConn's Tate George, for his buzzer-beater against Clemson in 1990, or Valpo's Bryce Drew, for his 23-foot miracle against Ole Miss in 1998. In the 2014 tourney, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison authored a Dagger Trilogy: His three with 39 seconds left in the Sweet 16 helped sink rival Louisville; his three with 2.3 seconds left in the Elite Eight eliminated Michigan; and his three with 5.7 seconds left in the Final Four -- from the same deep left-wing spot as the previous one -- killed Wisconsin. The kid who earned the nickname "Ice" during his AAU days lived up to it as a Kentucky freshman, going on a cold-blooded shooting run for the ages.
• Wichita State's run to 35-0 was one of my favorite things -- namely, that a talented mid-major team was still capable of captivating the country, and that a crew of former redshirts (Ron Baker), juco transfers (Cleanthony Early, Chadrack Lufile, Nick Wiggins) and an overlooked point guard (Fred VanVleet) could become the first team since '91 UNLV to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. Even the game the Shockers finally lost was one of my favorite things -- their epic against Kentucky in the round of 32 was maybe the best tournament game I've ever covered, and SI named it its 2014 Game of the Year. But it's impossible to have purely happy thoughts about the way it ended; Wichita State-Kentucky only happened because of the botched work of the NCAA tournament selection committee, who saw fit to under-seed the Wildcats as a No. 8 and set them up to face the No. 1-seeded Shockers on the opening weekend. "Mr. Wellman and his cronies failed the eye test [on Kentucky]," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall told me of first-year selection committee chair Ron Wellman, the athletic director at Wake Forest. The committee went into Hunger Games mode, acting as real-life Seneca Cranes, manufacturing early drama rather than letting history run its course.
• There was no moment more powerful than that of Lauren Hill, the freshman with a rare, inoperable form of brain cancer -- and a diagnosis that she may not live past December -- making her debut for Division III Mount St. Joseph on Nov. 2. She lived out her dream of playing in a college basketball game, did it before 10,000-plus fans at the sold-out Cintas Center in Cincinnati, and scored the first points of the 2014-15 season on a left-handed layup. Hill called it the best day of her life -- and it was the one highlight this year that brought me to tears.
• Wisconsin's Bo Ryan making his first Final Four was the year's biggest coaching breakthrough. Yes, he won four national titles at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville in an amazing stretch from 1991-99 and felt like he didn't have anything to prove, but this cemented a Hall-of-Fame resume. That his Badgers clinched their trip to Arlington on what would have been his father's 90th birthday -- he and Butch went to 37 Final Fours together as spectators before he passed away in 2013 -- made it all the more special.
• It was a testament to the enduring quaintness of college basketball that both the 2014 men's and women's national champions hailed from a campus in an 11,000-person village in rural Connecticut ... and a further indication of the absurdity of big-time college sports' amateurism model that one of UConn's stars, Shabazz Napier, admitted to reporters -- after the conclusion of a spectacle with a $10.8 billion TV deal -- that he sometimes went to bed "starving" because he didn't have money for food. His Hungry Huskies won a title and helped swing public opinion in favor of a system that more fairly compensates college athletes, who've been economically exploited for decades.
• UConn won the '13-14 national title playing small-ball with dual point guards Napier and Ryan Boatright, but we've seen a refreshing big-man revival in the early portion of '14-15. The two frontrunners for the Wooden and Naismith awards are centers -- Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor, who'll likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and Wisconsin senior Frank Kaminsky, a once-overlooked recruit who's now one of the nation's most versatile offensive weapons. Meanwhile Kentucky's frontcourt mob is wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, and two of the best teams on the West Coast are being boosted by European giants, with Austrian Jakob Poeltl powering Utah and Poland's Przemek Karnowski and Lithuania's Domantas Sabonis serving as dual, low-block forces for Gonzaga.
• I'm overjoyed that Willie Cauley-Stein stuck around for another season. It was painful to see him miss the final three games of the NCAA tournament with a nasty ankle injury -- one that reportedly required him to have a metal plate and three screws inserted for stabilization -- but we were subsequently blessed with images of him wearing the greatest long-sleeved undershirt in history (while stuck on the bench during the national title game against UConn) and riding a motorized scooter (on Kentucky's campus while rehabbing his ankle):
Rather than put his name in the 2014 NBA draft, he returned to the Wildcats. This season, he's emerged as the nation's No. 1 defensive force, and not just as a shot-blocker. He's been a killer presence all over on the court, switching onto wings and guards in pick-and-rolls, jumping passing lanes, and leading one of the greatest defenses in recent memory.
• Thanks to No. 14 Mercer for keeping the Cinderella spirit alive -- and giving us more hope that a 16-seed will someday beat a 1 -- by knocking off a Duke team that was built around a future NBA All-Star in Jabari Parker. Mercer senior Kevin Canevari, who played six minutes in the game, celebrated the upset by doing a GIF-able NaeNae, ensuring that we'll never forget.
• How amazing was it to watch a former three-star recruit from Ames, Iowa, ascend the NCAA's scoring list, not only breaking the 3,000-point mark, but passing the likes of Larry Bird, Danny Manning and Oscar Robertson on his way to fifth all-time? Creighton's Doug McDermott deservedly ran away with every individual award, and he knew how to create classic moments; the career-high 45 points he scored on his senior night in Omaha, with his father (head coach Greg) looking on from the bench, was the single best (and most moving) performance of 2013-14.
• I'm no fan of conference realignment, but thanks to the expanded ACC, we got two unforgettable games between Duke and Syracuse -- the 91-89 overtime win by the Orange at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 1, and the 66-60 Duke win at Cameron on Feb. 22, which featured the typically placid/gloomy Jim Boeheim running on the court and losing his mind after a controversial charge call in the final seconds. Ten months have passed, and I'll still not sick of watching his conniption.