For the first time in school history, the Virginia Cavaliers are men’s basketball champions. Their story is one of the great ones in sports, the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the first round in 2018, plus a handful of other March heartbreaks the last several years, and now a national title.
For as great as Virginia was and all the praise it deserves, there were plenty of amazing things to happen this season. Let’s take a look back at the season that was:
The Zion Williamson experience
He was the non-stop story of 2018-19, whether you liked it or not. The coverage of Williamson was unlike anything we had seen in this sport before, and this was hardly the first time one player received an outpouring of attention (*cough* Trae Young and Ben Simmons *cough*). The combination of his game being tailor-made for highlight clips, his overall ability and the Duke factor sent Williamson to the stratosphere.
It has seemingly become the new normal for major basketball media to latch onto a handful of highly-touted NBA prospects and focus heavily on them, then select the chosen one who will receive an unbelievable amount of attention. Williamson was unique in just how good he was at the college level and his social media following before even playing a minute of collegiate ball, but given how well the marketing appeared to work, you have to expect this style of coverage is here to stay, like it or not.
This season it was Zion Williamson. Last year it was Trae Young. You have to think the same thing will happen in 2019-20. The only question is, who will it be?
The top handful separated itself well ahead of the rest of the pack
This seemed clear during the regular season, and the tournament only proved it further. The only two non-top four seeds to make the Sweet 16 were No. 5 seed Auburn and No. 12 seed Oregon, neither of which came as great surprises. Most of the first two rounds were non-competitive, but once the Sweet 16 rolled around, and especially the Elite Eight, it was neck-and-neck all the way through. At the Elite Eight stage, if you had told me any of the remaining teams would go on to win the national championship, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.
It’s not usual for it to be like this. There is typically a more gradual rise and fall as you go through the seed lines and national tiers. There are normally more upsets and Cinderella runs as the higher seeds aren’t generally this much stronger than the field. But that wasn’t the case this year, and for as much belly aching as it brought in the first weekend of action, those fans shut up when every single game from the Elite Eight one was fantastic.
Who knows what next season holds, but it probably will not follow the same partner as this one. Everyone has their preference on how they prefer a season to look, but part of the fun is the variation from year to year. Enjoy the unbelievable second and third weekends we experience this season, and enjoy whatever different form of greatness we get to see next year, too.
Traditional schools be damned
It was a breath of fresh air to see two new faces in the Final Four, one that hadn’t been there since the 80s and another that hasn’t won a title in nearly 20 years. The Dukes, Kentuckys and North Carolinas have their place in this sport, but it can be tiring to see the same cycle of schools at the pinnacle. For at least one season, we took a break from that, at least in the final rounds of the tournament.
Tony Bennett has had Virginia playing at a very high level for several years now, and I have no expectation of that slowing down any time soon. Chris Beard will not be disappearing, and I have full faith in him to be back in the Final Four multiple times in his likely lengthy head coaching career. Bruce Pearl has done a marvelous job at Auburn. Gonzaga will remain a force with Mark Few at the helm. Kelvin Sampson and Houston aren’t going away.
This isn’t to say the blue bloods won’t be back, because they will be and we all know it. Hell, Duke and Kentucky were a ball bounce away from being in the Final Four this year. But it’s nice to see some serious competition taking hold outside of the traditional powers, especially after waiting 13 years to see a first-time champion again. The runs Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn went on, particularly the Red Raiders and Tigers, should give non-traditional schools hope that one day, it could be them heading to the Final Four or celebrating under the confetti. For the last decade or so, it has felt like only a select few schools were destined to secure the biggest prizes in this sport, but maybe we’re entering a new era of even greater parity. Only time will tell.
Some mid-major power
More than usual, we saw some serious mid-major schools make noise this season. Buffalo and Wofford were legitimate, and I think both could have made deep runs in the tournament with better matchups. Although only Wofford made the Big Dance, the SoCon had a great season. The OVC got two bids for the first time since 1987, with Belmont doing enough to get an at-large bid, then won its first-ever tournament game with a win over Temple in the First Four. Nevada ultimately didn’t have the postseason it expected in the preseason, but the Wolfpack still spent chunks of the year ranked in the top 10. Gonzaga did its thing, St. Mary’s and Utah State both put together solid teams, and while some may argue it’s not a mid-major conference, the American Athletic was very impressive. Look at what the ASun’s two best teams, Liberty and Lipscomb, did in winning an NCAA Tournament game and making it to the championship of the NIT in one of the toughest NIT runs in recent memory, respectively.
Of course, some of the coaches at those schools have moved to different destinations since the season’s end. We might not see as many mid-major schools in the rankings or receiving abnormally high seeds next season or in the near future. But this year we did, and it was a nice change of pace.
College basketball is going to change a lot soon, or maybe not at all
The investigations continue to loom over college basketball like an ominous storm cloud that’s only drizzling droplets now but looks like it’s carrying a hurricane. At this point, there’s so much that it’s difficult to keep track, with wiretaps here, Michael Avenatti there and somehow the schools seemingly becoming victims of shoe companies and teenagers.
It’s pure madness, and who knows when it will stop at this point. We know there is a seedy underbelly to this sport. It hasn’t been kept a secret very well. But we appear to be on the edge of a mudslide of malfeasance that will come to light over the next couple of years. Perhaps it will be a step in the right direction of cleaning up the sport, whatever that even means, but it could mean nothing. Besides, how can we know that this is all there is? Just because there are indictments and show-cause penalties rained down on a select few doesn’t mean no one else cheated. Is there any real way of stopping this behavior at all? This has already become a question on the forefront of many fans’ minds, and it will only grow as the infractions continue to mount.
Most importantly, THE REGULAR SELECTION SHOW IS BACK!
For a few years, CBS and Turner decided to take the Selection Show format that had been perfected and beloved by the college basketball universe for decades and destroy it. There was a two hour show, revealing the teams in alphabetical order, and a whole host of other changes that could have only made sense in an out-of-touch board room. Shockingly, those terrible ideas led to lower ratings, tons of hate and a leaked bracket in 2016 that rendered the Selection Show obsolete.
In 2019, the standard format was brought back, and a sigh of relief was had throughout the sport. The common fan likely didn’t care or notice much, but for the hardcore men’s college basketball fans, it made a huge difference. Now begin praying that CBS and Turner learned their lesson for 2020.