This article was originally published Dec. 13, 2019, as the early part of the 2019-20 men’s college basketball season was in disarray. It looks back at the 2014-15 men’s college basketball season, which was just about as opposite as possible.
The start of the 2019-20 men’s college basketball season can be characterized as a complete and utter mess at the top of the sport. At the time that I am writing this, four different teams have been ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, and all four have lost while holding the top spot.
It is only mid-December.
Suffice to say, there doesn’t seem to be an elite upper crust this time around, leaving the door wide open to anyone in the nation to stake their claim to a national championship or otherwise deep tournament run. For fans of parity, the unpredictability is exciting, especially considering not every season looks like this. In fact, that’s the purpose of this article.
For as uncertain as this season seems, five years ago, the national landscape was the complete opposite. Super teams dominated the country as the most top-heavy season of the decade. And for as many fans who love to see upsets every week, there are just as many who enjoy watching clear giants fight for the ultimate prize. Enter the 2014-15 campaign.
Men’s College Basketball 2014-15
A few weeks ago, I put together a list of the top 15 teams of the 2010s using KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings as my benchmark. Of those 15 teams, four played in the college basketball 2014-15 season.
Let’s flash back to the the 2015 NCAA Tournament. In the Midwest Region stood Kentucky, undefeated and unparalleled, already in the discussion as one of the greatest teams of all time. In the West, Wisconsin claimed the top seed with its eyes on a second-straight Final Four run. Duke was the No. 1 seed in the South despite not winning the ACC regular season title, which went to Virginia, the No. 2 seed in the East, the region that boasted Villanova and its 32-2 record as its top dog. That’s not to mention Arizona, the No. 2 seeds in the West, who dominated its league and eyed a Final Four appearance at a minimum.
KenPom has data on its site dating back to the 2001-02 season. Only once have six different teams finished with an adjusted efficiency rating (AdjEM) of +30.00 or better. That college basketball year was 2014-15.
In fact, the final top 10 teams in KenPom’s metrics had an average AdjEM of +30.001, the highest of any year with data available, with only 2019 coming remotely close at +29.516, another sign of just how high the caliber was at the top of college ball that year.
We know how the 2014-15 college basketball campaign ended. Michigan State ended Virginia’s season yet again in the second round, and Villanova also suffered a second-round upset. Wisconsin defeated Arizona in the Elite Eight for the second time in a row to make it back to the Final Four, only to meet Kentucky in a national semifinal rematch. This time, though, the Badgers got the last laugh, spoiling UK’s undefeated dreams in one of the most famous games ever played. But it would be Duke that would take home the national championship after dispatching Gonzaga and Michigan State in the Elite Eight and Final Four, keeping Wisconsin at bay, 68-63, for the program’s fifth championship.
But to truly appreciate what an unbelievable crop of talent we witnessed at the top of the sport, let’s look back at each of the teams that ended the year with an AdjEM of at least +30.00, a mark good enough to have you as the best or second-best squad in the nation in a normal year.
AdjEM: +30.06 (6th in the nation)
AdjO: 115.6 (21st in the nation)
AdjD: 85.5 (2nd in the nation)
Starting Lineup: G London Perrantes (So.), G Malcolm Brodgon (Jr.), G Justin Anderson (Jr.), F Darion Atkins (Sr.), F Anthony Gill (Jr.)
Results: 30-4 (16-2), ACC Regular Season Championship, ACC Tournament Semifinals, NCAA No. 2 Seed, NCAA Second Round
Although the Cavaliers fell to the eventual East Region winner, No. 7 seed Michigan State, in the second round, 60-54, they were one of the best teams in college basketball in 2014-15. Per usual, Virginia played with one of the slowest tempos in the country, coming in at 349th in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom, and had a stifling defense, holding opponents to only 51.4 points per game, the top mark in Division I. The team started the season 19-0 before finally losing at home to Duke on Jan. 31, one of only two regular season losses it suffered all year. The Cavs aren’t remembered as well because of just how great the top part of college basketball was that season and their second-round exit in March, but in a normal year, this team would have likely been one of the top two in the sport.
AdjEM: +30.65 (5th in the nation)
AdjO; 122.7 (4th in the nation)
AdjD: 92.0 (12th in the nation)
Starting Lineup: G Ryan Arcidiacono (Jr.), G Dylan Ennis (Jr.), G Darrun Hilliard (Sr.), F JayVaughn Pinkston (Sr.), F Daniel Ochefu (Jr.)
Results: 33-3 (16-2), Big East Regular Season Championship, Big East Tournament Championship, NCAA No. 1 Seed, NCAA Second Round
Little did we know that this team would be the precursor to the first of two Nova teams to win the ultimate prize in the 2010s, but this team was pretty great in its own right. Similar to Virginia, it’s largely forgotten because of its disappointing run, or lack thereof, in the NCAA Tournament following a second-round defeat at the hands of No. 8 seed North Carolina State, 71-68, not to mention the glamour the 2016 and 2018 versions of Villanova get, and rightfully so. But with a great crop of guards, including Josh Hart coming off the bench as a sophomore, this team dominated for most of the season. It started 13-0 until an overtime defeat at Seton Hall on Jan. 3, lost its second regular season game at Georgetown on Jan. 19, then didn’t fall again until the NCAA Tournament. Despite the flak this team received for getting upset early in March Madness, it was undeniably a great team and only a step behind the 2016 iteration that won the whole thing the following campaign.
AdjEM: +32.36 (4th in the nation)
AdjO: 119.9 (7th in the nation)
AdjD: 87.5 (3rd in the nation)
Starting Lineup: G T.J. McConnell (Sr.), F Stanley Johnson (Fr.), F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (So.), F Brandon Ashley (Jr.), C Kaleb Tarczewski (Jr.)
Results: 34-4 (16-2), Pac-12 Regular Season Championship, Pac-12 Tournament Championship, NCAA No. 2 Seed, NCAA Elite Eight
The Wildcats were nine points away from an undefeated regular season and they toppled nearly everyone in their way, including a season sweep of Utah, an overtime victory against Gonzaga and a neutral-floor win over San Diego State. Losses to Oregon State and UNLV were headscratchers, but otherwise, Arizona was dominant. T.J. McConnell was at the top of his game as one of the best point guards in the nation, and with such a large lineup, the team outmuscled nearly everyone in the paint, offensively, defensively and on the glass, and a couple outside threats helped keep the lane open enough. Much to Tucson’s dismay, Wisconsin once again kept Arizona one game away from the Final Four for the second season in a row, but this team was very much good enough to win a national championship in a regular year, let alone qualify for a national semifinal.
AdjEM: +32.48 (3rd in the nation)
AdjO: 124.5 (3rd in the nation)
AdjD: 92.0 (11th in the nation)
Starting Lineup: G Tyus Jones (Fr.), G Quinn Cook (Sr.), F, Justice Winslow (Fr.), F Amile Jefferson (Jr.), C Jahlil Okafor (Fr.)
Results: 35-4 (15-3), ACC Regular Season Second Place, ACC Tournament Semifinals, NCAA No. 1 Seed, NCAA National Championship
Two of the marquee teams of the college basketball 2014-15 season were freshman-dominant, and Duke was one of them. But the Blue Devils had a mix of uber talented youth – a freshman class of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justice Winslow and Grayson Allen – with a crop of experienced players who helped steady the ship when necessary: Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon and Marshall Plumlee. Eight players from that roster have gone on to feature in the NBA, and they played like it in college. The team started 14-0 with an undefeated non-conference before dropping two in a row at NC State and to Miami at home in mid-January. Duke lost again at Notre Dame a couple weeks after, then didn’t lose until meeting the Irish in the ACC Tournament Semis two months later. After winning the national championship, Duke had notched two wins over North Carolina, two wins over Wisconsin, two wins over Michigan State, and one victory each against Virginia, Notre Dame, Utah, Gonzaga and Louisville. The national title is naturally the number one thing this team is remembered for, but its entire body of work was incredible, and this squad would have been even more dominant if not for the wealth of competition at the top that season.
AdjEM: +33.72 (2nd in the nation)
AdjO: 129.0 (1st in the nation)
AdjD: 95.2 (35th in the nation)
Starting Lineup: G Bronson Koenig (So.), G Josh Gasser (Sr.), F Sam Dekker (Jr.), F Nigel Hayes (So.), C Frank Kaminsky (Sr.)
Results: 36-4 (16-2), Big Ten Regular Season Championship, Big Ten Tournament Championship, NCAA No. 1 Seed, NCAA National Runners-Up
Wisconsin’s Final Four victory over 38-0 Kentucky is one of the greatest college basketball games ever played, and with good reason is the main thing this team is remembered for. But these Badgers were more than that game. Frank Kaminsky completed his transition from a minor player struggling for minutes as a freshman to one of the best ballers of the entire decade. Sam Dekker could jump out of the gym. Nigel Hayes was the perfect complement to Kaminsky. Josh Gasser always made jumpers when the team needed it. Traevon Jackson ran the point masterfully, and when he broke his foot in January, Bronson Koenig didn’t miss a beat in his stead. Wisconsin’s only losses the only season were twice to Duke, once at Maryland (the second-best team in the Big Ten that campaign) and at Rutgers in a game where it was without Kaminsky and Jackson suffered his injury. Even without a national championship, this team was one of the best assembled in the 2010s and will live on in college basketball lore for what it accomplished, particularly ruining Kentucky’s 40-0 dreams in its revenge game from the Final Four elimination the Wildcats doled it in 2014.
AdjEM: +36.91 (1st in the nation)
AdjO: 121.3 (6th in the nation)
AdjD: 84.4 (1st in the nation)
Starting Lineup: G Andrew Harrison (So.), G Aaron Harrison (So.), F Trey Lyles (Fr.), F Karl-Anthony Towns (Fr.), F Willie Cauley-Stein (Jr.)
Results: 38-1 (18-0), SEC Regular Season Championship, SEC Tournament Championship, NCAA No. 1 Seed, NCAA Final Four
I’m not sure how many teams in the history of college basketball were as deep, talented and dominant as this one, especially ones that didn’t end up reaching the ultimate goal. John Calipari was working with nine future NBA players on his roster and was overwhelmed with so much talent, he used a platoon system, essentially forming two different complete teams that alone were good enough as a starting lineup to win the SEC and go far in the tournament. Combine them all together, though, and you’re looking at the team that had the best shot at finishing an undefeated season since UNLV nearly did it in 1990-91. This team was transcendent. There are only so many times in a lifetime in which a team like this will exist. But like the Runnin’ Rebels in 1991, the Wildcats were upset in the Final Four and its bid to win a national title and to finish the first undefeated college basketball season since 1975-76 Indiana was spoiled. Still, the fact that this Kentucky team existed is incredible, and that it was in the same season as the rest of these unbelievable teams makes it that much more special.
Who knows how long it will take until we have another season like college basketball 2014-15. It’s certainly abnormal, and although some people may prefer top-end talent to be more widespread and wide open like it appears to be in 2019-20, there’s something special in watching some of the best teams over a 10 year period all battling it out for only one national championship. That’s what we had in 2015, and it’s something to appreciate forever.