Today, we are talking about the wildest ‘What ifs?’ in college basketball this decade. The first five are in this story, and the top five can be found below.
5. WHAT IF FAB MELO IS ELIGIBLE FOR SYRACUSE IN 2012?
Syracuse played 30 games with Fab Melo in the lineup during the 2011-12 season. They lost one, falling by three points to a good Cincinnati team in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament.
That was their only loss when Melo, a 7-foot anchor that led the program in rebounds and blocks as a sophomore, actually took the court.
In the seven games he did not play, the Orange were 5-2, and one of those losses came in the Elite Eight against Ohio State, the No. 2 seed in their region. The other came in a loss at Notre Dame on January 21st, when the Orange were one of only two undefeated teams left in America. They had received 60 of a possible 65 first-place votes.
North Carolina may have been the second-most talented team in the country that season – more on that below – but the Orange were a top two team in the AP Poll for every week except one from Dec. 12th through the end of the season.
If they had the anchor to their zone in the fold in for the NCAA tournament, would John Calipari have a national title on his resume right now?
4. WHAT IF KENDALL MARSHALL DOESN’T BREAK HIS WRIST IN THE SECOND ROUND IN 2012?
The way that the 2012 NCAA Tournament bracket broke down was absolutely perfect from a neutral’s perspective.
Kentucky was a No. 1 seed on one side of the bracket. North Carolina was a No. 1 seed on the other side of the bracket. They were, arguably, the two best and, inarguably, the two most talented teams in college basketball that season. They had played an absolute thriller in Rupp Arena in December that season, a game that was decided when Anthony Davis blocked John Henson with six seconds left in a one-point game.
We all wanted that rematch because we all knew that the Tar Heels were one of the handful of teams that actually had a chance to beat a Kentucky team that had the first two picks in the 2012 NBA Draft on their roster, including the National Player of the Year.
But that all went up in smoke when Marshall was knocked to the floor by Creighton’s Ethan Wragge late in the second half of a second round win. He landed on his right, non-shooting hand and fractured his scaphoid bone, meaning that Stillman White, a walk-on, was the only point guard left on the roster.
The Tar Heels were able to get past Ohio, a No. 13 seed, in the Sweet 16 in overtime, but they were beaten by Kansas, the eventual national runners-up, in the Elite Eight.
If Marshall never gets hurt, if he plays and he leads UNC to the Final Four, there’s no guarantee that they would have had enough to beat the Wildcats that season. Kentucky was peaking by the end of the year. Davis was playing his best ball, the Wildcats smothered any kind of offense in the paint and the Tar Heels were a team that thrived on getting the ball inside.
But it would have been a matchup everyone wanted to see.
And if there is a world where a healthy UNC team picked off Kentucky in the title game, than I can only imagine how much fans and media alike would be losing their collective minds over whether or not Coach Cal will ever win a national title.
3. WHAT IF MAMADI DIAKITE MISSES THE SHOT AGAINST PURDUE?
Just like Villanova, there are plenty of moments that could have derailed Virginia’s run from becoming the first No. 1 seed that ever lost to a No. 16 seed to becoming the National Champion the following season.
In a way, that run felt a little like destiny. Virginia trailed Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first round of the tournament. What if that comeback never happened? What if Kihei Clark doesn’t hit that three with five minutes left in the second half that ended a 13-2 Oregon run in the Sweet 16 and tied the game again? What if Kyle Guy doesn’t draw a foul while shooting a three against Auburn and the officials call Ty Jerome for a double-dribble instead? What if De’Andre Hunter’s game-tying three doesn’t go down? What if that loose ball that went off Davide Moretti doesn’t get overruled?
Hell, ‘What if De’Andre Hunter never fractures his wrist?’ works as well as anything.
But the moment that stands out more than anything else is Diakite’s shot.
Because that was it.
There was no coming back from a miss.
If you’ve forgotten, here’s what happened:
A miss and it’s over.
A miss and Virginia is still the program that cannot win games that matter. They’re still the program that play at a pace that is untenable for winning in March. They’re still the choke artists that will always find a way to lose. The narratives would have taken over.
And honestly, I don’t even want to know where we would be right now if Virginia hadn’t validated their style of play by winning last year’s national title, because the unfortunate truth is that this year’s Virginia team actually is everything that everyone said Virginia was over the course of Tony Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville. Last year, the Wahoos had three pros, two of whom were first round picks and one of whom was the best player in college basketball not named Zion. They actually ranked higher in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric than in his defensive efficiency metric. They were patient and played at the tempo they wanted to play at, but they were absolutely lethal offensively.
They are still slow, but they don’t have all that much talent and they just cannot score. Maybe that changes if Kyle Guy comes back to school – and if UVA gets dropped in the Elite Eight, that might have been the case – but that’s just speculation. And frankly, simply adding one shooter isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with this year’s team.
Would good players still want to play for a program that wins ugly, but never wins in March?
2. WHAT IF NIGEL HAYES HAD HIS SHOT CLOCK VIOLATION CALLED?
Look away, Kentucky fans.
For the sake of yourselves, just skip this part.
With under three minutes left in regulation and Kentucky clinging to a 60-58 lead, Wisconsin took the ball out of bounds under their own basket with just three seconds on the shot clock. They got it in to Nigel Hayes in the deep corner, who drove baseline and forced up a shot over Willie Cauley-Stein that drew nothing but air. He grabbed his own missed and laid it back in but, but that was clearly after the buzzer had sounded.
It was a shot clock violation.
According to the replay, it was. Clearly. According to the officials on the floor, it was not.
It was also not reviewable.
Which meant that instead of getting the ball back with 2:39 left and a 60-58 lead, Kentucky was in a tie game. Aaron Harrison missed a jumper on the ensuing possession, and that was followed by Sam Dekker burying a three with 1:44 on the clock, giving the Badgers a lead that they would never relinquish.
The implication here is obvious.
Kentucky, at the time, was sitting at 38-0. They were two wins away from becoming the first team since 1976 to finish a season undefeated and the first team in college basketball history to go 40-0. They were a win away from becoming, unequivocally, the best team in the history of college basketball.
Can we blame all of that crumbling down on one missed shot clock violation?
Look, Wisconsin still had to go out and win the final two minutes of this game. They got the stops. They made the shots. They hit seven of their eight free throws. They won this game, and then they got beaten by a very, very good Duke team.
There were more great teams in college basketball in 2015 than in any season I can remember. Duke included. It would not have been an easy road for the Wildcats to get to 40-0.
But it is impossible to say that things wouldn’t be different without those two points. Does Kentucky need to burn a timeout to get settled after Hayes’ bucket if the violation is called? Do they execute better down the stretch without that frustration in the back of their mind? Hell, even if you want to pretend like things would have gone down the exact same way, that’s not possible. With 17 seconds left, Karl-Anthony Towns missed a free throw with the score at 66-64. Kentucky was forced to foul because there wasn’t enough time left on the clock. That was the best defensive team that I’ve ever seen at the college level. At the very least, we can say there would have been a good chance that this game ended up in overtime, no?
I think the most diplomatic way to say this is that the failure to correctly rule that a shot clock violation cost Kentucky a fair shot at getting to 39-0 and to the national title game.
And that sucks.
Because that team was legitimately great and deserved a chance to prove it.
1. WHAT IF GORDON HAYWARD MAKES THAT SHOT?
I was torn on where to put this on this list, because it’s unlike some of the other ‘What ifs?’.
On the one hand, yes, if this shot goes in, it’s the greatest moment in the history of college basketball. A team from the Horizon League, playing in the national title game in their hometown, beats the Big Bad Duke Blue Devils on a banked in half-court shot at the buzzer? Kris Jenkins’ shot in 2016 might not have even made SportsCenter. Am I supposed to be impressed with a regular old three at the buzzer when Gordon Hayward banked in a halfcourt shot to beat Duke?
On the other hand, what does that shot going in actually change beyond where a banner is hanging and who got rings?
Does missing make the fact that Brad Stevens got Butler to back-to-back national title games any less impressive? Is getting a prayer to go down really going to be what convinces Stevens’ critics, if they exist, that he’s actually a good coach? Would winning a title be enough to keep him in the college ranks, or would the chance to jump to the NBA always be too appealing? If anything, it probably makes an NBA team swoop in sooner.
My point is that the fact that Butler was in that position, that they were a halfcourt shot away from winning the national title, is proof enough of how good that team was. The fact that they made it back the next season despite losing a top ten pick only drives that point home. As weird as this sounds, Hayward’s shot doesn’t prove anything to anyone.
All it does is win Butler the national title.
Anyway, here’s video of that shot, because I never tire of seeing Kyle Singler get de-cleated by a Matt Howard screen: