The ten wildest ‘What ifs?’ in college basketball this decade

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The 2010s are coming to an end, which should make you feel incredibly old.

We’ve now gone a full decade with John Calipari in charge of the Kentucky Wildcats. We’re more than a decade removed from the existence of Psycho T on a college basketball campus. In the last ten years, we’ve seen Kentucky and Duke win titles by playing as young as possible, Virginia win by playing as slow as possible, Villanova win by shooting as many threes as possible and UConn win a pair of titles by hoping a star point guard can carry them through a six-game tournament.

We’ve experienced Jimmermania. We survived Zion Williamson’s Shoegate. We watch Louisville win a national title and then had the NCAA erase it from our collective memory because an assistant coach like to turn dorm rooms into the Champagne Room.

It’s been a wild ride.

And over the course of the next two weeks, we will be taking a look back at some of the best parts of the decade.

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 here.

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Robbie Hummel (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

10. WHAT IF ROBBIE HUMMEL NEVER TEARS HIS ACL?

I think everyone in the state of Indiana, or at least in West Lafayette, remembers the exact moment that this happened.

There were just over seven minutes left in the first half of Purdue’s game at Minnesota. It was something of a look-ahead game, a Wednesday night fixture before a massive Sunday afternoon tip against Michigan State that would put the Boilermakers two wins from clinching their first outright Big Ten title in 14 years. Hummel drove into the middle of the paint, came to a jump-stop and had his right knee buckle.

ACL gone.

At the time, Purdue was the No. 3 team in the country, a stifling defense that relied on their three-headed monster of E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Hummel to put enough points on the board to get them wins. With Hummel, they looked like one of the few teams that would have a shot at winning the title. Without him, they lost that game to Michigan State, got dropped in the second round of the Big Ten tournament and ended up with a No. 4 seed, getting drubbed by Duke in the Sweet 16.

But the story gets worse.

Just eight months after he initially tore the ACL, he tore it again, in his first practice back. So not only did Purdue miss out on a chance to win a title in 2010, they never got to see what Hummel could have done playing alongside Johnson and Moore in their senior seasons.

Purdue has not been to the Final Four since 1980. Last year’s Elite Eight run was their first since 2000 and just their second since 1994. I have a feeling those numbers would be different had Hummel’s right ACL been less disagreeable.

9. WHAT IF JOHN WALL GOES PRO INSTEAD OF GOING TO KENTUCKY, OR IF JODIE MEEKS RETURNS TO KENTUCKY INSTEAD OF GOING PRO?

I’m not quite sure how many people are actually going to remember this, but there was a time where it was unclear if John Wall would actually end up in college. In was in April after his senior season in high school and before he committed to Kentucky to play his college ball. There was a chance that Wall was eligible to go straight to the NBA draft like Anfernee Simons did and Hamidou Diallo tried to do.

You see, Wall had spent five years in high school. He spent two years at Garner Magnet school before transferring to Broughton High as a junior. Midway through that school year, he again transferred, this time to Word Of God Christian Academy, where he enrolled as a sophomore. Combine that with the fact that he was 19 years old at the time, and he could have made a pretty compelling case.

Ultimately, it never came to that because he never declared, instead enrolling at Kentucky.

But what if he didn’t?

What if Wall had been determined to be eligible for the 2009 NBA Draft and went straight to the pros out of high school? Where would the Kentucky program be? Would the Wildcats have still been in a position to send five players to the first round of the NCAA tournament? Would Coach Cal still have been posted at the NBA draft talking about the most important day in the history of their program? Would Kentucky still have been able to change the way that college basketball programs built super teams with recruiting arms races?

But that’s not the only interesting ‘What if?’ surrounding the 2010 Kentucky team.

Hell, it might not be the most significant one.

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Jodie Meeks (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What if Jodie Meeks returned to school for his senior season?

When Billy Gillispie was fired following the 2008-09 season, there were two key players who had their future up in the air. One was Patrick Patterson, who opted to return to school and play alongside Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe for a season. Meeks, who averaged 23.7 points as a junior, did not. He went pro, was picked 41st and found a way to carve out a 10-year NBA career.

So it worked out for him.

But that Kentucky team had one fatal flaw, and it was their ability to shoot. I don’t need to remind Kentucky fans this, but those Wildcats, as a team, shot 33.1 percent from three. They were 4-for-32 from beyond the arc in the Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. What would have happened if they had an All-American that, the year before, had shot 40.6 percent from three on eight attempts per game on the floor? Do you think there’s any chance that a team with a starting five of Wall, Bledsoe, Meeks, Patterson and Cousins loses?

With Meeks back, does 2010 Kentucky become the first 40-0 team in college basketball history? Does John Calipari actually get an NBA job after he wins a second title in three seasons? Is there an alternate reality where Cal gets hired by the Celtics and it’s actually Brad Stevens that is currently coaching the Wildcats and winning national titles with nothing but three-star prospects from Kentuckiana? I like to think there is.

8. WHAT JALEN BRUNSON WENT TO TEMPLE?

There are so many ‘What ifs?’ surrounding this Villanova dynasty that would be fun to dive into.

What if Kris Jenkins missed that buzzer-beating three? You know the one that I’m talking about. Does Villanova hang on to win that game in overtime? If they don’t, if the Tar Heels take home the 2016 national title, do they bring back everyone and become the first team to win back-to-back titles in 2017, or do the likes of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks turn pro?

Or how about this one: What if Omari Spellman isn’t ruled ineligible for the 2016-17 season? If he isn’t forced to redshirt, does he ever put in the work he needed to in order to change his body and become a first round draft pick? What if Phil Booth doesn’t miss that season with an injury, either? Might we actually be looking at a situation where the Wildcats win three straight national titles?

And if you want to play the inception game, what if Villanova’s higher-ups decide to fire Jay Wright when he followed up the 2009 trip to the Final Four with a 25-win season, a 21-win season and then a 13-19 season in 2011-12?

But those are not the most interesting ‘What ifs?’ involving this Villanova dynasty. This is: What if Jalen Brunson had actually ended up at Temple?

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Because that’s what the plan was. Brunson’s father, Rick, is a Temple alum. Fran Dunphy was going to use a spot as an assistant coach to hire Rick and bring along his McDonald’s All-American offspring until Rick went and got himself into a bit of legal trouble. Hiring him became untenable, which meant that Brunson had to find elsewhere to play. Just so happens that Philly’s intracity rival needed a point guard, and the rest is history.

Would Villanova have found the same amount of success if Brunson had not ended up on the Main Line? He was a starter for two teams that won national championships, the second of which came in a season where he won National Player of the Year. That’s a pretty big loss to overcome.

At the same time, it is fair to wonder if he would have had the same amount of success had he not ended up playing for Villanova. Brunson has carved out a nice little role for himself in the NBA, operating as a part-time starter for the Dallas Mavericks and averaging 9.0 points and 3.2 assists in two seasons as a pro. He probably gets there either way, but given that he was still a second round pick after three sensational years at Villanova, would he have actually gotten a chance at the NBA if he hadn’t cut down so many nets while a Wildcat?

I think there’s a very real chance that, were it not for the fact that he ended up at Villanova, Brunson ends up being a four-year player at Temple that has to go through Europe to get to the NBA, a la Nigel Williams-Goss.

Brandon Ashley (Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)

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7. WHAT IF BRANDON ASHLEY DOESN’T BREAK HIS FOOT IN 2014?

One of the fun little tools that Ken Pomeroy has added to his website, KenPom.com, is a way to look at archived ratings. If I wanted to go back and see who was considered to be the best team in college basketball on, say, Sat., Feb. 1st, in 2014, I can do that.

On that morning, the Arizona Wildcats were sitting pretty as one of just three undefeated teams left in college basketball. They were the No. 1 team in the country, receiving 63 of a possible 65 first-place votes in the AP poll, and they were No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings. At that moment in time, the gap between Arizona and the team in second (Duke) was only slightly smaller than the gap between 2015 Kentucky and the team that finished second (Wisconsin) on the final day of the season.

Put another way, on February 1st in a season where a No. 7 seed and a No. 8 seed played in the national title game, Arizona was very clearly the best team in college basketball.

And then Brandon Ashley broke his foot.

It happened early in a game at Cal that would go down as Arizona’s first loss of the season. Without Ashley in the lineup, Arizona would go on to lose three of their final 10 regular season games in a watered down Pac-12. They lost in the Pac-12 tournament title game to UCLA. They lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight in overtime.

It’s that last loss that I want to discuss.

At the time, Ashley was a sophomore averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 boards while shooting 37.9 percent from three. He was a really good player on a team that had quite a few really good players. But the real value Ashley carried was evident in the game against Wisconsin, when the quicker Frank Kaminsky was able to exploit Kaleb Tarczewski to the tune of 28 points and 11 boards on 11-for-20 shooting. Ashley’s health would have allowed Sean Miller to be able to play a more fleet-a-foot big at the five without going to a small lineup.

That doesn’t sound like much, but in a game that went to overtime when only one guy on the winning team had a good game, slowing him down even a little bit would have been the difference.

Maybe Sean Miller still winds up without a title. Maybe Kentucky’s 2014 team was just a team of destiny that ran into Shabazz Napier and another team of destiny in the title game. Or maybe, with Ashley in the fold, the best team in college basketball goes out and wins themselves a national title in a down year.

We’ll never know, but it may go down in history as Miller’s best chance at a ring.

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Brandon Davies (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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6. WHAT IF BRANDON DAVIES DOESN’T GET AN HONOR CODE VIOLATION?

On the same day that a then-27-2 BYU team was ranked No. 3 in the AP poll for the first time ever, Brandon Davies was in the process of learning that he would no longer be a part of that team.

On Monday, Feb. 28th, just two days removed from beating San Diego State and Kawhi Leonard by 13 points on the road in a top ten showdown, the school was made aware of an honor code violation that was committed by Davies – he reportedly had sexual relations, something that is not allowed by the school. Davies admitted it, and the next morning the school announced that he was suspended for the rest of the season. On that Wednesday, they got blown out at home by New Mexico and would never be the same team.

San Diego State got their revenge in the Mountain West title game with an 18 point win. The Cougars would bow out of the NCAA tournament with an overtime loss to Florida in the Sweet 16. And that was the end of Jimmermania.

Davies was the most athletic member of BYU’s frontcourt that season. He was their third-leading scorer, their leading rebounder and one of just two players on that roster that would go on to play in the NBA. His loss was a devastating blow, one that cost us a chance to see if Jimmer could play his way into the final weekend of the season.

In a year where the Final Four consisted of a three-seed, a four-seed, an eight-seed and an 11-seed, anything could have happened.

Just imagine a national title game that featured Jimmer vs. Kemba.

It definitely would have been more exciting than this.

Continue with the top five here

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