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Copyright 2018 Chattanooga Publishing Company
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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)


It's over. The 2017-18 men's college basketball season is in the books, though as I attempted to meet my Monday evening deadline, I did not yet know whether Michigan or Villanova became the ultimate star of "One Shining Moment."

(Side note: The very fact that it's now close to midnight when these NCAA tournament championship games end also brings up the question of whether younger fans will become less passionate about March Madness than their parents in much the same way the World Series is losing future supporters due to games that end way too long after most school-age bedtimes.)

But that's another column for another day.

For today, we look back on a season that began under the cloud of an FBI investigation into the slimy underbelly of college recruiting, yet ended with zero so-called one-and-done players — the accused center of all that's supposedly wrong with the sport — in the national championship game.

And despite the rocky beginning, it has been a season filled with notable firsts. The Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed when they shocked overall No. 1 Virginia by 20 points in the opening round of the South Regional. Villanova became the first team to hit more than 13 3-pointers in a Final Four game when it canned 18 on Saturday against Kansas. And during the regular season, Drexel overcame the largest deficit in Division I history (34 points) in an 85-83 comeback win over Delaware.

So despite the angst and anger over the sausage factory that college hoops is now known to be, though it's pretty much been this way at the highest levels for more than 50 years, this should go down as one of the sport's better years. At least it should unless you were Arizona, Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State, since all four of those preseason top-five programs failed to reach the Final Four, and each of those four at least partially was hyped because of expected one-and-done freshmen.

So what was the best of the season now past?

* Best game: Kansas outlasting Duke 85-81 in overtime in the Midwest Regional final. Not only did polarizing Duke senior guard Grayson Allen's potential game-winner at the end of regulation do everything but fall through the net after both bouncing and rolling on the rim, but Malik Newman scored all 13 of the Jayhawks' points in overtime. An instant classic, as ESPN would say.

* Best coach: Tennessee's Rick Barnes. An injury to post player and rim protector Kyle Alexander may have cost the Volunteers a shot at the Sweet 16, and possibly even the Final Four, in a last-second, second-round loss to tournament Cinderella Loyola-Chicago, but tying for the SEC regular-season title after being picked to finish 13th in the preseason is tough to beat. If his whole team returns and he can add an extra piece or two, Barnes might just reach the Final Four for the second time in his 30-year-plus career a year from now.

* Best player: If we're talking about the player whose numbers best point to NBA success, it would be hard to choose against Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III, whose 21 points and 11 rebounds per game make him the most exciting post player to enter the pros since Anthony Davis left Kentucky following the 2011-12 season. But the player who did the most to deliver his team a special season was Kansas senior guard Devonte Graham, who almost single-handedly willed the Jayhawks to the Final Four with averages of 17.3 points, 7.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He went for 23 points, three assists, three rebounds and two steals in Saturday's loss to Villanova.

* Top five players: Bagley, Graham, Villanova's Jalen Brunson, Arizona's Deandre Ayton and Ohio State's Keita Bates-Diop.

As for next season, three questions and answers:

No. 1 — Does Auburn's Bruce Pearl keep his job? As long as there's no proof he knew of former assistant Chuck Person's misdeeds, Pearl survives and actually could have a better team next year than this year, when despite the turmoil of the FBI investigation, the Tigers tied Tennessee for the SEC regular-season title.

No. 2 — Most improved team? LSU, which will enter its second season under former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade. Expect the Bayou Bengals not only to reach the NCAA tourney but possibly to win a game or two or three once they do. Wade, who's landed a top-five recruiting class, might even find himself in the running for next season's national coach of the year.

No. 3 — Who makes next year's Final Four? If PJ Washington returns to Kentucky and learns how to shoot free throws, UK should join Duke — and the Wildcats and Blue Devils tip off the 2018-19 season on Nov. 6 — Kansas and Tennessee in next year's national semifinals.

But for all of us who care about sports and our favorite sports teams' successes, we'll end this column with a few words from the real star of this year's NCAA tourney: Loyola-Chicago's Sister Jean.

Replied the Ramblers' 98-year-old chaplain on Friday when asked what fans needed to do to have their prayers heard: "God always hears, but maybe he thinks it's better for us to do the 'L' instead of the 'W,' and we have to accept that."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at

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