/cue "30 Rock" meme
What a year, huh?
Technically true! But it was indeed a packed and memorable past 12 months of college basketball; let us take a few to reflect on one of the more indelible years the sport's had in recent history. We've got only three more days of 2022, so now's the time for my annual look-back. I assembled the 22 biggest stories of '22. Let's not waste any more time. To the list we go. Links associated with most of these stories are clickable on the date labeled in parentheses with each ranking.
22. No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga loses in Sweet 16 (March 24): At 26-3, Gonzaga entered the Big Dance with the best résumé. A year prior, GU went into the title game with an undefeated record, then got steamrolled by Baylor. Jalen Suggs was gone, but a better NBA prospect, Chet Holmgren, was in the mix. There was significant pressure on Gonzaga to, at least, make it back to the Final Four. The Zags rated No. 1 in every mainstream predictive metric ... and then Arkansas showed up in the Sweet 16 and induced the Zags into their second-worst offensive game of the season. Had Gonzaga won, it would have faced Duke in the Elite Eight, a rematch from their tremendous meeting in November. Instead, an underwhelming exit via a 74-68 loss and a reset on the national conversation about Gonzaga being the strongest program without a national title to its name.
21. Omicron wrecks scheduling (December-into-January): In my 2021 Year in Review, as the Omicron variant was ravaging scheduling across sports once more, I wrote, "We've lost more than 150 games and can only hope that a year from now when I'm recapping 2022, nothing tied to COVID lands in the top 20 of the biggest stories of the year." The good news: This isn't in the top 20! (I assembled my list before consulting last year's post, I swear.) We have lost a handful of games in '22-23 to COVID, but thankfully, it would seem as though the worst five/six/seven phases of the pandemic are behind us. But in early January of '22? Dread and scheduling PTSD was setting in. Fortunately, college hoops wound up only losing ~5% of its games on last season's docket.
20. Huggs inducted into Hall of Fame (Sept. 10): A grassroots campaign among those in basketball circles grew and grew over the past five-plus years to get Bob Huggins into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. At the 2022 Final Four, it was announced he finally made it, and in September he was enshrined. Huggins, 69, has 855 wins at the D-I level and 926 overall. He's also a singular personality and presence in college basketball. Huggins is somewhat similar to the late Mike Leach in proving that one not need a national championship to their name in order to be acknowledged among the all-time greats in their sport.
19. Basketball on an aircraft carrier returns (Nov. 11): It had been a decade since college hoops tried the basketball-on-the-deck-of-a-warship experimentation. Reason being: A couple of games on carriers off the East Coast in 2012 had humidity issues that led to dangerous conditions and cancellations. But out West? Every one has gone off without interference. Gonzaga and Michigan State brought the proceedings back to the harbors of San Diego this year, playing a 64-63 decision in Gonzaga's favor aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in what was the first high-profile game of this season. It looked great, and to me, this helps elevate college basketball's presence nationally in the first week of its season. No plans announced yet to do this again in 2023 or beyond, but I'd bank on it happening again at some point.
18. Tommy Lloyd effortlessly returns Arizona to national prominence (all of 2022): As of this story's publishing, Lloyd is 45-5 as a head coach. It's the second-best winning percentage through 50 games in D-I men's hoops history. Lloyd took over after Sean Miller was fired and brought Arizona to the forefront of the sport once again, guiding the Wildcats to a top seed in March, then following that up here in '22-23 with a top-10 ranking and 12-1 record in non-con play. He lost three first-round picks after last season, yet might have a team this season just as entertaining to watch. Arizona is must-see TV. Few coaches had a better January-to-December than Lloyd.
17. Georgetown cratering under Patrick Ewing (all of 2022): The Hoyas were basically the inverse of Arizona this year. Georgetown is 5-28 in 2022. It needs to win on the road against DePaul on Thursday to avoid a 29th '22 L. It's downright depressing that one of the 25 best jobs in college basketball has turned into one of the saddest situations in college hoops -- with Ewing, of all people, responsible for it. He's the most important player in school history, and now fans are routinely calling for him to resign or be fired on a weekly basis. Even worse: a large portion of the base has checked out. Instead of getting this program to average status after making the 2021 NCAA Tournament as an auto-bid qualifier (as an 8-seed in the Big East Tournament; remember that?), Georgetown is going backward. A change on the Hilltop is expected in the first three months of 2023.
16. Top six ranked teams, and seven of top nine, lose on same day (Feb. 27): Rarely is there a day's worth of results that you can claim is a once-in-a-generation outcome. But that's exactly what happened on the last Saturday of February. No. 1 Gonzaga lost at Saint Mary's. No. 2 Arizona lost at Colorado. No. 3 Auburn lost at No. 18 Tennessee. No. 4 Purdue lost at Michigan State. No. 5 Kansas lost at No. 10 Baylor. No. 6 Kentucky lost at No. 18 Arkansas. A historic motley of topplings. NEVER before had 1-6 fallen on the same day. What's more, ninth-ranked Texas Tech got tripped up at TCU. Wouldn't you know it: Of those seven top-10 teams that lost, none would make the Elite Eight -- except Kansas. (We'll get to the Jayhawks eventually.)
15. Light IARP punishments for Memphis, Louisville, Arizona, Sean Miller (Sept. 27, Nov. 3, Dec. 14): All that FBI and NCAA melodrama, and ultimately for what? Some self-imposed postseason bans, misguided sky-is-falling predictions from some in the media and a whole lot of wasted time and money. This story would be higher on this list if the sanctions were notable. That's not what happened. Self-imposed punishments by schools led to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process to go easy on the rule-breakers of the past five-plus years. Some former assistants got heavy-handed show-cause penalties, while the head coaches were absolved. It's a denouement that has many around college sports even more cynical -- while others have been thinking that, since so much time has past, what's the point?
14. Miami transfer Nijel Pack gets $400K NIL deal; Isaiah Wong threatens to transfer (late April): College football had its share of interesting and controversial NIL- and transfer-related stories in 2022, but I'd argue it was this one, in college basketball, that sparked the most discussion in college sports. Miami booster/billionaire John Ruiz broke precedent when he made public the terms of Pack's NIL deal, explicitly for transferring from Kansas State to Miami. Wong had a separate deal and for less money, and he stated he'd be leaving unless a new deal would be made. Ruiz ultimately called Wong's bluff (though it's believed more was done behind the scenes to enhance Wong's situation). It's worked out wonderfully for Miami. The Hurricanes, coming off a surprising Elite Eight run, are ranked 14th and have a 12-1 record heading into ACC play. Pack (11.2 ppg) hasn't played up to his NIL contract yet, but Wong (17.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.5 apg) is performing at an All-American level.
13. The bigs are back -- Tshiebwe, Timme, Bacot, TJD, etc. return (mid-to-late spring): Because traditional big men who don't shoot from the perimeter are not desirable in the modern NBA, it's giving college hoops an opportunity to bring back big men with big personalities and helping keep the sport more familiar to fans. NIL legislation is helping, too. Players now have the opportunity make seven figures while suiting up in college threads. So for Oscar Tshiebwe, Drew Timme, Armando Bacot, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Hunter Dickinson and others, it's a win-win situation in the short-term. And college hoops is all the better because of it. You could build an argument that 2022 brought more familiar top players back to college basketball than any season in the past decade.
12. Louisville's dismal 2022 (all of 2022): As an entity, Louisville men's basketball has been mired in controversy for almost a decade now. But these past 12 months have been a nightmare nadir. Chris Mack resigned on Jan. 26, when the team was 7-4. The Cardinals went 6-15 after he left. This season, U of L is infamously putrid, getting off to a 2-11 start under Kenny Payne -- and losing out on the D.J. Wagner recruitment to Kentucky in the process. The Cardinals are in a race with 1-12 California to see which can be the worst high-major team this season. Hard to fathom how a top-10 program in the history of the sport could fall so far like this, but it's a desperate state of affairs in Derby City as we prepare to flip the calendar to 2023.
11. NCAA Tournament expansion rumors/speculation (summer-into-fall): One of the buzziest stories of the offseason was the slow-moving speculation that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who co-chaired the D-I Transformation Committee, would grease wheels to enable change to the men's and women's NCAA Tournaments capacities. There's no indication, at this point, such a change is imminent. But it sure didn't stop a lot of people from (understandably) panicking over unnecessary potential alterations to one of the world's near-perfect sporting events. The Transformation Committee's work is done, and its recommendations across Division I will be made public in early January. Sources told CBS Sports that there will be language allowing all D-I national championships to allow as much as 25% of a sport's teams inclusion to a postseason bracket, but there will be no official recommendation or mandate to do so. If the NCAA Tournament is going to change its size, it will first fall on the Division I Men's Basketball Committee to choose whether or not to do that. And to that I say: Don't even think about it.
10. Historic switch atop AP poll in first five weeks of '22-23 season (November-into-December): After months of hype, UNC going from preseason No. 1 to UNRANKED by the first week of December was shocking and historic. No team had ever dropped from the top spot to out of the rankings altogether in fewer than eight weeks to start a season. Conversely, as UNC was falling, Purdue was waving hello on its way up the rankings escalator. The Boilermakers were outside the preseason AP Top 25, then got to No. 1 by the fifth week of the poll -- by far the fastest ascent in college basketball history. Throw in the fact that it's Purdue's Zach Edey, not Carolina's Armando Bacot, who's atop the NPOY race at this stage. The UNC-Purdue dual storyline has been the biggest on-court college hoops plot point through one-third of the season, with UConn not that far behind. The Huskies are ranked No. 2 and off to their best start since '98-99. They won their first national title that season. Making matters even more interlaced, Purdue and UConn won their respective brackets at November's PK85. They haven't been stopped since, a combined 25-0.
9. UCLA, USC leaving Pac-12 for Big Ten (June 30): A football move -- and thunderous one -- but a college basketball story because of UCLA's involvement. We're talking about one of the five best programs in the sport's history. Its longstanding affiliation with West Coast basketball is set to be expunged come 2024. USC isn't so terrible historically, either, it just pales in comparison to UCLA, what with the Bruins owning 11 national titles, 19 Final Fours and near-2,000 wins. The Big Ten in men's basketball will have 16 teams and is going to be the most interesting league in the country most years moving forward. UCLA and USC in the Big Ten standings. That's going to take a year or 20 to get used to.
8. Tshiebwe's legendary POY campaign (March 31): Someone winning NPOY isn't a top-10 story each season, but when they're the centerpiece of a blue blood program who's done it with a historic stat line and for a team that ranks among the best in the sport, that hits different. Oscar Tshiebwe averaged 17.4 points, 15.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks for a Kentucky team that got a 2-seed after winning 26 games. In sweeping every major NPOY award, Tshiebwe became the second Kentucky player to ever achieve that feat, joining Anthony Davis in 2012. Additionally, he was the first player in more than four decades to average at least 15.1 rebounds. He also became the first transfer to win NPOY since Larry Johnson at UNLV in 1991.
7. Juwan Howard/Wisconsin melee (Feb. 22): A jarring sight to see one of the more well-known coaches in basketball tossing an open hand in the postgame handshake line. Juwan Howard's behavior was out of line and wound up costing him a suspension that lasted through the end of the regular season. After initially having an issue with how Badgers coach Greg Gard handled the end of the game -- with Gard and Howard getting heated at each other -- Howard then lunged for Badgers assistant Joe Krabbenhoft as a fracas broke out in the demolished handshake line. Howard wasn't the only person who handled this situation poorly, but he was the worst of it. His menacing move at Krabbenhoft made national nightly newscasts and tainted his reputation.
6. Chris Beard arrested, suspended (Dec. 12): An ongoing story, and a major one. Beard was arrested and charged with third-degree felony assault on a family member after his fiancée called 9-1-1 in the early hours of Dec. 12. That night, police observed multiple signs of abuse on her body, and according to the arrest report, she told police she called 9-1-1 because she did not feel safe. Also, according to the arrest report, Beard's fiancée told officers that Beard bit her, threw her off the bed, obstructed her breathing and strangled her. Eleven days later, on the evening of Dec. 23, Beard's fiancée released a statement through her lawyer that, in part, said, "Chris did not strangle me, and I told that to law enforcement that evening. Chris has stated that he was acting in self-defense, and I do not refute that." Beard remains suspended and without pay. Given the allegations, the high-profile nature of the case and the school involved, this will also be a big story as it unfolds into 2023.
5. Kansas comes from 16-point deficit to win national title over 8-seed UNC (April 4): Every national champion qualifies as a top-10 story, but when you do so in never-done-before fashion, you jump to the top five -- minimally. In fact, I'd argue the historic nature of KU's comeback is the defining feature of Kansas' 72-69 victory over North Carolina. Kansas overcame the largest deficit in national championship game history! I feel like this hasn't been given enough recognition in the months since it happened. At its greatest margin, the gap was 16 points (38-22 with 2:23 left in the first half). UNC led 40-25 at halftime. The fact this happened between two schools that have so many ties binding them makes it even more flavorful. Bill Self got a second title, Kansas won its fourth national championship and it was another classic played in New Orleans. After three years without a normal NCAA Tournament, this was a sweet way to cap off a great '22 Dance.
4. Carolina stuns Duke at Coach K's final home game (March 5): "UNC handed K an L and snatched a W so sweet, it immediately ranks near the top of the Tar Heels' greatest regular-season victories in the 100-plus year history of this proud program." That's part of what I wrote in the aftermath of what was a shocking 13-point North Carolina retirement party spoiler at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Heels won 94-81 and utterly ruined Mike Krzyzewski's home send-off, a plot twist so sweet, it would be the biggest trump card in this rivalry ... except for something lurking a month into the future that none of us could have imagined. My favorite nugget from this game was four UNC players scoring at least 20 points, marking the first time that ever happened in a UNC game. As in: any UNC game. Ever. And it was this game. Of course it was. Nearly 100 Blue Devil alumni were behind the Duke bench, and they went from engaged to dazed in about 20 minutes time. On a personal note, I consider this most memorable non-postseason event I've ever covered. It's all too easy to instantly flash myself back to press row inside Cameron, watching UNC celebrate as the clocked melted to 0. And then Krzyzewski chided the crowd after it was over and they were set to honor him! What a night that was.
3. Jay Wright retires out of nowhere (April 20): We've had back-to-back stunning retirements by Hall-of-Famers. In 2021, Roy Williams did it on April Fools' Day. This year, Jay Wright sideswiped the sport by stepping away almost three weeks after the season. Wright was set up to be one of the most prominent faces and voices in the sport for the remainder of his legendary career. Instead, citing burnout, he opted for retirement from coaching at 60 years old. Now he's a TV analyst for CBS (great to have ya, Jay!). Wright walked away with 642 wins, 34 NCAA Tournament victories, two national titles, 13 combined Big East titles, three national coach of the year awards and the 2010 AP Coach of the Decade honor to his name. It's still a bit strange not seeing him on Villanova's sideline this season.
2. Saint Peter's Elite Eight (March 17-27): Quite simply one of the best stories in the history of the NCAA Tournament. A 15-seed knocks off a blue blood (Kentucky) in the first round. That alone puts you in the pantheon of all-time March Madness fables. Then you go out and knock off two-loss Murray State to become just the third No. 15 to ever reach the second weekend. And then? Oh, just beat Purdue, a team with a top-five pick in Jaden Ivey, to become the first 15 in history to win three NCAA Tournament games. Remember, this is Saint Peter's: one of the poorer programs in Division I, tucked away in Jersey City, New Jersey, playing in a gym that's smaller and worse off than many high school ones within a 90-minute drive of that campus. Shaheen Holloway used this run to catapult him to a job at his alma mater, Seton Hall, but we must list the six players most responsible for providing us with an all-time March Cinderella story: KC Ndefo, Clarence Rupert, Matthew Lee, Daryl Banks, Doug Edert and Hassan Drame. We will never forget the Peacocks.
1. North Carolina ends Coach K's career at the Final Four (April 2): Nothing else could be atop this list. Nearly a month removed from the embarrassment of being stomped at Cameron, the bracket gods gifted us a game that instantly rose to the top of the list of best national semifinal matchups in history. And that was before UNC and Duke even tipped. North Carolina, from the 8-line, wormed its way to a 21st Final Four appearance, the most in history. Duke, a No. 2 seed, had some dramatic performances in getting Krzyzewski to his 13th Final Four, the most in history.
Remember, these programs had never met in the NCAA Tournament. Yet here they were, for the first time, doing so on the biggest stage. And with K's looming retirement dangling as the backdrop to all of it. Then we get to the actual game. How great -- seriously, how could something this hyped be this good? -- it was. No team led by more than seven. Constant tension. (With some Guster sprinkled in.) It felt like we were heading to a last-possession swing, until Caleb Love's 3-pointer over Mark Williams fell with 24.9 remaining, giving UNC a four-point lead and vaulting Love into Carolina lore forever.
As the year ends, I can't shake one thought. Krzyzewski announced in June 2021 that he'd be retiring after the '21-22 season. But if you told him before his final tour that he'd end it by losing his final home game to UNC and having his career end in the NCAA Tournament -- in the Final Four -- at the hands of North Carolina, do you think he would have taken the bargain? If he could have known what awaited him, maybe he would've signed up for two more years instead of one.
Even if it didn't end with a shot to decide it at the buzzer, there's never been a Final Four game of greater consequence. The stakes are unparalleled in sports history, really. When you consider that this is the best rivalry in college basketball, and with K being the winningest and arguably greatest coach in college basketball, we probably won't see another national semifinal heavier than this one. Ever. For as long as they play this NCAA Tournament, hopefully for hundreds of years to come, UNC-Duke will be on a level all its own.