Tue Dec 27 11:24am EST
As the last few days of 2011 slip away, it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at the calendar year in college hoops. Here's a look at my take on college basketball's 10 best moments of 2011. Let me know in the comments or via Twitter what I left out.
1. The birth of Jimmermania:The performance that sparked Jimmer Fredette's transformation from all-American candidate to basketball icon was his 43-point barrage to lead BYU past previously undefeated San Diego State in Provo last January. The senior guard sank 14 of 24 shots, a mesmerizing effort that inspired the first "You got Jimmered" chants from the crowd and sent everyone from NBA stars, to rappers, to fellow college player of the year candidates scrambling to find CBS College Sports on their TVs. Tweeted Kevin Durant: "Jimmer Fredette is the best scorer in the world!!" Added John Wall: "Jimmer Fredette is cold! #respect."
2. Kemba puts Gary McGhee on the ground: The signature moment of UConn's unlikely title run last March wasn't its hard-fought wins over San Diego State and Arizona at the Anaheim Regional or its unsightly 53-41 victory over Butler in the national championship game. Instead it was probably Kemba Walker dropping Pittsburgh center Gary McGhee with a pair of jab steps before burying the game-winning jumper as time expired in the Big East quarterfinals. The shot enabled UConn to continue its march toward five wins in five days at Madison Square Garden and signaled that the Huskies would be a title threat in the NCAA tournament.
3. VCU topples Kansas to reach the Final Four: Whether it was Arizona in 1997, Bucknell and Bradley in the mid-2000s or Northern Iowa in 2010, Kansas has been the victim of many memorable March upsets. Few were more stunning, however, than 11th-seeded VCU's 71-61 takedown of the top-seeded Jayhawks in the Elite Eight this past March. A Rams team many believed didn't even merit a berth in the field of 68 rode the enthusiasm of coach Shaka Smart and the savvy play of veterans Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen to the program's first-ever Final Four.
4. Inexplicable foul helps Butler beat Pittsburgh: Snake-bitten Pittsburgh has fallen short of a Final Four berth each season under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon, but never have the Panthers been denied March glory in such a heartbreaking way. First Pittsburgh appeared to benefit from a referee's whistle when Shelvin Mack fouled Gilbert Brown with Butler ahead by one and 1.4 seconds remaining. Then it was the top-seeded Panthers who were victimized when Brown's second free throw rimmed out and Nasir Robinson went over the back of Matt Howard vying for the rebound. The result was a 71-70 Butler victory that left both teams dazed and propelled the Bulldogs to their second straight appearance in the national title game.
5. The Aircraft Carrier Game:It hardly mattered that North Carolina's 67-55 victory over Michigan State wasn't the most scintillating early-season basketball game ever played because the stunning visuals more than made up for it. The two teams played on Veteran's Day in a temporary arena on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson in front of a crowd that included thousands of military servicemen, numerous current and former NBA luminaries and even President Obama himself. The captain's tower hovered over one basket and the San Diego skyline was visible behind the scorer's table.
6. Welcome back, Indiana: It may be another year before Indiana contends for a Final Four or even a Big Ten championship, but the Hoosiers definitely have returned to national relevancy in college basketball. There was no denying that after Christian Watford sank a three-pointer as time expired Dec. 10, toppling No. 1 Kentucky and sparking a celebration in Bloomington that helped exorcise three years worth of frustration. The Hoosiers lost 20 or more games in each of coach Tom Crean's first three seasons as they tried to recover from the short-lived Kelvin Sampson era, but they're off to an undefeated start in 2011-12.
8. Brandon Knight beats Ohio State: For the first 39 minutes, 55 seconds of the most anticipated matchup of last season's Sweet 16, it was the contributions of Kentucky's oft-overlooked upperclassmen that kept the Wildcats within striking distance of top-seeded Ohio State. Then freshman Brandon Knight made sure that effort wouldn't go to waste with a memorable game-winner. Knight, who had already beaten Princeton the previous week with a game-winning shot, shook off a top-of-the-key ball screen, dribbled right and sank a pull-up 16-footer over Ohio State's Aaron Craft, propelling the Wildcats to a 62-60 victory that paved the way for their return to the Final Four.
9. Caltech breaks its losing streak: The hero of Caltech's first conference victory in 26 years was a future software engineer who spent his summers conducting advanced chemistry and math research instead of honing his jump shot or working on his conditioning. Senior Ryan Elmquist sank the go-ahead free throw with three seconds left in a 46-45 victory over Occidental College last February, snapping a 310-game losing streak in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. "Usually on a Tuesday night everyone would be studying and doing homework, so seeing everybody hanging out with the team and celebrating was pretty awesome," Elmquist said afterward. "Normally that would only happen for something academic and not athletic."
10. Derrick Williams dumps Duke:The return of freshman Kyrie Irving and the inspired play of senior Nolan Smith had Duke fans dreaming of a repeat national title until Arizona quashed all hope of that two games shy of the Final Four. After 25 first-half points from Derrick Williams kept the Wildcats competitive at halftime, the Arizona star's teammates sparked a 19-2 second-half run that transformed a seven-point deficit into a 10-point lead. The result was a 93-77 Sweet 16 beatdown that signaled the end of an era at Duke and legitimized 2010-11 Arizona as one of the nation's elite teams.
Honorable mention: Isaiah Thomas' "cold-blooded" game winner to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament title game ... San Diego State's double-overtime victory over Temple to advance to first-ever Sweet 16 ... Princeton buzzer beater prevents Harvard from ending NCAA tournament drought ... Anthony Davis' game-saving block beats North Carolina.