College basketball in ’09: State of the game

The year that was in college basketball will remain memorable not so much for what happened on the court but rather what happened off it – and the state of Kentucky was the center of the storm.

On the court, there was the heartwarming story of Michigan State’s run to the Final Four in its home state and of North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough gaining redemption of sorts.

Off the court, John Calipari’s arrival at Kentucky was just the start of news emanating from that commonwealth. Rick Pitino, the coach at rival Louisville, was in the news, as was Calipari’s former employer – but both would’ve preferred to remain out of the spotlight.

Here’s a look back at the top storylines in college basketball in 2009:

Isiah Thomas took charge at Florida International.
(Lynne Sladky/AP Photo)

10. Isiah Thomas lands at Florida International: Not much was known about FIU basketball other than that it was a middling program in the Sun Belt Conference. Indeed, a survey of casual college sports fans probably would’ve revealed that few knew where FIU is located (it’s Miami, by the way). That changed April 14, when the school announced it had hired Thomas as its head coach. FIU has lost at least 20 games three times over the past four seasons and has made one NCAA tourney appearance, but Thomas – who failed miserably as president and coach of the New York Knicks – said better days were ahead for FIU. “I’m committed to growing something here, and strongly believe that over time, we’ll put a team on the floor that everyone at FIU can be proud of,” Thomas said at his introductory news conference.

9. John Wall leads Kentucky to a 13-0 start: Wall was the most ballyhooed recruit in the 2009 class, according to, and he wasted little time in living up to the hype. Wall might be the fastest player in college basketball with the ball in his hands, and proved he can thrive in the spotlight when he hit a buzzer-beater against Miami (Ohio) in his first college game. Wall has led UK to a 13-0 start, including back-to-back wins against North Carolina and Connecticut in early December. College fans better enjoy him while they can because there seems to be no doubt Wall will head for the NBA after this season.

8. Downtrodden Detroit gets behind Michigan State in Final Four: Detroit might be the city hardest-hit in the current economic downturn, which made Michigan State’s 2009 tourney run all the more dramatic. Seemingly everyone in Detroit got behind the Spartans as they advanced to the Final Four, which was held at Detroit’s Ford Field. But the story did not have a fairy-tale ending: While the Spartans made it to the final, they were blown out by North Carolina.

USC coach Tim Floyd left amid scandal.
(Ann Heisenfelt/AP Photo)

7. USC’s offseason from hell: USC made a great run to become the surprise winner of the Pac-10 tournament, then went out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That second-round loss was just the start of an unbelievable offseason for the Trojans. Three players – forward Taj Gibson, swingman Demar DeRozan and guard Daniel Hackett – left school early to turn pro. The Trojans’ top two recruits, Noel Johnson and Renardo Sidney, were let out of their letters-of-intent. The topper was that coach Tim Floyd resigned after reports surfaced that he gave money to an associate of former Trojans star O.J. Mayo while Mayo was at USC. Thus, a team that in April looked as if it could be the best team in the Pac-10 and a certain preseason top-10 pick instead was picked to finish ninth in the league in September. Kevin O’Neill took over the program in June.

6. Derrick Rose scandal: Memphis’ 2008 NCAA tournament participation was “vacated” in August after the NCAA ruled that Rose’s SAT was invalid. The invalidation came about because it was found that Rose did not take the test himself. Memphis lost to Kansas in overtime in the national final that season, which was Rose’s only season in college. It was the second time that a Final Four run for a John Calipari-coached team was vacated, joining Massachusetts’ participation in the 1996 tourney.

Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, left, was chosen first in the 2009 NBA draft by the Clippers.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

5. Blake Griffin dominates, then goes No. 1 in the draft: Griffin enjoyed a big-time freshman season at Oklahoma in 2007-08, the decided to stay in school for his sophomore season. Oklahoma was glad he did. Griffin tore up opposing defenses, averaging 22.7 points, 14.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals – and shooting 65.4 percent from the field – in guiding the Sooners to a South Regional final appearance in the NCAA tournament. It was the third headline-making season in a row for a Big 12 player, following Texas’ Kevin Durant in 2006-07 and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley in 2007-08. Griffin and the Sooners had their season end with a 12-point loss to eventual national champion North Carolina, but Griffin received some solace when he became the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

4. Four Big East teams reach the Elite Eight: The Big East was indeed a beast last season. All season long, observers raved about the depth and talent in the league, and perception became reality in March. The league had three No. 1 seeds – Villanova, Connecticut and Louisville, with the Cardinals the overall No. 1 seed – and each of the three plus Pittsburgh reached the Elite Eight. Two of them reached the Final Four (Villanova and Connecticut).

3. The Pitino scandal: In April, a few weeks months after John Calipari’s hiring at Kentucky led to UK basketball hogging all the headlines, Louisville coach Rick Pitino got his program back in the headlines – but for less-than-flattering reasons. News broke that the wife of Louisville’s trainer was trying to extort Pitino. Karen Cunagin Sypher was charged in federal court with extortion, including demands of cars, tuition for her children and $10 million. In August, it was revealed that Pitino had told Louisville police that he had consensual sex with and paid for an abortion Sypher after an incident that happened in August 2003.

Tyler Hansbrough, right, and coach Roy Williams celebrated the 2009 title.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough gets his national championship: Hansbrough became a rarity in the college basketball world – a four-year star for a powerhouse program. For all the points, rebounds and accolades, there still was one thing missing – an NCAA title. As a freshman, Hansbrough’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA tourney. As a sophomore, it ended in a regional final. His junior season came to an end in a national semifinal. But as a senior, he got his ring, as UNC ripped Michigan State for the national title. It was UNC’s second national title in five seasons.

John Calipari took the reins at powerhouse Kentucky.
(Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

1. John Calipari leaves Memphis for Kentucky: Shortly after Billy Gillispie was fired after two seasons as Kentucky’s coach, UK officials made a splash heard around the college basketball world by hiring Calipari away from Memphis. (This was four months before Memphis’ 2008 NCAA tourney participation was vacated.) Calipari had made Memphis relevant nationally again, and his mission at UK was to make the Wildcats a major player again. Calipari and his new staff hit the recruiting trail with a vengeance, signing one of the best freshman classes – headed by Wall – in basketball history. That freshman class was the major reason UK was in the preseason top five of almost every poll less than five months season after the Wildcats finished the previous season in the NIT. UK is off to a fast start under Calipari and looks primed to reach the Final Four for the first time since the Wildcats won the national title in 1998.

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Updated Monday, Dec 28, 2009