The 12 biggest college basketball stories of 2017

The Dagger
North Carolina’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/126177/" data-ylk="slk:Theo Pinson">Theo Pinson</a> (1) dunks during the first half of the national title game against Gonzaga on April 3, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
North Carolina’s Theo Pinson (1) dunks during the first half of the national title game against Gonzaga on April 3, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Academic fraud. Shoplifting. Bribery and corruption.

It’s a sign of what type of year it was in college basketball that so many of the sport’s buzziest topics happened away from the court.

Here’s a look at the college basketball’s 12 biggest stories of 2017, beginning with the FBI’s bombshell investigation into the shadowy world of recruiting.

1. FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball

For decades, college basketball coaches have operated under the premise that cheaters prosper more than they’re punished. Everything changed in September when law enforcement pushed NCAA investigators aside and got involved themselves. Federal authorities blew open the doors to the unsavory, shadowy world of college basketball recruiting when they indicted 10 men in a widespread fraud and bribery scheme involving top recruits, prominent coaches, agents, financial planners and shoe-apparel executives. Among those ensnared were some of the sport’s most high-profile programs, from Arizona, to USC, to Miami, to Louisville. “We have your playbook,” FBI assistant director Bill Sweeney warned. “Our investigation is ongoing.” The FBI probe has been off the radar since the new season began, but rest assured coaches and athletic directors are still antsy. The next domino could fall at any moment and only the untainted are safe.

2. The messy breakup between UCLA and the Balls

As Lonzo Ball was blossoming into an elite NBA prospect last winter, there were already signs that the relationship between UCLA and his family could quickly disintegrate. Outspoken family patriarch LaVar Ball had already become a nuisance for the Bruins with his desire to extend his stay in the limelight and promote his brand at all costs. The season began with LaVar guaranteeing Lonzo would win a national title at UCLA and ended with him insisting starting “three white guys” made it impossible for the Bruins to contend. In between, LaVar also repeatedly used Lonzo’s likeness to promote his fledgling shoe-apparel brand, a choice that suggested the threat of the NCAA ruling his son ineligible didn’t faze him. It’s unlikely UCLA would have put up with those antics for long once the most talented Ball brother was gone, but a series of incidents helped speed up the breakup. LaVar gave promising youngest son LaMelo his own signature shoe in August, jeopardizing his college eligibility. Three months later, middle son LiAngelo and two fellow freshmen teammates were arrested for shoplifting in China days before UCLA’s season opener in Shanghai. As LiAngelo languished on indefinite suspension, LaVar grew impatient. He yanked his middle son out of UCLA in December and began exploring professional opportunities for him and LaMelo, severing the relationship between UCLA and the Balls for good.

3. North Carolina wins one banner, keeps two others

One year after falling to Villanova at the buzzer in the 2016 national title game, North Carolina achieved the redemption it craved. Justin Jackson scored a go-ahead 3-point play with 1:40 left and the Tar Heels pulled away from Gonzaga for a 71-65 victory that erased a year’s worth of heartache. As North Carolina celebrated Roy Williams’ third national title, it only made rival fans more eager for the NCAA to stop dillydallying and give the Tar Heels their comeuppance. Six months later, the NCAA’s committee on infractions finally released its decision, and it was a stunner. The committee ruled the case was ultimately outside its jurisdiction, and North Carolina escaped any significant punishment for what is widely considered the worst academic scandal in college sports history.

4. Scandals force change of leadership at Louisville

In June, the NCAA ruled that Louisville must vacate its 2013 men’s basketball national title as part of the fallout from the program’s stripper and escort scandal. Somehow, the year only got worse for the Cardinals from there. In September, the FBI alleged that a Louisville coach arranged for Adidas to funnel $100,000 to the family of elite recruit Brian Bowen so that he would play at Louisville and represent the shoe-apparel giant after he turns pro. Pitino claimed ignorance about the allegations just like he had with the stripper scandal, but you can only blame a rogue assistant so many times. Insisting that Pitino either knew what was going on or failed to properly monitor his own program, Louisville quickly fired him and highly successful athletic director Tom Jurich.

5. The saga of Grayson Allen

The third of Grayson Allen’s three tripping incidents actually occurred in December 2016, but the polarizing Duke star has dealt with the fallout ever since. Mike Krzyzewski suspended Allen for one game and stripped him of his captaincy. Opposing student sections booed, heckled and belittled Allen once he returned to the floor. And reporters and fans on social media scrutinized Allen’s every collision in search of chippy conduct. Nagging injuries and the burden of relentless criticism led to an underwhelming junior season from Allen and contributed to his decision to return to Duke this year. So far he has managed to stay mostly under the radar as the senior leader on a freshman-laden roster, but only time will tell whether his college career will end in redemption, controversy or something in between.

6. Gonzaga achieves the milestone that had eluded it

Even though Gonzaga had made 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments, reached the second round nine years in a row and advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond three straight seasons, much of the discussion surrounding the Zags’ program centered on the one milestone that had eluded them. That changed at last in March when Gonzaga routed 11th-seeded Xavier in the Elite Eight and advanced to the program’s first Final Four. That Gonzaga finally reached college basketball’s biggest stage last season is a testament to its staff’s ability to seamlessly integrate international recruits from far-flung countries and high-major transfers seeking a change of scenery. A team featuring three high-profile transfers and players from seven different countries won 37 games, played dominant defense and came within a couple baskets of a national title.

7 Northwestern breaks through at last

After 78 years of failure, misery and irrelevance, Northwestern finally enjoyed a long-awaited breakthrough last March. The Wildcats secured an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in program history, landing a No. 8 seed in the West Region. Behind a stingy defense and the creativity of dynamic point guard Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern showed it belonged. The Wildcats edged Vanderbilt in the opening round and pushed top-seeded Gonzaga deep into the second half before eventually falling by six. With the core of last season’s team returning, Northwestern began this year with a Top 25 ranking and expectations of a top-four Big Ten finish. Alas, the Wildcats aren’t handling success well. They’re a disappointing 10-5, they have no notable wins and they’ll only have a few chances in the struggling Big Ten.

8. Familiar faces in new places

The coaching carousel started spinning before last season was over and kept on going well into the summer. By the time it finally stopped, a handful of marquee programs had each made splashy new hires. Indiana dumped Tom Crean after he missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years and gambled that Archie Miller could bring more consistency to the program. Ohio State parted ways with Thad Matta with its program trending downward and tabbed Chris Holtmann to fix the recruiting woes that had recently ailed the Buckeyes. Perhaps the most compelling yet risky hire was Georgetown’s decision to stay in-house after firing John Thompson III. Legendary center Patrick Ewing is a Hoyas icon but he has no head coaching experience, nor has he coached at the college level before.

9. Sean Miller’s quest to reach the Final Four

Seven times in the past 10 seasons, Sean Miller has led a team to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Somehow he has still yet to shed the bittersweet label of college basketball’s most accomplished coach never to reach the Final Four. Miller’s latest March heartbreak came at the hands of the school where he used to coach. Eleventh-seeded Xavier rallied from eight down in the last four minutes and upset second-seeded Arizona 73-71, a Sweet 16 loss made more frustrating by the Wildcats’ poor shot selection and inability to get the ball to lottery pick Lauri Markkanen down the stretch. The return of Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins and the arrival of a decorated recruiting class had pundits anointing Arizona as a preseason top-three team this season, but then the FBI investigation ensnared the Wildcats. Now anything they accomplish this season will be viewed through a cloud of skepticism.

10. Trae Young’s ascendance

The No. 22 prospect in the 2017 247Sports Composite Rankings is Jaylen Hands, who is UCLA’s third leading scorer so far this season. The No. 24 prospect in the 2017 247Sports Composite Rankings is Emmanuel Akot, who is struggling to even crack the rotation at Arizona. In between them is Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, who needless to say is outperforming expectations as a freshman. Nobody predicted Young would average a national-best 29.6 points and 10.7 assists per game. Nobody predicted he’d be drawing comparisons to Steph Curry because of his deep shooting range, creativity off the dribble and impeccable court vision. And nobody predicted he’d elevate Oklahoma from the bottom of the Big 12 into position to rise into the AP top 10 on Monday. Simply put, Young has been the nation’s best player so far this season. If he keeps this up, he’ll be national player of the year in March and a lottery pick in June.

11. Michigan’s wild March

College basketball’s marquee month got off to a rough start for Michigan. The plane that was supposed to carry the Wolverines to the Big Ten tournament slid off the runway during an aborted takeoff, causing extensive damage to the aircraft and forcing passengers to scramble through emergency doors to safety. Nobody on board the plane was hurt, but the incident appeared to bring out the best in Michigan over the coming weeks. An 11-loss Wolverines team that had sputtered to an eighth-place Big Ten finish in the regular season responded with four victories in four days to claim the conference tournament title. Michigan then won a pair of memorable NCAA tournament games against Oklahoma State and Louisville before falling by a single point to Final Four-bound Oregon in the Sweet 16.

12. Kansas’ bid to make history

At first, the streak was notable for the parade of exemplary individual talents Kansas overcame. More recently, the overall quality of the Big 12’s top teams has posed the greatest threat. No matter what, one thing has always remained constant: The Jayhawks have always found a way to turn back all challengers. Kansas won its record-tying 13th straight Big 12 title last February when it finished a whopping four games clear of challengers Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State. That tied the record set by UCLA, which launched its run at the height of the John Wooden dynasty in 1967 and concluded it in 1979. Kansas is favored to extend its streak this season, but the Jayhawks once again won’t have it easy. Every Big 12 team currently resides in the KenPom top 100 and only Iowa State is outside the top 50.

Honorable mention: South Carolina’s stunning Final Four run • Miles Bridges returns to Michigan State • Marvin Bagley reclassifies and picks Duke • Oregon reaches its first Final Four since 1939 • Arizona State’s unexpected ascendance • Michael Porter’s college career at Missouri may be over after two minutes. 

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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