Welcome to the sixth edition of The Buzzer-Beater, my weekly column about college basketball and what’s going on around the country. This week’s column comes to you from San Antonio, TX, where I just watched Villanova win its second national championship in three years. In my 21 years of life, the Wildcats may be the best team I’ve ever watched. They have a brilliant mix of talent and chemistry that you don’t get every year in the college game. I’ve never seen a team pass the ball like Villanova did this year. Now that basketball is over, let’s dive into my final thoughts for this season of college basketball. 

This NCAA Tournament was exactly what college basketball needed.

Considering all of the ugliness coming out about the sport in the last two months, March Madness 2018 was the perfect remedy. There was lots of drama, with close finishes and overtime games bringing the entire nation to the edge of it’s collective seat. There were great stories, such as UMBC and the little Ramblers that could indeed reach the Final Four. We met heroes like Sister Jean and the UMBC Basketball Twitter account, and we saw epic in-game collapses from Cincinnati, Xavier, Texas, and Kentucky (seriously, what was that last shot attempt against Kansas State?).

Most importantly, though, we got a national championship game featuring two of the good guys. Jay Wright has long been respected and revered by his colleagues, and now he’s earned his place in the Hall of Fame. You won’t find many other coaches who will publicly tweet about and privately contact coaches that he’s just beaten to congratulate them on an excellent season. When Virginia lost to UMBC, one of the first calls Tony Bennett received after the defeat was from Wright. That’s a whole different level of class.

And then there’s John Beilein, long considered one of the best coaches in the sport. After Michigan got run off the floor by Villanova in the title game, Beilein showed a certain amount of joy in the post game pressers, relishing about how this was a time of celebration for the team because of all that they accomplished during the season. This article from 2017 highlighted Beilein as the coach who runs his program the right way, according to his peers. These are two of the more upstanding men in college basketball, so it’s only fitting that Wright and Beilein were the last two standing after a tumultuous season of scandal.

The ugliness isn’t done in college basketball. As I detailed in this column a few weeks ago, the tarnishing of reputations is still to come. Yet, for three weeks, we were able to forget about the FBI and the scandals. We were able to sit and watch basketball at its purest form. We had the pleasure of seeing the good guys win, the little programs thrive, and the gentleman of the sport compete for a title. In a season with a lot of disappointing headlines, March Madness somehow managed to be the light at the end of the tunnel once again.

Gray’s Top 10

  1. Villanova
  2. Michigan
  3. Kansas
  4. Loyola-Chicago
  5. Duke
  6. Texas Tech
  7. Xavier
  8. Virginia
  9. Purdue
  10. Michigan State

How do you compile the Top Ten after an NCAA Tournament where so many wild things happened? You trust your gut, take the tourney into account, but don’t forget what happened in the regular season. As I always do, the Final Four teams take the top four spots. Congratulations to Loyola-Chicago, who will be back. They have a good amount of talent returning next year, so this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Ramblers. Duke comes in at five because of their talent and the fact that they probably should’ve been in the Final Four themselves (I still don’t know how Grayson Allen’s show didn’t go down). Texas Tech provided a stiff challenge to Villanova, which helps them earn the six spot.

The two number one seeds that couldn’t, Xavier and Virginia, come in at seven and eight respectively because of their entire body of work. After that? I don’t know. I threw in Purdue because I was really impressed that they still made the Sweet Sixteen despite losing Isaac Haas. Michigan State gets included because of their overall body of work, although that loss to Syracuse was certainly embarrassing. In the end, though, the best team won the championship, which is something we don’t often say in college basketball.

 

Random Rankings

The rankings aren’t totally random this week. With this Final Four completed, I’ve now attended the event twelve times in my life. That means a lot of traveling to different cities. I’ve seen Final Fours in San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Houston, Atlanta, and St. Louis, so I thought I’d use this spot to rank my favorite Final Four cities. This takes everything into account–food (mainly), venue, traffic, etc. *Usual Disclaimer*: once Random Rankings are posted, they aren’t changing. So if you’re one of the buffoons who would put Phoenix near the top of the list, you probably haven’t been to a major sporting event there.

 

1. Indianapolis

I’ll admit that a huge reason why Indianapolis claims the top spot is St. Elmo Steak House. I mean, come on. That shrimp cocktail is legendary. After going there a few years ago, I even had some of that famous cocktail sauce shipped to me at Woodberry. It’s fantastic. I love the venue as well, and the city has a great feel to it. Indy is also very easy to maneuver around, which makes traveling to Bracket Town or to the concerts very manageable. The hotel choices are a little behind the competition here, but on their own they’re quite nice. All in all, I love Indianapolis, and it’s easily my favorite Final Four spot.

2. Houston

Another city carried by food. I love everything about Houston, but Eddie V’s puts it over the top. Eddie V’s is my favorite restaurant in the entire world, and seeing Houston on the calendar gets me excited for some quality lobster bisque. The city is pretty easy to move around in, and I have friends in town that I can hang out with during my visit. NRG Stadium can be very difficult to get into because they haven’t mastered how to deal with the crowds, but once inside the venue is spectacular. Houston is a sturdy number two choice.

3. San Antonio

Mexican food, the Riverwalk, and a stadium with essentially no lines? Sign me up! I had a great time in 2008, and that excellence was replicated this past year. Foot traffic downtown was a bit of a mess, and finding an Uber to leave that congested area was a disaster, but I don’t have much to complain about. La Cantera was an excellent hotel, too…despite the fire alarm problems.

4. New Orleans

New Orleans is my favorite city to visit anyway because there’s so much to do when you’re not at the games. I don’t love the Superdome as a place to watch basketball, and getting in is a nightmare, but the city is too spectacular to not be included in this top five. There’s just always something to entertain you here, plus the food is amazing.

5. Dallas

Dallas takes the final spot because of personal reasons. First, visiting Big D means I get to see lots of family. Most of my relatives live in Texas, so this trip always means stopping by the grandparents’ house or eating dinner with the cousins. I have lots of friends in Dallas too, and it’s always great to see them at this event. Lastly, this is where I first met Bill Raftery, one of my broadcasting heroes. He was very nice and genuine, and even agreed to come on my radio show once basketball season ended. I have a lot of good memories from Dallas, and those memories merit inclusion in these rankings.

Gray’s SEC Corner

So, the SEC had a great season up until day two of the NCAA Tournament when suddenly everybody decided to lose. While not having a single team make it past the Sweet Sixteen is a disappointment, you’re a fool if you think this conference isn’t on the rise. A big part of that is coaching. The quality of coaches top to bottom is undoubtedly good, and I genuinely think it’s the best in the country for any conference. With some new folks joining the It Just Means More Family, I thought I’d include my rankings for the SEC basketball coaches going into next season. Disagree with a spot? Tweet me and let me know why I’m an idiot.

14. Billy Kennedy–Texas A&M

There are a few reasons why I have Kennedy at the bottom that you can ask me about in person, but for now I’ll just point to the Sweet Sixteen game against Michigan. Texas A&M got out-coached, and Kennedy didn’t make any adjustments until the game was well out of hand. This team was a top five squad at one time, and yet didn’t win a conference game until the middle of January (on my birthday, fun fact). That’s pretty much all you need to know.

13. Bryce Drew–Vanderbilt

Here’s where it gets hard. I think Bryce Drew is a really good coach, and he has a top-ten class coming in next season. That being said, this year was a disappointment. Vanderbilt had a tournament-level roster, yet never really sniffed .500. Sure, they won some big games against good teams, but all-in-all this year was a failure for Drew. Considering that in his first season he lost sixteen games, here’s to hoping the 2018-2019 campaign can be a little more consistent for the Commodores.

12. Will Wade–LSU

Will Wade is a good coach, this I do not doubt. LSU performed well above expectations this year too, which should be commended. The Tigers also have a top-five recruiting class coming in, so the future is bright as well. However, we simply don’t have a big enough sample size of Wade at a big-time level to move him out of the basement.

11. Kermit Davis–Ole Miss

Kermit Davis had success to Middle Tennessee, but most of it came in recent years. People forget that he’s been a Blue Raider since 2002. In his sixteen seasons, Davis only made the NCAA Tournament three times, and twice in the last three years. Let’s see if he can build success and then sustain it in Oxford.

10. Mike Anderson–Arkansas

Arkansas should be consistently better and Anderson should be higher, but neither are true. Why? I don’t have an answer to this question, but I think we’ll find out just how good of a coach Mike Anderson is next year. Daniel Gafford is coming back, but a lot of pieces are leaving. If Arkansas is in the top four of the league next season, that’ll be an unbelievable year for the Razorbacks.

9. Cuonzo Martin–Missouri

7-9 are interchangeable, but I’ve got Martin in this spot because I just can’t get a read on him. He’s never been in a place long enough to build a consistent program. In his best year at California, Martin’s team lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Hawaii. While he should be commended for the job he did this season getting the Tigers to the tournament without Michael Porter, Jr., I just can’t move him up above any of the other coaches on this list quite yet.

8. Avery Johnson–Alabama

So far, Johnson has been all hype with median results. This year, he led Alabama to its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2012, which is a big accomplishment. He’s brought in great recruits like Collin Sexton and he has the Alabama fan base excited about basketball once again. Despite this, Johnson hasn’t been able to break past the inconsistent history of Crimson Tide basketball. This program is known for poor offensive, odd losing streaks, and an inability to play well for an extended amount of time. With everybody coming back next year (maybe even Sexton?), Alabama fans will finally be able to see if Avery has built a program with some staying power in the national spotlight.

7. Mike White–Florida

Another good coach with a good track record so far. White did a superb job getting his Gators to the Elite Eight last season. However, Florida has been marred by inconsistent shooting and poor defense the last few years. If White can steady the ship for an entire year, he’ll shoot up the rankings.

6. Bruce Pearl–Auburn

In terms of getting the most out of his players, Pearl might be the best in this conference. However, he’s never made a Final Four; all five men above him have done that at some point in their careers. Pearl also gets docked because of the FBI investigation. While it appears that he’s okay as of today, that could change at any point in the next few months.

5. Ben Howland–Mississippi State

Howland is off to a slower start in his first three seasons in Starkville, but there’s no denying that the Bulldog program is improving. Next year’s team figures to be a contender for an NCAA Tournament bid. When you take into account his work at UCLA, Howland is an obvious top five choice.

4. Tom Crean–Georgia

Crean has had lots of success at different places. He got Marquette to a Final Four and had some quality teams at Indiana. He was able to rebuild the Hoosier program, but was let go after one bad season. He’s an immediate upgrade at Georgia, and I’m expecting success to come to Athens very quickly.

3. Frank Martin–South Carolina

Frank Martin’s Final Four run marks him as one of the best in the league considering the talent that he brought in for that team and how he was able to get that squad to play so well together in the tournament. Last season was a rebuilding year, so he can’t be docked for that, but another tough season in Columbia could move him down. Also, you can’t ignore his success at Kansas State.

2. John Calipari–Kentucky

Here’s where I expect some flack. John Calipari is a fantastic recruiter, but I’m not sure how good of a coach he’s proven to be. Most of his teams come into the year with national championship expectations because of talent, and yet Coach Cal only has one title to his name. As a coach, though, I still have some qualms. For an example, I’ll mention his final play call against Kansas State. He had a timeout to draw up something but, when the ball was inbounded…nobody came to the ball? It looked as if the three players screening for each other were trying to be a distraction so Shai Gillgeous-Alexander could shoot a three. As I watched, I thought, “Seriously? That’s what you draw up?” I feel like there’ve been a lot of these moments for Coach Cal over the years. He’s had lots of success obviously, but I still feel like he needs one more championship before he can be solidified as a hall of famer.

1. Rick Barnes–Tennessee

He’s won everywhere he’s been pretty consistently, all that’s missing is a title. Barnes had perhaps his best coaching job this past year with a Tennessee team that was projected 13th in the SEC during the preseason. The Vols shared the conference title and earned a three seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is a terrific job. Literally everybody is coming back next season, so don’t be shocked if we see Barnes in contention for his first national championship. Barnes is the definition of a good recruiter, great coach. He wins with x’s and o’s and not a lot of five stars (other than some of his uber-talented teams at Texas). His work at Tennessee has been masterful so far.

So…What Now?

Basketball is over, so what do we do now? College baseball is in full swing, and y’all already know about softball (Shameless plug here: Alabama hosts Florida, the best team in the SEC, this weekend in a three-game series. Games are Saturday at noon CT, Sunday at 2 pm CT, and Monday at 6pm. I highly recommend tuning in on TV, or listening to Tom Canterbury and myself at http://praise933.com/listen-live/). The best part about the “off season” is that it doesn’t exist. Something always happens, there are always storylines worth discussing, and the news is rarely quiet. If you’re wondering how you’ll hold on until football starts, fear not. As my father always told me when I first started a network, something always happens, so you’d better be ready. Thanks for following along with The Buzzer-Beater this basketball season. The Hangover will be back this fall, and maybe something will pop up in between.

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