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Biggest Winners and Losers in NCAA Basketball in 2012

Thad NovakCorrespondent IDecember 26, 2012

Biggest Winners and Losers in NCAA Basketball in 2012

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    With 2012 on its way out, some NCAA basketball luminaries will be sorry to see it go, but others…not so much. From players to coaches to entire conferences, the year has brought some severe highs and lows to the college hoops scene.

    One of the most unexpected winners has been the Mountain West Conference. For most of the calendar year, the league has held the unaccustomed honor of placing three teams in the Top 25, and it currently boasts one of the five remaining undefeated squads in the nation.

    Here is a closer look at the MWC’s banner year and the rest of the most striking ups and downs in the year that was in college hoops.

Winner: Nik Stauskas

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    Nik Stauskas was far from the most heralded member of Michigan’s extraordinary 2012 recruiting class. Now that he’s in Ann Arbor, though, the 6’6” swingman is making the most of his opportunity.

    Stauskas has played his way into a starting job on the No. 2 team in the country, and his scoring punch (13.4 points a night) has a lot to do with the Woverines’ 12-0 record.

    The freshman has done his best work from beyond the arc, shooting a belief-defying .557 on a team-high 61 long-range attempts.

Loser: Baylor

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    After opening the calendar year with a gaudy 13-0 record, Baylor crumbled in Big 12 action. A 12-6 finish in conference play did get a measure of redemption with a solid Elite Eight showing in March, but then the roof fell in.

    The entire starting frontcourt headed to the NBA, and touted recruits Rico Gathers and L.J. Rose failed to beat out workmanlike upperclassmen for playing time.

    Most damagingly, Baylor suffered a trio of early-season defeats against teams it should have beaten. The worst ignominy came from a home loss to the College of Charleston last month, a team that couldn’t even manage a win on its own home floor against Division II Anderson.

Winner: Arnett Moultrie

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    Transfer star Arnett Moultrie finished 2011-12 with 16.4 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, thanks to performances such as his 21-point, 14-board effort in an upset win at Vanderbilt.

    Then, the Mississippi State junior made the smartest decision of his college career: knowing when to end it.

    Moultrie declared for the NBA draft, going to the 76ers in a post-draft trade after being chosen in the late first round. He’s not getting much playing time on Philly’s bench, but at least his team has a fighting chance.

    Mississippi State, in contrast, would’ve been doomed whether Moultrie had stayed or not.

    The losses of Renardo Sidney, Dee Bost and Rodney Hood would have left the Bulldogs in something close to their current 4-6 hole even with the hardworking Moultrie in the pivot.

Loser: Josh Gasser

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    Nobody in the Wisconsin program is any too thrilled with the Badgers’ start in 2012-13. Four early losses, most notably an 18-point blowout at Florida, have dropped Bo Ryan’s team from the Top 25.

    That said, nobody is likely to be feeling the Badgers’ struggles as deeply as Josh Gasser, who can do nothing to help his teammates on the floor.

    Gasser, a would-be junior, suffered a preseason ACL tear that will cost him the entire year.

    Instead of taking over the point guard spot after an apprenticeship under Jordan Taylor, he’s stuck in the role of cheerleader—no matter how badly he and his team wish otherwise.

Winner: ACC

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    The realignment saga in college sports has had plenty of victims, but no one has benefited from it more than the ACC.

    After seeing the Big East usurp its claim to being the country’s top basketball conference, the home of the Tobacco Road powers has fought back in a big way.

    While the ACC had already poached Pitt and Syracuse before 2012 began, it wasn’t done adding Big East star power.

    By bringing in Louisville (in 2014) and Notre Dame, the conference more than made up for Maryland’s defection to the Big Ten and secured its status as the deepest, most powerful hoops league in the college game. 

Loser: North Carolina

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    With its wealth of talent and scoring options, it’s entirely possible that North Carolina could have upset Kentucky in the 2012 national title game.

    We’ll never know, though, because a wrist injury to PG Kendall Marshall played a big part in forcing the Heels out against Kansas in the Elite Eight.

    UNC lost Marshall a second time a few weeks later as he and three other starters headed off to the NBA draft.

    Roy Williams had plenty of talent on the roster ready to replace them, but Carolina’s lack of experience has been a major factor in a lackluster 9-3 start that has ejected it from the Top 25.

Winner: Arizona

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    The first few months of 2012 were rough in Tucson. The struggling Wildcats lost freshman Josiah Turner to suspension (and later transfer) and fell to Bucknell in their NIT opener.

    Help, however, was on the way in spades.

    Sean Miller lured the nation’s No.3 recruiting class, according to Scout.com, and one of the country's top transfers (Mark Lyons) to Arizona.

    The new talent has meshed beautifully with returning standouts Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson, leaving Arizona at 12-0 and ranked third in the country as the year wraps up.

Loser: Pac-12

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    Putting the 2011-12 season in the rear-view mirror is a great idea for the Pac-12. A disastrous campaign for many traditional powers in the conference saw only two Pac-12 representatives in the Big Dance.

    Most egregious was the omission of Washington from the field of 68, making it the only team ever to win the regular-season title in a major conference without getting an NCAA bid.

    Of course, the start of the new season hasn’t been any cakewalk for the league, either. Arizona’s soaring start can’t entirely hide the fact that no other Pac-12 squad has been ranked in the last five AP polls.

Winner: Louisville

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    The Cardinals didn’t exactly get off to a roaring start in 2012, as the January 2 AP poll saw them drop seven spots to No. 11. By season’s end, though, they were the hottest team in college hoops.

    A surprise charge to the Big East tournament title helped Rick Pitino’s squad grab a No. 4 seed in March. They parlayed that position into a Final Four run before bowing out to eventual champion Kentucky.

    Now, with only a hard-fought loss to Duke standing between them and a perfect record, the Cards are right back to No. 4 in the national rankings.

    The key has been one of the surprise stars of the new season: ex-sixth man Russ Smith and his team-high 19.7 points and 2.8 steals per game.

Loser: Myck Kabongo

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    After Myck Kabongo helped Texas rally from a 3-6 conference start to make the NCAA tournament, it looked like the then-freshman point guard was in for a terrific year.

    As it turned out, though, Kabongo had much bigger problems than merely adjusting to the slew of recruits who joined the Longhorns frontcourt over the offseason.

    The sophomore PG has yet to play in 2012-13, as he serves an NCAA suspension that will cost him 23 games.

    By the time he’s paid his penalty for benefits violations, it will be the Texas lineup that must adjust to him in the middle of its Big 12 schedule in February.

Winner: Mountain West

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    When longtime powerhouse Utah departed for the Pac-12, the Mountain West might well have been predicted to lose ground in the race for national prominence. Instead, the league spent 2012 proving that it’s still among the top mid-majors in the country.

    The MWC tied a league record with four NCAA bids in March, including ranked programs at New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV.

    That trio has spent plenty of time in the Top 25 again this season, and it’s gotten some unexpected company at the top of the standings.

    Wyoming, which hasn’t made the Big Dance in a decade, is 12-0 to start 2012-13. The Cowboys are one of just five unbeatens left in the country, though that still hasn’t earned them a Top 25 spot as of yet.

Loser: Memphis

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    Memphis’ year didn’t waste any time in heading south.

    A mid-January ankle injury to Adonis Thomas helped lead to three upset losses in Conference USA action. Saddled with a No. 8 seed, the Tigers then bowed out in their NCAA tournament opener against St. Louis.

    The end of last season didn’t end Memphis’ troubles, as star Will Barton jumped to the NBA. Then, after claiming a spot in the preseason Top 25, Josh Pastner’s team proceeded to drop two of its first four games to unranked foes.

    2013 isn’t likely to get off to a much rosier start, as the unranked Tigers open the year with their first true road game against a tough Tennessee squad.

Winner: John Calipari

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    As glad as Kentucky and its fans were to see the national championship return to Lexington, no one was happier to earn the title than coach John Calipari.

    The victory brought validation to his strategy of “recruit first and ask questions later” as he guided three freshmen and two sophomores to a remarkably easy run through the field of 68.

    Although his new batch of Wildcats has faced some growing pains in 2012-13, Calipari is still in position to have the last laugh.

    His top-ranked recruiting class, led by defensive whiz Nerlens Noel, is starting to work out the kinks and will be a serious factor in SEC play in the new year.

Loser: Ben Howland

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    Ben Howland guided UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours, but that was four years ago. For his struggles in the last two, the once-revered coach has weathered a crescendo of calls for his ouster in Westwood.

    The trouble began in late 2011 with the Bruins’ disastrous start, but it reached a focal point this February.

    A Sports Illustrated report painted Howland as a coach who had lost control of his ego-driven players. UCLA’s continued on-court floundering didn’t do anything to dispel the idea.

    Worse yet, Howland has continued losing in the 2012-13 season despite a massive influx of star-caliber players.

    The 9-3 Bruins have put up some impressive individual numbers, but a home loss to Cal Poly proved beyond any doubt that this unranked team is not ready for prime time.

Winner: Mason Plumlee

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    By the time the 2011-12 season ended, Mason Plumlee had plenty of reason to consider leaving Duke for the NBA.

    His Blue Devils had suffered a humiliating loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh, and they were losing freshman star Austin Rivers (along with Plumlee’s brother Miles) to the NBA.

    Instead, the middle Plumlee sibling stayed for his senior year in Durham, a decision that has given him nothing but positive results.

    He’s led Duke to an 11-0 record (against a fearsome schedule) and the No. 1 ranking in the country while jumping into the lead in the race for the Wooden Award.

    Plumlee’s leap from 11.1 to 19.3 points per game (along with his 11.5 boards a night) isn’t hurting his NBA draft standing, either.

Loser: Big East

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    It’s amazing to think that it’s been less than two years since the Big East set a record with 11 teams in the NCAA tournament.

    The conference survived one round of realignment losses in 2011—including the departures of Syracuse and Pitt—but 2012 cut far deeper into the core of the league.

    Rutgers inexplicably headed to the Big Ten, while Louisville and Notre Dame jumped to the hoops-rich ACC. That exodus set up the real killing blow: the en-masse exit of the seven Catholic schools of the conference who don't play FBS football.

    By the time all the departing teams are gone, only one founding member of the Big East (UConn) will be left in the gutted league.

Winner: Michael Carter-Williams

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    A number of the Big East’s highest-profile newcomers—Nurideen Lindsey, Khem Birch—transferred right back out again in 2011-12. Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams, though, stuck out a season on the bench, and he’s now reaping the rewards.

    Scoop Jardine’s graduation handed the starting PG spot to now-sophomore Carter-Williams, who has run with it in a big way. He has the ninth-ranked Orange off to a 10-1 start, but it’s his individual numbers that are really turning heads.

    Carter-Williams leads the country in assists (10.3 a game) and ranks third in steals (3.4 a night). His passing performance has him on pace for the fifth-best assist average in NCAA history.

Loser: Michael Dixon Jr.

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    A productive sixth man on Missouri’s 30-win 2011-12 squad, Michael Dixon Jr. couldn’t save the Tigers from an embarrassing loss to 15th-seeded Norfolk State in March.

    Then, his year really started to go downhill.

    Coach Frank Haith suspended Dixon for academic troubles to start the season. While the senior guard was on the shelf, documentation surfaced that over the summer, he’d been accused of rape for the second time in his college career.

    The whole mess ended with Dixon’s November decision to transfer away from Mizzou, a miserable ending to what could have been a great senior season.

Winner: John Groce

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    When the year began, John Groce was a moderately successful and largely unknown coach at an unremarkable mid-major program.

    Then, his 13th-seeded Ohio Bobcats stunned fourth-seeded Michigan and took mighty North Carolina to overtime in a Cinderella Sweet 16 run.

    That postseason glory couldn’t have come at a better time for Groce, as coach-hungry Illinois immediately snapped him up.

    Despite taking over a team whose best player (Meyers Leonard) had just left for the NBA, Groce continued his brilliant year without missing a beat.

    Unranked when the season began, Groce’s Illini ripped off 12 straight wins before falling to No. 12 Missouri on Saturday. That run included a Maui Invitational championship and a road victory at the then-10th-ranked team in the country, Gonzaga.

Loser: UConn

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    No program in college hoops saw as many things go wrong in as many different ways this year as the UConn Huskies.

    After entering 2012 with a 12-1 record, UConn collapsed in Big East play, falling to 20-13 before getting thumped in its NCAA tournament opener by Iowa State.

    Barely a month later, the Huskies were barred from the 2013 postseason due to poor academic performance.

    In September—after the postseason ban had triggered a flood of NBA defections and transfers—Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired after 26 years in Storrs.

    The coup de grace came when the Big East lost 10 more schools to realignment in a matter of weeks. The defections left the Huskies as one of the last scraps of flesh clinging to the skeleton of a basketball power.

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