Happy 2012, everyone! Although a few hours late, I feel there's no better way to open the year than by recapping some of the highlights of the one that came before it. So many games, so little space to fit them in. Therefore, we give you the eleven that stood out above the rest over the twelve months that comprised 2011.
11) Rutgers vs. St. John's; Madison Square Garden, March 9, 2011: (Big East Tournament) Mike Rice nearly stole one in the midst of the resurgence put together by the Red Storm; and after an inspired Scarlet Knights rally that started at the beginning of the second half with three consecutive three-pointers from James Beatty, Rutgers had St. John's on the ropes. After Gilvydas Biruta could not hold an inbounds pass, St. John's forward Justin Brownlee stole the ball; but not before traveling, stepping out of bounds, and throwing the ball into the crowd before the final buzzer. Tremendous job by Dave Pasch on the call for ESPN.
10) Ohio State vs. Indiana; Assembly Hall, December 31, 2011: A last-minute entry into this list, as Tom Crean's Hoosiers knocked off the second-ranked Buckeyes just three days after losing their Big Ten opener against Michigan State. In a game that truly went down to the wire featuring one run after another, Indiana proved once and for all that they are back among college basketball's elite. There isn't any video of the game yet, so I've enclosed Tom Crean's press conference instead.
9) Villanova vs. Rutgers; Louis Brown Athletic Center, February 8, 2011: Mike Rice makes the list again with what could be one of the biggest wins of his career against Jay Wright's Villanova Wildcats. Ranked in the top ten, Villanova was a heavy favorite that looked headed to prevail in a rock fight until the Scarlet Knights' final possession. After James Beatty expertly maneuvered the clock, Jonathan Mitchell drained a three from the right wing while also drawing a foul on Villanova guard Corey Fisher. Mitchell hit the free throw to give Rutgers the one-point victory, which triggered a court rush at the RAC.
8) North Carolina vs. Kentucky; Rupp Arena, December 3, 2011: If not for a loss to UNLV the week before, the Tar Heels would be heading into Lexington as the top-ranked team in the nation. However, it was Big Blue Nation that came into this contest with the top spot; and after a convincing win two days prior against St. John's, John Calipari's young Wildcats held their own against the preseason favorite to win the national championship in what served as a coming-out party for freshman forward Anthony Davis.
7) Harvard vs. Princeton; Whitney Gym, March 12, 2011: The Ivy League is the only conference that does not hold a postseason tournament, yet last year served as a de facto playoff considering Princeton and Harvard entered the last game of the year tied for the Ivy League lead. Looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, the Tigers got it from a buzzer-beating jump shot by Douglas Davis.
6) Rutgers vs. Florida; Louis Brown Athletic Center, December 29, 2011: Mike Rosario's homecoming after he left Piscataway to join Billy Donovan and the Gators turned out to be the introduction of Rutgers guard Eli Carter to the national stage. The freshman scored a career-high 31, including one clutch shot after another, as the Scarlet Knights prevailed in double overtime.
5) Morehead State vs. Louisville; Pepsi Center, March 17, 2011: (NCAA Tournament) The first of many upsets in a year where VCU went to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, courtesy of Morehead State's Demonte Harper. Harper's three from the top of the key gave the Eagles a one-point win over Louisville, prompting Cardinals coach Rick Pitino to offer this analysis the following weekend when he was a guest studio analyst on CBS: "The other coach had a dream, I had a nightmare."
4) Kentucky vs. Indiana; Assembly Hall, December 10, 2011: The game that returned the Hoosiers to national prominence for those who doubted their exodus from the elite college basketball programs in the country. With Indiana down by two, Christian Watford drilled a three-pointer from the left wing for the win in a postgame celebration highlighted by the disbelief on the face of Hoosiers coach Tom Crean.
3) Washington vs. Arizona; Staples Center, March 12, 2011: (Pac-10 Championship) Washington entered the Pac-10 tournament as a bubble team, and left it in the midst of a run to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament courtesy of Isaiah Thomas' stepback mid-range jumper for the win. I'll be honest and say that this game is rated so high mainly because of the final call from the one and only Gus Johnson.
2) Pittsburgh vs. St. John's; Madison Square Garden, February 19, 2011: This game proved that even the most ambivalent of fans could be drawn to St. John's, as the Red Storm knocked off the fourth-ranked Panthers for their fifth win against a Top 25 opponent. In the final seconds, Red Storm guard Dwight Hardy appeared to step on the baseline while driving inside to attempt his reverse layup that gave the Johnnies the 60-59 win; but as the world later found out, he was channeling his "inner Baryshnikov" with a performance coach Steve Lavin likened to Fred Astaire.
1) Connecticut vs. Pittsburgh; Madison Square Garden, March 10, 2011: (Big East Tournament) UConn's Cinderella run to their third national championship would not have been possible if Kemba Walker did not carry the Huskies on his back through the month of March. Walker's true ability was on display in the final seconds here, as his crossover against Pitt center Gary McGhee gave him the advantage he needed to drain a buzzer-beater to send UConn to their third of what would be eleven consecutive wins to end the season.