The Top 10 Feel-Good Storylines of the 2013-14 NCAA Basketball Season So Far
During a winter that's been abnormally cold and rough for most of the country, it's good to know that college basketball is still a source of warmth and comfort.
The 2013-14 season, although affected at times by winter weather, has for the most part gone off without a hitch. The normally dependable college game has provided those most impacted by the cold with a welcome distraction, and not just in the form of great games and outstanding performances.
There have also been plenty of feel-good stories that can be looked at as beacons of hope and promise, kind of like the first bloom on a tree that's previously stood bare and desolate during the long winter months.
Here's our look at the stories that, like a nice cup of cocoa, have the capability to warm you from the inside.
10. Grambling Snaps Two Skids
Grambling State is about as far from a college basketball powerhouse as you can get. The Tigers entered the week ranked last among 349 Division I teams in the latest RPI rankings, and barring a late run of biblical proportions they won't make their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance this season.
For a program such as Grambling, just getting a win is cause for a massive celebration. And the Tigers have had chance to celebrate in such a manner twice this season, both times ending very long and dubious streaks.
Grambling beat Alcorn State 95-80 on Monday, ending a 45-game losing streak against Division I opponents and a 28-game skid in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. And on Dec. 16, the Tigers' win over NAIA school Central Baptist ended a 32-game overall losing streak.
9. Rick Barnes Has Weathered the Storm
Rick Barnes has had a massively successful career at Texas, winning more than 350 games in 16 seasons that have included a pair of trips to the Elite Eight and at least a share of three Big 12 Conference titles.
But after a 16-18 campaign in 2012-13, which kept the Longhorns out of the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure, the warmth under Barnes' coaching seat was starting to increase.
Not anymore. Instead, as USA Today's Eric Prisbell writes, Barnes might have gone from the heat seat to a strong candidate for national coach of the year honors with how Texas is playing this season. The Longhorns are 19-5 overall and, at 8-3 in the Big 12, trail perennial league champ Kansas by just a game.
Texas already has a home win over Kansas this season, and the teams meet again in Lawrence on Feb. 22.
8. Kevin Ware's (Brief) Comeback
It's an image that all of us who witnessed it live (or foolishly clicked on a link) will never be able to unsee: Kevin Ware's right leg snapping in half as he came down following an attempt at blocking a shot.
The horrifying sight came during Louisville's Elite Eight win over Duke last March, and in the moments immediately afterward there was very little concern about whether Ware would be able to play again. Rather, the worry was if he'd be able to walk properly after such a traumatic injury.
But like something out of a Hollywood screenplay, Ware made his return to live action just more than eight months later when he played in the Cardinals' Nov. 6 exhibition game. Ware went on to play in nine games for Louisville, averaging just less than six minutes per contest (compared to 16.6 minutes per game last season) before he was shut down in late December after lingering pain from the injury became too much.
Though it was disappointing to see Ware stop playing, the fact that he was able to play again so soon after the injury was amazing.
7. Rick Majerus' Legacy Lives on
Rick Majerus was one of college basketball's most successful coaches, not to mention one of the game's most colorful personalities. Known for his outspoken demeanor (and his fondness for sweaters), Majerus was also a master at designing defensive schemes that would drive opposing teams and their coaches mad.
Majerus had brought that defense-first mentality to his final coaching gig at Saint Louis where, prior to taking medical leave before the 2012-13 season, he was turning the Billikens into a defensive force.
Majerus, who died of heart failure in December 2012, coached Saint Louis to the third round of the NCAA tourney in 2011-12, and the team has kept his style alive under protege Jim Crews. The Billikens went to the third round again last season, and at 22-2 this year are one of the nation's biggest surprises.
What isn't surprising, though, is how Saint Louis is winning: with defense, just like Majerus would have wanted. The Billikens are allowing less than 59 points per game, and entered the week ranked 16th nationally in field goal percentage defense (39.0).
6. Cincinnati's Rise to the Top
Cincinnati rose to national prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s under Bob Huggins, who piloted the Bearcats to 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1992 to 2005.
Is hasn't been as wildly successful throughout current coach Mick Cronin's tenure, though Cincinnati has played in three straight NCAA tournaments and reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2011-12.
But this season has seen the Bearcats rise higher than they've been in a decade, getting up to No. 10 in the AP poll prior to the Feb. 8 loss at SMU. But at 22-3 overall and 11-1 in the American Athletic Conference, they're still playing some of the best ball in the country.
Cincinnati was picked to finish fourth in the inaugural AAC, but so far is a combined 3-0 against the teams it was voted behind. That includes wins at Louisville and Memphis.
5. Steve Fisher Can Still Coach
Steve Fisher became head coach at San Diego State in 1999, taking over one of the worst programs in college basketball in a locale as far away from his time at Michigan as possible.
Though he'd won a title with the Wolverines (as interim coach, tabbed as such after the school fired Bill Frieder upon learning of his plan to skip out for a job at Arizona State after the season) and recruited the Fab Five to Ann Arbor, his tenure there was sullied by off-court scandals that cost him his job.
Fisher is still at SDSU, where he's managed to very quietly build one of the best programs in the West, a team that has made the NCAA tournament four straight years and which won 34 games en route to a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2010-11.
But this year might be Fisher's best team, not to mention his best coaching job, as the 68-year-old has the Aztecs sitting at 21-2 and No. 5 in the nation. And though it lost Tuesday night at Wyoming, ending a 20-game win streak, SDSU is still a force to be reckoned with.
Fisher is doing it with a similar style he's had since taking the job 15 years ago: with under-the-radar California recruits and transfers from bigger programs looking for a fresh start. Success is coming as a result of his ability to blend the two factions of players into one cohesive team.
4. Mid-Majors Remain Relevant
The traditional powers of college basketball continue to control the game, as is evidenced by Bleacher Report's latest projection for the NCAA tournament field.
But, just like seemingly every year for the past decade, the teams that come from the so-called mid-major conferences are sure to have their say in how the Big Dance plays out.
This year's crop of strong middle-tier teams appears as good as any in the past, and we're not just talking Wichita State. San Diego State and Saint Louis are also ranked, as are former mid-major (but now de facto "major") teams Creighton and SMU.
Then there's the old standbys in Gonzaga and VCU, which once again both appear poised for solid postseason runs, as well as the likes of Delaware, George Washington, Georgia State, Green Bay, Southern Mississippi and Toledo.
It's never too early to start mentally filling out your brackets, and when you do it's best not to ignore the mid-majors.
3. Doug McDermott Climbs the Charts
Doug McDermott plays basketball in the modern era, but if you didn't know any better you'd think he was playing in the 1950s.
The senior at Creighton is a throwback to the old days of college hoops, an all-out motor of a player who can do it all and continues to get better with each and every game. A coach's son, he signed to play at Northern Iowa before going with his dad to Creighton after Greg McDermott was hired to be the Bluejays' coach.
McDermott averaged 23.2 points per game as a junior last season, but instead of testing the NBA market he came back to school for another year, making him the rarest of all college hoops players: a senior star.
And the move has paid off for both him and Creighton, which is 19-4 and was ranked No. 18 before Monday's loss at St. John's. McDermott's scoring average is up to 25.3 points per game this season, and at 2,798 points for his career he's moved up to 17th on the NCAA career scoring list.
McDermott seems a shoo-in to become the eighth player ever to reach 3,000 career points, and the first since St. Peter's guard Keydren Clark in 2006.
2. Larry Brown Is at It Again
When you've done as much in a career as Larry Brown has, there's really nothing left to prove. But that hasn't stopped the legendary coach from giving it yet another go.
Brown, a Hall of Fame coach who has both an NBA and NCAA title under his belt, has once again worked his magic by quickly turning moribund SMU into a rising power. After a 15-17 season last year, Brown has the Mustangs sitting at 19-5 overall and 8-3 in the American Athletic Conference after many middle-of-the-ground years in Conference USA.
SMU just demolished No. 10 Cincinnati on Monday, and appear almost a lock to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1993.
Brown, who is 73, has a reputation for not staying at a job very long, but for now he's making the most of his latest reclamation project.
1. Wichita State Keeps on Shocking
Its nickname pays homage to the farming traditions of the Great Plains, but in reality Wichita State's moniker could represent what it's done to college basketball the past two seasons.
The aptly named Shockers—meant to describe the process of harvesting, or "shocking" wheat—were the Cinderella of the 2013 NCAA tournament, reaching the Final Four before falling to eventual champion Louisville. But sitting at 26-0 this season, Wichita State can no longer be looked at as a surprise team.
Instead, WSU has to be considered a legitimate program, one that coach Gregg Marshall has risen to the level of Gonzaga in terms of mid-major powers. While not in a marquee league (and with Creighton gone, the Missouri Valley Conference's RPI has dropped from ninth to 11th, according to CBS Sports' Jerry Palm), the Shockers do have some great wins on their resume this year, including over Saint Louis and Tennessee.
And that whole still-unbeaten thing.
As each game goes by, the expectation is that this will be the one Wichita State loses. And then it doesn't. Instead, it just keeps on shocking us.