Commentary

Time to play the "What if?" game

Originally Published: April 20, 2010
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

The 2009-10 college basketball season is behind us. We're in the process of figuring out which underclassmen will return to school, which will stick in the NBA draft and where the remaining crop of big-time recruits will play their potentially short college careers.

But before we bury the 2009-10 season into the annals of history, let's drag through it once more and comb for the best historical hypotheticals -- or what-ifs, if you prefer.

With apologies to ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, here are a few of the biggest what-ifs of 2009-10. What if Dewey did defeat Truman? Let's find out, college hoops-style:

What if Kentucky didn't fire Billy Gillispie?

Kentucky's decision to fire Gillispie in March 2009 qualifies as the biggest moment of the 2009 offseason. Say UK decides to give Gillispie another year to straighten things out. While Billy Clyde tries to get his life on track, Memphis coach John Calipari stays with the Tigers and takes the Derrick Rose-related sanctions on the chin or, fearing NCAA penalties, leaves to fulfill his NBA dreams yet again.

The Wildcats don't land DeMarcus Cousins or Eric Bledsoe, instead getting the solid but unspectacular recruiting class Gillispie put together before his dismissal. With Patrick Patterson, the Cats maybe make the NCAA tournament; if not, Kentucky goes looking for its coach this year.

If he chooses the Memphis route, Calipari is still a viable candidate but not nearly as viable as before the Rose eligibility fracas. There's a reason Calipari wasn't hired over Gillispie before any of this started, and some Kentucky boosters don't want to sink their money into a guy coming off an eligibility incident, direct implication or not. Eventually, UK goes in a different direction, and the Calipari era is over before it begins.

John Wall
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesWith Billy Gillispie still around, UK fans wouldn't have been treated to John Wall this past season.

Before that, though, John Wall eschews Big Blue Country and recently penalized Memphis. Instead, he follows his AAU coach, Dwon Clifton, who was hired by Scott Drew during Wall's recruitment, to Baylor. (For more John Wall what-ifs, read this fun story from SB Nation's Andrew Sharp.)

Wall's arrival gives the Bears a head-shakingly disgusting starting five of Wall, Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn (both of whom see so many Wall-created open looks that they can barely believe it) Quincy Acy and Ekpe Udoh. By midseason, the Baylor Bears are a legitimate threat to unseat Kansas at the top of the Big 12 and enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. If they play Duke, they probably don't lose. Drew's career leaps into the stratosphere, not that it hasn't already. Tennessee wins the SEC, which has a down year almost as bad as the Pac-10's. All because Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart decided that Gillispie deserved a fourth year to try to stem the school's sudden proclivity for the NIT. How compassionate.

What if there were no one-and-done players?

The old "LeBron James would still be playing for Ohio State!" hypothetical is a pretty obvious one, but let's add a caveat: Say the NBA amends its collective bargaining agreement to rule that players have to be 20 years old or have two years after high school before they can enter the NBA draft. This turns the infamous one-and-done into a two-and-done.

And this is how that rule changes the 2009-10 season: Jrue Holiday stays at UCLA, where he helps stem the tide of the program's worst year in God knows how long. Center B.J. Mullens stays at Ohio State, where he develops into a reliable low-post threat and a defensive stalwart for an OSU team that would be a credible threat to win the NCAA title without him. Tyreke Evans stays at Memphis and carries the Tigers into the NCAA tournament. And despite all the Tim Floyd mess, DeMar DeRozan has to stick it out at USC.

Ohio State is the real kicker here because Mullens was getting better and better in the latter half of his freshman season in Columbus. Can you imagine this season's Ohio State team -- with national player of the year Evan Turner and the rest of the crew -- adding an improved Mullens to the mix? Yeesh.

What if Tim Floyd's (alleged) handshake never happened?

Of course, Floyd argues that his alleged $1,000 handshake with O.J. Mayo handler Robert Guillory didn't happen, but it doesn't matter -- the aftermath did. Floyd resigned from USC, and athletic director Mike Garrett self-penalized the basketball team in the hopes of preserving the football program's safety from NCAA regulators.

So what if the Yahoo! Sports story that implicated Floyd was never published? Floyd stays at USC. Prized frontcourt recruits Noel Johnson and Derrick Williams stay in Los Angeles. Kevin O'Neill remains an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Trojans likely avoid the morass of trouble that beset their 2009-10 season and, on the strength of their recruiting class and senior transfer Mike Gerrity, make the NCAA tournament in a weak Pac-10.

What if Renardo Sidney were eligible?

This is a tricky one, because Sidney could have affected the fortunes of either UCLA or USC if his original recruitment had held up to the NCAA's standards. Sidney was committed to USC before his scholarship offer was rescinded. Had Sidney been eligible, he likely would have been a Trojan. Failing that, though, Mississippi State took the final risk on Sidney's eligibility, hoping against hope that the Mississippi native would be eligible in time to help Jarvis Varnado form one of the best frontcourts in the country.

If Sidney is eligible for the Bulldogs, MSU challenges Vanderbilt and Tennessee in the SEC's second tier, just below Kentucky, and is uniquely positioned to beat UK in the two very close games the Bulldogs play with the Wildcats this season. Mississippi State wins one of those games and gets into the NCAA tournament. Simple enough.

[+] EnlargeRobbie Hummel
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireWith a healthy Hummel, would Purdue have joined Butler as local Final Four favorites in Indy?

What if Robbie Hummel didn't get hurt?

It's easy to say that Purdue still would have had a difficult time with Duke if Hummel were in the lineup, but with Hummel in the lineup for the backstretch of the season, Purdue doesn't get a No. 4 seed in the South and doesn't have to play Duke in the Sweet 16. In fact, Purdue almost certainly notches a No. 1 seed -- Syracuse's, given the committee's claim that Duke was the third-rated 1-seed in the tournament -- and the Boilermakers play in the West Regional, where they meet home-state rival Butler in the Sweet 16.

Or Butler makes its historic run in one bracket and Purdue does its thing in the other, and they meet in the Final Four -- or, better yet, the NCAA final, triggering a spontaneous, communal head-explosion syndrome up and down the state of Indiana. (Hoosiers fans, whose heads would be exploding less from joy than from pure disbelief, surely would join in.)

Whatever the scenario, Purdue makes a run at the Final Four with Hummel in the lineup. This is about as easy as historical hypotheticals get. Sorry to bring it up, Purdue fans. No psychological harm intended.

What if Gordon Hayward had his growth spurt earlier?

When Hayward was a high school freshman in Brownsburg, Ind., he stood 5-foot-11. Hayward has said that he "looked at the future and figured playing basketball in college wasn't realistic." Most college coaches would have agreed. But then Hayward caught some divine luck, sprouting from 5-11 to 6-7 by his junior year, then to 6-8 by his senior year. This changed Hayward's life in two major ways:

1. Because of his height, Hayward grew up playing guard, learning to dribble and shoot as any good guard shorter than 6 feet must do. By the time he grew, Hayward still had all the guard skills, making him an enticingly versatile NBA prospect. If Hayward had experienced his growth spurt earlier, he might have spent a lifetime learning the ins and outs of the post game only to realize he wasn't tall enough to make that game work on the next level.

2. But if Hayward manages to learn guard skills with an earlier growth spurt, his whole recruiting life is different. Hayward was a three-star recruit coming out of school, a good-but-not-great player whom most big-time programs -- which don't pay much attention to random three-star recruits from small towns in central Indiana -- ignored. If Hayward starts to show his versatility just a little earlier in his career, he becomes a name prospect in a state associated with name prospects, his entire recruitment shoots into elite territory and Butler's chances of keeping him near Indianapolis get much, much smaller.

Without either of those things, Butler doesn't make it to the NCAA title game, Hayward's star isn't born and our main memory of the 2009-10 season -- the Butler Bulldogs -- vanishes into the annals of history. Butler fans will be glad this is just a hypothetical.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.