Commentary

It's time to play the "What if?" game

Originally Published: April 20, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

In the 1960s, an American philosopher named Richard Taylor made his colleagues weak in the knees. His paper, "Fatalism" -- which would achieve renewed renown as the subject of beloved late author David Foster Wallace's undergraduate thesis -- made a disconcertingly logical argument. Given the apparent choice of fighting or not fighting in a battle, a naval captain cannot actually choose to do anything other than what he would have done the following day.

Surely, Pittsburgh forward Nasir Robinson can relate.

[+] EnlargeButler/Pitt
AP Photo/Alex BrandonCould Pitt have finally broken through to the Final Four if not for an ill-timed foul against Butler?

Robinson's last-second foul of Matt Howard in Pitt's Round of 32 loss to Butler was one of the great what-if moments of the 2010-11 season. It cost the top-seeded Panthers a chance to advance deep into the NCAA tournament. It helped propel Butler to the Final Four. And it branded Robinson as "That Guy" -- the guy in the wrong place at the right time with the best of intentions and the devastating timing.

What if Robinson doesn't foul? What if Pittsburgh wins that game? Well & what if?

Of course, as he tearfully admitted after the game ("I've been playing this game too long to make a dumb mistake like that," Robinson said) the Pitt forward had plenty of agency in the matter. That's why Taylor's argument, coolly logical though it may be, has since been deconstructed by Wallace and others in ways that are far too complicated for this humble hoops writer to untangle.

The bottom line, however, is simple: choice matters. Decisions count. And sure, luck plays a part. But whether we're discussing battle on the high seas or the last few seconds of a CAA conference tournament quarterfinal versus Drexel, a myriad of possible historical outcomes is always just a split-second away.

In fact, there were just as many "what-ifs" as outcomes in college hoops this season. That is how what-ifs work, after all. In other words, there isn't room to get to every possible scenario, including "What if Enes Kanter had been eligible?" and "What if Jimmer Fredette had overwhelmed scouts last spring and stayed in the NBA draft?" In the former, Kentucky might have been your national champ. In the latter, Fredette would have lost out on player of the year honors, and the legend of Jimmermania would have never risen to 2011's atmospheric heights. For that matter, what becomes of Jimmer's Cougars if Brandon Davies doesn't violate the Honor Code? Does BYU make the elusive first Final Four trip in school history?

None of those scenarios get the full-form treatment below, but they're just three examples of the countless ways this season could have unfolded. (We're sure you'll have plenty of your own to mention in the comments.)

What if Connecticut had lost to Wichita State?

On Nov. 22, back when Michigan State was still considered a national-title contender, Connecticut traveled to sunny Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. Its first game? A matchup with tough-as-nails, mid-major stalwart Wichita State. We know what happened. Kemba Walker scored 29 of his 31 points in the second half, Connecticut eeked out an 83-79 victory and Walker proceeded to go off in subsequent games against Michigan State and Kentucky on his way to a Maui title and an immediate boost in profile that kept the much-maligned Huskies in the national conversation throughout their unlikely run to the championship in Houston.

But what if Connecticut had lost?

What if Walker hadn't made his pull-up jumper with 41 seconds remaining, a jumper that gave the Huskies a three-point lead and the eventual win? What if UConn hadn't gotten to the free throw line 44 times, as opposed to just 13 for Wichita State?

Connecticut would have gone on to play, and likely beat, Chaminade and Virginia, wins that would have drawn a collective yawn from the college hoops cognoscenti. After Maui, the Huskies coasted to a series of easy wins; their next big victory came in January at Texas. But without any quality wins to that point, does The Kemba Show ever get off the ground? Could Connecticut have overcome its midseason Big East swoon? Maybe. Maybe not. But there's no question the 3-0 week in Maui set the Huskies on a path they might never have trod had they failed to hold on to a nail-biting win on Nov. 22.

And yes, the game meant nearly as much to the Shockers. With a win, Wichita State would have been the team taking a crack at Michigan State and then either Kentucky or Washington, and those games may have been enough to get Gregg Marshall's team an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. Even with a 1-2 record, the boost in RPI and strength of schedule -- and that sparkling win over UConn -- might've been enough to give the Shockers the advantage over, say, UAB on Selection Sunday.

Instead, WSU was left to plow through the postseason NIT en route to a championship at Madison Square Garden. If given the chance, could Wichita State have made a Butler/VCU-like run in the NCAA tournament? Thanks to a November game on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we'll never know.

What if Kyrie Irving never hurt his toe?

Kyrie Irving
Andrew Synowiez/US PresswireWe'll never really know just how good Irving could've been at Duke.

Ah, to the question that will haunt Duke fans for & well, until Duke wins another national title. One thing's for sure: savekyriestoe.com would never have seen the pixelated light of day.

There's nothing that proves the freak toe injury Kyrie Irving suffered Dec. 4 versus Butler would have made the Blue Devils national champions. After all, Duke was one of the most efficient teams in the country with and without Irving. By the time senior guard Nolan Smith adjusted to his newfound do-it-all role in the Duke offense, the Blue Devils were in many ways as fearsome as any team in the country. Plus, Duke's blowout loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16 had far less to do with Irving and far more to do with a dominating offensive performance from Derrick Williams and the Wildcats.

But the limited action we did see from Irving, including dominating performances against Kansas State and Michigan State, among others, suggests that Duke would have been an even more imposing force throughout the college hoops season had Irving been carving opposing defenses alongside Smith throughout the year. Moreover, Duke wouldn't have faced the unenviable (OK, so it's a little bit enviable) task of reasserting a star guard into a recalibrated lineup at the most important time in its season.

What if the Devils had an entire season to prime for the tournament with Irving in the lineup? Duke fans will always wonder.

What if Howard hadn't snuck to the rim against ODU? What if Gordon Hayward hadn't gone pro?

We discussed Robinson's unfortunate mistake, the one that gave Butler forward Howard a chance at game-winning free throws with less a second remaining. But that wasn't the first bit of magic Howard and the Bulldogs had engineered in March. Two days earlier, Butler had played a tooth-and-nail Round of 64 game with Old Dominion, one in which neither team ever led by more than five points and one that was decided by Howard's last-second, scramble tip-in as time expired.

What if ODU had kept Howard off the glass? Old Dominion -- a team that clearly proved Butler's equal on that Thursday afternoon, and one which was the far better team over the course of the regular season -- may have won that game in overtime, setting up the chance for its own unlikely run through the NCAA tournament. And maybe, just maybe, an all-CAA national semifinal with VCU.

Instead, Butler made that run, eventually falling in the national title game in the most painful way possible. The Bulldogs played their worst offensive game of the season -- and one of the worst in NCAA tournament history -- scoring 41 points on 12-of-64 (yes, 12-of-64) shooting. In the end, Butler couldn't match UConn's length and athleticism around the rim.

Which, of course, begs the question: What if Hayward hadn't gone pro?

Hayward's importance to the Bulldogs can't be overstated -- Butler was not the same team in 2010-11 -- but his blend of athleticism and range would have been especially vital in a game against the longer, more athletic Huskies. Instead, Hayward is finishing his trademark slashes to the rim (and impressively so) against NBA defenders for the Utah Jazz, and the Bulldogs are left to wonder what may have been if Hayward, who nearly won the 2010 title on a last-second, half-court heave, would have stuck around for Version 2.0.

What if Drexel had doubled down on Jamie Skeen?

[+] EnlargeVCU/Drexel
AP Photo/Scott K. BrownWithout Skeen's buzzer-beater in the CAA tourney, VCU would've been just another NIT team.

Hey, remember Virginia Commonwealth? You know, the team that somehow -- somehow! -- beat USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to go from the First Four to the Final Four after the NCAA tournament committee somehow -- somehow! -- decided to include the Rams over arguably more deserving teams such as Colorado and Virginia Tech?

It was the most statistically improbable Final Four run in the history of the tournament. And it almost didn't happen.

On March 5, in the CAA tournament quarterfinals, VCU was still looking like the VCU that lost its final four regular-season conference games. The Rams had led Drexel for much of the second half, but with 28 seconds left Dragons guard Chris Fouch hit a 3-pointer that cut VCU's lead to one. On the next possession, Fouch struck again from a nearly identical spot on the right wing, tying the game at 60 with 18.3 seconds left to play.

Shaka Smart called timeout. In the huddle, he devised a play to get versatile forward Skeen the ball on the right wing, where Skeen did what Skeen does -- dribble, pivot, turn and finish. His shot came as time expired. It fell through the rim. VCU moved on.

If you watch the play again, you'll notice that Drexel -- possibly afraid of Skeen's intuitive passing chops or worried about allowing a tip-in to an open rebounder -- chose not to double-team the VCU big man in the post. With just a few seconds remaining, the Dragons might have been able to prolong the game, or at least force a foul and free throws, had they run a nearby defender over to help prevent Skeen from turning back to his right side and getting the easy post finish.

Instead, the shot came off clean. VCU advanced. The Rams lost to Old Dominion in the CAA championship game, but they earned a spot in the NCAA tournament -- a spot they would have never received had they not ended up in the CAA finals.

The rest, as they say, is history.

What if Roy Williams had stuck with Larry Drew II?

As late as mid-January, the North Carolina Tar Heels -- a year removed from a stunning trip to the NIT -- were off to another ignominious start. Harrison Barnes, the first freshman to be named a preseason All-American, looked timid and unprepared. On Jan. 16, UNC was drubbed 78-58 at Georgia Tech. Williams found his team in an offensive rut. He found himself angrily chiding his radio show callers to keep their negativity to themselves. Things were not going as planned.

Then, Williams made a decision that would define his team's season. He benched much-maligned point guard Drew and inserted promising freshman Kendall Marshall into his starting lineup. The change was almost immediate. Marshall proved far more adept at running his team's offense, and his intuitive distribution -- light-years ahead of Drew's more indecisive style -- unleashed the talented Tar Heels' frontcourt of Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller.

That decision did not come easy, as evidenced by Drew's departure from the team soon thereafter; Williams may have had some inkling that Drew's displeasure with the change would cause a rift in the fabric of his team. If Williams had avoided that discomfort and stuck with his starter, the Tar Heels would have never realized their potential. Instead, Barnes became the beast we all expected, Henson and Zeller dominated around the rim and UNC rolled to 17 wins in its last 20 games on the way to an ACC regular-season title and an Elite Eight appearance.

Williams also found the point guard of his future. Barnes, Henson and Zeller will all return beside Marshall in 2011-12, and the future has never looked so bright. No one could have imagined that on Jan. 16.

[+] EnlargeRobbie Hummel
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireWould Purdue have bowed out in the second round if all three of these players had been in uniform?

What if Robbie Hummel hadn't gotten hurt?

Your humble writer hates to do this to Purdue fans, who have suffered enough already. After all, this exact same question was asked in last year's version of the "what-ifs." But as long as we're talking about difference-makers for Indiana-based title hopefuls & well, it's just impossible to ignore the what-ifs at work if Hummel hadn't suffered his second ACL tear during Purdue's first full practice back in October. The Boilermakers acquitted themselves well without their versatile stretch forward. Defensively brilliant as usual, they challenged Ohio State for the Big Ten title and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament anyway.

Still, therein lies the disappointment. Knowing what we know now -- that Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith would emerge as efficient complementary scorers, that JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore would log All-American-worthy seasons -- it's hard to argue that Purdue wouldn't have been every bit as good as Ohio State. Or anyone else in the country, for that matter.

Instead, what could have been, well, wasn't. For the first 21 years of his life, the tiny, tensile bits of human knee tissue in Hummel's leg -- just a few ounces of material in the mind-blowingly complex system that is the human body -- had performed their miraculous functions to perfection. Then, for the second time in seven months, those tiny bits ripped. Purdue's season, one that began with anticipation, hope and the promise of cathartic joy, was ripped right along with them.

In the end, that was the difference. A few ounces of tissue. A few missed shots. A choice made or discarded. National champions or second-round losers. It's a cruel calculus.

But the good news? Your favorite team's what-if -- an alternative history more successful and joyful than the painful reality -- is only ever a split-second away.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can read him Monday through Friday on the College Basketball Nation blog.