The first week of 2014 served as a good reminder that college basketball players are amateurs. By that I mean we shouldn’t expect rational outcomes from games played by athletes with varying levels of maturity, raw talent, refined talent, and game experience. Usually, if I see that Kansas is playing San Diego State at home, I think that even though the Aztecs have a good team, Kansas has two top-five picks and hasn’t lost a home nonconference game since the invention of the iPhone, so I assume the Jayhawks will win comfortably.1 It’s easy to forget that even the best teams are made up of young men, which means there’s no telling what’s going on in their heads. Maybe a key player just got dumped by his girlfriend. Maybe he saw Anchorman 2 over Christmas break and can’t get over how bad it was. Maybe a star player is — ha-ha — taking a really tough class and — ha-ha-ha — pours so much effort into his studies that — HA-HA-HA-HA-HA — he loses his edge on the court.
Sure, outside factors bleed onto the court/field in every sport, but this is especially the case in college basketball, where the NBA’s one-and-done rule means that the most talented players on many of the best teams are 18- and 19-year-olds. Chaos inevitably ensues. In the last four days alone, five unranked teams upset ranked teams and two undefeated teams lost. That doesn’t even include Kansas’s nonconference home streak ending or Syracuse and Arizona squeaking by bad Miami and Washington teams at home. If that happens in any other sport, it’s THE CRAZIEST WEEK EVER. In college basketball, it’s just another week.
Of course, “young players have trouble remaining focused” explains how some teams can slip from time to time. What it can’t explain is whatever the hell is happening to North Carolina.
12. San Diego State
Who says the West Coast is soft?
OK, bad question. As it turns out, a lot of people say the West Coast is soft. What I meant is this: Who says San Diego State is soft? Because we need to find those people and take away their right to vote.
Here are the facts: Kansas’s best player (Andrew Wiggins) went 4-for-14 against the Aztecs. Its second-best player (Perry Ellis) went 1-for-8. Its third-best player (Joel Embiid) was in foul trouble all game. The Aztecs went into the most raucous atmosphere in college basketball, held the Jayhawks to under 30 percent shooting, and outrebounded a team whose center might be the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
I could drop the mic right there, but there’s more to love about the Aztecs. Xavier Thames has picked up where Jamaal Franklin left off, Josh Davis is a rebounding machine, and the Aztecs could conceivably go 10 deep. They’re an East Coast team that happens to be on the West Coast and the only hiccup on their record is a nine-point early-season loss to the near-unanimous no. 1 team in the country. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but if you weren’t on the San Diego State bandwagon before, now would be a good time to jump on board.
I’m going to plug my ears before I publish this so the angry screams from Kentucky and all over the Midwest don’t rupture my eardrums: I want so badly for Kentucky to be in the Big Ten. I know, I know. It can never happen because Kentucky is a founding SEC school, not to mention that taking away UK fans’ opportunity to chant “S-E-C” at the TV while Alabama, Auburn, Florida, and LSU win national championships is basically erasing 95 percent of Kentucky’s football tradition. But come on, Kentucky — you suck at football, you’re great at basketball, you fought with the Union in the Civil War, and you get snow in the winter. Not even picking up your pregnant high school sweetheart from her job as a bowling alley bartender, parking your ’95 Thunderbird by a cornfield, and smoking meth until you muster up the courage to tell her you’re sleeping with her sister epitomizes the Big Ten more than that.
A big reason why I want Kentucky in the Big Ten is to keep the “best conference in college basketball” label with my favorite league and away from the ACC. But besides that, this season would be especially perfect for the Cats to be in the Big Ten. Kentucky had an up-and-down nonconference season, capped off by an emphatic win over Louisville. Now it appears as though the Wildcats are on the right track. But how can we be sure? If Missouri stays ranked, Kentucky will only play two ranked teams the rest of the season. What if they lose at Mizzou and at Florida? Their only marquee conference win would end up being at home versus Florida. What are we supposed to make of that? More importantly, what am I supposed to do with Kentucky in my March Madness bracket? Is it too late to scratch Kentucky’s games against Georgia, Auburn, and Mississippi State and schedule Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State instead?
I digress. For now, the Louisville game has me convinced that Kentucky is the national title threat they appeared to be before the season. Assuming Julius Randle isn’t shell-shocked from Russ Smith dunking on him,2 the Wildcats still have the most talented lineup in college basketball. James Young has taken the “best second banana” title from Rodney Hood, Willie Cauley-Stein is filling the rebounder/shot-blocker role perfectly, the Harrison twins are playing extremely well, and even Alex Poythress is contributing in the minutes he’s given. I’m hesitant to power rank the Wildcats any higher than this until I see them consistently play at this level, but right now all signs point to Kentucky being the 4-seed in this year’s tournament that scares the living crap out of 1-seeds as a potential Sweet 16 opponent.
10. Oklahoma State
I’m surprised the rest of the country has yet to notice how easy it is to hate Marcus Smart. Ninety percent of the time I watch him play, I just sit with my mouth gaping, amazed by his versatility and feel for the game. But that other 10 percent is becoming difficult to endure. After a couple of embarrassing flops in Saturday’s game against Kansas State, Wildcat fans started impressive “you’re a flopper” chants that could be heard on TV every time Smart went to the free throw line. Whether these rattled Smart is debatable, but I have a hard time believing that the way he ferociously slapped the backboard after a dunk where he basically tried to put his nuts in the rim wasn’t his way of giving double middle fingers to the K-State crowd. Whatever the case, Smart got called for a tech, which counted as his fourth personal foul and forced him to sit during a crucial part of the game. Oklahoma State had squandered its lead by the time Smart returned, Smart went 0-for-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from the free throw line down the stretch, and the Cowboys lost.
If you’re scoring at home, the common denominator in both of Oklahoma State’s losses is not just that Smart didn’t have great games — it’s that he also reeked of entitlement and seemed more consumed with sending a message than just playing the game. I don’t know what compels him to do this, but it’s becoming the most infuriating part of this college basketball season. The guy oozes talent and he could probably average a triple-double if he wanted, yet he resorts to behavior that you’d only see from annoying middle-aged guys wearing headbands at the Y. The Pokes have plenty of talent around Smart, but now that Michael Cobbins is out for the season with a torn Achilles and Stevie Clark got busted for weed, Smart’s already outsize role has gotten bigger. In other words, this nonsense has to stop.
I would say that Travis Ford needs to grab him by the shirt and slap some sense into him, but Smart would probably just fall to the ground and hold his face before Ford even touched him.
What a couple of weeks it’s been for Villanova. Shoot, the first half of the Syracuse game alone provided more drama than a lot of teams will experience all season. The Wildcats3 humiliated the Orange on their home court for the first nine minutes. Then the wheels fell off. Syracuse opened up a can on Villanova, and by the end of the game an 18-point Villanova lead had been flipped into a 16-point Syracuse win. Some Cuse fans probably changed the channel out of frustration, watched an hour of a random Nic Cage movie on TNT, and couldn’t believe their eyes when they flipped back to the game. Villanova still might not be sure what hit them.
To the Wildcats’ credit, though, they followed the Syracuse collapse with an impressive overtime win at Butler. The Bulldogs aren’t as good as they’ve been in recent years, but history has shown that even when Butler is just decent, ranked teams struggle to win at Hinkle Fieldhouse. And just in case anybody doubted Villanova because it didn’t convincingly beat the Bulldogs, Villanova absolutely destroyed a Providence team that took UMass to overtime.
The Syracuse game proved that Villanova is screwed against good teams if it isn’t hitting 3s. That should come as no surprise, since the Wildcats shoot more 3s per game (26) than any ranked team. But I still expect them to win the Big East relatively easily thanks to their balanced scoring and the fact that sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono is going to catch fire any time now and make the Wildcats even better.
Some have said that the ongoing absence of McDonald’s All American recruit Chris Walker, who is ineligible for academic reasons, might be a good thing for Florida. They say it’s a blessing in disguise because working him into the rotation will disrupt Florida’s chemistry. I disagree entirely. Chemistry is important, sure, but Walker is a future lottery pick. If I had the chance to add him to my team an hour before the national championship, I’d be so ecstatic that I’d turn the locker room into an LMFAO video. Still, if people are suggesting Florida could be better off without Walker, that says all you need to know about how good the Gators are right now.
Florida is the best team in the SEC. It’s 11-2 despite having already played at least five NCAA tournament teams. For weeks, the Gators’ low ranking had me convinced that Ken Gurnick was the only voter in the AP poll. Now, thankfully, Florida is getting the respect it deserves. But it’s still not enough. Florida is rarely mentioned by analysts as a national title threat except when someone says it could be a threat if Walker becomes eligible. Maybe people just go to Florida’s clubhouse page, see that its offensive numbers are awful for a top-ranked team, and assume that Florida isn’t very good. I’m not sure why their numbers look so bad — the Gators have five double-digit scorers and they’re as unselfish and versatile as any team in America. I mean, Ohio State has better stats than Florida in just about every offensive category, but you’d have better luck figuring out the identity of that guy on Reddit with two penises4 than finding someone who believes OSU plays offense better than the Gators.
My point is this: You aren’t sneaking up on anybody, Florida. I won’t let it happen. It’s not fair that you win back-to-back titles less than a decade ago, go to three consecutive Elite Eights, and still somehow get to be an underdog of sorts. The college basketball world should hate you for all your success, yet you continue to fly under the radar. Well, I’m onto you. I’m doing everything I can to put an end to this “Who? Us? We’re a football school. You shouldn’t be afraid of us” façade.
7. Wichita State
I’m tempted to call Wichita State this year’s Gonzaga if only because the Shockers will probably continue rising to the top of the polls as teams from power conferences rack up losses. This, of course, will spark national outrage and the comments sections of every Wichita State article will be polluted with nonsense like, “The Wichita State SUCKERS play nobuddy!” and “If Witchitaw played in the Big Ten they’d be under .500!” But drawing parallels between Gonzaga and Wichita State would actually be an insult to Gonzaga’s schedule, because the Zags played a few ranked teams last season and competed in a multiple-bid conference, which is something Wichita State won’t be able to say this season.
This isn’t my way of calling Wichita State overrated. Although the Shockers haven’t played any ranked teams, they have some decent wins, including a true road win at St. Louis. And I don’t mean to disparage the Missouri Valley Conference, which has historically been one of the best mid-major conferences in college basketball. No, I’m just predicting that barring a catastrophe, if Wichita State can win at Indiana State in early February, the Shockers will be the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. The cakewalk schedule and rare appearances on national television mean that the Shockers are almost certainly going to obliterate your bracket in one way or another come March. It also means I’m going to struggle to find something compelling to write about Wichita State every week for the rest of the season, which is why you should prepare for plenty of undefeated talk sprinkled with jokes about Ron Baker’s hair5 and how Tom Crean is Bizarro Gregg Marshall.
It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing Internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business.
During the Kansas State vs. Oklahoma State game played in Manhattan on Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Charles Barkley?
- Bruce Weber is shown onscreen, prompting Vitale to express how impressed he is with Weber winning the Big 12 last season after coming to K-State from Illinois. He adds that Illinois isn’t too bad, either, as the Illini’s only losses this season have been to Georgia Tech and Oregon. He then calls Oregon’s undefeated start one of the big surprises in college basketball. After a beat, Vitale mentions another surprise — he still can’t believe Auburn is in the BCS championship. He then explains that he’s cheering for the Tigers because they’re the underdogs and it’s where his good friend Charles Barkley went to school.
- Dan Shulman asks Vitale how good Kansas State can be this season, but instead of answering the question, Vitale talks about the state of Kansas as a whole. He says KU will figure it out and be good in March, but he thinks Wichita State is the state’s best team. He quotes something fellow broadcaster Jimmy Dykes recently said about the Shockers as proof. Vitale then asks Shulman if he can believe that Dykes once hired Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn to be a high school football coach. Before Shulman can answer, Vitale says he’s a big fan of Malzahn, which is something he has in common with Charles Barkley.
- Shulman asks Vitale if Oklahoma State has the best backcourt in college basketball. Vitale says yes before listing a few other elite backcourts. The most underrated backcourt, Vitale says, is Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney. Vitale claims that people don’t think of Syracuse’s backcourt because the Orange lost Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams from last year. Shulman informs viewers that Triche graduated and Carter-Williams currently plays for the 76ers. Vitale says that Carter-Williams is having a good year, but then jokes that the 76ers are so bad that they should try to redraft Charles Barkley.
6. Iowa State
Iowa State is a team of destiny. I’m sure of it. Johnny Orr dying on New Year’s Eve so he can pull the strings from the great beyond only strengthens this. The Cyclones are off to the best start in school history, they’ve beaten a handful of NCAA tournament teams, and right now they’re the best team in a strong Big 12. What makes me certain that divine intervention is involved, however, is the way Iowa State has done it. It’s like Fred Hoiberg read a book about how college basketball teams are built and took it as a personal challenge to do the exact opposite.
He’s like Mother Teresa running a basketball soup kitchen in Ames. I don’t care that some of you were barely recruited, that some of you were exiled from your former teams, or that some of you are Canadian. You’re safe now. Come, my children. Come to me and I will make you complete. I will give you a place to call home and a green light to shoot from anywhere on the court. I will clothe you, give you shelter, and play you at least 20 minutes a game. The world may look at you and see a dirty lump of coal, but you know what you can do with coal? You can grill some filet mignon wrapped in bacon. Have you ever had bacon-wrapped filet? That shit is delicious. That can be you. Greatness can be yours. Let me show you the way.
Since McDonald’s All American teams were established in 1977, the 2002 Maryland Terrapins are the only team to win a national championship with zero McDonald’s All Americans on the roster. Iowa State is every bit as good as any team in America and, recent tournament history aside, is a very real threat to join Maryland on that list.
5. Ohio State
4. Michigan State
Run that back. I need Jim Delany to order both teams to play again right now. If college basketball were liquor, then watching that Michigan State–Ohio State game would be like butt-bonging absinthe. That was like injecting pure heroin into my eyeball. If you could crush that game into a fine powder, I’d snort it and listen to The Dark Side of the Moon until my face melted off. Everything about that game was beautiful, even though so much of it seemed ugly. It’s like I was watching a homeless guy throw poop at a piece of cardboard, but that homeless guy turned out to be Jackson Pollock, and the cardboard was actually a canvas. It was glorious.
That game was amazing because — cliché coachspeak alert — both teams were able to overcome their weaknesses with determination and the will to win. Ohio State’s weakness was its inability to score. At this point, I’m convinced that if LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith don’t combine for at least 35 points in big games, Ohio State can’t win. They just don’t have enough guys who can create offense if those two aren’t hitting. And on Tuesday night, it’s safe to say that those two weren’t hitting. They shot a combined 4-for-18 from the field and scored 15 points, which, you might notice, is considerably less than 35. No Ohio State starter finished in double figures and no Buckeye hit more than one 3-pointer. But thanks to Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, and Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes clawed back into the game. At the end of regulation, they were a Scott layup away from pulling off their second miraculous comeback of the season. I don’t mind that they came up short. They didn’t fold when just about every other team would have, and that’s a victory in its own right.
Meanwhile, Michigan State had to overcome its lack of depth. All season long I’ve been concerned about the drop-off in talent from Michigan State’s four best players to the rest of the team. Tuesday night, pretty much every key Spartans player seemed to be battling injuries, Travis Trice sat out because of an illness, and Denzel Valentine fouled out with two minutes left in regulation. I know Michigan State’s complacency helped Ohio State get back into the game, but its reliance on a handful of guys to play so many high-intensity minutes also opened the door for OSU’s surge. Despite all this, though, when it mattered most, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, and Gary Harris made clutch plays to seal the win, even though I was sure that Ohio State had too much momentum for the Spartans to overcome.6
I could go on all day about that game. It was 45 minutes of heart-pounding, butthole-clenching basketball. I can’t believe it’s only the start of conference season and we still have three more months of this to look forward to. The thought that this might not even end up as one of the top 10 games of the season when it’s all said and done is impossible to wrap my mind around.
I’m going to hijack the Wisconsin section to talk about Fran McCaffery’s ejection in the Iowa-Wisconsin game because — let’s be honest — the Buzzcuts probably wouldn’t have won without it. Traevon Jackson was bad, Sam Dekker was worse, and Roy Devyn Marble was giving the Buzzcuts the business all game. There was a ton of time left on the clock when McCaffery was tossed, and the Hawkeyes hung in there and cut Wisconsin’s lead to two with four minutes left, so I don’t want to discredit Wisconsin’s win. But at the same time, I’m totally discrediting Wisconsin’s win since McCaffery handed it four points and a ton of momentum it had been struggling to find all game.
Specifically, I want to know exactly what happens in the locker room after an ejection. Was McCaffery by himself or did someone go with him? Does he throw things around like Dean Portman in D2, or does McCaffery get in there and think, What the hell did I just do? If it’s the latter, does he laugh at himself or feel like crap for screwing his team? Does he check Twitter to see what people are saying about him? Does he watch the rest of the game on TV? Does he try to make coaching decisions by somehow contacting his assistants? Does he leave the arena altogether, go back to his hotel, and suck down some cold ones as he watches the end of the game at the bar?
I NEED ANSWERS.
It’s time for Tyler Ennis to get his own section devoted to him in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. For the unaware, Ennis is a Canadian freshman point guard for the Orange who has been overshadowed by other Canadians (Andrew Wiggins, Melvin Ejim, Nik Stauskas), other freshmen (Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon), and other Syracuse players (C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney). But Ennis has been excellent through the first 15 games of his college career. He’s averaging 11.7 points, 5.6 assists, and 3.2 rebounds, which aren’t world-beater numbers but are very much on par with the production of other point guards on top teams. What makes Ennis special, though, is that he’s averaging 2.6 steals and just 1.2 turnovers per game. In case you aren’t amazed by that, I should mention that it takes a great point guard to average as many steals as turnovers, yet Ennis steals the ball more than twice as much as he turns it over. Heralded point guards like Smart, T.J. McConnell, Russ Smith, Appling, Jahii Carson, and Semaj Christon all have more turnovers than steals on the year, but the freshman point guard of the no. 2–ranked team in America has twice as many steals as turnovers? That’s insane.
Given the culture of today’s college basketball, it’s easy to expect highly touted freshmen to step in and make a huge impact. For the one-and-dones at Kentucky and Kansas, and even Parker, it’s an easy transition because they’re the best players on their teams. But for someone like Ennis, who needs to figure out how to fit in on a team with a senior national player of the year candidate in Fair, it’s far more difficult to find a role. Most freshmen in Ennis’s position would look as out of the loop as Travis Barker in the “All the Small Things” video,7 yet Ennis has been rock-solid all season and has played his best in big games.
Arizona’s most recent game against Washington was closer than it should’ve been, but I’m willing to give the Wildcats the benefit of the doubt because Washington has some talent, even though the team as a whole isn’t very good. Plus, two days before that, Arizona held Washington State to 25 points. Yes, you read that right — Arizona held a Pac-12 team that gives out full-ride scholarships to its basketball players to seven first-half points and 20 percent shooting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona’s players spent 37 of the 38 hours between games laughing at the Washington State film and high-fiving the walk-ons for outscoring two Cougar starters, so it’s no wonder they came out flat against the Huskies.
With respect to Duke and San Diego State, I think the biggest test of the season so far for Arizona will be Thursday at UCLA. As great as Arizona has been under Sean Miller and as much as UCLA has been talked about as a disappointment since the Bruins’ trip to the 2008 Final Four, Miller hasn’t won in Pauley Pavilion since his first trip there. Plus, despite being the best team in the Pac-12 last season and making the Sweet 16, Arizona didn’t win either conference trophy thanks to UCLA sweeping them in the regular season and knocking them out of the Pac-12 tournament. In other words, UCLA has Arizona’s number right now. That, along with this being their only scheduled meeting of the season, makes Thursday night’s game appointment television.
Wait, I got that wrong. It’s appointment television because Bill Walton is calling the game. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
The Orthodox Jewish Club Trillion Member of the Week
Big news out of Evanston, Illinois, this weekend as Aaron Liberman became the first Big Ten basketball player in conference history to wear a yarmulke during a game. While it’s cool that he made a little Big Ten history, that’s not what has the people talking. No, what has the people talking — and what will make Liberman a legend — is that he became the first person in college basketball history to record a trillion while wearing a yarmulke. That’s right: Liberman checked in for the final minute and did absolutely nothing of importance (other than wearing the yarmulke, of course).
Tamir Goodman was the first Division I player to wear a yarmulke when he did so in 2000 and earned the nickname “Jewish Jordan.” I’m not saying Liberman needs a nickname to compete with that, but if he does, “Jewan Howard” seems like the obvious choice.
Dick’s Degrees of Separation was a trick question. Dickie V. didn’t even call the K-State vs. OSU game, or any game in the last couple of weeks for that matter, thanks to a personal Christmas break. You’re all winners this time around. See you next week.