Gwen Stefani was once quoted in 2004 as saying, “This shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.” I’m pretty sure she was commenting on the shape of her feces, but she just as easily could’ve been commenting on this college basketball season. A month ago, I thought I had it all figured out. Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Michigan, and Kansas seemed to be a cut above the rest. I would have been willing to bet that one of those teams would win the national championship. Well, in the last month, this much has become clear: Betting on college basketball this season is insane. Like betting on the Pro Bowl insane. Like defending Chris Brown, like paying to see Movie 43, or like asking a cop if he’ll light your blunt. That insane.
College basketball is always unpredictable in March, but things typically go according to plan in January. Not this year. According to a statistic I just made up because it seems like it should be true, 37 top-10 teams were upset this past month, and many of them fell to unranked or low-ranked teams. In other words, this March should be even madder than normal. There just is no making sense of the current landscape of college basketball.
With that said, the most powerful power rankings in college basketball are here to make sense of the current landscape.
In less than two years, Jim Larranaga has achieved the impossible — he has turned Miami into a basketball school. Now, it should be said that although the way the Hurricanes beat down Duke last Wednesday was impressive, the Blue Devils aren’t nearly as good as pollsters think they are. Without Ryan Kelly, Duke has looked less like a national title contender and more like a bubble team, which is why I don’t think too much should be made of Wednesday’s win. I want to see how the Hurricanes play at North Carolina State on Saturday before I give them too much credit. Still, dismantling the top-ranked team on national television by getting layup after layup after layup after layup after layup commands respect, so Miami deserves a spot in this week’s power rankings.
Also deserving of respect: Warren Sapp getting Miami’s guys to mock Duke by slapping the floor on defense when Miami was up 28 in the second half.
This is only tangentially related to Oregon basketball and it’s completely irrelevant, but I have to get it off my chest: I didn’t realize until the Arizona-Oregon game a couple weeks ago that the design on Oregon’s court is supposed to look like trees wrapped around the floor. I’ve watched a handful of Oregon home games over the past two years and I’ve seen pictures of the court no less than a thousand times, but it wasn’t until recently that everything finally clicked. I thought the court was supposed to look like it had a bunch of bleach randomly thrown in the middle of it. This is embarrassing to admit, so I hope that by writing this I can save a few readers from similar humiliation. I’d hate for any of you to look like idiots at your cocktail party discussions about the Oregon floor. You’re welcome.
While we’re on the topic of crazy courts, did you know that to get admitted to Northwestern, you have to calculate how much stain the athletic department used on the basketball court before they realized they were wasting money on the worst high-major basketball program in college basketball?
10. Ohio State
College basketball fans outside Big Ten country likely think the Wisconsin Buzzcuts suck because all their games are low-scoring and ugly. They might also think that any team that can’t blow out the Buzzcuts must also stink. The truth is far from that. In fact, I dare say that Ohio State’s nine-point win over Wisconsin on Tuesday night was the second-best game the Buckeyes played all year. To me, it proves that Ohio State is very much still in the national title hunt. That’s because the team relied on its strengths, which can potentially carry it to the Final Four: defense and Deshaun Thomas.
Contrary to what you might think, Ohio State doesn’t need a second scorer. As long as Thomas is hitting, the Buckeyes are fine. Obviously, it would benefit OSU immensely if Lenzelle Smith, Aaron Craft, or LaQuinton Ross emerged as a scoring threat to take some pressure off Thomas, who is bound to have a few off nights. But the reality is that Thomas is unlike any scorer in college hoops. He feels no pressure and he gets his points relatively easily because the dude is practically a robot programmed to put a ball through a basket. Truth be told, a second scorer would probably just throw him off his game. You don’t want to have too many cooks in the kitchen when Chef Boy-D-T is whipping up a masterpiece.1
As long as Thomas takes care of his end, the rest of the Buckeyes can focus on doing what they do, which is playing the best perimeter defense in America. Sure, Ohio State gave up 11 3-pointers to Wisconsin, but that seemed to be by design. Bo Ryan’s swing offense is based on shooting 3s, getting easy layups, and scoring in the post. Ohio State obviously wanted to limit the layups, and since the Buckeyes don’t have much of a post presence, it took a team effort to limit the Buzzcuts’ post game as well. This left open the 3-point line, which is why Wisconsin ended up taking 28 3s. They were so content jacking up outside shots that they didn’t earn a single trip to the free throw line. I’m guessing that if you told Thad Matta before the game that Wisconsin would shoot 28 3-pointers and no free throws, he would have replied: “Great. I like our chances to win. By the way, do you have a towel I could borrow? Sweat is just pouring off my face right now.”
9. Michigan State
I don’t want to overreact to Michigan State’s five-point loss at Indiana on Sunday, but I’m getting the feeling that Adreian Payne might be the Spartans’ best player. His numbers aren’t gaudy — he’s Michigan State’s fourth-leading scorer and he’s more or less tied with Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson as the team’s leading rebounder. But when you consider that Payne averages 22 minutes a game, suddenly his stats jump off the page. Whatever the case, he was definitely Michigan State’s best player against Indiana, as he completely outplayed Cody Zeller and Christian Watford and probably earned an NBA contract based on that single performance.
If any Spartan player can stake a claim to outplaying Payne in that game, it’s Gary Harris, who finished with 21 points, including five 3s. It can’t be overstated how impressive Harris’s feat was. Never has a Mr. Basketball from Indiana played in Assembly Hall as a freshman for a visiting team and produced like that. Actually, forget the freshman part of that — it’s impressive for an Indiana Mr. Basketball to do what Harris did regardless of how many years he’s been in college. As someone who was present for Sean May’s return to Indiana in 2004 and both of Deshaun Thomas’s trips to Bloomington thus far, I can assure you that the Hoosiers faithful don’t forget when their homegrown stars decide to take their talents out of state.2 If you’re the best high school player in Indiana, Hoosiers fans accept no excuses for you attending any other school than IU. It’s arrogant and selfish, sure, but it’s a very real expectation that makes for hostile homecomings anytime these players visit Assembly Hall.
On Sunday, it sounded like Harris was booed throughout the game, including “Har-ris sucks” chants when he was at the free throw line. There’s no way he wasn’t aware of the story line, and no one would have blamed him for letting the crowd get to him. But Harris didn’t just play well — he played the best game of his young career.
Even though Arizona shot so poorly against UCLA last Thursday that they might as well have tried punting the ball into the basket, I had the time of my life in Tucson and I couldn’t have been more impressed with the McKale Center crowd. The Arizona fans had pretty much nothing to cheer for all night, yet the place was loud from start to finish and the whiteout was the best bring-your-own-shirt whiteout I’ve ever seen.3 I’ve never been to a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, The Pit, or Gallagher-Iba Arena, but I have been to pretty much every other must-see arena in college basketball, and for me the McKale Center atmosphere trails only Indiana’s Assembly Hall and Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse. When you factor in that most of the crowd is in the The Price Is Right target demographic, maybe McKale should be no. 1. Anyway, if you haven’t already, put the McKale Center on your college basketball bucket list.
As for the game itself, Arizona just couldn’t make shots. And it wasn’t because UCLA played particularly great defense, either. Time and time again, the Cats got wide-open looks and missed. This was particularly frustrating because Ben Howland was doing everything he could to hand the game to Arizona. I heard that Bill Walton repeatedly ripped Howland’s coaching while calling the game, but I can’t help piling on because this was my first live Ben Howland experience and it certainly was memorable.
Case in point: Shabazz Muhammad was unstoppable at the start of the game. UCLA started out with a 19-3 lead, so I guess you could say the entire team was unstoppable, but Muhammad in particular looked great. In the first five minutes, he was 3-for-3 with seven points and an assist. He looked like he might go for 40. This is the game everyone is going to talk about at the draft, I thought after that opening stretch. He’s going to be the clear-cut no. 1 pick after tonight. So naturally, Howland took him out after six minutes.
Even when Howland put him back in the game, Muhammad was visibly frustrated with how few touches he was getting. It’s like Howland was the only person in the gym who couldn’t see that Muhammad was better than everyone on the court. I’m not saying he should take every UCLA shot, but I am saying it’s a terrible idea to run your offense through North Carolina transfers when you have a top-five pick on your team, especially when you’re playing a top-10 team on the road. In the end, Muhammad somehow finished with 23 points and UCLA won simply because they have better players than Arizona. But considering Arizona’s miserable shooting night, UCLA should have won more easily. Howland’s momentum-killing timeouts and substitutions were a big reason why this game wasn’t a UCLA cakewalk. If a nonsensical NCAA suspension to start the season and the recent public questioning over how he acquired his backpack haven’t been enough to guarantee that Muhammad will leave for the NBA after this season, Howland’s mismanagement should make it the easiest decision of his life.
I watched Gonzaga play BYU in a Tucson bar after the Arizona-UCLA game, and although I couldn’t focus on the game as much as I would’ve liked because I was burying my face in pizza and beer, I’m not sure it mattered. That’s because you didn’t need to watch closely to see that the Foreigners couldn’t miss on Thursday. Yes, Gary Bell Jr. continued his January slump by shooting 2-for-10, but the rest of the Foreigners lit it up, including Kelly Olynyk, who had a perfect night, going 9-for-9 from the field and 8-for-8 from the free throw line.4
Gonzaga is second in the country in field goal percentage, so it’s not that surprising that they torched BYU. What’s more unexpected, though, is that they held BYU to 36 percent shooting. Defense has been my biggest gripe about the Foreigners this year, and it will determine how far they go in the NCAA tournament, so it’s encouraging to see them put the clamps on a not-awful BYU team.5 Unfortunately, Gonzaga won’t be tested much for the rest of the regular season, as the WCC is down this year and only BYU or Saint Mary’s seems capable of testing the Zags. Then again, with the way this season is going, nothing would surprise me.
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 end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business.
During the Miami vs. Duke game played in Coral Gables on Wednesday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Brooklyn Nets?
- ESPN shows a lone Duke fan standing in the Miami student section, prompting Dan Shulman to comment that this isn’t the best place to be for a Blue Devils fan. While this happens, a call goes against Miami and the Hurricanes fans boo the referees, prompting Vitale to say that the officials are hearing it from the crowd as well. Speaking of officials, Vitale continues, John Clougherty, the head of ACC officials, is sitting just to his right. Vitale explains that Clougherty was the one who made the controversial call at the end of the 1989 national championship game to put Michigan at the free throw line with three seconds to play. Even though that call helped Michigan beat Seton Hall for their only national championship, Vitale points out that Seton Hall’s coach that season, P.J. Carlesimo, once said if he could pick any referee to officiate a national championship, he’d pick Clougherty. Vitale then says that he thinks Carlesimo has earned the right to be the coach of the Brooklyn Nets.
- During the second half, with the game already decided, Vitale reiterates that even though Duke is getting blown out, they’ll still end up being a good team because Mike Krzyzewski is the best coach in the game. He then addresses the criticism that Coach K is losing his touch by reminding everyone that he led Team USA to a gold medal last summer. Vitale then points out that one of his assistant coaches was Mike D’Antoni, who is now coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. What’s ironic about that, Vitale mentions, is that D’Antoni probably wouldn’t be coaching the Lakers if Coach K hadn’t turned down the job in 2004. Vitale then admits that maybe that’s not true, because success at the college level doesn’t necessarily lead to success at the pro level, as evidenced by Rick Pitino’s stint with the Boston Celtics and John Calipari’s stint with the New Jersey Nets, who are now the Brooklyn Nets.
- During a break in the action, ESPN shows Barry Larkin in the stands and Dan Shulman mentions that his son Shane is Miami’s starting point guard. Vitale says that he’s a huge baseball fan and admits to being a little starstruck by Larkin’s presence. Vitale then reminds viewers that Larkin won the World Series with the Reds in 1990, and the manager of the Reds that year was Vitale’s friend Lou Piniella. Vitale explains that he became friends with Piniella when Piniella was managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, which is Vitale’s hometown team. He continues by saying that his biggest baseball wish other than seeing the Rays win a World Series is for Piniella to get another MLB managing gig. Dickie V then corrects himself and says that his real baseball wish would be for his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers to come back. He briefly campaigns for the Dodgers to move back to Brooklyn, during which he cites the fact that the New Jersey Nets have now become the Brooklyn Nets.
I know Butler lost to La Salle last week, but I’m still keeping them power-ranked high because Rotnei Clarke, whose first name is so obnoxious he should be playing at St. John’s, is now healthy and the Bulldogs righted the ship by cruising against Temple. Even though everything about Clarke says I should hate him — he gels his hair for games, wears an arm sleeve, and his name is Rotnei — he’s slowly becoming my favorite player in college basketball. There’s just something about his fearlessness that I love, and that something is that he’ll jack up shots from anywhere inside half court. In other words, he plays exactly how I would if I were still in high school and my dad were my coach. He’s much more fun to watch than he should be, and now that he’s healthy again I expect Butler to steamroll their way to a March 2 showdown with VCU in Richmond.
For most of the game Saturday against Villanova, Syracuse’s defense was bad and their offense was worse. As has been the case all season, the Orange’s success hinged on their defensive end, and right from the tip Villanova was dicing Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone with ball fakes, quick passes, and penetration. Villanova was getting any shot it wanted, and anything positive that happened for Syracuse on defense was more a result of Villanova’s bad decision-making than anything the Orange did. Syracuse’s subpar defense meant the team couldn’t create chances to score in transition. This put pressure on Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche to make plays in the half court, and while Triche carried the Orange in stretches and played pretty well, Carter-Williams never got it going.
The one bright spot for Syracuse was freshman Jerami Grant continuing to play well in James Southerland’s absence. There’s no way of knowing when Southerland might return, or if he’ll return at all this season, so it’s encouraging to see Grant fill the void reasonably well. He finished Saturday’s game with 12 points, five rebounds, two steals, and no turnovers in 27 minutes, but he did foul out with more than five minutes left in regulation. It’s hard to get on him too much for fouling out, though, because most of Syracuse’s players struggled with foul trouble thanks to Villanova’s attacking mind-set and a general laziness in the Orange defense. Syracuse won’t win many games with this lackadaisical approach, so hopefully they’ll make defense a top priority. Meanwhile, Syracuse fans should feel slightly encouraged by Triche’s ability to put the team on his back and Grant’s ability to step up in Southerland’s place.
Here’s a good way to learn if your friend actually follows college basketball or if he just says he does: Ask him to name Indiana’s best player. If he says anybody other than Victor Oladipo, pull his shirt over his head, backhand him in the cojones, and tell him his family doesn’t love him. Maybe even throw in some personal insults and tell him you’ve always thought Topanga was ugly just to rile him up. I know this sounds harsh, but he deserves it for being the college basketball equivalent of the “the thing about Arsenal is they always try to walk it in” guy.6
The fact is, Oladipo is not only Indiana’s best player, he might also be the best player in the Big Ten aside from Trey Burke. Cody Zeller is the most well-known Hoosier, and his name gets brought up whenever somebody mentions Victor Oladipo as IU’s top player, but Zeller isn’t in Oladipo’s league. Zeller is almost a defensive liability these days and he isn’t nearly as effective on offense as he was last season. He looked outmatched against Michigan State’s big guys, which is especially concerning since the Michigan State game came on the heels of a forgettable performance against Penn State. Zeller is still a better pro prospect than Oladipo, but he’s playing like a rich man’s Derek Elston right now. He’s Sean Kline and Kyle Taber without the bum knees. He’s basically Richard Mandeville.7
The real argument concerning Oladipo is whether he’s a better defender than Aaron Craft, who gets all the publicity and is often called the best defender in the Big Ten. Indiana and Ohio State fans, of course, both think it’s a no-brainer who is better. It’s like when Ted Valentine officiates a Big Ten game and then both teams’ fans argue over who was screwed worse. For what it’s worth, I don’t think either Craft or Oladipo is better than the other because they’re entirely different defenders. I know that’s a cop-out, but it’s true.
Oladipo is more athletic than Craft and he makes flashier plays. It seems like once a game he jumps into a passing lane, gets a steal, and then goes coast-to-coast for a dunk. This kind of play, along with his occasional weakside blocks and the fact that he leads the conference in steals, are what Hoosiers fans believe make him the Big Ten’s best defender. Craft’s game, on the other hand, doesn’t include jumping into passing lanes or really using his athleticism at all.8 He succeeds by knowing where he’s supposed to be at all times, keeping ball handlers in front of him, and being able to recover in the rare instances when he gets beat off the dribble. His defensive game is largely cerebral, which isn’t to say that Oladipo isn’t smart on defense. Craft just deserves praise for always knowing when to help, when to stay home, and when to go for a steal. As for Oladipo averaging more steals than Craft, Ohio State fans could point to a simple explanation: Craft matches up with point guards and Oladipo defends the wing, meaning Craft’s steals usually have to come from picking a ball handler’s pocket, which is much more difficult than jumping into a passing lane.
So, like I was saying, neither guy is better than the other. To an untrained basketball eye Oladipo is the clear choice, but Craft does so many things well that it’s hard to fully appreciate him unless you’ve played the sport competitively.9 Craft and Oladipo both provide exactly what their teams need from them on defense, and that’s really all that matters.
I will, however, say this (CONTROVERSIAL OPINION ALERT!): Oladipo is much better on offense.
Florida essentially took the week off by playing two of the SEC’s worst teams, so I won’t write much about the Gators. One thing that’s worth mentioning, though, is that this Saturday’s game against Ole Miss is way more important than anyone thought it would be at the start of the year. It was widely believed that Missouri, Kentucky, and Florida would duke it out for the SEC title, but Missouri and Kentucky have taken somewhat of a step back, and despite losing to Kentucky on Tuesday night, Ole Miss has emerged as a legitimate SEC contender. I expect Florida to win because they’re playing at home and they’re considerably better than Ole Miss, but the game is still one of the few SEC games this year I’d voluntarily watch.
Moredick Part 2 is officially dead. In fact, not only has Trey Burke wedged his way into the national Player of the Year discussion, he’s now the runaway favorite to win the award.
A month ago, Mason Plumlee and Doug McDermott were the favorites, Burke was knocking on the door, and Louisville’s Russ Smith was a dark horse. Since then, Ryan Kelly’s foot has derailed Duke’s season and taken Plumlee’s POY campaign with it, Creighton has lost back-to-back games,10 and Russ Smith has stood in the corner at the end of two losses and watched while Peyton Siva threw the games away. Meanwhile, Burke is averaging 18 points and seven assists for the top-ranked team in the country and he’s shooting 49 percent (!!!) despite playing in the most defensive-minded conference in America. Most impressive of all, though, is his mental approach, and with that, the fact that he almost never forces anything. He’s not gunning for stats or trying to prove how good he is. He already knows that. He just does whatever his team needs to get wins. The guy has been great all year and he will deserve everything that comes his way from an individual perspective.
Anyway, Burke’s brilliance is why I think Michigan will beat Indiana on Saturday in what promises to be college basketball’s game of the year so far. I don’t think Indiana has anyone who can guard Burke other than Victor Oladipo. And if Tom Crean decides to put Oladipo on Burke, Michigan will be licking their chops at the sight of 6-foot Yogi Ferrell trying to guard 6-foot-6 Tim Hardaway Jr. This means Indiana’s only viable options are to go zone (which is an awful idea considering how bad their zone has been this year) or to hope Ferrell can guard Burke. My guess is that Crean will go with the second approach, which is why the Indiana fan in me is hoping Ferrell has the stones necessary to contain America’s best player.
On the rare occasions that Kansas has run into trouble this season, turnovers have usually been the problem, and Saturday’s game at West Virginia was no different. The Jayhawks shot 54 percent versus West Virginia’s 37 percent, outrebounded the Mountaineers by nine, and shot 19 more free throws, yet they won by only five because they committed 16 turnovers. With West Virginia having a pretty bad season, a game like this might make me wonder about Kansas’s legitimacy. But close games have been the norm for the Jayhawks in January. Kansas hasn’t been scoring too many style points recently, but what’s more important is that their opponents are hardly scoring points at all, as Kansas has held each of their past six opponents to fewer than 60 points. The Jayhawks offense can be uninspiring at times, but Kansas makes up for it by having the best defense in the country, which is why I am still giving them the nod over Michigan — at least for one more week.11 That defense, combined with the Big 12 not being great this year, is why the Jayhawks will probably extend their 18-game winning streak into the 30s and enter the NCAA tournament with a huge target on their backs, which I’m sure doesn’t make Kansas fans nervous.
The Bat of the Week
Marquette’s game against Providence on Saturday was delayed in the second half when a bat flew around the Bradley Center, and the result was just as entertaining as you’d think it would be. The best YouTube clip I could find of the incident isn’t very good because you can’t really see the bat, but it does show a bunch of players throwing towels in the air to capture the thing, which is something you don’t see every day. Plus, it at least gives the arena music operator his one shining moment for playing an Ozzy Osbourne song while a bat flew around.
While the video isn’t all that great, this GIF of Providence’s Sidiki Johnson is the very definition of great.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is A. See you next week.