What a week in college basketball. Kentucky took the worst plummet in the history of the AP poll after losing two consecutive games, the ACC improbably tied the Big Ten in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge, and we lost one of the brightest minds and biggest personalities in the game when Rick Majerus passed away on Saturday. Meanwhile, Baylor did what only Baylor knows how to do by beating Kentucky at Rupp Arena for the first time in the John Calipari era, then following that up with a home loss to Northwestern Tuesday night. And the flaming bag of poo that has become UCLA basketball continued to burn as the Bruins suffered their third loss in five games. Speaking of which, I suggest you all start putting together your résumés now, because there’s a chance UCLA will lose to Texas on Saturday, in which case I fully expect Ben Howland to be fired before he makes it back to the locker room after the game.
But enough of that. Let’s get down to business and see how last week’s action shook up the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.
Picking the 12th-best team in college basketball right now is about as meaningful a task as picking the New York Jets’ starting quarterback. The top eight teams seem pretty well established at this point, but any number of teams have legitimate claims on those remaining four spots, and I could be easily swayed to change my mind.1 So, because it ultimately doesn’t matter and things will become clearer as the season goes on, I’ve decided to power-rank Illinois 12th this week. This is because the Illini are one of just 20 undefeated teams in the country and they dominated the Maui Invitational, the most prestigious early-season tournament in college basketball. It’s easy to point to one-point wins over Hawaii and Gardner-Webb as reasons why the Illini shouldn’t be power-ranked this high, but remember that Illinois played both those games immediately after flying to or from Hawaii. As someone who very recently went to Hawaii for a week, drank a lifetime supply of mai tais, destroyed kids at my hotel in pool basketball (I just want to document that this happened), and spent the next three weeks in a mental fog, I can tell you firsthand that Hawaii jetlag is a very real and very miserable thing.
Anyway, like pretty much every Illinois fan, I don’t expect the Illini to keep this up and I doubt they’ll truly contend for a Big Ten title, but they’ll certainly play spoiler to a handful of contenders and they should easily finish in the top half of the conference.2 He’s already well on his way, but if the Illini can steal a win at Gonzaga on Saturday, it’s crazy to think that coach John Groce will have gone from “that bald guy who isn’t Bruce Weber” to “John Groce, Illinois savior” in just 10 games.
Speaking of bald guys who aren’t Bruce Weber, Mick Cronin’s Bearcats squad this year should be the best Cincinnati team since Bob Huggins and his windbreaker were roaming the sidelines. Cincinnati basketball took a huge step backward when Huggins was fired in 2005, and for the longest time when I thought “Cincinnati,” the only things that came to mind were the time I grabbed my eighth-grade girlfriend’s boob while waiting to ride The Beast at Kings Island and all the times five-way chili has given me diarrhea. Thanks to Cronin, though, that’s beginning to change and the Bearcats are on their way back to being one of the premier programs in college basketball.
I hate to bring up the past and rehash something Bearcats fans are trying to forget, but as an outsider I can’t help but think that last year’s brawl with Xavier strangely ended up being a good thing for Cincinnati. It served as a turning point in last year’s season that culminated in a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, but more importantly it gave Cronin the opportunity to put his foot down and establish that the program will be run his way. You have to think that in the wake of that incident, the players shaped up3 and bought into Cronin’s coaching because they knew they were on thin ice and Cronin wouldn’t hesitate to bench them or kick them off the team.
Whether that’s true or not, the fact is that Cronin has his team playing well, especially Sean Kilpatrick, whose stats across the board are much improved from last year despite him averaging fewer minutes. With Yancy Gates gone, the Bearcats’ lack of an inside presence is somewhat concerning, but Gates wasn’t consistent last year anyway, and it’s not like perimeter-oriented teams in college basketball have never had success. Besides, Cincinnati is third in the country in rebounds per game, which proves that the big men they do have are certainly adequate.
I’m not sure what to make of Kansas. They returned three starters from a national runner-up team and brought in one of the best freshmen in the country in Ben McElmore, which suggests they could be national title contenders. But the starters they lost — Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor — were the best tandem in college basketball, and the Jayhawks have struggled to replace them. Taylor’s absence has been especially harmful, since the Jayhawks don’t have a natural point guard. Last year’s starting 2-guard, Elijah Johnson, has moved over to the point this year, which is an experiment that has been going just as well in Lawrence as the Charlie Weis experiment. Against Oregon State on Friday, Johnson was outplayed by Oregon State’s point guard, Ahmad Starks, to the point that Bill Self gave Johnson the ultimate slap in the face by … [gulp] … replacing him with a freshman walk-on.
Making matters worse, the Jayhawks have as much depth as a Twilight character. They play about seven guys, and of those seven, I get the feeling that Self only has confidence in three or four. McElmore is a star who will probably need to carry the team as the season wears on because Johnson probably won’t ever get comfortable playing point guard, and Travis Releford is a quintessential “glue guy” — you want to see him on the floor if you’re a Kansas fan, but you don’t want to rely on him too much. Meanwhile, as I alluded to last week, their defensive stud, Jeff Withey, only seems interested in blocking shots and he has a hard time guarding ball screens or really doing anything on defense that requires him to move his feet. I’m not ready to count out the Jayhawks yet, and I still consider them favorites to win their ninth straight Big 12 title this season. But it wouldn’t surprise me if their upcoming four-game stretch — Colorado, Belmont, and Richmond at home, and then on the road at Ohio State — causes a minor panic among the Kansas faithful.
Without a doubt, the most telling sign that this Gonzaga team is for real is that they passed my Mid-Major TV Test. This test dates back to Adam Morrison’s career with the Zags, when I’d spend way too much time and effort trying to figure out how I could watch them play when they weren’t on national TV. That’s pretty much all the test entails: When a mid-major team isn’t playing on an ESPN channel or any other network that my cable provider offers, am I willing to put forth effort to watch the game anyway? And if I can’t watch the game, do I get upset?
Recent mid-major teams to pass the test are Stephen Curry’s Davidson Wildcats, Jimmer Fredette’s BYU Cougars, and last year’s Mountain West trio of UNLV, New Mexico, and San Diego State. Last year was particularly frustrating because two of the three Mountain West teams would often play each other on the MountainWest Sports Network, which for some reason wasn’t available in central Ohio. Anyway, when Gonzaga played Pacific last Saturday on the Root Sports Network, I spent 30 minutes trying to find the channel on my cable guide, another 30 minutes on hold after I called my provider to ask how I could get Root Sports, and yet another 30 minutes complaining to my wife when I found out it was impossible. Did I end up watching the game? Of course not. But the fact that I was willing to go to such lengths in a futile attempt to see Gonzaga is proof enough that this team is for real.
Luckily, the Zags have a ton of nationally televised games coming up — they’re on tonight against Washington State and then Saturday against Illinois. But whether they play on ESPN or on some student-run network at Gonzaga, I’ll be doing whatever I can to watch. Sure, it goes against everything I stand for to try so hard to watch a team that is essentially the Gonzaga Foreigners (their top four scorers are from Not America), but I really like Kevin Pangos’s game and Elias Harris is a bad, bad man.
Considering Mark Lyons went 0-7, they shot 30 percent from behind the arc, and they had 27 turnovers, it’s a wonder that Arizona kept the game close against Southern Mississippi Tuesday night, let alone won it. An ugly game like that can mean one of two things: The Wildcats will learn from it and improve; or — holy crap! — they desperately need to figure out their point guard situation. I’m leaning toward the latter because the only thing the Wildcats learned against Southern Miss is that they don’t have a guard who can take care of the ball. With Josiah Turner leaving the program in the offseason, Lyons was brought in to play point guard while Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell is sitting out this year. But so far, Lyons — who usually played off the ball at Xavier because of Tu Holloway — has more turnovers than assists this season. What’s worse, if Wildcats coach Sean Miller had any hopes of shifting 2-guard Nick Johnson to the point, they were probably dashed Tuesday night, when Johnson had six turnovers and led the team in scoring with 23 points. At this point in his career, his game is less about facilitating and more about getting buckets.
But if I were Miller, I’d still make Johnson take over the point. Here’s why: First, Lyons is a senior and there’s no point in trying to teach an old dog new tricks. He’s clearly uncomfortable running the point, which isn’t ideal, but at least he does several other things well. Meanwhile, since Johnson is just a sophomore, I’d convince him to learn to protect the ball and run an offense because it will make him more of a complete player. If he proves he can do it well, his NBA stock will skyrocket since right now he’s just an undersize shooting guard who isn’t great at shooting. Plus, the point guard experience Johnson would gain will pay off next year, as Johnson could return to the 2 but slide over as an experienced backup for McConnell.
Regardless of how Miller addresses the questions in his backcourt, Arizona should cruise to a Pac-12 title. But if they want to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, they better find a capable point guard soon.
7. Ohio State
Every so often Thad Matta likes to bring up a bit of coaching advice that Lou Holtz gave him: “Don’t ever stay for more than seven years at a place, because the longer you stay, the more you fall in love with it, but the more they fall out of love with you.” This seems especially prescient whenever Ohio State suffers a close loss like they did against Duke last Wednesday. In these instances, the same coach who brought stability to a program that went 50 years without it suddenly becomes a lightning rod for criticism from Buckeyes fans.
Of course, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that Mike Krzyzewski, perhaps the greatest coach the game has ever seen, outcoached Matta. And I’m not saying that Matta and his staff shouldn’t be blamed for OSU’s loss at Duke, especially considering that the team couldn’t find a way in the second half to get the ball to Deshaun Thomas, who is one of the nation’s best scorers. I am saying, though, that the problems OSU ran into didn’t necessarily have a solution, and at some point the players just need to make plays.
I mentioned this on Twitter after the game, but I’ll repeat it here. The Buckeyes struggled to get Thomas the ball because he’s most comfortable posting up or picking-and-popping on the perimeter to knock down 3s. This was a terrible matchup for him in the post because his defender — Ryan Kelly — had the size to bang with him on the block, not to mention that Mason Plumlee would be coming from the help side to block Thomas’s shots. Meanwhile, with the pick-and-pop, once Duke realized that Aaron Craft was having a horrendous shooting game, the Blue Devils (specifically Kelly) stopped helping off the screens that Thomas set for Craft. They dared Craft to beat them while making it a priority to keep the ball out of Thomas’s hands. Craft kept missing, Thomas kept not getting touches, and the rest is history. Obviously, Matta & Co. should’ve figured out another way to get Thomas the ball, but when your starting point guard keeps missing open looks and goes 3-for-15 on the road against the second-ranked team in the country, it probably won’t matter what decisions the coaches make.4
It’s halftime, which can only mean 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.
This week is a special Dick’s Degrees in that it’s the first time I’ve ever had a guest fill in for Dick Vitale. This isn’t going to be a regular thing, but when Digger Phelps sat in with Dan Shulman and Vitale during the Notre Dame–Kentucky game last week, he went on so many rants and dropped so many names I couldn’t help but make him the focal point of this week’s halftime. Good luck.
During Thursday’s game between Notre Dame and Kentucky, how did Digger Phelps end up talking about Rick Pitino?
- As Digger sits down to join Shulman and Vitale in the booth, Shulman asks about Digger’s favorite memory of playing Kentucky as Notre Dame’s head coach. Digger spends the next few minutes reliving the 1980 game when Notre Dame knocked off top-ranked Kentucky in Lexington. He recalls not being confident in his team heading into the December 27 contest because they had an awful practice on Christmas Day, not to mention the fact that a snowstorm made it tough for them to get out of South Bend. Nonetheless, his Irish pulled out the win, which Digger describes as his favorite all-time regular-season win. He reminds viewers that Kentucky had Sam Bowie, Dirk Minniefield, and Melvin Turpin back then, with Joe B. Hall as coach. He then pauses for a few seconds before turning to Vitale and asking, “What do you think about Louisville? I really think John Calipari is going to have a tough time this year trying to beat Rick Pitino.”
- A graphic appears on-screen, showing the three times Notre Dame had beaten a ranked Kentucky team — in 1950, 1970, and 1980. This prompts Digger to recount what happened in the 1950 game. He says that Notre Dame coach Moose Krause had the band sit behind Kentucky’s bench and blast music into their ears throughout the game, helping Notre Dame to a 64-61 win. After the game, Adolph Rupp supposedly said he’d never play in South Bend again. And according to Digger, Rupp didn’t, because the next time Kentucky brought a team to Notre Dame was in 1990, when the Wildcats were coached by Rick Pitino.
- Shulman asks Vitale what he thinks of Kentucky’s freshmen this year now that he’s had the chance to see them play several games. Vitale says he still thinks they’re going to be really good come March, and Phelps cuts him off to say that his favorite freshman this season has been Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State. Digger says that he likes how the Cowboys are playing and he thinks this is the best OSU team since Eddie Sutton retired. Vitale then chimes in by reminding everyone that Sutton once coached at Kentucky, but before he finishes his thought Digger again cuts him off to say that he left amid controversy and got replaced by Rick Pitino.
Many coaches consider playing multiple defenses a sign of weakness. In fact, I believe it was John Wooden who once said: “Show me a team that plays multiple defenses, and I’ll show you a team whose defense sucks.” Whether it’s Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, Bob Knight’s man-to-man, or Scott Drew’s “just run around and try to confuse the offense,” the best coaches in college basketball tend to stick to a single defensive philosophy. For Louisville, however, it’s the exact opposite. The Cardinals have no problem mixing it up, probably because they could play exclusively zone or exclusively man and still have the best defense in the country.
Despite playing man-to-man for most of the season, the Cards went to a 2-3 matchup zone against the College of Charleston Tuesday night and forced 27 turnovers (including 18 steals), which is 11 more turnovers than Charleston averaged coming into the game. Early in the game, Louisville smothered Charleston so badly that the Cougars hit the top edge of the backboard on a shot that was taken from the top of the key. (In other words, the Charleston guy’s shot was about 10 feet too strong.) From there, things didn’t get any easier for the Cougars, as Louisville completely dominated a Charleston team that doesn’t suck as much as you might think (they did beat Baylor in Waco, after all). This, of course, is nothing we didn’t already know about Louisville. Defense has always been their strong suit, and when problems arise for the Cardinals, they typically come up on offense. But if Louisville continues defending as well as they did last night, they could try to drop-kick the ball through the basket on every other possession and still probably win.
(Note: If Louisville tried to drop-kick the ball through the basket like that, they wouldn’t actually win. Doing so is against the rules and would result in a turnover every time. Just thought I’d make that clear in case Rick Pitino is reading this and is thinking of using this strategy.)
Remember last week when I said that Georgetown’s Otto Porter and Maryland’s Alex Len were going to be neck and neck for this year’s Andrew Bogut Award (the fake award that goes to the nation’s most improved sophomore)? Well, what I meant to say was that they would be neck and neck for second place, because Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams is running away with it. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that if the season ended today, Carter-Williams would also get my nonexistent vote for first-team All-American. Those who haven’t watched Syracuse play probably think I’m crazy, which is why I should mention that the 6-foot-6 point guard is currently averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds, while his 9.5 assists and 3.7 steals per game are first and second in the country, respectively.
If Carter-Williams had any semblance of a jump shot, he’d be a lock for a top-10 pick in the NBA draft next year. Even though Syracuse’s James Southerland tied a school record by hitting nine 3′s at Arkansas last Friday and finished with 35 points, Carter-Williams was the best player on the court. He not only handled the Razorbacks’ pressure defense better than expected, but he also damn near put up a triple-double with 17 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds. He’s like a younger, not-quite-as-good-yet version of Evan “The Villain” Turner when he was at Ohio State. This is a compliment in that The Villain was National Player of the Year in 2010 and was a tall point guard who could do pretty much anything asked of him, but it’s also an insult in that The Villain still owes me 20 bucks and once gave my wife an unsolicited hug. Carter-Williams is somewhere between “terrible” and “meh” at shooting, but if I were a Syracuse fan this wouldn’t bother me because it means the Orange might get a third year out of him. With that in mind, is it too early to start the Michael Carter-Williams for 2014 National Player of the Year campaign?
Despite being trained over the course of my OSU career to detest everything about Michigan, I have no problem admitting that I’ve long been a fan of John Beilein’s teams. Manny Harris and De Shawn Sims’s final season in 2010 notwithstanding, Beilein always seems to get the most out of his players and has a knack for making them better. But as much as I’ve enjoyed watching him coach at West Virginia and Michigan over the years, his current Wolverine team is by far my favorite Beilein squad ever. Even though they have a ton of young stars who have been coddled their entire lives, they already seem to have put their egos aside and developed better chemistry than some teams loaded with upperclassmen. What’s most impressive is that hardly any of Michigan’s players are one-dimensional, which is becoming a rarity in college basketball. These days, teams seem to be made up of specialists with clearly defined roles. Even Indiana, to some extent, has a designated shooter (Jordan Hulls), a designated ball handler (Yogi Ferrell), a designated slasher (Victor Oladipo), etc. But with Michigan, just about every guy who gets minutes can do it all. It not only makes them damn near impossible to stop, it also makes them fun to watch.
Other than the fact that I would be a Michigan fan, what would most concern me if I were a Michigan fan is that the Wolverines basically only have six players who can be counted on to contribute in big games. Beilein, of course, will always play more than six guys, but other than Mitch McGary, I’m not sure I’d have much confidence in anyone coming off their bench. In a one-game, must-win situation, Belein can count on Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to go for 40 minutes, but that might be too much to ask of them over the course of a brutal Big Ten schedule. For now, however, the Wolverines have one of the most exciting teams in the country led by the best backcourt in the country. That alone is reason enough to be ecstatic about what this season could have in store.
If you want an idea of just how good Florida is, look no further than their 82-49 trouncing of Marquette last Thursday. Critics might argue that Marquette isn’t great this year, but before their loss to the Gators, the Golden Eagles were two points away from an undefeated season. What makes Florida so dangerous and the reason I’m power-ranking them higher than the AP or coaches’ polls is that they’re the only team in college basketball with eight guys who can score 20 points on any given night, as evidenced by the fact that six guys finished in double figures against Marquette and one of the few who didn’t was Kenny Boynton, who will likely end his career as Florida’s all-time leading scorer.
If there is cause for concern in Gainesville, it’s whether or not Patric Young can keep himself mentally engaged. Billy Donovan benched his starting center — the only low post guy the Gators have — at the beginning of the Marquette game because Young supposedly had a bad attitude in practice. Not surprisingly, Young responded to the benching by putting up a double-double when he finally got in the game. That solid performance gives reason to believe that Young is back on track, which would be great for Florida because Donovan can’t afford to teach him lessons by benching him once the conference season begins.
You know that guy at every college with 3 percent body fat who, whenever the temperature creeps above 70 degrees, peels his shirt off and plays acoustic guitar in the quad? He’s probably got some stubble and bedhead hair that makes it seem like he doesn’t care how he looks, when in reality he spends 45 minutes doing his hair and trimming his beard every morning. Well, you know how the only song he knows how to play is either “Wonderwall” or “Hey There Delilah,” yet all the girls who walk past him can’t help but fawn over how perfect he is? This guy is the equivalent of the Cameron Crazies. Let me explain.
In the same way you’re jealous of that guy’s abs, that he can kind of play the guitar, and that women go crazy for him, it’s hard not to envy how passionate and in-your-face Duke’s student section is. If everybody cared about world peace as much as the Crazies care about Duke basketball, the Israelis and Palestinians would get together every Wednesday night to play kickball and grab beers afterward. There’s a reason they’re the most famous student section in college basketball.
On the other hand, while you certainly are jealous of Duke’s student section, you don’t necessarily want your school’s student section to be like them. It’s like when you see the guy with the guitar and think, It would be so cool to have washboard abs and know how to play an instrument. But if I had those things, I wouldn’t dare be the shirtless doucher on the quad strumming “Wonderwall.” Same thing with the Crazies. You love their passion and you love the way they breathe down the opposing team’s neck for 40 minutes. But you would never want your student section to be exactly like that because, let’s be honest, the Cameron Crazies are pretty lame. After all, there’s a reason they’re also the easiest student section to ridicule.
Case in point: During Indiana’s game against North Carolina last Tuesday, I could make out two signs in the student section. One read, “Roy Williams wears cargo pants” and the other read, “Roy Williams cries during Grey’s Anatomy.” Not exactly pee-your-pants funny, but someone at least put forth some effort. The following day, when Duke played Ohio State, I again could make out two signs in Duke’s student section. One read, “Buck(s) Stop Here” and the other read, “Congrats on your undefeated season! Which bowl game do you think you’ll go to?”
Never mind that Duke students making fun of Ohio State’s football-bowl ban makes no sense because (a) making fun of OSU football to OSU basketball players is like trying to get inside Jay Cutler’s head by reminding him that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, and (b) Duke football is taken as seriously as Richard Simmons in a leotard. No, the real issue is that Duke students, who supposedly have some of the brightest young minds in America, couldn’t come up with anything clever to write on their signs. Bucks stop here? Asking which bowl game OSU will go to? Are you serious? Thad Matta is, by most standards, not an attractive man; Deshaun Thomas is one of maybe seven black guys in the world who has a red beard; and Aaron Craft’s cheeks are permanently rosy. You could have just taken that last sentence word-for-word, slapped it on a piece of poster board, and had a better sign than any of the Cameron Crazies had on Wednesday.
Put your shirt back on and go learn how to play a new song, Crazies. You’re embarrassing yourselves.
Last week, I power-ranked Duke ahead of the Hoosiers because Duke had a better résumé and I didn’t want to overreact to Indiana’s massacre of North Carolina. And even though Duke’s win over Kentucky went from being a statement win to a “How did they only beat them by seven?” win thanks to Kentucky’s collapse this past week, the Blue Devils still have the better résumé. But this week, the Hoosiers claim the top spot in college basketball’s most powerful power rankings because the eye-test results are just too strong to ignore. And based on the eye test, if college basketball teams were female dancers in rap videos (and I can’t think of a single reason why they shouldn’t be), Duke would be the girl who’s attractive, but about whom you can’t help thinking how ashamed her parents must be that she’s shaking her ass in rap videos. Meanwhile, Indiana is the woman who’s so fine that the idea of her disappointing anyone never crosses your mind because all you can think about is that she’s got dumps like a truck and thighs like what.5
I know Ohio State was a tougher test for Duke than North Carolina was for Indiana, but Duke struggling to beat a Buckeyes team they should’ve comfortably beaten just 24 hours after Indiana humiliated the Tar Heels was enough to convince me that the Hoosiers are the nation’s best. I still wish Christian Watford played with more urgency and I have doubts that Jordan Hulls can guard Big Ten 2-guards night in and night out,6 but Indiana doesn’t have any major flaws. With a weak remaining non-conference schedule (yes, Butler fans, I know they play the Bulldogs) and a back-loaded Big Ten schedule, the Hoosiers should be 21-0 heading into the three-game gauntlet of a home game against Michigan February 2, followed by back-to-back road games at Illinois and Ohio State, which means they should sit atop my power rankings for at least a couple more months.
The Halftime Half-Court Shot of the Week
One lucky Gonzaga fan was plucked from the crowd during halftime of Saturday’s game against Pacific, and he was offered the chance to hit a half-court shot for $1,200. This is what happened next.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is (b). See you next week.