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Like They Were Never Gone

Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

How Butler turns its irritating style of play into wins over top opponents like Indiana and Gonzaga

The most powerful power rankings in college basketball took an unplanned week off last week due to a personal issue, and for that I apologize. To be completely honest, I almost took this week off, too — I just can’t focus on college basketball while one of the most fascinating hoaxes ever continues to unfold. I’m so wrapped up in this story, and I can’t get enough. How did the media go so long without questioning things? How did the perpetrators think they could get away with it? Didn’t they know the public would eventually learn the truth? I can’t remember another story this remarkable, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get to the bottom of it all. All I ask is that sooner or later justice be served, because it’s entirely unacceptable for Subway’s Footlong subs to be only 11 inches.

By the way, before we get started, can we please have a moment of silence for the inevitable end of Frank Haith’s career at Missouri and, consequently, the end of Haith jokes in this column?

[Bowing my head while taps plays.]

OK. Let’s do this.

12. Kansas State

I don’t want to alarm anybody, but in just over a week Bruce Weber could be coaching a top-15 team in February. As I’m sure you know, this is up there with Googling “Google” and those pages in standardized-test booklets that say “this page is intentionally left blank” on the list of things most likely to make the universe implode. I can only imagine how Illinois fans must feel. Although, on second thought, it shouldn’t be that shocking that Weber is off to a good start at K-State. After all, in his first two years at Illinois he won back-to-back Big Ten titles and made two deep runs in the NCAA tournament, including the 2005 national title game loss to North Carolina. Only after that did Weber’s pattern emerge: Start the season with loads of promise, then ease off the gas in January and coast to an NIT appearance or an early loss in the NCAA tournament. I guess the universe will implode only if three years from now Weber is winning with his own recruits in February. We might be safe after all.

By the way, can you think of a starter on a top-15 team who, on the surface, looks like he belongs on a basketball court less than Will Spradling? Yeah, you’re right — Jordan Hulls will always top him. It’s not even fair, really. Maybe the best way to go about this is to name the award after Hulls, make him ineligible for it, and give the first Jordan Hulls Award to Will Spradling. I’ll think about this. Stay tuned.

11. Minnesota

Speaking of coaches with histories of fading down the stretch, in Tubby Smith’s first five seasons at Minnesota, these are his teams’ non-conference records, followed by their final records:

Now, I’m not saying that Minnesota fans need to panic. The Gophers’ only three losses this season have come to top-10 teams. At the same time, though, they were badly outplayed in their last two games, and it’s impossible to ignore their trend of starting out hot and then fading at this time every year. This is why the Gophers’ next two games — at Northwestern and at Wisconsin — are huge. History says they’ll play poorly at Northwestern but still squeak out the win, and then get beat handily by Wisconsin, triggering a nosedive. But this is the best team Tubby has ever had at Minnesota, so this could be the year the trend stops.

10. Gonzaga

I know Saturday’s loss at Butler was tough, but Zags fans shouldn’t feel too upset, because it’s nearly impossible to win a marquee game in Hinkle Fieldhouse for a variety of reasons.1 The place is older than Jerry Tarkanian by two years,2 yet the original floor is still in use and I’m pretty sure the baskets are the first model that came out after peach baskets fell out of use. This means the place has a ton of quirks that require getting used to. We played at Butler my senior year at Ohio State, and during practice in Hinkle the night before the game, most of my teammates spent a good half-hour complaining about the lighting, trying to figure out where the dead spots on the floor were, and investigating how tight or loose the rims were. This isn’t meant to be an excuse. It’s just a fact — Hinkle is unlike any gym in America. It’s like playing Xbox when you own a PS3. It’s similar enough that you can’t use it as an excuse, but it’s still uncomfortable enough to have some impact on your performance.

Of course, if you watched even 10 minutes of the Gonzaga-Butler game, you heard plenty of Hinkle Fieldhouse history already. As far as the game is concerned, I thought Gonzaga played pretty well. The same issues that have plagued the Foreigners all year were present — defending the 3-point line and, really, just defending in general. But the loss to Butler isn’t too devastating for Gonzaga when you look at it this way: The Bulldogs, a top-15 team playing at home, needed a miracle to beat Gonzaga. That’s how good the boys from Spokane are.3 Sure, the Foreigners got little from their guards (including absolutely nothing from Gary Bell Jr.), but we knew going in that they’d have a huge size advantage over Butler, so it makes sense that Gonzaga relied so heavily on their frontcourt. So chin up, Zags fans. This loss stings now, but it will make the Foreigners better in March, which is why I’m sticking by my claim that Mark Few will advance further in the NCAA tournament this year than ever before.

9. Louisville

What is happening to Louisville? Not too long ago, the Cardinals looked like a juggernaut. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith were wreaking havoc with their ball pressure, Gorgui Dieng was anchoring things down low, and Luke Hancock was shot-faking every time he touched the ball. They were like a well-oiled machine: Force a turnover, score in transition, set up the press, and repeat. In their last two games, however, it’s been a completely different story. From my perspective, Louisville’s biggest problem is that their half-court offense is so nonexistent that Manti Te’o has already proposed marriage to it. The Cardinals don’t really set screens, they don’t cut very hard, they take too many bad shots, they don’t get the ball to Russ Smith nearly enough,4 and they generally look like they have no idea what they’re doing when they’re not scoring in transition. Because they can only set up their press when they score, and because they struggle to score in the half-court, the problem compounds itself and inexplicable losses happen, like Tuesday night at Villanova.

I understand struggling against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. This isn’t the greatest defensive team Syracuse has ever had, but Jim Boeheim’s teams always create headaches with the zone. What I don’t understand is how Louisville can struggle against Villanova’s man-to-man. All it took was Villanova hard-hedging ball screens to frustrate Louisville, which is pretty inexcusable considering hard-hedging is pretty common in college basketball. Not once do I remember seeing a Louisville ball handler try to split the hedge against Villanova, nor did I see a Cardinals player flip his screen at the last second.5 It seemed like these guys had never played organized basketball before and all they knew how to do was be fast and athletic.

It should be said that Louisville was blown out at Providence last year, lost back-to-back games three different times, and still made the Final Four, so consecutive losses don’t exactly take them out of the national title picture. But if they can’t figure out how to score aside from transition offense or just hoping Russ Smith gets hot, spring break will come early for Pitino’s gang.

8. Indiana

Excluding the fact that Derek Elston’s shoulder tattoo hasn’t gotten any bigger in at least a month, the Wisconsin Buzzcuts beating Indiana in Assembly Hall last week is the year’s biggest upset. But maybe it shouldn’t be. That’s because it’s become pretty clear that Indiana’s kryptonite is playing slow. When the game is being played in the 70s or 80s like the Hoosiers prefer,6 they’re the best team in the country and look unstoppable. But, like Louisville, when they’re forced to run a half-court offense, they look as frustrated as an armless man trying to thread a needle. By my count, the Hoosiers have played four teams that are known for playing slow: Georgetown, Butler, Wisconsin, and Northwestern. Unsurprisingly, these were probably the four worst games Indiana has played this year.7

So what does this mean? Well, for one, it doesn’t bode well for the Hoosiers’ chances to win the Big Ten, which has a reputation for physical, belabored basketball. It’s much easier to get your opponent to slow down than it is to speed them up,8 which is why I expect the remainder of Indiana’s opponents to do everything possible to control tempo. Even teams like Ohio State and Michigan State, which aren’t afraid to get out in transition, will probably walk the ball up the floor and make Indiana guard them for the duration of the shot clock. With the exception of Michigan, every team in the Big Ten knows that getting into a shootout with Indiana is suicide, so expect more slow games in the Hoosiers’ future.

The good news, at least, is that the NCAA tournament is a different game than the Big Ten season, mostly because it’s officiated differently. Instead of a crop of referees indoctrinated by the Big Ten’s suits to let players get away with murder, tournament refs come from all sorts of conferences and therefore call a tighter game. This leads to more of a finesse brand of basketball that better suits Indiana. So don’t worry, IU fans. The Hoosiers might not look great in January and February, but come March they’ll be a caged animal ready to go on a rampage. At least that’s the hope.

7. Butler

If you ever wonder how a team with a bunch of undersized, non-athletic guys can have so much success, this is all you need to know: Butler plays the most physical defense in the country. Obviously, it’s not quite that simple, but this fact more than anything else explains Butler’s success. Yes, they have good shooters, they’re fundamentally sound, and they’re well coached,9 but the bottom line is that they win because they can bang with guys much bigger than them. “But,” you’re probably wondering, “why don’t the bigger and stronger teams just get physical right back?” Well, they do, and that’s exactly what Butler wants. I’ll explain.

When Butler’s opponents try to match the Bulldogs’ physicality, Butler flops. “Flop” has a huge negative connotation in basketball, so I want to make it clear that I don’t mean it in a bad way here. What Butler does isn’t like Chris Paul’s “I just got shot by an invisible sniper” flopping. No, they do just enough to make sure the ref can see they got fouled. This frustrates the hell out of their opponents, and rightfully so. After so many minutes of getting pushed around, Butler’s opponents say to themselves, “Oh, it’s going to be like this? OK. I can play rough too.” And as soon as they start to focus more on the physicality of the game than the game itself, Butler makes sure the refs can see that they’re getting fouled.10 Like the middle-aged man at your local YMCA, they perfectly straddle the line between playing smart and playing cheap, which explains why so many people love watching them and others think they’re boring and overrated.

No matter your view on the Bulldogs’ style of play, the bottom line is that they continue to beat good teams and they once again appear to be a Final Four threat — especially when you consider that they just beat a top-10 team without guard Rotnei Clarke, who is far and away their best player.

HALFTIME

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 Butler vs. Gonzaga game played in Indianapolis on Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Rece Davis?

  1. ESPN shows a graphic comparing the career statistics of Brad Stevens and Mark Few. Vitale uses this as a springboard to talk about how Stevens is the best young coach in the game and how he reminds Vitale of a young Mike Krzyzewski. Speaking of Coach K, Vitale continues, it’s amazing how successful he’s been while doing things the right way. Dickie V. then tacks on a jab at Lance Armstrong for doping, before realizing the other big story in sports this week was the Manti Te’o hoax. He says he hopes Te’o wasn’t in on it and he already feels bad for the guy because of what transpired in the national championship. Speaking of which, Vitale says he feels bad for himself because ever since that game he’s been hearing trash talk from his colleague, Alabama alum Rece Davis.
  2. Gonzaga starts out the game in zone, prompting Vitale to mention that if Rotnei Clarke were healthy he would love playing against a zone because he’s such a great shooter. To back up this point, Vitale mentions that Florida coach Billy Donovan once told him that Clarke was one of the best shooters he had ever seen. Speaking of Donovan, Vitale wants to congratulate him for winning his 400th game at Florida earlier in the day, when the Gators beat Missouri. That emphatic win is enough for Dickie V. to name Florida his team of the week. He then says that Florida also had a big win against Texas A&M earlier in the week, which was a game that was worked by Rece Davis.
  3. During one of the many Hinkle Fieldhouse history lessons ESPN shared, Dan Shulman mentions that the game that inspired Hoosiers took place in Hinkle, when Bobby Plump hit the game-winner to give Milan High School their only state championship in 1954. What a lot of people don’t realize about Plump, Vitale says, is that he went on to have a good career at Butler, where he led the Bulldogs to their first ever NCAA tournament win in 1957 by beating Michigan. Vitale then jokes that Plump hit the game-winner in that game, too, except this time he hit it over his colleague Jalen Rose. He immediately makes it clear that he’s joking and confesses that it actually doesn’t seem like that long ago that Rose was at Michigan as part of the Fab Five. Vitale says he feels bad for Rose because he now has to share a set with what he jokes is the “Terrible Three” — Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps, and Rece Davis.

6. Arizona

I could waste time writing about how the loss at Oregon was inevitable and how it’s not that big of a deal because Oregon has a good team and Arizona is young. And I could say that dropping a game might have actually been a good thing because Arizona’s undefeated start seemed to be putting pressure on the Cats, who looked much better in their last two games. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is that not long after this column gets published, I’m boarding a Tucson-bound plane to watch Arizona play UCLA on Thursday night. The McKale Center is one of the few gyms left on my bucket list, and from what I’ve heard, the place gets pretty wild, even though the fans’ average age is between 80 and dead. So the pressure is on, Arizona fans. I expect an atmosphere that rivals LeBron’s first game back in Cleveland, Best Buy on Black Friday, and pretty much every ECW crowd ever. Don’t let me down.

5. Duke

Duke being the top-ranked team in the country despite Ryan Kelly being probably out for the year confuses me. I guess if you rank teams based on who has the best overall résumé, the Blue Devils have a strong argument for the top spot, but all of their marquee wins came in November. Those early wins against Louisville and Minnesota mean very little now, especially when you consider Duke should’ve started out hot since they entered the season with a ton of experience.

Truth be told, it’s hard to tell just how good Duke is without Kelly. They certainly aren’t the best team in the country, because they have no frontcourt depth. Actually, they just have no depth. Duke fans are lucky that the ACC isn’t great this year, so the team probably won’t suffer a losing streak while they figure out how to play without Kelly. But considering how bad they’ve looked in his absence (Duke followed their loss at North Carolina State by trailing a terrible Georgia Tech team at home in the second half), I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blue Devils never fully recover from Kelly’s loss. This makes Wednesday’s game at Miami the biggest game of the season so far for Duke. A win would go a long way toward making me a believer again, while another uninspiring loss might make me think this team’s ceiling is the Sweet 16.

4. Florida

I’ve been on the Gators’ bandwagon all year. I consistently power-rank them higher than they’re ranked in the actual polls because I’ve said 100 times that they’re the best team in the country that nobody is talking about. Ask one of your buddies who lives outside of SEC territory who he thinks the top 10 teams are and I’m guessing he’ll forget Florida. It’s baffling how little attention the Gators receive, which is why I’ve tried to inform the masses that there’s a good chance they’ll be playing in their third consecutive Elite Eight in a couple months.

But I might start taking back all the good things I’ve said about Florida, because they took things too far on Saturday, when they obliterated Missouri in a 31-point blowout. The plan was simple: Make Frank Haith do something stupid so I could continue to make jokes about his coaching, and continue to put Missouri fans in the awkward position of partially agreeing with me while also defending Haith because they think I hate their team. The plan wasn’t to completely humiliate Haith days before it was reported that he’ll likely be slapped with a show-cause penalty by the NCAA for his involvement with the Nevin Shapiro fiasco at Miami. If the Missouri higher-ups thought he was a great coach, maybe they’d be willing to take a gamble and keep him around even with the allegations attached to him. But now that they received word of a looming penalty just days after Haith’s team was mutilated at Florida, there’s no way he’s keeping his job.

So thanks a lot, Florida. All I wanted was for you to give Haith a purple nurple, but you just had to get carried away and kill the poor bastard. Now my days of making jokes at his expense are numbered. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive you.

3. Syracuse

Syracuse’s win at Louisville on Saturday was the most impressive performance by any team I’ve seen all season. The Orange had no business being in that game whatsoever. None. Their best scorer, James Southerland, is ineligible; their point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, was awful for the first 30 minutes of the game; and they were playing the top-ranked team in the country on the road. If it weren’t for Brandon Triche carrying Syracuse in the first half, they probably would’ve been down 20 at halftime, accepted their fate, and just played the second half as a formality. Instead, the Orange hung around, played their best defense of the year, and never got rattled when it felt like the wheels were about to fall off. Then, when the game mattered most, Carter-Williams came to life and made clutch play after clutch play and stole the win. I’m not sure how many teams can beat Louisville at Louisville without playing well, but I know Syracuse is on that short list.

Some might worry that the Orange followed their big win with a lackluster performance at home against Cincinnati, but I wouldn’t sweat it too much. The Bearcats are pretty good, and it’s understandable that Syracuse would still be patting themselves on the back after their huge win at Louisville. Obviously it would’ve been nice to win convincingly against Cincinnati, but gritting out a close win against a good team is never a cause for shame. I still think Syracuse needs Southerland back to be taken seriously as a national title favorite, but it’s clear that they don’t miss him quite as much as I thought they would.

2. Michigan

If you’re wondering how good this team is, here’s all you need to know: I’m an Ohio State alum who has been trained over the course of the past six years to hate everything about Michigan. Yet when my alma mater jumped out to a huge lead against the Wolverines last Saturday, a small part of me was hoping they’d claw back into the game, because I love watching this team at its best. Of course, I didn’t want Michigan to win, and they came closer to pulling off the comeback than I would’ve preferred, but I’ll admit that when Ohio State was handing their asses to them in the first half, the basketball fan in me was bummed I wasn’t seeing the Trey Burke & Co. that I’ve grown to admire.

Thankfully, that Michigan team returned in the following game at Minnesota, when they produced the biggest statement win in the Big Ten this year. With respect to the Wisconsin Buzzcuts, at this point it’s clear that there are only five teams that have a legitimate chance at winning the conference — Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, and Ohio State. The team that will ultimately come out on top is likely going to be the team that can win on the others’ home courts. So by going into the Barn and basically telling Minnesota to go back to the kids’ table, Michigan has positioned itself in the Big Ten driver’s seat. Shamefully, this Ohio State alum is fine with this.

1. Kansas

After a few close calls bumped them from the top spot of college basketball’s most powerful power rankings, the Jayhawks are back. This time, though, it was a more difficult decision for me. The truth is, I could throw any number of teams into a hat and randomly pick one to sit atop my power rankings, but I’m giving the nod to Kansas because even though they’ve had a lot of recent close calls, they continue to win while seemingly everyone else loses.

Really, the only significant difference between Kansas a month ago — when I thought they were clearly better than everyone else in the country — and Kansas now is Elijah Johnson. Johnson was never going to run the point as well as Tyshawn Taylor did last season, but a month ago he seemed to be settling into the role well enough for Kansas to succeed. In his last two games, however, he’s been pretty bad, shooting a combined 4-for-21 and committing eight turnovers versus six assists. The good news for Kansas is that they still have Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore, who is looking more and more like the front-runner to be the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft in June. With these two guys consistently bringing it and with the Jayhawks playing great defense night in and night out, Johnson doesn’t have to be spectacular for Kansas to reach their potential. He just has to be a poor man’s Tyshawn Taylor instead of a poor man’s Jordan Juenemann.

The Twitter Account of the Week

Considering I have Kansas power-ranked first and Missouri and Kansas State’s coaches are frequent targets of mine, I’m worried that I’m coming across as too much of a Jayhawks fan.11 This next bit won’t improve that situation, but it’s too good not to share. A few readers informed me about the Twitter account @KUBoobs, which is pretty much exactly what its username suggests it is — an account dedicated to female Kansas fans who support the Jayhawks by displaying their assets. I’ve spent the past few days perusing the account for, um, research purposes, and as best I can tell the account tweets nothing but close-up cleavage shots of women wearing Kansas shirts. This idea seems remarkably stupid, but I happen to be a fan because, well, you know …

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B.

See you next week.

Filed Under: Indiana, Mark Titus, NCAA, People, Power Rankings, Series, Sports, Teams

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Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

Archive @ clubtrillion