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Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

Indiana may be the best team in college basketball, but no one has more fun than the Kansas Jayhawks

With the NCAA tournament nearing, “résumé” is the big buzzword in college basketball. Who has the best résumé? This team passes the eye test, but what does their résumé say? Two things drive me crazy about this kind of talk. First of all, the résumé people tend to think that November and December are just as important as February and March. This makes as much sense as the WWE Hall of Fame’s induction of Drew Carey but not Randy Savage. I don’t think the first couple months of the season are irrelevant, but I also don’t believe that because Team A beat Team B before Thanksgiving, Team A is automatically better than Team B on St. Patrick’s Day. A lot happens during the season, and when tournament time comes around all that matters is who’s playing well now, yet the résumé hawks place so much value on early-season games.

Another problem with comparing win-loss records and strength of schedule is that not all losses are equal. Duke’s loss at Miami isn’t the same as Michigan State’s loss at Miami. Iowa State’s loss at Kansas isn’t the same as Kansas State’s loss at Kansas. Indiana’s loss at Illinois isn’t the same as Ohio State’s loss at Illinois. But if you just looked at these teams’ résumés and their road records vs. RPI top-30 teams, they’d have a number in the L column that doesn’t tell the whole story. Why isn’t there such a thing as a good loss? Or, if there are no good losses, how about some not-bad ones? Why is getting blown out considered no different from getting beat on a last-second shot or losing in overtime? This will never make sense to me.

12. Oklahoma State

While we’re talking about pet peeves, here’s another one of mine: The incessant talk about when it’s acceptable for students to storm the court. There is no more irrelevant topic in college basketball that gets talked about so frequently — not which teams would be the best if their players hadn’t left early for the NBA, not the NIT, and not even Ashley Judd. I bring this up because after Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma in overtime last weekend, the OSU student section spilled onto the court to celebrate, much to the chagrin of some grumpy college basketball fans. Oklahoma was unranked and the Cowboys were nine-point favorites, which in the eyes of party poopers apparently meant the Oklahoma State fans had no right to enjoy themselves.

At least once a week someone asks for my thoughts on court-storming, and since I don’t think I’ve ever answered publicly, let me get this out of the way right now. I’m with fellow Grantland writer Shane Ryan, who put it eloquently in this Triangle post. If you’re too lazy to click the link, here’s the gist of my opinion: Who gives a shit? Let college kids be college kids.

Some people think rushing the court is dangerous because students can get trampled. The risk of that happening seems very low to me, and college students are adults who can make their own decisions. They understand the risk of joining an ecstatic mob, and they can stay in their seats if they don’t want to take the risk (by the way, that “risk” is pretty much nonexistent). The most common argument put forth by anti–court stormers, however, is that such behavior makes the basketball program look bad, which is also pretty stupid reasoning. Apparently, you’re supposed to celebrate only monumental wins, and even then you’re supposed to act like you’ve been there before?

Again, who gives a damn? Do you really think all those kids who take pulls of Maker’s Mark during timeouts and who are really only at the game to partake in a massive pre-party care about Oklahoma State’s basketball history? They just want to have a good time. Why should they have to sacrifice that to protect the way a bunch of old guys they’ve never met before view their school’s basketball program? Why should they have to take a college basketball history lesson, know the spread, know their team’s ranking, know their opponent’s ranking, and all sorts of other nonsense? All that should ever be asked of a student section is for its members to get drunk, cheer like hell for the home team, and cheer like hell against the visitors. As long as they don’t throw stuff on the court and don’t start fights with opposing fans, they’re good. Anything else is fair game, including storming the court after a five-point overtime win against a team that was a nine-point underdog.

More power to you, Oklahoma State fans. I’ve got your backs.

11. Michigan

Good news: Glenn Robinson III went 6-for-6 against Penn State last Sunday and tied a career high with 21 points. His slump appears to be over.

Bad news: Robinson did it against Penn State in Ann Arbor. Most of his struggles this season have come on the road against good teams, which is understandable, considering he’s a freshman. But it’s also worrisome, since every game the Wolverines play in the NCAA tournament will be against a good team away from home.

Good news: Trey Burke shot only four 3-pointers on Sunday and finished with 29 points. During Michigan’s 1-3 skid, I thought Burke settled for 3s far too often. He made a good deal of those shots, but Michigan is best when Burke gets his teammates involved first and then scores when defenses get wrapped up trying to stop Robinson, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Nik Stauskas. In the past couple weeks, though, he rarely made plays for others and jacked up too many outside shots whenever defenders gave him space.

Bad news: Burke couldn’t get Hardaway going against Penn State. In his last two games, Hardaway is 4-for-22, including 1-for-11 from behind the 3-point line. He’s been streaky his entire career, so this is nothing new. Hardaway will probably find his shot in the next few games. But given the unforgiving nature of the NCAA tournament and the fact that Robinson has struggled with inconsistency, too, the Wolverines can’t afford to cross their fingers and hope that Hardaway finds his jump shot in the next week and then keeps it for another six weeks.

Good news: Nik Stauskas has been consistently great all season. Rarely do freshman role players whose only job is to knock down 3s shoot as well as Stauskas has. He’s shooting an absurd 47 percent from behind the arc, which compares favorably to the freshman seasons of other renowned shooters like Jon Diebler (29 percent), Scott Wood (37 percent), Rotnei Clarke (39 percent), Jordan Hulls (40 percent), Blake Hoffarber (43 percent), Lee Humphrey (44 percent), and Mark Titus (50 percent).

Bad news: People will be calling Stauskas overrated for the rest of his career. He hasn’t gotten a ton of hype this year because he shares the court with three future NBA guys, but he’s gotten enough attention to put him on the “white guys who are considered good by the media and aren’t 6-foot-9 or taller are automatically overrated” track. Next year, after Burke, Hardaway, and Robinson have fled to the NBA, Stauskas will average 15 points per game and will be second- or third-team All–Big Ten. Then in the offseason before his junior year, he’ll develop a midrange game and a reliable floater and he’ll become a good all-around scorer. He’ll receive a few first-team all-conference votes at the end of that season, and then he’ll plateau as a senior because the rest of the Big Ten will have scouted him so well. This will prompt the college basketball world to proclaim that he’s “the most overrated player ever.” That’s just how it works. Just ask Jimmer Fredette, Tyler Hansbrough, Ben Hansbrough, J.J. Redick, Drew Neitzel, Gerry McNamara, Aaron Craft, Keiton Page, Luke Harangody, and pretty much anyone who has ever played for Butler or Wisconsin.

10. Georgetown

Along with “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” the phrase “Defense wins championships” is the kind of overused and not always true coach-speak that has driven me nuts since I told my peewee coach I was going to skip practice because “there’s no point busting my ass if there aren’t babes in the stands” and he got in my face. But Georgetown’s win at Cincinnati last Friday was an example of why this phrase isn’t going away anytime soon. At the start of the game, the Hoyas’ offense had a worse success rate than the Shrine of the Silver Monkey. Georgetown missed its first six shots and had only 13 points midway through the first half despite playing a fairly up-tempo game. What’s worse, many of their misses were layups, and Bob Knight thought every one of them would have gone in if the Hoyas would’ve shot-faked.1 Considering they were playing a pretty good team on the road, a dismal start might have put the Hoyas in a huge hole. But thanks to hard-nosed defense (and terrible Cincinnati shooting), Georgetown never trailed by more than three.

This is why coaches place such a huge emphasis on defense. At some point, every team goes cold. With Georgetown, this happens pretty frequently, as the Hoyas have failed to score 50 points four times this season. But in all but one of those games, their defense made scoring just as difficult for their opponents. Teams that consistently play good defense can survive the inevitable off nights on offense, which is why this will make Georgetown such a tough out in the NCAA tournament.

9. Duke

“At this point in their careers, it’s obvious that [Mason] Plumlee and [Seth] Curry know how to get theirs. Sure, they’ll have occasional off nights, but you can pretty much bet on a double-double from Plumlee and 15-plus points from Curry every night.”
— Me, last week

Whoops. Three days after I wrote that, Plumlee had the worst game of his career. Playing at Maryland, he fouled out in 33 minutes and finished with four points, all of which came in the first half. The poor scoring wasn’t the biggest problem, though. Maryland’s big man, Alex Len, will be drafted in the top 10 at this year’s NBA draft, so Plumlee’s struggles were understandable. What baffled me was how he finished with just three rebounds.

Even before Duke power forward Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury in January, the Blue Devils were struggling with rebounding, and since then the problem has only gotten worse. Last Wednesday against North Carolina, the Blue Devils gave up 18 offensive rebounds. Then, on Saturday, Maryland outrebounded them by 21. Without Kelly, nearly all of the rebounding responsibility falls on Plumlee, which is why it’s disappointing to see a player who many thought would win the Wooden Award not rise to the occasion. Rebounding requires very little talent compared to other fundamental basketball skills, and really doesn’t require that much size either.2 It’s about being physical and tough, and Plumlee’s performance at College Park was neither of those. Len’s presence is a fair excuse for Plumlee’s inability to score against Maryland, but there was no excuse for him getting outrebounded by five different Terrapin players. I’m guessing Plumlee knows this and I’m guessing he’s pretty disappointed with himself, which is why I expect him to go for 20 and 20 against Virginia Tech on Thursday.

8. Syracuse

Aside from the huge rebounding disparity, Syracuse’s game at UConn was pretty much the same as Duke’s game at Maryland. The home crowd in Hartford were amped to see their longtime Big East rival for what figures to be the last time, since the Orange will be moving to the ACC after this season. Syracuse played like they didn’t want to face the Huskies this last time, though, as most of the Orange players showed no defensive intensity whatsoever. As disturbing as it is that all the Syracuse players not named James Southerland shot a combined 0-for-14 from the 3-point line,3 the Orange’s sluggish defense was the biggest reason for their loss, and will likely be the culprit if they get upset in the NCAA tournament.

All season long I’ve said that everything starts on defense with Syracuse. The length of their zone can force opponents into bad shots and turnovers, which lead to easy transition buckets for a team that doesn’t execute its half-court offense all that well. But when Syracuse just goes through the motions on defense, teams can penetrate into the center of the zone, pass the ball around a few times, and get any shot they want like UConn did last Saturday. It’s like the Orange don’t realize that defense wins championships and hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

7. Florida

Yep. We’re in the Tyson Zone. When a Frank Haith–coached team can come back from down 13 to win a one-possession game against a team that some felt was the best in the country and I’m not even that surprised, the Tyson Zone is the only explanation. Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else watching Tuesday night’s Missouri-Florida tilt, I fully expected the Tigers to choke the game away after they came back. But when they didn’t, my reaction was more mild surprise than utter shock. As the self-appointed leader of the Frank Haith Hater Club, it’s only fair that I give credit where it’s due and applaud Haith for pulling off an upset that I never considered possible. This is why I don’t gamble on sports, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t gamble on college basketball. Not this season.

As far as I can tell, Florida’s problems can be traced back to one thing: Erik Murphy’s peach fuzz. It’s obvious that the peach fuzz goatee Murphy was rocking a month ago is what gave him his powers. Here are the facts: On February 2, Murphy had a nice peach fuzz mustache on his face. That same day, he scored 19 points, hit five 3s, and led Florida past 16th-ranked Ole Miss. On February 19, however, Murphy was clean-shaven and went 3-for-11 from the field including 2-for-9 from the 3-point line. He finished with just eight points and Florida lost to Missouri. Coincidence?

Probably.

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 Indiana vs. Michigan State game played in East Lansing on Tuesday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Doug Collins?

  1. While Magic Johnson, who joined Vitale and Mike Tirico on the broadcast panel, says he loves being back at Michigan State, Dickie V. interrupts him to say that it’s special to see him and Mateen Cleaves staying close to the MSU program. Speaking of Cleaves, Vitale continues, the 2000 Spartans were the last Big Ten team to win a national championship. Magic says as good as that team was, he thought the 2001 team with Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph might have been even better. Vitale agrees and adds that both players have had great NBA careers, with Randolph currently in Memphis and Richardson in Philadelphia playing for Doug Collins.
  2. Michigan State’s Keith Appling gets fouled on a drive to the basket. While he shoots free throws, Dickie V. mentions that Appling played for Detroit’s Pershing High School, whose team this year is undefeated and has a few good players. Vitale says another interesting fact about Pershing is that Will Robinson coached there. As Vitale says, Robinson eventually became the first African American head coach in Division I hoops when he took the Illinois State job, where one of his players was Doug Collins.
  3. With Lakers owner Jerry Buss’s recent passing, Mike Tirico asks Magic Johnson to share some memories of Buss. After Magic obliges, Dickie V. says he believes Buss’s illness has been a big factor in the Lakers’ struggles this season. He also says that Mike D’Antoni is unfairly taking most of the blame. Vitale then reminds viewers that even though D’Antoni played most of his career in Italy, he was drafted 20th overall in the 1973 NBA draft, and the no. 1 overall pick in that draft was Doug Collins.

6. Kansas

Since last week, Kansas beat the snot out of a Texas team that some thought might challenge them because the Longhorns have Myck Kabongo back from suspension and then released a not-as-bad-as-I-expected Harlem Shake video. I think it’s fair to say the Jayhawks have their mojo back.

The video already has almost 2 million views, but I’m guessing that most of these views come from people watching it a second, third, and 97th time so they can look for something different every time. I’ve seen it probably 30 times now, and my advice for first-time viewers is this: Pay attention to the white guy in the back left corner, who surprisingly isn’t Jeff Withey.

I’m not sure about Kansas’s chances of winning the national title, but I know this much: No team in college basketball is having more fun this season than the Jayhawks.

5. Louisville

Louisville is currently playing three consecutive games against the three worst teams in the Big East, so instead of analyzing glorified scrimmages, let’s watch the Cardinals’ highlights against South Florida and marvel at Chane Behanan’s behind-the-back pass/save to Russ Smith.

If this play had happened in a closer game against a better team, we’d be slobbering all over ourselves and calling it one of the best plays of the season. But it happened in a blowout against South Florida, which is why I’ve taken it upon myself to give this play the attention it deserves. Anyway, chout-out to Chane Behanan for the best pass I’ve seen in college basketball this year. If that play is any indication of his passing ability (it isn’t — that play was really just a fluke that took as much luck as skill), maybe Rick Pitino chould put the ball in Chane’s hands at the end of close games.

4. Miami

Miami’s success reminds me of Arizona’s hot streak at the beginning of the season. The Hurricanes keep winning, but far too many of their wins are close games against bad teams. In the past week, Miami beat Florida State, Clemson, and Virginia by an average of four points, and of those three teams only Virginia has any chance of making the NCAA tournament. The Hurricanes’ experienced lineup is a big reason why people have been so high on them lately. Miami starts four seniors and brings another off the bench as the sixth man. But how much experience do they really have? In how many meaningful games have they played? How many times have they had a few days to think about the magnitude of an upcoming game, stay mentally focused, take a good team’s best shot, and still come out with the win? Unless you want to count Miami’s win over Duke when the Blue Devils were still figuring out how to fill the Ryan Kelly void, the answer is once (at North Carolina State). I’ve played more minutes in the NCAA tournament than everyone on Miami’s roster combined. If you don’t think this is a huge red flag for the Hurricanes, well, you’re wrong.

I know saying this makes me a Miami hater. I know Miami fans just want everyone to applaud the Hurricanes and say they’re the feel-good story of the year. They got no respect in the preseason and now they look like they’ll get a no. 1 seed. Well, congrats. I applaud the job Jim Larranaga has done. The fact that I’m even talking about Miami right now is a minor miracle. But let’s keep things in perspective. Does this team really have what it takes to win a national championship? If I’m a Miami fan, am I really feeling confident that we’re going to be playing in the Final Four, or am I just happy to be exceeding expectations and leading the ACC? As of now, I’m leaning toward the latter. There have just been too many close calls against too many bad teams. My opinion may change in the next few weeks, especially if Miami beats Duke in Durham. In the meantime, consider me a skeptic. Having a bunch of upperclassmen isn’t the same thing as having experience. The NCAA tournament is a whole different animal, and Miami’s regular-season success will earn it a huge target on its back. Being hunted by hungry, upstart squads is unfamiliar territory for every Miami player and even their coach. If the team’s recent nail-biters against weak opponents are any indication, then Miami isn’t handling this reality that well. We’ll see how much meaningful experience they can gain over the next month.

3. Michigan State

I don’t care if it makes me a homer to say this: If the Big Ten doesn’t get two no. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, I will berate the selection committee, threaten to boycott the tournament, and then completely forget about the injustice and enjoy myself like I always do. But rest assured, for those first few days I will be super pissed and I will talk a big game with absolutely no intention of backing it up. You have my word.

There’s no denying that the Big Ten is miles ahead of every other conference this year. Its teams are better, its players are better, its games are more entertaining, and with the exception of Penn State and Northwestern, the conference’s crowds have been insane pretty much every night. This is the best Big Ten season in my lifetime, and it’s coming at a time when college basketball as a whole isn’t that great. I don’t expect this to last after this year, but for a lifelong Big Ten basketball fan who has had to endure some pretty boring basketball, I’m in heaven.

As for Michigan State, there was no shame in Tuesday’s loss to Indiana. The Hoosiers are playing their best basketball of the season, and the Spartans still had a chance to win down the stretch. If Keith Appling hadn’t laid his second egg of the year in that game and if Derrick Nix hadn’t destroyed MSU’s momentum by ball-tapping Cody Zeller and forcing the officials to spend 10 minutes watching replays before ultimately deciding that intentionally hitting a guy in the nuts is fair play, the Spartans might have beaten Indiana. In fact, if Michigan State had started the game by playing physical and bullying Indiana in the paint, they might have won easily. Instead, the Spartans tried to run with the Hoosiers early and couldn’t keep up.

Even so, Michigan State have no reason to hang their head. They played well and lost to a better team. Then again, maybe they should be upset, because losing to Indiana by four will probably be viewed by the résumé goons as the same thing as Purdue’s 37-point loss to the Hoosiers.

2. Gonzaga

MICHAEL JORDAN’S SHOT SHOULDN’T HAVE COUNTED. THERE WAS AN OBVIOUS CLOCK MALFUNCTION. THE LAST FOUR SECONDS OF THE GAME TOOK 28 SECONDS AND THERE’S NO WAY THE FOOTAGE WAS SLOWED DOWN BY A FACTOR OF SEVEN. THE MONSTARS WERE ROBBED.4

Sorry to use all caps. I did it because I suspect that most readers of this column skip straight to their team’s section, play Dick’s Degrees of Separation, check out whatever I tag on the end, and skim through the rest looking for something interesting. I wanted to grab your attention with that little Space Jam nugget because if you plan on filling out a tournament bracket this year, this is something you need to know: Gonzaga is good. Like, really good. Like, they have the best frontcourt in the country to go along with skilled, athletic guards. They aren’t just power-ranked second in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball by default. The Foreigners can hoop.

The knock on the Foreigners from people who haven’t been paying attention to them this year is that they don’t play anybody. And while the West Coast Conference certainly isn’t great, this isn’t exactly the truth, because according to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology, Gonzaga has won seven games against tournament teams with an average margin of victory of more than 12 points. Plus, all but two of these wins came away from home.5 Along with Indiana and Michigan State, the Foreigners are one of the few teams in college basketball this season without an embarrassing loss. I’m not saying they should be national title favorites or that they won’t get bounced from the tournament in the first weekend. But I am saying that this isn’t a typical Gonzaga team. They aren’t a good mid-major team — they’re a good college basketball team. And if they can get Elias Harris and Gary Bell Jr. to play well at the same time, there’s no telling how good they can be.

1. Indiana

It’s officially Indiana versus the field. All season long the phrase “there are no great teams in college basketball this year” has been thrown around, and a few chaotic months and countless upsets seemed to confirm this notion. Not anymore.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Indiana is as good as 2012 Kentucky, 2009 North Carolina, or 2007 Florida. But after their win at Michigan State, it’s time to concede that they should be heavy favorites to win the national championship. Given the current landscape of college basketball, we might have to redefine what makes a team great. Is Indiana a team that people will be talking about 20 years from now? Probably not. But they are better than every other team in the country, and that gives them a chance to be considered great. Of course, all of this is moot if they don’t win a national title.

I expect them to win it, though, because everything is clicking for the Hoosiers. Victor Oladipo6 is the best player in the country playing the best basketball of his career. Cody Zeller is showing why he was the preseason national player of the year. Christian Watford finally has his head in the game on a consistent basis. Jordan Hulls has his jump shot back. Yogi Ferrell is making huge strides (especially on defense) even though nobody talks about his play. Will Sheehey is morphing into college basketball’s most punchable face. And “The Nature Boy” Derek Elston has now reached double digits in his season scoring total. My biggest remaining concern about Indiana is that Tom Crean continues to refuse to make in-game adjustments. His hidebound ways contributed to the Hoosiers’ losses against Butler and Wisconsin and they helped Michigan State keep the game close Tuesday night.7 But if having a stubborn coach is your only problem, you’re in pretty good shape.

The Student Section of the Week

This is one of those videos that needs no introduction or setup. Just watch and enjoy. And while you do, keep an eye on Scott Van Pelt looking completely confused throughout the video.

I can’t even begin to comprehend how hard this must have been to coordinate. Note to self: When Maryland joins the Big Ten, go to an Ohio State game in College Park. That atmosphere looks nuts.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next week.

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

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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

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