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Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

Trey Burke tows Michigan to no. 1 and threatens to ruin the best National Player of the Year race since 2007

You may have missed it because you were too busy watching disappointing NFL playoff games followed by an anticlimactic yet hilariously schadenfreude-filled BCS National Championship Game, but the past week’s slate of college basketball games was excellent. After a 12-0 start, Cincinnati is now 13-3 after losing twice in the past week; Marquette scored 49 points in a win over Georgetown; Arizona was gifted a game by the refs and then squeaked out another; Bucknell gave Missouri all they could handle; Illinois suffered an embarrassing loss at Purdue, then turned around and embarrassed Ohio State; Khalif Wyatt almost made me look stupid for power-ranking Kansas first; North Carolina moved one step closer to the NIT; and Scott Drew needed overtime to get the better of Rick Barnes in another game featuring two coaches I love to pick on.

Let’s see how all that action affected the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.

12. Florida

Just like they were before they choked at Arizona, Florida is flying under the radar. The Gators are the best team nobody is talking about, even though they’ve dropped a couple of games they should’ve won. I know losing to Bruce Weber’s Kansas State team seems like a red flag, but I’ll cut them some slack because that game took place in December, and Weber usually doesn’t blossom into the Bruce Weber we all know and love until conference play begins. The fact is that the Gators have a slew of scorers, they have one of the best coaches in the game, and they have six players who have gone to back-to-back Elite Eights. With a down year for the SEC, Florida’s games against Missouri and Kentucky will likely decide who wins the conference title, which is why I’m hoping Erik Murphy (who is currently out with a rib injury) and Missouri’s Laurence Bowers (who hurt his knee Tuesday night) will be healthy for the Florida-Missouri game next weekend so both teams will be at full strength.

11. Illinois

Well, well, well. Look who decided to put some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in our Easter baskets. Granted, Illinois still shot a buttload of 3s in both their games last week, but against Ohio State on Saturday it was the Illini’s defense that allowed them to blow out the Buckeyes. And by “it was the Illini’s defense,” I mean that Ohio State’s offense consists of Deshaun Thomas and a bunch of guys who look like they’re shooting the ball out of a T-shirt cannon. Still, given that a lack of intensity is what led to Illinois’s upset loss to Purdue on Wednesday, it was refreshing to see the Illini play with a sense of urgency and defeat a good team1 without heavily relying on 3s. I don’t want to sing their praises too much, because in the big picture all beating Ohio State did was cancel out their loss at Purdue. That said, it’s encouraging to see Illinois get back to what won them 12 straight games. Now let’s see if they can do it again Wednesday night against Minnesota.

10. Missouri

What a week for Missouri. After getting a scare from Bucknell last Saturday, the Tigers pulled away late to beat Alabama by 16 on Tuesday night. Despite the margin of victory, Missouri’s first SEC win was no cakewalk. Mizzou’s most important concern came when Laurence Bowers, the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, left the game with a knee injury that early reports are saying is a sprained MCL. There’s no reason to think it’s more serious than that, but for a program that had to endure Bowers missing all of last season with a torn ACL, seeing him go down with another knee injury must be harrowing.

Another bit of drama that unfolded in the Alabama win figures to trouble Mizzou for longer than a sprained MCL — starting senior guard Keion Bell played just four minutes and was a turnover and foul away from putting up a four trillion. From what I can tell, his limited playing time had nothing to do with an injury, nor was it a form of discipline. Rather, Frank Haith must’ve felt during the flow of the game that the backcourt trio of Flip Pressey, Jabari Brown, and Earnest Ross were playing so well that he didn’t want to mess with a good thing by bringing back Bell. In Haith’s defense, Pressey, Brown, and Ross did play well together, but alienating a senior starter and playing mind games with him halfway through the season doesn’t seem like a great idea. Especially since Bell played his best game of the season at UCLA not long ago.

And Missouri fans wonder why I get on Haith so much.

9. Arizona

The Wildcats are plummeting in this week’s power rankings because I’m treating the Colorado game as a loss. With the exception of Kelly Olynyk’s refusal to grow any sort of facial hair,2 waving off Colorado’s game-winner in Tucson was the worst call in college basketball this season. I’ve seen far too many people try to defend the call or make excuses for it, which is why I want to address such nonsense right now.

“Bad calls happen all the time. There were some calls that went against Arizona, too.”

Bad calls do happen all the time. Monumental, season-altering, NCAA tournament–seed affecting, career-highlight stripping calls that are indisputably and demonstrably wrong, that could be made with the aid of replay, and that are potentially worth thousands of dollars3 don’t happen all the time. In fact, I can’t think of a single time a call that bad has happened before this.

“If Colorado hadn’t blown their huge lead, the call wouldn’t have been an issue.”

This is true, but entirely unfair. The game lasts 40 minutes. The Buffs did everything they had to do to win in those 40 minutes. Letting Arizona go on a huge run to close the game was a luxury they could afford thanks to dominating the Cats all game. The fact is they did everything they had to do to win. The refs just decided to screw them.

“Colorado still had a chance in overtime, but they blew it.”

Actually, Colorado had pretty much no chance in overtime. Think about it this way: Say you’re playing Super Mario World and all that’s keeping you from beating the game is Bowser’s castle. You enter the castle with two lives. You somehow make it through the castle unscathed, setting up the final showdown with Bowser. Miraculously, your hot streak continues and you hit Bowser with those Mecha-Koopa things five times. One more blow to Bowser and you save the princess and beat the game. But just as you’re throwing the final Mecha-Koopa in the air, the game glitches and Bowser kills you. Now, when it came time to enter the castle again with your final life, would you have any hope whatsoever that you’d be able to save the princess? Of course not. You’d be hung up on what just happened and you wouldn’t be able to concentrate. The chances that you’d even get to face Bowser, let alone beat him, would be virtually nonexistent.4

Even if you want to count the game as a win for Arizona (which I don’t, because accepting the result without putting up a fight will only allow this sort of thing to happen again), the Cats followed it up with a disappointing effort against Utah two nights later. At this point, Arizona’s season has all the makings of Notre Dame’s football season — they’ve had a ton of close calls against good teams and bad, terrible officiating handed them a game, and yet through it all they’ve stayed undefeated. Here’s to hoping the Cats don’t eventually get embarrassed like Notre Dame did on Monday night.

8. Gonzaga

I missed the Foreigners’ game at Santa Clara on Saturday because I was too busy suffering through 60 minutes of Joe Webb quarterbacking my favorite football team, followed by five days of reflecting on the fact that during the game I actually said, “I really wish Christian Ponder were healthy for this playoff game at Lambeau.” Anyway, even if I weren’t enduring the Vikings’ loss, I still wouldn’t have been able to watch the Santa Clara game because it was broadcast on ROOT, which I’m pretty sure stands for Rarely On Ohio Televisions.

But that’s OK, because there are more pressing issues than the Santa Clara game. Like Kelly Olynyk’s appearance. I briefly touched on this already in a footnote, but it’s worth revisiting because it’s frustrating me so much. To his credit, Olynyk is halfway there. And by that I mean that he’s halfway to looking exactly like every Create-A-Player I’ve ever made on sports video games. He’s a behemoth with long hair who rocks a thin headband to go with his Jonathan Taylor Thomas middle part. There aren’t many big guys who are willing to grow their hair out, and even when they are, most of the time they blow it like Steven Hill did on Arkansas a few years ago, so I applaud Olynyk for that. But here’s where Hill got it right and Olynyk loses me: the facial hair. I realize that Olynyk is so baby-faced he probably can’t even grow armpit hair, but that’s still no excuse. He’s gotta do something. Get some implants, superglue a fake beard to his face, or even just plaster his hair to his face to make sideburns like a Cholombian. Facial hair is the difference between Olynyk looking like an oversize Hanson reject and him looking like a 7-foot Jesus. So yeah, it’s kind of important.

Oh, and while we’re at it, would it kill him to wear knee-high socks? That would really tie his look together.

7. Minnesota

Junior guard Austin Hollins seems like one of those guys who says things like “rise and grind” and “haters are my motivation” without being ironic. I can’t think of another explanation why Hollins chose to have the best shooting game of his career right after last week’s column, when I wrote that he was “shooting less than 33 percent on 3-pointers, yet he apparently thinks he’s Blake Hoffarber with how often he shoots contested and ill-advised 3s.” Hollins finished Sunday’s game against Northwestern 5-for-7 from behind the 3-point line, with all five of his makes coming in a three-minute span. As if that weren’t enough, Hollins, apparently knowing that I’m a sucker for 3-point celebrations (the lone exception being the loose butthole monocle), celebrated each 3 differently. After the first one, he just held up the loose butthole hand sign but thankfully didn’t put it over his eye. After the second shot, he held his shooting hand in the air for a few seconds before raising the roof. (I’ll say it again: He raised the roof. In 2013.) After the third make, he held up three fingers and did a “cha-ching” motion with his arm. After the fourth 3, he casually walked to the other end of the court to play defense, as if to act like he was getting bored with how well he was shooting. And after the fifth one he told Northwestern’s players that their girlfriends taste like Honey Nut Cheerios.

Despite Hollins’s hot streak, I’m not taking back what I wrote last week. Just because he hit five in a row doesn’t excuse the countless stupid shots he’s taken from long distance this season. But I will give him props and admit that I now understand why he’s so trigger-happy. He probably shoots this well in practice every day, but for some reason it hasn’t translated to the games until now. Either way, I’m excited for Minnesota’s game against Illinois tonight, because between Hollins and the Illini, the two teams could end up chucking an absurd amount of 3s.

HALFTIME

You’re never going to believe this, but Dick Vitale took another week off. In related news, Notre Dame was slaughtered by Alabama in the college football national championship. It’s no secret that Vitale is a huge Notre Dame fan and booster, which is why I like to think that the Fighting Irish loss is karmic revenge for Dickie V. abandoning us and putting Dick’s Degrees of Separation on hiatus.

Anyway, with this being the halftime break of the column, it only seems fitting that in place of Dick’s Degrees of Separation we feature a recent halftime shooting performance.

You know the drill: Hit a layup, free throw, 3-pointer, and half-court shot in 30 seconds and win the grand prize. This guy at Bellarmine University was plucked from the audience last week to give it a try. Seeing as how the video made it into this column, it should be a dead giveaway that one of two things happened: Either he won the grand prize or he failed in hilarious fashion. Take a guess and then take a look.

Somebody needs to work on his free throws.

6. Syracuse

I’m officially suspending my Michael Carter-Williams for 2014 National Player of the Year campaign. Time will tell if this is a Rick Santorum/Herman Cain campaign suspension, in which I pretend that “suspend” means something other than “terminate permanently,” or if the campaign will resume at some point in the future. Ever since Carter-Williams got busted shoplifting a bathrobe in December, he’s been a huge disappointment. Just look at these stats that I cherry-picked to support my argument: Syracuse has had three games since the Carter-Williams shoplifting incident in which the Orange either lost or won by less than 12. In other words, they played three competitive games instead of their standard pre-conference cream-puff buffet. Yet in those games (vs. Detroit, Temple, and South Florida), Carter-Williams was a combined 5-for-36. Now, it’s obvious that Carter-Williams’s shooting woes are a big reason why these games were close, but that’s my point — if he even plays an average game, the Orange don’t lose to Temple and they don’t sweat out wins against Detroit and South Florida.5 He’s putting his team in bad spots, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what a point guard should do.

I hope this is just a phase. The shoplifting ordeal was embarrassing and it’s probably messing with Carter-Williams’s head, because he’s immensely talented and, should he choose to return to school next year, he would be a favorite to win National Player of the Year. In which case, my campaign will be back up and running.

5. Indiana

Monday night was bittersweet for IU basketball fans. On one hand, their football team was destroyed in the national championship game.6 On the other hand, Indiana took a step toward proving they can play well outside of Assembly Hall. Sure, Monday’s win came against Penn State, but that’s the thing — Indiana was expected to steamroll the Nittany Lions and that’s what they did. For a team that struggled at Iowa last week and struggled when they visited State College, Pennsylvania, last season, this is a welcoming sign. Also a welcoming sign: Christian Watford, who would be NBA-bound if he were more consistent and mentally engaged, went for 16 points and eight rebounds. It’s no secret that the Big Ten is going to be brutal this year, so if Indiana has any hope of claiming the title, they’re going to have to play well on the road and they’re going to need steady production from Watford. Monday was a step in the right direction.

4. Louisville

Louisville easily beat Providence in their only game of the week last Wednesday, so I’m not going to waste too much time talking about them. But I will say this: Now that we’re halfway through the season, it’s safe to say that Russ Smith’s scoring barrage is not a fluke or a hot start. It’s clear that Smith can pour in points on anybody, and he has established himself as a legitimate go-to offensive weapon for the Cardinals. Louisville is good just about every year because they play great defense, but rarely do they also have an elite scorer. In fact, it’s been more than a decade since a Cardinals player averaged more than 20 points per game like Smith is doing. (Reece Gaines was the last to do it, in 2002.) This is a big reason why Louisville is particularly dangerous. With an elite scorer to go along with their great defense, they just about have it all. The recipe for beating Louisville is to win the turnover battle, slow the game down, and force the Cards to run a half-court offense, but with a great distributor in Peyton Siva and a great perimeter scorer in Smith, even that game plan might not be enough.

3. Kansas

Don’t worry, Kansas fans. Struggling against Temple is nothing to be ashamed of. Over the past five years, the Owls have been giant killers, and this year I get the feeling they’re going to be the most feared 7- or 8-seed in the NCAA tournament. Plus, Khalif Wyatt is so good that the Khalid El-Amin All-Star Team just might have to be renamed the Khalif Wyatt All-Star Team.7 I’m not dropping them down a couple spots because I don’t think the Jayhawks are as good as I thought they were last week. It’s just that Kansas’s win over Ohio State lost some luster when the Buckeyes were destroyed at Illinois, and it’s impossible to ignore that Duke beat this same Temple team by 23 on a neutral court.

What’s crazy about the Temple game is that Kansas shot much better than the Owls (44 percent to Temple’s 30), outrebounded Temple by 11, and had nine more assists, yet the Jayhawks couldn’t put the game away until the final minute. So what happened? Turnovers and tempo. Kansas had 14 turnovers, which isn’t terrible, but eight of them were Temple steals that often led to easy baskets. Meanwhile, Temple committed just four turnovers against a Kansas defense that usually overwhelms opponents. Temple took care of the ball much better than any other Kansas opponent this season.

Because Temple didn’t turn over the ball, they could also control the tempo and limit Kansas’s transition opportunities. Kansas doesn’t rely on transition baskets as heavily as Louisville or Syracuse, but anytime a team has better players than their opponent, they’re going to want to get up and down as much as possible.8 When Temple slowed the game down, the Jayhawks showed some frustration and started jacking up Jimmy Dykes turnover shots, which only compounded Kansas’s struggles. Again, Temple isn’t awful, so the Jayhawks shouldn’t be ashamed that their home winning streak was momentarily in jeopardy. At the same time, though, these are the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, so it takes more than a subpar effort at home against an unranked team to maintain the top spot.

2. Duke

Oh no. Forget Duke’s three wins since last week. Forget Quinn Cook going 0-for-11 against Wake Forest. Forget Quinn Cook pouring in a career-high 27 points against Clemson the next game. The only story that matters surrounding Duke is the only reason I’m not giving the Blue Devils the top spot in this week’s power rankings — Ryan Kelly’s foot. Kelly left Tuesday’s game with an injury to the same foot he sprained last March, which forced him to sit out Duke’s loss to Lehigh in the NCAA tournament. Losing a guy like Kelly would be a blow to any team, but compounding the problem is the fact that Duke has only six guys who play more than 15 minutes per game, and one of those guys is Seth Curry, who doesn’t even practice because of a mysterious leg injury.9

Making matters even worse, Duke travels to Raleigh on Saturday to play a North Carolina State team that many felt had a good chance to hand Duke their first loss even before Kelly’s injury became an issue. When healthy, Kelly is a matchup nightmare, and without him Duke will have a hard time matching up with opponents. Without Kelly, Mason Plumlee is Duke’s only interior player with meaningful experience. Plumlee is a surefire All-American, so if you had to pick a single big man to hold down your inside game, he might be the guy. But then again, North Carolina State’s top three scorers are all interior players, which means, to put it simply, the Blue Devils are screwed defensively on Saturday if Kelly can’t play.10

1. Michigan

Damn you, Trey Burke. Do you realize what you’re doing? I’m guessing you don’t, so let me make it clear. Seven years ago college basketball was handed a gift. Two gifts, actually. One was a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who gelled his hair for games and wore a cutoff T-shirt under his jersey. The other was a 6-foot-8 small forward with a mop top and the trashiest porn ‘stache you’ve ever seen. The shooting guard was a McDonald’s All-American who played on the East Coast for the best team in America, which just so happened to be the most hated team in America. The small forward was a lightly recruited kid who played on the West Coast for a mid-major — a good-but-not-great team that to some extent became America’s team by being a Cinderella story every year. That’s right, Trey — November 2005 to March 2006 will forever be remembered as The Winter of J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison.

So why am I telling you this? Simple. The Winter of Redick and Morrison was the most captivating season of college basketball I’ve ever experienced, mostly because of the National Player of the Year battle. Night in and night out, these guys put their teams on their backs and just went insane on the offensive end. You remember what Illinois’s Brandon Paul did last year against Ohio State and this year against Gonzaga? Yeah, these two did that damn near every game. It was beautiful. Adding to the excitement was the fact that even while both of them were averaging well over 20 points, most people could tell that neither player would be great in the NBA. Which made what they were doing in college that much more special. This didn’t have the makings of a Bird-Magic rivalry. No, this was a one-year thing that everyone knew wouldn’t last forever. So we made sure to savor those few months as best we could, and we hoped that someday we’d get to experience it all again.

And dammit, Trey, if it weren’t for you, we’d be as close as we may ever get to experiencing The Winter of Redick and Morrison again. Right now, the two non–Trey Burke candidates for Player of the Year are Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Like Redick, Plumlee has been an absolute monster for no. 1 Duke, and even when he’s having an off game, he’s still very productive. He’s the best player on the top-ranked team and at times he has looked unstoppable. Meanwhile, like Morrison, McDermott plays for a good-but-not-great mid-major, he faces double- and triple-teams every time he touches the ball, and despite that he’s still putting up numbers that are so impressive you’ll act like that cartoon wolf when you see them. And to cap it all off, like Redick and Morrison,11 both Plumlee and McDermott look like they’ll never be franchise guys in the NBA. Just like the prophecy foretold, history is repeating itself seven years later.

But then you, Trey Burke, had to come along and ruin everything by being far and away the best guard in an era of college basketball dominated by perimeter players. You just had to be a pass-first point guard who still averages 18 points per game. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has ever played the position at the collegiate level better than you are playing it right now. And most impressively, you’ve led your Michigan Wolverines to the top spot of college basketball’s most powerful power rankings for the first time ever. As of now, however, I wouldn’t vote for you with my nonexistent National Player of the Year vote because Plumlee and McDermott are big guys and therefore don’t have the ball in their hands and opportunities to make plays nearly as much as you do. But just know that you’re knocking on the door, and I don’t like it one bit. The stars were aligned for Moredick Part II. Don’t ruin this for us.

The Most Loathsome Person Alive in College Basketball of the Week

Last week, Eugene Lawrence of the Hamline University basketball team was arrested on charges of second-degree assault, which is apparently the legal way to allege that he punched a girl in the face so hard that she had to have emergency surgery to put a metal plate in her face. I’m not bringing this up to make a joke about it and I don’t really have any commentary to add because my feelings toward the incident are the exact same as any normal person’s would be. I just wanted to bring the story to your attention so you know what a scumbag Lawrence is.

And by the way, in case you didn’t click the link and read the article, you’d probably also find it interesting that, according to a local TV station, some of Lawrence’s teammates were in the room when it happened but didn’t call 911 because they didn’t want to get in trouble with their coach for breaking curfew. Not a great week for Hamline basketball.

See you next week.

Filed Under: Mark Titus, Michigan, 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