Much of the college basketball discussion in recent weeks has revolved around the notion that the game is broken this year. Scoring is down, individual talent is down from seasons past, and Frank Haith is still employed. Well, if this is what broken looks like, then I hope the game is never fixed. This is the most entertaining college basketball season in my lifetime.
There’s a sportswriter I used to read when I was growing up named Bill Simmons. He coined the concept of the “Tyson Zone,” which refers to the point when something becomes so crazy that literally anything you hear about it could be believable. Well, this college basketball season is in the Tyson Zone. In each of the past five weeks, the top-ranked team in the country has lost. Six of the top-10 teams lost last week, and a seventh lost on Sunday. Twice this season, a team ranked in the top two has suffered a three-game losing streak. TCU beat Kansas. This and this happened within two days of each other. A bat flying around the arena delayed a game between Marquette and Providence. The Big Ten is the most entertaining conference in the country. Northern Illinois scored four points in a half. Notre Dame and Louisville played a five-overtime game in which Louisville blew five potential game-winners. Marshall Henderson exists. Miami beat both North Carolina and Duke by more than 25 points and holds a two-game lead in the ACC. Three different guys who play significant minutes for Wisconsin don’t have buzzcuts. Nothing makes sense in college basketball anymore, which is why if you told me that Jordan Hulls released a rap album or Patric Young is pursuing a professional wrestling career after the season, I’d probably believe you.
If the sport is losing casual fans because UCLA, Kentucky, and North Carolina aren’t great or because so many top-ranked teams are losing to unranked teams, so be it. I’d be perfectly fine with college basketball becoming a niche sport with a tight core of fans who are crazy about it. I live for this and have a semi-chub just thinking about how great this season has been. And the best part is that the most exciting time of the season is still a month away.
I’m not particularly surprised that Michigan lost in East Lansing on Tuesday night. Michigan State has been playing well, the Wolverines haven’t, and the Breslin Center is a tough place to play for a team with three freshman starters. I am, however, surprised at how big of an ass-kicking the Spartans gave the Wolverines, and I’m absolutely shocked at how little of a fight Michigan put up. Michigan State dominated every facet of the game and nobody on Michigan outside of maybe Trey Burke seemed to care. Case in point: Matt Costello had twice as many points as Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined. I’ll say it again, this time in italics and with an exclamation point on the end of the sentence to really drive the point home: Matt Costello — a kid averaging five minutes and just over one point per game — scored twice as many points as two first-round draft picks, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., combined! That’s all you need to know about the Wolverines’ experience in East Lansing on Tuesday night.
So, what does this mean in the big picture? For starters, the list of national champions that have lost by 30-plus points at any point in the season is a short one, primarily because it has never happened. I know Michigan lost by only 23, but the lead was more than 30 when Tom Izzo pulled his starters. If they wanted, Michigan State could’ve won by 40. This doesn’t mean that Michigan can’t recover from this loss, especially since this season has been filled with unprecedented oddities, and Michigan still has the most talented offensive backcourt in the country. But it’s impossible to ignore that Michigan currently lacks heart, toughness, leadership, or whatever other intangibles prevent teams from getting curb-stomped.
Thankfully, the tough part of Michigan’s schedule is out of the way and the Wolverines have plenty of time to return to their dominant ways, but even that is much easier said than done. You have to think that Tuesday’s beatdown — paired with the fact that they’ve now lost three of their last four and their one win during that stretch came in overtime at home — will rattle Michigan’s confidence moving forward.
It’s not quite panic time in Tucson, but at this point in the season it’s clear that Arizona’s freshman big men aren’t going to develop as quickly as Wildcats fans hoped. Along with every other college basketball fan in the country, I’ve said all season that Arizona would be dangerous in March if Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett could improve. Well, those guys aren’t terrible, but they also haven’t made the strides necessary to make Arizona a national title favorite. This doesn’t necessarily doom the Wildcats’ hopes of making a deep March Madness run. Arizona’s hot start this season proved that they can win without getting much from the trio of young bigs. The problems emerge when guard Nick Johnson struggles, like he did in both of Arizona’s games last week. Johnson has been the team’s best player for stretches this season and he’s supposed to be the steady, consistent foil to Mark Lyons’s streaky ways in Arizona’s perimeter attack. But Johnson has been noticeably absent on offense recently — he’s attempted only 13 shots over the last two games. In a perfect world, Johnson, Lyons, and Solomon Hill would each get at least 10 shots per game, but I guess as Fun. winning the Grammy for Song of the Year proved, this world is anything but perfect.
Here’s the good news for Arizona: Even though Cholberg1 was outplayed by Cal forward and Chris Berman home run call Bak Bak in the battle of seldom-used big men on Sunday, he had a monster game against Stanford in Jerrett’s absence. And by “a monster game,” I mean that he had six points and eight rebounds, but still. Everyone knows that most of Cholberg’s impact doesn’t show up in the box score.
10. Ohio State
A week ago, I wrote that I was thrilled with how Ohio State played at Michigan, even though the Buckeyes lost in overtime. I was happy with OSU’s performance because I assumed Michigan would continue to tear through the Big Ten instead of losing their next two games to Wisconsin and Michigan State. This would’ve made Ohio State taking the Wolverines to overtime even more impressive. I also assumed the Buckeyes would carry the momentum they gained from pushing Michigan to the limit into last Sunday’s game against top-ranked Indiana. I expected the Buckeyes to take care of business against IU, and the thought of them taking no. 3 to overtime on the road and then beating no. 1 in the same week made me optimistic about the Buckeyes’ NCAA tournament chances. But then Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller rolled into Columbus, dropped trou, and left a 50-Couric cowpile right on my heart.
Even though Ohio State looked pretty average against Indiana, I’m not ready to give up on them just yet. Foul trouble plagued them throughout that game and they could never establish a rhythm because of it. Also plaguing them: They were up against the top team in college basketball playing their best game of the season. No team can beat Indiana if the Hoosiers play like they did Sunday, so it’s unfair to place that much blame on Ohio State’s performance. At the same time, Sunday was a reality check. It dashed Ohio State’s Big Ten title hopes and proved that the Buckeyes still have a lot to work on if they hope to book a ticket to Atlanta and the Final Four in April.
Kansas’s blowout win over 10th-ranked Kansas State Monday night would be more impressive if it didn’t come on the heels of an embarrassing three-game losing streak. Actually, I should correct myself: The losing streak wasn’t all that embarrassing because Oklahoma State has a good team and Oklahoma is much better than many fans realize. But last Wednesday’s loss at TCU was embarrassing. Actually, you know what, let me correct myself again. Kansas’s loss at TCU wasn’t embarrassing — it was “pee your pants in front of the whole school, find out your prom date only accepted your invitation because her friends dared her, and discover Roger Klotz lied to you about neematoads existing all in the same day” humiliating. That’s the only way to describe how a top-five team should feel after losing to a team that hadn’t won a game in 2013 and hasn’t won a game since. Thankfully, Kansas turned things around Monday against KSU, on the back of Ben McLemore’s 30 points, Jeff Withey’s double-double, and a near–Trillion Five-Way from Kansas’s bench.2 But even with that impressive win, it’s going to take Kansas a long time to rid itself of the stink of that losing streak.
I can only imagine how Louisville fans felt while watching the Cardinals’ game at Notre Dame last Saturday. I had no rooting interest, yet I still felt like I was going through the five stages of grief on behalf of Louisville diehards. The Cardinals had five chances to win — at the end of regulation and each of the first four overtimes — and each failed attempt brought on a different stage.
Denial after Peyton Siva’s pass to Gorgui Dieng got swatted away at the end of regulation: Louisville doesn’t have problems in late-game situations. Rick Pitino just trusts Siva too much. If he let Russ Smith take over at the end of games, Louisville would be fine.
Anger after Russ Smith jacked up a 30-footer at the end of the first overtime because he lost track of how much time was on the clock: What the hell is he doing?! He’s making me look like an idiot for saying he should take big shots! A month ago he was a Player of the Year candidate, and now he’s trying to win games by shooting from midcourt? Serious question, Russ: Are you shitting me?!
Bargaining after Smith drove to his left and attempted an ugly runner at the end of the second overtime: As entertaining as this game is and as much as I’d love to see it go into 15 overtimes, I’d be fine with giving that up if Louisville can hit one game-winner. I want to be able to tell my kids where I was when I saw the 2012-13 Louisville Cardinals execute a play on offense with less than 10 seconds on the game clock.
Depression after Smith caught the ball going away from his basket with 3.7 seconds left in the third overtime, dribbled up the court without much urgency, and then failed to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded: All of the great feelings brought on by an exciting game are being trumped by the awful feelings brought on by watching Louisville shoot themselves in the foot over and over again. And if that weren’t bad enough, every one of these incompetent Cardinals players is better at basketball than I’ll ever be. I’m going to go put on a rom-com, bury my face in a tub of ice cream, and repeatedly tell myself that nobody will ever love me.
Acceptance after Russ Smith dribbled off his foot and shot a fadeaway from 25 feet at the end of the fourth overtime: You know, I’m thinking maybe Louisville blows in late-game situations after all.
Keep in mind that all of this happened after the Cards let Jerian Grant channel his inner Reggie Miller and score 12 points in the final minute of regulation to send the game to overtime. Also, keep in mind that Russ Smith had a chance to send the game into a sixth overtime but — you’re never going to believe this — the best look he could get was a desperate chuck at the buzzer that never had a chance. So yeah, Louisville is the exact opposite of clutch.
Duke’s two games last week provided a good idea of what to expect from the Blue Devils for the rest of the season (assuming, of course, that Ryan Kelly doesn’t return). When Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon play well, Duke is really good. This was clear when the Blue Devils avenged their first loss of the season Thursday by almost hanging 100 on North Carolina State. Cook, Mason Plumlee, and Seth Curry all scored 20 or more points, and although Sulaimon didn’t have a great game, he was solid. At this point in their careers, it’s obvious that Plumlee and 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 (Curry’s 0-for-10 night at Miami a few weeks ago notwithstanding). Knowing this, all Duke really needs to win most nights is for Cook and Sulaimon to step up and play relatively well, which is exactly what happened against NC State.
Last Sunday against Boston College, Plumlee and Curry produced as usual, but Cook and Sulaimon combined to score 13 points on 4-for-17 shooting while committing six fouls and five turnovers, and they had only five assists between them. Hence Duke was one missed call and a couple free throws away from losing to a sub-.500 team. In defense of Cook and Sulaimon, a blizzard prevented Duke from arriving in Chestnut Hill until game day and the Blue Devils didn’t have a pregame shootaround. This could’ve messed with their rhythm. But given Duke’s lack of depth, Cook and Sulaimon can’t afford to play poorly, even when they have legitimate excuses. If Duke has any hope of a national title, relying on Plumlee and Curry to carry them isn’t going to be enough. Hopefully, last Sunday’s squeaker against BC was a strong reminder of this.
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 Notre Dame vs. Louisville game played in South Bend last Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Miami Hurricanes?
- Following a Notre Dame turnover, Vitale mentions that Louisville plays some of the best perimeter defense in the country. He says that Ohio State has some guys who can guard the perimeter, but to him nobody beats the combo of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. He then says that the best individual perimeter defender this season is Victor Oladipo, whom Vitale believes should be an All-American. To support his claim, he points to the fact that Tom Crean has compared Oladipo to Dwyane Wade. Dan Shulman chimes in and says that Wade and the Miami Heat are having another great season this year, to which Vitale responds by joking that they might not even be the best team in South Florida, because they might not be better than the Hurricanes of Miami.
- Dan Shulman mentions that Louisville vs. Notre Dame would’ve been a good football game this season, prompting Vitale to say that he hopes Manti Te’o can recover from the hoax ordeal to have a solid NFL career. Vitale then says that he read a mock draft recently that had Te’o going to the Cincinnati Bengals with the 21st pick. A brief moment of silence follows after Vitale finishes his thought. He then ends the silence by asking Shulman, “Speaking of Cincinnati, if they played in the NCAA tournament, do you think Barry Larkin would cheer for his alma mater, which is Michigan, or the team his son plays for, which is Miami?”
- ESPN cuts to Rick Pitino, which prompts Vitale to say that Pitino is a great tournament coach and because of that Louisville will be dangerous in March, even though they’ve hit a rough patch. Vitale then says that he picked Louisville as his no. 1 team at the beginning of the year and he’s sticking by his pick. This prompts Dan Shulman to ask who Vitale thinks should be ranked no. 1 in the upcoming poll given that Indiana, Florida, and Michigan all lost this week. Vitale says he thinks Duke should be ranked no. 1, and then mentions that he’s excited to call the Duke vs. North Carolina game on Wednesday. He says that game is always special, even though North Carolina is having a down year and the Tar Heels suffered a bad loss earlier that day against Miami.
Say you’ve dated a girl for a few years and you finally decide to propose. She says yes. You’re madly in love and can’t believe how perfect you are for each other. Your fiancée suggests that you go out on the town to celebrate. So that’s what you do. As the night wears on, your friends buy both of you more and more drinks. You both get hammered, but you don’t care — you’re in love and that’s all that matters. At some point later in the night, your fiancée goes to the restroom. Five minutes later, as your buddy is looking over your shoulder, his jaw drops. You turn around to see that your fiancée is standing on top of the bar with her shirt pulled up, giving everyone in the place a good look at her chest. You turn back to your buddy, give him a high five, and say “That’s my wife!” because you don’t fully comprehend what’s going on.
When you wake up the next morning, you remember what happened and now that you’re sober it doesn’t seem quite so awesome. You confront your fiancée. She says she doesn’t remember anything after 9 p.m. and thinks you’re lying about what happened because she would never do something like that. Now what do you do? Do you believe her and try to move on like nothing ever happened? Or does the fact that she just flashed her breasts to the world (including your friends) raise a huge red flag that leads to you backing out of the wedding? You want to treat the event as a minor mistake made by an otherwise perfect woman, but a small part of you thinks you’ll never get over it, and every time you and your wife hang out with your friends, you’ll think about the incident.
That’s Florida for me. If you take away the Arkansas game, everything about the Gators is marriage material. They have a perfect college team on paper, and with the exception of the Arkansas game, the last month and a half has proved it, including Tuesday night’s easy win over Kentucky. The SEC isn’t great this year, but the conference isn’t so bad that the Gators’ dominance should be taken for granted. Then again, you can’t just forget that game. You can’t just ignore that a little over a week ago, a team that won’t even sniff the NCAA tournament made the Gators look like an intramural team. Florida and I had a sacred thing, and then they had to stand up on the bar and flash their high beams. I want so badly to forget it ever happened, but I can’t. Not yet, anyway. If the Gators can go on the road next Tuesday and embarrass Frank Haith and Missouri, maybe I’ll be able to move on. But honestly, I think Florida will need to win out the rest of the regular season and the SEC tournament to rebuild our trust and make me believe they are the national title favorites I thought they were two weeks ago.
Gonzaga took the week off by playing two of the worst teams in its bad conference, so I’m not going to write much about the Foreigners. Expect this to change next week, though, since Gonzaga has its toughest test of the conference season on Thursday when they travel to Saint Mary’s. In the meantime, I ask this question in hopes that one of you can provide an answer: Is Kelly Olynyk having the best season following a non-medical/non–eligibility issue/non-transfer redshirt year in the history of college basketball? What if that redshirt comes before his junior year instead of his freshman year?
(I seriously would love an answer to this. If anybody knows of an instance when someone had an All-American season after being voluntarily redshirted, let me know.)
Shout-out to r/CollegeBasketball and Reddit user ThatDoesntRhyme for suggesting in this thread that if this college basketball season were a game of Mario Kart, Miami turned into Bullet Bill three weeks ago. On January 14, the Hurricanes weren’t close to being ranked. Less than a month later, they are ranked third, 17 different AP voters think they’re the best team in America, and Joe Lunardi’s turtleneck has them as a no. 1 seed in his latest Bracketology prediction.
My one concern about Miami is that their rise to power is going to their heads. If I were the type of guy who uses the word “swagger” in everyday conversation, I’d say that their swagger is out of control right now, and maybe even refer to the Miami players as “swaggernauts.” And I wouldn’t mean it as a compliment. Sure, blowing out Duke and North Carolina in the same season is a rarity and they have every reason to feel good about themselves, but I’m worried the Canes are getting too cocky. They’re slapping the floor to mock Duke and they’re throwing alley-oops off the glass in front of LeBron and D-Wade. I’m all for letting loose and having fun, and Miami’s players deserve to enjoy everything that comes with taking their program to unprecedented heights, but I wish they’d take a step back and realize that they’re playing in a shitty conference and haven’t really done anything away from home.
Having said all that, there’s no denying that Miami is playing remarkably well. They’ve got everything a college basketball team needs — a ton of experience, a point guard who can distribute the ball as well as score, a handful of capable big men, a ton of weapons on offense, and great defense. The only thing standing in their way is that they think they’re better than they actually are, which is why I think it would benefit them greatly if Duke, in the words of the Iron Sheik, “broke their backs and made them humble” when their rematch rolls around on March 2. What has made Miami so good is that they’re liked caged animals who are out for blood after years of being dominated by Duke and North Carolina, and years of being coached by Frank Haith. My fear is that the Hurricanes are starting to lose that chip on their shoulders, which is why a loss at Duke could help them regain focus. Then again, I wouldn’t exactly complain if they continued to steamroll the ACC and dominated Duke again.
I’m probably overreacting to James Southerland’s return by giving Syracuse third place in college basketball’s most powerful power rankings. But considering how many top teams keep losing and that Southerland makes Syracuse noticeably better, the Orange are a reasonable choice at no. 3. Last Sunday’s win against St. John’s proved this. The Red Storm were playing without Steve Lavin, who was grieving the death of his father, but having Lavin on the sidelines wouldn’t have made much difference because Syracuse was virtually unstoppable all day. The Orange shot 54 percent from the field. They converted 10 3-pointers, had 20 assists as a team, and saw four different players score in double digits. Stats aside, Syracuse simply looked more comfortable on offense with Southerland back, probably because he forces defenses to account for him and that takes pressure off Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche, and C.J. Fair. It’s still too soon to assume that Syracuse will be just as dominant as it was before Southerland was suspended for eligibility issues, but the Orange definitely have reason to feel optimistic about the next month and a half, which is something very few teams can say these days.
2. Michigan State
I could analyze the Spartans’ blowout from Tuesday night and offer my opinion on what I thought they did well (hint: The answer is “everything”), or I could cut to the chase and predict the remaining month and a half of Michigan State’s season. I prefer the latter.
Four of Michigan State’s final six regular-season games are against ranked teams. Here’s what’s going to happen: The Spartans are going to lose two of those four games and plant a seed of doubt in their fans’ minds. Then, before the Big Ten tournament, Tom Izzo will call a team meeting and say the following to his players: “Look, guys, our fans don’t realize this but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Big Ten tournament is bullshit. As you know, our goal has never been to win a meaningless conference tournament. Our goal is to win the national championship. So instead of busting our balls to win three games in three days against some of the best teams in the country, let’s just tank our first game, get some rest, and hit the NCAA tournament with a full head of steam. Trust me on this. Last year we won the thing, and what happened? We were upset by Louisville in the Sweet 16. In 2001, 2005, and 2010, we lost our first game in the Big Ten tournament and went to the Final Four. And in 2009, we accidentally won a game in the conference tourney, but then we were upset in our second game and ended up playing for a national championship. See what I’m saying?”
So that’s what will happen. Michigan State will be a 1-, 2-, or 3-seed in the conference tourney. It will lose to a team like Iowa, Purdue, or Illinois, and Spartans fans everywhere will lose hope. Then Michigan State will get a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament, Tom Izzo will do whatever the hell it is he does in March, and the Spartans will cruise to the Final Four. Michigan State fans will then hate themselves for doubting Izzo, while the rest of the country will hate them, too, because their team looked pretty average at the end of the regular season but somehow managed to make yet another Final Four.
I predicted this very thing would happen to Michigan State last year and it didn’t, but I’m trusting that Izzo learned his lesson from a year ago. He won’t make the same mistake again. You read it here first.
I’m leaving the Hoosiers atop college basketball’s most powerful power rankings despite their choke job at Illinois, primarily because they recovered from that loss by playing their best game away from Assembly Hall since Tom Crean became head coach when they won pretty easily at Ohio State on Sunday. The Hoosiers played great defense and even better offense, which most experts agree are the two most important facets of the game.
The most encouraging takeaway from Sunday’s game, though, is that Crean is shortening his bench as the season progresses. At the start of the season, Indiana was billed as one of the deepest teams in the country, but there was actually a huge drop-off in talent between the Hoosiers’ starters and their second-string players. They weren’t really deep; they were just a team who played a bunch of guys. Thankfully, Crean realized this and tightened the Hoosiers rotation. Indiana’s best six players are better than everyone else’s — the Hoosiers have two guys who will likely be first-team All-Americans (Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo), one of the best shooters in the country (Jordan Hulls), a McDonald’s All-American point guard (Yogi Ferrell), the best sixth man in college basketball (Will Sheehey), and Christian Watford (Christian Watford). Knowing this, Crean should stick with these six in marquee games, and only play Remy Abell, Jeremy Hollowell, or Derek “The Nature Boy” Elston’s shoulder tattoo3 if there’s foul trouble, if someone gets injured, or if the game gets out of hand. Crean is using this approach more often now, which is encouraging because Indiana is the only top-15 team without a single player averaging more than 30 minutes per game, despite the fact that Zeller and Oladipo should be averaging close to 35 minutes a game.
Speaking of Oladipo, I’d like to let it be known that my nonexistent Player of the Year vote would go to him if the season ended right now. As I’m sure you remember, a few months ago I had my fingers crossed that we’d get to see Moredick Part 2, but Trey Burke’s dominance in the first half of the season destroyed this dream. Then, Burke not only emerged as a candidate, he became the clear-cut front-runner after Duke and Creighton dropped a couple of games. Now Burke is getting a taste of his own medicine from Oladipo, who has exploded in the last month or so and just played the best game of his career on Sunday, propelling him into the POY discussion and replacing Moredick Part 2 with Burkadipo. I don’t think Oladipo will end up winning the award because Burke gained too much momentum in the non-conference season. Unless Burke’s game drops off a cliff, I expect voters to stick with him. But my vote would go to Oladipo because his offensive numbers would be destroying Burke’s if he played as many minutes as Burke does and if he had the ball in his hands on every possession like Burke does, not to mention Oladipo is somewhere between the best and fourth-best defender in the country. And if that weren’t enough, this sequence from Sunday put him over the top for me.
The Locker Room Celebrations of the Week
Following their crazy overtime win over Michigan on Saturday, the Wisconsin Buzzcuts celebrated in their locker room as only the Buzzcuts know how — blaring Ke$ha and dancing exactly like you’d expect a group of predominantly white guys to dance. You remember the GIF of Kansas celebrating its win at Ohio State that I posted in this column earlier in the season? This is pretty much the exact opposite of that, yet it’s just as entertaining.
By the way, since we’re on the topic of postgame dance skills, here’s a video from Kansas’s locker room after they beat Kansas State. Once again, it confirms that nobody celebrates a win quite like Ben McLemore.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.
A previous version of this story contained a joke that made an inaccurate reference to religious garb.