Well, it’s obvious that college basketball referees are devout readers of the most powerful power rankings in the sport. How else can we explain what happened after I complained last week that three seconds isn’t called anymore, and then over the course of the next few days it was called in seemingly every game? Clearly, refs all over the country love to read Grantland and they decided to give us a nod by resurrecting the three-seconds call. For that, I return the favor and tip my hat to all the refs reading this.
Except for you, Ted Valentine. You still suck.
12. Oklahoma State
If I were more flexible, I’d be kicking myself for leaving Oklahoma State out of college basketball’s most powerful power rankings last week. I wanted to include Saint Louis and New Mexico to acknowledge the great seasons those programs are having, but the truth is I think Oklahoma State is a good deal better than those teams, which is why the Cowboys will be my dark-horse pick in the NCAA tournament.
Here’s what you need to know about Oklahoma State: It’s led by Marcus Smart, who is a surefire top-10 pick in this year’s NBA draft. He’s the best freshman in America not named Ben McLemore. He does a little bit of everything for the Cowboys, which explains why he’s not their leading scorer. That would be junior guard Markel Brown, who averages 15.7 points and has a good chance of also being drafted in the first round. The third member of their impressive trio is sophomore Le’Bryan Nash, who was a McDonald’s All-American in 2011 and the second-leading scorer for the Cowboys last year. When these three play their best and the rest of the Cowboys fill their roles, Oklahoma State can beat anybody in the country. The team’s win at Kansas in early February proved that.
Oklahoma State’s biggest weakness — and the reason it’s a “dark horse” and not a legitimate contender — is its inconsistent play. It’s a twofold problem. First, its offensive attack is almost exclusively perimeter-oriented. If a couple players have off nights, then the Cowboys will look pretty underwhelming. The other cause behind Oklahoma State’s consistency issues is Nash, who is extremely talented but not always mentally engaged. On any given night, he is capable of dropping 40 points or being held scoreless and spending much of the game pouting on the bench. Within the first four minutes of every game, you can usually tell which Nash is on the floor. More often than not, he’s engaged and ready to play. But given the nature of the NCAA tournament, “more often than not” isn’t good enough. Nash has to bring it every night. If he does, there isn’t a team in America that the Cowboys can’t beat.
11. Kansas State
The Wildcats are an intriguing team. On one hand, they have no bad losses this year. They haven’t lost to teams like TCU or Tennessee, like Kansas and Florida have. Sure, some of Kansas State’s losses have been by huge margins, but it hasn’t lost to teams that it was a heavy favorite to beat, so it’s hard to punish the Wildcats that much. Thanks to their steady play, they are one win at Oklahoma State away from a share of the Big 12 title, which is something hardly anyone expected from them this year. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 and appear to be playing their best basketball at the best time of the season to do that very thing.
On the other hand, K-State has been somewhere between average and awful in just about every game it’s played against tournament-quality teams. The Wildcats’ two best wins this season — Florida and Oklahoma State — came more than two months ago. Since then, they’ve lost twice to Kansas, including a blowout in Lawrence; they’ve lost at Iowa State; and they’ve barely beaten West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Baylor. But the biggest reason I’m skeptical of Kansas State is that it’s coached by Bruce Weber, who I’m pretty sure has an annual time share in Cancun reserved for the last weekend in March because he knows he’ll never be busy during that time. This is why I think these next couple of weeks are more important for Kansas State than for any other team. If the Wildcats can give a good effort at Oklahoma State this weekend and then a solid run in the Big 12 tournament, that will go a long way in silencing my doubts.
10. Michigan State
After Aaron Craft ran circles around Michigan State’s defense a couple weeks ago, I thought one of two things would happen when the Spartans played Michigan in Ann Arbor last Sunday. In the first scenario, Tom Izzo would realize that the Spartans’ ball-screen defense against OSU was terrible and that Michigan State’s next game was against Trey Burke, who does much of his damage by using ball screens. The Spartans would put away their football pads and scrap the part of practice where they teach guys how to get away with setting illegal screens, and Izzo would spend the week preparing his players to contain Burke’s pick-and-roll game. Then Sunday would roll around, the Spartans would bottle up Burke, and MSU would win because keeping the ball out of Burke’s hands as much as possible is the key to stopping Michigan’s potent offense.
Unfortunately for Michigan State, the other possible outcome is what happened. In this scenario, Izzo identifies the same weakness in MSU’s ball-screen defense and drills his team on it all week. But instead of bottling up Burke, the Spartans’ practice proves to be useless and Burke still has his way with them. It’s like the old saying — you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still not going to change the fact that Tom Crean’s hair gets more absurd with each passing day.
I’m not shocked that this is what ultimately happened, but I am disappointed that Keith Appling and Michigan State’s big guys couldn’t produce a better effort toward stopping Burke.1 Even so, I’m not too worried about Michigan State. After all, several good teams have played at Michigan this season and none of them has won. The Spartans had a chance to win at the end2 of a game in which Trey Burke went for 21 points and eight assists, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I still expect Michigan State to bounce back from its three-game losing streak by winning the last two games of the regular season, getting bounced early from the Big Ten tournament, and then making another Final Four run.
If somebody told me that Penn State hung 84 points on Michigan, my initial reaction would be to wonder why the Wolverines brought back football coach Rich Rodriguez. I mean, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the Michigan basketball squad — the team many felt was the best in America about a month ago — let Penn State score more points than any other Wolverines opponent this season. “But,” Michigan fans have been saying for months, “Jordan Morgan is our defensive anchor. His sprained ankle still isn’t 100 percent. Once it is, our defense will be back.”
To be fair, Michigan fans didn’t make excuses after the Penn State loss. Instead, they probably just used whatever memory-deleting technique they learned after their football team lost to Appalachian State in 2007. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see Michigan throw out the excuses Sunday and play the best defense they’ve played all season. I understand Morgan plays a pivotal leadership role and is one of the few guys on the team who puts defense first, but let’s get real — he’s not that good. Even if he were at full strength, he still wouldn’t play much more than 20 minutes a game because Mitch McGary has emerged as a valuable contributor since Morgan’s injury. Here’s the point: It’s March. The team you are today is pretty much the team you’re going to be when the NCAA tournament starts. So while Morgan’s bum ankle might be a legitimate excuse for some of Michigan’s struggles, the Wolverines have to get over it and figure out how to win without Morgan at his best. That’s what they did against Michigan State last Sunday. The Wolverines are the most talented offensive team in America, so it’s good to see them throw some defense into their arsenal, especially when they defended so poorly against Penn State. Michigan needs to sustain that effort and not let it become an anomaly brought on by playing a revenge-and-rivalry game after an embarrassing loss.
Maybe we shouldn’t put away the Cuban cigars, the mounds of cocaine, and the Dominican women with cinnamon tans just yet. There still might be a sliver of hope for this Miami team. I expected Duke to steamroll the Hurricanes last Saturday (especially once I heard Ryan Kelly would be back). Between playing at home, coming off a loss at Virginia, and being out for revenge after the beatdown Miami put on them in Coral Gables, the Blue Devils seemed primed to run Miami out of the gym. But the Canes hung tough and were a Reggie Johnson no-show away from winning back-to-back games in Cameron Indoor.
Here’s where we stand with Miami: Like I’ve thought all year, it’s clear that the Canes are much, much better as the hunters than the hunted. This recent stretch has proved that. That’s the best way to explain Miami losing by 15 at Wake Forest and then a week later nearly forcing overtime in a gutsy loss to a top-five team in one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the sport. Miami is only one of the best teams in America when it doesn’t think it is. This is why — and this is going to sound crazy — if I’m a Miami fan, I want a tough draw in the NCAA tournament. I want the Canes to be the 2-seed in the same bracket in which Indiana is the 1-seed, Florida is the 3-seed, and UCLA is the 7-seed. Hell, maybe even getting a 3-seed wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Miami. At this point, anything that it can use as motivation is a huge plus. And anything that it can interpret as the college basketball world thinking it’s the best thing since Cap’n Crunch’s Oops! All Berries is a huge negative.3
Remember the board game Mouse Trap? Of course you do, but just in case you don’t, I’ll explain. Actually, I can’t explain because I never really played the game so much as I just screwed around with the trap. But the trap is all that matters here anyway. It’s a Rube Goldberg–type contraption in which a chain of events — a marble rolling down a chute, a yellow ball falling into a “rub-a-dub tub,” a boot kicking a bucket — somehow leads to a trap falling on your mouse. But as anyone who ever played Mouse Trap will tell you, the trap never worked. Every time, something would go wrong and the sequence would be stopped short. Then you’d have to give something a nudge, sometimes more than once, and eventually the mouse would be trapped. In fact, if I remember correctly, it’s in the official rules that if the trap works on the first try, the game is immediately over and you’re required to call every friend you know and tell them that you just witnessed an event rarer than the passing of Halley’s Comet.
My point here is that Indiana is Mouse Trap. When everything is going smoothly, the Hoosiers are unbelievable to watch. When Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford hit their 3s, Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey slash to the basket, Cody Zeller dominates the paint, and Yogi Ferrell defends at an elite level while playing within himself offensively, Indiana is 10 points better than the second-best team in the country. But when you throw one little kink in their system — like physical play, slowing the tempo, or that sumbitch green boot missing the yellow bucket — everything falls apart.
Tuesday night, Indiana’s green boot completely whiffed on the yellow bucket. Ohio State controlled the tempo and played physically against the Hoosiers, which put Indiana in the uncomfortable position of having to play half-court offense instead of getting out in transition. It also put them in the uncomfortable position of having to guard for 35 seconds during most defensive possessions instead of just hoping their opponent would bail them out by taking quick, contested shots. This, along with being a sworn enemy of Thad Matta, is why I have doubts about Tom Crean. I understand that the Hoosiers like to play up-tempo, but why can’t they slow things down when they need to? Why does a team full of upperclassmen with a couple All-American lottery picks look rattled whenever they can’t run-and-gun?
Bo Ryan and his Buzzcuts revealed the recipe for beating Indiana when they slowed things down in Assembly Hall in mid-January, and Tuesday night Ohio State duplicated that effort to near perfection. Hoosiers fans might point to the fact that Oladipo and Zeller battled foul trouble and never got into a rhythm4 to explain why the Buckeyes were able to spoil Indiana’s senior night, but I’m not sure how much difference it would have made if Indiana’s stars had played better. Ohio State was more physical, mentally tougher, and better at executing their game plan. Indiana’s only hope would’ve been to adapt to another style of play, which is proving to be difficult for a team that is coached by a guy who keeps trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
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 Duke vs. Miami game last Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Kobe Bryant?
- Following a made 3 by Duke’s Seth Curry, the camera cuts to Curry’s mom in the stands. Vitale says she must be the proudest mom in the world because not only is Seth playing for one of the best teams in America, but her other son, Steph, just scored 54 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Vitale says calls Steph’s game the best performance by an NBA player he’s seen all year, before going on to joke that he thought Steph was Kobe Bryant in a Warriors jersey.
- Dave O’Brien, who is calling the game with Vitale, mentions the investigation into Miami’s athletic department and asks Vitale for his opinion on it. Vitale briefly gives his thoughts before switching gears to say that, speaking of NCAA violations, it’s amazing what Kevin Ollie has done at UConn this season. He then says that he recently saw Jim Calhoun and he’s happy to report that retirement has energized the former UConn coach. Vitale then uses Calhoun’s rejuvenation as a springboard to mention that even though he’s 34, Kobe Bryant is currently playing like he’s 25.
- Miami’s Kenny Kadji drives to the basket and hits a runner, prompting Vitale to comment that he isn’t just a guy who posts up and shoots 3s. Vitale even says that Kadji looked like LeBron James with that move, which then leads to him saying that LeBron is a lock to win his fourth MVP in five seasons. Dickie V. then calls LeBron the best player in the world, even though Miami’s Reggie Johnson disagrees and thinks the no. 1 spot still belongs to Kobe Bryant.
On the count of three, Louisville fans, let’s all say it together: 1, 2, 3! Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuke!
What’s that? That’s not a thing? Really? You guys do realize that Luke Hancock has that “oo” sound in his name, right? And you do realize that every athlete with the “oo” sound gets the drawn-out name yell from his fans after he does anything even remotely important? You do? And you still don’t yell “Luuuuuuuuuke?” Huh. Well, fine. I’ll just do it myself then.
Who’s the man with the clutch hand who’s gonna lead the Cards to the Promised Land?
Who’s the boy with the shot-fake ploy who more than likely has never read Tolstoy?
Who’s the Louisville player with limited athleticism and is somewhat of a defensive liability but makes up for all of that because he can shoot pretty well?
Sorry about that. I’m just so excited that Louisville finally found someone who can make a shot in a close game with less than a minute left. As a neutral observer, watching the Cards shoot themselves in the foot all year because Rick Pitino kept letting Peyton Siva and Russ Smith take big shots has been amusing. But then Louisville’s end-game crisis got so bad that it began to feel more sad than funny. So when Luke Hancock drilled a 3 with a little under a minute left at Syracuse to give Louisville a three-point lead that it would never relinquish, well, I was excited. Never mind that he had two consecutive offensive fouls late in the game that put Louisville in a tough spot.5 All that matters is that the scoreboard showed one minute to play, the game was tied, and I couldn’t have been more certain that the Cards were going to blow the game. And then who saved the day?
Well, Luke and Michael Carter-Williams taking an inexcusably bad shot on Syracuse’s next possession, of course.
5. Ohio State
Whew. I thought I was crazy for thinking Ohio State was the best team in the country that nobody was talking about. I was certain my Buckeyes homerism was showing through, so I convinced myself that Ohio State wasn’t any good and its season-long struggles against top-ranked teams proved that. There’s a reason why many college basketball fans consider the Buckeyes the most overrated team not named Gonzaga. At least that’s what I told myself. But then Tuesday night happened and confirmed what I hadn’t quite given up on yet: Ohio State can play with anybody.
When the Buckeyes play great defense like they did when they beat Michigan State and like they did against Indiana on Tuesday night, Ohio State is every bit a national title contender. If they get contributions on offense from guys other than Deshaun Thomas, there’s no telling how good the Buckeyes can be. But we know this. It has been the case all season long. Ohio State’s problem has been consistency. Some nights they play great defense, but nobody besides Thomas can get their offense going. Some nights Thomas gets help but the defense is lacking. Some nights the defense is great and other guys step up, but Thomas has an off night and the rest of the team can’t carry him. Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad … I’m getting off track here.
Look, call me a homer if you want, but the Buckeyes have the talent to compete with anyone in the country and they’re finally starting to have games in which they excel on both ends of the floor. Tuesday night, everything came together and Ohio State fans saw something they’ve been waiting for since November. Shannon Scott, Evan Ravenel, and Sam Thompson all played the best game of their careers on the same night that Thomas and Aaron Craft brought their A-games, and Ohio State looked like the second-ranked team and national title favorites while Indiana looked like the underachievers searching for an identity. It was the most impressive road win in college basketball this season and it could be a turning point for an Ohio State team that never seemed able to get over the hump.
And most importantly, it proved I’m not crazy for thinking the Buckeyes still have what it takes to make a deep March run, even after they were blown out by the Wisconsin Buzzcuts two weeks ago. Do I expect Ohio State to win a national title now? Of course not. I don’t expect anything in the NCAA tournament except for crazy upsets, an early Frank Haith exit, and enough NAPA Know How commercials to make me want to throw my remote through the TV. But I can now confidently say that Ohio State has as good of a chance as any other contender to win a national title, which is something I haven’t been able to do since Thanksgiving.
Um. That … um … that was … that was … um … can I see that again?
Yeah, that was incredible. With respect to Brandon Paul at Gonzaga, Marcus Smart at Kansas, Kendall Williams at Colorado State, Elijah Johnson at Iowa State, Doug McDermott vs. Wichita State, and Dexter Strickland being an airball away from a 26 trillion against Miami, Ryan Kelly’s outburst on Saturday was the greatest individual performance of the season. Forget the German procedure that added years to Kobe’s career or the magic Dr. James Andrews6 worked on Adrian Peterson’s knee — whatever the hell was done to Ryan Kelly’s foot should win an ESPY for the medical procedure of the year. It’s impossible to overstate how great Kelly was, even though Coach K tried his hardest after the game: “We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages by Ryan Kelly.”
Since just about everything possible has been said about Kelly’s 36-point comeback game, let me switch gears and do what I do best — rain all over Duke fans’ parade. As great as Kelly was, Duke fans, you have to admit that a small part of you is concerned. Why? Because Kelly played the game of his life; because Duke was playing at home and was highly motivated to avenge its previous loss to Miami; and because a win Saturday would draw the Blue Devils closer to Miami for the ACC regular-season title. Yet with all that going for Duke, the same Miami team that Wake Forest beat by 15 a week earlier still had two shots to send the game into overtime. Kelly’s world-beating performance isn’t a bad thing, of course, but at the same time we shouldn’t ignore Duke’s problems just because Kelly went nuts.
First, Duke’s defense was pretty bad all game. The Blue Devils were clearly jacked up to get revenge on Miami, but all that emotion backfired on them — Duke was so amped up to pressure ball handlers and get out in passing lanes that it overextended its defense and created driving lanes for Miami. For pretty much the entire game, Shane Larkin was able to get into the lane at will. Then there’s the issue of Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry having hardly any impact on the game. Sure, they finished with 19 combined points, but hardly any of Plumlee’s points came off post moves and Curry’s jump shot was almost as broken as it was the first time Duke played Miami. These two carried Duke in Kelly’s absence, so it was surprising to see them disappear as soon as Kelly returned. Now the question is whether Kelly’s return will mess with the rhythm his teammates established in his absence, or whether Plumlee and Curry simply deferred to Kelly for one night because he had the hot hand.
In each of Kansas’s last three games, a different player has scored 20 or more points. In two of those games, a different player scored more than 35 points. Kevin Young has the best Afro in college basketball. Kansas’s defense at its best is better than every other defense in the country. Perry Ellis is the front-runner for the Greg Oden Award, which is given to the freshman who most looks like he’s 60 years old. Bill Self is one win away from his ninth-consecutive Big 12 title. The Jayhawks are the only major sports team to release a “Harlem Shake” video during the five-hour window when it was cool to do so. Travis Releford is the only basketball player in the world who still wears sweat bands on both wrists.
I guess what I’m saying is this: Don’t sleep on Kansas.
Georgetown pulled away in the second half to beat Rutgers in its only game this week, so there isn’t much new to say about the Hoyas. Instead, I’ll offer a few rhetorical questions:
- Since he does more for his team and he doesn’t have nearly as much help as Victor Oladipo, should Otto Porter be leading the national Player of the Year race? What about after Oladipo’s subpar game against Ohio State on Tuesday?
- Is Nate Lubick the most underappreciated player in college basketball?
- Remember when Georgetown and Florida were supposed to play each other the first game of the year, the game was canceled because of condensation on the court, and everyone thought it didn’t matter because Florida probably would’ve won easily anyway? Is it too late to reschedule that game? Florida has already clinched the SEC and Georgetown will clinch the Big East with one more win. I say we cancel the Florida-Vanderbilt and Georgetown-Villanova games Wednesday night and replace them with the Florida-Kentucky and Georgetown-Syracuse games that are scheduled for this weekend, and then we make Florida play Georgetown on Saturday. This is a foolproof plan.
With all the missed 3s, physical play, and Kelly Olynyk’s hair, Gonzaga’s game at BYU last Thursday was nothing if not ugly. The throngs of Gonzaga haters could point to the fact that the Foreigners won by only five as proof that they shouldn’t even be sniffing the top of the polls. But given the nature of that game, Gonzaga deserves credit for slogging through and getting the win. BYU’s game plan was to muck things up and let the atrocious WCC officials do their worst. The Cougars even took a page out of John Chaney’s book and used Bronson Kaufusi, who fouled out in 10 minutes because his only job was to push people around, as a “goon.” It was the type of game that reminds me of the old saying: Never wrestle in the mud with a pig, because you’re both going to get dirty and Tom Crean’s hair gets more absurd with each passing day.
Despite the close call at BYU, I haven’t lost faith in the Foreigners. I promised last week that I wouldn’t waste time arguing why Gonzaga deserves to be no. 1. Zags fans are sick of these arguments and there’s no way to reason with the blind hatred of Gonzaga skeptics. Besides, as Charles Barkley will likely say in a couple weeks, when he covers the NCAA tournament despite having not watched any college basketball all season, all of this debating over something so meaningless is getting “ridickaluss.” So instead, here’s my plea: If you are reading this and you haven’t seen the Foreigners play, just watch the WCC tournament championship game. If you still think the Zags are frauds after that, so be it. My guess, though, is that you’ll realize how good these guys are. But even if the WCC title game doesn’t convince you that they have what it takes to win a national championship, at the very least it should prove that the people saying “Gonzaga would go .500 in the Big Ten” have no clue what they’re talking about.
The Participation Award-Winners of the Week
A special shout-out goes to the Grambling State men’s basketball team, which finished its regular season last Saturday with a 12-point loss to Alabama State. This cemented its legacy as one of the worst Division I teams of all time, with a record of 0-27. The closest game the Tigers played was a 10-point loss to Prairie View A&M. In other words, they’ve not only lost all their games, they’ve been blown out in just about every one of them. This would be understandable if they played a bunch of powerhouses in their non-conference schedule and then played in a relatively tough conference, but that’s not what happened. The Tigers’ toughest opponent was Southern Miss, and Grambling State’s conference is so bad that the SWAC champions — Texas Southern — entered the conference season with a 1-12 record.
But there is good news, as Grambling State is still very much in the national title picture. All the Tigers have to do is win every game from here on out, starting with a March 13 showdown in the SWAC tournament against Alabama A&M. At the risk of alienating Alabama A&M fans, I think I speak for all of America when I say that I’ll be cheering like hell for the Tigers to make the most improbable run in the history of sports.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.