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Twenty Vital Observations About the NCAA Tournament's First Weekend

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A Bitter End

Titus’ Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

Tyler Zeller's case for ACC Player of the Year

I don’t want to alarm anybody, but it’s now officially March, which means that if you haven’t started planning how to watch all the games during the first two days of the NCAA tournament, you’d best get your ass in gear. In years past, I’ve gone to a sports bar that had multiple TVs, but now I’m thinking it’s time to step up and buy a couple new TVs for my man cave so I won’t have to sit at a bar all day or flip between channels at home. The fact that I’m considering spending a bunch of money I don’t have on TVs I don’t need would be asinine under any other circumstances, but March Madness is a perfectly acceptable excuse.

One more note before we start power ranking: With college basketball’s regular season winding down, the conference tournaments and the Big Dance will soon reveal which NCAA teams are the best. So instead of writing another edition of power rankings next week, I’d like to make next week’s column a mailbag. This will only work if I receive enough e-mails and if they don’t suck. So please, if there’s something about the best teams in America you’d like me to discuss, e-mail clubtrillion@gmail.com, and if it doesn’t suck I’ll address it in next week’s column.

1. Kentucky

I’m running out of ways to say “Kentucky is really good but also beatable,” so instead I’ll just say this: I know Anthony Davis is the most dominant defender of his generation in college basketball, but I get nauseated listening to commentators drool over the things he does that don’t show up in the box score. I get it — Davis’s presence is enough to alter shots and change the way opposing players attack the basket. But announcers have basically been giving him credit for every missed shot to the point that I could come up with a game, much like Dick’s Degrees of Separation, where you have to pick what Anthony Davis was actually credited for from a list of four choices. It would look something like this:

Which of the following did a commentator give Anthony Davis’s presence credit for last week?

A. An opposing player missing a free throw
B. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s hot shooting
C. An opposing player taking a certain number of dribbles
D. An opposing player missing a wide-open layup

In case you were actually playing along, C really did happen in Kentucky’s game against Vanderbilt.

2. Syracuse

Syracuse’s games are kind of like Nickelback songs — they all seem the same and Rakeem Christmas contributes nothing to them.1 In reality, Syracuse has won in a variety of ways this season, but somehow nearly every game they play ends up being close midway through the second half. Saturday’s game at UConn was no different, as the Orange led by 17 points early in the second half before allowing UConn to tie the game with four minutes left. But here’s the other thing about Syracuse’s games: Aside from the Fab Melo-less Notre Dame game, the Orange have always found a way to win. So although Syracuse’s habit of letting lesser opponents back into games is cause for some concern, the fact that they consistently win close should give ‘Cuse fans confidence heading into the NCAA tournament.

3. North Carolina

4. Duke

You might remember that last week I used Jason King’s prompt to discuss which North Carolina player should be named ACC player of the year. I said that Tyler Zeller deserved to win but the voters would probably give the award to Harrison Barnes because he’s the Tar Heels’ leading scorer and best pro prospect. But after the past week, if Barnes is named POY over Zeller my disappointment will reach a level only previously reached when I realized that The Magic School Bus wasn’t based on a true story.2 If the game against Virginia — when Zeller scored 20 points and grabbed six boards, and Carolina looked great with him on the floor but struggled when he was on the bench — wasn’t enough to prove that Zeller deserves the award, his 30-point, eight-rebound performance against Maryland on Wednesday should do the trick. Barnes may be Carolina’s leading scorer, but he’s only averaging one more point than Zeller (and he’s taking three more shots to do it), he’s averaging four fewer rebounds than Zeller, and he hasn’t given the consistent effort on both ends of the floor that Zeller has.

The truth is that there’s only one player who has a chance to beat Zeller for ACC player of the year — a certain someone who plays for Duke and has the most punchable face in college basketball.3 On the surface, ARPF, a freshman, seems like a long shot to win the award because Zeller has better numbers and is a senior. But if Duke beats North Carolina for the second time tomorrow, and ARPF puts up something like 25 points, seven rebounds, and four assists while Zeller goes for nine points and four rebounds, I’d feel tempted to give my nonexistent vote to ARPF. A Duke win would make the Blue Devils outright ACC champions — which would be a surprise given Carolina’s loaded roster and the fact that this season was expected to be a down year for Duke. And if Duke won the ACC, Coach K’s wizardry and ARPF’s play would be the biggest reasons why. Beating the Tar Heels tomorrow night would give ARPF the ACC title and a season sweep that Zeller wouldn’t have. ARPF would also be able to say that he had two monster games against his rival while Zeller would only have played an average game and a good game that was tarnished when he tipped in a Duke shot, missed a free throw, and gave up the game-winning shot in the final 15 seconds.

If Zeller gets a double-double against Duke like I expect him to, he’ll deserve to be named player of the year regardless of which team wins the game. But if he struggles while Rivers goes off and Duke wins, the ACC player of the year race will be a pretty tough decision.

5. Missouri

6. Kansas

After Kansas’s comeback win against Missouri on Saturday, people kept saying that if that game was the last rendition of the Border War, it was an amazing way to end one of college basketball’s fiercest and oldest rivalries. If I had stopped watching with a minute left in regulation, I probably would’ve agreed, but the truth is I can’t think of a worse way to end the rivalry than to have a thrilling game decided by awful officiating. That’s right, I’m standing up for Missouri here and calling out the endgame officiating mostly because Mizzou can’t do it themselves without coming across as butthurt, and I know Kansas fans won’t get mad about it since I’ve already established that they’re the nicest fans in the country.

There’s no sense in dissecting the two bad calls and the one bad no-call4 that cost the Tigers the game. But the fact that Missouri got the raw end of the officiating isn’t why I’m power ranking them ahead of the Jayhawks. I just think that Missouri at their best is better than Kansas at their best. Yes, the Tigers have no one to blame but themselves for Syracusing Saturday’s game and letting Kansas erase a huge Mizzou lead. And yes, Kansas’ knocking down outside shots to stretch Missouri’s zone and create space for Thomas Robinson to do his thing in the post was every bit as responsible for the comeback as Missouri’s quick shots and poor decision-making in the second half. But the story of the game was that Missouri dominated, got too comfortable, and then let Kansas come back. And even after that the Tigers were in a good position to win, but the refs screwed them.5 Despite their collapse down the stretch, Missouri left a better impression on me, so I’m giving the slight edge to the Tigers in this week’s power rankings.6

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can only mean 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 endpoint 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. Florida State game played in Tallahassee, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Jeremy Lin?

A. After showing current and former NBA players with family ties to Duke players (Dell and Steph Curry to Seth Curry and Doc Rivers to Austin Rivers), ESPN’s cameras pan to the NBA scouts in attendance. Dan Shulman, who is calling the game with Vitale, mentions that there are almost 20 scouts at the game, which prompts Vitale to joke that they are there to see him. Vitale carries out the joke by saying that before the game he was shooting around on Florida State’s court and he thinks he’s “still got it.” He then says that the scouts should offer him a contract to go play with LeBron and the Heat. If this happened, Vitale claims, he could knock down shots for the Heat and would even be able to guard Jeremy Lin.

B. Dan Shulman mentions that Florida State is in contention for the ACC title with Duke and North Carolina, which is why this game is so important. Vitale agrees that the game is big, but he thinks the Duke-Carolina rematch will decide the ACC. He believes Carolina will win that rematch because they are the most talented team in the country along with Kentucky. He then says that he thinks Syracuse is also pretty talented and is a serious contender to win its first national title since Carmelo Anthony led them to one in 2003. Vitale then feels obligated to mention that Anthony now plays for the Knicks alongside Jeremy Lin.

C. After Andre Dawkins makes his third 3 in a row, Vitale says that he wants to see Duke’s prolific 3-point shooting go up against Syracuse’s stingy zone defense. He says that if those two teams played, he’d give the edge to Syracuse because he doesn’t think Duke has anybody who could guard Kris Joseph. Vitale is then compelled to mention that Joseph is Canadian, which of course prompts him to joke that he could be the next Steve Nash. Dickie V. then remembers that Joseph can’t be the next Steve Nash because, as Mike D’Antoni’s point guard, Jeremy Lin is already filling those shoes for the Knicks.

7. Michigan State

Here’s the deal, Michigan State fans: I like you. I really do. You seem like intelligent people and the Izzone is responsible for the oversized Greg Oden AARP card and the sign that had a picture of Thad Matta next to a picture of Franklin the Turtle, which are two of my three favorite signs ever.7 But if you pretend to be concerned after the Spartans lose to Ohio State this weekend and then get upset in their first Big Ten tournament game, I will turn on you. Pitying yourselves so unnecessarily would be more inexcusable than my omission of Tim Bograkos’s shot to beat Kentucky from last week’s list of the greatest MSU walk-on accomplishments in the last 12 years.

Saturday’s game means more to Ohio State than it does to the Spartans. The Buckeyes are playing for revenge, a share of the Big Ten title, and some much-needed confidence heading into the postseason, while Michigan State just hopes to give its seniors a nice send-off at the Breslin Center. Because of this, I expect the Buckeyes to bring their A-game and gut out the win. This prediction includes some wishful thinking, but it’s also what I truly believe will happen. Michigan State fans will use the Buckeyes’ desperate need for a win as a coping mechanism, and they’ll say, “as long as the Spartans have a decent showing in the Big Ten tournament, we should be fine.”

But that’s the thing: The Spartans never play well in the Big Ten tournament,8 and so MSU fans will make a show of worrying about their team headed into March Madness so that the rest of the country will underestimate the Spartans and count them out of the NCAA tournament, even though these same fans know that of the four MSU teams that have made the Final Four since 2000, only one made it to the Big Ten semifinals. I’ve fallen for this “pretend to be seriously upset with MSU even though we know that Izzo’s strategy is to lose early in the Big Ten tournament so he can rest the players and make a Final Four run” ruse too many times before. So, Michigan State fans, please don’t insult my intelligence by trying to pull it off again this year.

8. Marquette

As someone who thoroughly enjoyed The Artist, I’ve spent most of this week defending its Oscar wins to my boneheaded friends who were quick to dismiss a great movie because it lacked explosions, car chases, drugs, topless women, or Nic Cage doing Nic Cage things. The fact that these same friends didn’t even see The Artist has made this process somewhat frustrating, but at least there are some people out there who agree with me. On the other hand, defending the two Buzz Williams decisions at West Virginia last Friday — suspending four of his players for a half instead of the entire game and dancing to “Country Roads” (West Virginia’s unofficial school song) after the win — has been significantly more difficult.

Let’s start with the suspensions. Many people have criticized Williams for suspending Darius Johnson-Odom, Vander Blue, and Junior Cadougan for the first half and Todd Mayo for the second half because they think Williams should’ve either suspended them for the entire game or not suspended them at all. Suspending the guys for just a half, critics say, sends the message that “You guys are in trouble, but not that much trouble because I need you to win.” I agree that it sends this message, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Before it lost to Cincinnati on Wednesday, Marquette was one of the hottest teams in college basketball, and they was in contention for a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. If Williams had suspended four players who account for 55 percent of the Golden Eagles’ offense, he would’ve been punishing the whole team. The likely blowout loss the team would have suffered could have been a turning point in a brilliant season. Suspending the players for just a half punished them by hurting their statistics and shining an unfavorable light on them in the media, but it didn’t punish their innocent teammates like Jae Crowder, the Big East player of the year favorite who deserves a deep run in the NCAA tournament after this great senior season.

As for the postgame dancing, I think Martha Graham said it best: “Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul’s weather to all who can read it.” Now, I don’t know who Martha Graham is and I don’t even know what the hell that quote means, but it sounds smart and I’m pretty sure it supports my point that Buzz Williams wasn’t taunting anyone. He was just displaying how happy he was that his team picked up a hard-fought road win in a hostile environment. But even if he did taunt the West Virginia fans, I don’t think that would be a big deal. West Virginia has some of the rowdiest fans in college sports, and I can tell you from experience that there’s a good chance that throughout the game Mountaineer fans repeatedly told Williams to leave the premises and attempt to copulate with himself.

Why should Williams have to apologize for three seconds of a dance that may have taunted the same rabid fans who had to be told to stop throwing things on the court during the game? If anything, he should’ve apologized for not taunting them more. If I were him, I would’ve grabbed my crotch and made a duck face at the crowd while I danced all over the midcourt logo. I would’ve walked to the announcers’ table for a postgame interview and told Bill Raftery that “If the fans have a problem with what I just did, I’ve got two words for them.” Then I would’ve dropped the mic, turned to the student section, and unleashed a ferocious “suck it” crotch chop. Sure, if Williams did this it probably would’ve gotten him killed, but at least it would’ve actually been worth the uproar that his three-second dance caused.

9. Baylor

10. Ohio State

Instead of beating a dead horse and complaining about Ohio State for the same reasons I complain about them every week, I want to take a second to talk about Northwestern. Now, unless my child was playing against them or something, I would never cheer against my alma mater. But as a lifelong Big Ten basketball fan who, like everyone else, has a soft spot for underdogs, I was praying on Wednesday night that somehow Ohio State and Northwestern could both win their game against each other. I knew it was impossible, but I didn’t think I could bear seeing the Wildcats lose another must-win game in agonizing fashion. I was right.

It has become a January tradition for me to think that Northwestern is going to make its first NCAA tournament in history the next March, and so far I’ve been wrong every year. There’s still a glimmer of hope that the Wildcats can make it this year, but Wednesday night’s game proved something I’ve tried to ignore for years — Northwestern is cursed just as badly as the Major League Baseball team that resides eight miles from their campus. The Wildcats don’t just lose their biggest games year after year; they also find a way to always be one or two plays from winning before they let the game slip through their hands. They’ve lost five Big Ten games by five points or fewer this season, as well as two recent home games against Michigan (up three with two minutes left in regulation and lost in overtime) and Ohio State (gave up the game-winner with three seconds left, and the half-court heave that would’ve won it for NU was short by six inches) that would’ve likely secured their spot in the NCAA tournament. Other than the fact that they denied my application to study there, I have absolutely no connection to Northwestern, yet every close game they lose somehow puts me in a bad mood. That’s why I’ll be on pins and needles on Selection Sunday, crossing my fingers that the Wildcats finally make their first NCAA tournament. Then again, maybe I don’t actually want them to make the tournament, because ending their curse might mean that they won’t have as many close games that give Gus Johnson the opportunity to do what he does best.

11. Georgetown

12. Indiana

As one of three people who are fans of both Indiana basketball and the U.S. men’s soccer team, this week revealed something that I had been trying to figure out for a long time but could never quite put my finger on: The emotions involved in cheering for these two teams are exactly the same. Both the U.S. soccer team and Indiana are good enough to beat any team on any given night, but they’re also bad enough to lose to any team on any given night. This makes them incredibly fun to root for. I know — it doesn’t make any sense to enjoy cheering for an inconsistent team, but I like it because there is a ton of anticipation before every game. If I were a Kentucky fan, I would’ve known going into last night’s game against Georgia that the Wildcats would win easily. But Indiana fans have no idea what to expect before their team’s games, because the same team that has beaten Kentucky, Michigan State, and Ohio State has also lost to Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa. Not being able to take any game for granted makes following the Hoosiers fun in its own weird way. Anyway, despite the Hoosiers’ remarkable inconsistency this year, the way they dominated Michigan State on Tuesday tells me they should be included in college basketball’s most powerful rankings for at least this week.

The Reminder That the NCAA Doesn’t Care About Its Athletes of the Week

After the exciting news last week that Colorado’s athletic department was paying for 50 students to go to the Pac-12 tournament, the NCAA wasted no time restoring order and making me again believe that the adults who are put in charge of running college sports are evil. That’s because the NCAA won’t let Delvon Roe, who played three years at Michigan State and was forced to retire before this season because of chronic knee pain, suit up one last time for senior night against Ohio State on Sunday. Keep in mind that Michigan State would gain zero competitive advantage by letting him wear a jersey and sit on the bench. Hell, even if they wanted to throw him in the game for a minute or two, the fact that his knees don’t work and he hasn’t played competitive basketball for months would actually be a huge disadvantage for the Spartans. But alas, the NCAA won’t let reason get in the way of destroying what could’ve been a special night for an all-around great guy. I know I’m not the first to tell you this, NCAA, but this decision is bad and you should feel bad.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is A. Don’t forget to e-mail me for the mailbag. See you next week.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Duke, Kentucky, NCAA, North Carolina, 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.

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