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Titus’ Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

The week in college basketball

Since there’s a good chance I’m going to give aneurysms to fans from at least one school this week, now seems like as good a time as any to remind you of the philosophy behind these power rankings. If the NCAA Tournament started today, this is how I think the teams would fare. Overall résumés don’t really matter to me because I’m not the NCAA tournament selection committee. I try to determine how good teams are right this second, so keep that in mind as you pull your hair out and curse my name. And believe me, Syracuse fans — you will pull your hair out and curse my name.

1. Kentucky
2. Ohio State
3. North Carolina

I don’t like to beat a dead horse (it’s probably better than beating a live horse, though), but let me say this for the thousandth time: North Carolina will only go as far as their defense takes them. I mention the Tar Heels’ lack of defense almost every week, and the Carolina fans always tell me I’m wrong and that the stats show North Carolina to be one of the best defensive teams in the country. Since we’re obviously not on the same page here, let me explain this one more time.

Here’s my point: North Carolina’s defense hasn’t been as good as it should be. I understand that they have one of the best defenses in the country, but there isn’t one decent excuse for why they don’t have the single best defense in college basketball.1 Carolina fans keep comparing the Heels’ defense to other teams, but I’m comparing their defense to their potential. No other team in America comes close to having the length, athleticism, size, and experience that Carolina has. They should be shutting down their opponents night in and night out. With their almost unstoppable offense, if the Heels played as hard on defense as Florida State or Ohio State, they would hold opponents to 30 percent shooting and cruise to a national championship. But they don’t, so I can only assume that they lack heart, they don’t care about defending, or both.

Ever since the Florida State debacle and especially since defensive ace Dexter Strickland tore his ACL, North Carolina has looked like a new team. All of a sudden they appear to be committed on the defensive end. Against North Carolina State last week, the Heels had more intensity on defense than I’ve seen from them all season. All five guys — including [gasp] Harrison Barnes — were low in their stances, applying ball pressure, denying passing lanes, and challenging shots, which should be the standard for every game for the rest of the year. They weren’t quite as sharp in the next game against Georgia Tech, but they got back on track Tuesday night and suffocated Wake Forest.

It’s easy to play hard on defense when you just got embarrassed and your best defender was injured. The challenge for Carolina will be sustaining this effort a month from now, when their current motivation fades. If they can do that, there’s no denying that the Tar Heels are among the cream of the college basketball crop, even with a 33-point blowout on their résumé.

4. Missouri

I don’t think Missouri fans realize how lucky the Tigers are. I’m not talking about the fact that Frank Haith has actually turned out to be a pretty good coach. He pulled off the ballsiest decision I’ve seen this year2 by playing zone on the last possession of the game against Texas, which confused the Longhorns and forced the ball out of J’Covan Brown’s hands.3 No, the Tigers are lucky because Michael Dixon easily could have been ejected from that game for elbowing Julien Lewis in the face with just over a minute left. I don’t think there was anything malicious behind Dixon’s elbow and I think it’s a dumb rule, but the refs would’ve been entirely justified in ejecting him based on how the flagrant-foul rule is written.4 Thankfully, they only gave him a Flagrant 1 and let him finish the game, but it’s crazy to think of just how much that one play could’ve affected Missouri’s season.

The officials’ decision became pivotal when Dixon hit the game-winning layup to give Missouri a one-point win. You could argue that even if Dixon had been ejected, another Tiger player would have scored anyway. My only counterpoint here is that Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Matt Pressey all had off nights and Dixon was on fire the entire game, so he was the obvious choice to take the last shot. If Dixon were in the locker room, the responsibility likely would’ve fallen on Flip Pressey, who was having a decent game, but he had only made one jump shot all night. Texas could’ve played off of Pressey, kept him from penetrating by going under the inevitable ball screen that would’ve been set for him, and then rolled the dice that he couldn’t hit a contested deep jumper for the win. I’m not saying Texas would’ve been able to keep Pressey from driving; I’m not saying Pressey wouldn’t have hit the shot; I’m not saying Pressey wouldn’t have been able to dish off to Ricardo Ratliffe for a dunk; and I’m not saying that one of Missouri’s other guards wouldn’t have made his shot if Pressey got into the lane and kicked it out to him. I’m just saying Missouri’s chances of winning would’ve drastically decreased if Dixon had been ejected.

Even if Missouri would’ve been able to win without Dixon on the floor, the decision on his flagrant foul was even more important because, if he had been ejected, Dixon would’ve been suspended for Missouri’s game against Kansas on Saturday. Now, Dixon doesn’t even start for Missouri, and the Tigers have a ton of capable scorers, but they also only play seven guys and Dixon’s absence would’ve meant that both Presseys, English, and Denmon would probably need to play almost 40 minutes. The game against Kansas is a toss-up as is, and without Dixon I have a hard time seeing how Missouri could beat the Jayhawks. This means that one play could’ve caused two consecutive losses for the Tigers, which would have almost certainly ended their hopes of winning the Big 12 and could have been the difference between a no. 1 seed and a no. 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So yeah, I’d say that Missouri is pretty lucky.

5. Syracuse

Fab Melo, Syracuse’s Brazilian center, returns to the lineup Saturday, and they need him badly. Without Melo, the Orange have gone 2-1 with relatively close wins over unranked opponents, and they have given up just as many points as they have scored. On Saturday, West Virginia took advantage of Melo’s absence by outrebounding the Orange 36-20 and attacking the middle of Syracuse’s zone, which explains how the Mountaineers hung around all game and would’ve sent the game to overtime if not for an atrocious missed goaltending call.

But as much as the Orange defense seems off without Melo, it’s their offense that worries me most. Syracuse’s half-court offense seems to consist of little more than setting ball screens and taking quick shots. It’s a good thing they lead the country in transition points, because at no point during Saturday’s game did I get the impression that Syracuse’s players were interested in screening away from the ball or running any sort of half-court offense. This probably has something to do with the fact that Melo is Syracuse’s primary screener, so now that he’s back, hopefully their offense has a little more structure. Either way, I get the feeling that the Orange are winning on talent alone, which is fine because they’re more talented than the rest of the Big East, but it’s also a concern because if they had to play another elite team tomorrow on a neutral floor, I don’t think they’d have much of a chance. With Melo back in the lineup, I expect the Orange to return to form and start winning in impressive fashion again. But until they’re tested by a truly elite team, I have no choice but to power rank them fifth this week.

6. Baylor

I like to think that thousands of years from now, archeologists will discover the section of Scott Drew’s playbook that outlines his zone defense, and it will require millions of dollars and decades of study to decipher it. Cryptographers from all over the world will be flown to Waco to examine this mystery code that nobody can crack. Many will succumb to insanity and possibly suicide, forcing the government to step in and end the madness once and for all by destroying the playbook. But here’s the thing: Drew’s zone defense is like the Kardashian family’s fame — not only does it defy explanation, but it also can’t be destroyed. And so, thousands of the world’s brightest minds will either off themselves or spend their final days locked in a padded room, where they will rock back and forth all day, screaming, “Why would Brady Heslip occupy the high post if the opponent is running a two-guard offense and they don’t have anybody in the high post?! IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE!”

In all seriousness, I’m pretty sure Drew’s zone is supposed to be a 1-1-3 zone, which is a zone that has most notably been used by Lute Olson and Bob Huggins over the years.5 The only problem is that the end result isn’t anywhere close to what a 1-1-3 is supposed to look like. On paper, the defense pressures the ball, denies passing lanes, and has guys rotating all over the floor to confuse the offense. The key to the defense is having guards who can effectively apply ball pressure and cover a lot of ground, but Baylor’s starting guards are an athletically limited shooter (Heslip) and an erratic, offensive-minded point guard who gambles on defense (Pierre Jackson). So when the Bears run the zone, it looks like four guys running around like their nutsacks are on fire while Quincy Acy plays the role of designated shot blocker/rebounder and never leaves the paint.6 With Acy not rotating like the middle man is supposed to, the zone essentially just becomes a 2-3 zone in which the wings extend way too high up the floor and the guards are responsible for the high post. In other words, it’s the worst 2-3 zone you could possibly play.

Against Baylor, Texas could’ve gotten any shot they wanted. But because they are a team full of freshmen and they’re led by the country’s best-known “volume shooter” in J’Covan Brown, they couldn’t figure this out and settled for bad shots in the first half. The Longhorns were 1-12 from 3-point range at halftime, which made it seem like Baylor was playing good defense. In truth, Baylor’s zone was like fool’s gold (the mineral and the movie). It looked impressive if you weren’t paying much attention, but when you really examined it, you realized it was a steaming pile of crap.7 This much was made clear when Texas settled down in the second half and poured in 42 points. Then, in Baylor’s next game on Wednesday, Texas A&M diced up the zone, even with their best player and starting point guard sitting out with injuries. Trailing A&M by five with less than ten minutes to play, Drew ditched the zone and went man-to-man on defense, and the Bears went on a run to beat the Aggies. Funny how that worked.

So please, Scott, do all of us Baylor fans a favor and get rid of your zone. If you’re hesitant to do so because you don’t think Heslip can play D, just let him guard the white guys on the other team and I’m sure he’ll be fine. You can do this, Scott. You just have to trust me, which shouldn’t be hard considering I’ve never coached at any level and I’m from the Internet. Yes we can, Scott! YES WE CAN!

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. St. John’s game played in Durham, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Seattle Mariners?

A. Doc Rivers, father of Duke star Austin Rivers, is in attendance and is shown on-camera, prompting Vitale to wonder out loud whether Austin is better than Doc was at Marquette. He then explains to viewers that Doc Rivers is the second-best Marquette player he ever saw, behind only Dwyane Wade. This leads to Vitale saying he thinks the Heat will win the NBA title this year in a six-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He explains that this is the Heat’s year, but the Thunder are the future of the NBA. Vitale then says that while Oklahoma City has great fans, he feels bad for Seattle because he doesn’t think the Seahawks or Mariners mean as much to the city as the Sonics did.

B. A picture of St. John’s starting forward Amir Garrett is flashed on the television screen. Garrett is on a pitcher’s mound in the middle of his delivery. Brent Musburger, who is calling the game with Vitale, mentions that Garrett was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds and compares Garrett’s high leg kick to that of Tampa Bay pitcher David Price. Vitale, a Tampa native and well-known Rays fan, mentions that Price is one of his favorite baseball players and that he believes the Rays have the best pitching staff in baseball. To back up this claim, he explains that he talked to Alex Rodriguez recently and even A-Rod agreed that the Rays pitching staff is MLB’s best. Mentioning Rodriguez prompts Musburger to ask Vitale about Rodriguez’s health. Vitale claims that A-Rod is doing well and is excited for the upcoming season, especially since the Yankees just acquired Michael Pineda in a trade with the Seattle Mariners.

C. While discussing Coach K’s accolades, Vitale mentions that Krzyzewski also won a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics as the head coach of USA Basketball and that he should win another gold in this summer’s Olympics. Although, Vitale says, don’t be fooled into thinking that Team USA will cruise to gold, because they’ll definitely be challenged by Spain. He then likens the basketball tournament in the Olympics to the 2011 Women’s World Cup, when everyone thought the USA would dominate but Japan upset them in the final. Dickie V. says he watched that entire game, and even though he was upset that USA lost, he felt good for Japan because they were underdogs and they were still dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated their country. Vitale then points out that the Japanese women’s soccer team was so beloved by the Japanese people in the following weeks that they probably felt like Ichiro, who Vitale claims is one of the ten best players in the MLB even though he’s often forgotten because he plays for the Seattle Mariners.

7. Kansas

One thing I forgot to mention last week about Kansas having the nicest fans in college basketball: Jayhawk fans are the only ones who have complained that I have their team power ranked too high. Ever since I power ranked the Jayhawks third a couple of weeks ago after they dominated Baylor, most Kansas fans have tried to explain to me that their team isn’t anywhere close to the third-best team in college basketball. I guess I did get a little carried away with the Baylor blowout, because Kansas’ loss at Iowa State on Saturday proved that the Jayhawks are a completely different team when they play away from Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

Falling to the Iowa State Transfers8 on the road isn’t a terrible loss because the Transfers are a relatively good team that will either make the NCAA Tournament or at least give Texas a run for their money in the NIT. But the fact that the Transfers didn’t even play well against Kansas tells me that the Jayhawk fans were right. Had the Transfers played out of their minds, I would’ve excused the loss because nobody can beat Iowa State in Ames when the Transfers are on fire. But Iowa State had 19 turnovers and only hit seven 3-pointers, proving that the Transfers didn’t follow the “take care of the ball and get hot from behind the arc” recipe that unranked teams usually follow to upset top-five teams.9 This wasn’t a game that Kentucky, Ohio State, or North Carolina would’ve lost, especially if they would’ve shot 48 percent from the field like Kansas did. This is proof enough for me that even though they have the best one-two punch in America and I still think they will win the Big 12, Kansas doesn’t belong on college basketball’s top shelf right now.

8. Duke

The Blue Devils just aren’t an elite team. They have two first-round picks (Mason Plumlee and ARPF), they have a decent supporting cast, and their coach might be the greatest in the history of sports. But their defense is the worst Duke defense I can remember (primarily because as a team they aren’t very athletic), and their offense — which is their strong suit — isn’t nearly as good as the stats would lead you to believe.

Their offense seems almost entirely based on dribble penetration and then either finishing, kicking the ball to shooters who are spotting up behind the arc, or dumping it off to one of the Plumlees down low. Against mediocre teams, this strategy is perfect because mediocre teams typically don’t play good defense and can’t stay in front of Duke’s guards. It’s a different story against good defensive teams that can contain Duke’s ball handlers (again, relatively speaking, Duke isn’t a very athletic team) because the off-ball defenders can stay attached to the shooters. Just look how the Blue Devils have shot against the three best defenses they’ve faced this year. Against Ohio State (3-for-15) and against Virginia (5-for-20), Duke was atrocious from behind the arc. Against Florida State, they shot 3s considerably better (10-for-23), but they were pretty bad from inside the 3-point line and ended up with an overall field goal percentage of less than 40 percent. The results of these three games were a 22-point road loss, a three-point home win, and a three-point home loss, respectively.

Don’t get me wrong — I know their defense is almost nonexistent and because of that it’s their offense that’s winning games. I’m just saying that with a defense that bad, the offense had better be dominant. And even though the stats might lead you to believe otherwise, Duke’s offense isn’t anywhere close to dominant.

9. Murray State

Serious question: Do Murray State fans exist, or are they actually Kentucky fans who graduated from Murray State and are supporting their alma mater because they’re undefeated? I’m not trying to be facetious here. I really want to know. Maybe this is a better way of asking: If Kentucky were terrible this year, would the number of people who consider themselves Murray State fans be significantly greater than it is now?10 Or does Murray State’s fan base not overlap much with Kentucky’s? I swear this is a serious question.

10. Florida

Since my last bold prediction (Syracuse’s first loss would be on the road against an unranked team) worked out so well, let me throw another one your way: Heading into their last two games of the regular season (at Vanderbilt and against Kentucky at home), Florida will be no less than a game back of Kentucky in the SEC, meaning that if they win both games, the Gators would clinch at least a share of the SEC title. I’m not quite ready to sack up and say that Florida will win them both, but I’m confident enough to predict that the SEC will still be up for grabs on February 27. That’s the best I can do.

11. UNLV

Wow, UNLV fans — what an impressive game from the Rebels on Wednesday night! I was worried when Colorado State came storming back after halftime, but then Oscar Bellfield, Chase Stanback, Anthony Marshall, and Justin Hawkins really took over, didn’t they? And how about that play from Bellfield? The one where he got the ball and dribbled a few times and then made a shot. How cool was that? My favorite part was probably when …

OK, you got me. I didn’t watch the game. But I told you last week: It wasn’t my fault, because I don’t get the MountainWest Sports Network. Just know that I consistently power rank the Rebels in the top 12 to make up for the fact that they don’t get the attention they deserve. Also, if I can’t watch UNLV’s game against San Diego State next Saturday, you have my word that I’ll send a notarized letter to UNLV’s president and athletic director that will politely ask them to pull their heads out of their asses and find a way for us basic cable subscribers who live east of the Mississippi to watch the Rebels on TV.

12. Michigan State

I’m not sure what to do with the Spartans. They looked nothing short of awful against Illinois on Tuesday, but much of this could be attributed to the fact that they essentially played without their best player and senior captain, Draymond Green, who was sick/battling foul trouble/injured/temporarily in Tom Izzo’s doghouse. It could be argued that no college basketball player means more to his team than Green means to the Spartans, so not having him on the floor for most of the game is an acceptable excuse for playing poorly. The only problem, though, is that I don’t think it’s an acceptable excuse for playing that poorly. Michigan State shot an abysmal 24 percent, with Keith Appling’s 1-11 performance leading the way, and missed 15 layups in what ended up being the ugliest basketball game I’ve seen this season.11 I decided to keep the Spartans in my top 12 because despite how awful they were, playing without a healthy Green was a huge loss and they still had a good look at the end of the game to beat what should be an NCAA Tournament team on the road. Well, considering it was a layup for Appling, maybe it wasn’t that great of a look, but you get the idea.

The Cringe-worthy Rap Video Put Together by Douchey White Kids of the Week

First there was “This Is Indiana.” Then there was “Boiler Up.” And finally, at long last, this week we got the third installment of the “Everyone Associated With Your School Hates You Because You Are the Whitest People in the World and You Just Embarrassed the Entire Fan Base With Your Shitty Rap Video” trilogy. Here is “We Are Mizzou”:

I don’t think this video is quite as awful as the Indiana and Purdue videos,12 but I still had to pause it multiple times because I was overwhelmed with douchechills. Also, I love that one of the lines in the song is “This ain’t some crappy IU rap,” as if they are in a battle rap with the kids from Indiana and they expected all of us watching the video to yell “Oh no he dih-unt!” and lose our minds like we’re an And1 Mixtape Tour audience.

By the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that some guys from Murray State created a similar rap video, titled “Murray State Anthem,” but theirs is actually halfway decent. In fact, I’d say that history will look back on it as the best rap video ever made by white students about their college’s basketball team. But then again, the lyrics are pretty awful and there’s a good chance I’m just saying I don’t hate the video because I kind of like the first guy’s voice and I’m digging that thing where the guy with the deep voice cuts in at random times to say just one word.

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

Filed Under: College Basketball, Kentucky, NCAA, Ohio State, Power Rankings, Series, Sports, Syracuse, 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

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