Here’s something to think about: If positions didn’t matter for the All-American team and the first-team All-Americans were just the five best players in college basketball, would there be a single guard on the team? This season has its share of great guards, but if you asked a random college basketball fan for her top five, my guess is that she would pick guys like Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, Draymond Green, Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, and Doug McDermott without mentioning a single guard. I’m not sure what this means, except that guard play may become even more crucial than usual in this year’s NCAA tournament, since the best players on most of the best teams are big guys who may end up negating one another.
Mississippi State had the recipe to beat Kentucky on Tuesday night, and in the first half the Bulldogs followed it to a T. Defensively, they forced Kentucky to take contested jump shots, and on offense they drew Anthony Davis away from the basket, set screens, had good movement, and let Dee Bost break down Marquis Teague. The Bulldogs looked determined to get a statement win, while Kentucky looked disoriented and disinterested. At halftime, Bost had 16 points, an MSU win seemed inevitable, and headline writers all over the country were already coming up with terrible Bost puns.1
The second half was a completely different story. Kentucky stopped settling for bad jump shots, pounded the ball inside, and exploited mismatches, and before long Mississippi State came apart at the seams. The Bulldogs threw so many errant lob passes that I thought I was watching a game of backboard dodgeball, and Bost was essentially shut down in the game’s final 20 minutes, either because Kentucky had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist guard him and his length bothered Bost, or because Bost had carried his teammates on his back for the entire first half and Renardo Sidney eventually crushed him. Darius Miller was clutch for the Wildcats, Kidd-Gilchrist chipped in with a few big plays down the stretch, and the last seven minutes may have been the most impressive stretch of basketball Kentucky has played this season. The first half proved that the Wildcats are far from invincible, but the second half proved that when they’re playing well, they’re far and away the best team in college basketball.
3. North Carolina
Jason King brought up a question in his column this week that I hadn’t thought about, most likely because it didn’t have anything to do with FIFA ’12, the Indy 500, mustaches, or novelty license plates: Who will be named the ACC player of the year? Some candidates include Mike Scott of Virginia, and to a lesser extent ARPF and Mason Plumlee from Duke and Michael Snaer and Bernard James from Florida State, but I’m going to agree with King’s assessment that the winner will be a Tar Heel, especially if North Carolina wins its last three regular-season games. Which Tar Heel should win is the more difficult question, since you could make a strong case for Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, or Kendall Marshall. Choosing between those four depends on your criteria for the award — Barnes is the best player, Marshall is the most valuable player, Henson’s defense makes him the most complete player, and yet Zeller probably deserves to win it the most. Zeller gets my vote because he consistently plays harder than the other three, and when all else is equal the tie goes to the senior. Of course, all this is moot because Zeller has no chance to win. But still, it’s fun to pretend the voters won’t just slap Harrison Barnes’ name on their ballots without giving it serious thought.
4. Michigan State
Here are my power rankings for the four greatest accomplishments by a Michigan State walk-on in the last 12 years:
1. Austin Thornton scoring 17 points on the road against an NCAA tournament-bound Purdue team on Sunday. As recently as a month ago, I was scratching my head as to why Thornton played so much for the Spartans. But in what can only be described as a shocking turn of events, Tom Izzo proved that he knows his team better than I do, as Thornton has developed into a solid all-around player. Not bad for a guy who was two fouls away from putting up a 16 trillion against Duke in the second game of the year and followed up his 17-point outburst by going 0-fer against Minnesota last night
2. Mike Kebler’s dunk against Purdue in last year’s Big Ten tournament. Based on how casual he was about it, this play didn’t look like that big of a deal to Kebler. But the truth is that more people have seen Dustin Diamond’s sex tape than have seen a white walk-on shorter than 6-foot-6 throwing down in a game, so the significance of this can’t be overstated.
3. Mat Ishbia telling sportsmanship to suck it by trying to score at the end of the 2000 National Championship game as the Spartans held a 13-point lead.2 Ultimately, he failed because (a) he didn’t get the shot off before the buzzer, and (b) he missed. Still, to have the wherewithal to attempt to score instead of throwing the ball in the air as the buzzer sounded is an accomplishment in its own right.
4. Anthony Ianni taking his early onset balding — it was so bad that when I first saw him, I wondered if he was Isaiah Dahlman’s dad — and turning it into a respectable look by shaving his head and growing a goatee. For a while, I thought Ianni was going to hang on to the dream and stick with the Clyde Drexler look. But he wisely took a razor to his dome, which is a decision that apparently triggered his darkest timeline and turned him into Walter White.
If Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’ sudden divorce taught us anything — and frankly, it taught me everything — it’s that some things just aren’t a good match. This is the case for Missouri, which is the most matchup-dependent team in college basketball because they play four guards and their starting center is barely bigger than Harrison Barnes. Tuesday night, the Tigers lost to Kansas State for the second time this season, likely prompting fans who aren’t familiar with Missouri to question whether the Tigers deserve their no. 3 ranking. But as Doug Gottlieb kept pointing out during the broadcast, losing to Kansas State — even in Columbia — isn’t that shocking because the Wildcats are a terrible matchup for Missouri. Kansas State has the size to exploit Missouri’s undersized frontcourt on offense, they have the athleticism to stay with Missouri’s four guards defensively, they crash the boards, and they’re pretty physical. Sure, Missouri probably shouldn’t have lost this game, but it’s been obvious all season that the Tigers have some holes in their lineup, and their success in the NCAA tournament will depend almost exclusively on their draw. The Tigers are still one of the most explosive and dangerous teams in the country, but it’s impossible to know how far they will advance in the tournament without seeing the bracket. One thing I know, however, is that if they cross paths with Kansas State in March, I won’t be counting on them to advance very far.
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 St. Mary’s vs. Murray State game played in Murray, Kentucky, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Doug McDermott?
A. Vitale claims that this is the game of the day in college basketball because of what a win would mean for both teams. He then makes it clear that he thinks the Michigan-Ohio State game later that night will be good, too. The crazy thing to think about in that game, Vitale says, is that Michigan’s Trey Burke wanted to go to Ohio State but he wasn’t recruited by the Buckeyes. Dave O’Brien, who is calling the game with Vitale, points out that Burke is actually from Columbus and was Jared Sullinger’s high school teammate. This prompts Vitale to say that, speaking of high school teammates, potential first team All-Americans Harrison Barnes and Doug McDermott played together at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa.
B. A poll is shown on-screen asking college basketball fans who is the best under-the-radar player in the country. Among those listed is Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, who Vitale says shouldn’t be on the list because he doesn’t consider him an under-the-radar player. To back up this claim, Vitale points out that Seth Davis has Canaan as a first team All-American. Dickie V. then says that the three locks on his All-American team are Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, and Jared Sullinger, but he disagrees with Davis’ picks of Canaan and Draymond Green and says that instead he would pick Weber State’s Damian Lillard and Creighton’s Doug McDermott.
C. During a timeout, a video of Vitale shooting around in Murray State’s gym before the game is shown on-screen, and O’Brien and Vitale briefly discuss it. O’Brien jokes that Dickie V. should try to enter the NBA 3-point contest this weekend, and Vitale says that he would but he doesn’t want to have an asterisk next to his name when he wins, since guys like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver aren’t in it. He then hypothesizes that Korver didn’t enter because during the All-Star break he’s going to be too busy watching Doug McDermott and Creighton play, since Creighton is Korver’s alma mater.
I’ve said for weeks now that Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor give Kansas the best one-two punch in college basketball, but for the Jayhawks to be a great team and make a Final Four run, they need a third guy to step up. This hasn’t been a problem for them for most of the season, because when that third guy hasn’t been Jeff Withey, it has usually been Travis Releford. Last night, however, it was Elijah Johnson, who looked like the best player on the court in the first half. After scoring 18 points in the first half, Johnson cooled off only because Kansas made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to Robinson.3 The Jayhawks don’t have a deep bench, but Johnson’s outburst last night, Withey’s consistent play of late, and Releford’s flashes of brilliance throughout the season tell me that a deep bench might not matter if Kansas can keep getting big games from a rotating cast of supporting players.
8. Ohio State
The last time sports fans in Columbus were this upset in late February was that one year not too long ago when it looked like the Blue Jackets weren’t going to make the playoffs. I watched Saturday’s game against Michigan in a crowded bar in downtown Columbus, and every Ohio State player got cursed out by OSU fans in the bar except for Deshaun Thomas. This is noteworthy because it’s the exact opposite of last year, when Thomas was pretty much the only guy on the team that OSU fans regularly cursed out, and because it’s clear that the Buckeye faithful are less than thrilled with this year’s squad.
The idea that Ohio State fans — many of whom don’t even acknowledge the basketball program’s existence until mid-January4 — are upset with their basketball team must be sickening to a lot of fans around the country. After all, there are only a handful of fan bases that wouldn’t trade their program’s last seven years for Ohio State’s recent stretch of McDonald’s All-Americans, National Player of the Year candidates, Big Ten titles, and the most handsome walk-on in the history of the sport. To an outsider, it might seem a little obnoxious for a football school’s fans to complain about their top-10 basketball team losing a few games. But it’s not the mere fact that Ohio State has dropped a couple recent games that has Buckeye fans feeling like the sky is falling. It’s how Ohio State has played in those losses — and even in a few wins — that makes them one of the most frustrating teams in the country to follow.5
Expectations were high heading into this season because the Buckeyes brought in a great recruiting class to go along with two surefire future first-round draft picks (Jared Sullinger and William Buford) and two more guys who could become first-rounders (Thomas and Aaron Craft). But of those four, only Thomas has lived up to expectations this year. Buford has been so inconsistent that even though he’ll finish his career as the winningest four-year player6 and one of the top all-time scorers in Ohio State history, he has become OSU fans’ whipping boy. Craft has become so nonexistent on offense that his listed position in the program might as well be changed to “designated defender.” Sullinger, to his credit, has managed to post consistently impressive numbers, but without a shooter to stretch the floor and give him room to operate, he has struggled more this season than in his freshman year. For evidence, I point to the fact that Sullinger is wearing his emotions on his sleeve so often and so loudly that I’m on the verge of referring to him as JSPF7 for the rest of the season.
It wouldn’t matter so much that Ohio State’s stars aren’t having great years except that Lenzelle Smith Jr. is essentially a taller and less talented version of Aaron Craft, and the few Ohio State bench players who get minutes look so out of their element on offense that even Donny Kerabatsos notices it. Still, the good news for Ohio State fans is that when Michigan State loses at Indiana next Tuesday and Michigan loses at Illinois next Thursday, the Buckeyes can still claim the Big Ten title outright by winning their last three games. The bad news, however, is that one of these games is at Michigan State, and the Spartans look like a team on a mission right now.
When I’m the head of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in 30 years, there will be at least three members of said committee whose sole job will be to make the tournament as fun as possible. But the tournament is already the greatest thing in the history of sports, you’re probably saying to yourself. Why in the hell would you want to fix something that isn’t broken? My response to this is twofold: First, if you’re so much smarter than me, why am I the head of the committee? And second, a brand-new monster truck isn’t broken, but I think we can all agree that putting rocket boosters and Lambo doors on it makes it even better.
I want the tournament to satisfy as many “Wouldn’t it be awesome if ____ happened?” scenarios as possible. For example, while watching Marquette run the floor and pour in points against UConn on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think how entertaining it would be to watch the Golden Eagles play Missouri or North Carolina. Carolina would probably destroy Marquette on the interior, but screw it — there’s a chance that both teams could hit 100 and three guys could go for 30 each. This is why the selection committee needs someone in the room who will notice these things and put Carolina, Missouri, and Marquette in the same bracket.8 And yes, they would also be responsible for setting up individual matchups so that the 2006 tragedy of Gonzaga (Adam Morrison) and Duke (J.J. Redick) not being in the same bracket would never happen again.9
A neuroscience textbook written in the Wingdings font would make more sense to me than John Beilein getting no love from the media as a national Coach of the Year candidate. The guy is three wins and a Michigan State loss away from winning Michigan’s first Big Ten title since 1986, and he’s doing it with a team that could be the least talented Big Ten champion I’ve ever seen.10 They are built like a mid-major team, but because Beilein has been able to get the players to buy into his system and accept their roles, they could win the conference. Coach of the Year typically goes to the coach of the team that overachieved most, which is why if Michigan wins the Big Ten title, it will be an atrocity in league with the death of the WCW and Arrested Development getting canceled if Beilein isn’t named national Coach of the Year. Hell, to even have the Wolverines in this position should be enough for him to be a front-runner for the award, but for reasons I’ll never understand he doesn’t even seem to be on the ballot. It’s a sad day when it takes an Ohio State guy to lead the John Beilein for National Coach of the Year campaign, yet here we are.
I’m not a huge fan of blowing my own horn, but it makes more sense and seems much more sanitary than having someone else blow it, so here it goes: There is obviously no limit to the amount of motivation my writing provides. You might remember that last week I voiced my frustrations with Baylor’s inability to remain composed when its opponents went on runs. I called the Bears mentally soft and questioned their resolve, and I wondered how much of this had to do with Scott Drew’s coaching. Well, I’ll be damned if four days later Baylor didn’t get punched in the mouth by Texas in the first half, and then respond by dishing out a few Stone Cold Stunners in the second half before forcing the Longhorns to tap out of their camel clutch. I was so excited to see Baylor fight back against adversity that its loss to Kansas State two days earlier was almost erased from my memory. I know it was only one game against a bubble team and I know that Perry Jones III once again came up small when the Bears needed him to have a big game, but watching Baylor beat Texas on the road Monday night made me want to stand on a restaurant table, thrust my hips, and repeatedly yell, “You’re all growns up!” like I were Trent Walker.
The Awesome Athletic Department Gesture of the Week
I’m usually pretty stingy when it comes to giving out props, but I want to take a second to give every last prop I have to the Colorado athletic department for awarding all-expenses-paid trips to the Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles for 50 of Colorado’s most passionate students. When it comes to college sports, I tend to be a cynic and assume that the adults (NCAA and the athletic departments) are out to screw over the kids (athletes and student fans) just to make a few bucks, so it’s refreshing to be proven wrong once in a while.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next week.