Before we get to the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, I have some shout-outs to give:
To the fans who don’t do the “ooooooooo” thing every time a player with a long U in his name takes three steps in a row without falling over.
To refs who don’t get so excited when they whistle a block/charge at the baseline that they wind up, start running, maybe even clap their hands, and don’t reveal what the call is until they’ve made it all the way to half court (also known as “the Ted Valentine”).
To commentators who don’t say, “I guess the bank is open in [city where the game is being played] on [day the game is being held]!” after every bank shot and who don’t say, “It’s cold outside but the action is heating up in here!” when exterior shots show snow as the broadcast comes back from commercial.
Finally, to Florida big man Patric Young for pulling off a stunt I’ve been waiting years to see. Young fouled out in a game at Arkansas, and the student section taunted him by doing that “left, right, left, right, sit down!” chant. Often, when players try to disrupt the chant, they’ll take a bunch of quick steps or fake sit down to throw off the pattern. Young, however, noticed that his foul sent Arkansas to the free throw line, so he waited until the Arkansas player was about to shoot before he sat down, which prompted the student section to suddenly yell, “Sit down!” right as one of their players was taking a crucial free throw. The Razorbacks player missed, the camera cut to Young cackling on the bench, and I gave him a standing ovation in my living room. Florida-Arkansas was one of my three favorite games of the season so far, but this was undoubtedly its most entertaining moment.
What wasn’t one of my favorite games of the season was Tuesday’s showdown between Kentucky and Arkansas. As great as the end of regulation and all of overtime was, the first 38 minutes were unbearable, primarily because it might have been the worst-officiated game I’ve ever seen. Sixty fouls were called on the night, there were a handful of reviews that took forever to resolve, and the refs blew several other calls (particularly awful were the over-and-back call on Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle getting away with hitting a defender in the face with both elbows). I’m not sure how anyone who’s not a Kentucky or Arkansas fan could sit through the nearly three hours of that game.
A simplistic approach would be to bump Kentucky out of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball because it lost to an unranked team. But the correct approach is to acknowledge that Arkansas was desperate for a win, Bud Walton Arena is a tough place to play, and the officiating travesty resulted in a game that resembled sarcastaball more than it did basketball. I don’t want to take anything away from the Hogs, and Kentucky certainly needs to improve (getting the whole team mentally engaged would be a great start), but Tuesday was the kind of game for which John Calipari should just throw the film away and move on to the next one. Despite the loss, Kentucky is playing pretty well right now, and if the NCAA tournament started tomorrow, you’d be out of your mind to think that 12 teams would have a better shot at winning it all than the Cats.
11. Wichita State
Wichita State fans came after me for suggesting last week that the Shockers should expect to be undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament. They said it was unfair for me to expect a flawless season from Wichita State while ranked teams in bigger conferences can lose a handful of games without raising doubts about their legitimacy.
The Shockers fans have a point: Doing anything 34 times in a row is tough, much less winning 34 straight basketball games against highly motivated teams. But let’s not forget that the Missouri Valley Conference is awful this season. If Wichita State expects to compete for a national championship — and that should be its goal after going to the Final Four last season — any MVC loss that came outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, would be an embarrassment. Maybe I’m becoming a mid-major hater (and I can’t stand mid-major haters), but if you put Arizona or Syracuse in the MVC and told them that one loss would mean they’d get a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament, there would be a lot less complaining and a lot more ass-kicking.
The point is this: Needing overtime to beat Missouri State after being down 19 isn’t something you see out of a national champion. Missouri State lost to Louisville by 30 and to Virginia by 20, and less than a week before the Bears took Wichita State to OT, they lost to an awful Loyola team by 32. How am I supposed to believe the Shockers are for real when they needed a miraculous comeback to beat a team that will be on the CBI bubble? For now, Wichita State stays in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball because I applaud their comeback, which prevented an even bigger upset than Hayden Panettiere showing up at the Golden Globes with a mullet. Plus, I still think this Shockers team is better than last year’s Final Four team. But there’s one key difference between the two: Wichita State isn’t sneaking up on anybody in this year’s tournament. The Shockers will have an enormous target on their backs as soon as the field is announced Selection Sunday, which is why I need to see them dominate the MVC before I can feel confident in their chances to equal last year’s success.
Well, well. Look who just barged into the Big Ten title conversation. Iowa’s win at Ohio State on Sunday was met with headlines that almost universally featured the word “upset.” But even though Ohio State was ranked above the Hawkeyes, I don’t consider Sunday’s game an upset. An upset is when a team plays uncharacteristically well and steals a game against an outright better team. Sunday, though, was just a case of the better team kicking ass from start to finish. The Hawkeyes made the best defense in college basketball look terrible for 40 minutes, they forced 17 Ohio State turnovers, and they won going away against a team that has already made two incredible comebacks this season. The Buckeyes looked worse than Iowa from start to finish, which is especially frustrating because this was a must-win game for Ohio State.1 What’s worse, Ohio State got 22 points and seven rebounds from LaQuinton Ross, so Buckeyes fans can’t even use the “if Ross would’ve shown up we would’ve won” excuse.
Pundits all over America tabbed Iowa in the preseason as an underrated team to watch. While I knew what the Hawkeyes were capable of, I was worried that the spotlight might get a little too bright for a team that wasn’t used to being ranked all season and winning big games. Well, Iowa addressed my doubts and then some on Sunday. Speaking of which, in case you think I’m overvaluing Iowa just because they destroyed my alma mater, please consider that the Hawkeyes’ only losses this season all came away from home against teams currently ranked in the top 10, and those three defeats were by a combined 12 points. (And they choked away all three of those games to varying degrees.) Iowa has one of the best offenses in the country, led by Big Ten POY candidate Roy Devyn Marble; it’s third in the country in rebounding; and it plays great defense for a team that mostly runs and guns on offense. I’m not sure if Iowa is good enough to best Wisconsin and Michigan State for the Big Ten title. But after Sunday, it is certainly a serious contender.
9. San Diego State
I have to confess something to San Diego State fans. You seem like nice people, and I know Steve Fisher must be making a banner right now to commemorate the Aztecs’ second straight week in the most powerful power rankings. But the sad truth is that I DVRed last Wednesday’s game against Boise State because my wife decided that she couldn’t wait any longer to see Frozen, and apparently she couldn’t go by herself. As luck would have it, in what is such a charming coincidence that I can’t even be mad, my cable froze during the game. It recorded the first 17 seconds and nothing else. Making matters worse, Frozen was a huge disappointment largely because the scene — wait, this needs to be in all caps — THE SCENE IN THE TRAILER WHERE THE SNOWMAN SNEEZES HIS HEAD OFF WASN’T EVEN IN THE MOVIE. As someone who works for Disney, I’m outraged that I wasn’t consulted about this. My voice must be heard for the sequel. An hour and a half of nothing but snowman sneezing gags is a blockbuster just waiting to be made.
I digress. Looking over the box score and reading about the game, I gather that the Aztecs weren’t bad but weren’t particularly good. They built a comfortable lead, went through the motions down the stretch, and escaped with a win. I guess you might say that Boise State had a chance to win, but it let the opportunity slip away.
The Aztecs followed the Boise State win by riding double-doubles from JJ O’Brien and Josh Davis to a ho-hum victory over Air Force. By now, San Diego State has established itself as the cream of the Mountain West crop. It’s the clear second-best West Coast team behind Arizona, which is kind of like being the second-best Saudi Arabian snowboarder, but still. The Aztecs are riding a 13-game winning streak, they play defense as well as anyone in America, and Davis has taken the “Mountain West cornrow king” baton from Tony Snell. I said it last week and I’ll say it again: If you aren’t already on the Aztec bandwagon, you better jump on while there’s still room.
8. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State beat Texas last Wednesday in what would’ve been the ugliest game of the season if not for Arkansas-Kentucky. The Cowboys were obliterated on the boards, they took all sorts of terrible shots, and they didn’t play great defense (especially in the first half), but they still won by 13 because, well, they have much better players than the Longhorns. Oh, and because Oklahoma State shot 51 free throws. That helped.
Anyway, because the game was so ugly and because the email you’re about to read is 100 times more entertaining than anything I could write, I’ll let Kevin from Seymour, Connecticut, take it from here:
Come on, Kevin. This is Grantland. Of course your tangential pop culture reference is relevant. Also, I didn’t believe you at first, but it’s right there in the first paragraph of Ford’s Wikipedia page. This is the coolest fact I’ve learned in I don’t know how long. The Sixth Man has a 23 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes because critics in the ’90s apparently had terrible taste.2 But I defy you to find someone who was 5 to 12 years old when that movie came out and didn’t either (a) pray to a dead relative asking for help to become a better basketball player, or (b) freak their parents out by telling them they wanted to die so they could rig basketball games. If I were to make a list of my favorite basketball movies that nobody ever says is one of their favorite basketball movies, The Sixth Man would be at the top of that list.3 Learning that Travis Ford was in it is mind-blowing.
Since we’re on the topic of Oklahoma State and pop culture, I realized something else recently: For me, the two biggest non-athlete stars associated with the University of Oklahoma are Toby Keith and WWE announcer Jim Ross, yet the former’s first single was titled “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and the latter is hardly ever seen without a cowboy hat. Maybe this is common knowledge among OSU fans, but I like to think I just stoked the Bedlam fire by proving without a doubt that even the biggest Sooners fans wish they could switch allegiances. In that case, you’re welcome, Cowboys diehards.
Can we get Adidas to make 24 more sets of alternate jerseys for Kansas so the Jayhawks can play in a different uniform for every game for the rest of the season? Because if the last two games are any indication, this team is unbeatable in alternate unis.
Look, I know that focusing on the Jayhawks freshmen is repetitive and unfair to the rest of the team. But after the week Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins had, I have to acknowledge how great they’re becoming. Wiggins has always been awesome, and anybody who thought he was overrated either wasn’t paying attention or expected him to be the Messiah. But as good as Wiggins was at the start of the season, he has somehow improved. Two days after dropping 22 in a blowout win over ranked, in-state rival Kansas State, Wiggins had 17 points and 19 rebounds (!!!) on the road against a top-10 team. Through his first three Big 12 games (all against tournament-level competition, and two of them on the road), Wiggins is averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds despite sharing the court with one of the most talented lineups in college basketball.
Meanwhile, Embiid is defying logic by getting exponentially better every time he steps onto a court. Against Kansas State, Embiid scored 11 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and had a couple of blocks and assists even though he played only 19 minutes. He followed that performance with 16 points, nine boards, and five blocks at Iowa State, and he completely dominated the second half of that game. Most importantly, however, Embiid was tossed from the Kansas State game for a flagrant foul, and then he picked up another flagrant against Iowa State.
I don’t usually condone the kind of behavior that Embiid got busted for, but I’m also a hypocrite when it comes to big men. Maybe it’s because way too many college big men are hampered by their passiveness. Whatever the case, I love to see a frontcourt player with a nasty streak. A big guy could pull a switchblade from his sock and slash an opponent’s face and I’d probably applaud it. This is especially true with Embiid. Starting with Kansas’s first game, it was obvious that Embiid had massive potential, but it seemed like he didn’t know how good he was. When I watched him early in the season, I found myself wishing that Trent and Sue from Swingers would give him the pep talk they gave Mikey.
One way or another, Embiid got the message. He now understands exactly how good he is and he’s playing like it. He’s got an attitude that he didn’t seem to have before and the Jayhawks are much better for it. Sure, I wish he didn’t commit those flagrant fouls against Kansas State and Iowa State, but the good news is, he’s turned into the guy in the rated-R movie whom you’re not sure whether or not you like yet, and that has made his play so money.
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 endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business.
When North Carolina played at Syracuse on Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Nancy Lieberman?
Here’s an interesting thought: Could Doug McDermott win the national player of the year awards but not be named Big East player of the year? Let’s say McDermott continues putting up the same numbers and he finishes the season averaging 25 points, seven rebounds, and two assists. But let’s also say Creighton loses both its games against Villanova by double figures, drops a few other conference games, and finishes four games behind the Wildcats in the Big East standings. Now, let’s say JayVaughn Pinkston continues to put up better numbers in Big East play than he did in non-conference action. I know it has been only four games, but let’s use his current Big East averages of 18 points and seven boards, with 52 percent field goal shooting.
So here’s how I see this going down. National voters give McDermott their votes because they either view the award as a most valuable player prize or as a lifetime achievement trophy. Meanwhile, Big East voters decide to give the award to the best player on the best team, which is a decision that’s easier for them to make if Villanova sweeps Creighton and Pinkston’s numbers end up being nearly as impressive as McDermott’s. It sounds crazy, but this has happened three times before. The first was in 1986, when Johnny Dawkins won the Naismith Award but lost the ACC player of the year vote to Len Bias. In 2002, Jason Williams swept every national player of the year award but Juan Dixon was named ACC player of the year. And in 2003, T.J. Ford won the Wooden and Naismith Awards but Nick Collison was named Big 12 player of the year.4
What I wrote about the Michigan State–Ohio State game last week perfectly describes the Florida-Arkansas game from Saturday, so I’m just going to plagiarize myself.
There’s no way to overstate how big this win was for Florida. The Gators were without Casey Prather, their leading scorer at 17 points per game; they didn’t start Patric Young or Scottie Wilbekin, who were banged up; they traveled to one of the most hostile environments in college basketball (where they were destroyed last season); and they had 17 turnovers, trailed by seven with less than five minutes to play, and still found a way to end Arkansas’s 23-game home winning streak. Dorian Finney-Smith was an absolute monster (22 points, 15 rebounds), Young and Wilbekin stepped up after it seemed like they might not be able to play much, and Billy Donovan masterfully adjusted the Gators defense from possession to possession to slow Arkansas’s high-powered offense. The Razorbacks played out of their minds — like they always do at Bud Walton Arena — and there were a handful of times when I was certain the pace of the game would swallow up Florida’s freshman point guard and short bench. But the Gators refused to let the adversity rattle them.
Last season’s loss at Arkansas was a huge “yeah, but … ” for Florida. The Gators looked like national title contenders throughout much of the season, but the Arkansas blowout left many observers (myself included) wondering just how good Florida was. This year’s game at Arkansas is a different kind of “yeah, but … ” Now, if people question Florida’s national championship aspirations this season, I’ll just point them to Saturday’s game. If those people are anything like me, when they go back and watch, they’ll sit there with their mouths open in amazement for 45 minutes.
Bo Ryan has had a ton of success with his system at Wisconsin, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this year’s team — his best ever — happens to be his most non–Bo Ryan team ever. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Indiana got over the Wisconsin hump Tuesday, largely because the Buzzcuts played like a non–Bo Ryan team. Wisconsin’s staples over the years have been hard-nosed defense, fundamental offense, flawless execution, and unselfishness. Until Tuesday night, Wisconsin had maintained these staples, and this team was so good because even though it still had swing offense concepts (all five positions are interchangeable, everyone can post up), it got out in transition more than previous Wisconsin squads, and that led to more quick and easy scoring opportunities. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s Buzzcuts have taken more shots with 25-plus seconds on the shot clock than all of Bo Ryan’s other teams combined.
Tuesday night, though, Wisconsin abandoned its staples. The Buzzcut defense was awful. When Indiana went zone, Wisconsin’s offense stalled as its players stood around the 3-point line and passed until somebody finally forced the action. Worst of all, Indiana outworked and outsmarted them down the stretch,5 which is something that NEVER happens to Wisconsin.
Look, Wisconsin was going to lose at some point, and dropping a game at Indiana is nothing to be ashamed of. If Wisconsin hadn’t gone ice-cold from the 3-point line in the final 10 minutes, it would probably still be undefeated, so I’m not going to overreact here. Also, I think this loss will be good for the Buzzcuts. Now they know that even though they’re one of the best teams in America, they certainly aren’t good enough to forget who they are. They have to play Buzzcut basketball.
3. Michigan State
I’m not trying to be funny when I say that the rotating cast of big white guys on Michigan State deserves all sorts of recognition. Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello were top-100 recruits in 2011, but unless you really followed recruiting or were a Michigan State fan you had no idea that either existed. And Alex Gauna was an unheralded addition to the 2010 class that featured Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, and Russell Byrd. But even though nobody outside the Big Ten knows their names, all three have been amazing for the Spartans.
Michigan State’s win over Minnesota on Saturday is a prime example. With Payne out due to a foot injury, these three all found ways to contribute. Kaminski finished with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting and Costello pulled down eight rebounds and chipped in seven points, five of which came in the last four minutes of regulation and overtime. Meanwhile, Gauna gave Tom Izzo 14 solid minutes, scored two points, and even grabbed a couple of boards and blocked a shot. Most impressively, these three combined for zero turnovers.
Kyle Madsen, who played a similar role for Ohio State from 2007 to 2010, was my college roommate and he’s still one of my best friends. I can’t even count the number of times he complained to me about how hard it was to play his role on our team. He would always tell me how it messed with his head: You know you’re supposed to get out of the superstar players’ way and let them take games over, but if you stay completely out of the way, you become a liability on the court. You end up second-guessing everything and you never really find your comfort zone. It looks easy to go out there and just set screens, rebound, play defense, and shoot wide-open shots, but imagine being in a position where every time you miss a shot or turn the ball over, it feels like the entire world hates you.
Yet somehow Kaminski, Costello, and Gauna make it look easy. They all seem to know exactly what’s expected of them, and they look as comfortable and confident as stars like Appling and Gary Harris. Tom Izzo has always been able to squeeze the most out of guys whom other coaches probably wouldn’t even let see the court (Mike Kebler, Tim Bograkos, Drew Naymick, etc.). But I think the way he has these three playing proves once and for all that Izzo is, in fact, a wizard.
Whoops. I wrote the Syracuse section of this column right after Saturday’s North Carolina game because I assumed the Boston College game would be a blowout. I wrote that I couldn’t remember seeing Syracuse’s 2-3 zone look better than it does now. I wrote that even though Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche were more athletic and longer than Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney, Ennis and Cooney are averaging more combined steals because their chemistry on defense is uncanny. It’s like they know what each other is thinking at all times. Then I wrote that Cooney is struggling to find his shot and Syracuse needs him to get going because offensive execution is a weakness for the Orange, and Cooney’s ability to stretch defenses would spread the court and make it easier for his teammates to make plays.
Aaaaannnnnddd then Monday rolled around and the Boston College game contradicted everything I wrote. After the Orange defense held North Carolina to the fewest points in program history since the institution of the shot clock, the 2-3 zone looked as bad as it has all season against the Eagles. Ennis and Cooney combined for nine steals and the Orange defense forced 16 turnovers, but BC shot 50 percent against the zone, which is about 20 percent better than I expected. And after Cooney went 2-for-12 from the 3-point line against the Tar Heels, he lit up the Eagles for 21 points, seven of which came during a pivotal 14-0 run late in the second half.
Even though Syracuse eventually won by 10, this was far from an easy game for the Orange. Still, they did enough to maintain their spot in the power rankings. I’ll just assume they got complacent6 after embarrassing North Carolina. The Orange players may also have overlooked Boston College and started thinking about their next big game, this Saturday against Pitt. I hope that’s the case, because if Syracuse plays like it did against Boston College when the Panthers come to the Carrier Dome, the Orange will end up losing by double digits.
Bill Walton is the best college basketball color commentator working today and I’ll fight you if you think otherwise. Sure, he’s a little crazy and he made his play-by-play partner, Dave Pasch, feel very uncomfortable Thursday night. But Walton stopped giving a shit sometime around 1986, and his candidness is refreshing in a field where 99 percent of people in his position are afraid of ruffling feathers. Broadcasters like Jay Bilas7 get applauded — and rightfully so — for not being afraid to speak their minds, but nobody compares to Walton. I mean, Thursday night he said on air that Gilbert Arenas had “lost his mind” and mentioned that Arenas used to sleep on his couch.
I want every commentator to have just half the sack that Walton has. Can you imagine listening to Bruce Pearl rip the NCAA for its hypocrisy or hearing Doug Gottlieb hate on Travis Ford for beating him out for a role in The Sixth Man? Plus, Walton’s strident, almost revolutionary opinions are bringing college basketball closer than ever to having WWE-style “heel vs. face” broadcast teams. And I think we all agree that’s the ultimate goal here.
Besides, not everything Walton says is insane. In fact, he said something during the Arizona-UCLA game that I found particularly insightful: Nick Johnson should be in the national player of the year discussion. When Walton initially said he’d vote for Johnson if the season ended right then, I laughed and guessed that Walton had never heard of Doug McDermott, Marcus Smart, C.J. Fair, and Russ Smith. Then he explained his position, and I found myself nodding in agreement. Walton’s argument was simple: Johnson is the unquestioned leader and best player on the best team in America.
Now, I believe that the POY award should go to the player who makes his team exponentially better, and that guy is almost never the best player on the best team. But even though Johnson isn’t as valuable to his team as McDermott is to Creighton, you could argue that Arizona wouldn’t even be ranked if Johnson weren’t leading the way. He’s the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, and aside from Gabe York’s streaky shooting, Johnson is Arizona’s only perimeter threat. More importantly, though, as a reader named Michael tweeted at me, Johnson and T.J. McConnell “have a resting heart rate of 7” at the end of games. Arizona has flirted with defeat a few times this season, but it’s remained undefeated largely because its guards are unflappable.
Against UCLA, Johnson and McConnell got careless with the ball and let the Bruins erase a 12-point lead. UCLA surged ahead with 1:44 left, and Wildcats fans probably started having traumatic flashbacks to a certain game from 2005. Then Johnson responded with a floater to regain the lead, the Cats tightened up their D, and Johnson, McConnell, and York iced the game at the free throw line. Casual observers might think that Arizona escapes so many close games because they’re lucky, but they’d be forgetting that poise under pressure and knowing how to win are skills, and they’re very much the mark of a great team.
The Locker-Room Celebration of the Week
I know I often link to videos like this, but I will never get sick of seeing college basketball players and coaches celebrate a big win. Sure, nothing will ever beat Ben McLemore dancing after Kansas won at Ohio State last season, but it’s still impossible for me to watch these without smiling from ear to ear. This time around, we take a peek at Northwestern’s celebration after the team beat Illinois and gave Chris Collins his first Big Ten win and his first win over a ranked team.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.