You remember Grambling State, right? Last year, they became the eighth team in Division I history to go winless throughout an entire season. They won earlier this season against Central Baptist College, but NAIA wins really shouldn’t count. That’s OK, though, because I’m sure they’ve managed to win since then. Let’s check in on the Tigers.
I know that Pitt’s best win this season was a close loss at Syracuse, I know the Panthers scored 43 points in a game against Cincinnati in December, and I know that on a neutral court Oklahoma State would probably beat them eight out of 10 times. But Pitt is getting the Cowboys’ spot in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball this week. Why? Two reasons: (1) Marcus Smart’s flopping has reached critical mass and this is my way of protesting his shenanigans, and (2) I can’t go another week without writing about Lamar Patterson’s jumper.
Let me be up front: I would make sweet, sweet love to Patterson’s jump shot. Patterson is a fifth-year senior who has been a solid 3-point shooter his entire career, so I’m not sure why I haven’t noticed his jumper’s flawlessness until this season. But now that I have, it’s like the clouds parted and angels started singing Enya songs. Actually, as someone who prides himself on his rainmaking abilities, watching Patterson shoot a basketball for the first time was more like Patrick Bateman looking at his colleagues’ business cards. Look at that subtle elbow placement. … The tasteful way he squares his shoulders. Oh my god — it even has a perfect off-hand and follow-through.
Ray Allen is the best shooter in the history of basketball and he’s often praised for having perfect shooting form. Well, Lamar Patterson makes Ray Allen look like Shawn Marion or Bill Cartwright. Compared to shooting icons like Larry Bird and Reggie Miller, Allen’s form is a thing of beauty, but he still uses his left thumb to help push the ball and he often puts so much emphasis on a quick release that his shot resembles a catapult. Patterson has an aesthetically perfect jump shot. He squares his body, he keeps his elbow in, he loads his shot just above his right eye, and his left hand remains so obnoxiously still during the follow-through that it’s borderline taunting. Every youth basketball coach in America should show their players slow-mo replays of Patterson’s game, specifically that stretch in the second half against Syracuse when he hit three 3s in a little over a minute.
Speaking of great shooting, Creighton’s display against Villanova Monday night was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Anyone who watched that game knows what I’m talking about, but for those who missed it: Have you ever started laughing uncontrollably while watching sports? I’m not talking about finding it funny when an athlete videobombs an interview or when a player does something wacky like putting his shorts on backward or air-balling a free throw. I mean have you ever witnessed a player or team that’s so locked in that you can’t help but laugh? It feels like you’re a child discovering something awesome for the first time. You call all your friends to tell them to put the game on, you drag your wife in front of the TV even though you know she doesn’t care, and you find yourself talking to your pets about how amazing the game is. Right as the Richard Sherman debate reached its apex and I found myself hating sports, Creighton unleashed their performance and left me giggling at the TV like I was Squints and Wendy Peffercorn just Frenched me. This is what keeps me coming back.
I can remember seven college basketball games that had a similar effect on me:
A.J. Guyton vs. North Carolina in the 1999 Jimmy V Classic
Darnell Archey and Butler against Louisville in the 2003 NCAA tournament
J.J. Redick against Texas in the 2005-06 season
Jimmer Fredette vs. Arizona in the 2009-10 season
Robbie Hummel’s first half against Ohio State in 2010
Jon Diebler vs. Penn State in 2011
Ohio State’s record-breaking game vs. Wisconsin in 2011
None of those came close to the spell that Creighton put on me Monday night. Even if Creighton hadn’t scored a single point in the second half, I would’ve remembered that game forever for Ethan Wragge hitting eight first-half 3s. But they did score in the second half. They scored, and scored, and scored, and scored. The Bluejays eventually called off the dogs after building a 41-point lead on the road against Villanova, then the fourth-ranked team in America.1 They almost finished the game with more made 3s (21) than attempted 2s (23). I watched every second of it and I still don’t fully believe what I saw. It’s the single greatest shooting display I’ve ever witnessed, and because of that there’s a good chance I will end up asking people “Where were you when Creighton lit up Villanova?” when I meet them.
Tuesday night against Texas A&M is the kind of game I expect to see Kentucky play for the rest of the season. The Wildcats didn’t play perfectly — in fact, they were imperfect for most of the game — but it didn’t matter because their size and talent was overwhelming. Texas A&M went with the Baylor game plan against Kentucky — they played zone on defense and set a ton of ball screens on offense. And for the first 25 minutes of the game, it worked pretty well.
But then two things changed. The first is that Kentucky got comfortable against the zone and forced A&M to switch defenses just about every time down the floor, trying to find something that would work. So often this season the Cats have been visibly frustrated against zone defenses. It had reached a point where any opposing coach who didn’t start a game against Kentucky in a zone probably deserved to be fired. After the zone lured Kentucky into attempting too many 3s in the first half, everything seemed to finally click for the Wildcats. Wait, we’re bigger, stronger, and better than these guys. Why are we shooting 3s when we could just dunk on them? With this shifted mind-set, Kentucky obliterated A&M on the boards, got into a groove, and never looked back.
The second change was that Texas A&M stopped setting ball screens, which is baffling, considering Kentucky is terrible at guarding them. I’m not talking about the ones at the end of the shot clock where teams give the ball to their point guard, space the floor, and have a big guy set a ball screen at the top of the key. Kentucky isn’t great at guarding those, either, but they struggle most with ball screens that come in the flow of a set play. Example: when a guy curls off a screen, gets a handoff from a big man, and immediately dribbles off another screen, and the Wildcat players are left with their heads spinning. Kentucky’s big men are such great shot blockers that they seem to believe they can just erase bad fundamentals with their length and athleticism. They’re usually right. But far too often opposing guards are getting clean looks by coming off ball screens and pulling up for quick jumpers when Kentucky’s bigs don’t hedge. Or, a ball handler will use the screen, take a hesitation dribble to get Kentucky’s shot blockers leaning the wrong way, and then blow by them for layups since the Cats’ help-side defense is nonexistent.
Look, with all their size and talent, no team in college basketball has more room for error than Kentucky. I’m not saying their defense is some fatal flaw that will lead to an early NCAA tournament exit for the Wildcats. All I’m saying is that Billy Donovan and his Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin will be licking their chops when they watch the Cats guard ball screens.
Twice this season, Wisconsin has been outrebounded and let their opponent shoot better than 50 percent against them. Twice this season, Wisconsin has lost. You’re never going to believe this, but those losses happened when the Buzzcuts didn’t play defense or rebound. I’m no mathastician, but I’m gonna go ahead and call that some good old-fashioned correlation.
Don’t get me wrong — Wisconsin has other problems to address. They stand around too much on offense. Sam Dekker is 6-foot-8, but he almost never catches the ball inside the 3-point arc. And Traevon Jackson’s pattern of following up three plays nobody else on Wisconsin can make with head-scratching decisions makes him a roller coaster of emotions. But ultimately, Wisconsin’s defeats in the last two games can be boiled down to one word: toughness.
As someone who read the back cover of Jay Bilas’s Toughness and who even thumbed through the pages before deciding not to buy it, I know all there is to know about being tough. The good news for Buzzcut fans is that Wisconsin’s problems are almost entirely between the ears. They have a ton of talent and can create all sorts of mismatches with their lineups. But to return to their dominant ways, they have to get tougher. They can’t let guys like Michigan’s Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford get more combined rebounds than Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. They can’t give Nik Stauskas open looks off something as simple as a down screen. And they can’t just stand around the perimeter on offense, probe the defense with a few dribbles, pass to a teammate when that fails, and repeat this process until the shot clock runs down and they’re forced to jack up a bad shot.
8. Wichita State
Saturday against Indiana State, the Wichita State I’ve been waiting to see finally showed up. All the talk heading into the game seemed to be about Indiana State having five guys averaging double-digit points and how the Sycamores’ team field goal percentage was among the best in college basketball. Indiana State had already beaten Notre Dame in South Bend, and they were undefeated in conference play. They were also the best team Wichita State had faced in over a month. Could the Sycamore offense be too much for the Shockers? Could this be the Shockers’ first loss? Wichita State answered with a resounding “LOL.”
What I loved about Wichita State’s performance was that the Sycamores made exactly one layup via half-court execution. The Shockers gave up a couple of transition layups and Indiana State had at least two putbacks, but the only time ISU got a layup through the flow of half-court offense was when Wichita State was up 20 toward the end of the game. The way Wichita State flexed its defensive muscle was impressive. They don’t make mistakes and they don’t give up easy baskets. Indiana State entered the game shooting almost 50 percent as a team, but because Wichita State forced them into contested jumpers on so many possessions, the Sycamores could muster 48 points on 31 percent shooting.
If the Shockers do lose a game in the regular season — and it seems unlikely since they just blew out the second-best team in their conference — it will probably be because Fred VanVleet was in foul trouble. VanVleet has emerged as one of the best point guards in college basketball, and he’s tied from fourth in the country in win shares, according to Sports-Reference.com. When he’s not on the floor, however, Wichita State’s offense tends to screech to a halt and sophomore guard Ron Baker starts to force things. The Shockers will be in trouble if VanVleet has to sit for long stretches against a decent team. Although, considering he averages fewer than two fouls per game and Indiana State is the only other Missouri Valley team that can be classified as “decent,” I don’t anticipate this being much of a problem.
7. San Diego State
Here are three stats from Saturday’s UNLV game that tell you everything you need to know about the Aztecs:
1. They outrebounded UNLV — one of the best rebounding teams in college basketball — by 10.
2. UNLV didn’t hit double digits on the scoreboard until the clock read 5:16 in the first half.
3. After the SDSU lead was cut to five with 5:47 to play, the Aztecs closed the game on a 13-7 run.
Remember when Ohio State was ranked third in the country and they didn’t have a great offense but they made up for it by playing the best defense in America? Remember how critics said the Buckeyes didn’t have a go-to guy and then people like me said LaQuinton Ross could be that guy? Remember how the quote out of the Ohio State locker room after every game was “It’s better to win ugly than lose pretty”? And then remember how Ohio State decided that they’d apparently rather lose ugly than win at all? Well, San Diego State is basically everything Ohio State wishes it could be.
Whereas Ohio State has been getting exposed these past few weeks as the most overrated team from last month, San Diego State really does have one of the best defenses in America. The Aztecs really do have a great scorer, Xavier Thames, who can carry their otherwise mediocre offense. And unlike OSU, which won ugly because they were incapable of winning any other way, San Diego State wins ugly because they prefer to win ugly. They’re physical, nasty, hard-nosed SOB’s who wear you down and then make winning plays when it matters most.2 Teams who win against San Diego State don’t beat the Aztecs — they survive the Aztecs.
Speaking of beatings and San Diego State, here’s a reminder from the UNLV game that bros will be bros:
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.
During Saturday’s Louisville vs. Connecticut game in Storrs, how did Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman end up talking about Indiana State?
A. During a discussion about the Syracuse-Pitt game earlier that day, a graphic shows the three remaining undefeated teams in college basketball. Dan Shulman asks Vitale if he thinks any of the three have a chance at an unbeaten season. Before Vitale answers, he rhetorically asks Shulman if he can believe that Indiana handed Wisconsin their first loss earlier in the week. He then says he doesn’t think a team will go undefeated this year. Shulman says, “Not even Wichita State?” Vitale then launches into a lengthy explanation of how Digger Phelps’s Notre Dame team ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak 40 years ago, which started a curse for unbeaten teams on the road against teams in Indiana. He then says Wisconsin’s loss to the Hoosiers proves the curse is real, and that’s why he thinks Indiana State will beat Wichita State when the Shockers play in Terre Haute.
B. Omar Calhoun checks into the game and Vitale mentions that Calhoun started every game last season and averaged 11 points but has been struggling recently. Shulman says Calhoun is supposed to be a decent shooter but he’s simply not making shots. Then he adds that Tim Henderson also entered the game for Louisville. Speaking of making shots, Vitale says, Henderson hit some huge shots in Louisville’s Final Four game against Wichita State last season. He says Rick Pitino considers Wichita State a college basketball Goliath, and points to the Shockers’ big win over Indiana State as proof.
C. Shulman mentions that Louisville is moving to the ACC next season, which sparks a discussion about the best conferences in college basketball. Vitale says he thinks the Big 12 is the best because the Big Ten’s top teams have been slumping. He then clarifies that Michigan State has been playing well and says he thinks the Spartans are good enough to win a national championship. After a beat, Vitale continues: “If that happens, my buddy Magic is going to party like it’s 1979!” Shulman then explains that this is a reference to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team, which beat Larry Bird and Indiana State in the 1979 national title game.
6. Michigan State
With clear front-runners for the Pac-12, ACC, and Big 12 titles, the SEC title a familiar two-horse race, and the American and Big East not quite as loaded as the other power conferences, the Big Ten has once again emerged as the most intriguing conference race in college basketball. At the start of January, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin were the obvious favorites, Iowa and Indiana were a step below, Michigan was probably down one more rung given their non-conference performance and the loss of Mitch McGary, and the rest were all good enough to beat the best but not good enough to be the best. Three weeks later, I don’t think it’s all that crazy to call Iowa the favorite. In fact, if Iowa wins at Michigan tonight, I’d be surprised if they don’t win the Big Ten. Before I get to why I like Iowa so much, I’ll first explain why the other contenders won’t win the conference.
Ohio State: ROFLOLOLOLMAO. As painful as it is for me to watch the Buckeyes nose-dive like this, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little excited at the possibility of a 2014 Ohio State basketball YouTube highlight reel with video of OSU’s offense set to the Benny Hill theme.3
Indiana: Indiana has already beaten Wisconsin, and they played well enough to beat Michigan State even though the Hoosiers lost. They have enough talent to hang with anybody in the country. Counterpoint: The Hoosiers lost at home to Northwestern. A lot of people don’t know this, but the Big Ten actually passed a rule in 1981 decreeing that any team that loses at home to Northwestern is automatically removed from Big Ten title consideration.
Wisconsin: The Buzzcuts losing two straight doesn’t bother me. I’m thinking the Big Ten champion will finish with at least four conference losses, and Wisconsin has a favorable schedule from here, so they’re still in contention. What bothers me, though, is that Iowa and Michigan both outplayed them on their home court. There are no guarantees in this sport, but based on those two games it’s not a stretch to think that the Buzzcuts will lose at Michigan and at Iowa. That would put them at four conference losses before you even consider what will happen at Minnesota tonight, against Michigan State, or this weekend on the road against a Purdue team that figures to be motivated to give Boilermaker fans something to smile about after Tuesday’s tragic campus shooting. Again, there are no guarantees and the schedule isn’t as grueling as it could be, but the Buzzcuts have certainly done themselves no favors with the slow start.
Michigan: With a 5-0 start in conference play, including a win at the Kohl Center, Michigan is the surprise team in the Big Ten, as well as the latest candidate for Ewing Theory consideration. Nik Stauskas is my pick for conference player of the year, and for the first time ever, Glenn Robinson III is playing consistently well. But I still sense that the Wolverines are too young and don’t have enough depth to keep this up for another month and a half. I’ll certainly change my tune if the Wolverines win and/or look good in their games against Iowa tonight and at Michigan State on Saturday, but right now I’m thinking that along with excusable losses like road games at MSU and Iowa, Michigan will have a handful of letdown games and fall back to earth. (Remember, Nebraska missed two potential game winners against Michigan two weeks ago.)
Michigan State: I’d have to check with Elias Sports Bureau to be sure, but I’m convinced the Spartans are on pace to set an all-time record for wincing. It seems like at some point in every Michigan State game a Spartan player is shown on camera holding part of his body while making a Jaden Smith face. Adreian Payne has already sat out a few games with a foot injury, many of his teammates have been seriously sick, and Keith Appling apparently hurt every part of his body Tuesday against Indiana. With those nagging injuries in mind, how badly do we think Michigan State wants to win the Big Ten? Couldn’t you see Tom Izzo strategically taking a couple of games off to make sure his guys stay healthy? Other than helping with NCAA tournament seeding, why even bother with the regular season if you’re Michigan State? Izzo has won seven Big Ten titles already. He has to know that no. 8 isn’t nearly as important as making sure his guys are ready in March.
This is where Iowa comes in. If you asked Michigan State’s players what their goals are this season, every one of them would say it’s to win a national championship. If you asked Iowa’s guys the same question, you’d likely hear them say they want to win the Big Ten more than the Big Dance. That’s not to say Iowa isn’t good enough to win a national title. It’s just that the Hawkeyes haven’t won a conference championship since 1979, and they haven’t even been relevant since Greg Brunner was a bowling ball in the paint and Adam Haluska was the original Ron Baker. Winning the Big Ten would mean much more to Iowa’s players, coaches, and fans than it would mean to the conference’s other top teams. Iowa has played at a high level in all of their conference games so far. They’re the deepest team in the country. They really want this. They should win the Big Ten.
Florida’s only game this week was against Auburn and it wasn’t on TV. Also, rumors about Chris Walker finally getting cleared by the NCAA are intensifying. Sure, these rumors have been flying around all season, but this time they’re totally for real, you guys. Anyway, I’m struggling with a Gators dilemma this week — do I discuss their game against Auburn that nobody watched or do I give credence to unfounded speculation and do my part to overhype a kid who hasn’t played a single second of college basketball?
Ummm … duh.
Can we just crown the Jayhawks national champions now and get it over with? That’s where we’re headed, right? I mean, after playing the toughest non-conference schedule I can remember for a marquee team, Kansas just beat the five best teams in the best conference in America. Assuming they can win at TCU this season, it’s pretty obvious the Jayhawks are going to win the Big 12 yet again. Then they’ll get a 1-seed in the tournament, we’ll hear pundits drone on about how the Jayhawks are “young but battle-tested” and “jelling at the right time,” and Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins will dominate en route to a national title. Jim Nantz is already working on his Kansas puns.
I’m not saying Kansas is as good as the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats. They aren’t. But don’t these Jayhawks have a similar vibe? They have the probable top two picks in the NBA draft surrounded by more McDonald’s All-Americans than they can count. When Wiggins is engaged on offense and the team remains focused on defense, they’re the best team in the country. I really mean that. If I’m a fan of a ranked team and the NCAA tournament were drawn up today, I’d rather my team be put in Arizona’s or Syracuse’s region than Kansas’s. All the talk about young teams like Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke was that they will be terrifying in March. Well, Kansas is there already. The Jayhawks are terrifying. They simply have no weaknesses and an absurd amount of talent. Most importantly, though, is that they are battle-tested and jelling at the right time.
The last couple minutes of the Cuse-Pitt game could serve as a perfect microcosm of Syracuse basketball. Tyler Ennis took over the game and made three of the biggest plays of his life down the stretch, yet I don’t think he so much as cracked a smile after leading his team to the win. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure C.J. Fair, the best player in the ACC and one of the three or four best players in the country, has collected more rebounds than he has spoken words on the season. In my experience, Syracuse fans complain about not getting enough respect more than any fan base in college basketball. Well, I figured it out. You know why people forget to mention Jim Boeheim when listing the game’s best coaches? You know why Cuse gets picked on for weak scheduling even though other teams also play terrible schedules? It’s because their players are boring, most of them suck in the NBA, the Orange are the only team in America that refuses to play man-to-man defense, the Carrier Dome is a vapid football stadium, and the team nickname is a freaking color.
Don’t get mad, Syracuse fans. I’m not insulting your team. I said all those mean things so I could say this: Syracuse is like the San Antonio Spurs of college basketball. Do you realize that only two programs have both won an NCAA tournament game in each of the last five seasons and made multiple Sweet 16s in that span? Kansas is one of them and Syracuse is the other. Here’s what makes Syracuse unique, though: During that stretch, Kansas has had three one-and-done players on their roster (Xavier Henry, Josh Selby, Ben McLemore) while Syracuse has had zero. In fact, even though the most famous Syracuse basketball player of all time might be the most famous one-and-done player of all time (Carmelo Anthony), Donte Greene is the only Cuse player to be one-and-done since the NBA’s age minimum was put in place in 2006. Funny enough, in Greene’s lone season in college basketball, the Orange went to the NIT.
While basically every blue-blooded program has turned into an NBA day care center, Boeheim not only maintains a traditional approach to his team, he’s also in the midst of arguably the greatest stretch of his coaching career. Sure, Syracuse games aren’t particularly exciting. But to hell with exciting. Boeheim doesn’t want guys who want to be exciting. He wants guys who want to win his way, and he’s got a good crop of them this year. The Orange might not score a ton, their players won’t throw up loose butthole monocles when they hit 3s, and their names won’t show up in the top 10 of many mock drafts. But they’re 18-0, they’re playing as well as anybody in America right now, and they are a lock to win the ACC and get a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. I’m pretty sure Cuse fans are OK with that.
Oregon is suddenly terrible. Colorado’s best player, Spencer Dinwiddie, tore his ACL. Arizona already beat UCLA in their only meeting of the year. Stanford is meh. Cal is undefeated in the conference, but they also haven’t played the best the Pac-12 has to offer. Could Arizona maybe enter the NCAA tournament undefeated after all?
I know it’s crazy. I know there’s still something like a 1 percent chance of it happening. But look at the rest of Arizona’s schedule and tell me who is going to beat them. Actually, wait. Before you check out their schedule, go watch the Arizona State game from last Thursday. It was the Wildcats’ most complete game of the season. All seven players in the rotation finished in double figures, the Cats held the Sun Devils to 34 percent shooting, and Arizona finished the game with 21 assists. Watch that beatdown and tell me who in the Pac-12 is going to beat this team.
In all seriousness, the upcoming game at Cal is the best bet for Arizona’s first loss. Not only is Cal currently the second-best team in the Pac-12, but the Bears are playing at home and the game falls two days after Arizona’s trip to Stanford. I can see Cal getting jacked up for the game because they need a marquee win to cement their NCAA tournament bid. I can also imagine Arizona being a combination of complacent and tired, Nick Johnson getting into foul trouble, and the Bears winning in a dramatic finish. But here’s what’s much more likely to happen: Arizona destroys Cal, rolls through the rest of the Pac-12 schedule, and enters the NCAA tournament undefeated. If this happens, don’t forget about a certain college basketball writer who put his neck out in the first week of December by saying this could be the best Arizona team ever.
The Billionaire of the Week
Peyton Manning said “Omaha” 31 times en route to an AFC championship, Creighton hit 21 3s to destroy the no. 4 team in America, and now this: Warren Buffett is offering $1 billion to anybody who gets a perfect March Madness bracket. I think it’s safe to say this is the greatest sports week in Omaha history.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next week.