I know you’re sick of the Marcus Smart story. I am too, so I’ll make this quick. First off, there are no good guys in this situation. Smart isn’t a hero for sticking up to an obnoxious fan, and Jeff Orr isn’t “just a normal fan who said something everybody says.” I’ll never understand what compels a person to personally attack an athlete, whether it’s something as foul as mocking a dead relative or something as relatively innocent as saying, “You suck.” I understand fans are trying to get inside opposing players’ heads, and that doesn’t bother me. But do it by booing them. Do it by making a bunch of noise, twirling towels, shouting “Air ball!” and chanting things in support of your team to create an intimidating atmosphere. This is what passionate fans do. Hurling insults — or worse — at an individual player doesn’t make you a passionate fan, it just makes you a douche.
But just because there’s one bad guy doesn’t mean the other guy is automatically good. As big a moron as Orr appears to be, nothing illegal took place until Smart put his hands on him. Being face-to-face with somebody you want to sock in the teeth isn’t something that’s unique for Smart, or even for athletes. We’ve all been in heated arguments and felt the urge to make it physical, but most of us don’t. I would’ve preferred Smart just walk away, or report Orr to a security guard, or mention him in a postgame press conference. I would’ve been fine with him yelling back at Orr or even flipping him off. But the moment he touched Orr, Smart created a no-win situation. A lot of tough guys are going to disagree with me, but a society that solves its issues with violence isn’t a society I want to be a part of.
One last thought: Does Smart shove Orr if Oklahoma State is winning by 20? Does he shove him if the Cowboys aren’t in the midst of a losing streak and his draft stock isn’t plummeting? The large majority who saw the video in a vacuum would like to think he would. But for those of us who have been closely following Smart’s play over the course of a disappointing season, this looked like a case of a frustrated guy hitting rock bottom more than it looked like a guy taking a stand for athletes everywhere.
No matter your thoughts on the ordeal, here are the facts: Marcus Smart was lauded as “mature” for turning down NBA riches to return to school. He scored 39 on 11th-ranked Memphis in November and catapulted himself into the lead for the national player of the year awards and maybe even the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Oklahoma State was preseason top-10 team, a national title contender, and a serious threat to end Kansas’s Big 12 reign. There was hope he would be a triple-double machine. Now he’s got the reputation of an entitled flopper who kicks chairs, who walks off the court during timeouts, who plays for a team that suddenly might find itself on the NCAA tournament bubble, and who shoved a fan who berated him. Some of it is fair and some of it is not, but for this transformation to have taken place so quickly is remarkably sad.
12. Michigan State
Michigan State might be the most undeserving team ever to be included in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. Yes, the Spartans will be on the short list of national title favorites if their roster ever gets healthy, but the most powerful power rankings have always been about how well teams are playing right now, and Michigan State has lost three of its last five, including Sunday’s game at Wisconsin (when Gary Harris went 3-20, got beat by Traevon Jackson for the game winner, and suddenly made the Big 10 POY race intriguing again). The Spartans are running on fumes.
Here’s why they still made the Top 12, though: Iowa State just lost by infinity at West Virginia; Louisville hasn’t beaten a ranked team all season; Iowa has lost three of its last six; Michigan just got the breaks beat off it by that same Iowa team; Texas’s hot streak came to a screeching halt after it squeaked by TCU and then had their asses handed to them at Kansas State; Creighton just lost to a team that might not make the NIT; Memphis needs to do more than beat Gonzaga at home; and one big win isn’t enough to wash the January stink off of Wisconsin. With that in mind, whom can I put in Michigan State’s place? Virginia? Yeah, right. Like I’m going to put …
[Looks up Virginia’s recent stretch.]
Whoa. All right then.
I really need to stop swearing off teams in December. I did it with Cincinnati, only for the Bearcats to win 15 straight and jump as high as no. 7 in the AP poll. Similarly, I swore off Virginia after the Hoos scored 38 points against Wisconsin, lost to Green Bay, and got humiliated at Tennessee. Six weeks later, Virginia has won 11 of 12, with the one loss coming by four at Duke. The Hoos are a game out of first place in the ACC, and they have a two-game lead over third place. Most impressive, though, is the way Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon have turned this season around. In that Tennessee game, Harris went 2-9 and finished with seven points, while Brogdon, unknown to most fans at the time, went scoreless. Since then, Brogdon and Harris have both scored double digits in all but two of Virginia’s games.1 If these numbers don’t impress you, let me remind you that scoring 10 for Virginia is like scoring 35 for Iowa State.
In all seriousness, Virginia’s improvement has been astounding, especially when you consider that Harris and Akil Mitchell — Virginia’s two leading scorers from last year — are having statistically worse seasons across the board. The common thread for so many of college basketball’s great defensive teams this season is that they are limited offensively. With the emergence of Brogdon, though, Virginia has options other great defensive teams don’t. They can run some sort of offense that isn’t “Give the ball to the best player and get out of the way” or “Just put your head down, drive to the basket, and hope something good happens.” Because of this — but mostly because of a conference schedule that has Virginia playing the top-five ACC teams only once each — there’s a realistic chance UVA could win the conference outright. If you had told me that when the new year rolled around, I probably would still be laughing today.
11. Saint Louis
If you thought it was tough to figure out how good Wichita State really is, then doing the same with Saint Louis will probably drive you crazy. Every time I try to make sense of the Billikens, I end up looking like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Only instead of reaching a breakthrough like the Nash equilibrium, I just stare at my computer screen until my eyes start twitching, my mouth hangs open, and I pass out.
Saint Louis is on a 16-game winning streak that dates back to the first week of December. It is 9-0 in the Atlantic 10, holding a two-game lead in a conference that figures to get at least four teams into the NCAA tournament. The Billikens are one of seven teams in college basketball — along with Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Wichita State — that have a claim to the “best defense in America” title. Their two losses came against Wichita State and Wisconsin, both of which will be at least 5-seeds in the NCAA tournament. Based on this, the Billikens should be a top-five team, right? What’s so confusing?
Well, there are arguments that could shred pretty much every point I just made. Yes, Saint Louis is undefeated in the A-10, but it hasn’t played any of the conference’s other NCAA tournament locks yet. Meanwhile, having the best defense in America is great, but when advanced metrics say your offense is worse than Marquette’s and almost as bad as Illinois’s, it’s like having the world’s most delicious steak in front of you and the only way you can eat it is to suck it through a straw. Oh, and before we credit Saint Louis for losing only to Wichita State and Wisconsin, maybe we should consider that those were the only two ranked teams the Billikens have played. Thankfully, Saint Louis plays VCU twice and George Washington and UMass once each before the season ends, so we’ll get a chance to see how good it is over the next few weeks. Until then, I’ll be staring at Saint Louis’s résumé as dramatic music plays in the background, waiting for my imaginary friend to lead my brain to a world-changing breakthrough.
I’m in a weird place with Kentucky. My biggest concern with the Wildcats is also what makes them so dangerous. On paper, their roster resembles a fully loaded NBA team in college. They’re stacked with more raw talent than maybe any team in college basketball history, so it’s tempting to imagine how good they’d be if all their players performed to their full potential. In reality, though, there always seem to be a couple guys who struggle every game. Willie Cauley-Stein alone has been one of the most inconsistent players in America, so when you throw in Alex Poythress’s inconsistent focus, James Young’s occasional poor shooting nights, Julius Randle’s tendency to commit turnovers, and the Cats’ problems guarding ball screens, the Kentucky team on the court never quite matches the Kentucky in your mind.
But whenever a couple Kentucky players have bad games, a couple other Wildcats manage to step up in a big way. John Calipari seems to have no idea which of his players will thrive and which will flounder in any given game, and this means Kentucky’s opponents enter games against the Wildcats just as clueless about which players will hurt them. In some perverse twist of basketball fate, this has become a kind of advantage for Kentucky. Opponents can’t just key on Randle and Young and make the rest of the Wildcats beat them, because someone from that group is bound to bring his A-game and do just that. So is Kentucky screwed come March because it can’t get it all together, or are the Wildcats terrifying because any of their players can have a career night at any given time?
We’ll find out soon enough. For now, Saturday’s game against Florida should be the only thing on Wildcats fans’ minds. I know Kentucky-Louisville is a huge deal and the Cats showed their mettle in that win. But Florida is playing at a higher level right now than almost anything Kentucky has seen this season. Can the young Wildcats backcourt handle Florida’s pressure? Can the Wildcats contain the 3,000 ball screens Billy Donovan will throw at them? Can Randle have the same success on the low block that Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes had against the Gators? If Kentucky has national title aspirations, it’s time to show and prove.
So far during the Sochi Olympics, Bob Costas has said “Pussy Riot” multiple times on air, become the butt of Internet jokes for having pinkeye that spread to both eyes, taken a shot of vodka with Mary Carillo on national television, and been replaced by Matt Lauer. And still his week wasn’t as eventful as the Cincinnati Bearcats’ week. After coming from behind at home to beat a UConn team that had completely outplayed them for the first 30 minutes, the Bearcats trailed again at SMU — only this time, they stayed behind and lost by 21.
If you’ve been following Cincinnati this season, you knew a loss like this was inevitable, mostly because Cincinnati’s offense can sometimes be laughably bad. Case in point: Only twice this season have I seen a player shoot an unmolested seven-foot baseline shot, hit the corner of the backboard, and watch the ball bounce into the third row. Both instances happened to Cincinnati players in the first half of the UConn game. Down the stretch, Cincinnati shut down UConn, got some easy buckets in transition, and escaped with the win. But like nearly every other game this season, Cincinnati struggled to score and had to muscle the ball into the basket so often that I was left wondering if the Bearcats basketball team was the best football team in Cincinnati.
So when Cincy shot 35 percent and had more turnovers than made field goals at SMU, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Besides, even if Cincinnati had played well and held a late lead against SMU, the Mustangs fans would’ve turned the Moody Madness up to 11 and willed their team to a win. Arkansas and Nebraska have been duking it out all season for the title of the team that experiences the most drastic swings in performance when playing at home and on the road, and while I don’t think SMU is quite on their level, the Mustangs certainly deserve consideration. When you consider SMU’s great home-court advantage, Cincinnati’s offensive struggles, and the Bearcats’ narrow escape against UConn less than 48 hours earlier, the loss to the Mustangs doesn’t raise much concern. I trust Mick Cronin will get Cincinnati back on track over the next couple games, and the Bearcats should hit the Louisville-UConn-Memphis gauntlet at the end of the season with a full head of steam.
If you were worrying that the most powerful power rankings in college basketball were turning into nothing more than power rankings of the best defenses, fear not, because Perry Ellis and Kansas are here to save the day. The Jayhawks’ loss to Kansas State on Monday shouldn’t be a big deal, even though K-State has now beaten Kansas just four times in the last 20 years. The Wildcats have lost only once at home, they have an experienced and talented team, and it’s Bruce Weber’s second year in Manhattan, which means Kansas State will make a deep tournament run this season only to disappear for the next decade. Plus, Joel Embiid played only 18 minutes because he was apparently dealing with knee and back issues. But as much as I’d like to let Kansas off the hook for this one, I can’t because their defensive effort was … yeesh.
Statistically, Kansas has a pretty good defense, but given the athletes on the Jayhawks’ roster and the history of Bill Self’s defenses, being “pretty good” is not enough. Somebody needs to smack Andrew Wiggins in the face before every game so he plays pissed off and becomes what he should be: the best defender in college basketball. Somebody needs to explain to Naadir Tharpe that getting screened doesn’t mean he can just give up on the play. Somebody needs to take Perry Ellis back to fourth grade and teach him to get in a defensive stance.
I still believe Kansas will be the most feared team when the NCAA tournament rolls around. But if that proves not to be the case, the Jayhawks’ lackadaisical defense will almost certainly be why. I’ve been giving them the benefit of the doubt when they look underwhelming because they’re so young and because they’re playing the most difficult schedule in recent memory. This late in the season, however, it’s time to stop making excuses. Youth is not the problem when the team’s defensive struggles stem from a lack of effort. The Kansas players aren’t misunderstanding strategic concepts at the college level — they’re just not trying hard enough. Not to mention, the Jayhawks upperclassmen are just as guilty as the freshmen. Bill Self will figure it out because he always does, but I’d be lying if I said Kansas fans shouldn’t be concerned that the Jayhawks might crap the bed defensively in the second round and get bounced from the NCAA tourney much earlier than they should.
7. San Diego State
I’ve been noting the similarities between Cincinnati and San Diego State for much of the season, and this week proved it. Much as in Cincy’s game against UConn, the Aztecs were outplayed for 30-plus minutes against Boise State before going nuts in the final nine minutes to win on Dwayne Polee’s huge shot. And much as in Cincy’s game at SMU, the Aztecs’ offense fell apart on the road against a team that plays much better at home, leading to an uninspiring loss.
I’m not too worried about the Aztecs losing at Wyoming. The Cowboys are better than most fans realize. They probably aren’t going to make the NCAA tournament, but the only game they’ve lost this season by more than eight points was at Ohio State in November. The Cowboys are 10th in the country in field goal percentage, and they’re tied for 14th in scoring defense. Also, as the commentators pointed out a million times Tuesday night, Wyoming’s gym sits 7,000-plus feet above sea level and road teams struggle at that altitude. The Aztecs are 4-6 in their last 10 trips to Laramie.
This game didn’t expose some hidden weakness for San Diego State. Sure, it was surprising to see the typically great San Diego State defense let the Cowboys shoot 58 percent from the field, but I’m blaming that on the elevation and the fact that Wyoming always shoots well. The real story was Xavier Thames going ice-cold with a 3-16 night from the field. So often this season, Thames has carried San Diego State’s offense. The UNLV game in January proved the Aztecs can survive a bad shooting night from Thames. What they can’t survive is Thames shooting poorly and not really getting his teammates involved and the team collectively playing subpar defense. It’s unlikely all those things will go wrong on the same night many more times this season, so Tuesday’s loss seems more like a hiccup than a red flag.
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 the Florida vs. Alabama game in Gainesville on Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Denver Broncos?
A. A replay of a Florida player blocking a shot prompts Vitale to mention how Florida loves defense, which is rare. Mark Jones, who is calling the game with Vitale, comments that the general public doesn’t think defense is sexy, which is why he thinks so few teams really enjoy playing it. Vitale then says that while it might not be sexy, it certainly wins games. He then offers the example of the Seahawks beating the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
B. After Scottie Wilbekin makes a handful of great plays, Jones asks Vitale if Wilbekin is the best point guard in the SEC. Vitale says that not only is Wilbekin the best in the conference, but he might also be the best in the country. He then mentions the usual list of great point guards before imploring viewers to remember the name Jason Brickman, the Long Island University PG who leads the country in assists per game at 9.9. Vitale says he’s caught a few of Brickman’s games and every time he watches him play, he’s reminded of Peyton Manning playing quarterback for the Broncos.
C. Patric Young throws down a monster dunk, prompting Jones to momentarily lose his mind over how strong Young is. Vitale joins in by saying Young should follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates by trying to make it in the NFL after playing college basketball. After a beat, Vitale says he still can’t believe the way the Super Bowl turned out because he was certain the Seahawks wouldn’t be able to stop the Broncos.
6. Wichita State
“That’s the difference between an undefeated team and an NIT team.”
I must have said those words 50 times during the Wichita State–Indiana State game. After a hot first half, the Shockers cooled down, let the crowd fuel the Sycamores, and found themselves in a tight game down the stretch. But every time Wichita State left the door wide open for Indiana State to barge through, the Sycamores tripped over their own shoelaces, hit their face on the doorknob, and slammed the door shut. The sequence with 1:25 left illustrated this: Coming out of a timeout, Indiana State was down two with the ball. If ever there was a time for an Indiana State player to grab his teammates, huddle them up, and basically yell, “Let’s go!” a hundred times, this was it. Indiana State was playing the biggest home game in school history2 and fighting for its NCAA tournament life, yet the Sycamores looked like they had showed up at a party where they didn’t know anybody. Hey, um, Wichita State, is it? Yeah, hey, guys. Um, I was just wondering if maybe you guys would let us win? We’re trying really hard and, um, it would mean a lot to us.
Despite having presumably just drawn up a play in the timeout, Indiana State passed the ball around for most of the shot clock until it ended up in Justin Gant’s hands at the top of the key. Having just hit a 3 from that spot not long before, Gant unleashed a beautiful pump fake, got his defender in the air, and had a clear path to the basket. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Gant then took a couple dribbles, jumped toward the rim as Cleanthony Early came over to contest the shot, and dunked so hard I could feel my ears bleeding as the Sycamores crowd erupted.
Wait, I got that wrong. What I meant to say was that Gant shied away from the contact and threw up a double-pump shot that was basically flung from his ankle. The ball bounced off the bottom of the rim, Early grabbed the rebound, and Wichita State headed down on offense. When Early got the ball back, he drove to the basket. Indiana State’s Jake Odum stepped over to help, but unlike Gant, Early didn’t shy away from the contact. He went straight through the defender and scored as Odum was called for a foul, and then Anthony hit the bonus free throw. The game was never in doubt after that. That’s the difference between an undefeated team and an NIT team.
Look, Wichita State isn’t the fourth-best team in America right now. It might not even be one of the best 15 teams. I don’t say this because it has played a weak schedule and I’m a mid-major hater. I say it because the Shockers simply haven’t played good basketball over their last five games. The biggest Wichita State fan in the world wouldn’t bet his house on the Shockers making the Final Four based on the team’s recent performances. But moments like the end of the Indiana State game convince me we shouldn’t count the Shockers out. Sure, their schedule is awful and they could probably play the rest of their regular-season games in jeans and still finish undefeated, but there’s no denying they know how to win. It takes a certain mental edge to have an enormous target on your back night in and night out and still make huge plays when it matters most. The Shockers did just that at Indiana State. At the same time, I’d feel better about Wichita State if it looked like it was winning games because it’s better than its opponents, instead of winning because the Shockers screwed up less than the other team.
Even though I said I was waiting to see how Villanova played at Creighton this weekend before I’d move the Wildcats back toward the top of the most powerful power rankings, I’ve changed my mind and instituted a new rule: Anytime a team’s sixth-best player almost puts up a triple-double, that team automatically makes the top five of my power rankings. Daniel Ochefu did that against Seton Hall on Friday, as the sophomore big man finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. Some of you might consider six assists too low to qualify for “almost a triple-double,” but whatever — the point is that a guy who plays 21 minutes per game for Villanova has emerged as an important piece in the Wildcats’ Final Four puzzle.
That last part is important: This wasn’t a fluke game for Ochefu. He’s been playing out of his mind over the last month, with five double-digit-scoring games in that span despite scoring 10-plus points only twice in his career before then. For most of the nonconference season, Ochefu was just there to set screens, rebound, block a shot or two, and stay out of the way while JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Darrun Hilliard made plays on offense. Now that Ochefu looks like a legitimate scoring threat, there’s no telling how good Villanova can be, especially since Ochefu is a good passer who will make defenses pay for double-teaming him. Again, I won’t let myself go wild for Villanova until Sunday’s game at Creighton, but Ochefu’s continued improvement is a very encouraging development.
Who’s excited for six more weeks of hearing announcers say, “Brandon Ashley’s absence is really hurting this team,” when Arizona plays poorly, followed by, “Looks like Arizona will be just fine without Ashley,” when the Cats play better? We got a taste of that this week when the Cats trailed Oregon for most of the second half and then needed late-game heroics from Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell to pull out the win. We tasted it some more in Arizona’s next game, when it smacked Oregon State around for 40 minutes. Fans will be debating how much Ashley’s absence hurts the Wildcats from now until the end of the season. Even after the season, they’ll probably keep arguing about it. In the meantime, two things need to be addressed with regard to Arizona.
First, Aaron Gordon has to come back next season. I know he won’t because his inner circle probably won’t let him. But former Arizona walk-on David Bagga was as NBA-ready as Gordon is right now. I mean, there are very few things Gordon does well that aren’t a direct result of him being bigger, stronger, or more athletic than his opponents. He can get away with that in college, but he’s not strong enough to play power forward in the NBA, and he’s not skilled enough yet to play small forward. Gordon has a bright future ahead of him, and he could be a stud for the best team in America if he and every other Arizona player came back next season. But all you really need to know about his NBA readiness is that he’s a future small forward, yet watching him shoot free throws is like watching a blind guy play Flappy Bird.
As for the second order of business, what the hell happened to Jordin Mayes? I expected him to step up and help eat some of Ashley’s abandoned minutes, but he didn’t even get off the bench against Oregon. I guess it makes sense that Sean Miller would rather freshman Elliott Pitts get his feet wet than give the minutes to a senior on his way out. I also understand that if you put a gun to an Arizona fan’s head and asked him to pick between Arizona putting Mayes on the court in a big moment and watching an hour-long video of Angelo Chol and Kyryl Natyazhko making post moves, he’d beg you to just pull the trigger. I just thought a senior with some experience would be the logical choice to alleviate Arizona’s depth problems. This reminds me: Remember when Arizona played Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16? Of course you do. Who could forget The Derrick Williams Show? Well, here’s something that will blow your mind: As freshmen, Mayes and Duke’s Josh Hairston combined to play 14 minutes in that game. Now they’re both seniors, but if those teams met in the Sweet 16 this season, would you bet on either of them to even record a trillion?
Duke played one game this week and blew out Boston College on the back of Jabari Parker’s 29 points and 16 rebounds. It was the Blue Devils’ seventh win in eight games. Despite the tear Duke is on — as a reminder, the only loss during this streak was in overtime on the road against Syracuse — a lot of readers were upset with me last week because they felt I power-ranked Duke too high. These people pointed to Duke’s defense being terrible and its interior play being so bad that Marshall Plumlee gets minutes in close games. I’m fully aware of these issues. Duke certainly has obvious flaws that make the chances of it repeating its 2012 NCAA tournament performance relatively high. But the Blue Devils also have Parker, who has officially overtaken Joel Embiid as my choice for the top pick in June’s NBA draft.3 With Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins, and Rasheed Sulaimon all playing well right now, the question isn’t whether Duke can stop its opponents — it’s whether opponents can stop Duke. So yes, the Blue Devils have serious flaws, but I like to think of them as someone trying to go down the Olympic luge track on ice skates: There’s a good chance a gruesome crash is about to unfold, but until then, you can’t deny the awesomeness you’re witnessing.
Jimmy Dykes mentioned before the start of Tuesday’s Florida-Tennessee game that the Gators don’t really have any weaknesses. At the time, I agreed. Florida’s defense had been off the charts in recent weeks, and the Gators offense looked as balanced and versatile as it had all season. Scottie Wilbekin is the best all-around point guard in college basketball, Michael Frazier has been a lights-out shooter, Patric Young has been surprisingly effective with his post moves, Dorian Finney-Smith has been one of the best bench players in America, and Casey Prather quietly pours in points despite being neither a post presence nor a 3-point shooter. But as the Tennessee game wore on, a potential soft spot in Florida’s game emerged: half-court offense.
Florida jumped out to a big lead on the Vols by forcing early turnovers and scoring in transition.4 But when Tennessee started taking care of the ball, Florida struggled to score. In the first half, this was largely due to terrible shot selection. I got the feeling Billy Donovan was urging his guys to speed up the game to make the Vols come unglued. This strategy worked during the teams’ first meeting in Gainesville and at the beginning of Tuesday’s game. But I also got the feeling Florida’s players interpreted Donovan’s request to push the tempo to mean something like: “Throw up terrible shots that you haven’t taken all season.” All but two players who got minutes for the Gators attempted 3-pointers, which is crazy for a team that only shoots 18 3s per game.
The good news for Florida is that shot selection is an easy fix. The bad news is that the Gators’ shot selection improved in the second half, and Florida still struggled to score in the half-court, especially against Tennessee’s zone. And by “struggled to score,” I mean that Florida’s half-court offense didn’t produce a single basket between Kasey Hill’s layup with 11:10 to play and a desperation Wilbekin 3 at the end of the shot clock with 2:27 left on the clock. You have to figure that future Florida opponents will notice this and do all they can to slow down the Gators and make them grind out wins. Florida proved they can do that — they left Knoxville on Tuesday with a nine-point win. But the Gators’ margin of error will be much smaller against great teams, which is why Florida needs to sort out its execution problems before Saturday’s trip to Kentucky.
Is it possible for a 23-0 team that’s unanimously ranked no. 1 to be underrated? Because I’ve been hearing more and more conversations about which is the best team in college basketball, as though Syracuse weren’t the obvious answer. Sure, Florida is on a roll, Wichita State is also undefeated, Kansas probably has the most talented team, and many feel Michigan State will be unstoppable when the Spartans get healthy. But how many times has a power conference team played a decent nonconference schedule, started 23-0, and still had its top ranking called into question? It’s not just talking heads, either — Syracuse is ranked third in the RPI and on KenPom, and the Orange are ranked second in ESPN’s BPI. The computers are just crunching numbers like we program them to do, so I can’t complain about their evaluations. But shouldn’t the humans hold off on declaring other teams better than Syracuse until the Orange lose a single game?
Speaking of which, my excitement for Syracuse-Pitt tonight has lost some steam over the last week, thanks to Pitt needing overtime to beat Miami and double overtime to beat Virginia Tech. I wanted to witness the Orange’s first loss in person, but it’s looking more and more like I’m going to witness a 20-point Syracuse blowout instead. I don’t necessarily want the Orange to lose, although doing so would mean we’re one step closer to Andrew Sharp writing a long-overdue #HOTSPORTSTAKES column about court-storming. No, I just need Cuse to play poorly enough that my drive to Pittsburgh won’t feel like a complete waste of time. That’s all I ask.
The Name Game of the Week
The way this works is simple. I’ll list a handful of names with links attached to them. It’s up to you to decide if the link will take you to the profile of a current college basketball player or that of a Twitter bot. Fair warning: I created the game and should therefore know which are which, and I still barely got over half of them right when I tried to play it an hour later. Good luck.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is A. See you next week.