It’s hard to believe, but we’re already in Week 4 of the college basketball season. This, of course, means that Ben Howland already has fans wondering how he took UCLA to three straight Final Fours, John Calipari has already suggested that he has the worst team in the country about 300 times, and Tom Crean has postponed three different practices because the bird living in what he claims is his hair flew away and had to be recaptured in the rafters of Assembly Hall.
Unfortunately, the beginning of a new season also means that instead of just thinking that the media and coaches polls seem crazy, we now have evidence that proves none of these experts has any idea how to rank the best teams in America. That’s why I’m here. Each Wednesday throughout the season, I’ll be bringing you what some1 have called the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. And I know this might come across as somewhat biased, but my opinions are the best and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.
Now, in the words of Nic Cage from Gone in 60 Seconds, “OK, let’s ride.”
Since no other college basketball analyst wants to give Georgetown their due respect and since my pet team from last year (Baylor) has been disappointing thus far, it looks like this season I’m going to go to bat for Georgetown whenever I can. The Hoyas are ranked 20th in one poll and 25th in the other, perhaps because their biggest win so far came against the same UCLA team that suffered the most embarrassing loss of this young college basketball season when they choked against Cal Poly on Sunday.2 I guess this would make sense if not for the fact that UCLA is still ranked higher than Georgetown in the coaches poll. That’s right — Georgetown handily beat UCLA on a neutral court and followed that up by giving no. 1 Indiana all they could handle in an overtime loss. Meanwhile, UCLA responded to their Georgetown loss by squeaking out a close win against Georgia and then losing at home to Cal F’ing Poly.3 So naturally, the coaches decided to rank UCLA a spot higher than Georgetown this week. Makes perfect sense.
By power-ranking Georgetown 12th, I’m not just trying to show them the love nobody else wants to give them. I also think the Hoyas really are one of the 12 best teams in the country. They’re remarkably disciplined for how young they are, they’re unselfish, they’re well coached, and they have a budding superstar in Otto Porter. He’s my early pick for the Andrew Bogut Award, which is the fake award that goes to the most improved sophomore in college basketball.4
Controversial opinion: Jeff Withey isn’t that great of a defender. He’s just good at blocking shots.
Is there a difference? Yes. Will it ultimately matter much for Kansas? Possibly. Does Withey still deserve all the defensive awards he’ll win this year? Probably. Does he still have a chance to be a first-round NBA draft pick? Maybe. Am I terrified of what Withey might do to Ohio State’s frontcourt when the Jayhawks visit the Buckeyes right before Christmas? Yes. But do I think Ohio State will still find a way to win? Absolutely. Am I picking on Withey because I know Kansas fans are way too nice to get on me about it? You bet. Do I have any idea where I’m going with this? No. Was the point just to ask a handful of questions to make it seem like I’m talking about Kansas a lot? Yes. Should we move on to the next team? I think so.
Food for thought: The best player in college basketball is named Doug. Yes, Creighton’s Doug McDermott.
I don’t know about you, but to me people named Doug aren’t supposed to be unstoppable scoring machines. They’re supposed to be truck drivers, Waffle House cooks, or the guy who’s a legend at your local bowling alley because he rolled a 300 on four different occasions. In other words, I’m pretty sure that Sea Bass from Dumb & Dumber is actually named Doug.
Case in point: The three most famous Dougs according to Google are a loser cartoon kid who didn’t have the balls to make a move on Patti Mayonnaise, a running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose impressive rookie year is negated by the fact that his nickname is “Muscle Hamster,” and the dude from The Green Mile who married that 16-year-old chick who acts like she can’t wait to get into porn. I can’t remember the last time someone named Doug was even remotely close to being the best player in college basketball (although if you ask Doug Gottlieb he’d probably tell you it was 2000, his senior year). So cherish this, college basketball fans, because while it might not seem like much, you’re witnessing Doug McDermott make history that may never be repeated.
I’m bunching Arizona and Syracuse together as a punishment, because neither team has played a legitimate opponent. Syracuse began the season with the aircraft carrier game against a decent San Diego State team, but that wasn’t as significant of a test as it should’ve been because the stiff ocean wind allowed a bigger and stronger Syracuse squad to sit in their zone and force the Aztecs to jack up ill-advised 3-pointers all game (which they did en route to a 1-18 showing behind the line). Besides that game, Syracuse’s non-conference schedule resembles a typical Syracuse non-conference schedule, which is why I fully expect the Orange to once again start the season 17-0, then head into their January 19 game at Louisville in the midst of the now annual debate about how good the Orange really are. My feeling right now is that they’re good but not as good as last year. Then again, I could say the same for nearly every other elite team in college basketball.
As for Arizona, I’ll give the Wildcats the benefit of the doubt and chalk up a weak early-season schedule to the fact that their two best players (Brandon Ashley and Mark Lyons) are new to the team this year. Like any team that’s still learning to play together, Arizona needs a few cupcakes to establish chemistry and build confidence. We’ll see how good they are when Florida comes to Tucson on December 15.
There was this guy who coached the Celtics a little more than a decade ago named Rick Pitino. I’m guessing most Kentucky fans don’t follow the Celtics, so there’s a chance some have never heard of him. Anyway, many people’s most vivid memory of Pitino stems from the time he testified in court that his sexual experience with a woman in an empty restaurant lasted only 15 seconds. That’s kind of irrelevant to where I’m going with this, but the other thing most people remember about Pitino isn’t: When his Celtics hit a rough patch during the 2000 season, he famously reminded Boston fans that “Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door and Robert Parish is not walking through that door.”5
Now, I still don’t completely understand what those guys walking through a door had to do with the Celtics sucking in 2000, but I think what Pitino was trying to say was that his Celtics were completely different from the 1980s NBA champion Celtics, and expecting them to be that good was simply unfair. Well, after a couple of shaky games to open the season, Kentucky fans faced a similar reality when they realized that just because last year’s Anthony Davis–led freshman class was flawless, that didn’t mean this year’s freshmen would be the same. The truth is that this season’s rookie Wildcats actually play like freshmen, which never seemed to happen with Davis’s squad. Having said that, Kentucky fans should still feel pretty secure, since the current freshmen are pretty damn good and Kentucky will still compete for SEC and national titles.
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 last night’s game between Indiana and North Carolina, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Mark Aguirre?
- James Michael McAdoo scores, prompting Vitale to bring up the fact that McAdoo’s father played at Old Dominion. Dickie V then says that earlier in the day he met with McAdoo’s dad, who told Vitale that he gave his son a pep talk. McAdoo’s dad said that he mentioned that while he played at Old Dominion, he knocked off a no. 1-ranked team in the country just like his son had the opportunity to do later that night. Vitale then goes on to say that that game took place in 1980 and that no. 1 team was DePaul, whose best player that year was Mark Aguirre.
- While discussing the game that ended right before Indiana-UNC, Vitale mentions that NC State was his big disappointment so far this year, along with UCLA. Vitale then says that he really expected more from UCLA, which has the top-ranked recruit in Shabazz Muhammad. Speaking of top-ranked recruits, Vitale says, he can’t wait to see which school Jabari Parker decides to attend. Dickie V says that even though Parker has already eliminated the Blue Demons from his list, Vitale likes the idea of Parker staying in his hometown of Chicago and playing for DePaul, where he could’ve been the best player since Mark Aguirre.
- During the second half, Dan Shulman asks Vitale if anybody could beat the Hoosiers when they’re playing well. Vitale says he doesn’t know, but Georgetown showed that they are vulnerable by taking Indiana to overtime last week. Speaking of that Georgetown game, Vitale continues, it was great seeing Isiah Thomas there. He then says that Isiah was the best small player he’s ever seen and some of his favorite all-time teams were Thomas’s Pistons squads that featured the likes of Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, and Mark Aguirre.
For whatever reason, Florida is hardly ever mentioned as one of the best teams in the country, and even though Kenny Boynton is on pace to be one of the top scorers in SEC history, many college basketball fans would have a hard time naming a single Florida player. Maybe it’s because Florida is a football school, and their basketball team doesn’t get any love until Gator football stops overshadowing them in January. But that can’t be right — Ohio State basketball gets tons of attention and they’re in the midst of one of the best football seasons the school has ever had.6 So I’m not entirely sure why Florida, which should be the current favorite to win the SEC and which embarrassed a decent Wisconsin team a couple weeks ago, isn’t part of the national title discussion. Especially since Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton have figured out how to play together, Erik Murphy is everything Duke’s Ryan Kelly and Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer wish they were, and Patric Young looks like he could rip off somebody’s head with his bare hands.7
5. Ohio State
I’m fairly certain he doesn’t realize it, but Amir Williams holds the key to Ohio State’s success this season.8 When he arrived in Columbus, the 6-foot-11 sophomore and former McDonald’s All-American figured to be the latest in a recent stretch of Ohio State big men who went on to become first-round NBA draft picks. But so far, Williams’s impact has been more like that of Kyle Madsen than that of Greg Oden or Jared Sullinger. Williams’s development wasn’t a very big deal last year because Sullinger was an all-everything guy down low for the Buckeyes and Williams was expected to be his understudy and chip in whenever he could. This season, however, with Sullinger off to the NBA, Ohio State desperately needs a big man to step up and fill Sullinger’s shoes even just a little.
To his credit, Evan Ravenel hasn’t been terrible in his first four games as the Buckeyes’ starting center, but “not terrible” isn’t exactly the gold standard for a starter on a supposed championship contender. But even if Ravenel were playing extremely well, he’s only 6-foot-8 and he’s listed at 250 pounds (he’s lost a good deal of those 250 pounds, too). This could pose a serious problem for Ohio State for the following reasons: Indiana’s Cody Zeller, Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, Michigan State’s Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, and, most immediately, Duke’s Mason Plumlee. Ravenel doesn’t have the size or strength to bang with Big Ten big men, which is why Ohio State needs Williams and that huge frame of his. All Williams must do is battle with the conference’s other bigs and limit their output enough to allow Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft to carry the Buckeyes. But this will only happen if Williams gets some tenacity in him and plays like someone stuck a lit match up his backside instead of continuing to look like he’s somewhere between confused and uninterested.
The good news for Ohio State fans is that the Buckeyes arguably have both the best scorer and the best defender in the country with Thomas and Craft, respectively. The bad news is that those guys can only do so much. At some point, the team will need a center who is bigger than Ravenel and who — in Williams’s case — doesn’t look like he’s constantly wondering what happened to Rice Krispies Treats cereal when he’s on the court.
Truth be told, if Gorgui Dieng hadn’t broken his wrist, I’d probably power-rank the Cardinals first. They are by far the best defensive team in the country (with a healthy Dieng, of course), and they play as many guys as Taylor Swift. My big criticism of the Cardinals last year was that they couldn’t score, which some would argue is the whole point of basketball. Well, even though offense still isn’t Louisville’s strong suit, my concern has subsided because they now have a legitimate go-to offensive threat in Russ Smith. Sure, Smith’s scoring has exploded this season partly because the Cards don’t have a ton of other offensive weapons, but I’d rather have one guy who has the confidence to be the man over what Louisville had last season, which was a handful of guys who would put up 25 one game and six the next. So yeah, I like this Louisville team better than the team they had last year, which, by the way, went to the Final Four.
Bad news for the Big Ten and, really, the rest of the country: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. not only found a way to coexist, but they actually play well together. This is primarily because Burke has embraced the role of facilitator, which he showed by dishing nine assists without scoring a point in the first half against North Carolina State Tuesday night. Last season, it almost felt like Hardaway was frustrated that Burke was Michigan’s best player, and he would force the action on offense to prove that he still had NBA talent. This year, though, it hasn’t been a problem. Burke seems willing to defer to Hardaway and all of Michigan’s other offensive weapons because he knows he can turn it on whenever he needs to, and that it’s best for the team to get the other guys going first.
It’s as if John Beilein approached Burke before last night’s game and told him that very thing.
“All right, Trey, here’s the deal. We both know you could put up 50 tonight if you really want. But I need you to make sure Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III, and Nik Stauskas9 get engaged offensively before you start taking your shots. So here’s my plan. I know this is crazy, but I’m thinking you don’t really need to shoot at all in the first half. I mean, shoot if you’re open, of course, but I want you thinking ‘drive and kick’ for the first 20 minutes. If you do that for me, I promise that our entire offense in the second half will be nothing but middle ball screens and I’ll let you jack up as many shots as you want, because Rodney Purvis will inexplicably go under every screen we set for you. Sound good?”
Calm down, Indiana fans. I’m not power-ranking the Hoosiers second because of anything they have or have not done. Instead, I’m just giving props to Duke for their hot start. In truth, there probably should be a tie at the top, but I didn’t want to go down that road because to me ties are for Father’s Day and people who don’t know how to spin a loaf of bread and tuck the plastic bag underneath. The Hoosiers certainly impressed with the way they manhandled North Carolina on Tuesday night, and Duke has another tough test tonight against Ohio State, so maybe the most powerful power rankings in college basketball will be shaken up next week.
In the meantime, I’d like to address a more pressing issue surrounding Indiana basketball: the NCAA’s insistence on continuing to be the most ass-backwards, hypocritical, corrupt, sack-of-feces organization I’ve ever had the displeasure of being associated with. For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, Indiana players Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea are currently serving nine-game suspensions because their AAU coach gave $185 to Indiana University before they were even born.
Now, I don’t want to get carried away here, because the NCAA screwing over its student-athletes might be the one issue I care about more than any other in the world and I don’t want to turn this into an endless rant. So I’ll just say that the NCAA’s decision to uphold both players’ suspensions was a disgrace. If the NCAA really cared about their athletes, and if they really think these kids’ AAU coach is a cheater who funnels kids to Indiana, then they should go after him and Tom Crean for working together to get them to Bloomington. Making two kids who had no idea what was going on sit out a quarter of the season only punishes them and in no way deters this sort of deal from occurring again. But hey, the NCAA swears they have their student-athletes’ best interests at heart.
(If, for whatever reason, you’d like a more detailed description of how I feel about the NCAA, check out this blog post I wrote last year in response to the allegations surrounding Miami football.)
I didn’t expect much from Duke this year, mostly because they lost their only player who could create on offense (Austin Rivers’s Punchable Face), and that was coming from a team that lost to Lehigh in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament. Who will handle the ball and control the Duke offense? I wondered before the season. Surely not Quinn Cook, right? Well, I’ll be damned, as it turns out the answer to that question is in fact Quinn Cook.
Cook was so impressive in the Battle 4 Atlantis (in which he was named tournament MVP) that I fully expect him to become a household name after he goes off for 20 points and 10 assists against Aaron Craft and Ohio State in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge tonight. In fact, Duke’s team performance has been so impressive in their wins over Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, and Louisville that I can’t envision a scenario in which they don’t cruise to an easy win over Ohio State and become the unanimous no. 1 team in the country next week. Just watch. The Buckeyes have no answer for Mason Plumlee, Craft will get in foul trouble because Cook is just too heady for him to contain, and Deshaun Thomas will have all sorts of problems with Ryan Kelly’s length. Throw in at least five huge 3s from Seth Curry and it will be a miracle if the Buckeyes end up losing by anything less than 15. Might as well save us all the two hours and not even play the game, to tell you the truth.
The Retiring Referee of the Week
Tim Higgins — not to be confused with Tim Riggins, alcoholic linebacker for the Dillon Panthers — brought his long and illustrious referee career to an end last week when he officiated the final game at the Maui Invitational. Despite having officiated 10 Final Fours, Higgins’s lasting legacy in the eyes of most Big East fans will be that he had it out for their favorite team. That’s right — along with Ted Valentine, Higgins was one of only two referees in college basketball who could work a game and convince both teams’ fans that they got screwed.
For what it’s worth, Higgins also officiated his fair share of Big Ten games, including a few when I sat on the bench for Ohio State. And I know Big East fans don’t want to hear this, but he was always my favorite official, simply because he would talk to me during timeouts and warm-ups, and he’d even dare me to shoot when I checked into games. I mean, yeah, he made plenty of calls that left me dumbfounded, and there were plenty of times when I wanted to accuse him of giving us the Donaghy treatment. But any official who dares me to shoot when I check into a game and goes out of his way during warm-ups to tell me I’m wasting my time stretching because I’m not going to play is OK in my book.
Anyway, with the career of one of the game’s most recognizable officials coming to a close, it only seems fitting that we take a look back on perhaps the finest moment in his decorated career.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is (A). See you next week.