25 Thanksgiving College Hoops EpiphaniesIssac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
I’m one of those people who adhere to a strict famine-and-feast diet on Thanksgiving Day. I’ll starve myself throughout the day, trying to not let the aromas floating in from the kitchen drive me insane, just so I can gorge myself like a crazed animal when 4 p.m. rolls around. From an informal poll of friends and family, it seems like this is a pretty common tactic. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to eat an apple to hold myself over at noon, but otherwise I held firm. And the feast was glorious. I didn’t stop eating until midnight, when my wife hit me with a pan and knocked me into a deep, 18-hour slumber.
The whole Thanksgiving situation is a lot like the first two weeks of college basketball. The morning starvation is the offseason, when you want to avoid lesser temptations like recruiting updates or NCAA investigations or Tony Parker’s eight-month press conference. Sometimes you need to check in on those things just to hold off the hunger, like with my apple. And then, when the season finally arrives, it’s a delicious cornucopia of tournaments, amazing matchups, surprising players, and crazy upsets. I can’t stop watching. I can’t, and I won’t! I’ve now binged on college basketball for two straight weeks, and from the depraved den of hoops gluttony, I bring you my 25 November epiphanies.
1. Creighton is your mid-major crush
They have everything you want in a sexy small conference team. There’s the superstar, Doug McDermott, who seems to score every time he touches the ball in the post. He’s my new pick for Player of the Year. There’s Ethan Wragge, who’s shooting 58.3 percent from 3 so far and runs a wildly effective corner-to-post two-man offense with McDermott that resembles what Jon Diebler and Jared Sullinger had at Ohio State in 2010-11. (UNC fans are punching their computers in unison right now, because Wragge is also the guy who hurt Kendall Marshall in the round of 32 last year and killed Carolina’s title chances.) There’s Grant Gibbs, the player most likely to kill an announcer by leaping into the stands for a loose ball this season. You’ve got Gregory Echenique doing the dirty interior work opposite McDermott, while Jahenns Manigat led the Missouri Valley Conference in 3-point shooting last season.
The Bluejays took down Wisconsin and Arizona State to win the Las Vegas Invitational, and they looked experienced and poised in closing both out with strong late runs. This is a legitimate top-10 team, and they probably have the best shot of any school in the country at going undefeated. Also, a lot of the players get grubby style points for rocking unkempt beards.
2. Gonzaga is your backup mid-major crush
The Zags proved they can win pretty in blowouts over Oklahoma and West Virginia, and proved they can win ugly in a 57-49 slug fest against Clemson. They capped off the early run with a convincing win over a good Davidson squad to win the Old Spice Classic, and they should move toward the top 10 in the new rankings. They don’t have a conspicuous star like Creighton, but Elias Harris has been a powerful force down low, averaging 16 points and nine boards so far. Their scoring is incredibly balanced, with four players currently averaging double figures. My favorite, though, is Canadian heartthrob Kelly Olynyk.
3. Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart will be the freshman of the year
We covered this last week, but now that I’ve seen enough of Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel, I can confidently say that Smart is the best freshman in America. He may, in fact, be the best player, period, but so far, all I can say is that he leads the young crowd. His top challenger will be …
4. Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, freshman extraordinaire
The 6-foot-8 forward has made me look smart after putting him on my all-freshman team. He’s averaging 13.7 points and 7.7 boards in three games, including a 20-point, 10-rebound coming-out party against Long Beach State. And speaking of Arizona-based freshmen …
5. Jahii Carson is a young beast
Arizona State may have lost to Creighton in the Las Vegas Invitational final, but freshman Jahii Carson introduced himself to the country with emphasis, scoring 30 points and demonstrating that he was the best athlete on the court, height be damned. At only 5-foot-10, legend has it that Carson could dunk as a 5-foot-3 seventh-grader, and if you haven’t seen his highlight video on YouTube, just sit back and let your jaw drop. (And this is coming from someone who kinda hates highlight videos.) The other great thing about Carson is that when announcers say his name, it sounds just like “Johnny Carson,” which made me laugh five different times in the Creighton game. Anyway, I didn’t know Carson well enough to put him on my “most fun players to watch” list, but he is now the captain.
6. Holy s#@%, Duke has a point guard!
Not counting a brief, delirious spell at the start of 2010-11 when Kyrie Irving wore Duke blue, it’s been a while since the Blue Devils have had a true point guard. With Quinn Cook taking over the Battle 4 Atlantis, where he won tournament MVP and led Duke in its final surge over no. 2 Louisville in the title game, the wait is over. I don’t try to delve into the logic of the polls, but if Duke isn’t no. 1 on Monday, something’s wrong. Two weeks ago, I didn’t know if the Blue Devils were a true national title threat. With Cook’s emergence, Seth Curry’s mastery of every savvy veteran trick in the book, and the stellar play of both Mason Plumlee and freshman star Rasheed Sulaimon, the answer today is a strong “yes.”
7. Louisville is different without Gorgui Dieng
Gee, you mean they’re not quite as good without the favorite to be named Big East Defensive Player of the Year? OK, fine, that’s pretty obvious, but my point is that we shouldn’t read too much into the loss against Duke. Louisville is a strong defensive team that deserves a top-five ranking, and they will be a nightmare to face in the tournament. (Update: Dieng’s wrist is broken. Uh-oh.) Speaking of nightmares …
8. We will all see VCU in our sleep
“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” That’s from Julius Caesar, and it feels really appropriate that Shaka Smart named his 40-minutes-of-hell defense “havoc,” because his team’s nickname should be changed from
“Commodores” “Rams” to “Dogs of War” immediately. (For the record, Smart’s opening quote in that video is a 9.5 on the badass scale.) Yes, they lost to Duke and Missouri, but their win over Memphis and the narrow margins in both losses showed that there’s still a place for smothering, full-court defense designed to fatigue an opponent into submission. No matter what team you root for, I highly encourage you to crap your pants if VCU ends up in your bracket.
9. Phil Pressey is the latest clutch guard from Missouri
Did you get déjà vu watching him make two huge shots to beat VCU in the Atlantis consolation game? With Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers holding court in the paint, Mizzou should have a grand ole time in the SEC this season.
10. Indiana is vulnerable
There are valid excuses for the Hoosiers’ uninspiring play at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn — Cody Zeller was sick, the opponents were better than anyone thought — but the fact remains that they barely beat Georgia and barely barely beat Georgetown in overtime. Strangely enough, it was the high-powered offense — and not their questionable defense — that let them down. Whatever we thought before, this is not a team that will run the table or waltz to a no. 1 seed. At the moment, I don’t even expect them to win the Big Ten over Ohio State or Michigan.
11. So far, Michigan is not overrated
The Wolverines had a bit of trouble with Pittsburgh, but a huge win over Kansas State seems to indicate that the Beilein machine may be worthy of its no. 4 ranking. The great news for Michigan fans is that Tim Hardaway Jr. seems to have his stroke back, and the forwards have been strong enough that they haven’t needed huge contributions from freshman Mitch McGary yet. I’m anxious to see how they look Tuesday against NC State. Unfortunately …
12. NC State is not a title team
I was willing to forgive the total lack of defense against Oklahoma State, thinking NC State might have been exhausted, but the 82-80 win over UNC-Asheville convinced me that this team could go an entire year without buckling down. The idea of the Wolfpack winning six straight games with their run-and-gun style has lost its credibility.
13. North Carolina runs the extremes
Elsewhere in the Carolinas, the powder blues from Chapel Hill have showed us a bit of everything so far … sometimes in the same game. After looking like world-beaters against Long Beach State and Mississippi State, the Tar Heels looked to be on their way to catastrophic beatdown at the hands of Butler, until, without warning, they stormed back and almost erased a 27-point deficit. Unlike last year, UNC has a lot of shooters, and when things click, they really click. But in characteristic “young team” fashion, they’re also prone to baffling lapses. Lucky for them, the ACC and its pronounced dearth of excellence is an ideal conference in which to grow.
14. Butler’s Rotnei Clarke is the Ian Poulter of college basketball
Confession: As I learn to play golf, I’ve become obsessed with Ian Poulter, the greatest Ryder Cup player of his generation and the most clutch match-play competitor I’ve seen. Rotnei Clarke, the Butler transfer who hit the running 3 to beat Marquette at the buzzer, shredded UNC, and tried to single-handedly lift his team past Illinois in the Maui Invitational championship (27 points, six 3s), kind of looks like Ian Poulter. Slight physical resemblance plus clutch play plus my obsession equals … a forced comparison.
15. Illinois — the Big Ten surprise!
How about the Illini storming through the Maui field to win the title? Sure, they beat Hawaii in overtime a few days before the Maui final win and eked out a one-point win over Gardner-Webb yesterday, but come on, give new coach John Groce some credit. He’s a breath of fresh air after Bruce Weber, and his name sounds like American folk legend Jim Croce. Good enough for me.
16. Colorado — the Pac-12 Surprise!
Wins over Baylor, Dayton, and Murray State to win the Charleston Classic title? Whoa! Turns out this Askia Booker fella is a good ballplayer.
17. Oregon — the other Pac-12 surprise!
Damyean Dotson is a 6-foot-5 freshman guard, and he’s really, really good. He took over against UNLV as the Ducks became the first team to beat the Running Rebs at home since the 2010-11 season. They lost the next day to Cincinnati, but it was a close game most of the way, and a good sign that Oregon could do some real damage in conference.
18. UCLA will have to grind
Remember that fun idea we had about UCLA steamrolling the Pac-12 with the Wear twins and Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson? Time for a bubble-bursting: The Wear twins stink, Muhammad needs time to find his form, and Anderson looks really slow. The real jewel in the Westwood crown is Jordan Adams, the freshman who’s shocked everyone with his scoring ability. But a close game against Georgia and a loss to Georgetown showed that even in the weakish Pac-12, UCLA will have to work for every win. (Update: I swear I wrote this before the Bruins blew an 18-point lead and lost 70-68 to … Cal Poly? Uh-oh. Maybe they have to do more than grind.)
19. Cincinnati is as tough as we thought
Mick Cronin and the Bearcats won the Global Sports Classic, a.k.a. the other Las Vegas tournament, and they did it with the gritty-grindy, strong-defense-plus–Sean Kilpatrick style that let them beat previous gritty-grindy heroes Florida State in last year’s tournament. Also, they rebound like crazy. I pegged them as one of the teams most likely to compete for a title from outside the Top 25 when the year began, and now they’re my favorite squad outside the top 20. Soon enough, that category will be outdated, too.
20. Pittsburgh will contend in the Big East
It feels like forever since Jamie Dixon and the Panthers have been on the tip of the national tongue, but with five wins and a good loss against Michigan, they look like a team that could sneak to the top tier of the conference. Also, come on, they have a 7-foot New Zealander with a wacky smile!
21. It could be a long year in Memphis
Ever met somebody who does everything right but can’t catch a break? Say hello to Josh Pastner, the coach who had the impossible gig of following John Calipari at Memphis and just lost to VCU and Minnesota in the Bahamas. Pastner has won at least 24 games in each of his three years at Memphis, but he hasn’t been past the round of 64 in the tournament, and with these early losses, he’s about to catch hell from one of the most impatient fan bases in America. Hell, just browse a few of the thread titles on the front page of their message board.
22. Syracuse’s James Southerland will be the best sixth man in the country
As long as Jim Boeheim keeps bringing him off the bench, which seems like a good bet. He’s an energy guy who brings a lot of offense into the game, and he’s capable of getting hot from outside. He’s a reliable double-digit scoring threat who can also rebound and block shots. He also clucks like a chicken to get the managers to pass him the ball in the pregame shootaround, and no, that is not a joke. It is, however, one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
23. Kentucky, like Madonna’s perception of life, is a mystery
So far, the Wildcats have gone from threatening to knock off Duke on a neutral court to trailing LIU-Brooklyn deep into the first half. All we know for sure is that Calipari’s freshmen are actually playing like freshmen, unlike last year’s crop. Everything else, from how they’ll develop to what the hell is happening with Ryan Harrow, remains a mystery. Thursday’s game at Notre Dame should be an old-fashioned intriguer.
24. Florida will win the SEC
So far, it looks like Billy Donovan has figured out how to keep Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario — both chuckers at heart — happy within the same offense. With Erik Murphy and Patric Young getting strong and long underneath (despite the fact that they seem to have swapped closing letters in their first names), Florida has looked superb. Unless Kentucky starts discovering some intense chemistry really fast, I can’t see any SEC team touching the Gators over the long haul.
25. In 2012-13, there are no epiphanies
Anyone who’s anyone said that this year will be “wide open” in the NCAA, but I think it took a week before we could truly understand what that meant. In my mind, Duke has looked like the best team, but they still almost lost to Kentucky, VCU, and Louisville. Indiana, the consensus no. 1, is lucky to be undefeated against ranked opponents. All the elite teams, without exception, are beatable. Not just beatable — they will be beat. They will all lose games they shouldn’t lose, and we’ll go into March with no real idea about who might win. Wide open doesn’t just mean we lack a prohibitive favorite; it means we’re in for five months of uncertainty. How can you not love that?