Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings: Damn, That Gonzaga Bench Is Deep!

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I don’t want to alarm anybody, but we’re less than 10 weeks away from Selection Sunday!

That’s right — in 67 days, we’ll all crowd around our TVs to hear Greg Gumbel pronounce Louisville and Chicago as “Lou-a-vull” and “Shh-call-go.” We’ll watch the 921st installment of “Will They or Won’t They?” starring Seth Davis and Doug Gottlieb. We’ll try to figure out if Davis is a genius or insane for believing so much in a 14-seed. We’ll laugh at how when CBS cuts to teams having watch parties, it takes 10 seconds for the players to realize they’re on TV thanks to the delay. In 67 days, we’ll all say whichever region Kentucky is in is the toughest and whichever one Gonzaga is in is the easiest even though the regions are almost never as easy or difficult as we initially think. And in 67 days, we’ll get to hear talking heads complain about how a 19-15 team WAS SNUBBED SO BADLY OHMYGOD THIS IS A TRAVESTY, YOU GUYS.

What I’m getting at is this: The dude in your office  he’s probably named Chad  who has told you all about his fantasy football team for the past four months will tell you all about his bracket sooner than you think. Your Chad-free window is open for only 67 more days. Enjoy it while you can.

Let’s get to the power rankings!

12. Ole Miss

Just kidding.

12. Oklahoma

walker-dinjiyl-oklahomaChris Covatta/Getty Images

Whoa! How about the Sooners laying the smackdown on Texas in Austin? The crazy thing is that Oklahoma destroyed a top-10 team on the road, yet it could’ve been so much better if it hadn’t insisted on taking forced shots every other possession. As it stands, the Sooners went into the Big 12 favorite’s house, held them to 14 first-half points, and won by 21. It got so quiet in the Erwin Center during the first half that even though I was watching on TV, I swear I could hear Cameron Ridley’s farts from the bench. I don’t care how much Texas will improve when Isaiah Taylor comes back. This was still an impressive shellacking—

Wait? Taylor is back? Are you sure? And Oklahoma still won by 21 at Texas? Well hot damn, it looks like another Big 12 contender has thrown its hat into the ring.

In truth, Oklahoma should probably be the favorite to win the league after its win in Austin. The Sooners have the best starting five in the Big 12, they play great defense, they rebound extremely well, and they have incredible offensive balance (five guys finished in double figures against Texas and a sixth finished with nine points).

Oklahoma’s one big weakness is its tendency to go one-on-one on offense. The Sooners score a ton of points and have one of the best backcourts in America with Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, and Jordan Woodard, yet they average only 13.1 assists per game. It’s no coincidence that in the two games they let slip away, the Sooners gave up a 24-4 run to Creighton and a 22-5 streak to Washington. They’ve already proven they’re legitimate Big 12 contenders, but if Lon Kruger can get his guys to share the ball a bit more, Oklahoma is going to be formidable in March.

11. Notre Dame

It’s official  Notre Dame has my new favorite offense in America. Sorry, Gonzaga, but after watching Notre Dame toy with North Carolina for 40 minutes, I can’t help but jump on the Irish bandwagon. Before Monday night, I had worried that the Irish hadn’t yet played a true road game, and I suspected their offense might look less impressive in another school’s arena. Could the Irish go into a packed house and light it up against a good defense? Apparently, the answer is yes.

Before we go any further, though, it’s important that we stop to watch the Jerian Grant dunk on Georgia Tech.

Back to business: Hitting 3s is obviously a huge component of Notre Dame’s offense. But because the Irish have the best offensive backcourt in America, they aren’t entirely one-dimensional. Whereas a lot of great shooting teams just keep bombing from deep, Notre Dame uses perimeter shooting to set up other aspects of its offense. Once the Irish hit four or five 3s, opposing defenses become consumed with trying to stop their shooting. When that happens, the defense gets stretched out, driving lanes open up, and Grant, Demetrius Jackson, and Pat Connaughton get to the basket or play a two-man game with Zach Auguste. Hitting 10 3s like the Irish did against the Tar Heels certainly helps, but it’s not like they need to jack 30 3s a game to have a chance.

That said, the Irish defense makes me worry about the sustainability of Notre Dame’s success. History says teams that rely on 3s and don’t defend particularly well are playing with fire. It feels like just a matter of time until Notre Dame has an off night against a strong team and gets completely destroyed.

In related news, Virginia plays in South Bend on Saturday.

10. Utah

Did Utah just drive the final stake through UCLA’s heart? I’m starting to rethink Kentucky’s performance against the Bruins from a couple of weeks ago. Kentucky is good, sure, but maybe the main reason it massacred UCLA is that the Bruins are the opposite of good. I mean, Utah just held UCLA to 39 points, including 15 in the first half. UCLA is on a five-game losing streak and it’s averaged 47 points in its last four games. Bryce Alford is 5-for-39 over the last three games, including an 0-for-10 performance against Utah. I can’t tell what’s most dumbfounding: that Alford is shooting 13 percent from the field in his last three, that despite being ice cold he still averaged 13 shots per game in that span, or that his dad refuses to take him out or tell him to stop shooting.1 Whatever working parts UCLA had left after Kentucky finished its thrashing were just hit with a sledgehammer by Utah. Maybe someone should try unplugging UCLA and plugging it back in?

It’s going to sound stupid, but that win over UCLA was huge for a Utah program that’s still establishing itself as a Pac-12 contender. Remember when Utah and Colorado joined the conference in 2011? Remember thinking that Utah brought absolutely nothing to the table from a basketball perspective? After the Rick Majerus era, the Utes had trouble recording winning seasons in the Mountain West. How would they be able to step up in a power conference? Pac-12 fans welcomed the free win, but you couldn’t blame them for thinking their proud conference deserved better than a mediocre mid-major team.

Well, here we are now: After three years of taking their licks in the Pac-12, the Utes just destroyed the conference’s flagship program. It doesn’t matter that UCLA is a pile of hot manure this season, or that the Pac-12’s real team to beat is Arizona. UCLA is still UCLA. Beating the Bruins that badly might not mean much as it pertains to this season, but it’s a huge stepping-stone on the Utes’ path to becoming a conference power.

An even bigger stepping-stone waits in Tucson in 10 days.

9. Maryland

maryland-fansMitchell Layton/Getty Images

Michigan State and Minnesota both had 3-point percentages that ranked in the top five in the nation before they played games against Maryland. Neither is in the top 10 now. The Terps held the Spartans and Gophers to a combined 8-for-44 from behind the arc, which comes out to a little less than “Will somebody please make a damn shot?” percent. That’s insane. I had to turn the Michigan State game off at halftime because my eyes started bleeding sometime between the game’s 12th air ball and the 36th time a player passed the ball into the crowd. So when I saw the Spartans wound up shooting 5-for-22 from the 3-point line, I assumed it had less to do with Maryland’s defense and more to do with the basketball gods giving that game the Big Ten hug of death.

But then Minnesota and Maryland played and the Gophers shot 3-for-22 from the 3-point line. My curiosity was piqued. Did Maryland have a great 3-point defense I wasn’t aware of? I remember watching Iowa State miss everything against the Terps in November, but I thought that was just one of those fluky Iowa State games.

Well, it turns out there’s nothing accidental about the way teams go cold from deep against the Terps. Maryland has the 18th-best 3-point percentage defense, which by itself is something to be proud of. But it becomes more impressive the deeper you dig. For starters, four of the teams Maryland has played  Arizona State, Virginia, Michigan State, and Minnesota  rank in the top 50 in 3-point shooting. Only three of its opponents rank in the bottom 100. Sure, Michigan State and Minnesota ended up helping the Terps’ defensive percentage, but imagine how much better it might be if Louisville and Georgia Tech replaced Virginia and Arizona State on Maryland’s schedule.

Speaking of Virginia and Arizona State, the Hoos and Sun Devils are the only teams to shoot 35 percent or better from 3 against the Terps, while 10 Maryland opponents have shot worse than 30 percent. And it’s worth noting that Maryland was without Evan Smotrycz2 against Arizona State and that it was without Smotrycz and Dez Wells against Virginia. Over the past three games, with a completely healthy roster, Maryland has held opponents to just 54 points per game on 34.7 percent shooting from the field and 22.2 percent from the 3-point line in regulation.

Maryland has been the biggest surprise in college basketball this season and its defense is a huge reason why. Now if the Terps could just stop turning the ball over.

8. Villanova

I wish this were more complicated so I could look smart by explaining it, but the biggest difference between Villanova’s loss at Seton Hall and its win at St. John’s was hitting open shots. It’s that simple. Seton Hall is pretty good and plays decent defense, so the Pirates deserve credit for the win. But if Villanova had made open shots at its normal rate against Seton Hall, it probably would have won easily. By the end of that game, I couldn’t shake the thought that the Wildcats had blown a lot of opportunities for easy points, so I decided to rewatch the entire game and count how many open shots Villanova missed. Ten minutes into the game, I lost count.

The Wildcats rediscovered their touch in Madison Square Garden, shooting 56 percent from the field (69 percent in the second half) against the Red Storm, including 43.5 percent from the 3-point line. As great as the Villanova offense looked Tuesday, I still believe that Ryan Arcidiacono needs to be a consistent scoring threat for the Wildcats to reach their full potential. Then again, if his teammates keep shooting as well as they did against St. John’s, he’d be a fool to stop passing.

Take notes, kids: It’s better to make shots than to miss them.

7. Arizona

Who is this team in Arizona’s jerseys and what happened to the Wildcats? The last time we saw Arizona  in a December 23 loss at UNLV  the Cats couldn’t play one-on-one defense to save their lives and their offense was a disjointed mess. Sunday against Arizona State, though, Arizona’s offense was as loose and confident as it’s been all season. Did Sean Miller have “dynamic offense” on his Christmas list? I can’t imagine whatever hell he put his players through after the UNLV loss to transform them so dramatically. It’s like the Cats offense went from Urkel to Urquelle in a little less than two weeks.

I’m not kidding. I’m convinced Miller’s New Year’s resolution was to nuke every piece of offensive strategy he had been using at Arizona and start from scratch. I mean, the Wildcats took open shots with time left on the 35-second clock against the Sun Devils. That’s not Arizona basketball! Arizona basketball is passing up open shots for 25 seconds before ultimately dribbling into traffic, trying to muscle the ball into the basket, and then playing volleyball on the glass until the ball goes in or a referee calls a foul. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Against Arizona State, just look at all the unusual things that happened in the first half alone:

  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts started over Stanley Johnson and Gabe York.
  • The first 15 Wildcat points came from 3-point attempts.
  • Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski led a fast break.
  • Arizona scored 45 points.
  • Dusan Ristic shot four times!

I sometimes wonder if Miller realizes his players are twice as talented as their opponents almost every time the Cats take the floor. I didn’t wonder this while watching the Arizona State game. It was obvious that he gave his guys the freedom to pursue great plays, which is a risk that he’s not always willing to take. And yes, there were plenty of boneheaded decisions and sloppy plays. But there was also continuity, unpredictability, and a flow that Arizona’s offense often lacks (a problem that a team this talented should never have).

Here’s to hoping Arizona sticks with this approach. It was nice to watch an Arizona game without having to huff into a paper bag and check my blood pressure every two minutes.

Halftime

vitale-dick-thompkins-barryAl Bello/ALLSPORT

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 Tuesday’s Maryland–Michigan State game in East Lansing, how did Vitale and Dan Shulman end up talking about Woody Hayes?

A. Evan Smotrycz checks into the game for Maryland, so Shulman mentions that Smotrycz transferred to Maryland from Michigan. Vitale adds that there was some big news out of Michigan earlier in the day, joking that the big news was that the Wolverine basketball team beat Illinois, but then clarifying that he’s talking about the Jim Harbaugh hiring. Vitale then surmises that Bo Schembechler is up in heaven telling Woody Hayes that Ohio State’s dominance of Michigan is now over.

B. After Shulman reads a promo for upcoming bowl games on ESPN, he mentions to Vitale that Maryland’s football team has its bowl game in a few hours. Vitale then says that both Maryland and Michigan State have great football programs, before going on to remind viewers that the Spartan football team’s only losses were to Oregon and Ohio State. Shulman then asks Vitale which teams he likes in the upcoming College Football Playoff. Vitale picks Oregon in the first game and Alabama in the second, but then says he has always liked the Buckeyes because of Woody Hayes.

C. With Maryland playing its first Big Ten game, a graphic is shown highlighting all that the Terrapins accomplished in the ACC. Vitale says his favorite memories of Maryland were its games against Duke, when Gary Williams and Mike Krzyzewski would go at it. After a beat, Vitale says he’s excited that Coach K is six wins away from 1,000 career victories. Vitale then reminds viewers that Coach K got his start under “the Woody Hayes of basketball  Robert Montgomery Knight.”

6. Gonzaga

Playing 10 guys doesn’t make a team 10-deep. If a coach puts some scrubs in for a few minutes to give his stars a breather, it doesn’t mean his team has depth  it just means he’s a gambler. There are only a handful of teams in college basketball that could put their 10 best players’ names in a hat, pick five, start them every game, and still be almost as successful as they currently are. Gonzaga is one of those teams.

The Zags’ depth was on full display against Portland on Saturday. In the first half, Kevin Pangos shot just twice and Kyle Wiltjer went scoreless, yet the Zags led by 15 points at halftime, mostly because every other Zags player who saw the court in the first half scored. There are probably teams who won’t have eight different guys score for them all season, and the Zags had eight players score in 20 minutes while their leading scorer had zilch. And ohbytheway Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan  who averaged 14.3 points last season  is now eligible for Gonzaga. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of these college basketball giants using their endless resources, overwhelming histories of success, and enormous fan bases to hog all the talent. Won’t anybody think about the little guys?

One last thing: I can’t let the Gonzaga section come and go without mentioning Przemek Karnowski’s first career 3. Let’s watch again and bask in the absurdity of how easy it looks for him.

Does Karnowski look more like Mikey from Recess or a tall Barney Rubble? I’m thinking Mikey.

5. Louisville

jones-chris-louisvilleJoe Robbins/Getty Images

“Can they do it offensively without [Terry] Rozier?” ESPN’s Adam Amin asked with eight minutes left and Louisville clinging to a one-point lead over Wake Forest.

“Yes,” Chris Jones responded with his play. “Yes we can.”

Jones had eight points after Rozier went to the bench with four fouls and Amin wondered if the Cardinals offense was toast. He finished with 22 after scoring 14 of Louisville’s final 21 points. Most impressively, Jones finished with 10 assists, which is twice his previous season high. Given the circumstances, it was Jones’s best game of the season by a factor of at least 2 billion.

Louisville isn’t a good team right now, but rather a collection of very good individual players. Montrezl Harrell is a warrior in the paint, Rozier can be unstoppable when he gets going, and I’m pretty sure Wayne Blackshear is also still on the team. But Louisville’s half-court defense can be really sloppy, its half-court offense is almost always bad, it doesn’t seem to have a center who can provide any sort of production, and its point guard (Jones) is the most frustrating player in America not named Amir Williams.

That last part has been the biggest source of anguish for many Louisville fans this season. Jones has struggled to hit open shots, so when he throws up somewhere between three and five highly contested shots every game, you can’t blame Louisville fans for wanting to throw their remotes. That said, I think the criticism of Jones is slightly unfair. I won’t argue with the idea that his shot selection has been horrible this season, that he rarely passes, that his flop against Kentucky was embarrassing, and that his Twitter handle (@iAM_UNGUARDABLE) is as cringeworthy as it is untrue. But he’s also a great defender who plays his ass off. And I like the point that C.L. Brown makes here: It took Peyton Siva four years to figure out how to be Rick Pitino’s point guard. Jones may be a senior, but this is just his second year in Pitino’s system. It makes sense that a player who has been a volume scorer his entire life might struggle with the finer points of running point for Pitino.

Whatever the case, it’s encouraging to see Jones respond positively to the heat he took after the Kentucky game and his subsequent benching against Long Beach State. For Louisville to be more than a collection of talent, the Cards need Jones to find a balance between scoring and facilitating. He did that against Wake Forest, and now he needs to keep it up. It also wouldn’t hurt if the Cards found someone who can help Harrell down low.

4. Wisconsin

Yes. YES. This is all I’ve ever wanted. Over the past two years, whenever I knocked Wisconsin, it’s because I knew they had this in them. All the times I wrote that the Buzzcuts play best when Bo Ryan takes the handcuffs off his players and they still don’t stray too far from Ryan’s principles, this is what I envisioned. I don’t even care that their competition in recent games hasn’t been great. If Wisconsin plays like this, the competition won’t matter 99 percent of the time anyway.

Did you see its first half against Northwestern on Sunday? I want to take a copy of that tape, travel back in time to 2006, and hand it to the version of me who wondered how Ryan’s system would look if it had multiple NBA players instead of farm kids from Baraboo. The ball moved all over the place, screens and cuts were made with purpose, virtually every field goal was assisted, and only two turnovers were committed. The Buzzcuts scored from just about every spot on the floor and busted their asses on defense. Sometime between Sam Dekker’s fourth consecutive made 3 and the heat check that led Ryan to immediately yank Dekker and refuse to look at him as he walked to the bench, I challenged myself to find something about Wisconsin to nitpick. I failed. The Buzzcuts are playing damn near perfect basketball right now.

3. Virginia

brogdon-malcolm-virginiaJoel Auerbach/Getty Images

Virginia is fine. If you watched the Hoos require two overtimes to finish the same Miami team that lost to Eastern Kentucky at home by 28, you might not think so. But Virginia’s problems from that game are easily fixed.

Here’s how I interpreted Virginia’s second-half collapse against Miami: The Hoos became bored after cruising to an 18-point halftime lead, which led to them going one-on-one too much. Meanwhile, Miami, a good outside shooting team, made a few 3s, got the crowd back into the game, and stretched out Virginia’s packed-in defense. From there, Miami killed the Hoos with pick-and-pop ball screens because the threat of leaving 3-point shooters screwed up Virginia’s defensive rotations. Eventually, Virginia started X-ing with the big guys3 so Evan Nolte wouldn’t have to close out on Omar Sherman from 15 feet away and get 3s rained on his face. But by the time Virginia figured this out, the damage had already been done. The Hoos scrambled to regain control as Miami rode the wave of momentum, which, as Ray Lewis will tell you, is huge.

There’s obviously more to it than just that. Malcolm Brogdon was MIA on both ends of the court throughout most of the game, and although Justin Anderson eventually saved the day at the end of the first overtime, he didn’t play well in the second half. It’s generally not the best idea to have your two best players be mediocre at the same time, even if London Perrantes had the stones to pick up the slack and carry the Hoos in big spots. But I’m choosing to look at this game through a what-if lens. If Virginia had tightened up its ball screen defense, made some late free throws, or just played 10 percent harder in the second half, it would have beaten Miami by at least 15. Let’s hope Virginia learns its lesson and doesn’t face many similar scares.

While I’m making excuses for Virginia, did anyone else notice that the same ref who made the questionable call on Anderson at the end of regulation to put Miami at the line with three shots to tie the game also fouled Brogdon out on a play with barely any contact? I’m not saying he had something against the Hoos; I’m just saying there was also this play from that game:

referee

(And the streak of wrestling GIFs continues!)

2. Duke

The end of Duke’s nonconference schedule was almost as soft as the start of its ACC schedule. So instead of discussing insignificant games, let’s pay homage to every Duke fan’s favorite Tar Heel. Here’s Stuart Scott doing what he does best along with highlights of Duke’s most exciting win over North Carolina in recent memory.

Wait, I messed that up. That was the wrong link. Sorry about that. Try this instead.

Damn, did it again. Hang on. I got this. Give me one more shot.

There you go, Duke fans. But most importantly, rest in peace, Stuart.

1. Kentucky

John Calipari can’t be happy with his team’s lackadaisical play Tuesday against Ole Miss. The Rebels were 22.5-point underdogs coming in to Rupp Arena. But unlike most underdogs that keep games closer than they should be, Ole Miss didn’t use any gimmicks. The Rebs didn’t walk the ball up the floor, they didn’t run an unusual offense, and they didn’t intentionally foul to dare Kentucky to make free throws. They just came at Kentucky’s head with the kind of confidence than only Marshall Henderson’s former team could possess. Kentucky never quite matched Ole Miss’s intensity, and that must infuriate Calipari, who was clearly fired up at tipoff.

The common wisdom in the college basketball world is that if Kentucky loses an SEC game, it will happen when the Cats are flat because they aren’t concerned about their competition. Tuesday night looked like that scenario. Calipari has said for weeks that he thinks games like the one against Ole Miss are good for his team, and his postgame remarks reflected that same sentiment. But the important thing to keep in mind here is that Calipari is a filthy liar. I don’t care that games like this build a certain toughness that Kentucky might need in the NCAA tournament. The NCAA title shouldn’t be Kentucky’s goal. Its goal should be immortality. The Cats have a chance to be the best college basketball team ever, but not if they keep letting teams like Ole Miss take them to overtime at home.

Cal is right: This game will be helpful moving forward. Can he use it to help his players understand nothing will be handed to them and they need to compete every night? Probably. But one of these games is enough. Kentucky doesn’t need any more character-building lessons. It just needs to play hard for 40 minutes every night and beat the brakes off the rest of the country. Cal can’t possibly be willing to risk a loss to give his guys a teaching moment, right? I mean, someone wins a national championship every year. How often does a realistic chance to go 40-0 come along?

DON’T BE JIM CALDWELL, CAL!

The Frank Mason Rap Song of the Week

Grantland contributor and all-around great guy Corban Goble sent this to me yesterday, and we’re all about to be better for it. I won’t give too much away, but there are two important things to know before watching the following video:

1. It was posted on YouTube in March 2014, when Mason was coming off a season in which he averaged 16 minutes and 5.5 points per game.

2. The language is super NSFW. Proceed at your own risk.

You know how I know I’m officially out of touch? I don’t completely hate this and will probably be yelling, “BITCH, I’M FRANK MASON!” every so often for the next three months.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is A. See you next week.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings, Oklahoma Sooners, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Utah Utes, Maryland Terrapins, Villanova Wildcats, Arizona Wildcats, Dick Vitale, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Louisville Cardinals, Wisconsin Badgers, Virginia Cavaliers, Duke Blue Devils, Kentucky Wildcats

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

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