The Hardcourt Shuffle: Duke and Michigan Rise From the Pack

This is a very, very special Monday in Shuffle-land. When we started this column a couple of weeks ago, I joked that “The Hardcourt Shuffle” sounded like a dance crazy from the 1920s, and I encouraged readers to write lyrics for the imaginary song. Today, I’m beyond thrilled to announce that reader Drew Bollinger did me one better; he wrote the lyrics, and then he wrote the damn song!

It’s hard to explain how far my jaw dropped when I first opened Drew’s e-mail and listened to the mp3. I’ll let you judge it for yourself, but let me just say that Mr. Bollinger is now a charter member of the Hardcourt Shuffle Hall of Fame, which is a thing I just invented. And it’s going to be a really exclusive club; so far, it’s just Drew and Mason Plumlee. But man, does he deserve it. Enjoy the brand-new Hardcourt Shuffle theme song:

I’ve had ridiculously good luck appealing to readers so far, so why not press my advantage? My next request is for someone to invent the dance to the Hardcourt Shuffle song, and make a YouTube of yourself performing it to the music. I won’t promise instant fame for the first person who follows through, buttttt … actually, screw it, I promise instant fame.

So thanks again to Drew, and now let’s get to the hoops.

Re-Examining the Notion of the “Wide Open Year”

The prevailing wisdom of 2012-13, dating all the way back to the preseason, is that there are no dominant teams in college basketball. Contrary to last year, when Kentucky and pre-injury-plagued North Carolina were pretty clearly the cream of the crop, the idea this time around was that roughly 15-20 teams would have a legitimate title shot, and we wouldn’t be able to identify a true powerhouse even in March. I was among those seduced by the idea, and I spread the message. But I think I was wrong.

Now, in some ways, this weekend provided more evidence to support the theory. No. 6 Kansas had to fight for their lives at home against Temple, no. 3 Arizona won by three, also at home, against what might be the worst team in the Pac-12, no. 15 Georgetown and no. 14 Cincinnati and no. 24 Pittsburgh suffered upsets to unranked teams, while no. 23 N.C. State and no. 12 Missouri barely avoided the same fate.

Chaos and unpredictability definitely have their footholds, but when your eyes drift to the top of the rankings, things start to look like … well, like last year. Right now, there are two teams who keep getting better and better, and are starting to seem pretty damn invulnerable. As the results come in, I’m starting to believe that we do have powerhouses, and that maybe 2013 won’t be wide open at all.

Those two teams, of course, are Duke and Michigan. We’ll start with the Wolverines, because their matchup with Iowa was one of the most intriguing games of the weekend for me. The Hawkeyes, a team that seemed like nothing special from day one, suddenly popped up on my radar when they gave Indiana all they could handle in a four-point loss at home. I’ve been beating the Indiana-is-overrated drum for most of the season, so I chose to interpret this result as further evidence that the Hoosiers were a weak team who didn’t belong in the top 10. And despite the fact that I was one of the fools in the preseason who called Michigan overrated, I’ve come to see them as an excellent club.

So Michigan-Iowa was the perfect testing ground. If I was right, Michigan would win in a blowout. They did, and I’m more convinced than ever that Michigan is not just better than Indiana, but way better than everyone else in the Big Ten, and that they’ll win the conference by three games. They still have to prove it against tough competition, and they’ll get their chance in consecutive games at Ohio State and Minnesota next week, but I’m a true believer. And the notion that they haven’t played anyone is starting to look weaker and weaker as the win over Kansas State looks better and better.

With Duke, I don’t need to rely on circumstantial evidence and the transitive property. All the Blue Devils have done is play the season’s toughest schedule and beat every good team in every possible situation, from Kentucky to Minnesota to Louisville to Temple to Ohio State to Wake Forest. (Just kidding on that last one. And by “kidding,” I mean “being arbitrarily cruel to Wake fans.”) In a happy change from years past, the Blue Devils don’t need anyone to defend them.

I’m not saying either team is without weakness. Michigan lacks size, and Duke lacks depth. They will both lose games … I think. (Though I have to admit, it’s really tempting to fantasize about Duke going undefeated in the pathetically weak ACC.) But both have experienced veterans and surprising freshmen, and both have great coaches. By winning — more, by dominating — they’ve distinguished themselves from the pack in a year when that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Arizona Has Clearly Sold Its Soul to the Devil

It was pretty weird when Florida’s meltdown in Tucson propelled the Wildcats into the top five, and it got even weirder when Nick Johnson came out of nowhere to block the game-winning layup against San Diego State. Then Colorado’s Sabatino Chen had his game-winning buzzer beater waved off by refs in a game Arizona went on to win in overtime, and I started getting really creeped out. Something was happening, I realized. Arizona coach Sean Miller or one of his players had sold his soul to Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, in order to win games they were meant to lose. All the games, in fact. This was clearly a sign of greed; most normal basketball people would only sell their souls for a simple national championship. But the Arizona soul-seller wanted it all, undefeated season included. On Saturday, when woeful Utah had the ball with 30 seconds left and a chance to win the game, I knew it was happening again. They were doomed. The Utes missed a 3, and Arizona won by a sliver.

The conclusion: Arizona isn’t that good, but there’s a Faustian bargain in play here. Put all your money on the ’Cats to win the title.

(On a serious note: Everyone who said Arizona was going to run away with the Pac-12 title (and I was one of them) needs to do some serious re-thinking. Especially after how good UCLA looked against Missouri.)

My Tweet Made an ESPN Game, And It Was Based on a Lie

At 12:23 p.m. on Saturday, January 5, I received the following text from my stepdad:

“Announcer of Duke game just used your ‘white raven’ nickname for Kelly.”

Some backstory: One of the main highlights of my life to date is the fact that a nickname I invented for Ryan Kelly on an old blog actually caught on at Duke games in Cameron Indoor Stadium. “The White Raven” moniker was meant as a sort of play on Carolina’s Harrison Barnes, a.k.a. “The Black Falcon,” and the idea was that Kelly would be the avian superhero to Barnes’s avian supervillain. Last year, to my extreme delight, the students in Cameron started flapping their arms like a bird whenever he hit a shot. That was spine-tingling stuff; I felt like some kind of beloved orchestra conductor. I’ve always been fascinated by the creation of nicknames, and what makes them stick, and the fact that I actually created one for a player made my head swell up to about eight times its normal size (and my head is already very physically big). As you can imagine, my stepdad’s text had the same effect. “The White Raven” was so entrenched that they even mentioned it on air!

At this point, there was only one course of action: Brag on Twitter. My words:

ESPN announcer just called Ryan Kelly “The White Raven.” My life = complete.

I got some re-tweets, some kudos, etc., and I didn’t really pay attention to the weird lack of other people who actually heard the announcers say “White Raven.” (I was watching the game on low volume because my wife’s family was visiting.) I was too excited.

And then, unbelievably, the second half came along, and Carter Blackburn started talking about how Ryan Kelly was trending on Twitter. As he spoke, THEY SHOWED MY TWEET ON AIR! Seriously, look.

 

This was a new level of ego-inflation for me. I know I’m starting to become insufferable, but I have to tell you, it felt surreal. I couldn’t wait until the game went up on ESPN3 later so I could watch it and actually hear what they said.

And that’s when the story took a turn for the hilarious. At around 6 p.m., I sat down and watched the whole first half, waiting anxiously for that first mention of “The White Raven.” I suffered through TV timeouts and idle chatter and everything else, just dying to hear the magic words. Where were they? Shot after shot went by, the time ticked down, and no avian references were forthcoming.

Slowly, it began to dawn on me; nobody had said “White Raven.” Nobody had said White Raven. What actually happened was that Carter Blackburn mentioned that Kelly attended Ravenscroft High School in Raleigh. My stepdad must have heard the word “raven” — a strange little coincidence, that school name — and assumed they were using the nickname. That prompted his text, which prompted me to issue my braggy little tweet, which in turn got my name on air in the second half. And it was all based on nonsense! My tiny flash of fame, built on fiction. I was like a modern Gatsby, except far more pathetic and without all the nice shirts. Watching at my kitchen table, I sagged in disbelief. And thus, like most seemingly great things in my life, the whole thing turned to shame.

By the way, this is how I spent my 30th birthday. I’m not sure if it’s some kind of omen for my future, but I thought you all should know.

Watch Out for Maryland, Write Off N.C. State

In the ACC, there’s Duke, and there’s everyone else. N.C. State started out in the top 10, but it’s become apparent that they can’t play defense, and the Boston College scare is the latest sign of their relative mediocrity. Let’s take a quick look at their offensive and defensive profile, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy. He tells us that the Wolfpack are ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), and 160th in adjust defensive efficiency. It’s a crazy disparity, and I immediately became curious about how teams with similar profiles had fared in the past. Using that criteria- top 10 offense, below 110 on defense (I wanted to be generous to State, hence 110 rather than 150), I looked back through recent history. Here are the qualifying teams I found from the past 10 seasons, along with their tournament results:

2012: Missouri (Round of 64), Creighton (Round of 32)
2011: Colorado (Sweet 16)
2010: Notre Dame (Round of 64)
2009: Arizona (Sweet 16)
2008: Oregon (Round of 64)
2007: None
2006: Gonzaga (Sweet 16), Notre Dame (2nd round NIT)
2005: Gonzaga (Round of 32)
2004: Arizona (Round of 64)
2003: Boston College (2nd round NIT), Dayton (Round of 64), Notre Dame (Sweet 16)

That makes 13 teams with one of the top 10 offenses in the country and a very mediocre defense. NONE of them, zero percent, won more than two tournament games … even if they were in the NIT. Only four of the 13 even made it to the NCAA Sweet 16, despite an elite scoring attack. It’s not necessarily a novel idea that poor defense is a nonstarter, even when paired with excellent offense, but it is interesting that, at least in the past decade, there’s not a single exception to the rule.

This year, the two teams who fit the criteria are N.C. State and our old friends Notre Dame. And guess what? Smart money says neither of them will make it past the Sweet 16 either.

Maryland, on the other hand … they look quite well. Mark Turgeon’s Terps have an amazing opportunity in a weak ACC, and they just aced their first test by clobbering Virginia Tech (another contender for the empty spot below Duke). At 13-1, the Terps have been excellent all year; in fact, the only game they dropped was their first, a close loss to Kentucky in Brooklyn. Turgeon has gathered a nice group of recruits (unlike Gary Williams, he’s actually willing to spend time around the AAU scene, which helps), center Alex Len has turned into one of the 15 best big men in the country, and there’s a resurgent sense of pride in College Park. I wish I could say the Terps were my dark-horse pick to challenge Duke and possibly even win the ACC, but I’m already late to the game. As of now, they look like the second-best team in the conference.

The Portland State Vikings Are the Best Cheaters Ever

A tweet from the aforementioned Mr. Pomeroy clued me in to this story, which details exactly how the Portland State scoreboard is being used to distract opponents at one end of the floor. Apparently the green glare when the board is flashing the words “De-Fense” is so bright that it reflects off the court and gets in the players’ line of sight. Obviously, the words aren’t flashed when Portland State is on offense, so it’s a distinct advantage for the home team.

Personally, I think it’s brilliant, and it opens up a whole slew of ideas about borderline-illegal ways to screw with the other team. For example, what if a PR person issued credentials to 12 to 15 “photographers” who were actually team employees, and whose job it was to line up on the baseline and snap a flash photo any time a visiting player spotted up for a jumper? Or what if you had a secret projector that intermittently beamed an image of a basket off the backboard a foot above the actual basket? The possibilities are endless.

The All-British Prestigious Boarding School Team

Since we had so much success with the Jahii Carson “Almost Famous” Team last month, I thought I’d end today by asking you, the reader, to help me fill out the All-British Prestigious Boarding School Team. This is for players who sound like they could be wealthy British kids enrolled at a private school, and the idea was inspired by San Diego State’s Xavier Thames. I look forward to all submissions, and I’ll see you Friday.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Arizona, Duke, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Shane Ryan

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere