The nonconference season is pretty much in the books, so you know what that means: It’s time to declare this THE CRAZIEST COLLEGE BASKETBALL SEASON EVER. Here’s a taste of what’s happened so far:
- The Big Ten won the ACC–Big Ten Challenge. Big Ten teams also have home losses to NJIT, St. Peter’s, St. Francis (Pa.), North Florida, Gardner-Webb, Blossom Heart, Incarnate Word, Texas Southern, and Eastern Washington. I made up only one of those schools.
- Kentucky held UCLA to seven first-half points, Virginia held Harvard to one first-half field goal, and Oklahoma went on a 39-0 run against Weber State. All in the same weekend.
- Kansas has suffered blowout losses with 32- and 25-point scoring margins, yet the Jayhawks could still end up getting a 1- or 2-seed in the NCAA tournament.
- Washington beat a couple of ranked teams en route to the best start in Lorenzo Romar’s career, only for it all to come crashing down in a home loss to Stony Brook.
- Arizona lost to UNLV, which lost to Arizona State, which lost to Lehigh, which lost to Canisius, which lost to Cornell, which lost to Drexel, which lost to the University of the Sciences. Remember this when Arizona makes the Final Four.
- UConn sophomore Amida Brimah scored zero points against Duke four days after scoring 40 against Coppin State.
- TCU and Penn State are a combined 24-1.
And yet, amid all the chaos, two constants remain: Kentucky is really effing good and Frank Haith is still getting his #Haith on.
Let’s get to the power rankings!
Texas didn’t play that badly in its overtime loss to Stanford last Tuesday. The Horns didn’t rebound as well as they usually do, but they played solid defense and forced the Cardinal to take tough shots. The problem was that Stanford, especially Anthony Brown and Chasson Randle, couldn’t miss.
It’s no secret that college basketball has become a perimeter-oriented game. Any team that has multiple players who can create their own offense and who can hit contested jumpers off the dribble will always have a chance. This is how UConn won its last two national championships and it’s why the Huskies will be another tough out in March if they can find someone to help out Ryan Boatright on the perimeter. It’s also how Stanford beat Texas in Austin. Brown and Randle were hot early and they put Texas’s defense in a serious bind. When the Horns threw multiple defenders at those players, the Cardinal moved the ball to the open man. When Texas didn’t double Brown and Randle, the Longhorns got torched.
This is why Isaiah Taylor’s return from injury is so important for Texas. The Horns got solid offensive guard play from Javan Felix and Kendal Yancy against Stanford, but it wasn’t the type of output that turns a defense on its head. It’s not like Johnny Dawkins was on the Stanford bench thinking, We’ve thrown everything we have at those guys and we still can’t stop them. That’s what Brown and Randle did for the Cardinal, and it’s what Taylor can provide for Texas once he returns.
Texas has been good without Taylor. But we’ve waited long enough. I’m ready for Taylor to get back on the court so we can see just how great the Horns are with him.
11. Iowa State
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Iowa State fans grilled me after I left the Cyclones off the previous edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, and I understand why. This is a Fred Hoiberg team like every one before it — the roster is stacked with transfers, five guys average 10-plus points per game, everyone is a 3-point threat, and there’s so much talent that it’s damn near impossible to pick the Cyclones’ best player. If you asked me to draw up a game plan to stop Iowa State, I’d just cackle maniacally until you gave up and walked away.
But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment: Isn’t being just like every other Hoiberg team precisely the problem? Iowa State shoots an ungodly amount of 3s, they barely play defense, they don’t rebound well, and they have one reliable player taller than 6-foot-6 (Georges Niang).1 They compete in the nation’s deepest conference, one full of great defenses and with tons of size. How does history suggest this will shake out? For all the excitement that Hoiberg has brought to Iowa State, it’s worth noting that the Clones have never finished better than tied for third in the Big 12 during his tenure. Taking this into account, isn’t it fair to question Iowa State’s chances of winning the conference this year? They have the talent to do it, but let’s pump the brakes on calling the Cyclones the favorites just because they’ve romped through a relatively soft nonconference schedule. Let’s see how they handle the upcoming stretch at West Virginia and Baylor and then at home against Kansas before we get too excited.
Jameel McKay stands 6-foot-9 and recently gained his eligibility. But his one game so far came against Drake and he played only 13 minutes, so it remains to be seen how big of a role he’ll play for the Cyclones.
Five Maryland players transferred during the offseason. Dez Wells has already missed seven games with a broken wrist. Evan Smotrycz has missed eight games because of a fractured foot and sprained ankle. Maryland starts a freshman at point guard and its coach’s job has been rumored to be in jeopardy for a while now. And despite it all, the Terps are 12-1 overall and 3-1 against teams from Power 5 conferences. Their only loss came against one of the three best teams in America (Virginia). Let’s check in on Maryland’s student section to see how they feel right now.
Maryland’s entire team has been pretty great so far, but Melo Trimble and Jake Layman are particularly deserving of praise. Although Trimble is a McDonald’s All American recruit who was expected to be a meaningful contributor for the Terps, it’s remarkable to see a freshman point guard tow an unheralded squad to a 12-1 start while leading the team in scoring and assists and shooting almost 50 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Layman has shown flashes of greatness throughout his career, and this season he seems to have finally found consistency. He has scored in double figures in every game, he’s shooting 54 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3, and he has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in his last two games. Layman has basically been everything Wisconsin fans want Sam Dekker to be, which is to say that if Layman keeps this up, he might be in the NBA next season.
I expected Utah to be good this year. Delon Wright is so good that you could throw him out there with four scrubs and they’d still have a chance. But I had no idea that Utah could lose Jordan Loveridge and still come out of a pretty difficult nonconference schedule with a 10-2 record (assuming they can beat NAIA Carroll College [Mont.] on Tuesday). This is to say that I had no idea that Jakob Poeltl would have this big of an impact. Hell, until recently did anyone even know who Jakob Poeltl was? Poeltl has been my favorite surprise in college basketball, averaging 10.5 points and 8.6 boards through the first 11 games of his career. Besides the numbers, Poeltl seems to make one or two plays in every game that leave you thinking he’ll be unstoppable in a couple of years. The key to Poeltl’s success has been his soft hands, which might be the best of any big man in college basketball.2 Poeltl has been a perfect complementary player for Wright, who draws so much attention from opposing defenses. Since Wright is also a willing passer, it’s a luxury for Utah to have Poeltl, who catches nearly everything thrown his way and finishes well at the rim. Poeltl’s emergence gives the Utes a weapon that hardly anybody expected them to possess, and it’s a big reason why Utah can count itself among the best teams in the nation.
Although I’ve heard rumors that Willie Cauley-Stein played wide receiver in high school? Does anybody know anything about this? It can’t be true. Can you imagine a 7-footer lining up out wide?!?!
Two months ago, if you had asked me how much I was looking forward to the Robert Upshaw–Jakob Poeltl matchup, I might’ve assumed you were talking about tennis. Now, I can’t wait to watch those two go at it when Washington plays at Utah in late January.
Duke’s offense is the best in the country. Either Indiana, Iowa State, or Notre Dame has the most fun offense to watch, although they’re all fun to watch in the way that a guy with rockets strapped to his roller skates is fun to watch. But Gonzaga’s offense is my favorite. The Zags have a perfect combination of shooters, slashers who can finish above the rim, skilled big men, teamwide basketball IQ, and versatility. It’s basketball poetry come to life in the form of international players and transfers.
Do you realize that five players who average more than 10 minutes per game for Gonzaga are shooting 40 percent or better from the 3-point line? Five! A few other teams can claim the same, but how many of those also have two big men who average 10-plus points per game like Gonzaga’s Low Bloc does? And how many of those have a top-five point guard like Kevin Pangos, who isn’t even the best player on the team? Speaking of which, I’m still amazed that Kyle Wiltjer — the guy who spent 90 percent of his court time with the 2012-13 Kentucky team either shot faking or tapping his chest while saying “my bad” — has turned into an All-American candidate.
Yeah, I said it: Wiltjer is playing at an All-American level. He has scored 20 or more in four of his last five games, he’s averaging 23 points in his four games against Power 5 teams, and he just torched BYU in Provo, which doesn’t happen often (even though BYU’s defense this season is awful). If I had a time machine, I’d go back two weeks and put “supercut of every ball screen Wiltjer sets for Pangos” on my Christmas list. I’ll never get sick of watching those two play off each other.
Just think, if Wiltjer would’ve stayed at Kentucky, the Wildcats would probably be undefeated and ranked no. 1 in the country right now.
It was bound to happen. If you shave with a chain saw every day, eventually you’re going to draw blood. The Cats flirt with disaster so often that ESPN might as well tweet “UPSET ALERT!” at the start of every Arizona game instead of waiting to see if the game will be close in the end. Because spoiler alert: If Arizona faces a semicompetent team, the game is likely going to be close in the end. This has been an advantage of sorts for Arizona — it prepares the Wildcats for those big moments with championships on the line. When their opponents’ sphincters tighten from the late-game pressure, the Cats can just yawn and go about their business.
But the UNLV game reminded us of how dangerous it is when teams assume they can just turn it on in the final minutes and steal a win. Arizona was destroyed on the boards and played embarrassing isolation defense for most of the UNLV game. And this time when they reached into their magic hat to pull out a win, they instead retrieved a Stanley Johnson blown layup, a Brandon Ashley missed 3, and Johnson dribbling off his leg. It’s like the old saying: If you go to the well too often, eventually your adoptive mother will put a trash bag over your head and throw you into the well, where you’ll slowly die over the course of seven days before you ultimately make a creepy video, put a curse on Naomi Watts, crawl out of TVs, and sign on for an unnecessary sequel.
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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. Since Dickie V. took some time off for the holidays, this week I’m turning to the only logical replacement – Bill Walton. Let’s get down to business.
During the Wisconsin-Cal game on December 22, how did Bill Walton and Dave Pasch end up talking about Kentucky?
A. While discussing Cal, Pasch turns the conversation to the Pac-12 as a whole and asks Walton how he thinks the conference will shake out. Walton offers his thoughts on Arizona, Utah, and Washington before mentioning UCLA. Pasch brings up UCLA’s blowout loss to Kentucky. Walton then devotes the next two minutes to a tirade about UCLA basketball, highlighted by yet another retelling of how John Wooden taught him to put on socks.
B. Pasch jokes that a Cal-Wisconsin matchup is probably heaven for Walton because his two favorite cities are Berkeley and Madison, “for obvious reasons.” Walton responds with: “You probably aren’t old enough to remember Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Why Me.’ I ask myself that. Why me? Why did the universe decide that I — an average kid from La Mesa, California — should be so lucky? Do you realize that I remember being 10 years old on my father’s lap, watching the Kentucky Derby? I didn’t even know where Kentucky was. More than 50 years later, I’ve been around the world both ways. And still, fate has led me back to beautiful California, where on this night I’m watching two titans collide in a celebration of youth and strength and grace.” Pasch doesn’t respond for more than five seconds.
C. A promo for upcoming bowl games is shown onscreen, prompting Pasch to suggest that Walton should try calling a football game sometime. Walton mentions that he’ll be in San Diego for the Poinsettia Bowl. Pasch asks if Walton is really going to the game, prompting Walton to explain how big of a football fan he is. He mentions that Wisconsin produced Russell Wilson, who led the Seattle Seahawks to a win over the Arizona Cardinals the previous night. Pasch ribs Walton by joking that last year, when Walton met Richard Sherman, he confused the Seattle cornerback for Bob Marley. Walton says that he’s a big Sherman fan and that the Seahawks are like the Kentucky Wildcats of football.
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I’m blown away by how bad Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, and Wayne Blackshear have been from the 3-point line this season. It makes no sense. None of those guys have ever been known as knock-down shooters, but they were all solid from behind the arc last season. How can they suddenly be so bad? What did Russ Smith and Luke Hancock do so well that made them better shooters? Or was there something about Stephen Van Treese’s vicious screens that helped them put the ball in the basket? I can understand some of them having a two- or three-game slump. But we’re 12 games into the season and they are shooting a combined 30 percent from the 3-point line. That’s not a slump — it’s an epidemic.
I know: Louisville went 3-for-14 from behind the arc against Kentucky because the Wildcats’ defense is so good. But the Cards got plenty of open looks and came up empty way too often. It’s so hard to get good shots against Kentucky that when those opportunities come, a team has to knock down at least 50 percent of them to have a chance at beating the Wildcats. Louisville made somewhere around none percent.
At this point, Louisville is basically San Diego State if Angelo Chol were a million times more talented and turned into Montrezl Harrell. I mean, one team assist in the entire Kentucky game? Remember the first half of the UCLA-Kentucky game? The Bruins looked like they wanted to crawl into a hole until the final buzzer of that game, and they still managed to get as many assists in their first half against Kentucky as Louisville got in an entire game. The Cards will remain Final Four contenders as long as they keep playing some of the best defense in America. But holy smokes — I’d rather stand behind elderly women in the self-checkout line at the grocery store than watch five minutes of Louisville’s half-court offense.
Winning college basketball games often boils down to two things:
1. Can you control the runs?
I don’t mean “can you make sure you don’t have violent diarrhea during games,” although that’s important too. I mean that basketball is about stringing together positive possessions. In almost every game, each team will have spurts when they score a few baskets in a row. The great teams know how to keep their runs going. They don’t take heat checks. They don’t have guys who decide it’s their turn to shoot. They don’t feel good about themselves just because they built a seven-point lead. Great teams keep their foot on the gas and bury their opponents. And when the opposition begins its own run, great teams figure out how to squash it before any serious damage is done.
This was something Villanova struggled with last season. In various losses, the Wildcats gave up an 15-0 run to Creighton, a 19-4 spurt against Seton Hall, and a 16-1 stretch against UConn. There was the game at Syraucse when the Orange scored 20 straight in the first half. And then there was the time that Creighton hit so many 3s against Villanova that I almost started crying from laughing so hard.3
To be fair, Creighton was so hot that night that even the Dream Team may not have been able to stop them.
Excluding the 12-0 Michigan run from a month ago, Villanova has been better at containing other teams’ runs this season. There were several times in the first half of their game against Syracuse when I thought the Orange might blow the game wide open. But Villanova kept fighting and stayed close enough to regroup at halftime and come out swinging in the second half.
Which brings us to our second point.
2. When it’s not your night, can you make it your night?
In the first half against Syracuse, Daniel Ochefu had an entire season’s worth of missed dunks, Trevor Cooney was so hot that he actually laughed at Villanova’s defense, and the Wildcats, who shoot 36 percent on 3s, were 1-of-8 from behind the arc. When Villanova made a push right after halftime and still couldn’t get over the hump, I was certain it would lose. It was the wrong combination of Villanova not having its A game and Syracuse being desperate for a big win. Instead, Villanova hung tough, kept chipping away at Syracuse’s lead, and eventually ground out a win thanks in part to the Orange’s late-game collapse. After watching the Wildcats get blown out several times last year, it was refreshing to see them find a way to win a game in which they were outplayed.
Everything about the first half of the Buffalo-Wisconsin game told me an upset was coming. Wisconsin looked flat on both ends of the court. The crowd was flat. The cheerleaders were fl— um, not really into the game. The beer was probably even a little flat. It felt like nobody associated with Wisconsin wanted to be there. Nobody except Frank Kaminsky, that is. The Moose carried the Buzzcuts with 14 points and seven rebounds in the first half, then presumably used the halftime break to kindly ask his teammates to get their heads out of their asses. The Big Ten Network cameras even caught a little bit of that halftime speech:
Excluding that first half against Buffalo, Wisconsin has been playing really well since the Duke loss. That Cal game in particular was a vintage Buzzcuts win. Wisconsin played great defense, spread the court and moved the ball on offense, and methodically cruised across the finish line. Every time Cal tried to mount a comeback, the Buzzcuts dumped the ball down to Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, or Nigel Hayes, scored an easy bucket, and then locked Cal up on defense. Wisconsin even shot 17-for-18 from the free throw line! If a walk-on checked in and hit a couple of 3s, the Cal game would’ve been the Bo Ryan era in a nutshell.
By the way, has anyone else noticed that Wisconsin’s conference schedule has it playing Maryland, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Michigan State all just once this season? That’s amazing. Why are we even bothering with the Big Ten race this year? Is it too late to take Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State out of the Big 12 and replace them with Kentucky, Gonzaga, and Wisconsin?
I went to the North Carolina–Ohio State and Kentucky-UCLA doubleheader in Chicago a couple Saturdays ago. The Carolina-OSU game wasn’t as exciting as it should’ve been, mostly because the Buckeyes couldn’t keep the b— COULDN’T KEEP THE BALL OUT OF THE MIDDLE OF THE DAMN ZONE!!! HOLY HELL CAROLINA HAS 40 GIANTS ON ITS ROSTER AND CAN’T MAKE 3S. WHY IS OSU EXTENDING ON-BALL PRESSURE AND OPENING THE MIDDLE FOR UNC’S BIGS TO THROW HIGH-LOW PASSES AND DUNK ON FACES?!?! WHYYYYYYYYYYYY????????
(Sorry about that.)
The Kentucky-UCLA game, though, was well worth the trip. Sure, it was a blowout that was over before John Calipari’s hair gel dried, but Kentucky was so dominant that Steve Alford’s critics will be referencing that first half 25 years from now. How often do you see a potential NCAA tournament team get shredded like that? How often do you see a team you thought was halfway decent score fewer than 10 points in an entire half? That probably won’t happen again for another—
Hang on, what does this say?
Virginia … held Harvard to an NCAA record-tying one field goal in the first half, and it came just 3:29 into the game. Harvard’s next field goal came almost 20 minutes later, with just 16:38 remaining. Only Savannah State, with one field goal in the first half against Kansas State on Jan. 7, 2008, had done that before.
This happened less than 24 hours after Kentucky’s massacre of UCLA? College basketball is the best.
By the way, am I crazy or is Virginia the team we expected Arizona to be? I’m not writing off Zona, but back in October, if you had described a team as a “hard-nosed defensive juggernaut that starts four upperclassmen, dominates the glass, has an unspectacular but balanced and efficient offense, and is led by an athletic marvel on the wing with an NBA future,”4 I would’ve known you were talking about Arizona. So far this season, that description has fit the Hoos more.
Stanley Johnson for Arizona and Justin Anderson for Virginia.
And yet there’s not nearly as much hype for Virginia right now as there was for the Cats at the start of the season. If the Hoos had been wearing Arizona jerseys all this time, the college basketball world would be foaming at the mouth at the possibility of a Final Four featuring Kentucky, Duke, and Virginia.
Virginia was the ACC’s best team last year. They brought back a ton of key players, survived a respectable nonconference schedule, and have let only two opponents within 15 points of them so far this season. Virginia’s smallest margin of victory was eight points against La Salle, and the Hoos never trailed in that game. I think it’s time we start asking some important questions: COULD VIRGINIA BEAT THE PHILADEL—
Last year’s Blue Devils were probably my favorite Duke team ever, mostly because it was impossible to cheer against Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Those guys jacked 3s and played no defense, and they never seemed to do the things Duke players typically do to make America hate them. I even felt bummed out when Duke lost to Mercer in the NCAA tournament, although that may have just been because I was sad we’d never get to see the Creighton-Duke matchup we deserved.5
There could’ve been 40 made 3s in that game. I would’ve watched that like a 12-year-old who found his dad’s Playboy for the first time.
None of that matters anymore, because I’ve found a new favorite Duke team. Do you realize that pretty much the entire Duke rotation this season has a baby Afro? The only exceptions are Rasheed Sulaimon (who might be balding?) and Marshall Plumlee and Grayson Allen (LOLOLOLOL). Team baby Afros, you guys — what more do you want?
This Duke team is basically a better version of last year’s Blue Devils. They still like shooting 3s and have likable personalities,6 only now the Blue Devils play defense. Most importantly, Duke is built like a real basketball team instead of just a collection of players. Had last year’s team been playing against UConn last week, I would’ve been worried when the Huskies tied the game early in the second half. But not with this team. When faced with a huge possession, this team has structure and purpose, and that turns into poise and confidence. We’ll throw it here, set a pick there, swing it over here, dump it down there, get an easy bucket, and then go play defense. That’s the luxury that comes with having a great center (Jahlil Okafor) and point guard (Tyus Jones). Duke always seems to be on the same page, which becomes terrifying when you realize that behind that chemistry is a boatload of talent.
Spare me the Quinn Cook rebuttal. Hating Cook is so 2013. I don’t know if he’s mellowed out or if it’s just that he’s now earned the right to have some swagger, but he’s not nearly as easy to hate as he used to be.
I’ve been to two Kentucky games this season — the Kansas game in Indianapolis and the UCLA game in Chicago. Both were part of neutral-court doubleheaders that featured some of the most storied programs and rabid fan bases in college basketball history. But at both events, the crowd seemed to be around 75 percent insane Kentucky fans who lived and died with every UK possession, even though the Wildcats won both games without breaking a sweat.
Kentucky fans are out of their minds. They get premature tattoos without regret. Parody Twitter accounts of UK basketball beat writers have enough followers to make you question everything about your life. You could probably gain 1,000 Twitter followers overnight just by tacking “KSR” to the end of your username. And you could just as easily receive thousands of death threats by tweeting this one sentence: “Adolph Rupp was a racist who wouldn’t have even been close to Billy Gillispie’s level if he didn’t cheat as much as John Calipari does.”
Kentucky fans would be like this if the Cats were awful. Funny story, though: The Cats are the exact opposite of awful this season, which has caused Kentucky insanity to reach scary heights. One Kentucky fan I met in Chicago told me he lives in Lexington and came to the UCLA game because he couldn’t get tickets to Kentucky home games this year. I doubt that that’s actually true, but the fact that it seems plausible is enough for me.
Now that Kentucky has steamrolled through nonconference opponents like Kansas, North Carolina, Texas, UCLA, and Louisville,7 an undefeated regular season seems probable. Barring injury or one of the biggest upsets in history, the Cats are more or less guaranteed to make the Elite Eight. We may be witnessing the greatest college basketball team of all time. Kentucky fans know this, which is why UK games have turned into such spectacles. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not that the atmosphere is better than all the rest. But you can tell something special is happening. You can tell that it’s like a religious experience for Wildcats fans to watch this team in person. And the scary thing is that I’ve watched Kentucky only on neutral courts. UK games at Rupp Arena this season probably have baptisms and live births and lambs being sacrificed in the crowd.
Average margin of victory in those games: 21 points.
However you feel about Kentucky and John Calipari, you should do your best to appreciate this team. There’s still plenty of basketball left to be played, but all signs point to it being a team that will make future generations jealous that we got to experience the 2015 Kentucky season as it happened.
The Dunk of the Week
This dunk technically happened a little over a week ago and it’s from a high school game. But because the dunker is UNLV commit Derrick Jones and UNLV just pulled off the upset of the year over Arizona, I’ll make an exception. Drink this in, America.
By the way, there’s plenty more where that came from.
The Dick’s Bill’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you in 2015!