Last week I told readers not to expect many good college basketball games for a while because it was finals week at many schools around the country and these enlightened institutions decided that their players’ academics were more important than entertaining the national TV audience. Well, as it turned out, Arizona-Florida and Butler-Indiana gave us two of the best games of the year, Louisville-Memphis was almost as thrilling, and Jim Boeheim’s quest to reach 900 wins ended up being slightly more difficult than anticipated. So now that I have been proven completely wrong and this past week of college basketball turned out to be full of excitement, it’s only fair that I man up and admit the truth: My reverse jinx worked! You’re welcome.
As much as I enjoy including Missouri in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball because it allows me to make fun of Coach Frank Haith, I’m giving the Gonzaga Foreigners the edge this week because they emphatically beat up Kansas State last Saturday while Missouri played lowly South Carolina State. For all of you Missouri fans who have a problem with this, beat Illinois this Saturday and your beloved Tigers will be back.
Anyway, it’s good to see the Foreigners back on track after their blunder against Illinois a couple weeks ago. In that game, the Foreigners had a huge size advantage but got caught playing Illinois’s game after the Illini started hitting so many 3s. Throughout the game, the Foreigners pounded the ball inside with much success, but once they fell behind by a few possessions they panicked and started taking too many 3-pointers.1 They reminded me of a football team with a great running back and a terrible quarterback2 whose coach decided to abandon the run because the team was down a couple touchdowns. Gonzaga had plenty of time, and they might have made a comeback if they would’ve stuck with what was working. Although, to make that comeback they also would’ve needed to stop Brandon Paul, and doing so was pretty much impossible that night.
Against Kansas State on Saturday, the Foreigners went back to their bread and butter and stuck with the inside game even when Kansas State kept it close in the first half. And to be clear, their bread and butter is to rely on their big guys, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. make up a strong backcourt, but the Foreigners will always be at their best when they play inside-out like they did against Kansas State and like they did in the first half against Illinois. So long as they stick with that approach, there’s no reason Gonzaga can’t be just as good as everyone thought they were before they lost to Illinois.
Like Reggie Miller’s jump shot and Steve Buscemi, Cincinnati’s style of play isn’t pretty but gets the job done. The Bearcats are essentially Louisville Lite — their approach to the game is to force a ton of turnovers, score in transition, and eventually wear out opponents from 40 minutes of pressure defense. Remember when you played AAU basketball in fifth grade, there was always a team from the city with a ton of athletes who would press you the entire game? Their coach was probably the dad of one of the players and he probably knew nothing about basketball. But he knew his team was stacked with athletes, so he pressed the crap out of your team and hoped you’d pee your pants in fear. And remember how by the end of the game you were thinking, I wish these guys would just leave me alone. The only reason I’m even here is because chicks dig athletes. Well, that and my mom signed me up because she thinks I’m getting fat and I need to exercise more. Cincinnati is the grown-up version of that team.
Against Marshall last Saturday, the Bearcats rarely looked comfortable running their half-court offense. But they did look comfortable playing swarming defense, forcing 20 Marshall turnovers, and scoring easy transition buckets off those giveaways. Cincinnati let Marshall hang around longer than they should have, but they also seemed to know that the Thundering Herd would eventually run out of steam, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m hesitant to pat Cincinnati on the back too much because they still haven’t faced a dangerous opponent, but they have a huge opportunity to show me something in their rivalry game against Xavier on Wednesday night.3 And by the way, the over/under on the number of times the word “brawl” will be used in that telecast is currently set at 273.5. I’d put my house on the over.
Well, I think we can put that debate to rest now. The Duke vs. Indiana debate, sure, but we can also retire the debate over which team has the best home-court advantage in college basketball. That’s because, judging from last season and the first couple months of this season, Indiana is twice as good at home as on the road. Hoosiers fans get defensive when I bring this up, but at this point the trend is impossible to ignore. How else can you explain beating three top-five teams at home last year while losing at Nebraska and Iowa?4 How else can you explain the game in Bloomington in which the Hoosiers made North Carolina’s roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans look like they’ve never played basketball before, only to play poorly against Georgia, squeak past Georgetown, and look terrible against Butler on neutral courts? The only logical explanation is that playing in Assembly Hall brings out the best in these Hoosiers, and without 17,000 maniacal fans hovering over their opponents, this team is just average.
The most alarming aspect of Indiana’s loss to Butler is just how average the Hoosiers looked. The formula for a huge upset is usually for the underdog to keep the game close and then steal a desperate win at the end (somewhat like the way Arizona beat Florida). But against Indiana, Butler was in control for most of the game. This is mostly because Indiana refused to make adjustments. Butler used the same game plan they’ve used for years. They were precise and fundamentally sound on offense and they packed it in and played physical defense inspired by the axiom that the refs can’t call a foul on every possession. That’s not a complaint about the officiating. It’s just a fact. Butler has played this way for well over a decade, so Indiana shouldn’t have been caught off guard. Yet instead of adjusting their style of play and countering Butler’s roughhouse style with their own physical play, the Hoosiers just kept expecting the refs to bail them out.5 Indiana’s approach on offense seemed to be to just go one-on-one, take a difficult shot, and then hope for an offensive rebound or a foul call. The whole game, it looked like they were thinking: “We shouldn’t have to adjust to them. We’re the better team — they should adjust to us. At some point, our shots will start falling, their shots will stop falling, and we’ll run away with this thing. We got this.” Butler coach Brad Stevens’s teams have won countless games preying on this attitude. It’s why he went to back-to-back Final Fours, it’s why Butler broke the bank to keep him in Indianapolis, and it’s why UCLA should be on their hands and knees begging him to replace Ben Howland.
Look, this was only one game and it certainly meant lots more to Butler than it did to Indiana, so I don’t want to overreact. But the Indiana fan in me is legitimately concerned. Tom Crean deserves a pat on the back for rebuilding the program from a 6-25 season to the preseason no. 1 in half the time it took Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor to build that hot rod in his garage, but getting outcoached that badly by Brad Stevens is troubling. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers have Cody Zeller, supposedly the best big man in college basketball, yet they gave up 17 offensive rebounds to a much smaller team. And Jordan Hulls, Indiana’s senior captain and the team’s heart and soul, allowed a walk-on who averages two points per game to beat him one-on-one for the game-winner. Again, one game is not the end of the world. But it’s clear that the Hoosiers have a long road ahead of them in re-establishing themselves as favorites to win the national title. Step one: They must play convincingly well outside of Assembly Hall.
9. Ohio State
Ohio State’s narrow victory over Winthrop on Tuesday night — a game in which the Buckeyes were favored by 28 points — probably raised a lot of questions. What the heck happened to Ohio State? How can they be the seventh-best team in the country if they barely beat Winthrop? As a former Ohio State benchwarmer, perhaps I can shed some light on why they played so poorly.
You see, the thing that sets Ohio State’s basketball program apart from every other program in the country is that we strive for greatness in the classroom. Academics have always and will always be a top priority for Thad Matta, which is why we never practiced for more than 30 minutes on any given day during finals week.
“I want you guys going home and hitting the books hard,” Coach would always say. “I don’t want you thinking about our next game. I want you thinking about how you’re going to ace your finals. In fact, I don’t even want you to know who we’re playing until the game tips off.”
“But, Coach,” I’d cut in. “Do we have to get all A-pluses on our finals? What if I get an A-minus in my advanced molecular biomechanical physics engineering calculus science final? Even though I tutor everyone in the class because I’m obviously the smartest, I’m afraid I might miss a question or two. That class is pretty tough.”
“I think you’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a damn,” he’d snap back. “For every A-plus you don’t get, you’re running 10 miles. That goes for everyone on this team.”
I trust you now understand why Ohio State played poorly against Winthrop. Clearly, the Buckeyes were hitting the books hard all week and Winthrop was an afterthought. I’ve always tried to tell Coach Matta to lighten up and let the players focus more on basketball, but he never listened. Oh well. I guess it’s comforting to know that there’s at least one program in the country that cares about its players graduating.
Oh, and by the way, everything in this section is complete bullshit. It’s just my way of trying to explain how Ohio State could look like complete ass four days before the biggest game of the season thus far (against Kansas on Saturday). Is it too late to postpone the game? I heard it might get humid in Columbus this weekend, and I’d hate for there to be condensation on the court. Safety first.
Now seems like a good time to mention that the same Butler team that just beat the no. 1 team in the country was blown out by Illinois less than a month ago. Apparently, this means nothing to voters, since Illinois is still ranked four spots lower than Indiana in the AP and coaches’ polls. Well, Illini fans, lucky for you my rankings have something that the other polls don’t: power. And I believe it was Oprah who once said, “With great power comes great responsibility, kemosabe.” Rest assured, I’ll be damned if I take this responsibility lightly and disrespect the Illini.6
To be honest, the reason Illinois doesn’t get the respect their résumé warrants is that they play to the level of their competition. This was true last Sunday, when the Illini played Eastern Kentucky at home. Sure, Eastern Kentucky was one of the few remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball, but their schedule had been so weak that Gordon Gee’s head would explode if he saw who Eastern Kentucky had played before Illinois. At no point during the game did I think Illinois would lose, but at the same time many observers think that if the Illini were a real top-10 team, they would have blown out Eastern Kentucky. Perhaps that’s true, but at the end of the day a win is a win, and right now no team in college basketball has as many wins as the Illini.
During Ohio State’s game against Winthrop, Tom Hamilton and Jim Jackson kept suggesting that the Buckeyes might be looking ahead to their Saturday game against Kansas, and perhaps that’s why they were playing so poorly. Whether or not that’s true (spoiler: It isn’t), at the same time Ohio State was stinking its way to an awful win, the Jayhawks were doing the exact opposite thing in Lawrence, where they destroyed a not-terrible Richmond team. A few weeks ago, I wrote that Kansas’s last three opponents — Colorado, Belmont, and Richmond — could be tough and might leave Jayhawks fans feeling nervous before the Ohio State game. What I forgot to include immediately after writing that were the words “just kidding.” Kansas won these three games by an average of 31 points and has looked every bit the part of a national title contender after last month’s subpar outings against San Jose State and Oregon State. We’ll know a lot more about Kansas after Saturday, but for the time being the Jayhawks are playing their best basketball of the year and everything’s coming up Milhouse. Which is why I expect to have my weekend ruined Saturday afternoon.
Unfortunately, Dick Vitale didn’t call any games this week, so we have no choice but to take a week off from Dick’s Degrees of Separation. I know it sucks and I know that this is 90 percent of the reason you read this column, which is why I promise this will never happen again. Unless, you know, it does happen again.
Anyway, since the most mildly amusing Internet game involving college basketball is off the table, I want to use the halftime break to give back to the walk-on community. Specifically, I want to show some love to Oklahoma benchwarmer James Fraschilla, who recently posted a trick shot video to YouTube. Now, there are countless trick-shot videos from college basketball players on YouTube (this one is my favorite — that guy is really talented and certainly very handsome), but a few things about Fraschilla’s video stand out to me. First of all, his main motivation behind the clip is to benefit a charity,7 which is admirable and unnecessarily kind. Secondly, he’s not afraid to hand out some cameos, as Gonzaga walk-ons make an appearance along with a couple Oklahoma football players. But most importantly, I’m showing you this video because someone recently sent it to me and I don’t know how else to replace Dick’s Degrees of Separation this week.
I’m joking. The video is actually pretty impressive, and it’s definitely worth two minutes of your life.
No, I didn’t get these two mixed up. I realize Arizona beat Florida last week, but I’m keeping the Gators above the Wildcats because in a best-of-seven series on a neutral court, I’m convinced that if Florida doesn’t sweep the Wildcats, they win in five games. I mean, Florida did just outplay Arizona for pretty much the entire game in front of the loudest Wildcat crowd the McKale Center has seen in years. Props to the Cats for stealing the win, but if these teams played tomorrow on a neutral court in Kansas and you had to put your life savings on one of them, you’d be out of your mind to pick Arizona.8
That said, I now believe that Arizona’s “Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson Show Featuring Solomon Hill” can succeed, and if the team’s freshmen improve even just a little bit, the Wildcats will be scary in March. Considering how young they are, it would have been no surprise if Arizona had rolled over after one of Florida’s runs last Saturday. But to the Cats’ credit, they never panicked and they made the plays they needed late in the game to win. Sure, Florida’s choke job was the worst I can remember since Maryland blew a 10-point lead at home in the final minute against Duke in 2001, but if Arizona hadn’t managed to stick with Florida throughout the game, no amount of Gator choking would’ve mattered.
As for Florida, if I’m a Gator fan, I’m not too upset by this loss. Of course, it’s less than ideal that Florida let a huge win slip away, but you have to think that with the Gators’ experience and Billy Donovan on the sidelines, this choke job was a onetime thing that will likely never happen again.9 Instead of getting hung up on that, I’d focus on the fact that the Gators outplayed a top-10 team on the road for most of the game and for stretches looked like the best team in college basketball. Unfortunately, they also looked pretty awful during the stretch of the game that mattered most.
Because Indiana and Butler was played at the same time, I recorded Louisville’s game against Memphis over the weekend and watched it Monday. And even though I knew the outcome, as I watched the first half I couldn’t believe the Cardinals had any chance of winning. From the tip, Memphis was out-Louisville-ing Louisville, which is to say that they played more effective pressure defense, they were more aggressive and physical, and they were getting more easy buckets at the rim. The Tigers jumped out to a 16-point lead, prompting me to scratch my head and wonder how they blew it.
Here’s a one-word answer to that question: emotion. Memphis was desperate for a statement win against an old rival, and it showed. In the first half, the Tigers fed off the crowd and built a huge lead, but that same emotion crippled them during Louisville’s comeback. When I played at Ohio State and we would start a comeback against a team facing a must-win situation, Coach Matta would sometimes spend entire timeouts saying the phrase “Their assholes are tight” over and over, probably because “We got them right where we want them” isn’t quite as funny. Had Matta been coaching Louisville on Saturday, that phrase would’ve been used at least 100 times, because during the second half the Tigers’ sphincters were so tight you couldn’t have pulled a greased needle out of them with a tractor. Every 50-50 call that didn’t go Memphis’s way visibly frustrated the Tigers, as did Peyton Siva’s pressure defense on their ball handlers. Meanwhile, Louisville remained calm and never panicked, even when they faced a double-digit deficit. Saturday showed that Louisville isn’t nearly as good without a healthy Gorgui Dieng,10 but their poise against Memphis was commendable and it’s why even without Dieng they’re one of college basketball’s best teams.
A huge shout-out goes to Jim Boeheim, who notched his 900th career win Monday night. He is one of only three coaches in Division I history to win that many games, with the other two being Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight. As great as those other two coaches are, Boeheim gets extra props because he didn’t have the luxury of winning a ton of games in the postseason like Knight and Coach K did. He had to do it the hard way. Sure, he could’ve tacked on extra wins here and there in the NCAA tournament, but Boeheim has more integrity than that.
“Postseason wins are cheap,” he used to always say after getting upset in the NCAA tournament. “I decided to win a national title in 2003 just to see how it felt, and frankly, it felt kinda dirty. It felt like I was cheating. Like I was padding my stats. In that moment, standing on that podium with the confetti falling, I made a vow to myself that I’d never repeat my mistake. I’d earn my wins in the regular season like a real man. But every year in the tourney, my players go out and screw everything up by winning a couple games. Luckily, though, they can only get so far and we typically get bounced from the tournament before doing any real damage. So know that while I’m not proud of these postseason wins, at least I have a good excuse for them, unlike Coach K and his Uncle Bobby.”
In all seriousness, Boeheim is like Eli Manning and Jesse Hall of the Mighty Ducks — he’s not the first name that comes to mind when you think about the best in the game, but that doesn’t make his greatness less significant.11 He almost single-handedly made Syracuse basketball what it is and he’s universally regarded as a good dude and a great coach. I always point out that Boeheim loads up on cupcakes in his non-conference schedule12 and that he has underachieved in the NCAA tournament (these are probably related), but I also have no problem admitting that he’s one of the all-time greats. It goes without saying, but the world of college basketball (except Georgetown) will miss Boeheim whenever he decides to hang ’em up.
Although, let’s be honest: Boeheim and Coach K are going to coach for another 20 years because neither will want to retire and surrender the all-time wins mark.
Remember when John Beilein left West Virginia for Michigan and everyone wondered why he’d leave a sure thing for a program that hadn’t been good since the Ed Martin scandal sent it to the gutter in the late ’90s?13 Maybe he knew what he was doing after all.
Michigan beat West Virginia pretty handily on Saturday, and even though Beilein had nothing but nice things to say about his former team, I can’t help but think that some part of him wanted to lash out during the postgame press conference with an emphatic “How do you like me know, bitches!” In truth, West Virginia has done fine without Beilein, but that doesn’t mean he should feel any less vindicated by beating the Mountaineers. After all, he took a huge risk by leaving Morgantown for Ann Arbor, so with his new team ranked second in the country and his old team below .500, you have to think he’s tickled to death with how everything worked out. After Indiana’s showing against Butler, the Wolverines are now favorites to win a second consecutive Big Ten title, which is pretty mind-blowing considering that five years ago in his first season at Michigan, Beilein went 10-22.
Duke hasn’t played since December 8, but has inherited the top spot in college basketball’s most powerful power rankings thanks to Indiana’s loss. This brings me to my next point: On December 21, 2012, the day that the Mayans and John Cusack predicted the world would end, the Duke Blue Devils will be the no. 1 team in the country.
May God have mercy on us all.
The Shoplifter of the Week
Most of you have probably already heard this story, but in case you haven’t, Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse’s starting point guard and in my opinion the second-best point guard in the country behind Trey Burke, was caught shoplifting a bathrobe and a pair of gloves on Saturday. (In related news, Carter-Williams is third in the country with an average of 3.4 steals per game.) It goes without saying that shoplifting anything is a terrible idea, especially when you’re the starting point guard for the third-ranked team in the nation. But shoplifting a bathrobe is even more indefensible. I mean, I get the appeal of a bathrobe — it gives you something to wear when you want to lounge around the house or when you have houseguests and you’d like to cover your junk. I bought myself a bathrobe a few years ago for this very reason. But I only ended up wearing it once or twice, and it’s currently collecting dust in my closet because as I got older, I learned a valuable lesson: When a real man is in his own house, he lets it breathe. So shame on you, MCW, for not only trying to steal a bathrobe, but for being too scared to make it clear to your roommates that you’re the boss.
Anyway, when you see Syracuse play on the road and half of the home team’s student section is wearing bathrobes, now you’ll know why.