It Begins: The Oscar Race (Finally) Heats Up

LeBron James Controls the Chessboard

Al Bello/Getty Images Kaleb Tarczewski #35 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrates a dunk with Aaron Gordon #11, and T.J. McConnell #4 during their championship game of the NIT Season Tip Off against Duke Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden on November 29, 2013 in New York City.

Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

Let's get way ahead of ourselves: Is this the best Arizona team ever?

The most powerful power rankings in college basketball are back! I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking this season will be special. Sure, I say this every season, but there’s a buzz around this season that I haven’t felt in a long time. Maybe it’s because next year’s NBA draft figures to be one of the deepest ever. Maybe it’s because the national title race is wide open, even though three weeks ago I thought only four or five teams had a shot at winning it. Maybe it’s because so many different styles of play are succeeding early in the season. After all, that’s what makes college basketball different from and — in my opinion — much more enjoyable than the NBA. For the most part, everybody runs the same stuff in the NBA, and it just comes down to who has better players. That couldn’t be further from the truth in the college game.

Look at the current top 10. You’ve got a team with experience (Michigan State) and a team full of freshmen (Kentucky). There’s a team stacked with big men (Arizona) and a team with great guards (Oklahoma State). There’s great defense with virtually no offense (Ohio State) and great offense with virtually no defense (Duke). There’s a team that prefers to play slow and methodical (Wisconsin) and one that wants frenetic chaos (Louisville). There’s a team that plays nothing but zone defense (Syracuse) and one that plays nothing but man-to-man (Kansas).

I know you’re probably annoyed by the rule changes that have turned college basketball into a foul fest and have made curling cough up its “best noncontact sport in the world” title. I’m right there with you. I tried to watch the Dayton-Gonzaga game from the Maui Invitational, but I couldn’t even make it to halftime. The combination of infinity foul calls and Kevin Pangos’s goatee was just too much. But there’s nothing we can do about it. At this point, we just have to trust that eventually either teams will adapt or refs will go back to calling games the way they did last season. In other words, we just have to put our faith in amateur athletes to throw out everything they’ve learned on defense over the past 10 to 15 years and start from scratch, or we have to put our faith in Ted Valentine. What could go wrong?

In all seriousness, I expect everything to calm down by the time conference play starts. By then, the rule changes will be unnoticeable, except that commentators will bring them up 10 times a game. But no matter what happens, I’m still going to enjoy the hell out of this season. There are just too many compelling story lines and too much individual talent to not be giddy about the next four months.

12. Wichita State

With respect to the Wisconsin Buzzcuts, Wichita State is the most blue-collar top 15 team in college basketball. The Shockers play great defense, they run a crisp offense, they’re well coached, and they almost never try to make spectacular plays. I’m guessing Shockers fans don’t like being reminded they root for a mid-major, but it should be said that Wichita State plays like the perfect mid-major team. It has that ideal combination of talent, chemistry, and great coaching that makes it a real threat to return to the Final Four this year. If you still aren’t convinced that they’re blue-collar, maybe this will help: Two of their top three scorers are named Ron and Fred.

I love Wichita State’s poise. At the start of the St. Louis game on Sunday, I was convinced the Billikens would blow out the Shockers. St. Louis jumped to a 16-7 lead and Fred VanVleet was the only Wichita State player who looked like he knew a game was going on. Then the second media timeout came, Gregg Marshall presumably gave his team Michael’s Secret Stuff, and Wichita State rattled off a 17-0 run. The Shockers trailed by seven with 6:30 to play and went on a 9-0 run en route to the win.

Last year’s Elite Eight game against Ohio State tells you everything you need to know about the Shockers. They’ll have stretches where they play really poorly — such as Ohio State’s 25-9 run in the second half or the opening of the St. Louis game — but instead of caving like most teams, they collect themselves and find a way to grit out a win. I’d be willing to bet the phrase “We got this!” is said all the time in Wichita State’s huddles.

There’s also plenty of talent to go with the Shockers’ mental toughness. While Ron Baker gained a reputation last season as a knockdown shooter, he’s added a ton to his game this year. In fact, you could probably count on one hand the number of spot-up 3s he has shot this season. He’s still knocking down 3s, but he’s doing it off the dribble or from coming off screens, while also scoring plenty of points inside the 3-point line. Cleanthony Early is a mismatch for everyone and Fred VanVleet has not only filled Malcolm Armstead’s shoes at point guard, he might be even better. If Wichita State can get past Tennessee and Alabama in the next couple weeks, there’s no telling when their first loss will come.

11. Wisconsin

The Buzzcuts are 8-0? Frank Kaminsky scored 43 points? In one game? The Buzzcuts scored 103 and 88 points in consecutive games? They’re averaging 76.8 points per game? Five Wisconsin players are averaging double-digit points? There’s a potential lottery pick on their roster? The Buzzcuts’ top two scorers don’t have buzzcuts?

10. Ohio State

Ohio State might play the best defense in the country, but its offense is so atrocious right now that I can’t bring myself to power-rank the Buckeyes higher than 10. On paper, Ohio State’s offense doesn’t seem that bad. Four Buckeyes average double-digit points, and the team collectively averages 74.5 points per game with 46 percent shooting from the field. Those aren’t world-beater numbers, but they aren’t anything to be embarrassed about. That said, as anybody who watched the Marquette and American games will tell you, it doesn’t take much for the Buckeyes’ offense to devolve into something between “this is setting the game of basketball back 70 years” and “Northern Illinois.” I mean, how does a top 10 team shoot 36 percent against American? I’d understand against the American Olympic team, but might-not-win-10-games American University?

What’s especially frustrating is that the Buckeyes have an immensely talented offensive weapon in LaQuinton Ross. A lot of people thought I was crazy for writing that Ross would be able to fill the void left by Deshaun Thomas. I admit that statement now seems to rank up there with “Michael Carter-Williams should come back for another year of college” on the list of things I got way wrong, but I stand by my prediction about Ross. That’s because you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody within Ohio State’s program who won’t tell you Ross is more talented than Thomas.

That might sound absurd to an outsider, but it shouldn’t when you consider that Ross is a threat to score from anywhere on the court like Thomas was, only he’s a better ball handler and is much more athletic. Consistency has always been Ross’s problem, but I had always thought he was just unsure of how he fit in, and after Thomas left and Ross clearly became the man on offense, I figured he’d have a big year. So far, that isn’t happening. Ross is the sixth-leading scorer for Ohio State. He has regressed since last season and it appears as if not even a Sharkeisha shot to the face will wake him up.

Inspired by Ross’s lack of inspiration and Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III playing like a slightly better version of Ross this season, I tweeted a couple weeks ago that there should be an award for the most frustrating player in college basketball. I suggested naming it either the Joe Forte Award or Bracey Wright Award, which prompted tons of responses, the two most popular being: “You have to name it after Felipe Lopez” and “I dated a girl named Bracey so we could break up and I could hate someone named Bracey more than I hate Bracey Wright.”1 Lopez is probably the obvious choice, but I cussed at my TV so often while watching Wright play that I can’t not have him be a part of this award. So I’m taking the lazy route and naming it the Felipe Lopez/Bracey Wright Award. Here are the criteria:

  1. You must be the best player on your team, or an argument must be conceivably made that you’d be the best player on your team if you played to your potential. (This eliminates Le’Bryan Nash, Jeremy Hollowell, Kaleb “Zeus” Tarczewski, Wayne Blackshear, Ryan Boatright, and their ilk.)
  2. Your team must underachieve and your inconsistent play, poor decision-making, lack of aggression, refusal to play defense, or whatever it is that makes you frustrating must be a big reason why. (This is why Elijah Johnson would’ve lost out last year to guys like C.J. Leslie, Phil Pressey, Mark Lyons, and Archie Goodwin.)
  3. Being frustrating isn’t necessarily the same as underachieving. Underachieving just means that you’re in a slump or you were overrated to begin with. Being frustrating means fans find themselves yelling, “Why? WHY? WHY?!?! WHAT IN GOD’S NAME ARE YOU DOING?!” every game.

These guys would be nearly flawless players on a video game, since their problems have to do with their mental approach to the sport. Here’s my early-season watch list:

LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State)
Glenn Robinson III (Michigan)
A.J. Hammons (Purdue)
Alex Poythress (Kentucky)
Josh Smith (Georgetown)
Isaiah Austin (Baylor)
Juvonte Reddic (VCU)
Russ Smith (Louisville)
Yogi Ferrell (Indiana)
Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)
Jabari Parker (Duke)
James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina)
P.J. Hairston (North Carolina), assuming he becomes eligible

Feel free to suggest other names. We’ll check up on these guys occasionally throughout the season. I might even bust out my Microsoft Paint skills to create a certificate for the winner.

9. UConn

I’d have to see a replay to be certain, but I’m pretty sure Shabazz Napier didn’t turn his ankle at the end of the Florida game from landing on a Florida player. Instead, I’m pretty sure his foot came down awkwardly on his enormous balls. I’m not one to praise the size of another man’s genitals too often, but sometimes it must be done. Napier is a stone-cold killer.

I know you’re thinking that Napier was just lucky to hit that game winner against the Gators. You’re thinking he got away with a double dribble, he threw up a terrible shot, and he was lucky the ball bounced back to him with enough time to toss up another attempt. You’re wrong. First off, Napier clearly didn’t double dribble (although at first glance I thought he did), but rather had a pass deflected. So he ended up legally passing the ball to himself, which is something he should do more often to boost his assist numbers. Second, while the first shot was a bad one and he was lucky that the ball got tipped back to him, the way he knocked down the game winner was anything but lucky.

The entire sequence resembled a bunch of Black Friday shoppers fighting over a $10 waffle iron. Napier lost his handle a couple times, Florida’s defenders were all over the court, and UConn’s other four guys didn’t know if they should help or just watch. It took a significant sack for Napier to put up the game winner amid that chaos. It may have looked like a simple 15-footer, but given the circumstances he might as well have been shooting a half-court hook shot.

Napier is Marcus Smart’s stiffest competitor for the National Player of the Year award right now, and it’s not just because of his game winner. UConn has won three games already by one point, and in those games Napier is averaging 23.7 points. He scored eight of the final 11 points in the Indiana win and assisted on the three points he didn’t score. He had six points in the final 30 seconds of the Florida game. He’s averaging 16.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 7.3 rebounds, which is mind-blowing when you consider he’s a 6-foot-1 point guard. This is why you’ll hear Napier compared to Kemba Walker all year long. It’s also why UConn is my favorite team to watch.

8. Duke

I noticed something while watching Duke blow out Michigan on Tuesday night: The Blue Devils are better when they put forth an effort on defense than they are when they don’t put forth an effort on defense. In Duke’s two losses and during the Vermont scare, their defense was nonexistent. I don’t mean that they had a couple mental lapses and allowed a few more points than they should have. No, I mean that Vermont scored 90 points and shot 65 percent against them.

Against Michigan, however, Duke looked to be at their defensive best. Michigan’s Nik Stauskas came into the game averaging 20 points, yet the Blue Devils locked him down so tight he might as well have stayed in Ann Arbor. Michigan ended up scoring 69 points, but it felt like the Wolverines barely managed a sum in the low 50s. Marshall Plumlee2 played six minutes and Duke still outrebounded a team with a preseason All-American big man, and that should tell you all you need to know about the Blue Devils’ effort.

As the season progresses, Duke’s challenge will be to sustain this effort on a nightly basis. I don’t want to take anything away from their big win, but it should be noted that Duke was coming off a loss and playing a marquee game at home and on national television. If ever there was a time for them to come out with a fire lit under their asses on defense, Tuesday night was it. Let’s see if they can play this hard against Gardner-Webb after a 10-day layoff and, most importantly, when ACC play starts.

7. Louisville

Most of the commentary I saw on Louisville’s loss to North Carolina focused on how the Cardinals’ defense looked weak compared to the defense that won them a national title last season. Their press was ineffective, their half-court defense wasn’t much better, and the absence of Gorgui Dieng in the paint looked like it might be the most harmful loss in college basketball. It’s true — Louisville has plenty to work on defensively — but I thought the Cardinals’ offense was just as bad. In truth, Louisville misses Peyton Siva just as much as it misses Dieng, if not more.

Look at the box score from the North Carolina game and you’ll see what was painfully obvious to anyone who watched: Russ Smith and Chris Jones do nothing to get their teammates involved. If you don’t pay attention, you might think that Smith scored 36 and Jones had 20, that their teammates didn’t help them out, and that Louisville lost because Smith and Jones could carry them only so far. You might see that Luke Hancock went 1-for-8 and wonder why he was so bad.

Well, the truth is that Smith and Jones got no help because they insisted on doing everything themselves. Every time either one of them has the ball, their eyes lock on the rim and they only look to pass when they realize that their shot is about to get blocked. Why was Hancock 1-for-8? Because even though he’s on a short list of the best spot-up shooters in college basketball, he shot only one spot-up 3 the entire game. That was his one made field goal. Every other attempt was a wild drive to the basket or a contested jumper that reeked of “I’ve got more Final Four MOP awards than all of you combined, which is why I’m going to force the shots that you douchers aren’t helping me get.”

I won’t overreact and pretend that Louisville is doomed because they lost a November game away from home to a ranked team, especially since plenty of key guys battled foul trouble all game.3 At the same time, the big question for Louisville before the season was if they’d be able to replace Dieng and Siva. And judging from the North Carolina game, they’ve answered that with a resounding “no.” Louisville doesn’t face another tough team until Kentucky at the end of the month, so I’m going to reserve judgment until then. As of now, though, I’m getting the feeling that Papa John is going to get blasted at Louisville games for entirely different reasons than he did last season.


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 the Arizona vs. Duke game played in New York on Friday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Florida?

  1. While Duke is in the midst of a 7-0 run, Vitale mentions that he can’t believe the Blue Devils almost lost to Vermont at home. He clarifies that he doesn’t mean any disrespect to Vermont, and points to the Catamounts’ 2005 NCAA tournament win over Syracuse as proof that he understands how good its program is. Speaking of Syracuse, Vitale says, the ACC is going to be loaded this year, with the Orange joining Duke and North Carolina as his early favorites. Dickie V. then warns viewers to keep an eye on Florida State, which was in a tight game with Florida the same night.
  2. Not long after Andy Katz reports on Sean Miller’s ability to recruit all over the country, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hits a jump shot, prompting Dan Shulman to mention that Hollis-Jefferson is from Chester, Pennsylvania. Vitale asks Shulman if he knows anyone else from Chester, and Vitale cuts him off with the answer “Bo Ryan.” Vitale says that Ryan has done a great job at Wisconsin and that this year looks to be another good one, as the Badgers already have a big win over Florida.
  3. A graphic shows both teams’ remaining non-conference schedules. Shulman asks Vitale which games he’s most looking forward to. Dickie V. says he’s really looking forward to seeing both teams play Michigan. More specifically, he wants to see how good Michigan really is. He says that Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas are the best inside-outside combo in college basketball, but he thinks the Wolverines miss Trey Burke. He reminds viewers Burke played a huge role on the national runner-up team, whose tournament run consisted of wins over VCU, Kansas, Syracuse, and Florida.

6. Oklahoma State

Marcus Smart gets my early National Player of the Year vote. I’d probably take him first overall if the NBA draft were today. But listen, Oklahoma State fans: We need to talk. I’m fine with the Pokes losing to Memphis less than two weeks after blowing out the Tigers. Memphis is really good and it was obvious it was going to put up a fight after getting embarrassed in Stillwater. It’s not that the Cowboys lost on Sunday — it’s how they lost that has me worried.

They lost because their star player’s sense of entitlement shot his team in the foot. Last season, Smart built a reputation among Big 12 fans as a flopper who complained about calls too much, and Sunday did nothing to change that. It wasn’t just the flopping. Memphis dug deep and really challenged Smart with its stifling defense, especially in the second half. Instead of fighting back, however, Smart looked like he was waiting for everyone to realize that he’s one of the best players in the country, and that he should be allowed to do whatever he wants. He took terrible shots, gambled way too much on defense, and was out of control on several drives to the basket. Some will claim he was sick and just had an off night, but feeling under the weather has nothing to do with his antics. You can use illness as an excuse for a poor shooting night. You can’t use it as an excuse for shot selection or for complaining to the refs when a Memphis player poked the ball away from him with 11 seconds left, even though replays showed that Smart wasn’t touched and that he had gotten away with fouling ball handlers in similar situations at least twice in the same game.

Look, I don’t think Smart is a bad guy. This isn’t some sanctimonious rant about how college basketball players need to exhibit more class. I’m fine with talking smack, flopping, bitching to the refs, taunting opponents after big shots, and everything else of that sort. I might cheer against a player who does that stuff, but who cares — as long as he produces, it doesn’t matter what I think. My problem with Smart is that he doesn’t play well when he acts this way. Marshall Henderson has perfected this shtick. He’s so good at running his mouth and asking for his face to be punched that you know he’s rattled when he doesn’t act like a total jerk. Smart, however, seems to be the opposite. Memphis was in his head the entire second half, and a guy who gets praised so often for his maturity responded in a pretty immature way. Not only that, but it cost his team dearly.

Smart is too good to let guys get under his skin. If Oklahoma State is going to end Kansas’s Big 12 dynasty and make a Final Four push, Smart needs to be the player he was in OSU’s first game against Memphis, and he needs to stay far away from being the Smart who showed up for Sunday’s rematch.

5. Kansas

I hope someday I can love something as much as Kansas fans love Andrew Wiggins. The Wiggins hype was always unfair and overblown, and to suggest that he hasn’t played well through Kansas’s first seven games is insane. But I still get a kick out of Jayhawks fans’ reactions whenever somebody calls Wiggins overrated or suggests he shouldn’t be the top pick in next June’s NBA draft.

Oh, I’m sorry that Andy [yes, I’ve actually seen some KU fans call him “Andy”] doesn’t take a million shots a game like Jabari Parker or average a gazillion turnovers like Julius Randle. And I guess you want him to flop like Marcus Smart, huh? Good god, you people are so stupid. The poor kid has had unprecedented hype and has played well, but because his ego isn’t out of control you’re going to crucify him? I bet you morons don’t even realize he played with the flu during the last three games! But no, go ahead and pretend like you have all the answers after seeing the kid play seven games. Idiots.

I’m split on this debate. I agree that Wiggins hasn’t really done anything wrong to lose his status as the college game’s best NBA prospect. Smart, Parker, and Randle all assert themselves because they have to. Like Aaron Gordon at Arizona, Wiggins is just one of many pieces that make up a great team. Bill Self’s offense isn’t designed for one player to do everything. Wiggins is playing like most freshmen do, which is to say that he’s playing within himself as he gains experience. Just because he doesn’t force things doesn’t mean he’s not the player everyone expected him to be.

Then again, he’s clearly not the player everyone expected him to be. Being a piece of a puzzle is great, but Wiggins isn’t just a piece — he’s the piece. Randle, Parker, and Smart possess a killer instinct that Wiggins doesn’t seem to consistently have. I’m not saying that Wiggins needs to play angry like Randle to be successful. I’m saying that Kansas needs Wiggins to break out of his shell if the Jayhawks are going to reach their full potential this season. Just look at the Duke game. Wiggins went through the motions and suffered foul trouble in the first half, and then he went to the bench and watched Duke take a halftime lead. In the second half he came alive, took over the game, got the better of Parker on both ends of the court, and led Kansas to the win. That’s the Wiggins we all want to see. Bill Self needs to figure out how to get that Wiggins to show up for 40 minutes every night.

So chill out, Jayhawks fans. Nobody wants Wiggins to be anything he’s not. We just want him to play like he understands who and what he is — the most talented amateur basketball player in the last decade.

4. Syracuse

A big knock on Jim Boeheim has always been that he doesn’t schedule non-conference games outside the state of New York if he can help it. This leads to people like me doubting the Orange and their gaudy records just about every season.

Well, not this year. Boeheim signed up for games as far away as Hawaii, and his team won the Maui Invitational relatively easily. Four of their players scored in double digits in all three Maui games, and while Syracuse gave up a fair amount of points and teams shot well against them because of the soft rims, the 2-3 zone still managed to force opponents into averaging 17 turnovers per game.

Syracuse’s biggest question marks are frontcourt scoring and perimeter defense. To me, the lack of frontcourt scoring that Mike Tirico and Dan Dakich obsessed over while calling the Orange’s win over Indiana on Tuesday isn’t much of a concern. Syracuse has four great scorers in C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney, and Tyler Ennis. Having a low-post scorer is not a necessity, especially when you have perimeter threats as potent as the ones Syracuse has.

Syracuse’s perimeter defense is a greater concern because Cooney and Ennis don’t disrupt passing lanes as well as their predecessors did last season. Cooney and Ennis have great instincts and play solid defense, but against Minnesota they weren’t able to stop the Gophers from entering the ball to the high post because those two struggled to guard ball handlers and the elbows at the same time. Then again, last season’s squad might have been the best defensive team Boeheim ever coached, so expecting this year’s group to be as good is both unfair and unnecessary. As long as the Orange bigs continue to dominate defensively and their quartet of scorers keep pouring in points, there’s no reason to think Syracuse won’t win the ACC and contend for a national championship.

3. Kentucky

I missed the first half of Kentucky-Providence because I was watching the end of Memphis–Oklahoma State. When I flipped over to the Kentucky game, I saw that the Cats were up only four at halftime. Providence isn’t bad and Bryce Cotton is good enough to keep the Friars close against any team, but I still expected Kentucky to get psyched for its first real test since Michigan State and cruise to an easy win. I started to worry: Maybe Kentucky just isn’t as great as I expected. Maybe its inexperience will be a bigger factor than I thought and it will drop a few games it has no business losing.

Almost immediately after these thoughts crossed my mind, Willie Cauley-Stein tipped in two consecutive putbacks, James Young picked off a pass and flushed it at the other end, and Cauley-Stein completed this ridiculous sequence. It was never really a game after that. Providence called timeout while I pulled my jaw off the ground, changed my soiled underpants, and failed miserably in trying to convince myself that Ohio State can hang with these guys.

At this point it’s pretty clear that we’ll see Amazon’s drone delivery program in action before we see Alex Poythress realize his potential, but I’m not sure it’s going to matter. After the Michigan State game, it looked like Kentucky would be unstoppable once the Harrison twins developed. Aaron’s cold night against Texas-Arlington notwithstanding, both Harrisons have been great since the MSU loss. If that weren’t enough, Dominique Hawkins has emerged as a defensive spark off the bench. With Cauley-Stein morphing into a shot-blocking and rebounding machine and Julius Randle being a monster on the block, John Calipari could play Poythress 10 minutes a game and Kentucky fans probably wouldn’t mind. This is insane — Kentucky is unfazed by a McDonald’s All-American and former projected first-round pick playing poorly? Yikes.

The Wildcats still have work to do to convince me that they’re the national title favorites I expected them to be, but they’re certainly on the right track. They’re so loaded on offense that if they can give a consistent effort on the defensive end, their length will swallow teams alive.4 I’m already having nightmares about Ohio State playing Kentucky in the NCAA tournament and struggling to score double-digit points.

2. Michigan State

Players constantly get labeled as “X factors.” More often than not, it seems like commentators arrive at the X factor conclusion just by picking the third- or fourth-best player on any given team. I understand why this happens, but I prefer my X factors to be guys who aren’t first-round picks. Andrew Harrison and Joel Embiid might not be the marquee names on their teams, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t among the most talented players in college basketball. No, I like to reserve my X factor status for guys like Branden Dawson.

What makes Dawson so important to Michigan State is that the Spartans, despite having the best trio in America, aren’t as deep as some other top teams. But that doesn’t mean their role players aren’t good. Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, and Matt Costello are perfect for Michigan State’s needs. For the Spartans to be truly great, however, they also need one more stud outside of Gary Harris, Keith Appling, and Adreian Payne. They need a guy who can carry them if Payne gets in foul trouble, Harris has an off night, or Appling gets locked down. In other words, they need Dawson to be less of a role player and more of a guy who forces me to change the “best trio in college basketball” label to “best quartet.”

So far, Dawson has lived up to this challenge. Whether it was a sophomore slump or he was just tentative while coming back from a torn ACL, Dawson capped an inconsistent 2012-13 season by laying an egg in the NCAA tournament. But he always had the tools to be great. I wrote in my Big Ten preview that Dawson “could average a double-double if he really wanted to.” This season he has been much more aggressive, both in looking to score and crashing the boards, and he’s making me look like I know what I’m talking about by averaging 10.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.

I gave Arizona the edge this week because the Wildcats have an impressive road win on their résumé, and the Spartans don’t have that yet. But Michigan State is playing as well as any no. 1 should be playing in early December, and as long as Dawson continues to produce, MSU will only get better.5 In fact, I like the Spartans so much that I’m going to pick them to win by double digits tonight against North Carolina, even though recent history between these schools suggests Michigan State will be humiliated.

1. Arizona

I’m going to throw this out there, Arizona fans, and you let me know how crazy it is: This is the best Arizona team ever.

I know — it’s way too early to get that bold. We should hold off on statements like that until at least late February. But based on the first few weeks of the season, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that this Arizona team has a chance to be the best U of A team ever. For reference, here are my power rankings of the eight best Wildcat teams ever before this season.

The first thing that probably jumps out at you is that the only national championship team in Arizona history is power-ranked eighth by the most powerful power ranker in the game. ‘Zona fans might put that team higher for sentimental reasons, but the truth is that the 1997 title run was the perfect combination of lucky and hot at the right time. It was basically 2011 UConn, all the way down to the fact that it finished fifth in the Pac-10 that year. I could be talked into shuffling some of the other teams around, but I’m convinced that the 1997 team was the worst of all the classic Arizona teams and the 2003 team is the cream of the crop.

As of now, I’d say that this year’s Arizona team would fall fifth on my list. After all, I have the 2011 team fifth and this year’s squad is undoubtedly the best team that Sean Miller has ever coached. There’s also a good chance history will look back on this team more favorably than the 2003 team, especially since the 2003 team didn’t even make the Final Four. This group just has no weaknesses. Its sophomore big men are having breakout years, T.J. McConnell is better than advertised, Nick Johnson might be my favorite player in America, Aaron Gordon hasn’t tried to do more than the team needs him to do, and Gabe York and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are basically starters who come off the bench. If nothing else, just think about this: Jordin Mayes averaged 14 minutes per game for the 2011 Elite Eight team and he’s the eighth-best player on this year’s team.

I’m sure Arizona will lose a couple games this season because it’ll end up committing too many turnovers, or because it won’t keep up its defensive intensity for some reason, or because McConnell will care so much about getting assists that he’ll refuse to shoot, or because Brandon Ashley and Zeus “Zeus” ZeusZeuski will revert back to their freshman selves. Or some combination of all four. But I expect most of Arizona’s games to play out like the Duke game did, when all five starters finished in double figures, the Wildcats’ defense shut down Jabari Parker in the second half, and they just wore Duke down. Arizona is far from a lock to win the national championship, but if I had to pick one team to go all the way right now, I’d say that come early April there will be a lot of Tucson bros chest-bumping each other at Dirtbag’s.

The Spelling Bee of the Week

I came across this video yesterday of ACC players trying to spell Mike Krzyzewski’s last name. At first, I thought it was decent but not really funny enough to share. But then Maryland’s Nick Faust took a guess and Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels followed him with a priceless reaction.

I can’t think of a good reason to not call him “Coach Kreyschewizzle” from now on.

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

Filed Under: NCAA, Arizona, Mark Titus, People, Power Rankings, Series, Sports, Teams, Aaron Gordon

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.

Archive @ clubtrillion