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Titus’s Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

Gonzaga is no. 1. This is what happens when all the other top teams keep losing.

Fans of the Gonzaga Bulldogs cheer during the game against the San Francisco Dons at McCarthey Athletic Center on January 26, 2013 in Spokane, Washington.

Before I jump into this week’s power rankings, let me ask a question: Is the three-second violation extinct? I’ve watched hundreds of games this season and I don’t remember it being called once, even though the violation appears to occur somewhat regularly. I know what you’re thinking — it’s not being called because guys don’t really post up anymore. Yes, the game is more perimeter-oriented than ever before, but there are still several traditional big men who operate down low, and when they establish position they often have a foot in the paint for well over three seconds, yet they almost never get whistled for a violation.

Anyway, I know there are more important matters to discuss, but keep an eye on the three-second call as you watch games this week. I’d like to find out if it’s just being called in games that I’m not watching. In the meantime, I’m going to convince someone at Grantland to start putting together an oral history of the three-second violation.

12. New Mexico

For the first time in program history, the New Mexico Lobos have earned a spot on the most powerful power rankings in college basketball! Truth be told, I’m not convinced they’re one of the 12 best teams in the country. Sure, they’re second in the RPI, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that the RPI is the absolute worst.1 Plus, the Lobos’ 34-point performance at San Diego State (as in, they scored 34 points in the entire game) last month is still fresh in my mind. Nonetheless, they’re getting a spot in this week’s power rankings if for no other reason than Saturday’s game at Colorado State being one of the top three most entertaining non–Big Ten games of the season. Then, Wednesday night, they built on that performance by avenging their loss to San Diego State. But more than anything else, New Mexico earned a spot this week because of the performance Kendall Williams put up against Colorado State, when he hit 10 3-pointers and finished with 46 points. He was so impressive that it’s almost guaranteed someone in your office or circle of friends who hasn’t watched a second of New Mexico basketball and has no idea that Williams was shooting only 32 percent from behind the arc and averaging 13.1 points per game before Saturday will be saying “New Mexico is my dark horse in the tournament because that shooter they have is unstoppable.”

11. Saint Louis


1.

Case in point: Grambling State has an RPI score of 0.3133. I can’t take any rating system seriously that has Grambling scoring anything higher than 0.00.

Speaking of a team that will be everyone’s dark horse Final Four pick this year and is making its first-ever appearance in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, Saint Louis is quietly having one of its best seasons. Like with New Mexico, I’m not completely sold that the Billikens are one of the 12 best teams in the country, but they’ve earned a spot this week because they’ve been playing really well lately and they’re in first place in the always difficult A-10.

If this is the first time you’ve heard that Saint Louis is pretty good, I don’t blame you. After Rick Majerus took a leave of absence right before the season started, the Billikens went 3-3, and experts assumed that the coaching change would be too much for them to overcome. Then, Majerus passed away December 1 and Saint Louis went on a tear, but few people noticed. It was as if the public believed Saint Louis was just on an inspirational winning streak that happened to coincide with a soft non-conference schedule. At some point, we all expected the “win one for Rick” wave to crest, after which Saint Louis would come crashing down to earth once conference play rolled around. That seemed to have happened in mid-January, when the Billikens lost by 10 at Temple and then dropped a game at home to a pretty bad Rhode Island team. But since then, while we’ve been busy ignoring them, Saint Louis has gone nuts. They’re on a 10-game winning streak, which includes two wins over Butler, a win over VCU, and five road wins. Meanwhile, along with Akron’s Keith Dambrot, Jim Crews figures to be one of the few coaches who can challenge Jim Larranaga for national coach of the year. This would be a remarkable season under normal circumstances, but when you consider that their coach died right after the season began, it’s incredible that Saint Louis has been able to stay this focused and keep winning big games when no one would have blamed them if their reaction to losing Majerus was to roll over and quit.

10. Ohio State

The worst part about Ohio State’s impressive win over Michigan State on Sunday is that I want to believe so badly that Aaron Craft — who torched the Spartans with 21 points and six assists — has become good enough on offense to be that elusive second scorer the Buckeyes have lacked all season. But the reality is that most of Craft’s points came off drives that were made possible by Michigan State’s atrocious defense on ball screens. If the Spartans had communicated or played anything resembling help-side defense, Craft probably would’ve been ineffective on offense because he would’ve been forced to rely on his jump shot, which still looks like a finesse shot put. Obviously, it’s great to see someone other than Deshaun Thomas carry the offensive load for Ohio State, but in the back of my mind I’ve already come to grips with the fact that Craft won’t be able to sustain that kind of output throughout the postseason.

I’m still optimistic, however, about the rest of Ohio State’s season. That’s because in the last two games the Buckeyes have returned to their strength, which is great perimeter defense. When they guard like they did against Minnesota and Michigan State, there’s no denying that they can hang with any team in the country, especially when you consider that they just beat the no. 4 team without getting a good game from Thomas. The Buckeyes’ problems have been consistency and playing well on the road, so their next two games — at Northwestern and at Indiana — will show us whether last week was a fluke or they’re peaking at the right time.

9. Wisconsin

Along with Saint Louis, the Wisconsin Buzzcuts are the hottest team in the country that nobody is talking about. And by nobody, I mean nobody except people in Wisconsin, because for the past week and a half Buzzcut fans have been blowing up my Twitter feed demanding that I pay their team some respect. At any rate, don’t let their eight losses fool you — Wisconsin is playing well enough to be a legit Final Four threat, especially if Bo Ryan starts playing Sam Dekker more than Ryan Evans. They’ve won six of their last seven, with their only loss coming at Minnesota in overtime, which looks a lot more forgivable now that Minnesota beat up on Indiana in the Barn. More importantly, the Buzzcuts are dancing to Ke$ha, Mike Bruesewitz is rocking a Kramer haircut, Ryan Evans is jumping on his free throws, Ben Brust is getting stuck in elevators, and Bo Ryan has a firm grasp on the title of Big Ten coach who looks the most like his team’s mascot now that Tubby Smith has shaved his mustache.

I said last week that no team in college basketball is having more fun than Kansas, but the Buzzcuts are doing everything they can to give the Jayhawks a run for that title. They’re playing well and having fun doing it, and they’re still in the hunt for the Big Ten title. Most impressively, though, they aren’t painfully boring to watch anymore.

8. Miami

I’m not going to gloat. In fact, I hate that I’m right. I wanted so badly for Miami to be a legit national championship contender. I wanted to see a team full of upperclassmen in the one-and-done era show that it can still be done the old-school way. I wanted to see a coach who’s made a Cinderella run before take a football school with a lousy basketball program to the Final Four and beyond. Even though they were ranked second in the country and were dominating the ACC, Miami remained an underdog in my eyes, and everyone likes an underdog. But Saturday’s loss at Wake Forest confirmed what I’d been thinking for a while: Miami is a good team and they’re exceeding preseason expectations by a mile, but they aren’t good enough to win a national title.

Before Miami fans accuse me of overreacting to one loss, let me acknowledge that yes, I know Wake Forest hasn’t been too bad at home recently.2 Duke won in Winston-Salem by only five, and the Demon Deacons beat North Carolina State on their home court not long ago. But let’s also look at Wake’s bad losses. They fell to Seton Hall (third to last in the Big East) and Nebraska (second to last in the Big Ten) at home in the non-conference season. I don’t care that the Nebraska game took place back when Kentucky and Creighton were still relevant — if a team loses by 16 to the Cornhuskers in its own arena, you can’t say it’s “good at home” for at least another three years. I’m pretty sure that’s in the NCAA rule book.


2.

Let me also acknowledge that I’m not reacting to one loss — I’m reacting to three uninspiring wins against less-than-stellar teams followed up by a loss to one of the worst teams in the ACC.

Don’t get me wrong. Miami still has enough talent to beat anybody in the country on any given night. The Hurricanes could still do damage in the NCAA tournament. But I’d be willing to bet that they aren’t good enough to beat six tournament teams in a row. They might be able to get to Atlanta, but are they good enough to beat Duke in the national semifinals and then turn around two days later and beat Indiana? Unless they get dramatically better in the next two weeks, the answer is no. National title teams don’t lose to sub-.500 teams in late February — like Miami just did — and if they do, they don’t lose by 15.

It’s been a hell of a season that even the biggest Miami basketball fan wouldn’t have seen coming, and Hurricanes fans should be excited that they’re probably about to experience the most enjoyable NCAA tournament in their lives. But they should also be realistic and not expect this team to cut down the nets in April.

7. Louisville

It’s been another boring week for Louisville, as their only games came against two of the worst teams in the Big East. And once again, instead of analyzing glorified scrimmages (which is my way of admitting that I didn’t want to waste time watching these games), I’d rather just show you a video of Chane Behanan kneeing DePaul’s Worrel Clahar in the face while dunking on him last Wednesday night.

Even though the ref calls a charging foul on Behanan, video replay showed that Clahar was clearly inside the restricted area and the call was reversed. Unfortunately for Behanan, however, this has no chance of being college basketball’s dunk of the year because Eastern Kentucky’s Marcus Lewis already wrapped up that award a few weeks ago when this happened.

HALFTIME

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 end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business.

During the Kentucky vs. Missouri game played in Lexington last Saturday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Smokey Robinson?

  1. As the ESPN broadcast returns from commercial, Vitale does a bit where he picks his Oscar winners and picks a team or person in college basketball that loosely fits each category. After he goes through his list, he mentions that Brad Pitt attended Missouri and that Pitt is probably watching the game. Dan Shulman then uses Pitt being a famous former student at one of the schools to pivot and ask Vitale where Ashley Judd has been all season. Vitale says he thinks she’s filming a movie, before going on to say that another famous Missouri alum is Sheryl Crow. Dickie V. then says he’s a big Crow fan and saw her last week in concert. He tells Shulman that he goes to a lot of concerts and that the next concert he plans to attend is one featuring Smokey Robinson.
  2. Dan Shulman mentions that Frank Haith was the AP National Coach of the Year a season ago, prompting Vitale to mention that he thinks Haith’s successor at Miami, Jim Larranaga, should win the award this year. He then explains that coach of the year can be a senseless award and points to the fact that Mike Krzyzewksi has never won it. Vitale continues by saying that Coach K has done a great job at Duke this year by weathering the storm in Ryan Kelly’s absence, and says that if the Dukies can get Kelly back for the NCAA tournament they’ll be “cruisin’ like Smokey Robinson.”
  3. The camera cuts to John Calipari and an onscreen graphic shows his career résumé. Dan Shulman notes how many stops Calipari has made in his coaching career, prompting Vitale to joke that when he was coaching he also moved around a lot, but only because he kept getting fired. Shulman tells Vitale to stop being so hard on himself and lets the audience know that Vitale really only ever coached in New Jersey and Detroit. Shulman then points out that Vitale now lives in Tampa, Florida, and asks which of those three places he considers his favorite. Vitale says that New Jersey will always be his favorite, but he certainly loves Detroit because he’s “a Motown guy all the way, baby. I love them all — Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Smokey Robinson.”

6. Michigan State

What happened to Michigan State?! A week and a half ago, I thought the Spartans might have been the best team in the country, but thanks to Keith Appling’s recent string of disappearances, MSU is enduring its first losing streak of the season. I know this sounds crazy, but I think the Spartans might not even be good enough to make the tournament anymore. Everything is caving in on a season that was going so well, and now they might as well just throw in the towel, say good-bye to their seniors, and start getting ready for next year. I mean, just think about … what’s that? Go look at what I wrote about Michigan State two weeks ago? I can if you really want me to, but I’m not sure why that matters.

Four of Michigan State’s final six regular-season games are against ranked teams. Here’s what’s going to happen: The Spartans are going to lose two of those four games and plant a seed of doubt in their fans’ minds. Then, before the Big Ten tournament, Tom Izzo will call a team meeting and say the following to his players: “Look, guys, our fans don’t realize this but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Big Ten tournament is bullshit. As you know, our goal has never been to win a meaningless conference tournament. Our goal is to win the national championship. So instead of busting our balls to win three games in three days against some of the best teams in the country, let’s just tank our first game, get some rest, and hit the NCAA tournament with a full head of steam. Trust me on this. Last year we won the thing, and what happened? We were upset by Louisville in the Sweet 16. In 2001, 2005, and 2010, we lost our first game in the Big Ten tournament and went to the Final Four. And in 2009, we accidentally won a game in the conference tourney, but then we were upset in our second game and ended up playing for a national championship. See what I’m saying?”
So that’s what will happen. Michigan State will be a 1-, 2-, or 3-seed in the conference tourney. It will lose to a team like Iowa, Purdue, or Illinois, and Spartans fans everywhere will lose hope. Then Michigan State will get a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament, Tom Izzo will do whatever the hell it is he does in March, and the Spartans will cruise to the Final Four. Michigan State fans will then hate themselves for doubting Izzo, while the rest of the country will hate them, too, because their team looked pretty average at the end of the regular season but somehow managed to make yet another Final Four.

Oh.

5. Kansas

Kansas fans must be feeling strange after their Jayhawks’ overtime win Monday night at Iowa State. Not only do they have to act like the referees didn’t completely blow the end of regulation, but they also have to pretend like they’ve always loved Elijah Johnson. That second part must be especially hard because, from what I can tell, Johnson has assumed Tyshawn Taylor’s role as the most frustrating player for Kansas fans to watch. The criticism Johnson has taken this season isn’t exactly fair since he’s been playing out of position, but it’s not entirely unwarranted either. He played poorly during KU’s three-game losing streak and he really hasn’t played that well throughout the conference season. In fact, Johnson has been so bad that before Monday night, I was thinking of using the Kansas section for this week’s column to power rank the most frustrating point guards in America, in which I would’ve had Johnson ahead of guys like Michigan State’s Appling, Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams, and Ohio State’s Craft, and behind only Missouri’s Phil Pressey.

But then Monday night came around and he played like the Johnson that Kansas fans have been desperate for. The knock on Johnson has been that he has a history of shrinking in the big moments, but with 39 points and seven assists Monday night, he silenced that criticism and proved he can definitely rise to the occasion. It was the kind of performance that will leave Kansas fans talking about Johnson for years to come. Now the question is whether he can keep it up. Does Johnson have the stamina to maintain this for the rest of the year? Will all the attention Johnson gets this week make his head swell? If his jump shot stops working, will Johnson still be able to get to the hole? And if Ben McLemore continues to be bottled up offensively, can Johnson continue to fill that void? We’ll find out the answers to these questions soon enough. For now, I’m going to marvel at how crazy it is that Kansas fans can finally say they love Johnson and not feel ashamed about it.

4. Indiana

At this point, it would be easier to explain how Catdog used the restroom than to explain Tom Crean’s thought process during games. He defies conventional wisdom so often and sticks with an approach that is clearly not working for so long that it hurts my brain trying to figure out what’s going on in his head. It’s clichéd and lazy to blame upset losses on coaches, so before I go any further, let me first say that I know it’s not Crean’s fault that Cody Zeller was outplayed by every big guy Minnesota threw at him. And I know it’s not Crean’s fault that Christian Watford didn’t do much of anything until the last few minutes. But Crean should definitely shoulder a big chunk of the blame for Indiana’s loss. Besides clapping obnoxiously, adjusting the waistline of his pants, and then putting his hands behind his back, here are three things he did that drove me crazy:

Stuck with zone defense — Indiana’s 2-3 zone has now joined Ohio State’s 3-2 zone from 2008 and Baylor’s “just kind of run around out there and try to confuse the offense” zone from 2012 on my list of most maddening zone defenses to watch. The Hoosiers have been at their worst all season while playing the zone, and Tuesday night was no different. I get why Crean wanted to use that defense against Minnesota — the Gophers have been terrible against zone recently.3 And considering that Minnesota missed a ton of wide-open shots against the zone, it makes some sense that Crean kept going back to it. But sometime between Minnesota getting their first and their 17th offensive rebound, Crean should’ve realized that the zone was giving the Gophers a ton of second chances because Indiana’s players didn’t know who to block out. All those offensive rebounds allowed Minnesota to keep the game close. Tom, I’m begging you to do the same thing I begged Baylor coach Scott Drew to do last year: Rip the zone defense pages from your playbook, drive to the outskirts of Bloomington, make a Molotov cocktail that uses half of the pages as a wick, and throw it at the other half of the pages. And then you should probably call the fire department, because it’s pretty dangerous to just leave that fire going.


3.

Here’s another bit of information that he failed to consider, though: The Gophers have been terrible against every kind of defense recently.

Relied too much on his bench — Why would Crean choose to play 10 guys in a close road game? The best guess is that he wants his bench guys to get valuable experience just in case Indiana needs them to step up and play significant minutes in the NCAA tournament. But even then, isn’t that the reason the Big Ten allows Penn State and Nebraska to have basketball teams? Use those games to build experience and confidence. When you’re playing a talented and desperate team on the road, the game is close, and a Big Ten championship is on the line, there’s no excuse for giving 11 minutes to Derek Elston’s shoulder tattoo.4


4.

Am I crazy, or has the shoulder tat gotten bigger? I noticed at the start of the season that it was bigger than it was last season, but after November it seemed to stop growing. Then on Tuesday night it looked like the Nature Boy had added to it. Or maybe he hadn’t. Maybe that thing just has a life of its own and grows whenever it wants.

Didn’t rely enough on Victor Oladipo — This is my biggest pet peeve with Crean right now. It’s like he doesn’t realize that he’s got the best player in college basketball on his team. Just look at how Indiana uses Oladipo compared to how other teams use their Naismith Award finalists. Why is the ball not in his hands just about every time down the court? Why does Indiana never seem to have a two-man game with Oladipo and Zeller? Why does Crean not give Oladipo the ball, have Zeller set a ball screen on the sideline, spread the floor with shooters like Watford, Jordan Hulls, and Will Sheehey on the perimeter, and let the best player in college basketball make plays? I know a sideline ball screen is one of the simplest actions you can have in basketball, but if you have the perfect personnel for it like Indiana has, it can also be the most effective.

Sometimes it feels like Crean thinks he’s coaching a sixth-grade rec team and wants to give everyone a fair chance. That’s the only way I can explain him playing 10 guys Tuesday night. It’s the only way I can explain Yogi Ferrell taking more shots than Zeller and as many as Oladipo. And it’s the only way I can explain Oladipo being on the bench with seven minutes left and Indiana trailing by four points. In the words of one of the greatest philosophers of the game, Dan Dakich, “Basketball is not a democracy.” Here’s to hoping that Tom Crean realizes this sometime between now and the beginning of the NCAA tournament.

3. Duke

The Blue Devils might be back in business! Not only did Miami’s loss at Wake Forest give Duke a chance at winning the ACC title, but news broke this week that Ryan Kelly is eyeing a return on senior night. Knowing Coach K, it’s possible that Kelly still can’t even walk and Duke is saying he’ll be back to trick Miami and North Carolina into wasting time scouting him. But I’m an optimist, so I choose to believe the report. Never mind that last week I was sure Kelly would never wear a Duke uniform again. But even with Kelly’s possible return — and this will come as no surprise to Duke fans who are convinced I hate their team — I’m hesitant to catapult Duke to national title favorites. It’s easy to look at Duke’s hot start with Kelly and think that once he’s back in the lineup they’ll resume kicking ass and taking names. But as Kyrie Irving proved two years ago (or I guess you could say Derrick Williams proved two years ago), it’s a lot harder than it seems it would be to reintegrate a guy who’s been out for so long. Nonetheless, Duke will always be better with Kelly than without him, so Blue Devils fans definitely have reason to be excited. Although along with your excitement, you might also want to be a little nervous about the possible trap game at Virginia on Thursday night.

2. Georgetown

I’m not sure I’ve ever loved a basketball team that I have no affiliation with as much as I love Georgetown. As I’m sure you remember, after the Hoyas took Indiana to overtime at the beginning of the season, I claimed that they would be my pet team because they play hard, they’re unselfish and well coached, and they have an absolute stud in Otto Porter. Somewhere along the line, though, I turned my back on the Hoyas and momentarily flirted with Kansas as a potential pet team.5 This is a mistake I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. Georgetown fans, if you’ll have me back, I would love nothing more than to get behind the wheel of the Hoyas bandwagon and lead the charge into March.


5.

By the way, by “pet team” I mean a team that I have no reason to root for other than that I like the way they play and I like the personalities on their team.

Georgetown’s last two games showed everything I love about them. Last Saturday, they manhandled their eighth-ranked archrival Syracuse, in the Carrier Dome and in front of the largest on-campus crowd ever. Porter took over the game and the rest of the Hoyas played a phenomenal 2-3 zone defense. Then they avoided what seemed like an inevitable letdown game at UConn on Wednesday despite almost suffering a massive choke job at the end of regulation. In both games, the Hoyas played gritty defense and didn’t panic when their offense stalled. They stayed composed and mentally focused, and they made huge plays when they needed them. If you love old-fashioned basketball that emphasizes unselfishness and execution on offense, toughness and effort on defense, and coaches who know what they’re doing6 and have their players’ respect, you can’t possibly dislike Georgetown. (Well, unless you’re a Syracuse fan.) Especially when they have all those things to go along with an All-American like Porter.

1. Gonzaga


6.

Note to Tom Crean: John Thompson III started out the UConn game in zone because the Hoyas zone had been so great against Syracuse. But as soon as UConn started dicing up the zone, he switched to man and only went back to zone in special situations (like underneath out-of-bounds or coming out of a timeout).

I spent well over an hour writing at least 1,000 words about why Gonzaga belongs atop college basketball’s most powerful power rankings. I ripped into everyone who criticizes the Foreigners despite never having seen them play. I defended the Foreigners’ supposedly weak schedule by pointing out that they’re blowing out teams. And I explained that this is the best Gonzaga team ever during a down year for college basketball, so it shouldn’t be that surprising to see them at the top of the most powerful power rankings in the sport.

And then I deleted everything I wrote because this thought hit me: That’s not fair to the Gonzaga fans. Why should they have to deal with people who think their team is overrated? Why should they have to defend their team on message boards, comment sections, and Twitter instead of just enjoying the moment? You remember that friend growing up who would turn off video games at the last second when you were beating him so that he could say that you didn’t actually win? That’s what America is doing to Gonzaga right now. “Nuh-uh. You can’t be the best team in the country because, um, because it’s just not fair!”

So instead of using this space to make an argument that nobody is going to take seriously, I’m going to let Gonzaga fans enjoy their moment by linking to three of the best moments in Gonzaga basketball history. Drink it in, Zags fans, and celebrate being atop college basketball’s most powerful power rankings for as long as you can.

Because when the NCAA tournament rolls around, Gonzaga is going to get exposed as the soft, unskilled, overrated frauds that everyone knows they are.

The Botched Alley-oop of the Week

In the first half of last week’s game against Iowa State, Baylor’s Pierre Jackson tried throwing a lob while on a fast break. This was the result.

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