Before we dive into the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, I want to do some housekeeping. And by that I mean to announce that I’m doing a mailbag next week in lieu of a column because the higher-ups at Grantland want me to “not work so hard during Christmas” so I can “spend time with my family.” Pretty lame if you ask me. Whatever — I don’t make the rules. Anyway, the mailbag is supposed to be just a handful of questions, but I always end up doing more because I can never pick just five. So send college basketball emails (funny or serious) to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pick out 10-15 to discuss next week.
Now, in the words of Li Shang from Mulan, let’s get down to business.
12. North Carolina
I know this will come across like an “if my aunt had a penis, she’d be my uncle” statement, but if North Carolina hadn’t lost to Belmont and UAB, I think the Tar Heels would be ranked no. 1 in the country. After all, nobody in college basketball has a trio of wins nearly as impressive as North Carolina’s victories over Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky. I know that losing those two games raises red flags for some people, but remember that Belmont is good enough to make the NCAA tournament (and get absolutely destroyed like they always do). Plus, North Carolina wasn’t playing Stanford football those two games, so they really shouldn’t even count.
North Carolina fans are probably sick of hearing about P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are both suspended indefinitely. It doesn’t appear that they’re going to become eligible anytime soon, and the Heels are doing fine without them. But Hairston and McDonald remain important because they are decent shooters and North Carolina is one outside shooting threat away from being the best team in college basketball. As of now, these Tar Heels are unlike any Roy Williams Carolina team I’ve seen — they have a nasty streak, they play great defense, they dominate the boards, and they know how to win ugly. Unfortunately, they can’t shoot to save their lives.1 Williams has had physical big men before, like Tyler “Tim Tebow of basketball” Hansbrough and Sean “Foul on James Augustine” May. But he’s never had an entire team like this, which is why if the Heels had any perimeter offense besides Marcus Paige, they could be almost unbeatable.
This is the part where I remind you that North Carolina is shooting 61 percent from the free throw line and guys not named Marcus Paige are a combined 4-for-28 from the 3-point line this season.
Speaking of Paige, it can’t be understated how great he has been this season. There are many different ways to approach voting on the Wooden Award, but if you’re like me and you think it should go to the most valuable player in America, then Paige should be near the top of your list. I’d entertain arguments for Marcus Smart, Melvin Ejim, Jabari Parker, Chaz Williams, Russ Smith, C.J. Fair, Jordan Adams, and maybe Xavier Thames and Jahii Carson, but outside of Doug McDermott and Shabazz Napier, I don’t think anybody has been more important to their team than Paige. Roy Williams’s point guards are always valuable, but Paige has barely any perimeter help and he has been forced to carry North Carolina’s entire offense for long stretches of games.
Paige’s early-season performance has had a Battle of the Alamo vibe. The odds are stacked against him and he’s basically just trying to keep his team’s head above water until Hairston and McDonald return. There’s a chance that, like the real Alamo battle, those reinforcements won’t ever arrive and Paige will eventually be overwhelmed. But he’s already made it clear that he won’t go down without a fight.
11. Wichita State
If you want to fully appreciate the culture of Wichita State basketball, watch a Shockers game with Jimmy Dykes commentating. It’s like growing up with a military dad who constantly reminds you how big of a sissy you are. During the Tennessee game on Saturday, Dykes spent two hours basically saying “big boys,” “draw a line in the sand,” “never back down,” “toughness,” “compete,” “body blows,” “punches,” and “man’s game.” You could’ve convinced a blind person sitting next to you that you were watching Stone Cold Steve Austin putting the Rock in a grave from the way Dykes was describing it.
I’m not criticizing Dykes. His assessment of Wichita State is spot-on, and he certainly drove home the point that the Shockers look like they are always a moment away from starting a benches-clearing brawl. And that’s what makes Wichita State so good. They aren’t particularly athletic or big, and they take some really dumb shots from time to time, but their grittiness more than makes up for their shortcomings.
It may be unfair to them, but this year’s Shockers team has been compared to last year’s Final Four squad since day one, and the comparisons will likely continue for the rest of the season. America wants to know if they’re a Final Four threat or just a really good mid-major. Some Shockers fans might disagree, but I think it’s a no-brainer that this year’s team is better. Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton have made big improvements since last season and Fred VanVleet is an upgrade over Malcolm Armstead. Carl Hall is certainly missed, but the Shockers’ role players are performing so well that Hall’s absence seems like a nonissue.
If you bet on Wichita State to be the last undefeated team in college basketball, you might as well start thinking of how you’re going to spend your money. Their win at Alabama on Tuesday made the Shockers 11-0, with North Carolina Central and Davidson as their only remaining non-conference games. Now that Creighton has moved to the Big East, the Missouri Valley is basically the Shockers and a bunch of other teams, meaning there’s no telling when their first loss might come. Wichita State will be favored in every remaining game, and the only potential loss that wouldn’t blow my mind would be the game at Indiana State on February 5. Whether playing in a weaker conference will leave them vulnerable during the NCAA tournament remains to be seen. For now, Wichita State has positioned itself as one of college basketball’s best by emerging from a pretty strong non-conference schedule unscathed.
Let’s start with the bad. Duke’s problem all season has been defense. The Blue Devils are pretty young, so you could maybe blame their poor defensive execution on lack of experience. Duke’s young players, especially the freshmen, are still learning to guard complicated offenses being executed at Division I speed. But that’s not the issue. Duke’s real problem has been a lack of intensity, which is inexcusable. Far too often this season the Blue Devils have looked uninterested on defense, as if they’d rather just outscore their opponents than worry about getting stops. For the first eight games of the season, gone were the patented Duke floor slaps and in their place were five guys standing around, waiting for the other team to shoot so the Blue Devils could get the ball back.
Against Michigan, Duke’s defense finally showed signs of life. The Blue Devils shut down Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, held Michigan to almost 10 points below its scoring average, and forced the Wolverines into 23 percent shooting from the 3-point line. Unfortunately, that intensity didn’t survive the team’s 13-day layoff, as Duke again looked sloppy and lackadaisical on defense in a win against Gardner-Webb on Monday. The Runnin’ Bulldogs2 shot 54 percent against Duke. No team should shoot that well against a top-10 team. But Gardner-Webb? The same team that shot 35 percent against Northwestern and 32 percent against IUPUI? Yikes.
I don’t know when it became cool to put “Runnin’” in front of your nickname, but I’m guessing it had to have been the ’70s or ’80s. By the way, which Division I school needs to adopt the Runnin’ prefix the most? My favorites would be UC Irvine (Runnin’ Anteaters), Illinois-Chicago (Runnin’ Flames), Youngstown State (Runnin’ Penguins), UMKC (Runnin’ Kangaroos), Austin Peay (Runnin’ Governors), TCU (Runnin’ Horned Frogs), St. Peter’s (Runnin’ Peacocks), Presbyterian (Runnin’ Blue Hose), and just because I enjoy redundancy, UT–San Antonio/Cal State Bakersfield (Runnin’ Roadrunners).
As if Duke’s defensive woes weren’t bad enough, it’s obvious at this point that Rasheed Sulaimon might as well add a recliner to his Christmas list, because he’s going to be spending a ton of time on Duke’s bench for the rest of the season. I know Sulaimon hasn’t been lighting it up when he has gotten into games this year, but I’m still stunned by how Mike Kreyschewizzle seems to have given up on him. Is there something going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about? Did Sulaimon tell Kreyschewizzle he doesn’t like taking charges? Does Sulaimon have “GAUDET CADET” tattooed across his chest? The guy was Duke’s best recruit last year — a starter all season long — and he played really well in the NCAA tournament until the Louisville game. Yet now he has played five total minutes in Duke’s last two games. Huh?
There is some good news in Durham, however. Jabari Parker continues to be every bit as good as advertised, Rodney Hood has established himself as the best second banana in America, and Quinn Cook is playing consistently great for the first time in his career. Most importantly, though, Andre Dawkins has emerged in the last two games after taking last season off to deal with depression stemming from the death of his sister. He’s slowly working his way back into the rotation, but given how well he’s been shooting and how much Sulaimon appears to be in Coach K’s doghouse, Dawkins’s role could increase in a hurry. For the first time all season, Dawkins played more than half the game on Monday, and he finished with 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He’s made seven of his last 11 3-pointers and he has been remarkably efficient, averaging 8.6 points in 12.7 minutes per game. It’s unfair and probably unrealistic to expect Dawkins to develop into the player Duke hoped he would become when he arrived on campus. But if Dawkins can produce at this level as his role expands, he could make a huge difference as a reliable veteran on a young team.
A month ago the Big East seemed irrelevant to me. I thought the conference would have a few decent teams, and I appreciate the history associated with the programs, but I didn’t think there was enough elite talent to make an impact on the national level. Butler lost its top three scorers and superstar coach Brad Stevens. Georgetown lost Otto Porter. Xavier didn’t have much beyond Semaj Christon. Marquette scored 39 points in its final game of the 2013 season. Creighton is Creighton, for better and for worse. And DePaul is DePaul, for worse and for worse.
Villanova’s emergence as a Final Four threat, though, has made the Big East compelling. What figured to be a handful of good-but-not-great teams battling for a conference title that had lost its luster has turned into a handful of NCAA tournament hopefuls trying to keep a top-10 team from claiming the first Big East 2.0 crown. Sure, Villanova is the only great team in the conference, but Butler, Xavier, and St. John’s are all better than I anticipated; people are giving up on Marquette and Georgetown a little too quickly; and Creighton and Providence have individual players who are good enough to single-handedly win games.
I expected the Big East to get two or three teams into the NCAA tournament. If they were lucky, I thought, one of those teams would make the Sweet 16. But now the Big East looks like a strong contender to earn six bids to the dance, and because of Villanova’s balance,3 experience, and chemistry, a Final Four berth isn’t out of the question. So if at the beginning of the season you were like me and you assumed that the Big East would basically be a mid-major conference, it’s time to re-evaluate the conference and start paying attention. I have a feeling that the Big East will be the nation’s most competitive conference from top to bottom besides the Big Ten.
There’s a solid chance that by the end of the season five Villanova players will be averaging 10 points per game, and there’s an outside chance that they can get a sixth guy (Josh Hart) into double figures.
Am I the only one who has noticed that Florida is one Shabazz Napier jumper away from having four straight wins over NCAA tournament teams? I almost want the Gators to stay underappreciated just so I have something to gripe about every week. I know the polls came out before Florida’s win over a very good Memphis team Tuesday night, but even before that game, being ranked 16 seemed way too low. Now that Florida beat Memphis, if the Gators aren’t in the top 10 next week I’m going to … well … probably just whine some more.
Florida’s selling point heading into the season was its experience, led by a senior quartet that had been to three straight Elite Eights. What’s being overlooked in all the experience talk, however, is that it also has boatloads of talent. Casey Prather has been out of this world, Scottie Wilbekin is so much more well-rounded and composed than he was last year, Michael Frazier has been a lights-out shooter, Dorian Finney-Smith is exactly as versatile as Gators fans hoped he’d be, Patric Young has been the steady force he’s always been, Kasey Hill has lived up to the hype, and Will Yeguete is embracing his “glue guy” role. There doesn’t seem to be a single player on Florida’s roster who isn’t playing well. Hell, even manager turned walk-on Jacob Kurtz has been decent in the opportunities he’s been given.
I just praised Villanova for possibly being able to get six guys to average double-digit points this season. Florida laughs at that compliment because the Gators almost certainly will have six players averaging double figures by the end of the year, and depending on what kind of role Chris Walker will play if and when he becomes eligible, Florida might get that number up to seven. That’s absurd. I’m not sure anything else really needs to be said.
UConn has played one game in the past two weeks. That was a blowout of Maine. The Huskies are giving me nothing to work with here, so instead of making something up about a team that has essentially taken the past two weeks off, I’m just going to tip my hat to walk-on Pat Lenehan. And by that, I mean that I’m going to share an article from the New Haven Register that I came across the other day.
Here are the highlights: Lenehan is basically the kind of genius that even Aaron Craft would cheat off of. He’s carrying a 4.0 GPA with a major in molecular and cell biology and he plans to become a doctor, presumably because rocket science isn’t challenging enough. As a former walk-on who once upon a time had also declared premed, allow me to share my thoughts: Umm … how?
I remember walking on to the Ohio State basketball team in fall 2006 as a math major, planning to take the hardest undergrad classes OSU had to offer, become an orthopedic surgeon, and cure cancer on the side. About two weeks into my college basketball experience, it dawned on me that what I had set out to do was impossible — and not just the curing cancer part. I honestly considered it impossible to fulfill my commitments to the team and to achieve greatness in the classroom. At least the scholarship players had tutors. I had to devote myself to basketball and figure out a way to still study (and often teach myself the material since we sometimes had to miss class for games). Eventually, I made the wise decision to put academics second so I could focus on becoming the most useless walk-on college basketball has ever seen.
In other words, I can’t wrap my mind around how smart, motivated, and disciplined Lenehan must be. Just thinking about what he’s accomplishing stresses me out.
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 Tuesday’s Florida vs. Memphis game in New York, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Louisville?
- Almost 10 seconds of silence are interrupted when Vitale, prompted by nothing in particular, says, “Don’t forget about Louisville. Rick Pitino’s kids are going to be dangerous in March.” Dan Shulman doesn’t address the statement and they both continue commentating on the Florida-Memphis game as if nothing had been said.
- Kenyon Martin is shown watching the game, prompting Shulman to mention that Martin is in attendance because his alma mater, Cincinnati, played Pittsburgh in the Garden before the Florida-Memphis game. Vitale informs viewers that Cincinnati handed Pittsburgh its first loss and he reminds us that those teams were in the same conference last season. Vitale says it breaks his heart to see conference realignment destroying great rivalries, but then adds that he’s still excited to see the ACC next season when it adds Louisville.
- A graphic is shown promoting Thursday’s Duke-UCLA game, which will be called by Vitale and Shulman. Vitale mentions that he and Shulman were in attendance to see Duke’s impressive win over Michigan earlier in the season. Shulman says that Michigan lost a close one to Arizona on Saturday, prompting Vitale to explain that he thinks Michigan, like Kentucky, is one big win away from getting some confidence and becoming really good. He says he thought the Arizona game was going to be that game for Michigan and that Kentucky’s big game could come on December 28 against Louisville.
6. Oklahoma State
Am I reading this right? Le’Bryan Nash led Oklahoma State in both scoring and rebounding in two straight games? And he has already logged two double-doubles this season — two more than the rest of his career combined? I know I said in the preseason that I don’t want to get premature with this. But dammit, I think Le’Bryan Nash is all growns up!4
“All growns up” has to be the most widely used reference on Grantland, which should tell you two things: (1) I’m not particularly original, and (2) if you’ve never seen Swingers, I wouldn’t even be offended if you stopped reading right now to go watch it.
I think Louisville will be OK. I think Russ Smith is becoming more of a complete player and learning to get the rest of his team involved in the offense. I think Montrezl Harrell will stop caring about draft projections, improve his body language when he faces adversity, and figure out how to play well consistently. I think the Cardinals’ defense has been improving since the North Carolina game. And I think Rick Pitino will give Luke Hancock the “Peyton Siva is not walking through that door” speech, Hancock will stop caressing pictures of Siva as he listens to K-Ci and JoJo’s “Crazy,” and eventually Hancock will snap out of his season-long funk.
I have a lot of thoughts on Louisville, but here’s the problem: I have absolutely no confidence in these thoughts, because the Cardinals’ schedule has been so easy that at this point playing Jeffersonville High School might improve its strength. The only nationally relevant team Louisville has played is North Carolina, and the Cards got smoked on a neutral court. This, along with Kentucky also not really having any impressive wins,5 is why I think the Louisville-Kentucky game on December 28 is the most important non-conference game of the season. I won’t try to predict the winner, but I know this much: It’s the kind of game that will leave one team with a ton of confidence and the other with all sorts of questions.
For those of you wondering how many Kentucky losses it would take before the creators of 40and0.com disabled their site, the answer is evidently not three.
There seems to have been a miscommunication. After I power-ranked Wisconsin fifth last week and showered the Buzzcuts with praise, many of you felt obligated to inform me of the Bo Ryan trap. Rest assured, I know all about the Bo Ryan trap. I know how Bo’s Buzzcuts lure you into thinking they are a Final Four threat, only to inevitably bow out of the NCAA tournament early. My next-door neighbor is a lifelong Wisconsin fan, which is my way of saying I’m well versed in Wisconsin basketball history if for no other reason than sometimes a simple “I would come to your cookout in late March, but I’ll be busy watching my team in the NCAA tournament” cuts so much deeper than throwing my dogs’ poop into his yard ever could.
So when I say Wisconsin is for real, I do so knowing how many times that very phrase has come back to bite Buzzcuts fans in the ass. But please believe me: There’s a different feel to this Buzzcuts team. This isn’t the typical Wisconsin group that succeeds thanks to Bo Ryan’s unique brand of basketball. This is a team with really good basketball players. Perhaps for the first time ever, you could put blank jerseys on Wisconsin and it would take more than two minutes to realize they are the Buzzcuts.
Look, I can’t guarantee that Wisconsin won’t lose in the Sweet 16 again this season.6 I spent the better part of last year arguing that Gonzaga was much better than it had ever been, only to watch the Zags have a close call against a 16-seed before losing in the second round. But do yourselves a favor and watch Wisconsin play a few times this season, so when March comes and you’re filling out your bracket, you won’t just assume Wisconsin will lose early. The days of the Buzzcuts getting bounced by double digits to double-digit seeds like they did in 2008, 2010, and 2013 are almost certainly over, even if only for this season.
@Brad_Hope brought up an interesting hypothetical on Twitter that would be an absolute nightmare for Wisconsin fans: The Buzzcuts win 30-something games, win the Big Ten, and get a 1-seed in the tourney … only to meet a fourth-seeded Kansas/Kentucky team that finally figures it out in the Sweet 16.
We live in a world where a Britney Spears album barely outsells a Christmas album featuring middle-aged men who make duck calls for a living. Is it really so hard to believe that Wisconsin is a legitimate national title contender?
3. Ohio State
Aaron Craft broke the Ohio State career assist record Saturday night against North Dakota State, prompting the Big Ten Network crew to spend most of the second half fawning over Craft like they’re contractually obligated to do whenever Craft’s cheeks reach a certain shade of red. As this was happening, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why isn’t this happening more? Why isn’t Craft being shoved down America’s throat? Why isn’t Dick Vitale shoehorning Craft compliments into his broadcasts? Why aren’t non–Ohio State fans shoving screwdrivers into their ear canals because they can’t handle listening to the Craft circle jerk anymore?
More than anything else, this proves how good Ohio State has been this season. In the preseason, the popular thought about the Buckeyes among college basketball fans was that they were a bunch of no-names led by an overrated Craft:
Deshaun Thomas was the only guy worth a damn on Ohio State last season and now that he’s gone, the Buckeyes will struggle to score. And Craft will foul out of the first four minutes of every game now that refs are cracking down on handchecks.
Whoops. Not only is Craft getting called for fouls at the same rate he always has, but Ohio State’s group of no-names has stepped up so much that Craft isn’t necessarily the first name that comes up when people talk about the Buckeyes. How is that possible? A month ago, if someone told you that Ohio State would be ranked third before Christmas, that it would have blown out all its opponents, and that its defense would be considered the best in the country, you would’ve bet your life that Craft would be at the top of all sorts of Wooden Award lists, right?
To be clear, Craft isn’t playing poorly. His numbers are pretty much the same as they’ve been the last couple years. But the rise of Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, and, more recently, LaQuinton Ross has meant that Craft doesn’t need to carry the load in everything the Buckeyes do. He doesn’t need to force his offense with Ross blossoming as a scorer, Lenzelle Smith consistently putting up points, and Sam Thompson providing at least one highlight dunk per game. And now that Williams is blocking shots, Scott is racking up steals, and the rest of the team is playing great defense, Craft’s heralded ball-hawking doesn’t stick out as much as it once did. Put it all together and it means that we can watch Ohio State without hearing Craft’s name mentioned constantly, which is something I didn’t think I’d be able to say for another 20 years.
Just about every Syracuse opponent ends up making the same two mistakes. The first mistake is that it spends so much time trying to figure out how to crack the 2-3 zone with its half-court offense that it doesn’t realize the key to beating it starts on the other end of the floor. The easiest way to beat the Orange’s zone is to prevent it from setting up in the first place. You do that on defense. Get physical with C.J. Fair, know where Trevor Cooney is at all times, make Jerami Grant force shots, and try to get Tyler Ennis to make freshman mistakes. Then rebound the misses or scoop up the steals, get out in transition, and score before the zone gets set. St. John’s did this all game on Sunday, and the Red Storm nearly pulled off a huge upset despite throwing up brick after brick from the perimeter.
The other mistake that teams make against Syracuse is that once the 2-3 does get set, opponents become hesitant and don’t attack the zone. Thanks to so many great defensive teams over the years, Jim Boeheim’s zone has an aura of invincibility that leads opponents to overthink things.
Yes, Syracuse’s zone is unlike any 2-3 in basketball, and you can’t beat it with the basic actions that every high school team in America runs against zone defenses. But at the same time, it’s still just a 2-3 zone. You can throw little wrinkles into your offense like Minnesota did when it flashed a player to each elbow at the same time and forced the middle man of the zone to make a decision. At the end of the day, the weak spots of Syracuse’s 2-3 are the same weak spots of every 2-3 (the high post and short corners). As long as you attack it and don’t let it attack you, you can create good scoring opportunities. St. John’s confirmed this on Saturday, especially in the second half. The Johnnies were strong with the ball, utilized fakes well, had great movement, and, most importantly, they went at Syracuse. The Orange zone looked more vulnerable than it has all season, which was astonishing since great 3-point shooting is key against a zone defense and St. John’s shot 1-for-15 from the 3-point line.
Nothing I’ve described here is revolutionary, and it’s not like a more talented team that takes St. John’s approach is going to blow out Syracuse. In fact, I think Sunday’s game showed what makes the Orange so good: St. John’s had a perfect game plan and executed it well. Syracuse got absolutely nothing from its second-leading scorer. And the Orange still came away with a win.
I could probably write 10,000 words on how frustrating Michigan has been this season. How does Glenn Robinson III score 16 first-half points against Arizona, then just four in the second half? On second thought, two of those four points came when Michigan was playing 5-on-4 because Arizona’s Zeus “Zeus” ZeusZeuski was on the other end of the floor nursing his ankle, so how did he score only two second-half points? Why can every Derrick Walton shot be described as “ill-advised”? How good is Nik Stauskas, really? How good is Mitch McGary, really? Why haven’t Michigan’s coaches and players realized that Caris LeVert might be the team’s best player even though Wolverines fans figured it out weeks ago? Why does Spike Albrecht always seem to make three or four consecutive plays that make you think he could be a future All-American, then he follows them up with a couple of plays that make you wonder why he’s even on scholarship? Do opposing teams even bother scouting any Michigan bench player other than Albrecht? Why didn’t John Beilein call timeout when Nick Johnson hit a free throw to put Arizona up one with 25 seconds left? I typically prefer coaches who don’t micromanage the endings of games, but Michigan was one of the youngest teams in college basketball playing against the no. 1 team in the country. Unless you have an obvious go-to guy, why not call timeout to make sure your players are on the same page and they can get a better look than a contested jumper from a slumping Stauskas?
Anyway, here’s my point: Michigan is so frustrating because it is a few tweaks away from being a national title contender, yet at the moment it probably isn’t even an NCAA tournament team. Against Arizona on Saturday, I thought Michigan had finally figured it out. The Wolverines fed off a wild Crisler Center crowd, played phenomenal defense for most of the game, and used a balanced offensive attack. When Robinson hit a step-back 3 to put the Wolverines up nine at halftime, I thought I was witnessing the transformation. I thought I was 20 minutes away from seeing Michigan knock off no. 1. I thought that Michigan’s abundance of individual talent was about to get a much-needed shot of confidence, and that after that the Wolverines would ride the momentum into January and wreak havoc on the Big Ten.
And that’s why this win was doubly impressive for Arizona. It trailed by double digits on the road against a talented, desperate team that played its best game of the season. I’ve used the phrase “Arizona wore them down” a few times already this season, and Saturday’s game was another example. You could point to X’s and O’s (Arizona slowed the pace in the second half) or to individual players like Brandon Ashley stepping up and Robinson disappearing, but what made the difference was that it’s just harder for teams to score against Arizona than it is for the Cats to score against them. You can catch Arizona off guard on some possessions. You can make some extraordinary plays. You can spread the floor, set good screens, get to the rim, and finish/get fouled/kick out to a shooter against the Wildcat defense. You can find some success against Arizona.
Good luck sustaining that for 40 minutes, though. The Wildcats just suck the energy out of opponents, physically and mentally. It’s just too much to ask to maintain the level of play necessary to compete with that much size, athleticism, and balance. That’s how Arizona wears teams down, and that’s what I expect to see regularly from the Cats this season. You might think they’re overrated because they were down nine at halftime to Michigan and behind by 19 to Drexel at one point. But that’s just how they play. The Wildcats know they have the horses to run the distance and that the only score that matters is when the clock shows all zeroes.
I’m not saying Arizona can’t lose. I’d obviously prefer to see the Wildcats jump out to early leads and blow teams away. And their lack of reliable outside shooting will be a problem at some point this season. There’s a difference between “guys who can make 3s” and “shooters,” and Arizona has the former. Unless Gabe York gets hot and earns more playing time, the Wildcats don’t have a knockdown shooter to stretch defenses. They have great frontcourt players, but those big men won’t be able to score through double-teams with a third defender swiping at the ball. This is why T.J. McConnell should look to score more. He doesn’t need to have a shoot-first mentality, but he has to be enough of a scoring threat to make teams think twice about helping off him. Arizona is already an early favorite to win the national title, but if it continues to develop its offense, it might end up making me look like a genius for suggesting eight games into the season that this could be the best Arizona team ever.
Reminder of the Week That America Has Gone Soft
Tennessee’s Jordan McRae followed up a ferocious dunk against Wichita State by yelling something that immediately led to Kipp Kissinger calling a technical foul on McRae.
What’s particularly upsetting is that the broadcasters, Mark Jones and Jimmy Dykes, end up agreeing with the call even though at first they criticize the ref’s overreaction. Why? Because apparently McRae used a cuss word. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but to me that call was — to use a phrase that would probably earn me a technical foul — absolute bullshit. The theme of that Tennessee–Wichita State game was toughness. If you didn’t have steel cojones the size of watermelons you might as well stay on the bench because you were going to get eaten alive. With that, how is swearing not allowed? How can we praise these guys for playing such a physical game that they basically beat each other up for two hours, then turn around and scold them for having potty mouths? Serious question, Kipp Kissinger: Are you shitting me?
I get that players need to have some semblance of decorum when it comes to trash talk because kids are watching and we want college athletes to set a good example. But those rules should apply only to slurs or personal attacks. McRae got T’d up in less than a second, leading me to believe that he said only one word and that one word was some variation of an F-bomb. Maybe I’m wrong and he jammed a homophobic slur and an insult to Ron Baker’s mother into that half-second. But if all he did was let out an F-bomb, then the ref just set a ridiculous precedent.
If you thought you’d been watching too many free throws because of college basketball’s new interpretation of defensive rules, just wait until refs start handing out techs for PG-13 language. You’ll lose your fuc — I mean flippity bippity — mind.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. Don’t forget to email me your mailbag questions. See you next week.