Nebraska beat Michigan State in East Lansing. Arizona State beat Arizona in double overtime. Virginia narrowly escaped Virginia Tech. Villanova needed double overtime to beat Providence. Kansas needed Andrew Wiggins to beat Texas Tech. Shabazz Napier went nuts on Memphis, and UConn beat the Tigers in overtime. Iowa vs. Indiana was postponed because Indiana is literally falling apart. North Carolina vs. Duke was postponed for the first time ever due to weather. Roy Williams won his 300th game at North Carolina. Pat Knight lost his last game at Lamar. Travis Ford vs. Scott Drew went to overtime thanks to a predictably boneheaded play at the end of regulation. Tom Crean reached his all-time Creaniest and then took it to even Creanier heights.1 Tyler Ennis did naughty things to Pitt. Syracuse squeaked past NC State three days after Ennis got naughty. Grambling State won for the second time in three games. Marshall Henderson got back to being Marshall Henderson. Marcus Smart proved once again that he needs a PR manager. Marshall Plumlee put up an eight trillion against Georgia Tech. Conner Frankamp put up a five trillion against Texas Tech. Villanova quintuple-teamed Doug McDermott and he still scored 39. Perry Ellis scored 32 points against TCU, or presumably three more than the guy he was guarding scored. Sherman Blanford of Eastern Illinois, who is only 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, had a 32-point, 18-rebound game against Austin Peay.2 And Billy Baron (Canisus vs. Siena), Stephen Madison (Idaho vs. Utah Valley), and Andrew Rowsey (UNC-Asheville vs. Radford) all scored 40 or more points in a game.
How many times do you think coaches like Crean, Ford, and Drew have locked themselves in rooms because they put lotion on their hands and couldn’t turn the doorknob? I like to think it happens to these guys before every game and they just curl into the fetal position and start crying until an assistant coach comes to rescue them.
To be clear: Austin Peay is the name of a school. Blanford didn’t just abuse some kid named Austin.
Everything you just read (and so much more) happened in the last seven days. The NCAA tournament starts in exactly 24 days. I’M SO EXCITED I CAN BARELY FUNCTION. While I gather myself, go tell your boss you aren’t coming to work the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament and I’ll meet you at team no. 12.
12. Iowa State
If you’re looking for a Final Four sleeper, look no further than Iowa State. After starting the season 14-0, the Cyclones lost four of five, fell out of the Big 12 race, and disappeared from the national radar. Then, just after ISU rattled off a three-game winning streak, the Cyclones were destroyed at West Virginia a little over a week ago. Given the ups and downs Iowa State has been through, I’ve questioned the Cyclones’ ability to make a deep run in March. The West Virginia loss helped solidify that skepticism. But now that Iowa State just handily beat a red-hot Texas team on Tuesday, maybe it’s time to revisit the Cylcones’ résumé.
Start with the losing streak at the beginning of the conference season. At the time, losses to two unranked teams and a 15th-ranked team at home seemed embarrassing for a 14-0 team. In retrospect, however, playing at Oklahoma, vs. Kansas, and at Texas in consecutive games is no cakewalk. All three teams are NCAA tournament locks with winning records in the toughest conference in college basketball. Syracuse or Florida would have a hard time going undefeated through that stretch, so let’s not swear off ISU just yet. Nor should we dock the Cyclones too many points for losing at Kansas in late January, since Kansas is virtually impossible to beat at home. As for ISU’s most recent loss at West Virginia — it’s hard to make excuses for a 25-point drubbing. But we can give that defeat some context. Remember that Iowa State relies heavily on the 3-point shot. The Cyclones were ice-cold from deep against the Mountaineers; that happens from time to time for “live by the 3” teams. It doesn’t mean ISU isn’t a good team; it just means it’s screwed on those occasional off nights. And, well, we’ve known that for months.
What does this mean for Iowa State’s chances in the tournament? If they come out flat, the Cyclones could get bounced early. But if they pair the defense they played against Texas on Tuesday with average or better shooting by their standards, they will make you pay for picking them to suffer an early upset.
“Is he not a first-team All-American? Forget player of the year in our league. I want to know a guard that’s better than him. Please, somebody tell me. I’m not talking about some freshman that’s gonna be who he’s gonna be five years from now. I’m talking about right now. Who is better than Sean Kilpatrick? I’m asking. Give me somebody.”
As I read that quote following Cincinnati’s 11-point win over Houston on Saturday, I rolled my eyes as if I were Mark Cuban listening to a terrible pitch on Shark Tank. I mean, Kilpatrick is having a great season, but come on — there are a ton of guys who are clearly better than him right now. For instance, there’s … um … give me a second and I’ll think of somebody … uh … what about Marcus Sma— no, that won’t work. Huh. Maybe Cronin has a point. Kilpatrick gets hardly any national media attention besides being the default name pundits throw around when they discuss Cincinnati. But right now, there are only seven guards in America I’d even entertain as arguments to Cronin’s statement:3 Scottie Wilbekin (Florida), Shabazz Napier (UConn), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Delon Wright (Utah), Russ Smith (Louisville), Xavier Thames (San Diego State), and Nick Johnson (Arizona).
There are plenty of guards having great seasons, but these are the only seven who come close to Kilpatrick when you combine statistics, leadership, value to the team, and team success.
Wilbekin is really the only one I could be convinced is better than Kilpatrick right now. Johnson has been in a dreadful shooting slump the past four games. Wright’s and Anderson’s teams aren’t having great seasons like Cincinnati is. That may not be fair but it’s relevant to discussions like this. Thames plays the same role for San Diego State that Kilpatrick plays for Cincinnati, but Kilpatrick’s stats are better and he plays in a tougher conference. As for Smith and Napier, look no further than head-to-head games. Kilpatrick wasn’t necessarily matched up with those two guys in those games, but Cincy-UConn and Cincy-Louisville were two games that demanded great performances from star players. And in both games, Cincinnati won and Kilpatrick shone brighter than his rivals.
I know Kilpatrick is already 24 and his NBA potential is in question, and I know it’s not much fun to watch his team play. But the man is on an absolute tear right now, and if the season ended today, he’d be a no-brainer pick for AAC Player of the Year. Cincinnati plays Louisville, Connecticut, and Memphis in consecutive games starting Saturday, so if you haven’t yet experienced the one-man show that is Sean Kilpatrick, you’ve got three great opportunities coming up.
If I had to pick an Aerosmith lyric to describe Wisconsin’s season and I couldn’t use “I’d rather be OD-ing on the crack of her ass,” I’d definitely go with “You got to lose to know how to win.” After an awful January that saw the Buzzcuts lose at Indiana, at Minnesota by 13, and at home to Northwestern by nine, Wisconsin started February by losing at home to Ohio State despite the Buckeyes doing everything possible to give away the game. Fast-forward a few weeks and Wisconsin has now won four straight and done something over a seven-day span that no Big Ten team has been able to do all season: beat both Michigan State and Michigan. The drastic turnaround, paired with Wisconsin’s dominance over the first two months of the season, makes me wonder if the entire Buzzcut team had the flu in January. Nothing else really makes sense.
Whatever the case, Wisconsin is back to playing how it did early in the season. The team is playing great defense, and Frank Kaminsky is playing out of his mind on offense. Plus, believe it or not, Wisconsin is still in the Big Ten title race. If the Buzzcuts win out, all they need is two losses each from the two Michigan schools. Both of those teams still have to play each other, and Michigan State still has to play Iowa and Ohio State. If the Spartans beat the Wolverines, Michigan gets upset by Purdue or Minnesota, and Michigan State loses to Iowa and Ohio State, the Big Ten title gets split four ways among Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, and the Buzzcuts. I know the Big Ten bylaws state that no team can lose to Northwestern at home and win the regular-season title in the same season, so I’m sure Jim Delany will pull some strings to make sure the dominoes don’t fall in Wisconsin’s favor. But technically speaking, the Buzzcuts still have a chance to be Big Ten champs. If that ends up happening, I can’t envision a scenario where the rest of the conference doesn’t kidnap Bo Ryan and burn him for witchcraft.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve followed Virginia basketball closely since Tony Bennett arrived in Charlottesville, but I’ve seen enough to know that Virginia has played a robotic style the last few seasons. It feels like the Hoos are programmed to play slow, methodical, and defense-first basketball, and when that doesn’t work, they just throw their hands up and accept an ass-kicking. That’s why Saturday’s win at Clemson was one of the most impressive games I’ve seen Virginia play.
Don’t misinterpret this. Clemson is on the wrong side of the bubble, and Virginia was far from perfect on Saturday. But the Tigers’ early onslaught convinced me that Virginia would fold. In the first eight minutes of the game, Clemson went 7-for-9 from the field and scored 16 points on the no. 1 scoring defense in America. The Cavaliers have never won a non-overtime ACC game under Tony Bennett when they’ve given up 70 or more points. With Clemson on pace to score in the 80s, I figured the Hoos just didn’t have it defensively on Saturday and that they’d lose by 20. Instead, Virginia used the under-12 media timeout in the first half to snap out of its defensive funk. The Hoos held Clemson to just 42 points over the next 32 minutes. Even better, they shot 48 percent, four Cavaliers finished in double figures, and Evan Nolte pulled off an impressive six trillion. I’m not going to pretend this makes Virginia a national title contender, especially considering how bad UVA looked at Virginia Tech on Tuesday, but it was refreshing to see the Hoos adjust on the fly instead of allowing the wheels to fall off.
As excited as all college basketball fans are to see this Saturday’s rematch between Duke and Syracuse, let’s not forget Virginia also gets a crack at Syracuse a week later. The final score of that contest may end up being 17-14, so maybe “excited” isn’t the right word, but I will definitely be intrigued to see two dominant defensive teams go toe to toe for the ACC crown.
Here’s what I learned from watching Arizona State beat Arizona in double overtime:
1. Arizona desperately misses Brandon Ashley. And I’m not just saying that because it’s convenient to blame Arizona’s recent struggles on Ashley’s injury. Without him on the floor, Arizona’s offensive spacing is nonexistent and scoring becomes an arduous task for the Cats. Ashley isn’t a knockdown 3-point shooter, but he hits 15-footers consistently enough to force defenders to leave the paint and guard him. A lineup including Aaron Gordon, Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson allows defenses to clog the lane and let Arizona’s guards jack up shots from deep.
2. I now assume every Arizona jump shot will miss. That’s the worst part about life without Ashley. If Nick Johnson and Gabe York weren’t throwing up brick after brick, Ashley’s absence wouldn’t matter nearly as much. But the poor shooting of Johnson and York allows defenses to pack it in even more, which means Arizona is pretty much just screwed on offense.
3. Arizona still plays great defense. ASU’s Jermaine Marshall had 29 and Jahii Carson went for 17 against Arizona, but the Sun Devils scored just 51 points in regulation, which is the lowest they’ve scored all season. Arizona had problems putting the ball in the basket, but it at least made sure Arizona State had the same problems.
4. Bill Walton is still the best. Walton is like a mellowed-out Dick Vitale, which is another way of saying he’s perfect.
5. Dave Pasch is the perfect partner for Walton. Pasch and Walton disagreed on almost every call the officials made on Friday, and it was great. It always happens, and it’s always great. My favorite moment, though, came when Walton was talking about Joe Caldwell, who played at Arizona State in the early 1960s and apparently had a 49-inch vertical. Walton told a story about how Caldwell would jump up and put marks on walls for people to try to touch. Walton finished the story by saying, “Even Wilt [Chamberlain] could never get that high.” Pasch responded, “I could say something right now, but I’ll let it go.” Sure, he didn’t actually pull the trigger, but the fact that Pasch almost said, “I’m sure you’d have no problem getting higher than Caldwell” put the biggest smile on my face.
6. Somebody named Matt Korcheck exists. Does Sean Miller realize it’s against NCAA rules to pull a guy off the street and add him to your team more than halfway through the season? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what Miller did with Korcheck. I’ve been watching Arizona games all season, yet when Korcheck checked in for Zeus less than four minutes into the ASU game, I actually asked an empty room, “Who the hell is this guy?” Did Jordin Mayes use the machine that turns Steve Urkel into Stefan and come out as Korcheck? Maybe that explains Mayes’s disappearance.
7. Pac-12 refs are still awful. Arizona didn’t deserve to win and I’m not going to suggest the Cats got screwed against ASU. But it blows my mind that there wasn’t a single technical foul called on the Sun Devils when Jahii Carson dunked to seal the game. I wouldn’t want to penalize ASU for its fans storming the court, but in this case, the fans were following the Arizona State bench’s lead. Plus, while all that was going on, Carson was doing more chin-ups on the rim than I did in all my elementary-school Presidential Fitness Tests combined.4 Again, Arizona State deserved the win. But it’s absurd for the refs to decide that when there’s a certain amount of time left on the clock, the rulebook goes out the window.
I know he did only one chin-up. There’s no need to rub it in.
8. Arizona will shatter the record for most court stormings per loss. In both games the Cats have dropped (they also lost to Cal), the home team’s student section has run onto the court with time still on the clock. And both times, after the kids were cleared off the floor so the Cats could heave a desperation shot, the students ran right back onto the court once the final buzzer sounded. This means Arizona is averaging two court stormings per loss, which has to be an all-time record.
7. Saint Louis
Yes, Saint Louis–VCU was a close game, and yes, VCU’s late 9-0 run to tie the game probably put a scare in Billikens fans, but it had been obvious to me since before halftime that the Billikens would win. Sure, Saint Louis took awful care of the ball throughout most of the game and Jordair Jett — a future inductee to the Khalid El-Amin Hall of Fame for great guards who look completely out of shape — took awhile to get going. But I never lost confidence in the Billikens because all game long, it was harder for VCU to score than it was for Saint Louis.
Before we go any further, we need to remember that the goal of VCU’s “Havoc” defense is to speed up offenses and force turnovers. The Rams don’t mind giving up easy buckets from time to time because that’s a necessary risk to take to force so many turnovers. So while it’s tempting to applaud Saint Louis for shooting 45 percent against one of college basketball’s best defenses, we should also acknowledge that the Billikens committed 17 turnovers, which was exactly what VCU wanted to happen.
What’s impressive about the Billikens, though, is that even when their offense fizzles, they don’t let it affect their defense. They forced VCU to commit 13 turnovers of their own and held the Rams to 38.5 percent shooting (including 2-of-16 from the 3-point line). So many teams — even those with great defenses — let offensive struggles bleed over to the other end of the court, but Saint Louis seems to play even better D when its offense struggles. It’s like all five Billikens players realize after a few missed shots or turnovers that their defensive margin of error is virtually nonexistent, and instead of tensing up from this pressure, they embrace the challenge and lock down their opponents.
That brings me to this question: If you had to root for a school that’s known for its defense, would you want to cheer for a team like Cincinnati or San Diego State, where one player like Sean Kilpatrick or Xavier Thames carries the offense single-handedly? Or would you want to support a team like Saint Louis, where Jett, Dwayne Evans, Rob Loe, and Mike McCall spread the scoring? Ohio State fans who are missing Deshaun Thomas this season are screaming, “The first option!” at the top of their lungs right now. But I’m not sure which is better. All I know is that as Saint Louis keeps winning and as Tom Crean keeps farting on Indiana fans’ pillows, the “Jim Crews to IU” crowd will get louder and louder.
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 Saturday’s Florida-Kentucky game played in Lexington, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Notre Dame?
A. A graphic is shown to promote an upcoming women’s game between Kentucky and Tennessee. Dickie V. says he thinks Tennessee has a Final Four–caliber team, but his pick to win the women’s national title is Connecticut. He says he thinks UConn will beat Notre Dame in the championship.
B. Dan Shulman reminds viewers that he and Vitale will be in the Durham–Chapel Hill area this week to do Thursday’s North Carolina–Duke game and Saturday’s Duke-Syracuse game. Vitale chimes in to say that he thinks Duke is playing as well as anybody in America. He then reminds viewers that the Blue Devils probably won’t win the ACC, though, because at the beginning of the season they lost at Clemson and Notre Dame.
C. Shulman mentions the inconsistency of Kentucky’s freshmen, and Vitale says he thinks the problem stems from so many opponents wanting to give the Wildcats their best shot. He says there’s something about seeing Kentucky on the front of the jersey that gets opponents excited, which also happens with Duke, the New York Yankees, and Notre Dame’s football team.
6. San Diego State
Whoa! Xavier Thames went 1-for-9 and scored four points, yet the Aztecs beat Utah State by 15?! Man, Winston Shepard must have been lights-out. There’s no way San Diego State wins by that much unless — wait, what? Shepard had only four points?! You’re telling me Viko Noma’aea of Utah State, who has played 52 minutes all season, outscored both Thames and Shepard? And San Diego State still cruised to an easy win against a team that took it to overtime in their previous meeting?!
I don’t know what to make of this. It’s phenomenal news for San Diego State fans that Thames and Shepard can have bad games without the Aztecs tripping over their own feet and accidentally lighting their faces on fire. It’s also phenomenal to see Matt Shrigley score as many points against the Aggies as he scored in his previous seven games combined. But I’ve already established my narrative for San Diego State and it’s way too late to change gears and reevaluate things. So please, Aztecs, get back to relying on great team defense and great Thames offense. Do it for me, so I can look good at this punditry thing. Thanks, guys.
Last week, I wrote about Kentucky’s struggles to get all its young talent playing together and on the same page. I noted that every game, one or two UK players disappear while another couple guys play out of their minds. I suggested that fans see names like Randle and Harrison on Kentucky’s roster, and they expect the Wildcats to be unstoppable, but the on-court product rarely matches those expectations. I might as well just copy that entire section on Kentucky and use it to describe Kansas. Here’s what I mean:
Andrew Wiggins — Been great lately, but not too long ago he followed up a 29-point, seven-rebound game by going 2-for-12 and fouling out against Texas.
Joel Embiid — Battles foul trouble just about every game.
Perry Ellis — Scored 32 points and grabbed eight boards against TCU on Saturday. Three days later, he went oh-fer at Texas Tech and finished with four points and two rebounds.
Wayne Selden — Scoring totals in the last six games: 21, 4, 17, 2, 15, and 6.
Naadir Tharpe — In the last month, he’s had two double-doubles and a game where he scored 22 points. He’s also had two games where he’s gone scoreless, he was awful at Texas Tech (38 minutes, 1-of-7 shooting, four turnovers, two assists), and he almost put up a 20 trillion at TCU.
We’ve seen glimpses of Kansas at its best at home against Kansas State and against New Mexico in December, but we still haven’t seen Kansas consistently play at its full potential. If you’re a Jayhawks fan, this must be frustrating, since now would be a good time for teams to find their groove and hit the ground running in the NCAA tournament. If you’re a fan of any other team, however, it must be frightening to think that the team with the no. 1 RPI in college basketball should be even better than it already is.
4. Wichita State
I’ve been following the Wichita State arguments almost as closely as I’ve been following the Wichita State basketball team. This is another way of saying I hate myself. There’s no point in arguing over which college basketball teams are actually the best. We have a tournament to sort that out. These midseason debates rank up there with getting hammered, going to Taco Bell at 2 a.m., and singing the “Do what you want with my body” song to five bean burritos before you shovel them down your throat on the list of things we should all be embarrassed that we do.5 Yet it’s impossible to type “Wichi” into Google without seeing suggestions like “Wichita State suxxxx!” or “Is Wichita State the greatest team ever?”
You also do that when you’re drunk at Taco Bell, right? RIGHT?
Let’s get this out of the way: People who say Wichita State will be the first 1-seed to lose in the first round are out of their minds. College basketball is more unpredictable than a curling rock coming out of John Shuster’s hand, so I can’t rule anything out. But the Shockers have basically been playing 16-seeds for the past couple months and they’ve taken care of each and every one of them. It’s safe to assume that, should the Shockers run the table and get a 1-seed, they aren’t going to falter in their first game.
That said, many Wichita State fans are too quick to point out that the Shockers made the Final Four a year ago. That doesn’t mean a damn thing this season. Yeah, experience is helpful, and we know that Gregg Marshall, Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early, and Fred VanVleet are good enough to make a deep tournament run. But being a 1-seed and being an 8-seed are completely different animals. Wichita State fans should know this as well as anyone. Remember what happened to the last mid-major that dominated the regular season, got criticized for its weak schedule, and wound up with a 1-seed? Of course you do. It was last year, and it was Gonzaga, and it lost to the Shockers in the second round.
Maybe Wichita State really was one of the four best teams in college basketball last season, but I’m convinced that playing without the pressure of Final Four expectations gave it an advantage that teams like Gonzaga didn’t have. This time around, the Shockers’ role will be reversed. Every team they face will be out for blood and will play as if they have nothing to lose — which is the exact combination that got Wichita State to Atlanta in 2013. Can an undefeated Wichita State still find a way to tap into the underdog attitude that made them so great last March? That’s the question that matters, not whether the Shockers are talented (they are), whether they’ve played anybody this season (they haven’t), or whether they’re better than last season (they are). But that’s the beauty of college basketball: It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. In a month, we’ll know for sure.
I had planned to focus on Duke’s narrow escape against Maryland on Saturday. I was going to discuss how the Blue Devils — one of the best 3-point shooting teams in America — couldn’t hit anything from behind the arc but dug down to play some uncharacteristically great defense and beat the Terps. I would’ve mentioned that I expected Duke’s shots to start falling in the second half and then for the team to pull away for the win. Only that didn’t happen. The Blue Devils kept throwing up bricks and their defense got worse. Then I would’ve concluded with my concerns about Duke — they’re toast if they play Syracuse and North Carolina the way they did against Maryland. But then Duke used great outside shooting and even better defense to blow out Georgia Tech on Tuesday, and my concerns were dismissed.
So instead I’ll say this: It hurts how much I like this Duke team. After I saw Duke play Kansas in November, I was terrified this might happen, which is why I’ve tried my darnedest to hate them. I tried convincing myself that Quinn Cook has a punchable face. I picked apart Jabari Parker’s game, waiting for some annoying tic to emerge. Well, here’s the unfortunate truth: Parker has a great attitude and is incredibly fun to watch, Rodney Hood is impossible to hate because he doesn’t say or do anything other than get buckets, and anyone who knows anything about Andre Dawkins wants nothing more than to see the guy succeed. Plus, the Blue Devils’ identity is “3-point shooters who don’t play defense,” which perfectly describes my entire life as a basketball player.
I know plenty of you are keeping the flames of Duke hatred burning, and I thank you for your service. And if you’re dreaming of a more appropriately loathsome Duke team next year, help is on the way. I’m fairly certain incoming freshman Grayson Allen will take fewer than 20 games to become the most hated player in college basketball.
If you need proof of how much chemistry and experience matter in college basketball, just watch the second half of Saturday’s Florida-Kentucky game. Florida scored on EVERY possession in the final 11 minutes (!!!). The Gators closed the game going 11-for-13 from the free throw line. Kentucky players hung their heads after missed shots and turnovers, while Florida never panicked and just played its game. Neither team was perfect, and I would’ve loved to see what might have unfolded if Michael Frazier had been hitting 3s and Julius Randle had showed up in the second half. But I thought Florida and Kentucky both played pretty well and, as clichéd as it may be when discussing these two teams, experience is what made the difference in the end.
Over the past few weeks, Florida has gone from the most underrated team in college basketball to everyone’s pick to win the national title — and with good reason. I know “SEC basketball” is something of an oxymoron right now, but it remains a major conference with historically great programs, and Florida is shredding the competition this season. The Gators are 12-0 and have won SEC games by an average margin of 13.4 points, which is insane when you consider that Wichita State is winning its league games by an average margin of 13.9.6 And best of all, Florida’s success is coming without any players who are certain to be on NBA rosters five years from now. Last week, I wrote that some people declaring the Gators the best team in America when Syracuse is still undefeated makes less sense than Florida’s student section believing they have a shot at getting Justin Timberlake to sing the national anthem. But the more I watch Florida play, the more I want to retract that statement and call it the best team in the country. The Gators are on a roll and they show no signs of slowing down.
Here are the other three teams undefeated in conference play and their respective margins of victory in those games: Stephen F. Austin (14.8), Saint Louis (8.7), and Syracuse (8.2).
Rest assured, I’ll be discussing how Tyler Ennis put on his Beats headphones against Pitt and gave college basketball fans permission to go ahead and tell everybody that he’s the man, he’s the man, he’s the man. But first I need to acknowledge how great my experience was at the game and at Pitt. I’ve lived a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh for more than seven years, yet up until a few weeks ago, it never crossed my mind to go check out a game at the Pete. I just always thought of Pitt as a good-but-not-great basketball program in a football/hockey town. I figured the atmosphere at Panthers games would be similar to Ohio State games.7
Something that didn’t help my perception was that Pitt put the courtside suites on the wrong side of the court. When you watch Pitt home games on TV, you see the suites instead of the student section, and you assume Pitt would rather make money than cultivate a crazy atmosphere. In truth, Pitt packs a ton of students around the court and gets the place hopping.
Um, no. The place was nuts from start to finish. It was the epitome of everything that makes college basketball great. And I know the circumstances of the game — Syracuse being undefeated, Pitt playing to avenge a close loss earlier this season, the Panthers needing a big win to ensure an NCAA tournament bid — helped crank the atmosphere up to the max. But I’ve seen a lot of college basketball atmospheres at their absolute best, and Kansas and Indiana are the only two places I’d say are better than Pitt.8 If you’re a college basketball fan who lives relatively close to Pittsburgh, do yourself a favor and find a way to get to the Pete.
Still on my bucket list: Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky (I’ve been to Rupp for a bunch of NCAA tournament games but never a UK game), New Mexico, Arkansas, Utah State, the Palestra, San Diego State, Iowa State, Maryland, and Oklahoma State/UCLA if those two ever get back to consistently filling their arenas.
As for the game — I’m so upset with myself. I was reminded early into the night why I rarely attend games in person. My phone was trying so hard to find reception that its battery was sucked dry. At the under-four timeout in the second half, I noticed something I was going to tweet, but decided not to when I pulled out my phone and saw it had 5 percent battery left. Here’s the tweet I would’ve sent:
Cuse looks way too calm, like they don’t realize they’re down four and have been outplayed all night. Like they’re certain Ennis is about to bail them out with a 35-footer.
OK, so I made up that second part. But having sat by the Syracuse bench, I was floored by how composed the Orange were in that timeout. It made me think: This is why they win so many close games. I’m not going to pretend that I thought they’d actually pull this one out, but I definitely noticed that Syracuse’s demeanor served as a reminder to Orange fans that they’d been in a similar spot before. If any other team would’ve looked this way, I might have interpreted it as a lack of passion or the team’s way of dealing with nerves. But with Syracuse, it felt like the entire team was about to wink at me and say, “Watch this.”
You know what happened next. And to be clear, it wasn’t just Ennis’s shot. C.J. Fair, who hasn’t been a very good shooter this season despite doing virtually everything else well, came off a screen and hit an off-balance 3 in the corner like he was Ray Allen. Then he followed that with a tough pull-up with a hand in his face, before letting Ennis do the rest. In what should come as no surprise, three days later against North Carolina State, those same two guys overcame bad individual games by connecting for the game-winning layup with seven seconds left in a one-point win. Fans of teams that have fallen victim to Syracuse’s late-game heroics will say things like, “Syracuse is overrated,” or, “The Orange are lucky,” or, “Dammit, Jamie Dixon,”9 or “I need a drink.” But at what point does this stop being luck and start being skill? I’d argue we’re well past that point.
The Halftime Contest of the Week
Pitt fans at the game were BRUTAL to Dixon for calling timeout before Ennis’s shot when Syracuse didn’t have any timeouts left. (A handful of guys waited at least 20 minutes after the game to yell at Dixon as he finished a radio interview and walked across the court to the locker room.) I also thought it was a terrible decision, but in retrospect it wasn’t that big of a deal. Did the timeout lead to some masterful set play for the Orange? No, it led to a double-teamed, off-balance 35-foot game winner. Dixon’s coaching decision wasn’t the difference. Tyler Ennis was the difference.
This has been making the Internet rounds the past few days, but it’s worth posting here in case some of you haven’t seen it. It’s best to know as little as possible before you watch it …
My power rankings of things I thought were going to happen as he retrieved his air ball:
1. He slips on the concrete after he steps off the court, hits his head, and the camera cuts off as blood spills everywhere.
2. He throws a full-court shot toward the other basket and makes it.
3. He trips over his feet at the free throw line as he runs back to half court, inadvertently throws the ball in the air, and makes it.
4. He shoots the ball from behind the basket immediately after he picks it up, and the ball hits off the basket support a couple of times before going in.
692. What actually happened.
Apparently the kid didn’t win the $10,000 he was playing for because the rules say he had to make the half-court shot in his first attempt, which seems pretty lame until you realize the clock operator clearly stopped the clock for a second or two as he was running back to half court anyway. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that getting a shout-out in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball is just as good as 10 grand.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is both A and C. This was meant to be a freebie for all of you who are terrible at this game. If you guessed B, maybe it’s time to give up on Dick’s Degrees this season and just try to come back strong in the fall. See you next week.