Before we get started, I want to clarify something. After last week’s inaugural power rankings, several readers asked why I ranked certain teams where I did and what those teams had to do to be ranked higher. I felt pretty insulted by this — not because some of you questioned my judgment, but because you referred to my power rankings as simply “rankings.” Let me explain why this is a big deal.
If for some reason I ever came across a magic lamp that was home to an unorthodox genie who, instead of wishes, granted opportunities to kick three people in the crotch as hard as possible without consequence, I’d use two of those kicks on the guy who came up with the term “power rankings.” That’s because there are few things in sports that irrationally annoy me as much as the thought of some writer years back who believed adding “power” to his rankings would make them more important than everyone else’s rankings. Thus, I’ve decided to mock everyone who has followed in that guy’s footsteps and adopted the ludicrous term the only way I know how — by relentlessly mimicking them until it becomes difficult to tell if I’m making fun of a dumb fad or if I have become the very thing I hate. So please respect my childish attempt at ridicule and refer to what I do here as power rankings. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
With that out of the way, let’s unveil the most powerful power rankings in all of college basketball.
Three times in the past calendar year I’ve watched TV by myself and been so amazed that I said “holy balls” out loud to nobody in particular. It happened when Osama bin Laden was killed and people took to the streets to celebrate, when (Breaking Bad spoiler alert) Gus walked out of Hector’s room with half of his face, and when Syracuse went on a 23-0 run against North Carolina State on Saturday. What made that 6½-minute stretch at the end of the first half so enjoyable was that the Wolfpack didn’t suck. The Orange just hulked up and asserted their dominance. They smothered NC State on the defensive end, forcing turnovers and bad shots, and when they got the ball they made the Wolfpack pay in every way imaginable. They scored on transition dunks, transition 3s, 3s from running their half-court offense, and even fed the post on one play that resulted in Fab Melo hitting a hook shot off the glass. I know NC State looks like a bubble team at best and an NIT 3-seed at worst right now, but even so, for those 6½ minutes I was convinced that Syracuse was better than every other college basketball team. Even Dennis Green would probably have agreed that we should’ve just crowned their asses right then and there.
But then a completely different Syracuse took the court in the second half, and it made me realize that perhaps we shouldn’t crown any asses just yet. After taking a 14-point lead into halftime, Syracuse let NC State storm back to tie the game in less than five minutes of play because the Orange adopted a “my turn” approach on offense. One of Syracuse’s biggest strengths1 is its depth. The Orange lead the country in bench points, and their bench actually outscored their starters on Saturday. Because they play 10 guys, and because six of those 10 are capable of putting up 20 points in a game, it’s pretty much impossible to stop everyone on the Orange. But this depth might also be the Orange’s biggest weakness — there are only so many shots to go around each game, and Syracuse has a plethora of guys who want to take those shots. NC State was able to claw its way back into the game because it seemed like Syracuse’s players thought they had already won. They stopped moving the ball on offense and just took turns throwing up bad shots.2 In the end, Syracuse had enough talent to pull away from NC State and guard its spot as the top team in America, but moving forward, its biggest challenge will be putting together 40 minutes of team offense to go along with its customary 40 minutes of dominant team defense.
Or “strenths” for all you Clark Kellogg, Hubert Davis, and Jon Sciambi fans.
Here are the number of completed passes in Syracuse’s first 10 possessions of the second half, with the end results of those possessions in parentheses: 3 (missed 3), 1 (fouled on shot, made one of two free throws), 3 (missed 3), 1 (missed midrange jumper, offensive rebound), 1 (missed 3), 2 (missed 3), 1 (attempt at second pass was stolen), 0 (attempt at first pass was stolen), 2 (made layup), and 3 (attempt at fourth pass went out of bounds). As a general rule of thumb, averaging 1.7 passes per possession is a pretty effective way of letting an opponent back in the game.
Since Kentucky basically took the week off by playing Chattanooga and Samford, I figured I’d use this space to address something from last week — Kentucky and Louisville fans lambasting me for writing that Indiana is Kentucky’s biggest rival. Now, let me first say that I’m fully aware that from an overall perspective, Kentucky’s biggest rival is Louisville and Indiana’s biggest rival is Purdue. Those in-state rivalries are more important to fans because the schools’ proximity results in overlapping fan bases. Kentucky and Louisville fans are friends, acquaintances, roommates, coworkers, drinking buddies, and sometimes even spouses. Ditto for Indiana and Purdue fans. With the exception of finding money in a pair of old jeans and sexual intercourse, there is nothing more enjoyable than gloating after a win over a rival. Kentucky fans who live in Bowling Green probably don’t interact with too many Indiana fans on a daily basis, so my guess is that they enjoy beating Louisville more than they do Indiana because they can’t rub their win in as much when they beat the Hoosiers. I get that. But from a basketball perspective, I have a hard time understanding how Louisville can possibly be a bigger rival to Kentucky than Indiana. Just look at the stats and tell me which rivalry is better:
In defense of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, it should be noted that the two schools didn’t play from 1959 to 1983 because Adolph Rupp loathed Louisville so much that he didn’t want to play the Cardinals. On the one hand, this highlights the hate that exists between Kentucky and Louisville. On the other hand, how can a rivalry between two teams exist if the two teams don’t even play each other? Ultimately, it’s up to Kentucky fans to decide which team is the Wildcats’ biggest rival, and since they obviously hate the Cardinals more than they hate the Hoosiers, I’ll admit that I was off base with my assertion that Indiana is Kentucky’s biggest rival. That said, I stand firm in my belief that the Kentucky-Indiana basketball rivalry is superior to the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry. I probably should have written that Indiana should be Kentucky’s biggest basketball rival, and for that I apologize.
3. North Carolina
North Carolina and Duke didn’t play any tough games this past week, and at the risk of getting fired for insulting the basketball program of my boss’ alma mater, UConn’s game against Holy Cross didn’t mean much either. But I will say this much about the Huskies: They are the most talented team in the Big East. Imposing your will on opponents is vital to success in college basketball, which is why most people consider Syracuse and Louisville the two best teams in the Big East, because of their suffocating defenses. But I wouldn’t be surprised if UConn ended up winning the conference, especially since guard play will be key to beating Louisville’s press and Syracuse’s zone, and the Huskies have one of the best backcourts in the country with Jeremy Lamb, Ryan Boatright, and Shabazz Napier.
A lot of people called me crazy for power ranking the Hoosiers fifth last week, but nobody who did so provided any reasons why Indiana was overrated other than “they just aren’t that good.” Meanwhile, I can point to the fact that Indiana is the only undefeated team in America that has beaten a top-10 team as proof that they belong this high. It’s easy to dismiss the Hoosiers because they aren’t overflowing with NBA talent, but the fact remains that Indiana has the best résumé in the country, and, though it may be hard to believe, it actually does have a very good college basketball team.
What makes college basketball so great, and what has inspired a ton of cheesy quotes3 and demonstrations4 is that the most talented teams don’t always win. To be successful, you need one NBA-caliber guy and a crew of adequate veterans who play hard, believe in their system, and know their limitations. Indiana had that exact mix in 2002, when it surrounded Jared Jeffries with a bunch of players nobody outside of Indiana could name, inexplicably bought into what Mike Davis was telling them, and were ultimately 10 minutes away from winning a national title. Now, 10 years later, this Indiana team is similar to the 2001-02 Hoosiers — it has a young, go-to big guy with NBA talent (Jeffries = Cody Zeller), an experienced big guy (Jarrad Odle = Christian Watford), a veteran point guard who can shoot (Tom Coverdale = Jordan Hulls), a senior leader on the wing (Dane Fife = Verdell Jones III), and a high-energy guy off the bench (A.J. Moye = Will Sheehey). It’s been proven time and again that teams need only a certain amount of talent to win in college basketball, and once that level is reached, what ultimately makes some teams better than others is how they play together. Indiana isn’t going to overwhelm any of its opponents, but it certainly has enough talent to win. And after a few years of getting walked all over by the rest of the Big Ten, the Hoosiers don’t have the same sense of entitlement that some other top teams have, which explains why they make up the talent gap by playing hard, playing smart, and playing together.
Such as, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Which reminds me: If you’re getting into coaching and you’re looking for a way to make your players want to punch you in the face, plaster this quote all over the locker room and make it your team mantra.
Like the “five fingers vs. a fist” thing. And yes, I agree that “Five Fingers vs. a Fist” would make an excellent porn title.
One final point on Indiana: If the first polls of the college basketball season came out on Christmas Day instead of early November, and if voters could vote based only on what has happened this season, Indiana would definitely be in the top 10 right now. Under any other circumstances, IU fans would be disgusted at how little respect their team is getting,5 but I’m pretty sure most of them don’t care because they are probably just happy to have a good team again and are still hungover from celebrating the Kentucky win.
Example: Syracuse’s win at North Carolina State was a “solid road win against a good team” for the Orange, while Indiana’s win at North Carolina State apparently didn’t count for anything, and the only good team the Hoosiers have played so far is Kentucky.
I’ve decided to implement a halftime break for each column, and this week I’m using the break to start a new game. It’s called “Dick’s Degrees of Separation,” and it’s inspired by the tangents Dick Vitale rattles off whenever he calls a game. Dickie V. has a habit of letting his train of thought get away from him, resulting in rants on a variety of topics that have little to do with his original subject. It’s like he’s playing six degrees of separation in his mind and wants to find a way to connect Kentucky’s ball screen defense to the cheeseburger he ate in Salt Lake City in 1979 while watching the Magic vs. Bird national championship game. To celebrate how entertaining Dickie V. can be, I’ve picked out my favorite Vitale tangent of this past week. I’m going to provide the end point of the tangent, as well as three potential pathways that arrive at the conclusion. From there, it’s your job to determine which tangent is real and which ones I made up. Good luck.
In a game between Indiana and Notre Dame in Indianapolis, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Andrew Luck?
A. While Notre Dame’s Scott Martin is at the free throw line, Vitale mentions that Martin transferred to Notre Dame from Purdue. Then he says that Purdue lost to Butler in the game played at Conseco Fieldhouse before Indiana-Notre Dame. He claims that this was a big win for Butler because it’s 5-6 right now and has two tough games coming up against Gonzaga and Stanford. After mentioning Stanford, Vitale is reminded of how he saw Colts president Bill Polian earlier that day and told him to use the first pick of the NFL draft on Andrew Luck.
B. A fan wearing a Santa suit inspires Vitale to mention that Tom Crean is going to have a merry Christmas this year for the first time since he got to IU, because the Hoosiers will probably be undefeated heading into the holiday. He says he would love to be at the Creans’ Christmas dinner because Crean’s brothers-in-law are Jim and John Harbaugh. This prompts Vitale to say that Jim Harbaugh deserves to be the NFL coach of the year because he turned around the 49ers in his first year after coming from Stanford, where he coached Andrew Luck.
C. Vitale notices that Tom Crean is animated on the sideline and compares Crean to Bob Knight. This prompts Vitale to mention that Knight is the best coach alive because he’s the second-winningest college basketball coach ever behind only his protégé, Coach K. He then talks about how Coach K has built his own impressive coaching tree, and uses former Duke player and assistant (and current Stanford coach) Johnny Dawkins as an example. This prompts Dickie V. to talk about the job that Dawkins is doing at Stanford, and how he has a chance to turn it into a basketball school after the recent success that the football team has enjoyed due to Andrew Luck.
I’ll provide the answer to this week’s “Dick’s Degrees of Separation” in my next column and tweet it sometime before then. In the meantime, I have a good feeling we’ll be playing “Dick’s Degrees of Separation” during future halftime breaks, so I suggest you take notes while watching Dickie V.’s games.
7. Ohio State
Here’s something we kind of already knew but now know definitively: Ohio State is screwed without Jared Sullinger. For those of us who follow Buckeye basketball closely, this is both obvious and a bit surprising. It’s obvious because Sullinger has been nothing short of dominant thus far in his young career. He’s a double-double machine who pours in points while also opening things up for his teammates by commanding a double-team pretty much anytime he catches the ball in the post. If he chose to stay at Ohio State for four years, he would undoubtedly end up as one of the top two or three Buckeye basketball players of all time.
But as unstoppable as Sullinger has been, Ohio State has a ton of other talented players, such as Will Buford, Aaron Craft, and Deshaun Thomas. The Buckeyes seem to have enough pieces to survive a few games without the big fella, yet in their two biggest games without Sullinger — on the road against Kansas and South Carolina (yes, I’m counting the South Carolina game as being played without Sullinger) — they have looked sloppy at best and disoriented at worst. It’s debatable how much of this can be blamed on the fact that these two games were OSU’s first two road games this season. What’s not debatable — well, in my opinion — is that Sullinger should have locked up the National Player of the Year award these past two weeks, because Ohio State doesn’t look close to being one of college basketball’s best teams without him.
The good news for Ohio State fans is that Thomas has emerged as a legitimate scorer in Sullinger’s absence. If the Buckeyes need him to be the main offensive option during a big game later this season because Sullinger is in foul trouble or something, OSU fans should now have confidence that he has the ability to step up and do it. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen to me for a year and a half now that Thomas could end up being the best pure scorer in Ohio State history. Few people agreed with me last season, when his awful shot selection and distaste for passing made him incredibly polarizing to Buckeye fans. But now that he has averaged almost 20 points over his past five games, OSU fans are finally starting to understand why I’m so high on Thomas. This year, he has a better understanding of what Thad Matta wants from him, which is why he has looked like a future lottery pick in recent weeks. If Ohio State is going to cut down nets in April, Thomas will need to play a huge role down the stretch, so seeing him play so well in Sullinger’s absence can only be a good sign for the Buckeyes.
The bad news, though, is that despite Thomas’ offensive explosion and Buford’s stretches of brilliance, the Buckeyes without Sullinger have been unimpressive. This is primarily because Ohio State’s offense is geared around getting the ball to Sullinger and playing off him in the low post. Without him on the floor, they have no interior offensive threat, so guys like Buford6 and Thomas have to work much harder to get open. The offensive struggles then carry over to defense and everything snowballs from there.
When Sullinger’s out, nobody misses him more than Buford. After playing with him for two years and watching him closely for one more, I’ve figured out this much about Buford: He loves being the second option. Playing alongside Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger for his entire career, Buford has been the second-leading scorer in each of his seasons at Ohio State, and when you watch him play it’s easy to see why. He has all the talent in the world and could easily average 20 points a game if he wants, but he’s content to letting guys like Turner and Sullinger get all the attention. It’s almost as if he wants opponents to forget about him. Without Sullinger, teams key on Buford defensively. He can certainly handle it (21 points at Kansas and 17 at South Carolina), but he clearly prefers a supporting role. This is probably why Thomas increased his scoring while Sullinger was injured and Buford’s output hardly budged. Buford is at his best when he lets Sullinger get all the attention and flies under the radar for most of the first half. He gets his defender to think he’s taking the night off, then goes on a second-half scoring spree that makes neutral fans say, “Oh shit, I forgot they have Buford, too.” Ideally, he’d be more assertive offensively, but aside from last season’s NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky, Buford’s method has worked pretty well for him.
Luckily, it appears that Sullinger (knock on wood) won’t miss any more games. But even though he put up another double-double Tuesday night, I’m still not convinced he’s 100 percent healthy, so I’m going to keep the Buckeyes at no. 7 for now. With a big New Year’s Eve game at Indiana looming, I have a feeling they won’t be power ranked this low for long.
In their first real test of the year, Baylor looked unimpressive in the sense that it struggled to beat an unranked BYU team. But it also looked impressive in the sense that it rallied on the road to win in as hostile an environment as can be created by a bunch of classy Mormons who made a sign congratulating Robert Griffin III for claiming the school’s first Hesiman. If I were a Baylor fan, I wouldn’t be too concerned with the Bears pulling out a squeaker at BYU.7 BYU is a decent team, and Baylor demonstrated some poise and grit to close out the win. Instead, I’d probably focus my concern on why A.J. Walton is still starting over Pierre Jackson, even though Jackson has consistently outplayed Walton and typically ends up playing more minutes in Baylor games anyway.8
Fact: That Baylor win will be the only thing pulled out on BYU’s campus this year.
Seriously, can a Baylor fan explain this to me? Is Walton actually much better than Jackson but he just happens to be in a slump right now? If not that, then what? I really want an answer to this.
I’m terrified to say anything about Missouri. Anything I write could easily blow up in my face after the Tigers play Illinois tonight. If I praise them for winning all their games by an average of almost 28 points, for being second in the country in points per game, and for being third in the country in team field goal percentage, it’s almost guaranteed that Illinois will get after it on defense, shut Missouri down, and bring the Tigers crashing down to earth. And if I point out that Missouri’s toughest opponent so far was Cal, that it played the Golden Bears in Kansas City on the second night of a back-to-back, and that Cal plays only seven guys, it’s inevitable that the Tigers will run Illinois off the floor and make me look like an idiot for ever doubting them. So I’m just not going to say anything. And by that, I mean I’m going to point out Missouri’s great play so far while also pointing out its weak schedule, so that no matter what happens against Illinois, my ass is covered.
Last week, I power ranked Louisville 10th because I had doubts about its offense. I’m pretty sure Rick Pitino printed that column out and hung it on the bulletin board in the Louisville locker room, because in their very next game the Cardinals hung 95 points on a decent Memphis team. Now, I have no problem giving credit where it’s due, and coming five points shy of 100 against Memphis proves that Louisville isn’t completely incompetent on offense. At the same time, I’m not fully convinced that Louisville should be considered good on offense, because scoring 95 against Memphis had less to do with Louisville’s offense than with the pace of the game.
Against Louisville, most teams play slow to limit the number of turnovers and rushed shots that Pitino’s pressure defense wants to create, because turnovers and rebounds from bad shots lead to easy transition points for the Cardinals. But Memphis took the exact opposite approach and embraced the up-and-down tempo. This led to a ton of possessions and a ton of transition points for both teams, and this explains more than anything else why Louisville seemed to explode offensively. The Cardinals did execute some half-court offense at times, but even then I got the feeling that Louisville scored so easily because I’m pretty sure Tigers coach Josh Pastner put his team together by going to a random YMCA in Memphis and offering every high school kid a scholarship, which is my way of saying that the Tigers have a bunch of “hoopers” on their team instead of basketball players.9
For those who don’t know the difference, just think of hoopers as streetball guys. Hoopers aren’t big fans of structure or having to think about plays while on the court. For the most part, they’re the guys who try to go one-on-one every time they touch the ball.
So, the bad news, Louisville fans, is that I can’t move the Cardinals from their no. 10 power ranking because the results from the Memphis game were inconclusive, thanks to an unusually fast pace and the fact that Memphis’ players seemed both lost and disinterested on defense. If the Cardinals can light up the scoreboard against Georgetown and Kentucky in the next week and a half, I’ll gladly power rank them higher. Until then, the jury’s still out.
If I were the type of guy who felt the need to place a contrived and oddly specific label on every team in college basketball, Florida would definitely be my “team that is flying under everybody’s radar because it has lost two games but is actually sneaky good since its two losses were close games on the road against the best two teams in America.” Ohio State is the best team in the country with a fully healthy Jared Sullinger, but for stretches of the Buckeyes’ game with Florida, the Gators looked like they were much better than Ohio State. In fact, a week and a half after that game, Thad Matta told me that the Gators outplayed Ohio State and he had no idea how his team won. He also called Florida one of the five best teams in the country. I’m guessing I value Matta’s opinion more than you do, but still — the fact that a guy who coached against the Gators went out of his way to praise them so much is enough to confirm my impression that they are good enough to be a Final Four threat. The fact that they lead the country in 3-pointers made per game, they are third in scoring, they have my favorite freshman in the nation to watch in Brad Beal, and they just obliterated a good Texas A&M team only solidifies this belief.
Xavier was playing without its two best gangsters, Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, when it got zipped up by Oral Roberts, so it’s tough to punish the Musketeers too much. I mean, N.W.A. imploding when Ice Cube and Dr. Dre left is proof that losing your two best gangsters is a recipe for disaster, so it would have been unrealistic to expect Xavier to cruise against Oral Roberts. But at the same time, it would have been fair to expect them to not get blown out at home by Oral f’ing Roberts, so I have no choice but to power rank them lower this week.
The “Even Dan Gilbert Thinks Phil Martelli Is Acting Like a Vengeful Dick” Moment of the Week
Here’s a synopsis: Todd O’Brien played for Martelli at St. Joseph’s for two years before deciding to transfer to UAB for graduate school. O’Brien had one more year of eligibility and hoped to play basketball for UAB. This sort of thing happens every year at schools all over the country. And when it happens, under NCAA rules the coach of the school the player is leaving has to sign the player’s release so he can continue his career elsewhere. The fact that coaches have to release players so they can play at other schools is pretty ridiculous in its own right, but since no coach could possibly be a big enough dick to not release a kid who wants to transfer, it has never really been that big of a deal. Until now, that is, because apparently Martelli is a big enough dick and he’s refusing to sign O’Brien’s release.
What’s worse, the NCAA, who could very easily step in and make everything right, denied O’Brien’s appeal and basically sided with Martelli. But hey, at least you can’t say the NCAA doesn’t care about its student-athletes. No, wait. I got that wrong. What I meant was that the NCAA couldn’t possibly care any less about its student-athletes. Yeah, that’s much better.
O’Brien wrote a firsthand account of the ordeal on SI.com on Tuesday, so I’ll let just him tell his story.
Happy Holidays and New Year. See you in 2012.
Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is scheduled to be released in March. You can follow him on Twitter at @clubtrillion.
Previously from Mark Titus:
December 15 Titus’ Top 12
What We Learned From UConn-Harvard
The Tar Heels Have No Interest in Defense (and Other Observations From North Carolina-Kentucky)
Challenge Talk: An ACC Fan Gets Real With A Big Ten Fan
Introducing the Club Trillion National Player of the Year Belt
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