There are probably hundreds if not thousands of people in the world smarter than me. With that said, I’d like to think I’m still smart enough to know that scheduling the first road game of the year in hornets’ nests like Assembly Hall and Allen Fieldhouse probably isn’t the best idea. Yet on Saturday, top-ranked Kentucky and second-ranked Ohio State both played their first true road games of the season in the loudest basketball arenas I’ve ever been to, and both lost to pretty good teams — Indiana and Kansas, respectively. In Ohio State’s case, maybe the idea wasn’t so bad, since the Buckeyes have only one freshman in their regular rotation and probably would’ve won if Jared Sullinger had been healthy enough to play. But in the case of Kentucky, a team that starts three freshmen and gives another significant minutes, it probably wasn’t wise to schedule the first road game of the year against its biggest rival. Especially when that rival has the single most hungry fan base in college basketball, and when those fans were sure to be the perfect combination of drunk1 and desperate for a return to national relevance that all 17,000 of them would make as much noise as possible for the entire game. Perhaps Kentucky and Ohio State should’ve followed the lead of North Carolina, which scheduled its first road game at UNC Asheville, most likely because the Tar Heels knew they’d cruise to a win and it would give them some experience playing in another team’s gym before their marquee road game at Kentucky. Sure, they ended up losing to Kentucky, but their loss can be attributed more to the fact that they didn’t play defense for most of the game than to the possibility that they were rattled by the hostile environment.
This isn’t a criticism, but rather a statement of fact. As a born-and-bred Hoosier, believe me when I say that there are only four things people do in Indiana: play/watch basketball, watch auto racing, get drunk, and wonder why they still live in Indiana.
Nonetheless, thanks to questionable scheduling (and Sullinger’s back spasms, in the Buckeyes’ case), the top two teams in college basketball lost last week and made the task of ranking the nation’s best teams a difficult one. As is usually the case, the AP and coaches both whiffed in their attempt to accurately rank the best teams in America. This is why now seems like a good time to launch my college basketball column, which I’m calling Titus’ Top 12 for no other reason than I’m an alliteration aficionado. Throughout the season, I’ll be here each week to impart my vast college basketball wisdom in the form of my top 12 power rankings, which is really just another way of saying I’ll be here to upset at least a couple of schools’ fan bases and get personally attacked on Twitter. But before I get to this week’s power rankings (remember: These aren’t just rankings — they’re power rankings), I want to lay out my methodology. It’s simple: These rankings are a reflection of which teams I think are currently the best. Or, more specifically, what I would expect the results to be if the NCAA tournament started today. That’s it. I don’t care what the real rankings are, and you’ll quickly learn that I’m not one who follows typical ranking rules, such as thinking that Team A shouldn’t leapfrog Team B if Team B didn’t lose during the past week.
Anyway, now that we got the housekeeping out of the way, in the words of the chick from Cake Farts, “let’s get this done.”
A good deal of college basketball fans believe that Syracuse didn’t really earn its no. 1 ranking in the AP and coaches’ polls, and instead feel that the Orange are ranked first simply because Kentucky and Ohio State lost. Those fans think that way because they are stupid. The truth is that the Orange do deserve the top ranking. They are the best team in the country right now and the odds-on favorite to stay undefeated longer than any other team in the nation this season.2 And really, it’s easy to see why: They play good defense; they have balanced scoring; they have guys who can shoot, guys who can get to the rim, and guys who can do both; they have a deep bench; and they have more experience than pretty much every other elite team. Syracuse has yet to play a game outside of New York, and their lack of a legitimate inside scoring threat is worrisome, but we’ll soon learn how serious those concerns are. For now, though, I have yet to see a reason why I shouldn’t consider the Orange to be the best team in college basketball.
Syracuse’s first road game against a ranked team likely won’t come until February 13, at Louisville, which will be the Orange’s 27th game. They do play Marquette, Pitt, Georgetown, and Louisville at home before then, but they should be expected to win those games since they’re playing at home.
Some of you may disagree with me power-ranking the Wildcats so high after they lost on Saturday. Here’s how I rationalize it: (1) They are loaded with freshmen who were playing their first road game. (2) Indiana fans created what will probably be the most hostile environment in college basketball this season. (3) They essentially played without their best two players, since Anthony Davis was in foul trouble and Terrence Jones disappeared. (4) Indiana is much better than anyone seems to want to admit. And (5), despite all that, the Hoosiers still needed a contested last-second shot to beat Kentucky.
Now, it’s nobody’s fault but Kentucky’s that Davis picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes left and Jones looked like he was trying to exert as little effort as possible for most of the game. That said, it’s hard to imagine that the Wildcats will have another game this year in which both Davis gets in foul trouble and Jones tries to put up a 30 trillion. And even if they do, Kentucky will probably be fine, because chances are the Wildcats would still have the best player on the court without Davis and Jones. With that in mind, maybe I should have ranked the Wildcats no. 1, since there isn’t a team I’d be more nervous for my favorite team to play right now. Plus, it will only get harder to beat Kentucky since John Calipari will no doubt use the Indiana loss to teach his team that it isn’t invincible. But the Wildcats do have some flaws — Doron Lamb is their only 3-point shooter, and they still look like a group of individual players more than a team — and they were outplayed by Indiana, so for this week, at least, no. 2 seems fitting.
3. North Carolina
When I wrote that the Tar Heels didn’t play any defense in their loss to Kentucky, a number of Carolina fans took offense. My Twitter feed was full of Tar Heel fans asking if I even watched the game, while pointing to a bunch of stats that supposedly prove that North Carolina has one of the best defenses in the country. I’ve watched the game at least five times now with my sole focus on Carolina’s defense, and I still can’t figure out how anyone who watched the same game believes that North Carolina had any intensity, pride, or sense of urgency on defense at any point before the last 90 seconds or so, when they realized they had to get some stops.
Sure, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, and Justin Watts, in their defense (pun absolutely intended), did get after it on D. But these three are role players who play defense because North Carolina’s four main guys don’t. Tyler Zeller puts forth the effort, but he’s limited athletically. Kendall Marshall played most of the game with his hands at his side, possibly because he knows that good defense won’t add to his assist total. And John Henson, who is probably the best shot blocker in college basketball, didn’t look to me like a great defender as much as a guy who blocks a ton of shots because he has longer arms than Dhalsim from Street Fighter II.3
While watching the Kentucky game, it seemed to me that Henson’s defensive strategy was to “let the guy I’m guarding dribble wherever he wants, and if he shoots it, I’ll try to get a hand on it.” This philosophy works great against teams like Tennessee State. Not so much against Kentucky, which is why Terrence Jones went off on Henson in the first half.
Then there’s Harrison Barnes, who is one of the five best players in America. He should set the tone for the Heels, but he’s so blatantly disinterested in defense that I literally started laughing at one point while watching the Kentucky game.4 For most of the game he stood straight up on defense, got lost on screens, didn’t close out hard to shooters, played no help-side defense, showed no understanding of helping the helper, allowed his man to dribble penetrate way too easily, and didn’t seem to care about blocking out. Outside of UConn’s Jeremy Lamb and my irrational love for Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, there isn’t a guy in college basketball I’d rather watch on offense than Barnes, but his lack of defensive effort was a huge disappointment. It’s keeping him from being a truly special player, and keeping Carolina from being a dominant team.
If you DVRed the game and haven’t deleted it yet, fast-forward to 18:35 left in the game, hit play, and keep your eyes locked on Barnes. Now, try not to laugh when he completely gives up as he’s screened, and then halfheartedly closes out to the shooter by walking and nonchalantly throwing his hand in the air to make it look like he’s trying to contest the shot.
That’s the problem with Carolina. If it was just a little bit defensive-minded, it’d be far and away the best team in college basketball, and probably one of the great all-time teams. With its length, athleticism, and potent offense, it could wreak so much havoc on teams that some of its opponents would seriously consider forfeiting at halftime. The Tar Heels are still on a short list of teams that have a legitimate chance of winning a national title, and I still wouldn’t want my Buckeyes to have to play them in March. But it also frustrates me that they aren’t playing anywhere near their full potential, because their collective effort on defense isn’t there. Because the ACC is having a down year, the Heels probably won’t need to play much defense until their February 8 matchup with Duke. Here’s to hoping that they can find some defensive pride between now and then.
Baylor is quietly turning into a Final Four contender and an early favorite to win the Big 12 title. Now that the Bears have Perry Jones III back from suspension, the trio of Jones, Quincy Miller, and Quincy Acy may be the best frontcourt in college basketball. At the very least, it’s the frontcourt with the most Quincys (or is it Quincies?). They still haven’t faced any tough opponents, and likely won’t get a good game until they play Mississippi State at the end of December, but they did destroy a halfway decent Northwestern team5 on the road in a game for which Vegas inexplicably made them underdogs. With Robert Griffin III winning the Heisman, the women’s basketball team ranked no. 1, and the men’s basketball team looking like an early Final Four threat, now seems like as good of a time as any to be a Baylor fan.
I’ve said it every year for the past five years: This is the year Northwestern finally makes it to its first NCAA tournament.
This time I’m not kidding. For whatever reason, nobody outside of Indiana wants to acknowledge the fact that the Hoosiers are one of the best teams in the country. Hell, even as I wrote the phrase “the Hoosiers are one of the best teams in the country” it felt weird. But the truth is that with an unblemished record and a victory over the no. 1 team in America, there isn’t a team in college basketball that at this moment has a better résumé than the Hoosiers.
What makes it hard to believe that Indiana is actually good is that it is essentially the same 12-20 team from last season, plus Cody Zeller. While Zeller has been great thus far and has made a huge difference by giving Indiana an inside scorer for the first time in four years, I think the Hoosiers’ best start in two decades can also be attributed to the fact that their veterans improved a ton over the offseason. They are playing really well together. With the exception of Zeller, there probably isn’t a single player on Indiana who would get minutes for Kentucky, but the Hoosiers were able to upset the Wildcats because they played better team defense and executed their offense better than Kentucky did. And make no mistake about it — even though it took Christian Watford hitting the most significant shot in Indiana basketball history to clinch the win for the Hoosiers,6 Indiana was the better team for most of the game.
Keith Smart’s shot to give the Hoosiers the 1987 national title over Syracuse was probably “bigger,” but Watford’s is more significant because of what the Indiana basketball program has had to endure over the past few years. No college basketball program has ever been gutted like Indiana was when Kelvin Sampson spent two years in Bloomington swapping chocolate chip cookies with oatmeal raisin cookies and wiping his ass crack on Indiana fans’ pillows. Watford’s shot wasn’t just Indiana winning one game over Kentucky — it was affirmation to Indiana fans everywhere that the program’s darkest days are behind it, and Indiana basketball is officially back.
Moving forward, the challenge for Indiana will be dealing with the target growing on its back, which is something that none of these players have had to do at the collegiate level. My guess is that Indiana will lose a few games it probably shouldn’t lose because of this, but aside from that it seems built for long-term success. It’s got everything you want in a team — shooters (Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey, and Watford), penetrators (Sheehey, Verdell Jones III, and Victor Oladipo), slashers who can finish above the rim (Sheehey, Oladipo, and Daniel Moore), physical big men (Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston), scoring big men (Zeller and Watford), a senior leader (Jones), and a go-to guy (Zeller). Really, all that’s missing from Indiana’s program now is some self-respect from their fans, which is something they clearly don’t have, considering that a majority of them know the words to this song and think the video is awesome.
After getting an atomic wedgie from Ohio State a couple of weeks ago, Duke seems to have gotten back on track with a blowout win against Colorado State and a “much more of a blowout than the final score indicated” win against a decent Washington team. Perhaps the most surprising development in these two games is that, to his credit, Austin Rivers’ Punchable Face has been playing really well. He’s been so good that I have no problem admitting that I enjoy watching him, and I don’t think his face is quite as punchable as it was at the start of the season. He has drastically toned down his douchebaggery and is starting to let his game do the talking. But don’t you worry — ARPF7 still shows flashes of entitlement (like when he pouted during the Washington game because he was in foul trouble and eventually fouled out), so it’s still way too early to abandon my mission to change the phrase “douche chills” to “Rivers quivers.” Let’s see how the next month plays out and go from there.
7 — Tie. UConn
I say we shorten the nickname and just go with “ARPF,” which of course should be pronounced like the sound a seal makes instead of saying each letter individually.
In its biggest game so far this season, UConn manhandled 24th-ranked Harvard at home last week. For most people, the takeaway from this game was that Harvard probably shouldn’t have been ranked. For me it was that UConn looked every bit the team everyone expected it’d be in the preseason. True, Harvard may not have been good enough to compete with a top-10 team on the road, but at the same time Harvard looked so mediocre because UConn smothered it on defense. Meanwhile, offensively, Andre Drummond tried to tear down the rim every time he touched the ball down low, Tyler Olander knocked down midrange jumpers, and the backcourt trio of Jeremy Lamb, Ryan Boatwright, and Shabazz Napier proved to be too much for the Crimson to handle. UConn has flaws — the biggest is its lack of a big guy who can score using post moves — but if the Harvard game is any indication, I have a feeling the Huskies will hit their stride heading into conference play.
7. — Tie. Ohio State
Like a homeless guy whipping out his dong and doing cartwheels in Times Square, the Buckeyes grabbed a lot of people’s attention when they beat the mess out of Duke last month. Many observers were quick to anoint my alma mater the best team in the land, probably because everyone hates Duke and watching Duke get blasted made people feel like they were Oompa Loompas watching Dorothy’s house land on the Wicked Witch of the East. After Ohio State lost at Kansas on Saturday, these same fans were quick to point out that the Buckeyes played without Jared Sullinger and shouldn’t be punished that much, because with Sullinger they’re still the best team in America. While I happen to agree with the second half of this statement, the fact is that the Buckeyes don’t have a completely healthy Sullinger right now and likely won’t have him back to 100 percent until the start of the Big Ten season. Without him at his best they just aren’t part of college basketball’s top tier. Once Sullinger fully heals and gets back to being his dominant self, chances are I’ll vault the Buckeyes to a first or second power ranking. But after watching the Ohio State offense (and defense, for that matter) struggle without Sullinger at Kansas, and then follow that with a lackluster performance in Sullinger’s first game back against USC Upstate last night, I can’t convince myself to power-rank them any higher than seventh.
Let’s not pretend there’s anything to talk about here other than the fight between Xavier and Cincinnati on Saturday. Here are my three thoughts on the ordeal:
- Both teams are at fault. Whenever punches are thrown on the court, my first thought is to figure out who started the fight so I can abandon every ounce of respect for him. In this case, however, there wasn’t a clear instigator. On one hand, Tu Holloway is to blame because he got in Ge’Lawn Guyn’s face to set the whole thing off. Then again, that sort of thing happens pretty frequently in basketball games, and the situation didn’t escalate until Guyn apparently tried to push Holloway in the face. Still, if the Xavier players would’ve taken the high road by backing away and pointing at the scoreboard instead of Dezmine Wells shoving Guyn, the incident wouldn’t have been a big deal. After the shove, of course, Cincinnati’s bench seemed a little too eager to fight. It looked like they were waiting for a reason to run on the court and start swinging. The entire incident was ugly, and both teams should split the blame, but the one person I think isn’t at fault at all is Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates, since I can honestly say that I, too, would’ve wanted to sucker punch Kenny Frease if he had outplayed me and led his team to a blowout win.
- Anybody who had a hand in letting Holloway and Mark Lyons speak to the media after the game should be immediately fired and forced to eat nothing but Skyline Chili’s 5-Way Chili for a month. If you haven’t already, watch the video of Holloway and Lyons talking about the fight. Unless you are completely out of your mind, there’s a good chance you’ll have the exact same thoughts about what came out of their mouths that I did.
- After both schools handed out suspensions, my brother asked me if I thought the NCAA would step in and lengthen any of them (especially Gates’ six-game suspension, since Gates was the one who should be charged with assault for making Frease’s head bleed). My response was, “Of course not — as long as the NCAA can make billions off of you, and as long as you don’t think you’re entitled to a cut of any of that money, they don’t care what you do.” When I originally said that to him it was meant to be a joke. Now I’m convinced it’s the truth.
Louisville fans are going to roast me for ranking the Cardinals so low. There’s nothing I can say to make them ease up on me, so I’ll keep this short and sweet: Louisville has too much trouble scoring for me to consider it anything better than the 10th-best team right now.8 Having said that, its defense is second-to-none, and there’s nothing I’ll enjoy more this season than listening to commentators avoid mentioning that Kyle Kuric is a 6-foot-4 white guy when they talk about how surprising it is that he can jump so high. Louisville has a decent test this weekend against Memphis, but we’ll really see how good this team is at the end of December, when it faces Georgetown and Kentucky in back-to-back games. For now, it just hasn’t showed enough on offense for me to consider it one of the premier teams in the country.
Of the top 10 teams in the coaches’ poll, Louisville is dead last in points per game and field goal percentage by a wide margin — the Cards are 115th in the country with 71.6 points per game, and 111th in the country with 45.2 percent FG%. The next worst offense in the top 10 is Xavier, which is 86th with 74.1 ppg and 58th with 47 percent FG%.
Marquette gets the nod over Missouri simply because it beat Wisconsin in Madison, which, I can tell you from experience, is almost as difficult as singing Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” in front of a mirror without making a sad face.9 Meanwhile, even though Mizzou has mutilated just about everyone it’s played thus far and will probably end up being a little bit better than Marquette, the Tigers haven’t been tested yet and we won’t see what they’re made of until they play Illinois next week. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that both of these teams are playing really good basketball right now and aren’t getting the respect from the national media that they deserve, as evidenced by the fact that I just grouped them together, made an Enrique joke, and ultimately wrote one vague paragraph about them. Whoops.
The College Basketball Tradition That Would Never Work at a Big School But at a Small School Just Might Be the Coolest Thing in the World of the Week
Go ahead and try it. I’ll wait.
As a signoff for each column, the plan is to name the “____ of the week.” For this one, I’m going with “The College Basketball Tradition That Would Never Work at a Big School But at a Small School Just Might Be the Coolest Thing in the World of the Week.” There’s a good chance that a lot of you have already heard about or seen this tradition either this year or in the past few years, but it’s so cool that it’s worth posting if even one reader hasn’t seen it before. The video does a good job of explaining what’s going on, so instead of telling you what happens and ruining the surprise for those who haven’t seen it, I’ll just let you watch the video. See you next week.
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:
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
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased Big Ten College Basketball Spectacular
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