I’m starting a petition to have every free throw during college basketball broadcasts to be shown from the perspective of the shooter. Why? Because the hilarity of student sections using props to distract free throw shooters is at an all-time high. San Diego State started the big head ploy in 2002, and it seems that in recent years every college basketball program has caught on. Now, student sections across America are forced to be even more creative with their free throw distractions. During the San Diego State–Utah State game, the U. State students held up an enormous backboard with a basket attached while a fat guy in the front row dressed as Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. jiggled his belly. Some girls in the Minnesota student section took selfies during the Gophers’ game against Wisconsin, which would’ve given me the urge to throw the ball at them if I were on the free throw line. And then there’s the “Khem Kong” that UNLV unleashed this week.
I can’t wait to see what college hoops fans come up with next. Although, can it go much further before the NCAA gets involved? Would holding up a giant mirror to mess with the shooter’s depth perception be crossing the line? What about using pyrotechnics like they do in soccer?
I guess there’s only one way to find out.
I know that the most powerful power rankings in college basketball haven’t paid much attention to the Blue Devils for a while, but I didn’t realize it had been this long. Duke is now outrebounding teams that rebound well? The Blue Devils played solid defense at Pitt? Rasheed Sulaimon is starting and playing 25-plus minutes? Marshall Plumlee had seven points and seven rebounds in the same game? Everything I thought I knew about Duke is a lie.
In all seriousness, Duke is back to playing great basketball, and Jabari Parker deserves much of the credit. He’s averaging 18.75 points and 11.75 rebounds over his last four games, and his defense is improving rapidly. During that same stretch, Andre Dawkins has hit multiple 3s in each game, Rodney Hood has shot 48.7 percent from the field, Amile Jefferson has been a beast on the boards, and Quinn Cook hasn’t committed more than two turnovers in a game. Most impressive, though, is that Tyler Thornton was an assist and a foul away from a 14 trillion at Pitt. And did I mention that Marshall Plumlee scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds in the same game? I did? Well, did I mention that this means Plumlee has as many seven-point, seven-rebound games this season as Russ Smith, Nik Stauskas, Wayne Selden, Trevor Cooney, Yogi Ferrell, Scottie Wilbekin, Brady Heslip, and Phil Forte combined? I’ll give you a second to clean up the mess that was made when your brain exploded.
I swore off Cincinnati in December, after the Bearcats got smoked by Xavier in the Crosstown Classic and then beat Pitt 44-43 three days later. When I woke up from the coma the Pitt game had induced, I created a new rule for the most powerful power rankings: Any team that scores 91 combined points in back-to-back games automatically gets a one-year ban. Well, with so many other top teams losing and the Bearcats on a 12-game winning streak, I’ve been forced to break my own rule.
In fairness to Cincinnati, the Bearcats absolutely deserve to be included in the top 12. They’re a slightly worse version of San Diego State — they have one of the best defenses in the country and their offense is so bad that lazy writers can’t help but call it “offensive.” Just like San Diego State has Xavier Thames to carry the offense, Cincinnati has Sean Kilpatrick to shoulder the load when their scoring grinds to a halt, even though he disappeared during Temple’s second-half comeback against Cincinnati on Saturday. Plus, like San Diego State’s win at Kansas, the Bearcats have a huge road win (at Memphis on January 4) that came during a lengthy winning streak.
Cincinnati faces Louisville on Thursday in a game that could go a long way in determining both the AAC title race and the Bearcats’ eventual seed in the NCAA tournament, but they might be without leading rebounder and second-leading scorer Justin Jackson, who sprained his ankle Saturday. Nobody likes to see injuries affect big games, but if he can’t go there’s still a silver lining: If a depleted Cincinnati lineup falls to Louisville, that means we’re one step closer to Cincy getting the same NCAA tournament seed as Saint Louis and Ohio State. This, of course, is a big deal because I’ve been having night sweats for a month thinking about how a matchup between two of those three teams — all of which play great defense and practically no offense — might turn casual fans away from basketball for the rest of their lives.
There’s no telling when Iowa fans are going to stop drinking. A week ago, I thought Iowa was in position to make a run at their first Big Ten title since 1979. Now, the Hawkeyes have dropped two straight to fall three games out of first place, with their latest misstep coming Tuesday night in a heartbreaking overtime loss against Michigan State.
I get it. I’d be depressed too if for one nearly 15-minute stretch of the game, Russell Byrd made more field goals than my entire team. But there are plenty of reasons for Hawkeyes fans to remain optimistic.
For instance, Iowa played its best defensive game of the season Tuesday night. Against Michigan last Wednesday, the Hawkeyes reacted on defense instead of forcing the action. This is an important distinction. Great defensive teams don’t wait for the offense to make the first move and react accordingly — they force the offense to do what they want them to do. Michigan has one of the best offenses in America, so it’s not like there’s any shame in them scoring on you. But it felt like Iowa’s defense was way too passive in that game. The Wolverines had their swag turned up to 11 all night and they celebrated pretty much every basket by holding up their follow-through motions, chest bumping each other, wearing their loose butthole monocles, and doing whatever else guys do when they hit big shots. Given that Iowa goes 11-deep and foul trouble should never matter for them, I wanted to see more physicality. I wanted to see the Hawkeyes take it personally that Michigan was so confident and not be afraid to send a message with a hard foul or two.
Tuesday night was a step in the right direction. I mean, at this point in the season you are who you are, and Iowa is clearly an offensive-minded team. The Hawkeyes are never going to be great on defense, nor do they need to be. But opposing offenses still need to feel Iowa’s defensive presence. Michigan didn’t feel that last Wednesday. Tuesday night, though, the Spartans felt some pressure, and that’s a great sign for Iowa fans. You have to assume that there won’t be many more games where Iowa’s offense performs as poorly as it did against Michigan State, so if the Hawkeyes can maintain the defensive effort they showed Tuesday night, maybe the Iowa fans won’t have to resort to binge drinking.
Creighton Doug McDermott
Jon Taffer just barged into the room where voters decide who wins the national player of the year awards and yelled, “Shut it down!” a half-dozen times. Doug McDermott was already the front-runner, but after Tuesday night’s performance against St. John’s, he could sit out the rest of the season and still win the thing. In case you missed it, McDermott finished the game with 39 points, six rebounds, and the game-winning 3 with 2.8 seconds left. He’s now averaging 25.0 points and 7.1 rebounds for the team at the top of the Big East standings, and he has quieted critics who claimed last season that much of his success came from playing in a lesser conference. McDermott can score from anywhere on the court no matter who is guarding him. In short — it’s sacrilege for me to say this, so give me a second to collect myself here — sigh … he’s everything Adam Morrison should have been.
Is Creighton really the ninth-best team in college basketball right now? I have no idea. If the Bluejays are hitting 3s, they might be the best. If they aren’t, they’re just McDermott and a handful of decent guys. But I’m certain of this much: The Bluejays have become appointment viewing. If their shooting outburst against Villanova wasn’t enough to convince you of this, McDermott’s heroic effort should cement their status. No matter who they’re playing, you can turn on a Creighton game and be pretty sure you’re going to be thoroughly entertained for two hours. And the icing on the cake? Fox holds the rights to the Big East, which means there’s a good chance Gus Johnson will be calling the game.
8. Michigan State
“Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ (what)
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ (come on)
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ (yeah)
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’”
The genius of Fred Durst is that while many have speculated as to exactly what the above lyrics refer to, nobody knows for sure. Is he advocating not stopping at stop signs? Is he giving step-by-step instructions on how to properly store a sleeping bag? Or is the words’ sole purpose just to distract people into trying to figure out what Durst means so that they don’t realize the title of his album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, is a pretty dirty innuendo? The world may never know.
Here’s what I do know: Durst might as well have been talking about the 2014 Michigan State Spartans. Every week brings new injuries or illnesses, yet they find ways to keep rolling. Tom Izzo has basically been handed Gary Harris, Keith Appling, a rusty steak knife, and a gift card to Chili’s with only $1.37 left on it, and he’s turned that into one of the best teams in America.
I know Michigan State lost to Michigan at home over the weekend, but the performance at Iowa on Tuesday night more than made up for it. Just think about this: If I would’ve told you three months ago the Spartans would go on the road to play a top-15 team that’s 11-0 at home, that their opponent averages the eighth-most points in America, that the opponent would shoot 43 free throws, that Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson wouldn’t play, that Gary Harris would score just nine points, and that Russell Byrd, Alvin Ellis, and Gavin Schilling would play a combined 44 minutes, how large of a points underdog would you expect Michigan State to be? More or fewer than 60?
Michigan isn’t halfway through the Big Ten season yet, but if it continues this pace without Mitch McGary, the Wolverines should qualify for the Ewing Theory, right? Let’s review the two stipulations for the Ewing Theory to apply:
A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
I know, I know. Trey Burke was the best player at Michigan last year and the Wolverines went to the Final Four. But if you look at the wording above, it doesn’t say “best player.” It just says “star.” And while McGary wasn’t consistently great last season, he was a star during the NCAA tournament. Also, even though Michigan had a great run last March, the Wolverines didn’t win the Big Ten, didn’t win the Big Ten tournament, and didn’t win a national championship. But to be fair, Michigan did win the preseason NIT, and making the Final Four is definitely “substantial,” so maybe the theory doesn’t work from 2013 to 2014.
But what if we look at just the 2014 season? McGary was a first-team preseason All-American, he certainly got an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and the Wolverines started the season ranked seventh. But in the 10 nonconference games that McGary played, Michigan went 6-4, lost the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship, and lost every game it played against currently ranked teams.
This satisfies Part 1 of the theory. Let’s look at Part 2:
That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency, or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
In this case, it seems fair to count the Big Ten conference schedule as “the following season.” And I think it’s also fair to say that several fans and experts wrote off Michigan in the Big Ten race. Michigan diehards will say they knew this team could be great and they knew Nik Stauskas was more than just a spot-up shooter, but most of them are bald-faced liars, and the ones who aren’t lying were probably drunk with homerism when they said the Wolverines were still contenders after McGary went down. Sure, Stauskas showed he could put the ball on the deck last season, but there’s a vast difference between that and his ballhandling this season. Last year, he dribbled to either suck in defenders so he could pass out to a shooter or to finish at the rim. He wasn’t catching the ball at the top of the key, dribbling backward to create space to take defenders one-on-one, and then crossing guys over into step-back fadeaway 3s. He didn’t jab-step, take a few power dribbles, spin off a defender, and throw a lob to Glenn Robinson III. Yes, he was always more dynamic than a guy like Baylor’s designated shooter, Brady Heslip, but saying that Stauskas could’ve done all of this last season if Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. weren’t dominating the ball is insulting to the amount of work he put into the offseason.
But here we are, and Stauskas is leading the way while Michigan plays its best basketball of the season. They just knocked off three top-10 teams in three straight games, and they’re the only undefeated team in one of the nation’s best conferences. Again, there’s still a ton of basketball to be played, so I’m not quite ready to submit this case to the Ewing Theory committee, especially since the chairman is my boss and presenting an incomplete case to him would be the most embarrassing moment of my professional life. But if Michigan wins the Big Ten, I suspect the 2013-14 Wolverines will go down as a home run case of the Ewing Theory. Either that, or I’ll officially proclaim the Ewing Theory the most confusing thing I’ve ever encountered.
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 Michigan–Michigan State game in East Lansing, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Pittsburgh?
A. Dan Shulman informs viewers that Michigan State is wearing throwback uniforms to pay homage to the 1979 national championship led by Magic Johnson, prompting Vitale to say that Magic is probably pleased with the Spartans’ play this season, but that he must be disappointed with his struggling Lakers. Vitale says he thinks the Lakers should make a push to sign Carmelo Anthony this summer. After a beat, he says Carmelo is probably happy with the Orange, too, as Syracuse is 19-0 and first in the ACC after beating Pittsburgh last week.
B. Shulman, a Canadian, mentions that Nik Stauskas is from Ontario, like he does anytime he calls a Michigan game. And like he does whenever Shulman mentions this, Vitale says that Canadian basketball is on the rise. He says Andrew Wiggins might be the first pick in the NBA draft, but to him the best Canadian in college basketball right now is Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis. He says that even though he really likes Jabari Parker, he thinks Ennis will be the ACC freshman of the year. Shulman then asks Vitale who he thinks will be the ACC player of the year. Vitale says C.J. Fair, but implores viewers to not count out Lamar Patterson of Pittsburgh.
C. A pair of Wooden Award candidates are shown onscreen, prompting Shulman to ask Vitale if Doug McDermott would be his pick for the award right now. Vitale agrees before suddenly changing the subject, for seemingly no reason, to say that Duke has been playing really well in its last four games. He says the Blue Devils are defending and rebounding well for the first time all season, but they have a tough challenge coming up on Monday at Pittsburgh.
6. Wichita State
Another week, another handful of easy wins for the Shockers. I know it’s not Wichita State’s fault that its conference is so bad, but it’s near impossible to come up with compelling new insights about this team every week. There are only so many times I can write, “The Shockers play great defense, Ron Baker is a complete player instead of just a shooter, Cleanthony Early is versatile, and Fred VanVleet is one of the best point guards in America, but I still have doubts because they don’t play anybody.” So I say screw it — I’m taking this week off. I might take next week off, too, and just wait until Wichita State’s February 5 game at Indiana State, which should be the Shockers’ toughest test of the season.1 In the meantime, if you feel cheated for not getting your weekly taste of Shockers basketball, let Tekele Cotton’s nasty dunk against Illinois State hold you over.
5. San Diego State
Before this season is over, I’m going to beg the Grantland suits at least a dozen times to assign an investigative report on the hairstyles of Mountain West basketball players. There has to be something about that conference that compels so many guys to get creative with their follicles. If I didn’t know better, I might guessed that the San Diego State–Utah State game was played in the early ’90s. It’s been years since basketball has seen an Afro as glorious as Jalen Moore’s. Josh Davis rocks cornrows, which aren’t quite as much of a throwback, but I’m pretty sure they became old-school as soon as Carmelo Anthony got rid of them. J.J. O’Brien has a solid high-top fade. And Sean Harris, who got completely snubbed from the Triangle’s All-Redhead Team, puts O’Brien’s effort to shame. Throw in Khem Birch’s red streak and Kawhi Leonard’s and Tony Snell’s cornrows in previous years, and suddenly there’s enough evidence to suggest that something awesome is going on in the Mountain West. All that’s missing is a Jheri curl and the Mötley Crüe big-hair look from the ’80s.
But enough about hair. Let’s talk about why San Diego State’s victory at Utah State is my pick for its most impressive win of the season. The Aztecs were awful for pretty much the entire 45 minutes. Xavier Thames was the only San Diego State player to show up on offense, and even though the Aztecs entered the game with the best field goal percentage defense in the country, Utah State shot 52.7 percent against them. I know it seems counterintuitive to applaud a bad performance, but it’s remarkable that the Aztecs played so poorly at one of the toughest home courts in America and still managed to win. It speaks volumes about how mentally tough this team is. There were at least five different times during that game when I felt certain San Diego State would lose, especially when Spencer Butterfield’s desperation 3 sent the game to overtime for Utah State, got the home crowd going nuts, and gave the Aggies all sorts of momentum. But the Aztecs forced enough turnovers and Thames hit so many clutch shots that San Diego State managed to steal a win, and that’s the mark of a great team.
For most of this season, I’ve felt like a doomsday picketer standing on a street corner, yelling into a megaphone that Florida is a national title contender.2 Don’t you people get it? Why is nobody listening to me?! The Day of Judgment is coming! Repent now or feel the wrath of Florida in March! Finally, at long last, the secret is out. Florida is as good as any team in college basketball.
If the only time you saw Florida play was when you were multitasking and you just had the game on in the background, you might think the Gators’ balanced offense is what makes them so good. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. After all, five Florida players average double-digit points and the Gators shoot 46.3 percent from the field as a team. But the truth is that Florida’s defense is what puts it in the national title discussion. Saturday against Tennessee, that defense held the Vols to 26.8 percent shooting (including 1-for-19 from 3) and just 41 points, which is the third-lowest point total in an SEC game in the last 15 years. Tennessee’s Jordan McRae, one of the top scorers in the SEC, finished with five points. Most impressive, though, was how Florida’s press rattled Tennessee’s experienced guards. The Vols threw the ball all over the place trying to break Florida’s press, forcing Cuonzo Martin to call three first-half timeouts. And even though Florida was up only seven at the break, you could sense that Tennessee would’ve been content if it didn’t have to return for the second half.
I didn’t want to bring this up earlier because I was afraid I’d jinx the Gators, but I think it’s now a safe bet to say that for the first time since 1933, Florida’s basketball team will finish with fewer losses than its football team in the same academic year.3
Kansas blew out TCU in its only game this week, which raises an important question: How the hell did Kansas lose at TCU last season? I still can’t wrap my mind around it. TCU is 2-23 all time in the Big 12, and one of those wins came against a fifth-ranked team that won its ninth straight Big 12 title and earned a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament later that year? Huh? I know the upset was a big deal when it happened, but it was such a freak occurrence that I think we should still be talking about it. TCU should hang a “We Beat Kansas” banner in its rafters. Hell, Missouri should hang a “TCU Beat Kansas” banner in its rafters.
Anyway, after essentially getting a week off, Kansas has another tough stretch of games coming up, starting Wednesday night at home against Iowa State. Although, if Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid keep playing as well as they have (Wiggins’s game against Oklahoma State notwithstanding), I’m not sure it matters who is on the Jayhawks’ schedule. Jabari Parker is throwing his hat back into the ring with three straight double-doubles, but I still think if the NBA draft were held today, Embiid and Wiggins would essentially be locks to go no. 1 and no. 2. Which brings me to this stat: Every NCAA team that has had the top two picks in that year’s draft on its roster has won the national championship. Sure, the only time that ever happened was in 2012 with Kentucky, but if I learned anything in my 12th-grade Advanced Placement stats class, it’s that a sample size of one is plenty big enough to extrapolate from.
It seems like you can’t put a microphone in front of Jim Boeheim these days without hearing him say that his team isn’t that good and that it should have lost a handful of games by now. It’s Coaching 101 to play down how good your team is, which is why under most circumstances I’d take Boeheim’s words with a grain of salt. But he actually has a point – despite an unblemished record, Syracuse has flirted with a few losses this season, including Saturday at Miami. So much of the Orange offense is based on forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. In both of their matchups this season, Miami slowed the game down and took care of the ball, and as a result Syracuse was forced to pull out two close games that on paper probably should’ve been blowouts.
But here’s where Boeheim’s downplaying act loses me: Syracuse has some stone-cold assassins on its roster. It’s no accident that the Orange have found ways to win every close game they’ve played so far. I mean, the scouting report against Syracuse isn’t a secret. It doesn’t take a 10-year, $32 million–plus contract extension to know you have to protect the ball against the zone and limit the Orange’s transition points. But Syracuse opponents always come up short because Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair eat Cinnamon Toast Clutch for breakfast. When Miami took the lead with 8:20 left, most players on an undefeated team on the road would probably clench their butt cheeks and just try not to mess up. Ennis and Fair, however, seem to play even better with the game on the line. Saturday, after Miami took a late lead, the pair combined for 11 of their 29 total points. This sort of thing has happened in just about every close game Syracuse has played, which explains why Fair is a strong national player of the year candidate and many people think Ennis is the best freshman in a loaded class.
So, yes, Coach Boeheim, your team could definitely play better. But pretending it’s a miracle they’re still undefeated takes a level of downplaying that only a coach who has won 939 games can pull off.
If you were wondering about the worst-case scenario for this Arizona team, Sunday’s game against Utah might have been it. Because the Wildcats missed 14 of their first 15 jump shots, an emphasis was placed on getting to the rim. But Utah’s physical front line clogged the lane and forced most of Arizona’s drives to end with offensive fouls or wild shots. And when fouls were called in Arizona’s favor, Aaron Gordon, who is shooting an abysmal 45 percent on his free throws, was often the player who ended up at the line. To get an idea of how ugly this game was for Arizona, just read the first sentence of the AP recap:
“Aaron Gordon went on wild, fruitless drives to the basket, repeatedly shook his head in frustration and shot a free throw that had a better chance of bouncing off the floor into the basket.”
Utah paired its physical defense with a slow, methodical approach on offense that left the Wildcats defense impatient for much of the game. The Utes may not have gotten the win, but they managed to expose the formula for beating Arizona. Of course, it’s one thing to have the formula and a completely different thing to have players who can execute it. And most of the teams with the talent to pull it off probably also have an ego that might prevent them from changing their style of play to counter Arizona’s. For example, say Michigan State gets 100 percent healthy and plays Arizona in the NCAA tournament. The Spartans have been a transition team all year. There’s no way Tom Izzo would tell his team in the 39th or 40th game of the season to suddenly start walking the ball up the court. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Izzo to say, “I don’t care that they’re undefeated and ranked first. We’re better than Arizona. They should change how they play to stop us, not the other way around.”4
One final thought on Arizona: I realized this week that the only senior on its roster is Jordin Mayes, who pretty much averages a trillion per game this season. After Grant Jerrett blindsided them by declaring for the NBA draft after last season (which ended up being a good thing for Arizona, by the way), Wildcats fans have probably conditioned themselves to expect their starting five to turn pro if the Cats make the Final Four. But the truth is that Gordon is the team’s only first-round lock right now, and while he’s good enough to be a top-five pick, he desperately needs another year in college to improve his outside shot. This means there’s a strong likelihood that Nick Johnson, T.J. McConnell, Brandon Ashley, Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Gabe York will all return next season. Before you crown Arizona the 2015 national champions, though, I think it’s worth mentioning that should Gordon decide to turn pro, Arizona will struggle to find someone to repla— OH WAIT NEVER MIND.
Well, the next year and change should be fun in Tucson. Even though I’m sobbing in the fetal position while clutching a picture of the 2011 Ohio State team and yelling, “Why?!” over and over, Arizona fans should know that I’m totally happy for you. I really am.
The College Basketball Players Laughing at Sexual Innuendo Video of the Week
A reader named Patrick tweeted this at me, and I had to share it because it has everything I could ever ask for in a video. Read: It has key players for the second-ranked college basketball team in America laughing at immature sex jokes. Now, there’s a decent chance that I misinterpreted this and that C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, and Michael Gbinije are laughing at an inside joke. But judging from the fact that they laugh hardest at the phrases “sucked the life out of them” and “I just put it in so fast,” I think I got this one right. Watch the video and decide for yourself.
My question is whether they planned this before the interview or just kept catching themselves saying funny phrases in the moment. I suspect it’s the former, and that’s why I think I just found my three favorite players in college basketball.
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The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.