Wednesday, January 9, will go down in infamy as the Night of Two Dunks. It started with Illinois’ Brandon Paul trying his luck against Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe:
On any other night, that would easily be the top jam. It was so good that if you had to nominate 10 dunks for some kind of Dunk of the Year award, it would be an automatic entry. There’s no way there will be nine better in the entire season. The idea of topping it that same night was ludicrous; at most, you might have a dunk that looked exactly the same, but it wouldn’t be quite as cool because it came second.
And then San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin did this:
I mean … he threw that self-pass from behind the 3-point line. It was an assist, a rebound, and two points! (Not really, but still.) Unlike Paul’s dunk, which was demonstrative and physical, this was insanely clever and weirdly pragmatic. Most slams are acts of athleticism or intimidation; this was strategy. But at the same time, it demonstrated ridiculous physical superiority. I cannot stop gushing about this dunk. It’s the ultimate combo of brains and brawn, and it’s my Dunk of the Year.
Top 10 time!
10. Colorado State at no. 16 San Diego State, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Network
The Wooden Award released its 25 finalists, and I was pleased to see that Franklin made the cut. And then I read the bottom of that story and came across this:
“Nothing, though, is final. New names can be added to the list while old ones can be removed.”
So, in other words, your list is meaningless? Instead of calling it the “Wooden Award Finalists,” the new official title should be “A List of Some Dudes Who Might Win.” I hope I’m not offending the ghost of John Wooden, but that’s kinda silly, right?
Anyway, Franklin put up a ridiculous 20 point, 18 board, five assist game against Fresno on Wednesday, and for a 6-foot-5 guard, those are man vs. boys numbers. There have been six triple-doubles in Division 1 this season, and my bet’s on Franklin to be next in line. The only thing he can’t do? Shoot 3’s.
Colorado State, though, is perennially overlooked in a stacked Mountain West, and they won’t be easy to beat. The Rams have already notched quality wins against Washington and Virginia Tech this season, and this one should be close.
Two closing thoughts here:
1. Tim Miles making the coaching move from Colorado State to Nebraska was based on a bygone notion of how to advance up the ladder, and was very, very stupid. Just ask Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. Instead of continuing to build a mid-major and making a name for himself, he bolted too early, and it’s hard to imagine how he’ll do anything but languish at the bottom of the Big Ten for years.
2. The greatest part about the death of the Big East is that Boise State (ELORRIAGA!) and probably San Diego State will stay in the Mountain West and keep an excellent basketball conference intact.
9. No. 12 Illinois at Wisconsin, Saturday, 2:15 p.m., Big Ten Network
Illinois shoots 3’s at the 16th-highest rate in the country, and here’s how they’ve fared from behind the arc in their three losses to date: 8-32, 10-26, 3-24. If you’re an Illini fan, that middle number scares you the most, because it’s actually pretty good, and it means that your team will lose games even when it’s hitting a lot of 3’s. But the other numbers aren’t much better; they show that Illinois is quite capable of dying by the 3 on any given night. And when you consider that the last loss came to Minnesota, a strong perimeter defense team, it casts serious doubt on the viability of the Illini offensive attack. All of which is to say that Wisconsin is great on defense, as usual, and should win by 10. Beyond that, though, I’m starting to seriously wonder whether Illinois is an NCAA tournament team. When you look at their schedule, it’s easy to think they might get only one road win all year, and I’m not sure they can even get to 9-9 in conference.
8. No. 4 Arizona at Oregon State, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPNU
We learned on Thursday that I was wrong, and that Arizona had not, in fact, sold its soul to the devil for an undefeated season. The question now is how far are they going to fall, and how fast? There’s no denying this team’s toughness — they almost pulled off another Houdini escape act against Oregon — but after they survived scares against Colorado and Utah, you have to wonder if their first loss will open the floodgates. Oregon State is by no means a tough opponent, but that hasn’t been a requirement lately for the ’Cats. And maybe Craig Robinson will finally tap into that ol’ Obama magic and pull off a stunner.
7. Saint Louis at Temple, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU
After a rough start to the season that included the tragic loss of Rick Majerus, their best player (Kwamain Mitchell) sitting out because of injury, and three losses in five games, the Billikens have reeled off nine straight wins. The most impressive of those was a dominant 60-46 thrashing of New Mexico, a very good mid-major team, and now it’s time to take them seriously. If I sound a little smug in this section, it’s because I called this in the preseason, picking Saint Louis as one of my “Dangerous Outsiders” while noting that a slow start was imminent because of Mitchell’s injury. Now they’re back, playing great defense and gradually improving on offense as Mitchell finds his rhythm and 6-foot-11 center Rob Loe proves himself a dangerous post player.
As for Temple, all they’ve done is beat Syracuse, nearly topple Kansas in Lawrence, and position themselves as one of the best mid-majors in the country. Look for a really low-scoring game here (St. Louis plays verrrrry slow, and Temple never turns the ball over), one that will likely be decided by Khalif Wyatt’s performance for the Owls. For what it’s worth, I’ve got St. Louis winning a big road game, 61-53, and crawling nearer and near to the top 25.
6. No. 10 Missouri at Ole Miss, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN3
Honestly: This is the token SEC game. Outside of Missouri (bad game coach), Kentucky (mega-talented, maddeningly inconsistent), and Florida (very good, but choke artists), the conference is really, really bad. But in any terrible conference, it’s always interesting to try to guess the team that will go 12-6 and earn a 5-seed. My guess, at the moment, is that it’s Ole Miss. The main thing in their favor is that they only play Florida and Kentucky once each, but at the moment they’re in the top 40 of adjusted offense and defense, per KenPom. In the SEC, that should be good for 12 wins easily. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this game to see how their excellent-to-date perimeter defense holds up against Phil Pressey and company.
5. No. 14 Butler at Dayton, Saturday, 2 p.m., NBCSN
The Atlantic 10 is now fantastic. They’ve managed to build an exciting basketball conference with at least eight possible NCAA contenders, and though they might be decimated next year when the Catholic Big East refugees poach all the good teams, this year should be excellent. At the moment, Dayton is my pick for a team whose poor start was a misrepresentation of their ability, and who could easily play back from a 10-5 record. Three of their losses so far came by two points or fewer, and the others were to Colorado and VCU. There’s a definite ceiling on the Flyers (wordplay!), but at home I think they’re capable of beating Butler-type teams.
As for Mr. Brad Stevens, that dapper up-and-comer, I’m still not sure what to make of his Bulldogs. I guess I should stop being cynical, since they’ve reeled off 10 straight wins and beaten Indiana and St. Joe’s along the way, but I can’t help feel that they’re still vulnerable against teams who can score. Fair or not, that 78-61 loss to Illinois lingers in my mind. Needless to say, I’m very excited for their Jan. 19 Bracketbusters showdown with Gonzaga.
4. Maryland at Miami, Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPNU
Is there some serious ACC bias happening here? Yes, yes there is. But you know how we talked about semi-good teams putting up crazy records in bad conferences? These are the two teams in the ACC who fit the mold. Two road wins for Miami at Georgia Tech and North Carolina, who were both supposed to be kinda good, has suddenly put them in position as possibly the second-best team in the conference after Duke. And guess what? They get the Blue Devils in two weeks at home, without Ryan Kelly. I’m going to stop typing before I talk myself into crowning an ACC champ that lost to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State earlier in the year.
Maryland’s star was looking pretty bright a week ago, but they hadn’t played anybody, and after their loss to FSU by three at home, everybody’s writing them off as a December mirage. That could change in one game …
3. No. 2 Michigan at no. 15 Ohio State, Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS
I’ve been saying a few things over and over for about a month, and this weekend is the hour of my reckoning. Shane Ryan Repeated Claim no. 1: Michigan is the real deal, and could win the Big Ten by two or three games. For my claims to be justified, the Wolverines have to beat Ohio State on the road. There’s no alternative, because OSU has looked pretty mediocre in road losses to Illinois and Kansas. They’ll still win a lot of games, but if Michigan is actually elite, they win this game. I can’t hide behind my predictions anymore.
2. No. 1 Duke at no. 20 NC State, Saturday, Noon, ESPN
Here’s a quote from everybody, all year: “Duke’s really good, but they have no depth, and they can’t afford an injury.” We shouted it long and hard, screaming our lungs out until Murphy’s Law took effect and screwed up Ryan Kelly’s foot. That’s how the universe works. And now, there’s a question: What does Duke look like without him? The answer, last season, when Kelly missed the NCAA tournament with an injury to the same foot, was “first-round loss to Lehigh.” The answer this year is yet to be determined, but it’s unfortunate for the Blue Devils that they had exactly zero games to prepare for Kelly’s absence before facing what might be their hardest road challenge of the year. I’ll be in Raleigh tomorrow, and I promise to give you the straight dish on Monday.
One more thing: Mason Plumlee is widely considered one of the top five candidates for Player of the Year, and I guess I’m on board. He’s been great at rebounding and passing and getting to the line and even making his foul shots (though those numbers are starting to fade). But if he actually contends, he’ll be one of the least polished offensive post players ever to be considered for such a major award. After four years, Plumlee has improved in many areas, but he still doesn’t have an ounce of grace or fluidity when he gets the ball in the post. I was watching him in the first half against Clemson on Tuesday, and was astounded by how little he’s progressed. It’s a small sample, but I’ve made a video of every first-half possession where Duke got the ball in the post and Plumlee tried to score:
Duke fans always get mad at me for criticizing him, so again I emphasize that he’s been excellent in other facets of the game. But based on watching him maneuver with his back to the basket, I’m afraid he’s reducing himself to a guy who can finish alley-oops, or pass out of the post. But he’s certainly not someone you need to double.
1. No. 8 Minnesota at no. 5 Indiana, Saturday, Noon, Big Ten Network
Shane Ryan Repeated Claim, no. 2: Indiana is massively overrated. If that’s true, they’ll lose to Minnesota. I wrote about the Gophers yesterday, and how impressed I am with their toughness and skill. Add in their excellent defense — on the perimeter and inside — and this is exactly the type of team that should beat Indiana. Even on the road? Well, Assembly Hall is notoriously tough, and … no, forget it, I’m not giving myself any outs. Even on the road. If they don’t win (and believe me, I’m nervous), I’m going to have to start reconsidering my Hoosier position and risk having to admit I was wrong. I hate that.
But it’s not going to happen. Golden G’s by 10. Have a great weekend.