Remember that period in college basketball history when the last two weeks of December were the worst of the season? When exam time and cupcake schedules made for a miserable, dormant period leading up to the excitement of conference play? That epoch lasted from 1891, when James Naismith invented basketball, to 2011, when Kansas beat Toledo A&M 145-6 on December 31.* But it all came to an end in 2012, because, holy sweet Moses, we were treated to some spectacular action in the last two weeks of 2012. (I want you all to know how hard it was for me not to swear in that sentence. Right now, looking back, I can spot nine different places where an f-bomb would’ve felt really good.) It started with three exciting games on Saturday the 22nd, when Temple upset Syracuse, Kansas beat Ohio State, and Missouri out-gunned Illinois, and continued all the way to New Year’s Eve and Gonzaga’s road win over Oklahoma State. Hardly a day passed without a great game, or at least an interesting one. Our fan cups ranneth over.**
*Some liberty is taken with historical facts.
**My fan cup has a magazine photo of Coach K steam-pressed onto the side.
It felt like I should’ve been there for you guys, writing something smart, but instead I just gorged on cookies and pie at my mom’s house for two weeks. In the end, I think I made the right choice. (You don’t know heaven until you’ve dipped a snickerdoodle into pumpkin pie and then poured milk all over yourself just because it’s not your furniture and you’ve always wondered what that would be like.) But to atone for my absence during that solid stretch of hoops, I’ve put together a few videos of the most amusing/heartbreaking/theatrical moments of the year-end frenzy, and I’ll include them along with the top 10 games of the weekend.
10. Miami at Georgia Tech
Hey, look, it’s an ACC team that was supposed to be good, but probably isn’t, against one that was supposed to stink, but might not. Did you get all that? Tech has an insanely balanced scoring attack this year, and second-year coach Brian Gregory has his guys playing tough defense (no. 6 in opponent’s effective field goal shooting). This might be the start of a Yellow Jacket turnaround after the Paul Hewitt era descended into nightmare. Then again, I had to look up Gregory’s first name just to be sure it wasn’t Ryan or Bryan or Thaddeus Goffrey, so we might still be a few years away.
9. Purdue at no. 18 Michigan State
Granted, Purdue’s surprise win over Illinois produced more of a “What’s up with Illinois?” reaction than “Hey, maybe Purdue’s good!” one. But, hey … maybe Purdue’s good! A road game at Michigan State, a team whose early win against Kansas looks more and more like an anomaly in a down year, is a good chance to prove they can consistently hang tough with mid-level Big Ten teams and maybe fight their way onto the bubble.
Video time. Here’s Teddy Valentine, the infamous ref everyone calls “TV Teddy,” getting physical with Tom Izzo and Tubby Smith in Minnesota’s win over State. It’s a virtuoso performance. The camera loves this man, and when he’s teamed up with Izzo it’s like watching De Niro and Pacino in their prime. And yes, if you’re wondering, of course he got the call wrong.
8. Virginia Tech at Maryland
I’m sort of puzzled about Maryland not being ranked despite a 12-1 record. The Terps barely lost to Kentucky in Brooklyn to start the year, and since then they’ve been dominating fools. Fine, their best win was against George Mason, but I still think they deserve consideration. However, this game has bigger implications than Maryland’s respect deficit; Virginia Tech has been in collapse mode after starting the season 7-0 and beating Oklahoma State in Blacksburg. With blowout losses to Colorado State and BYU, the Hokies have officially surrendered the title of Team Most Likely to Surprise Everyone in the ACC. So who will that team be? With Carolina struggling, and NC State unable to play defense, Duke looks to be the only elite team in the conference. That means some team, somewhere, will go 12-6 and make the tournament out of nowhere. At this moment, that team looks like Maryland, but they need to prove something against a mid-level team like VT, especially at home.
7. Temple at no. 6 Kansas
I laughed at Khalif Wyatt when he struggled in a loss to Duke, writing him off as another mid-major big fish who couldn’t swim outside the small pond. Then the man went and scored 33 points against Syracuse, and I was forced to pay attention. Temple soldiers on, visiting Lawrence to take on a really, really impressive Kansas squad coming off what I consider the year’s most impressive win on the road against Ohio State. I’m not quite on Titus’s level of zealotry yet, but I can honestly say I’m getting close. I expect the Jayhawks to annihilate Temple, but I’m still curious. Even when Kansas faces minor challenges, I have that weird feeling that I’m getting roped into something I should be wary of.
Back to the video. Do you guys know Tyler Thornton? If not, get familiar, because he’s the Duke player you should be hating while you get distracted by Ryan Kelly. (You didn’t think I’d let this article pass without mentioning Duke, did you?) His last name could have been written by a symbolism-obsessed writer, because Tyler is a Thorn in everyone’s side. There’s nothing he likes better than coming off the bench as a reserve point guard and making everyone’s life miserable. If you watched the Duke-OSU game, he was the guy getting in Aaron Craft’s way every time he tried to shoot a foul shot, and bumping him behind the arc when it was someone else’s turn. I happen to love the Thorn because he plays for my team, but it’s very easy to see why others might consider him a gnat. Let’s take a look at an offensive foul he drew against Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster on the 29th; it’s quintessential Thornton, and it resulted in the opponent’s best player heading for the bench.
6. No. 15 Georgetown at Marquette
Georgetown: Awesome defense, but can they win on the road? That’s really all I’m interested in seeing here. My gut tells me no; they’re a step below Cincinnati, another great defensive team that differs in their ability to actually break 60 once in a while.
AND NOW LET ME TALK ABOUT TYLER THORNTON SOME MORE!!! This is the flip side of Thornton, and the reason he doesn’t start. It’s also the most hilarious missed layup of the season so far, and it might even be a comic masterpiece when you consider the fall afterward.
5. Northwestern at no. 9 Minnesota
I really only include this game because of how impressed I am with Tubby and the Gophers. Their win over Michigan State showed more fortitude than I expected from them, and at this point the team’s only loss came against Duke in the Bahamas. As of now, I have them as the second-best team in the Big Ten, just ahead of Ohio State and behind Michigan. Starting next Wednesday, though, things get real tough; road games at Illinois and Indiana lead into a home showdown with Michigan. It’s one of the hardest three-game stretches for any team this season, and it will serve as Minnesota’s proving ground.
Hey, here’s the best dunk of the second half of December. Take it away, Cory Jefferson. Put a Canadian on a poster.
4. No. 10 Gonzaga at Santa Clara
I was all ready to count the Zags out after their poor defensive showing against Illinois and Baylor, but they proved me wrong — at least for the time being — by rolling into Stillwater and winning an impressive game against Oklahoma State on New Year’s Eve. But Santa Clara has the aforementioned Kevin Foster, one of the country’s best scorers, who wasn’t deterred for even a moment against Duke. I still think Gonzaga is weak on perimeter D (fatally so, if we’re talking Final Four hopes), and I expect Foster to do some real damage at his home gym. He’ll be in for a duel, though, because the Bulldogs’ Kevin Pangos is one of the hottest players in the country, and I think Baylor and OKSU are still trying to extinguish the fires he lit. I’m hoping for a fast, up-and-down game with great shooting and lots of scoring.
Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk — the posterized Canadian from the video above — is one of my favorite players this season, and it’s mostly because he looks like an elf from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Seriously, look at him in this short video. Look how the eyes gleam beneath those flaxen locks. Tell me he shouldn’t be cast in the next Hobbit as Legolas’s crazy older brother who rides a Clydesdale.
3. Iowa at no. 2 Michigan
I’ve apparently become the Internet’s main Indiana hater, and I guess I’ll embrace the role. I truly think they’ll finish the season out of the top 10, and after watching them for the first two months, I’m more convinced than ever that they have no shot at a title. The latest piece of evidence supporting my theory was the road struggle against Iowa. If Iowa can show that they’re actually good against Michigan, maybe I’ll take a step back and admit that I misinterpreted that result. But if Michigan blows them out like I’m expecting, it’s full steam ahead on the anti-Hoosiers train.
2. No. 22 Oklahoma State at no. 25 Kansas State
On the positive side of things, I would like to nominate myself as the Internet’s main Marcus Smart supporter. The freshman guard continues to do everything, from passing to scoring to stealing (first in the Big 12!) to blocking to rebounding. He’s fascinating to watch. His teammate, Le’Bryan Nash, on the other hand, failed to show up at all in the team’s one-point loss to Gonzaga, and effectively cost the Cowboys the game. He was also benched at the start for what seemed like some kind of infraction, and at this point, if you’re an OKSU fan, his attitude has to be your biggest worry. Because there’s a huge opportunity to do damage in the Big 12 this year. In fact, it looks a lot like the ACC; one great team (Kansas), two teams hovering at the back of the top 25 (OKSU, Kansas State), and a lot of mediocrity. If the Cowboys can win on the road at KSU, you have to expect they’ll finish no worse than second in the conference, and have a great shot to pick up a 3-seed for the tournament.
Speaking of (former) Big 12 teams, Missouri found itself in a classic duel with UCLA over the holidays, and standout point guard Phil Pressey had a chance to do what nobody has done since at least 1996 — score 20 points and dish out 20 assists in a single game. (ESPN researchers didn’t have the data to find out if it’s ever been done, but 20 assists alone has only been accomplished a handful of times). In overtime, it seemed like Pressey had the perfect chance to notch his 20th dime — and join a small, elite group of NCAA point guards — when he passed to a wide open Keion Bell for a layup. And then his place in history evaporated:
KEION. I MEAN, KEION. SERIOUSLY, KEION. Do you guys think Pressey slapped him after the game? Just because?
1. No. 8 Ohio State at no. 11 Illinois
It’s impossible to escape the creeping notion around the college basketball world that Illinois is a fraud. And you know what? After barely surviving at home against Auburn and losing to Purdue on the road, I think I buy it. Brandon Paul is a great scorer, and the Illini offense can be impressive, but they settle for 3’s at the 15th-highest rate in the country (most of any BCS team), play mediocre defense, and give up a ton of offensive boards. Even playing at home, OSU should grind them to death. Craft on Paul should be good fun, assuming they match up.
To send you off, here’s one of my favorite videos of the holidays. It comes from Illinois’ loss to Missouri, and is titled “John Groce demonstrates excellent coach rage.” Watch him jut that jaw! He’s a jaw-jutter!