I spent about five hours on the highway this weekend, and before we get to the college basketball–related epiphanies for this week, I have three driving-related epiphanies:
1. In my mind, the worst breach of highway etiquette is when a driver in the left lane travels at the exact same (slow) speed as the driver in the right lane, clogging the highway and making it impossible for anyone to pass. It's selfish, stupid, and beyond infuriating. I used to deal with this problem by stewing in anger and shouting a few obscenities inside the safety of my car. Not effective. Eventually, I began tailgating in an effort to show that I hated the driver and would like to pass. More effective, but sometimes they'd become obstinate and refuse to move. But now, my evolution is complete, because I've reached a point in life where I just drive up, wait a few seconds to make sure I'm not being an impatient douche, and then hit the horn at reasonable intervals until they move. And the crazy part? It works, and I'm a lot less angry. I just sail by while the offender glowers at me from the slowpoke lane where he belongs. I'm pretty sure this new Zen-like approach contains the seeds of a great motivational book.
2. Things can get really, really odd when you're alone in a car. I once had a roommate in New York who told me he was looking forward to visiting his family in Kansas City for a holiday so he could "get in the car and just get weird." I knew exactly what he meant. And I'm not talking weird in any kind of perverse way. I'm talking, like, singing freestyle blues songs about highway signs. I'm talking about giving fake interviews in foreign accents. I'm talking about carrying on one-sided conversations with other drivers. Just letting the brain roam where it will, which is always some place bizarre. If there was a TV show that was just footage of people who thought they were alone in a car, it would be a smash hit. And if aliens ever considered invading, but that show was the only thing they watched ahead of time, they'd immediately cancel their plans, since we are clearly a planet of psychopaths.
3. If someone is exhibiting "dickish" behavior on the road, there is a 95 percent chance that he will be driving a pickup truck. Pickup trucks are the new 18-wheelers, and 18-wheelers are the new sports cars. I know a lot of good people who own pickup trucks, including my father, so please don't think I'm stereotyping. This is just a scientific conclusion culled from years of observation; among the thriving group of respectable pickup truckers, there is a group of renegade road terrorists. And if you bike? God help you, because then it goes up to 100 percent. Pickup truck people hate bikers and love to buzz them or scream out the window as they pass. Someday, I'm going to bike past a pickup trucker stopped for speeding, and I'm going to get my revenge by mocking them on the fly. And on that day, the driver will probably be my father. Sorry, Dad.
On to the hoops! Here's what we learned from the past week:
1. Sorry, but we've got to talk about that shot clock
Georgetown 37, Tennessee 36. Georgetown 37, Tennessee 36. Georgetown 37, Tennessee 36.
Last season, I wrote a post about how the shot clock needs to be changed from 35 seconds to 24, and the craziest thing I found was that at the time of publication (February 1), scoring was lower than it had been in years, and almost exactly the same as it was at the halfway mark of 1982 (it ended at 135.34 combined points, fractionally lower). What's unique about 1982? There was no shot clock, and no 3-point line. Teams back then would routinely go into a stall with five minutes left, and they still outscored last year's clubs.
This season, the combined points totals are even lower, and they will continue to get lower until somebody makes a rule change. The big arguments against lowering the shot clock to 24 (or even 30) are that: (1) defenses are so darn good now that it takes 35 seconds to find a good shot, and lowering the clock will just make offenses more inefficient because they lack that crucial extra 11 seconds to maneuver, and (2) the game will become too much like the NBA, with its focus on one-on-one matchups, and (3) there will be no more upsets.
I consider the first claim outlandish, primarily because the average shot still only takes about 18 seconds to produce, and also because defenses would have to adjust on the fly to the shortened clock just like offenses would (and, if we're being honest, a lot of "great" defenses rely on a stall offense as a primary weapon to frustrate and hinder their opponent without it, their defense would immediately be worse). And seriously, are we really going to look at a game with a score like 37-36, when neither team shot 37 percent, and argue that stall-ball improves the quality of play? As to the second claim, does anybody think last year's Kentucky or Kansas or North Carolina teams played an NBA style? What about this year's UNC or BYU, two teams in the adjusted tempo top 10? As for upsets, why was fast-paced Indiana one of the only teams to beat Kentucky last season, and why did they come close to a second upset in the tournament? Upsets have always happened, including in the peak of scoring that took place between 1988 and 1991, and they will continue to happen no matter how much time we give a team to shoot.
The problem today is not the fast teams, but it's also not the middle-ground teams. The problem is the cynical approach of teams near the bottom, like Wisconsin and Virginia, who use pace as a crutch. The sport wasn't designed to be manipulated and stalled, and it's time to remove that element from the game. Nobody wants to see 37-36; it's an aesthetic embarrassment, and it's not fair to the fans.
2. Kansas's Ben McLemore just entered the freshman-of-the-year discussion
With 21 points in a tight win over Oregon State, the young Jayhawk showed a glimpse of what we can expect from him in conference play. He was a little tentative when I watched him play Michigan State in an earlier loss, but he's shooting almost 50 percent from the field, and now that he seems to have combined efficiency with aggression, his average of 14.9 points per game should only go up. At the moment, I've got the Freshman of the Year award as a three-horse race between McLemore, Arizona's Brandon Ashley, and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart.
3. Do not bet against Kansas making the Final Four
To me, the two coaches who always have a puncher's chance of making a deep tournament run are Tom Izzo and Bill Self. I guess this means I consider them the best "game coaches" in America, though I fully admit it's difficult to quantify that kind of assertion. But they seem to have a knack for getting at least to the Elite Eight even in years when they don't have superlative talent. Self has been doing it since his days at Tulsa, and with two great veteran guards in Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, plus a defensive interior stopper like Jeff Withey and a freshman like McLemore who won't stop improving, it seems like a classic Self team that will jell in February and roll in March. Add in the fact that there are no true powerhouses this season, and you could even make a case for Kansas as a sexy title pick.
4. The curse of Seth Greenberg has been lifted at Virginia Tech
After annihilating Iowa in the ACC–Big Ten challenge, the Hokies pulled off a strong 81-71 upset of no. 15 Oklahoma State at home Saturday. At 7-0, it would appear that they're really for real, in the realest sense of "real." I can't decide whether it's very funny or very tragic that VT could make the tournament the year Greenberg leaves, after his well-documented series of close calls and outright snubs, but it's probably a bit of both. A quick look at the Hokies' schedule shows they could easily come into conference play without a loss, and in case you haven't noticed, the ACC isn't exactly lighting it up. So when they make the Big Dance as a 3-seed, can we at least get Seth some kind of producer's credit or something?
5. VT's Erick Green will lead the conference, and maybe the country, in scoring
After 28 points in just 26 minutes of action against Oklahoma State, he's now third nationally behind Lehigh's C.J. McCollum and Central Connecticut State's Kyle Vinales. He's a natural scorer at point guard, and he leads a team that has scored fewer than 80 points just once in seven games. In a conference with lots of weak defenses, he and the Hokies should thrive.
6. College basketball rankings = college football rankings
For years, it's been that the preseason no. 1 in college football can only leave that spot by losing. It doesn't matter if they beat a slew of terrible teams by one point in quadruple overtime and the no. 2 team looks dominant with huge wins over good teams. Until no. 1 takes a loss, they're firmly entrenched. It appears that the same thing is now happening in basketball. Indiana, which survived by the skin of their teeth in Brooklyn against two mediocre teams before looking good against a UNC team full of freshmen at home, remains no. 1. Duke, which has now beat three top-five teams and owns two more quality wins against VCU and Minnesota, sits at no. 2. I realize it doesn't matter in the long run, but what's the point of even having rankings if they're not going to reflect the real world of results? Who the hell are the 45 AP voters who ranked the Hoosiers no. 1 over Duke? It's almost like they own stock in their own preseason projections and they're afraid to change their minds. Speaking of which
7. The Hoosiers, and how quickly we forget
I like Indiana. I really like them, and I think they have as good a shot as anybody to win a title. But after an admittedly impressive win over North Carolina, the Hoosiers are being vastly overrated. First, UNC is a work in progress. They have a lot of underclassmen, and at the moment they are not very good. Indiana beat them by 24, but you know who else led the Tar Heels by 27 lately? Butler. So forgive me if I'm not impressed that a team of veterans annihilated a bunch of inconsistent freshmen in one of the toughest venues in America. Nobody should make the mistake of overvaluing this one win, and the escapes against Georgia and Georgetown in Brooklyn are still the more interesting results. Indiana has a pretty easy schedule until early February, with most of the "tough" games coming at home, but let's wait at least until December 15, when they face Butler on a neutral court, before we turn the season into a coronation.
8. I'm sorry, Mason Plumlee
As a Duke fan, watching the Plumlees for the past five years has mostly been an exercise in frustration. I have shouted and raved and generally been unsupportive of a family I viewed in the same way that conservatives view the Clintons. My emotional Plumlee spectrum shifted between general pessimism, flashes of slight hope, and outright anger. Maybe you can understand why I was hesitant to seem pro-Mason this year. And then the Ohio State game happened, and I found myself screaming at Duke's guards to feed Mason in the post — "give him the f---ing ball!" — I realized a transformation had occurred. Even my hard heart had to soften eventually, because ole Plumdog Billionaire (sorry) has become one of the best big men in the country. He's a scorer (19.6 points), a workhorse (11 boards), a smart defender (1.9 blocks, only 2.4 fouls per game), and — I can't believe I'm saying this — he's even hitting his foul shots (76.1 percent!!!).
9. Buzzer-beaters are still awesome
Thank you, Cincinnati's Cashmere Wright.
10. Dunks are still awesome, too
Thank you, Clemson's Devin Booker.
11. Florida State is not underrated
Contrary to claims made last week, the Seminoles are not undervalued, as shown in an embarrassing 61-56 loss to Mercer and a drubbing at the hands of Minnesota in the ACC–Big 10 Challenge. I still think we can expect Leonard Hamilton to have the 'Noles playing better defense by January or February, but it was not nearly easy as I thought for the reigning ACC champs to replace the offense of Luke Loucks, Deividas Dulkys, and Bernard James.
12. Michigan is not overrated
There are probably some of you who read item no. 2 about the freshmen of the year and asked a good question: What about Nik Stauskas? The surprising Wolverine scored 22 points in his first start against Bradley on Saturday and contributed 20 off the bench in Michigan's win over no. 18 NC State. Stauskas essentially came out of nowhere in a year when Mitch McGary was supposed to be the top recruit, and his 3-point touch (18-for-29 on the year) along with his ability to score on the drive have proved to be perfect complements to the great guard play of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Michigan now has the best backcourt in the country, bar none, and the question of whether Hardaway and Burke could play together has been resolved — mostly by Burke himself, who has, remarkably, gained a veteran's sense of timing as a sophomore. Coach John Beilein nearly cost his team the NC State game by going into a stall too early, but if he can manage to get out of his own way this season, the Wolverines are my pick to win the excellent Big Ten.
13. We can stop panicking about John Calipari winning the title every year
It ain't gonna happen this season, for one. Oddly enough, the flaw in Calipari's team isn't youth, but rather one of his few upperclassmen, transfer point guard Ryan Harrow. It's become increasingly clear that Harrow isn't the man to lead the Kentucky offense, and as good as Archie Goodwin might be, he's not a point guard. That fact has to sting Cal at least a little, considering that Harrow was a big reason why he chose not to recruit a point guard this season.
14. Arizona and Florida are juggernauts, and, holy s---, they play in two weeks!
Sean Miller's Cats are in full beatdown mode out West, while Billy Donovan is crushing the opposition east of the Mississippi. In some ways, the teams are mirror reflections. Arizona is blessed with a bounty of great post players, while Florida is led by Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, two scoring guards with assassin mind-sets. But the truth is, neither team is weak at any position, and both probably deserve to be in the top five. The December 15 game in Tucson should be the highlight of a great month for college hoops.
15. You will be missed, Rick Majerus