A season ago, all the talk in college basketball seemed to revolve around the idea that there were a bunch of good teams, but no great teams. Even though Ohio State curb-stomped everyone on its schedule (only two losses at Wisconsin and at Purdue, and it beat those teams at home by more than 20 points) and Kansas was a clear second-best, parity was the prevailing theme for TV analysts. I guess these analysts ended up being right when the Buckeyes and Jayhawks both choked during the craziest NCAA tournament in the history of March Madness. I still contend that Ohio State was head-and-shoulders better than everyone else, and it took a perfect storm of a Buckeye off night combined with Kentucky bringing its A-game for OSU to lose by two. But whatever — that's not important right now.
What is important is that heading into this season those same analysts claimed that this year would be different. They said there were at least two great teams this time around: North Carolina and Kentucky. But so far this season, parity seems like an even more powerful trend than it was last year. Sure, there are still four undefeated teams, and one of those teams is the no. 1 team in the country, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks those four are dominant or might someday be considered one of college basketball's all-time great teams. Meanwhile, the two teams that everyone assumed would be playing for the national title both suffered upsets before Christmas. They're still probably the two favorites, but the air of inevitability they carried into the season is long gone. The amount of this year's perceived parity that can be attributed to home-court advantages remains unclear,1 but what's clear to me is that right now there are as many as 14 legitimate national title contenders (some more than others, obviously). I know it's far-fetched, but I think we just might see some exciting games during March Madness this season.
Syracuse basically had three weeks off between its mid-December game at North Carolina State and its upcoming game against Marquette on Saturday, so I'm skipping over the Orange and going straight to Kentucky. More specifically, I'm going straight to two questions that come to mind whenever I watch Kentucky play:
Who is Kentucky's best player?
Most teams that can't identify a best player can't do so because they don't have good players to begin with, but for Kentucky it's the exact opposite scenario. If you discussed this with another college basketball fan, it would be impossible to pick out one guy for Kentucky without the other person saying, "Yeah, but what about [insert another Wildcat player's name here]." Anthony Davis is the best pro prospect and the likely no. 1 pick in this year's draft, Doron Lamb is the leading scorer, Terrence Jones is the preseason All-American, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist consistently steps up to lead Kentucky in big games (such as his 24-point, 19-rebound performance against Louisville on Saturday). If I had to power rank those four guys right now, I'd say Jones is probably the worst of the four just because he's been battling a slump and an injury lately. As for the other three, it's tough to argue against any order they're put in. I guess I'd go with Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and then Lamb, but I could easily be talked into a different order. The fact that it's so difficult to identify Kentucky's best player is why, more than anything else, I'd be terrified to play the Wildcats in March.
Has Kyle Wiltjer's existence off the court been acknowledged by any of his NBA-bound teammates?
Let me preface this by saying that there's a good chance that the only reason I think Wiltjer looks out of place is because he's the only white guy who gets burn for Kentucky. But the same is true for Ohio State's Aaron Craft, Baylor's Brady Heslip, and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, and yet I don't feel like any of those three look out of place. Hell, Craft has rosy red cheeks that make him look like he's constantly blushing, and Heslip parts his hair. If there were a perfect example of someone who doesn't fit in on a team of 21st-century college basketball players, it would surely be one of those two. And yet, I can't help but think that if you made NBA fans who don't follow college basketball watch an Ohio State, Baylor, and Kentucky game, the Kentucky game would definitely prompt the most "Who the hell is that white guy?" comments.
Since Craft, Heslip, and Zeller are starters, maybe I just assume Kentucky' stars don't respect Wiltjer's skills or something.2 I don't know. What I do know is that nothing in the world of college basketball would shock me more than somehow finding out that Wiltjer regularly goes to Jones' apartment to play Xbox and watch Friday with the rest of the team. Other than watching Kentucky play, I have no hard evidence to support this thought, but I'd bet Wiltjer hangs out with Kentucky's walk-ons off the court and has been asked to be on the Kentucky managers' intramural team so many times he's starting to give it some serious thought.3
3. North Carolina
Like Syracuse, North Carolina hasn't played any meaningful games in the past two weeks, so I'll just move on to Baylor.4
Now that conference play has started, I feel obligated to mention that if you weren't counting on following the Big 12 this year, you should seriously reconsider your plans, and just go ahead and reevaluate your entire life while you're at it. That's because the race for the Big 12 title will be the most intriguing of all the power conferences. The Big East is as top-heavy as it usually is, but the conference title is Syracuse's to lose. The Big Ten is the deepest conference, but I'm convinced there's no way Ohio State will lose more than three conference games, and there's no way any other Big Ten team will lose fewer than three games. The ACC is the same boring two-horse race it always is, and while I think Florida, Mississippi State, and even Vanderbilt are all good enough to beat Kentucky, they aren't good enough to challenge the Wildcats for the SEC throne. As for the Pac-12, well, I'm refusing to acknowledge the Pac-12's existence this year until one of their teams gives me a reason to do otherwise.
The Big 12 has three legitimate contenders in Baylor, Missouri, and Kansas. The Jayhawks, unlike the Bears and Tigers, have actually lost a game this year (three, to be exact), but they've also done something else the other two haven't — Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 titles. The Jayhawks aren't as good as they've been in recent years, but they have beaten two current top-10 teams (Georgetown and Ohio State), which is yet another thing that Baylor and Missouri haven't done.
Missouri is the most experienced team and has looked like the most unstoppable of the three. But Baylor has the conference's best player (Perry Jones III), the best shooter in the country (Brady Heslip), and — with respect to Will Sheehey, Darius Miller, Michael Dixon, Dion Waiters, Russ Smith, and Ryan Boatright — the best sixth man in the country (Pierre Jackson) to go along with a dunking machine (Quincy Acy) and a defensive-minded, pass-first point guard (A.J. Walton). This is why I'm sold on the Bears being the best team in the Big 12. Their inability to pull away from West Virginia and Mississippi State in recent games worries me, but the experience they gain from closing out tight games now will surely be useful later in the year. Plus, those nail-biters against West Virginia and Mississippi State came during a mini-slump from Perry Jones. Now that he looks like he's getting back on track (14 points and 12 rebounds against a decent Texas A&M team), Baylor should be just fine moving forward.
5. Ohio State
Other than the guy who orders tacos at Chipotle and the guy who carries around a gallon jug of water because he apparently wants me to feel like a dick for not hydrating well enough, there isn't a type of person I try to avoid more than the guy who complains about the refs when his team loses. It's the lowest form of fandom and the single lamest thing any sports fan can do, which is why I've watched the Ohio State-Indiana game three times now in an effort to find a theme other than Ohio State getting the raw end of the officiating. But the refs dominated the game so much that I just couldn't do it. So I have no choice but to go against everything I believe and try to walk the "we got screwed by the refs" tightrope, which will inevitably result in me slipping up and saying something douchey, and all of my readers ripping me to shreds for it. Here goes nothing.
Instead of bitching about 50/50 calls that went against the Buckeyes or complaining about no-calls that didn't affect the game,5 I'll just list two calls that had a huge impact on the game and were inexcusably horrendous. There were other terrible calls — such as Jared Sullinger's third foul and all of Will Buford's fouls away from the ball — but these were the two that no sane Indiana fan can dispute, and these were the two that made me wonder what exactly it takes to be a college basketball referee.
Jared Sullinger's second foul
On a semi-fast break with 10:40 left in the first half, Buford threw a pass ahead to Sullinger, who was running down the middle of the court toward the rim. As Sullinger jumped to catch the pass, Indiana's Matt Roth slid underneath him and took a charge. Roth was never even remotely close to having his feet set, and even if he had set his feet, the fact that he slid underneath Sullinger while Sullinger was in the air is enough to make it an obvious block. This wasn't a typical 50/50 block/charge call. It was a 100-0 call that was so obvious that even Dan Dakich, who called the game for ESPN and whose name is synonymous with Indiana basketball after playing for and coaching the Hoosiers for years, agreed that the wrong call had been inexplicably made. With Ohio State up 19-9 at the time, Sullinger was forced to the bench, the Ohio State offense stagnated because of this (and because Deshaun Thomas was already on the bench with two fouls), and Indiana went on a 24-13 run to take a one-point halftime lead.
The shot clock violation/timeout fiasco
With 2:20 left in the first half and five seconds left on the shot clock, Indiana's Verdell Jones III shot a 3 that hit off the backboard but didn't hit the rim. During the scramble for the loose ball, the shot clock expired, which prompted Thad Matta to notify the officials of the shot clock violation. Apparently, one official misunderstood what Matta was trying to say, because he granted the Buckeyes a timeout that they didn't want to use. This was especially confusing because even if the official thought Matta wanted a timeout, the replay showed that Matta didn't make his move until after the shot clock ran down, so the 35-second violation should've superseded the nonexistent timeout call anyway. Instead, Ohio State wasted a timeout (Matta spent the entire break trying to convince the refs he never called a timeout) in a game in which they had already burned a couple of timeouts because they couldn't inbound the ball, and had to play the entire second half with only one timeout.
Just so I do my best to be unbiased,6 I should mention that I agree bad calls are a part of the game (especially on the road), and some bad calls definitely went against Indiana in that game. I'd also be the first to admit that Sullinger happens to be the toughest player to officiate in college basketball. Often, refs just blow their whistle and make something up, since they could call a foul every time he touches the ball or never call a foul when he has possession. And I have no problem admitting that Ohio State had plenty of chances to make plays down the stretch and win, and that it didn't make those plays. But I also should mention that after the game I received texts from three of my friends who are die-hard Indiana fans, and while one of those texts predictably read, "Suck it! Go Hoosiers!", the other two mentioned that it felt like a cheap win because the officiating was so bad. That tells me all I really need to know.
I'm not suggesting the NCAA should step in and give Ohio State the win or that the refs for that game were on the take. My point is that whether you think Ohio State was screwed or not, there's no denying that the referees were the stars of the game, which is something that should never occur. Because of the impact the refs had, I never got the feeling that Indiana was better than Ohio State, but rather that Indiana was better when Ohio State's three best players were in foul trouble the entire game. For that reason, I still consider the Buckeyes one of the five best teams in the country. I think this will become obvious when the Buckeyes do to Indiana this year what they did to Wisconsin last year, which is to say they will exact revenge in the form of a complete blowout when Indiana plays in Columbus next weekend.
I know I already picked Baylor as the eventual Big 12 champion, but I also wouldn't be surprised if Missouri won the thing. When the Tigers are hitting shots — which they usually are — their fast-paced attack is pretty much unstoppable and incredibly fun to watch. They are second in the country in scoring and first in field goal percentage, predominately because they have at least six guys who can score 20 points on any given night. On top of that, they start four seniors, which isn't the end-all be-all, since talent trumps experience, but it's certainly a nice plus since the Tigers already have talent.
The bad news is that Missouri's biggest strength — its fast-paced offense — could also be its biggest weakness. Against Illinois two weeks ago, the Tigers built a 15-point lead in the second half, but they let the Illini back in the game by neglecting any sort of ball movement on offense and forcing quick shots. The Tigers seem incapable of playing slow, grind-it-out basketball, which they'll eventually need to do in the NCAA tournament. Thanks to Laurence Bowers' ACL tear in the offseason (a huge college basketball injury that nobody is talking about7), Missouri's frontcourt depth is another cause for concern. Even so, it's undoubtedly one of the country's best teams. If I were the type to use reckless hyperbole, I'd say that the epic Baylor-Missouri showdown on January 21 can't get here soon enough, and then I'd probably throw in some exclamation points to drive the point home.
Dick's Degrees of Separation was so much fun last time that I'm bringing it back this week. In case you missed the column two weeks ago when I introduced Dick's Degrees of Separation, or in case you forgot, here's how it works: I give you the ending point of a Dick Vitale tangent, and you guess which of the three paths listed is the path he actually took to get there. I was called out for shamelessly trying to gain Twitter followers two weeks ago by revealing the answer exclusively on my Twitter account (which, by the way, was definitely what I was trying to do then and what I'm trying to do now by mentioning @clubtrillion), so this and every week moving forward I'll just put the answer at the end of the column. Anyway, here's this week's Dick's Degrees of Separation question:
In a game between Louisville and Georgetown played in Louisville on December 28, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Charles Barkley?
A. During the broadcast, Vitale mentions the big game coming up between Louisville and Kentucky on New Year's Eve. He talks about how good Kentucky is, and, specifically, how Anthony Davis is definitely his freshman of the year in college basketball thus far. The thought of naming a newcomer of the year prompts Vitale to discuss how he thinks Cam Newton is the only viable choice for NFL rookie of the year. Vitale then briefly talks about Newton's performance this season, before mentioning that not only is he a good player, but he also has a ton of charisma. Newton's charisma, Vitale says, reminds him of another former Auburn athlete by the name of Charles Barkley.
B. Vitale mentions that Georgetown was picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, which prompts Jon Sciambi, who was calling the game with Vitale, to mention the potential similarity between this year's Georgetown team and last year's national champion UConn team. This reminds Vitale that last season UConn went 9-9 in the Big East and still won the national championship, which he believes is proof that the Big East wasn't overrated even though some critics claimed it was. One of these critics, Vitale points out, was Charles Barkley.
C. While discussing how good of a job Rick Pitino is doing, considering that Louisville is undefeated despite injuries to several key players, ESPN puts Pitino on camera. In the frame, to Pitino's immediate left, is his son, Louisville assistant coach Richard Pitino. This prompts Vitale to mention that the man is in fact Rick Pitino's son. Vitale then mentions how the coach on the other bench, Georgetown's John Thompson III, was once an assistant for his father, too. This leads to Dickie V taking a second to celebrate John Thompson's legendary career by listing a few of his accomplishments and some of the all-time great players he coached. Included in the list of players is Patrick Ewing, who Vitale says is one of the best big men to never win an NBA title. Also included in Vitale's list are Karl Malone, Walt Bellamy, and Charles Barkley.
I trust some of you followed my suggestion and took notes during Vitale's broadcast, in which case this one might be too easy. If for some reason you didn't take notes (I can't imagine why you wouldn't), make your best guess and check the end of the column for the answer. Good luck.
See, Indiana fans? You can put the gun down because I'm not trying to take your second monumental win of the season away from you. I'm just saying that I still think Ohio State is better than Indiana, and if the refs hadn't dominated the game that would've been made clear on New Year's Eve. As it stands, Indiana came away with its second win over a top-two team this season, and it did so with Will Sheehey, a virtual lock for the Big Ten's sixth man of the year award, out with a bum ankle. In the end, that's all that matters. Questionable officiating doesn't show up on tournament résumés, which is why Indiana has one of the best résumés in the country right now.
What keeps the Hoosiers from having the single best résumé in the country is a 15-point loss at Michigan State. With the exception of the huge run Indiana went on at the end of the first half and the start of the second when they knocked down shots and got easy buckets in transition, Michigan State dominated the Hoosiers. The first time I watched the game, the Indiana fan in me was frustrated at the Hoosiers' refusal to get the ball to Cody Zeller on the block. When I watched again, however, I saw that this had less to do with Indiana's failure to realize that Zeller is its best player and more to do with Zeller getting manhandled by the Spartan frontcourt. Zeller wasn't strong enough to establish post position, and this made it difficult for Indiana's guards to get him the ball.
The bad news for Indiana is that Zeller won't have time to bulk up throughout the season. Moving forward, the challenge will be finding ways to get the ball to Zeller against physical frontcourts. Just hoping that Zeller can seal off his defender is not going to be enough. Once the Hoosiers figure this out, and once they get Sheehey back, I expect them to be neck-and-neck with Michigan State in February for the second spot in the Big Ten standings.
8. Michigan State
For most of the game, Michigan State dominated Indiana last Wednesday night and solidified their spot among the nation's best teams, a spot they lost in November, when they dropped their first two games to North Carolina and Duke. The Spartans scored at will and confused and outmuscled Indiana on defense for most of the first half, and only when shots stopped falling and they let their brief offensive woes affect their defense did Michigan State let Indiana back in the game. After falling behind by nine points, the Spartans rediscovered their rhythm halfway through the second half and turned up their defensive intensity, and pulled away from Indiana for a lopsided win.8 Less than a week later, they followed that up with an overtime win at Wisconsin, which was impressive because the Buzzcuts9 were picked to finish second in the Big Ten, and it's impossible to win in the Kohl Center. But it was also not that impressive, because a pretty lousy Iowa team proved three days earlier that it's not that impossible to win in the Kohl Center.
Anyway, along with the fact that I'm trying to play nice with Indiana fans after insinuating that the Hoosiers didn't earn their win against Ohio State, the fact that Michigan State let Indiana go on a 38-11 run on its home court and take a nine-point lead after the Hoosiers looked like they were going to get blown out is the big reason why I'm hesitant to power rank the Spartans any higher. Plus, Indiana didn't have a healthy Will Sheehey, which is a good enough excuse for my Indiana-bias to latch on to and justify ranking the Hoosiers above the Spartans.
By knocking off Louisville on the road and beating a good Marquette team at home in the same week, Georgetown has staked its claim to a spot in college basketball's most powerful power rankings. Even though a majority of you probably can't even name a single player on their roster, the Hoyas are just a four-point loss to Kansas in November away from an unblemished record, which is why I'm now officially on the Georgetown bandwagon. Although I will say that I'm sitting on the edge of said bandwagon and I'm ready to jump off at a moment's notice, because the lack of any identifiable superstar on Georgetown makes me wonder if its early-season success stems from its quirky and difficult-to-defend Princeton offense. My fear is that Georgetown is a system team, and as the season progresses and other teams become more fundamentally sound on defense, the Hoyas will implode.
If I were completely sure that "enigmatic" is a real word, I'd say that Louisville is the most enigmatic team in the country. Every game the Cardinals play in is close, which is fine when they're playing the third-ranked team in the country on the road, but it's kind of strange when they're playing Western Kentucky and the College of Charleston. Outside of Ohio State and Indiana, I've watched more of the Cardinals' games than any other team, yet I'm still not sure how good they are.
Against Kentucky, I never once felt like Louisville was going to win, even when it tied the game at 40 early in the second half. Kentucky was clearly the better team, and I always felt like the Wildcats would pull away. That never really happened. Louisville kept it close and somehow ended up losing by just seven (although, to be fair, it would've been a 13-point Kentucky win if Russ Smith hadn't channeled his inner Reggie Miller and scored six points in the final five seconds). By the time the final horn sounded, part of me wondered if Louisville would've won if it had been playing at home.
Then I remembered that Louisville had laid an egg at home against Georgetown three days earlier, and I thought that maybe the Cardinals aren't that good after all. Seeing as how they're power ranked ninth in college basketball's most powerful rankings, Georgetown is certainly no slouch. But if Louisville is to be considered a top-five team, that was a game it had to win. As it stands, Louisville's best win right now is either a road win at Butler or an overtime win at home against a disappointing Vanderbilt team. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' only losses are to two of the 10 best teams in college basketball, so it's unfair to punish them too much. Hence, they're enigmatic and I can't figure them out.
I know they just got manhandled at Seton Hall, but I'm keeping the Huskies in my top 12 because the Pirates are actually pretty good and UConn was playing without Jim Calhoun, which probably wasn't the only reason the Huskies lost, but it was a big enough reason for me to cut them some slack. Meanwhile, Duke's loss to Temple last night was bad enough for me to move them down to 12th, but I don't believe that there are more than 11 teams in America better than the Blue Devils, so I'm keeping them in the power rankings. If you have a problem with this, well, in the words of Bo Ryan, "deal with it."
The Walk-on Bench Celebration of the Week
In Seton Hall's game against Connecticut on Tuesday, walk-on Peter Dill proved yet again that walk-ons are always the coolest guys on the team. Always.
The Dick's Degrees of Separation answer is B. 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:
December 22 Titus' Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings
December 15 Titus' Top 12
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
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