In the four months that I've been a sportswriter, I can't remember a college basketball season when it has been as difficult to win on the road as this year. Last week, I wondered whether the sport's parity had to do with a lack of dominant teams or if it was just tough to win on the road. I think I've got my answer: While it's probably a little bit of both, I'm more convinced than ever that home court advantage is a huge deal, because in the last seven days, five of the teams that I power ranked in my latest top 12 lost on the road to non-ranked opponents (Ohio State, Missouri, Georgetown, Louisville, and Connecticut). We're now about halfway through the season, and we've seen several matchups between ranked teams, but the biggest road win so far was probably Georgetown beating fourth-ranked Louisville, even though that win is becoming less and less impressive as Louisville falls apart. Maybe Cincinnati's win at 11th-ranked Georgetown on Monday was a big road win, too, but Georgetown is also starting to look less like a surprise member of the top 10 and more like the team everyone picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East. Meanwhile, Indiana, who has already beaten three top-15 teams at home, has looked like a completely different team in its two conference road games — a 15-point loss at Michigan State and a six-point win at Penn State. Home court has always mattered in college basketball, but this season that advantage has reached a new level, and it's now virtually impossible to go on the road and beat a team that is even remotely good.
For better and worse, Syracuse's performance against Marquette on Saturday was exactly what I've come to expect from the Orange — they outplayed Marquette for the entire first half and proved they were the better team, but then they got comfortable, stopped playing the way that allowed them to build a big lead, and let Marquette back into the game. When the Orange play as if the game is tied, they are all but unstoppable. They play their zone defense so well and have so many offensive weapons. The problem is that in the last two games I've seen them play, the Orange have let teams back into the game with careless and sloppy play. It's like they're missing a killer instinct. Against Marquette, Syracuse had their 18-point halftime lead cut to seven in the first eight minutes of the second half. They had eight turnovers in that span and took ill-advised shots when they didn't turn it over. Nonetheless, now that all of the other serious contenders for the Big East title have two or more losses, the regular-season Big East championship is Syracuse's to lose. Their struggles to put teams away won't pose too big of a problem until the postseason.
3. North Carolina
As a guy who has a history of breaking the most sacred rules of sports fandom by jumping on bandwagons (TEBOW 3:16!!!) and cheering for multiple teams in the same sport (Go Vikings! And Colts! And Browns! And TEBOW!), I am now officially adding Baylor to my list of favorite college basketball teams. By beating Kansas State in Manhattan on Tuesday (I just realized this is probably the biggest road win in college basketball this year), Baylor solidified themselves as the team to beat in the Big 12, especially since one of their biggest challengers (Missouri) was blown out at Kansas State three days earlier. Next week will be brutal for the Bears, with games at Kansas and against Missouri, but in the last month or so they've beaten a bunch of good teams away from home, they have proven that they don't have any obvious flaws, and they have been incredibly fun to watch. This is why I'm such a die-hard Baylor fan and this is why I expect my Bears to knock off two top-10 teams in the next week and a half.
5. Michigan State
Last week, I said the race for the Big 12 title would be the most intriguing and exciting race of all the power conferences, primarily because last week I was an idiot. Now that I'm a week smarter, I realize that thinking there is going to be a better conference race in college basketball than the Big Ten's would be more na´ve than Lil' Troy thinking there's a better way to make money than the fly way. With Ohio State's loss to Illinois on Tuesday, the door to the Big Ten title has been swung wide open. By my count, there are three favorites that have a legitimate shot at winning it (Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State), two dark horse contenders who could win the league if they got/stayed hot (Michigan and Illinois), one talented team that will need to get lucky (Wisconsin), and two teams that probably won't sustain their success throughout the conference schedule but who can beat anybody in the league on any given night (Purdue and Northwestern). In other words, the Big Ten is as good as everyone erroneously thinks the Big East is every year.
Consider this: There's a chance, albeit a small one, that Indiana could be the outright Big Ten champions yet not have a single player named to the all-conference first team. If they upset Ohio State in Columbus on Sunday,1 the Hoosiers would be in the driver's seat for the Big Ten crown.2 But who on that team would you say is definitely one of the top two in the conference at his position? Cody Zeller comes to mind first, but is Zeller really going to beat out Jared Sullinger for the center spot on the first team? Even if you consider Zeller a forward and try to form a team with two or three forwards, Draymond Green and Robbie Hummel are locks right now to make the first team along with Sullinger. The next choice would probably be Christian Watford, but he's a forward, too, so he won't make it either.
This means that if Indiana is going to get a guy on the all-conference first team, it will most likely need to be Jordan Hulls. But how can you justify Indiana's third-leading scorer making the first team and their top two scorers not? And is Hulls really one of the two best guards in the league? If I had to submit a ballot right now,3 I'd probably go with Tim Hardaway Jr. and William Buford. Hulls would be in consideration, but so would Jordan Taylor, Aaron Craft, Drew Crawford, Trey Burke, Tim Frazier, Brandon Paul (solely because of his performance against Ohio State), and maybe even John Shurna if I felt like labeling him a guard. If Indiana won the league, Hulls would have the benefit of being the only player in that group to have led his team to a conference title, but I don't think that would outweigh the fact that there are simply more talented players who do more for their team than he does. In the end, if Indiana wins the conference there's no way the voters wouldn't put someone from the Hoosiers on the first team, simply because they value team success over individual talent (which is why I need to be given a ballot so I can smack some sense into these people). But let's pretend that the voters actually vote the right way, and let's pretend that Indiana won't get blown out at Ohio State and will instead cruise to the Big Ten title — wouldn't Indiana winning the league and getting nobody on the all-conference first team be crazy?
I'm temporarily abandoning Dick's Degrees of Separation for the halftime break. But don't you worry. In its place is a new game that I'm sure you will love just as much — The Twitter Bio Matching Game.4 Here's how it works: I'll provide you with a list of actual Twitter bios that I copied and pasted from actual college basketball players, as well as a list of the players who wrote the bios. It's on you to match each bio to the right player. That's it.
There isn't necessarily going to be a theme each time we play The Twitter Bio Matching Game, but for this first one I'm using just the bios of North Carolina players predominantly because this is my olive branch to Tar Heel fans for failing to write anything about North Carolina for two weeks in a row. Anyway, I'll provide the answer at the end of this section, so try to avoid scrolling too far down if you really want to take the quiz. Good luck.
Players: Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, John Henson, James Michael McAdoo, Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock, Justin Watts, and PJ Hairston
A) I am biracial...
B) ...Just out here rotatin' under the 5 P's... ( Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance)
C) Brother. Son. Sneakerhead. I once climbed a mountain, just to see how tall it was.
D) Just a kid trying to achieve big goals #teamTATTED #teamACTTUFF #teamSICK#teamWEGONEDOIT#teamOHITSGONEGETDONE #TarheelNation
E) Play for the University of North Carolina #2. Real chill dude, but not the average nor typical joe. #JesusChrist #TeamSuperTatted#OhItsGoneGetDone #WeGoneDoIt
F) No weapon formed againsnt met shall prosper Isaiah 54:17. God First. Im all about staying on my #scrilla #teamscrilla #TYB Bull City Breed!!
G) Just opening a new Chapter of MY LIFE!
H) Just a boy from Jersey balling at UNC tryna do it BIG so my family wont struggle.
Answers: A (McAdoo), B (Henson), C (Marshall), D (Hairston), E (McDonald), F (Watts), G (Bullock), H (Strickland)
7. Ohio State
The good news for Ohio State fans is that the Buckeyes didn't play that poorly in their loss at Illinois on Tuesday. Sure, they had a couple of costly turnovers down the stretch, their bench was nonexistent, and I'd like to think that they could've played better defense, but the story of the game was that Illinois played good team defense, Brandon Paul played out of his mind offensively,5 and it just wasn't in the cards for Ohio State. It's easy to nitpick things here and there, but for the most part Ohio State played relatively well and Illinois just played a little bit better. It happens.
The bad news for Ohio State fans, though, is also that the Buckeyes didn't play all that poorly. When Ohio State played "relatively well" last year, it usually resulted in a comfortable win, even on the road against good teams. But that's because last year's team was head and shoulders above everyone else in the Big Ten, and even most of the teams in the country. The fact that Ohio State's B+ game wasn't enough to beat Illinois on Tuesday tells me that this year's team is nowhere near as good as I thought they were and will have to fight for the Big Ten crown.
Meanwhile, the good news for Illinois fans is that the Illini just beat the most talented team in the conference without Sam Maniscalco.6 The bad news is that Brandon Paul may have just single-handedly saved Bruce Weber's job, which means Illinois fans are guaranteed at least one more year of Chicago's best recruits turning down Illinois and the Illini finishing fifth in the Big Ten despite having the talent to compete for a conference championship.
Here's all you need to know about how well the Jayhawks are playing right now: Three days before Kansas State destroyed Missouri, who were undefeated at the time and universally considered one of the country's best teams, Kansas beat Kansas State by 18. Jayhawks Thomas Robinson, Travis Releford, and Tyshawn Taylor are quietly developing into one of the best trios in college basketball. If those three can bring it night in and night out, all Kansas will need to be dominant is to have one or two other guys step up each game, kind of like how Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young stepped up against Ohio State a month ago.
Speaking of Ohio State, the more I watch Robinson play, the more it upsets me that Jared Sullinger sat out of the Kansas-Ohio State game. It's not because I think Ohio State would've won had Sullinger played (although I do think that), but because Sullinger and Robinson are the only two legitimate low post threats in college basketball who can make post moves to score and don't shy away from contact. I'm sure Courtney Upshaw agrees that it would've been awesome to see those two try to out-physical each other. Also, the more I watch Kansas play, the more I wonder if I have any idea what the hell I'm talking about, because I've said all season that Perry Jones III is the Big 12's best player even though it's pretty obvious that Robinson is on a completely different level right now.
Michigan has Tim Hardaway Jr., one of the best players in the Big Ten; they have Trey Burke, the best freshman not named Cody Zeller; they have Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, the best tandem of white guards from Indiana in the country; and they have Evan Smotrycz, the best player in the country with both a "Y" and a "Z" in his last name. The Wolverines should end up being anywhere from the second- to fourth-best team in the Big Ten this season. They gave Indiana as good of a game in Bloomington as Kentucky and Ohio State did, and I'm terrified that they might beat Ohio State at home in late February and prevent the Buckeyes from winning their third straight conference title. But since they're Michigan, and since I really don't feel like complimenting them any more than I absolutely must, I'm going to stop right here and move on.
Something dawned on me while watching the Duke-Georgia Tech game on Saturday: With the exception of Austin Rivers' Punchable Face,7 I don't really hate this Duke team. In fact, this might be my least hated Duke team I can remember, which tells me all I need to know about them. My hatred for Duke is exclusively derived from how good Duke is, and the fact that this team doesn't really bother me is proof that they can't be all that great. That the Blue Devils were lethargic and passive in their first game following an upset loss at Temple, and beat an awful Georgia Tech team by just seven, only solidifies this belief. There's something missing with Duke this year.
That something appears to be a pure scorer like they've had in recent years with guys like Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, and JJ Redick. And by a pure scorer, I mean a guy who can create shots for himself and score in a variety of ways. As it stands, all of Duke's double-digit scorers are pretty one-dimensional. Mason Plumlee can make a post move and hit a baby hook from time to time, but most of his points come from pick-and-rolls, offensive rebounds, or by using his size and athleticism to get post position close to the basket and go up with the shot as soon as he catches the pass. Ryan Kelly, whom I dubbed "the tallest shooting guard in the country" before the season, is a 6-foot-11 3-point shooter who is essentially just the tallest shooting guard in the country (although I will give him credit and say that he spends more time around the basket than I expected). Seth Curry is a knock-down 3-point shooter who can get to the rim at times, but he's limited offensively because he can't really create his own shot. And while ARPF is one of the best ballhandlers in the country and can get to the basket at will, he also has a tendency to play out of control; he doesn't look comfortable running Duke's half-court offense; he doesn't seem to understand that it's perfectly fine to take shots that aren't 3s or layups; and his 3-point shooting nose-dives when he's not wide open and when he shoots off the dribble.
In the games I've watched, it's been obvious to me that ARPF has to have the ball in his hands to be effective. Yet against Georgia Tech, ARPF played off the ball and was consequently nowhere to be found for most of the game. I'm not saying I know more about basketball than Coach K,8 but I don't understand why Duke doesn't adopt the 2010 Ohio State offense that revolved around setting ball screens for Evan "The Villain" Turner.9 If I were Coach K, I'd put Andre Dawkins (who is a capable shooter when he's open) in one corner and Curry in the other, I'd put Kelly on the block, and I'd give the rock to ARPF and let him come off Plumlee's ball screens all game, with Plumlee rolling to the basket and Kelly replacing Plumlee at the top of the key to knock down 3s if his defender stays near the basket to help on the pick-and-roll (or just have Plumlee post on the block and let Kelly pick-and-pop after he sets the ball screen for ARPF). This would let ARPF do what he does best (create off the dribble), let Plumlee do what he does best (not make post moves), let Kelly do what he does best (create mismatches and shoot 3s), and let Curry and Dawkins do what they do best (hold their follow-through or put up the loose butthole sign from Workaholics after knocking down wide-open 3s).
I'll give Coach K the benefit of the doubt and trust that he knows what he's doing, but if college basketball video games still existed and I had to play my season with Duke, I'd no doubt run nothing but ball screens for ARPF. Although, now that I think about it, ARPF is at his best when he doesn't have to think too much,10 and my suggested offense would rely pretty much entirely on ARPF's ability to read defenses, so I guess Coach K wins this time. But then again, video games aren't perfect representations of real life11 and players' mental capabilities don't really matter in video games, so I still stand by my assertion that a heavy dose of ARPF ball screens would be potent in a college basketball video game. You know, if such a thing existed.
Much like how Indiana's upset of Kentucky was quickly revealed to not actually be that huge of an upset because Indiana turned out to be quite good, UNLV's early-season upset of North Carolina is starting to look like maybe it's not that big of a deal because UNLV is pretty good, too. Since then the Rebels have lost a couple of games, but both losses came on the road against good teams that rarely lose at home (Wichita State and Wisconsin back when the Buzzcuts weren't in the midst of an implosion). They have a huge game this weekend at San Diego State, and given their struggles on the road this season I'm not exactly expecting the best result, but not too long ago UNLV beat the mess out of Illinois in Chicago just five days before Missouri struggled to beat the same team, so I'll welcome them to college basketball's most powerful power rankings for at least this week.
The very things that worried me about Missouri (lack of frontcourt depth and reliance on outside shooting) led to their demise against Kansas State. From the tip, it was clear that Frank Martin not only stuck with his usual pregame routine of threatening to murder his players and drink their blood out of their own skulls if they lost, but he also convinced his team that they'd be able to score around the basket all day against Missouri. By my count, 23 of the first 26 Kansas State points were either scored in the paint, from free throws after getting fouled on shots in the paint, or from feeding the post and kicking it out to a shooter because of a double team.12 Meanwhile, the Tigers went ice cold on offense and shot just 33 percent after coming into the game leading the country in team field goal percentage. Missouri isn't out of the Big 12 race by any stretch of the imagination, but on Saturday Kansas State definitely exposed two big flaws that the Tigers need to address.
Kroger's Walter Sobchak/Jackie Moon Moment of the Week
Here's the gist: At halftime of Kentucky's game against South Carolina on Saturday, Kentucky freshman Vincent Swope hit a half-court shot to win $10,000. But Kroger, who was sponsoring the shot, told Swope that he wouldn't get paid the money because he stepped on the half-court line as he released the ball (Kroger presumably then went on to explain to Swope that this isn't 'Nam and there are rules). When Kentucky fans threatened to boycott Kroger, I'm pretty sure Kroger replied with, "Who the hell has ten thousand dollars?" and explained that the only reason they agreed to sponsor the shot was to make it sound more professional. Anyway, Kroger eventually succumbed to the threats and paid up, but not before saying, "I'm calmer than you are, dude" to everyone who claimed they were overreacting for being such sticklers. Check out the video and decide for yourself whether Kroger had a legitimate gripe.
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:
January 5 Titus' Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings
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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