I admit that I tend to get carried away and exaggerate things, but I'm starting to feel like we're on the verge of the most entertaining NCAA tournament ever. I say this just about every year, but, dammit, this time I mean it. Last week, I knew there was a ton of uncertainty in college basketball, but I also knew that Syracuse, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Baylor were in a league of their own. There were a handful of other good teams, but those four were the only teams I would have bet money on to win the national title. Well, since then Baylor and North Carolina have gotten blown out, which makes the top two national title contenders a team with a history of underachieving in the NCAA tournament and a team full of freshmen and sophomores. In other words, this year's tournament looks to be even more unpredictable and crazy than usual. Let's just hope that this unpredictability leads to an entertaining national championship game, because after last year's Connecticut-Butler snoozer and this year's brutal BCS championship, I'm not sure I can handle a third straight boring title game.
At this point, I might as well just copy-and-paste what I've already written about Syracuse in this space every week. Much like every other game I've seen them play, Syracuse built a big lead against Pitt on Monday night (they were up 14 in the second half), got comfortable, started turning the ball over and settling for bad shots, let Pitt back in the game (the Orange lead was down to four with 8:30 left), and then used their overwhelming talent to pull away down the stretch. Like I've said before, this isn't a damning flaw because Syracuse has won every game they've played and they're a lock to win the Big East and earn a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That said, I can't help but think that playing this way will catch up to them at some point. Specifically, I think it will catch up to them when they play an unranked opponent on the road. That's right, I'm predicting that Syracuse's first loss of the season is going to come at either Notre Dame, Cincinnati, St. John's, or Rutgers (if I had to pick just one, I'd go with Cincinnati). The Orange will build a double-digit lead, relax in the second half, let the home team back in the game, and then try to put the underdog away. By then, however, it'll be too late, because the underdog will feed off their home crowd and use the momentum from their comeback to pull off the upset.
Or, you know, that won't happen and Syracuse will destroy all four of those teams.
I was thinking about this while watching Kentucky's game at Tennessee on Saturday: Now that Evan Fjeld is done playing at Vermont, someone needs to officially transfer Fjeld's title of college basketball's best mustache to Tennessee's Skylar McBee. Do I have the authority to do this? I do? OK, then it's settled: Skylar McBee is your new mustache king of college basketball.
Kansas' blowout of Baylor on Monday night was the most impressive team performance I've seen in college basketball this season. It's easy to point to the fact that Kansas played at home as the main reason why they won, since it's nearly impossible to win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, especially when the Jayhawks fans get as loud as they did Monday night.1 But considering how good Kansas looked, I'm not sure it mattered where the game was played. The Jayhawks were a team on a mission.
Heading into this season, not much was expected from Kansas because their best returning player, Thomas Robinson, averaged less than 15 minutes per game last year. Yet here we are, six weeks from March, and the Jayhawks are power ranked third in college basketball's most powerful power rankings. Robinson deserves most of the credit for Kansas' overachieving. He averages 18 points and 12 rebounds and is the consensus national player of the year to this point. But as good as he's been, the reason why the Jayhawks are power ranked third is because of Tyshawn Taylor. Before the season, most college basketball fans knew Robinson was going to be a "beast,"2 so although his numbers are better than expected, they aren't shocking. Relatively speaking, much less was expected from Taylor, so his emergence as one of the country's best point guards has been a welcome surprise for the Jayhawks. In fact, considering that he's averaging 16.2 points and 5.2 assists per game, he scored 28 points and logged 6 assists in each of his last two games, and he makes up half of the most lethal duo in college basketball, I'd say Taylor just might be the best Kansas point guard in the past 10 or 15 years.3
4. Ohio State
Since I already wrote a blog post about the Ohio State-Indiana game on Tuesday and since I get called out for being a homer every week because I write more about Ohio State than any other team, I'm just going to use this space to say this about the Buckeyes: If you plan on beating Ohio State, make sure you don't have to play them in Columbus later in the season, because even Alanis Morissette thinks the Buckeyes take their revenge a little too seriously. Holding Indiana to two points in the final 10 minutes of the first half and playing the starters for nearly the entire game even though it was over at halftime? Yeah, I'd say that's a bigger eff-you than scratching your nails down someone else's back.
I believe Virginia is a legit team, so I may be placing a little too much emphasis on Duke's win over the Cavaliers last Thursday night. Nonetheless, Duke's defensive performance against Virginia, especially in the second half, was enough for me to power rank them five spots higher than last week. After Virginia's Mike Scott torched the Blue Devils in the first half with 16 points, Duke adjusted and made sure that someone on Virginia other than Scott was going to have to step up to beat Duke. Once the second half started, Virginia's offense was stifled and Duke went on a 23-10 run to take a lead they would never relinquish. (Scott scored only two points during that run and seven points in the entire second half.) I'm still not sold on Duke's offense, but if they play defense as well as they did Thursday night, it won't matter.
The thing I can't figure out about Duke, no matter how many times I watch them play, is how Mason Plumlee sucks so badly at shooting free throws, because other than the fact that he shoots line drives, his form is pretty good. I understand that because of the size of his hands Plumlee shooting a basketball is pretty much the equivalent of me playing beer pong, but here's the thing: When you can walk into the Sigma Chi house on Duke's campus, pick out any bro with a popped collar, and be sure that he can throw a Ping-Pong ball into a plastic cup of Natty Light better than Mason Plumlee can make a free throw, a serious problem exists.
The encouraging thing for Baylor is that the blowout loss at Kansas doesn't mean much in the big picture. Nobody seriously thought the Bears would run the table, and at this point it's clear that Kansas probably won't lose at home this season. Other than addressing the Bears' lack of any defense whatsoever for most of Monday's game, Scott Drew won't be getting too worked up over this loss. The real important game for Baylor this week will be Saturday against Missouri, when the Bears have to protect their home court. Everyone keeps saying that to win the Big 12 you have to go through Lawrence, but I disagree. Nobody is going to win at Kansas, so instead the path to the Big 12 crown will go through Waco or Columbia. Since we've already established that Kansas isn't going to lose at home, Kansas or Baylor will have to beat Missouri in Columbia to claim the conference title, or Kansas or Missouri will have to beat Baylor in Waco. In other words, Saturday's game is a must-win for Baylor because they have to protect their home court to keep pace with Kansas. It's also a must-win for Missouri because their only hope at a Big 12 title is to beat Baylor on the road (since they aren't going to beat Kansas on the road).
One more thing about Baylor: I'm getting the feeling that Pierre Jackson is the Bears' most important player. Other than trying to find a way to call him the team's best player without saying that he's better than Perry Jones III, I'm not exactly sure what this means. I am sure, however, that I found myself saying, "Baylor needs to get Jackson back in the game" during the Kansas blowout much more often than I said, "Baylor needs to get Jones back in the game," and Jackson played two more minutes than Jones did. This probably stems from the fact that Jackson is flashier and grabs my attention, even though Jones does more for the team. But either way, there's no denying that Jackson has developed into the most important sixth man in college basketball since Antoine Tyler.
Dick's Degrees of Separation is back! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let's get down to business.
During the Florida State vs. North Carolina game in Tallahassee on Saturday afternoon, how did Dick Vitale end up mentioning Rick Pitino?
A. After John Henson blocks a Florida State shot, Vitale mentions that Henson is the best shot blocker in college basketball other than Kentucky's Anthony Davis. He then points out that Davis had another great game earlier in the day, before briefly talking about how good Kentucky is. This leads to him explaining that the state of Kentucky is a hotbed for basketball right now because not only are the Wildcats ranked second, but Murray State is one of two undefeated teams in the country. He also mentions that even though Louisville is struggling as of late, people shouldn't write them off yet because they have a bunch of talent and they're coached by Rick Pitino.
B. Following a Tyler Zeller dunk, Vitale brings up how Zeller's younger brother Cody is leading the resurgence of Indiana basketball this season. Dickie V. then explains that he's really impressed with Indiana this year, even though the Hoosiers lost at home to Minnesota earlier in the week. Beating Indiana, Vitale says, was a huge win for Tubby Smith, who Dickie V. claims is one of the most underappreciated coaches in the country. Vitale admits that Smith hasn't exactly had a ton of success at Minnesota, but he also points out that he won a national championship at Kentucky in just his second year after taking over for Rick Pitino.
C. North Carolina's Kendall Marshall is shown on camera, prompting Vitale to mention that Marshall is second in the country to Iona's Scott Machado in assists per game. Vitale then tells viewers that Machado just had a 16-assist game on Thursday in a loss to Manhattan, who are coached by Steve Masiello. Vitale claims that Masiello is a rising star in college basketball, largely because he spent six years coaching at Louisville under Rick Pitino.
8. Michigan State
I know, I know — Michigan State has lost two games in a row, which should be reason enough for me to take them out of college basketball's most powerful power rankings or at least move them closer to the bottom. But here's how I'm justifying my decision to power rank them eighth:
- Northwestern is never as bad as their reputation would make you believe, and they always give Michigan State a good game. Heading into their game Saturday, here were Michigan State's previous five results against Northwestern: 7-point loss, 21-point win, 9-point win, 3-point win, and 4-point overtime win. Keep in mind that in three of those games, Michigan State put a team on the floor that would eventually play in the Final Four, while Northwestern put an NIT team on the floor, so it's not like the teams were evenly matched. No, all of those games were close (I'm ignoring the 21-point Spartan win because it hurts my argument) because Northwestern is a bad matchup for Michigan State. Both teams take a methodical approach to the game, and Northwestern's method seems to work against Michigan State's method. Unless they meet Georgetown in the NCAA tournament, the Spartans won't play against another team that plays Northwestern's brand of basketball, so Saturday's loss shouldn't be a huge concern.
- Tuesday night's game was a must-win for Michigan. Just as Baylor's game against Missouri is huge because the Bears need to protect home court to preserve their Big 12 title chances, Michigan had to beat MSU at home to have any shot at winning the Big Ten (especially after an embarrassing loss at Iowa). If Michigan lost this game, it would've been a season changer. Plus, if Draymond Green had made the runner in the lane at the end of the game (he had a great look) or tipped in the rebound (which he also had a decent chance to do), Michigan State would have won, everyone would agree that they're still an elite team, and I wouldn't have to justify my power ranking for the Spartans.
- After the top seven, it's anybody's guess as to how the rest of the teams fall in line. Indiana has lost three straight. I don't know how good the Big East is, so I'm hesitant to give Georgetown another chance. By getting manhandled at Tennessee, Florida is out of contention until they beat Mississippi State next Saturday. Mississippi State almost let Arkansas hang 100 on them 12 days ago. And excluding their buzzer-beater win over UNLV, I can't even begin to guess what San Diego State's biggest win of the year has been. My point is this: You can't prove to me that Michigan State isn't the eighth-best team in the country, which is all the proof I need to power rank them eighth.
9. North Carolina
It's been proven many times that both The Planeteers and college basketball teams need heart to be successful, and based on the turd that North Carolina squirted out at Florida State on Saturday, it's pretty obvious that the Tar Heels don't have heart. I've been saying for a while now that North Carolina doesn't really care about playing defense, which was confirmed and then some against Florida State. Not to take anything away from Florida State's Deividas Dulkys, who scored a career-high 32 points and finished 8-for-10 from 3-point range, but I'm not sure he shot a single contested shot in the entire game. You'd think that after Dulkys (whom, by the way, Dick Vitale kept calling "Dukies," presumably owing to a Freudian slip) hit, I don't know, six 3-pointers, someone on Carolina would make it a point of pride to not let him get an open look for the rest of the game. Instead, the Tar Heels quit and left Dulkys wide open time and time again.
Carolina's game plan is to outscore their opponents, and their offense is based on taking quick shots (which often means taking bad shots). Because they jack up quick shots and because Florida State is a defensive juggernaut, Carolina's shots weren't falling like they usually do. For any other good team in America, when their offense isn't clicking they have defense to fall back on. But because North Carolina has no interest in defense, Florida State scored at will, which in turn made Carolina take more bad shots to try to catch up on the scoreboard. Eventually, the deficit became so large that the Tar Heel players figured they couldn't win, so they just stopped giving any sort of effort. Teams get upset on the road all the time (it seems to happen five times per week this season) and it's only one game, but national title contenders have rarely ever lost by 33 to an average team, which is why this loss doesn't bode well for Carolina's championship hopes.
Write this down, make sure you attribute it to me, laminate it, and then hang it where everyone who visits you will be able to see it: Virginia will make the Sweet 16 this year. I know it's a little early to be making bold predictions, but I already predicted a Syracuse upset that will almost certainly not happen, so screw it. Besides, I like what I've seen from Virginia (especially when they clawed their way back into the game against Duke on Thursday night after it looked like the Blue Devils were going to pull away) and I'm convinced they've got what it takes to win two games in the tournament. They're essentially the Wisconsin team that everyone expected the Buzzcuts to be this year — they have experience, they play well together, they control tempo, they play defense, they're well coached, they're fundamentally sound, and they have a superstar who can carry the team. The only difference between Virginia and what we expected from the Buzzcuts is that the Cavaliers aren't insufferably boring to watch. That's why I'm putting my neck out there and saying that, barring a serious injury to a key player, Virginia will play in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament this year. Just you watch.
12. Murray State
I have good intentions in telling you this, so don't hate me if it ends up being a huge buzzkill and puts a damper on your otherwise good day: Murray State is guaranteed to ruin your bracket in March. If you decide to go with the part of your brain that tells you the Racers must be pretty good because they're entering the NCAA tournament undefeated,4 it's inevitable that they'll fall victim to the annual 14-over-3 upset in the first round. And if you acknowledge that Murray State hasn't really played anybody (their two best wins are against Memphis and Dayton) and they would probably finish in the bottom half in any power conference other than the Pac-12, the Racers will make a run to the Final Four or Elite Eight and make you feel stupid for ever doubting an undefeated team. No matter what you decide to do with Murray State, they're likely to do the exact opposite. You might as well come to grips with this now. All you can really hope for is that the chick in your office pool who doesn't follow sports and only fills out a bracket because she wants the guys to like her also misses on Murray State. Otherwise, your annoying coworker5 will remind you for at least a month that you know less about college basketball than the girl who filled out her bracket based on the cuteness of each team's mascot.
The Inexcusable Decision of the Week
In the immortal words of Nicolas Cage in The Rock, "What do you say we cut the chitchat, a-hole?" It's time to get serious for a second, so wipe that smirk off your face.
In case you missed it, at the end of North Carolina's blowout loss at Florida State, Roy Williams decided to take his team into the locker room to protect them from Seminole fans storming the court. But in doing so, North Carolina's five walk-ons, who had subbed in for the starters, were left on the court to finish the game and fend for themselves. Many of you asked me how I felt about this, and rightfully so considering my entire identity could be summed up with the term "walk-on."
Here's your answer: I'm disgusted.
Now, Williams has since apologized and explained that the entire ordeal was a misunderstanding because he was under the impression that the game was ending and the walk-ons were going to come into the locker room with the rest of the team. But acknowledging that it was a misunderstanding doesn't provide me with an opportunity to get irrationally angry, so I'm ignoring Williams' apology and proceeding as if it were never issued.
In my career, I was lucky enough to never experience a court storming on the road. But I have seen The Lion King at least a dozen times, so I have a pretty good understanding of how dangerous stampedes can be. I also once went to the restroom at a nightclub and walked out to find that all my teammates had left me behind, so I can identify with being abandoned. So let me tell you: To be put in the situation the Carolina walk-ons were in would be nothing short of a nightmare. Had Williams left any of his five players on the court, it would've been bad, but to throw his walk-ons to the wolves like that was so inexcusable that he should be fired and never allowed to coach again. Some of you probably think I'm overreacting, but think of it this way: If you went to the restroom at a bar for five minutes and upon exiting you were greeted by the sight of thousands of wildebeests trampling your father's lifeless body, wouldn't you want justice brought to whoever was responsible? That's what I thought.
The Dick's Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.