Selection Sunday is a month away, but with the number of great games we've seen this week, I wouldn't fault you for thinking it's already the tail end of March. Well, that's not entirely true — since Syracuse is still playing, it obviously can't be late March. But you get the idea. In the past week, ranked teams faced each other in eight different games, and five of those eight were between top-15 teams. There were upsets and surprising blowouts. There were comebacks that the winning teams' fans will remember for the rest of their lives. The greatest rivalry in the sport ended with a legendary buzzer-beater, while two other rivals played an overtime thriller on the same night. Not only that, but the best players on the best teams have all elevated their play recently. Christmas for college basketball fans may still be a month away, but I can't help but feel that this week we got to open a few presents early.
Tuesday night against Florida, Kentucky put forth one of those performances that made me wonder, How in the hell is anybody going to beat these guys? Florida's press bothered Kentucky early, but the Wildcats eventually settled down and dominated the Gators. Things got so bad that Florida basically gave up midway through the second half. All of Kentucky's supposed weaknesses (namely outside shooting and Marquis Teague) didn't look like weaknesses at all; instead, the Wildcats looked flawless, like heavy favorites to win a national championship. Kentucky is one buzzer-beater away from a perfect season, and with the way they're playing, a second loss might never come. Which begs the question: How in the hell is anybody going to beat these guys?
The answer comes in five simple steps. (1) Have really good players on your team. (2) Don't play Kentucky in Rupp Arena. (3) Make shots you normally don't make. (4) Force Kentucky to miss shots they normally make. And (5) Get lucky. Some of you might think this process lacks details, so allow me to elaborate.
To score against Kentucky, you must do two things exceptionally well — set screens and move without the ball. This, of course, should be done against every team, but because Kentucky plays almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores and because they're all superb athletes, forcing them to make quick decisions is even more vital. Many people assume that playing defense isn't as cerebral as memorizing plays or reading defenses on offense. They're wrong; it probably requires more thinking. Kentucky's guys aren't stupid, but they're young, and playing good position defense typically takes experience. Even though they are the most athletic team in America, most of Kentucky's players have only 20-something collegiate games under their belts. This is why teams should make the Wildcats think and react on defense by setting screens and having a ton of movement off the ball instead of setting ball screens and then trying to beat their athletes one-on-one while the rest of the guys just stand by the sidelines.
Furthermore, I wouldn't send more than two guys to the offensive glass because (1) Anthony Davis is going to get the rebound anyway, and (2) getting back on defense is critical because the Wildcats are unstoppable in the open court. In fact, they are so good in transition that even though it's possible to force them into careless turnovers, I wouldn't press them because once Kentucky breaks the press, the end result is usually Davis catching an oop with his unibrow above the rim and hammering the ball home. When it comes to half-court defense, I'd adopt the "make Marquis Teague beat you" philosophy that Alabama used a few weeks ago: Have off-ball defenders stay attached to their men when Teague drives. To his credit, Teague has stepped up his game lately, and he looked good against Florida with 12 points and 10 assists. But he still isn't completely comfortable running Kentucky's offense and he's the weak link in the Wildcats' starting five. I'd go under every ball screen set for Teague, I'd only double-team the post with Teague's defender, and I'd dare Teague to score 30 points. Sure, he's talented enough to do it, but I'd rather take my chances with Teague shooting 3s and challenged layups. The alternatives — Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones catching lobs for dunks, Doron Lamb shooting 3s, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist slashing to the rim — spell doom for Kentucky's opponents. You have to pick your poison with Kentucky, and the way I see it, Teague is a bottle of Everclear, Kidd-Gilchrist is a cyanide capsule, and Davis is a shotgun to the face.
Of course, all these defensive prescriptions are easier said than done. To beat Kentucky, a team will need a ton of talent, they'll need to knock down open shots, and they'll need to catch some breaks (like Davis getting in foul trouble or Jones disappearing, as he is known to do). And even then, they still might not win because Kentucky is just that good. They're so good, in fact, that they're a lock right now for the NCAA Tournament's no. 1 overall seed, which should be great news for the rest of the field, since only one no. 1 overall seed has ever won a national title.
2. Ohio State
Tuesday night, Purdue exposed the best-kept secret in Columbus, that Ohio State is atrocious at defending ball screens. This means the new best-kept secret is that Deshaun Thomas is a never-nude. (Oops.) Now, the ball screen is the hardest basic play to guard, which is why it's so common.1 But considering that OSU's best player is their center and their best on-ball defender is their point guard, they should be decent at guarding ball screens. They aren't, however, because of one simple reason — miscommunication.
Ball screens are difficult to guard because they force defenders to make a ton of decisions in about a second: Does the on-ball defender force his man away from the screen or make him use it? If the defender makes the dribbler use it, does he go over or under the screen? Does the guy guarding the screener use a hard hedge, regular hedge, flat hedge, show-and-go, or no hedge at all? Should he call out a switch and take the ball handler himself? Ohio State's defenders don't appear to be on the same page when they guard ball screens. This is probably because coach Thad Matta's ball screen philosophy changes from game to game depending on the matchups. Some teams stick to one strategy: Switching every ball screen, forcing dribblers away from screens, hedging hard on every pick, etc. But Matta likes to use different strategies depending on which players are involved in ball screens. When the Buckeyes execute it well, this variation makes it difficult for the offense to figure out Ohio State's strategy. But when the information becomes too much to process, Ohio State's defenders momentarily forget what they're supposed to do, and Tuesday night happens.2 Throw in the fact that Ohio State's big guys aren't the best defenders in the world3 and it's easy to see how Purdue scored at will against a defense that some consider the best in college basketball.
Here are my disjointed takeaways from the Missouri-Kansas game:
- For the rematch in Lawrence, I wanted to come up with a drinking game that revolved around how often the commentators mentioned that the rivalry might end after this season, when Missouri joins the SEC. But then I realized that if you took a drink every time they mentioned it, you'd be dead in a matter of minutes, and if you took a drink every time they talked about something else, you'd never open your beer.
- After hitting a 3-pointer over Marcus Denmon with about five minutes left to put Kansas up by four, it appeared as though Conner Teahan had some unfriendly words for Denmon. Three minutes later, with Missouri down by eight, Denmon scored nine unanswered points to put the Tigers up for good. I'd say that Teahan learned a valuable lesson: Talk shit, get hit — with a devastating loss to a rival via an 11-0 run to close the game.
- It seemed to me that Kansas outplayed Missouri for most of the game, which should be encouraging for Tiger fans since they still found a way to win. Sure, Thomas Robinson's inability to run time off the clock instead of forcing things and Tyshawn Taylor's inability to avoid doing Tyshawn Taylor things had a lot to do with the Tigers' comeback, but the story of the game wasn't Kansas choking as much as it was Denmon putting the team on his back. At this point, I kind of expect the Greg Jennings broken leg guy to make a Denmon YouTube video.
- Missouri's Steve Moore might have the most clichéd tattoos in college basketball (Old English name of someone who I assume means a great deal to him on one arm, Superman logo and a cross on the other arm). All that's missing is a Chinese symbol, a reference to the city he's from, and a basketball mantra like "The Game Chose Me."
Syracuse hasn't played a very tough schedule this year, so I was anxious to see how they would handle a pretty good Georgetown team Wednesday night. Now I have to decide if I believe in the Orange, because Wednesday's game revealed two different teams. If I were a believer, I'd write about how Wednesday's game proved that with Fab Melo back in the lineup, the Orange play defense just as well as Kentucky and Ohio State. They're long, they cover a ton of ground, they force turnovers, they challenge shots, and they create transition points with the zone. I'd also write about how great it is to see Kris Joseph playing out of his mind, because the Orange don't have a go-to guy at the end of games. Joseph's emergence indicates that he can be that guy whenever they need a big shot in the NCAA tournament. Then I'd wrap everything up by writing that with this being their fourth win by single digits in their last six games, it's clear that the Orange know how to eke out close games.
If I were a Syracuse hater, though, I'd point out that the Orange were dominated on the boards, as Georgetown pulled down 20 offensive rebounds and outrebounded Syracuse 48-30.4 It's easy to blame the lack of rebounding on the fact that Syracuse plays zone, but Georgetown also played a lot of zone, and they found a way to attack the boards. I'd also say that aside from Joseph's hot shooting, the rest of Syracuse's players shot 2-13 from behind the arc. Finally, I'd mention that Syracuse only played seven guys for more than five minutes on Wednesday, which tells me their depth isn't the advantage we once thought it was.
As of right now, I'm leaning toward giving Syracuse the benefit of the doubt and saying that they do have a chance to beat teams like Kentucky, Ohio State, Missouri, and North Carolina on a neutral court, but I could easily change my mind in the next few weeks.
6. North Carolina
After losing at home to Miami, Duke probably doesn't deserve a power ranking this high, but North Carolina is still one of the best teams in the country, and Duke just beat the Tar Heels on their home court, so I have no choice but to put them above Carolina. I assume most of you watched Wednesday's game (and if you didn't, shame on you), so I won't waste your time with a recap or repeat the tired analysis that the game was won behind the 3-point line (Duke made 14 3s and Carolina made one). Instead, I'll say this: Even though he's the cockiest freshman I've ever seen and his face is just asking for a fist to be thrown into it, there's no denying that Austin Rivers is one talented sumbitch. One of my Twitter followers (@realjoshuasmith) suggested that because of his performance against North Carolina on Wednesday night, Rivers earned the right to be referred to by his real name this week instead of ARPF,5 and I have no choice but to agree. The kid was fearless throughout the game, and his only mistakes seemed to come when his enormous brass balls weighed him down. Rivers playing for the first time in the Dean Dome, almost single-handedly keeping Duke in the game, and then winning it in the end was nothing short of remarkable.6 I'm not sure where it ranks on the all-time list of great Carolina-Duke performances, but I am sure that history will remember Rivers as the greatest son of a Boston Celtics head coach to ever play for Coach K. At least there's that.
It's halftime, which can only mean one thing: It's time for Dick's Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing Internet game involving college basketball! 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 Kentucky vs. Florida game played in Lexington on Tuesday, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Mike Krzyzewski?
A. Brad Nessler, who is calling the game with Vitale, asks Dickie V. if he thinks Kentucky is the best team John Calipari has ever had. Vitale says that he thinks it is, but also makes it clear that he thinks the 2008 Memphis team is a close second because of Derrick Rose. What Rose is doing in the NBA, Vitale says, isn't a surprise to him because he knew from the start that he would be special. Vitale goes on to say that he thinks the Heat will advance to the NBA Finals out of the East, but he likes the Bulls' chances and doesn't want to count out the Celtics just yet. He jokingly tells Nessler that he'll ask Doc Rivers how good the Celtics, Heat, and Bulls are the following day because the coach will probably be in attendance to watch his son Austin play against North Carolina. According to Vitale, Austin Rivers is the best freshman in the country not named Anthony Davis, and the reason he is having so much success is because he's coached by Coach K.
B. John Calipari is shown on-screen, and Nessler mentions that Calipari attended the Super Bowl that week. This prompts Vitale to defend Calipari and say that it's healthy for coaches to briefly step away and clear their minds. It also prompts Vitale to give his thoughts on the Super Bowl, which mostly consist of him saying that he feels bad for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. When you think about it, Vitale says, even though the Patriots lost the Super Bowl, Belichick will still go down as one of the game's greats. He then admits that another Super Bowl probably would've put Belichick on the Mount Rushmore of all-time great coaches. Vitale is apparently oblivious to the fact that Mount Rushmore only consists of four faces, because his list of coaches who belong there includes John Wooden, Bob Knight, Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach, Joe Paterno, Bear Bryant, Phil Jackson, and Coach K.
C. While Kentucky's Eloy Vargas steps to the line to shoot a pair of free throws, Vitale mentions that Vargas started his career at Florida. Nessler points out that Vargas actually transferred to Miami-Dade College first, and then to Kentucky. The mention of players who left Florida to go to Miami schools prompts Vitale to talk about how Miami's Kenny Kadji also transferred from Florida. Speaking of Miami, Vitale says, they had a huge win over the weekend at Duke, much to the dismay of Coach K.
Considering that Kansas outplayed Missouri for most of the game and laid the smack down on Baylor so badly that I won't even write about the Bears and their abominable zone defense this week,7 I should probably power rank the Jayhawks higher than seventh. But the last time I promoted Kansas in college basketball's most powerful power rankings turned out to be a huge overreaction. This time, I'm playing it safe. I still think, however, that the Jayhawks are legitimate national title contenders and they will probably win their eighth straight Big 12 title this year. This is especially true if Jeff Withey has more monster games like he had against Baylor and fewer nights where he tries to put up 25 trillion like he did against Missouri.
8. Michigan State
Here's something for Spartan fans to debate: Will Draymond Green end up being the most beloved Michigan State basketball player of all time? The answer is no, because nobody will ever take that title away from Magic Johnson, but that question brings up another question: Will Draymond Green end up being the second-most beloved Michigan State basketball player of all time? Again, the answer is probably no, because Mateen Cleaves has got that spot locked up. So let's just cut to the chase and get to the real question: Does Draymond Green belong on the list of All-Time Most Beloved Spartans, along with Magic, Cleaves, Chris Allen, Durrell Summers, and as many as you like from your list? I can't see how he wouldn't be.
More than anything else, I admire how Green loves the game of college basketball. The One-and-Done Era has created a disconnect between players and fans at a lot of schools around the country. While fans have spent their whole lives caring about rivalries and traditions, players often just use their college careers as yearlong auditions for the NBA. What makes Green so special, though, is that over his career he has embodied Michigan State basketball so much that if he were granted unlimited NCAA eligibility, I think he'd rather stay in East Lansing than pursue an NBA career. Everything that matters to the most passionate Spartan fans also matters to Green. This was obvious in Sunday's game against Michigan.
Based on how loud the Izzone was throughout that game,8 it's clear that Michigan State fans aren't too fond of the Wolverines. Likewise, Green said he hates Michigan and the only thing that would make him sit out against them would be death. Celebrating rivalries is a no-brainer for fans, but that's not always the case with players, which is why Green's appreciation of the rivalry proves that he understands the essence of college basketball. I'll never be convinced that Kentucky's one-and-dones feel that much more excited to play Louisville or Indiana, and to some extent I feel the same way about Duke and North Carolina.9 But the intensity the Spartans had from the opening tip showed me that this game mattered more to them because of the name on the other team's jerseys. They dominated Michigan on the boards and on the defensive end (highlighted by Tim Hardaway Jr. being held to four points on 1-10 shooting) en route to a blowout that wasn't as close as MSU's 10-point margin of victory indicated. I'm not sure the Spartans have enough offensive firepower to have a shot at the national title, but with Green's passion and leadership and Tom Izzo on the bench, I'm not foolish enough to count them out of anything.
If not for a missed free throw or a terrible call that nobody is talking about,10 Georgetown probably would've pulled off a huge road win against Syracuse on Wednesday. It's hard to believe, but the same team that brawled with a Chinese team in August was remarkably disciplined and patient against Syracuse's zone. Even more impressive was the fact that Georgetown's zone looked every bit as good as Syracuse's, especially when the Hoyas held the Orange scoreless during the final 4:37 of regulation. They don't have the talent that all the other top teams have, but I'm pretty confident that Georgetown is a Sweet Sixteen team, partly because they play a unique brand of basketball and their opponent in the second round of the tournament will only have 48 hours to prepare for them.
12. San Diego State
Oh, hello San Diego State. Welcome to the power rankings. If you beat UNLV tomorrow, I'll have something to say about you next week. But for now, let's talk Gators. On Tuesday night, Florida was like Wan Hu and the former president of Segway — the very thing that made them awesome also led to their demise.11 The Gators entered the game as the top 3-point shooting team in the country, but hit just 6 of 27 3s against Kentucky. The Wildcats, who don't have many great shooters, connected on 60 percent of their 3s. Kentucky steamrolled the Gators, so it's not like the difference in 3-point shooting decided the game, but at the same time it was obvious that once Florida realized their shots weren't falling, they just gave up.12 Had both teams shot the 3-ball like they usually do, it would've been a completely different game, which is why I still think the Gators are one of the 12 best teams in the country.
The Buzzer-Beater Power Rankings of the Week
Since power rankings are kind of my thing, I figured I might as well power rank the four buzzer-beaters from this week. Let's start with the obvious choice for no 1.
This is where the debate begins. Even though the shot that I power ranked no. 3 probably had more significance to college basketball as a whole, I decided to power rank Antwan Burrus' shot to give Liberty a win over Charleston Southern second because it would've resulted in a loss if Burrus had missed.
Anthony James' buzzer-beater to upset Creighton was the best of the week in terms of the skill required to make the shot. By that, I mean that if each of these shots happened with 10 minutes left in the game, James' would've been the most impressive.
OK, so maybe I lied. Roderick Pearson Jr.'s shot to beat IUPUI was pretty impressive, too. But James' beat the 12th-ranked team in the country and Pearson's beat IUPUI, so Pearson is just going to have to settle for being power ranked fourth.
The Dick's Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.