Is it just me, or has this non-conference season been a colossal letdown? By my count, there have been only six or seven marquee games so far, and many other supposedly marquee games such as Duke-Kentucky, Indiana–North Carolina, and Michigan–NC State didn't live up to the hype. The Maui Invitational field was a mild disappointment, two aircraft carrier games were canceled, and somewhere between 30 and 40 people showed up to watch Ben Howland and Rick Barnes have an incompetence showdown in Houston this weekend.1
It's only going to get worse from here, as most schools have final exams this week and most teams either have the week off or scheduled cupcakes in an attempt to trick the public into thinking they put academics first. Luckily, conference play is right around the corner. In the meantime, I suggest you mark your calendars for games like Florida-Arizona, Ohio State–Kansas, and Illinois-Missouri. If you miss them, the only way you'll get your college basketball fix is by watching Indiana try to score 200 against Jacksonville — which actually sounds pretty awesome.
It's great to have Missouri and Frank Haith back in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. Even though the Tigers were a top-10 team for most of last season, I never really trusted Haith for no other reason than every time the camera cut to him on the sidelines, it looked like he wasn't coaching or paying attention to the game. Instead, I got the feeling he was wondering why Michelle Branch never blossomed into the megastar she should have become.2 Missouri losing in the first round of the tournament last year to 15th-seeded Norfolk State only solidified my belief that you should never have faith in Haith. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to another season of Frank Haith fodder.
That said, my mistrust of Haith isn't of the Ben Howland "Why do you insist on running this talented team into the ground?" variety. It's more of an "Isn't it adorable that he doesn't really know what he's doing?" type of mistrust, kind of like how I feel about Scott Drew at Baylor. I still like Missouri and think they're the second-best team in the SEC. What's particularly impressive about the Tigers — it might help them actually win an NCAA tournament game this season — is that they've gone from having virtually no inside presence a year ago to now relying heavily on Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi down low. Something about the change of scenery has done wonders for Oriakhi, who had a pretty disappointing season at UConn last year, maybe because he wasn't a huge fan of Andre Drummond taking his minutes. Whatever the case, he and Bowers — who is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL — have been great, as has Phil Pressey, one of the best point guards in the country. There's no doubt in my mind that Haith will find a way to mess this up, but for now Missouri is playing well and has a great point guard, a great big man, and another big man who is pretty good, which is a solid recipe for success in college basketball.
I'm not going to pretend that I watched Cincinnati destroy Arkansas–Little Rock and Maryland–Eastern Shore last week, so I'm just going to say this and move on: I can't wait to see what Cincinnati is really made of in the next few weeks. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has heard of the schools that Cincinnati has played so far this year, aside from Alabama, Oregon, and Iowa State. The Bearcats are fourth in the country with 84.2 points per game, but it's hard to say if this is because they're a great team or because their competition has been awful. Either way, everything will sort itself out by the end of the month, as the Bearcats play Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout on December 19, host 17th-ranked New Mexico on December 27, and open Big East play at Pitt on New Year's Eve.
If you only watched a few minutes of Arizona's game against Clemson last Saturday, you would have gotten wildly different impressions of how good the Wildcats are depending on what part of the game you watched. After jumping out to a 22-8 lead, Arizona got shut down and outscored 36-16 over the next 20 minutes. In the end, Arizona seemed to just flip a switch, turn up their defensive intensity, and run away with the game, making the final score look like they were in control the whole time. But really, this was the second straight game in which the Wildcats struggled against inferior competition.3
Despite all their talent, it seems that the Wildcats still haven't figured out how to play together. Because of this, the touted freshman trio of Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, and Grant Jerrett has been somewhat disappointing and the Wildcats have turned into "The Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson Show, featuring Solomon Hill."4 This is why I think Arizona will struggle against Florida on Saturday, especially since the Gators are playing as well as anyone. I trust that Sean Miller will eventually figure out whom to play at point guard and how to get his freshmen more involved, and Arizona will be a headache for a lot of teams in March. How soon Miller figures this out remains to be seen.
After the Illini's performance at Gonzaga on Saturday, I think it's safe to say that if the college basketball season ended today, Brandon Paul would be the Big Ten Player of the Year (at the very least) and John Groce would be the National Coach of the Year runner-up behind Ben Howland. But years of Bruce Weber getting fans' hopes up in November and December only to crush them by March have taught Illinois fans to expect the Illini to implode. Even though Weber is no longer at the helm, I don't really blame Illinois fans for believing that this hot start will eventually fizzle, primarily because the team's success so far is mostly due to their prolific 3-point shooting. One of these days, Illinois will go cold in a big game and their shooting won't be able to mask their other weaknesses.
But what if they don't go cold? I mean, we're more than a quarter through the season and Illinois still leads the country in made 3s per game with 10.4. They struggled shooting against Norfolk State last night, but why shouldn't we interpret that performance as an anomaly instead of them finally crashing back down to earth? After all, it's not like their impressive shooting displays have come exclusively on their home court. Plus, this isn't a short, unathletic mid-major team we're talking about here. Illinois isn't running some Grinnell College gimmick offense where they jack up 3s because they can't play real basketball. No, the Illini have legitimate athletes who can do plenty of things other than shoot 3s. It's just that they aren't awarded three points for doing those other things, so they choose not to do them as often.
Now, don't get me wrong. I obviously don't think the Illini are going to go undefeated and I don't think they'll even finish within three games of the regular-season Big Ten title. But to react to Saturday's win at Gonzaga by saying, "Well I guess Gonzaga must've been overrated" is unfair to Illinois. Maybe they will eventually cool off and get blown out by one of the other top-10 teams in the Big Ten, but until that day comes, Illinois deserves to be mentioned among the nation's best.
Forget everything I've ever written, said, or thought about this Kansas team. I take it all back. Every concern I had was erased when I got to my TV late, turned on the KU-Colorado game, and saw that with 11 minutes left in the first half the Jayhawks were already up 17 points. From there, it only got uglier, as Kansas beat Colorado so badly that I honestly thought Bill Self and Tad Boyle had some sort of beef going on. As it turns out, there was no beef. Colorado was just the victim of a good old-fashioned ass-whupping thanks to the Jayhawks' swarming defense.
I now realize just how high Kansas's ceiling is, which, to be clear, is a national championship. If they play defense night in and night out with the intensity they showed against Colorado, there's no telling how good they can be. Keep in mind that this is the same Colorado team that was ranked 19th a week before they played Kansas. Many experts have called them the second-best team in the Pac-12, and sure, that's about as prestigious as being the second-most attractive person to ever be on Hoarders, but still. The point remains that blowing out Colorado shouldn't be dismissed as though they blew out a terrible team like Alabama State.
I'm hesitant to move the Jayhawks up higher than eighth for right now because I want to know for sure that this performance is indicative of how good they really are and wasn't just a fluke. But just know, Jayhawks fans, that if KU played Ohio State on a neutral court tomorrow and I made a bet with Nick Collison that whoever's alma mater lost had to shave his head, I'd be on my way to the barbershop right now just to get the inevitable out of the way.5
7. Ohio State
Considering that the claims to fame for Ohio State's two creampuff opponents this week are that they are George Clooney's alma mater (Northern Kentucky) and a school located in Snoop Dogg's hood (Long Beach State), I don't want to overreact, but it appears as though the Buckeyes have found a second scoring option to complement Deshaun Thomas. It's been obvious the entire season that the most logical person to fulfill this role was LaQuinton Ross, but Ross's inconsistent mental approach and general uninterest in playing defense understandably gave Thad Matta reservations about giving him more minutes. But following the disappointing loss to Duke a couple weeks ago, in which the Buckeyes squandered an eight-point halftime lead largely because Thomas didn't have much offensive help, Matta decided to finally turn Ross loose. Again, while the opposition wasn't exactly on Duke's level, it's a great sign for Ohio State that Ross rose to the occasion and averaged 19 points in those two games.
Of course, Ross's talent has never been the issue. The issue is whether he can do everything other than scoring well and convince Matta to keep him on the court. Ideally, Ross's lackadaisical mental approach will be a thing of the past and all he ever needed to get out of his funk was for Matta to give him what he felt was a legitimate chance to show what he can do. If this is the case, it's obviously great news for Ohio State fans, even though it would've been better if the Buckeyes would've saved the LaQuinton Ross coming-out party for the Kansas game so they could get the Jayhawks back for last year's Kevin Young coming-out party against Ohio State in Lawrence.
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.
During Saturday's game between UCLA and Texas, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Pat Riley?
- After coming back from a commercial break, a graphic is shown to highlight some of the best players in Texas and UCLA history. Dan Shulman and Vitale go through the list and give their thoughts. Ultimately, Vitale makes it to Lew Alcindor, who of course later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Vitale says that Michael Jordan may be the greatest professional player ever, but Lew Alcindor had an incomparable basketball career from high school to the pros. He then goes on to say that Alcindor lost only two games in his entire high school career, with one of those games coming against his future coach for the Lakers, Pat Riley.
- After a commercial break, a graphic is shown highlighting some of the best college basketball games ever played in Houston. The crown jewel of these games was when top-ranked UCLA played second-ranked Houston in the Astrodome in 1968. UCLA entered the game with a 47-game winning streak and had beaten Houston easily in the NCAA tournament the previous year, but the Bruins' Lew Alcindor was out for this game with a scratched cornea (after recovering from the eye injury, he wore goggles for the rest of his career). Thanks in part to Alcindor's absence, Houston beat UCLA by two in front of more than 52,000 people in what is still referred to as "The Game of the Century." After Shulman and Vitale finish discussing that game, Vitale calls it a travesty that Houston's legendary coach, Guy V. Lewis, still isn't in the basketball Hall of Fame. He then says how grateful he is that he is in the Hall of Fame, and mentions that he was inducted in the same class as Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley.
- While discussing UCLA's struggles this year, Vitale says that the Bruins aren't the only L.A. team having a bad year, as the Lakers have been underwhelming too. Dan Shulman then reminds viewers that the Lakers fired Mike Brown earlier in the season and replaced him with Mike D'Antoni, prompting Vitale to mention that Mike Brown got "the Rudy T. treatment." Shulman explains that Vitale is talking about Rudy Tomjanovich and then tries to explain to Dickie V. that Tomjanovich wasn't fired by the Lakers but rather resigned due to health problems. Before he can finish his thought, though, Vitale informs viewers that, speaking of former Lakers coaches, when Tomjanovich was a freshman at Michigan, he lost in the 1966 NCAA tournament to Kentucky and Pat Riley.
Louisville cruised to an easy win over UMKC last weekend, so instead of analyzing that glorified exhibition game, I'm going to give a shout-out to Rick Pitino. I've made fun of a lot of different college basketball coaches over the years,6 but Pitino has been my most common target. And with good reason — it will never not be funny that he testified in court that he had sex in a restaurant and that it lasted only 15 seconds. But because I'm a fair guy, I have no problem giving Pitino my respect whenever he earns it. And on Saturday, he most definitely earned it.
That's because, during a press conference after the UMKC win, a reporter's cell phone — it had been placed next to Pitino presumably because a reporter was using it as a recording device — started ringing. Without missing a beat, Pitino answered the phone and proceeded to have a conversation with a woman on the other end. I'm sure Pitino can be likable when he wants to be, but I found this particularly surprising because Pitino has always struck me as a slightly tamer version of Bob Knight. By that, I mean I've always assumed that his practices last four hours and if his players so much as look at him the wrong way, Pitino makes them run sprints until they lose control of their bowels.
Had this happened to Knight — someone who many people know more for being abrasive to the media than for being a legendary coach — I can think of only three possible outcomes: He would've just ended the press conference right there and walked out, he would've thrown the phone across the room and continued talking as if nothing ever happened, or he would've figured out whose phone it was and ripped into them for the remainder of the press conference. I would've thought Pitino would've handled the situation similarly, but to my surprise, he couldn't have gone about it any better. So a huge shout-out goes to Rick Pitino for being down-to-earth enough to have a little fun in his postgame press conference, and for once again giving a woman 15 seconds that she'll likely never forget.
As a guy who made a name for himself by being a college basketball walk-on, I feel obligated to help anyone who might want to follow in my footsteps. With that in mind, as I watched Syracuse's two blowout wins last week, I realized that the Orange are the best team in the country to join as a walk-on. The reasoning is simple. First of all, should you choose to walk on at Syracuse, you'll be guaranteed to play for a good team because the Orange are a national title contender almost every year. This means you'll never be asked to contribute meaningful minutes, but even more importantly you'll have a good chance of making the Final Four, which you can put on your résumé for the rest of your life. And believe me, even if you never set foot on the court during your career, when you graduate you will claim every team accomplishment as your own.
What separates Syracuse from other perennial title contenders is Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone. Any former walk-on at any school can explain that his role is to essentially be a human punching bag. So if you walk on for a team that plays a lot of man-to-man defense, you'll get stuck guarding the best player several times throughout your career. From experience, I can tell you that doing so ranks somewhere between "throwing a worse first pitch than Baba Booey" and "having a paternity dispute settled on Maury" on the list of humiliating experiences. With a 2-3 zone, though, you're far less likely to be embarrassed because it's much easier to pass blame on to your teammates, which is really what being a walk-on is all about.
But the most important reason why Syracuse would be best for walk-ons is that, from what I can tell, Jim Boeheim is way past caring what his players do. This is anecdotal evidence, but when I was at Ohio State, we played Syracuse in Madison Square Garden in the preseason NIT one year. Both teams stayed at the same hotel in Times Square. After getting done with film around 10 p.m. the night before the game, Coach Matta said he wanted us all to go straight up to bed. My walk-on roommate and I laughed at this suggestion and instead left to explore the city since we didn't need to get rest just to sit on the bench the next day. Anyway, as the clock neared midnight and we walked back to the hotel, we spotted a group of Syracuse players (some of whom were starters) out on the town. What they were up to I don't know, but I do know that there are very few college basketball coaches who would be cool with their starters walking around Times Square at midnight the night before a game. If Boeheim lets this slide with his scholarship players, you can only assume how little he cares what his walk-ons do. Translation: road trips = vacations.7
So yeah. If you're a skilled high school basketball player who is short and unathletic, you should start figuring out whose asses you need to kiss to get a walk-on spot at Syracuse. It might be the best gig in college basketball.
If you asked college basketball fans to rank the best big men in the Big Ten right now, Jordan Morgan would probably land somewhere between "One of those white guys from Wisconsin" and "Who is Illinois's big man? I'll say him." Michigan's junior big man is probably the least heralded starter among the top four or five teams in college basketball, which is why I feel like I need to give him the love he deserves. Saturday's game against Arkansas marked the second time this season that Morgan recorded a double-double in a meaningful game, which might not sound that impressive for a starting big on one of the best teams in the nation, but it becomes a huge deal when you realize that he typically plays about half the game and isn't expected to do much because the Wolverines have stars like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Morgan has not merely accepted his role as the guy who does Michigan's dirty work. By the looks of things, he has embraced it. Don't let his averages of 6.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game fool you. Morgan brings a ton of energy and plays a pivotal role that will become more important as the season wears on.
Given that Florida has the best collection of scorers in college basketball, you might assume that they don't play great defense and they typically win because their opponents can't keep up with their scoring. The truth is quite different. Despite having eight guys who can light it up, the Gators average only 73.6 points per game, which is 84th in the country. Meanwhile, their smothering defense has been the difference in many of their wins, and ultimately it's the reason why the undefeated Gators' smallest margin of victory this year has been 13 points. Last Wednesday, in a game that would've been a matchup between two ranked teams if Florida State hadn't turned into a huge disappointment this year, Florida traveled to the Seminoles' gym, held them to 15 points in the first half, and forced 22 turnovers in an absolute rout. Granted, Florida State has traditionally been a subpar offensive team, but this year they're actually averaging more points per game than the Gators. More than anything else, Florida's defense — which has been as good as anything we've seen from defensive juggernauts like Louisville and Syracuse — is why I expect the Gators to beat Arizona in Tucson on Saturday. I've been wrong before and I hope I'm wrong again this time, because I'd love to see a great game, but if both teams play at the level they've recently been playing, Florida will cruise.
For whatever reason, the Duke vs. Indiana debate has died down and the staunchest Blue Devils supporters have accepted that the only way their team can take the top spot is if IU gets upset. But just because I have Duke power-ranked second in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball doesn't mean I think the debate should be over. The Blue Devils have a legitimate claim on no. 1, and if college basketball were run like the BCS, I'm guessing they'd be ranked first by a wide margin.8 But now that the issue of who should be ranked first has mostly been settled, it's time to put to bed the question of whether Cody Zeller or Mason Plumlee is the leading candidate for National Player of the Year, because there really is no discussion there.
What blows my mind about Plumlee is that he's not only the best player in college basketball this year, he might also be the most improved. A season ago, nearly all his points came off pick-and-roll dunks, put-backs, or sealing his defender and using a drop step to power his way to the basket. Essentially, he was just tall and athletic with no post moves and a crippling inability to make free throws. This season, though, he has looked like the total package. He still doesn't have a ton of post moves, but he does everything else so well that he doesn't need Hakeem Olajuwon's arsenal. He uses his body better than anyone in the country and he's an absolute workhorse down low. You could put in tape of any Duke game this season and pick out any offensive possession when Plumlee is on the floor, and I guarantee he'll be busting his ass to seal a defender and gain position on the block.
What so many young post players don't understand is that Plumlee's activity puts a ton of pressure on opposing defenses even if he never touches the ball. Just by being big and demanding the ball, he draws the defense's attention and makes it impossible for his man to both guard him and help on drives to the basket. Plumlee could not touch the ball for an entire game and still be responsible for 10 to 20 points. Remember how last season Austin Rivers's Punchable Face was the only guy Duke had who could create off the dribble? Have you noticed that so many of those same guys who looked lost with the ball in their hands last year are now making plays? Sure, an added year of experience likely plays an important role in this, but the fact that Plumlee is an absolute monster on the block is equally responsible, and that's why he's the best player in college basketball right now. It's also why, if I were an opposing coach, I'd build my game plan around getting him in foul trouble. Without Plumlee, Duke might not even be one of the 20 best teams in the country. With him, they might be the best.
While watching Indiana's blowout over Central Connecticut State last Saturday, I realized something: On top of everything else, the Hoosiers should be national title favorites because they have a unique way of celebrating 3s. You see, throughout college basketball history, every great team has had a 3-point celebration, whether it be the "loose butthole monocle" used by Kentucky in 2012 or the "just run back to the other end of the court and play defense" used by every other great team from 1891 to 2012.
Not every Hoosier takes part in Indiana's 3-point celebration. For example, Jordan Hulls still uses the "just run back to the other end of the court" celebration, while Jeremy Hollowell's celebration seems to be to drop his jaw in disbelief that the ball actually went through the net. However, Will Sheehey most certainly does the celebration, and judging by the fact that he pointed to Indiana's bench while doing it, I'm guessing that it's something IU's Bench Mob came up with.
So what is this celebration? Good question. As it turns out, I'm not really sure. All I know is that whoever decides to celebrate a made 3 in this manner is supposed to point at their temple with multiple fingers, as if to say either "I have a migraine" or "I'm Shawn Spencer, psychic detective for the Santa Barbara Police Department." Why they are supposed to do this and what this is supposed to signify, I don't know.9 But what I do know is that the celebration is original and Indiana's guys get excited about it, which Kentucky proved last year is basically all you need to win a national championship.
The 3-Point Celebration of the Week
Speaking of 3-point celebrations, during Saturday's game against Illinois, Gonzaga walk-on Rem Bakamus unleashed the only 3-point celebration that has ever made me audibly laugh. It occurred when Gary Bell Jr. hit a 3 with a little under 7:30 left in the game. If you watched the game, chances are you already know what I'm talking about. If not, I'll just let you see for yourself.
(Click here to go straight to the celebration or watch the embedded video below and wait for the 0:44 mark.)
The Dick's Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next week.