Happy New Year! After taking a week off to celebrate Christmas by drinking to excess, fighting with my family, and pretending the Hollister gift card my grandma got me is exactly what I wanted, I'm back with college basketball's most powerful power rankings! As scintillating as the last two weeks of the non-conference schedule were, I'm pumped that conference play is finally beginning. And by that, I mean I'm excited to watch the Big Ten, Big East, and SEC races, because Kansas, Duke, and Arizona will run away with their respective conference titles. Most of all, I'm excited that March is that much closer, because right now the national championship picture is fuzzier than Honey Boo Boo's mom's armpits. Sure, there are favorites, but a bunch of teams look good enough to get hot and win six games in a row come tournament time. In other words, it's a great time to be a college basketball fan. Unless, of course, you're a Purdue fan.
Like millions of other people, my favorite candy for as long as I can remember has been Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. It's a flawless candy. There aren't too many people I respect who don't list Reese's as their favorite candy. One of these people is my mom. She's a Snickers fan. I like Snickers, just not as much as Reese's. But since nobody else in my family likes Snickers bars, once my mom found out that I liked them even a little bit, she went completely overboard. Every holiday my brother and sister got Reese's Cups and I got Snickers. My Easter basket was full of Snickers but never had a single mini Reese's Cup. I tried to tell her a thousand times that Reese's was actually my favorite, but it didn't matter. Once she saw an eye-of-a-needle opening for her favorite candy, she tried to drive a Mack truck through it. It got so overwhelming that, for a while, I thought maybe Snickers actually was my favorite candy. My childhood never really recovered.
Here's what I'm getting at: Illinois is my mom, America is me, and the 3-point shot is a Snickers bar. Illinois started out the season on fire from behind the arc and rode hot shooting all the way to a Maui Invitational championship. Then the Illini went to 10th-ranked Gonzaga and hit 11 3s en route to an upset win. Suddenly, America took notice. We liked Illinois because of their ability to hit 3s. Mind you, the Illini could also do a lot of other things well, but what made them stand out was the fact that they were hitting 10 3s a game. Sometime between the Gonzaga game and the Missouri game, it's almost as if the Illini heard us talking about their 3-point shooting. Oh, you like 3s? Watch this. We're about to shoot 32 of them against Missouri. We're going to shove 3s down your throat. You think you like 3s now, just wait. Almost half of our shots are going to be 3s.
Illinois was as one-dimensional against Missouri as they've been all year, which sucks for them because they shot only 25 percent from behind the arc. Granted, Missouri has a great frontcourt and Illinois doesn't, so it's not like the Illini should've been feeding the post all game. Still, what makes Illinois good isn't that they have good shooters. It's that they play solid defense, they take care of the ball, they have guys who can create off the dribble, they have good shooters, and they can play with a chip on their shoulder. Against Missouri, though, they just focused on shooting and jacked up so many 3s it was like they had five Antoine Walkers on the court.
So here's the deal, Illinois: We like your 3-point shooting. But you're more than just a pretty face. We like you more for how hard you play because nobody thinks you belong in the top 10. So please don't ever put a bunch of Snickers bars in our Easter baskets again, and if for some reason you must, for the love of God at least include some Reese's Cups, too.
When I'm elected commissioner of college basketball, my first act will be to create a four-team tournament over Christmas break featuring whichever teams are coached by Frank Haith, Ben Howland, Bruce Weber, and Rick Barnes. I can't stress enough how much I love these four guys. To their credit, Haith and Howland stayed out of the way when UCLA and Missouri played each other last week, and the result was one of the most entertaining games of the season. Sure, you could argue that a head coach not really doing anything during a game isn't the best thing in the world, but screw it. Howland and Haith sat back, let their guys hoop, and everyone who watched that game was better off for it. In fact, Haith was so hands-off that when Missouri was scrambling in their final possession to tie the game and force double-overtime, he decided that instead of using his last timeout, he'd just adjust the waistline of his pants for the 741st time.1
Missouri fans hate that I pick on Haith, so let me clear the air: I don't think he's a bad coach. I don't care how good your players are — you can't win 30 games at a BCS school and be a bad coach. The bad coaches are the guys you've never heard of because they went 5-30 at MEAC schools. At the same time, he's certainly not a good coach, and in no way is he qualified to be at the helm of one of the best teams in America, which is why I enjoy ragging on him. The guy had one halfway decent season at Miami before he got to Missouri and inherited Mike Anderson's players, which is why I think he's got Mike Davis and Bruce Weber written all over him.2
Anyway, all of that aside, I'd be lying if I said Haith is the reason Missouri lost to UCLA. Instead, Missouri's problem was that Flip Pressey has turned into Brett Favre — for every three great plays he makes, he makes one terrible play. Against UCLA, Pressey shattered the school record with 19 assists, but he also went 8-for-22, after shooting 3-for-19 against Illinois six days earlier. And it's not like he shot poorly because he was just having a couple of off nights. No, he shot so poorly because he has a tendency to take colossally stupid shots.3 It's hard to get really mad at one of the three best point guards in America, but it's impossible to ignore that Pressey could be the best point guard in America if he'd just make five fewer awful decisions per game.
One road loss to a UCLA team that is — gulp — actually not that bad anymore isn't a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, especially since before that game Missouri beat Illinois in St. Louis. Missouri is still loaded with talent and experience, and they should still be co-favorites with Florida to win the SEC. But the Tigers will only reach their full potential if Pressey plays with more composure.
Things I like about Minnesota: their size; Tubby Smith's mustache; Andre Hollins has "Dre Hollins" on the back of his jersey; their length; the last three minutes of the Michigan State game; The Barn, which has become the coolest arena in the Big Ten since the university paid to replace the floor; their athleticism; Julian Welch is one of like six guys in college basketball who wears jersey number 00; Trevor Mbakwe looks like he could be Greg Oden's grandfather; their depth; and Tubby Smith continues to challenge Bo Ryan for the title of "the Big Ten coach who looks the most like his school's mascot."
Things I don't like about Minnesota: They don't seem to understand that their defense is what will win games in the Big Ten; their lapses of intensity; Trevor Mbakwe looks like he could be Greg Oden's grandfather; turnovers; Austin Hollins is shooting less than 33 percent on 3-pointers, yet he apparently thinks he's Blake Hoffarber with how often he shoots contested and ill-advised 3s; they have a history of starting well and then fading once conference play begins; someone in their student section once told me I had a muffin top.
If Gonzaga wants to get involved with conference realignment and leave the WCC, the Big 12 seems like the best destination. It would never happen because the Zags don't have a football team, and they may not want to face Kansas, which has won so many back-to-back conference championships that even Tom Emanski is impressed. Still, given that the Foreigners are 5-0 against Big 12 teams this year, including wins over two of the conference's better teams last week, you'd have to think Mark Few wouldn't mind switching conferences.
It's amazing to think that in the early 2000s Gonzaga gained a reputation as an NCAA tournament Cinderella and played a pivotal role in improving the reputation of mid-major basketball, but in the 14 years since Dan Monson took the Zags to the Elite Eight, Gonzaga has never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen. Meanwhile, mid-majors like Butler, George Mason, and VCU have made it to Final Fours and Xavier has made two Elite Eights. If you haven't been paying attention, you might think that Gonzaga has the best mid-major program in the country, but until the Zags do some damage in March, that's just not true. This year, expect the Foreigners to do something about this.
As much as I worshipped Adam Morrison and loved his Zags from 2004 to 2006, there's no denying that this year's group of Foreigners is the best team Mark Few has ever had. Kevin Pangos is playing out of his mind right now and Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris have emerged as possibly the best frontcourt in the country.4 The Foreigners have depth and size, they've got a great glue guy/X factor in Gary Bell Jr., and they have the most entertaining walk-on in college basketball in Rem Bakamus (otherwise known as the guy who did the air guitar during the Illinois game). A lot of people counted Gonzaga out after Illinois beat them on their home court, but the Foreigners have responded well and they're back to playing to their potential. The WCC isn't as good as it typically is, so the Foreigners aren't going to be tested much during what remains of the regular season, but they are traveling to Butler in a couple of weeks. And as Xavier fans who remember 2010 can attest, winning a highly anticipated game in Hinkle is never easy.
Before I get into Syracuse's problems against Temple, let me say that thanks to his 33 points against the Orange, Temple's Khalif Wyatt has built a solid lead over San Diego State's Chase Tapley and UCLA's Jordan Adams for the Khalid El-Amin Award, which goes to the best perimeter player in college basketball who kind of looks like he's out of shape at first glance.5 It should be noted that you don't have to be fat to win the Khalid El-Amin Award, you just have to be physically underwhelming. This certainly is the case for Wyatt, who is remarkably unathletic considering how good he is. Just watch this highlight video and count how many times he does something to prove he's more athletic than a random guy from your church league. Spoiler alert: The answer is zero.6
Despite his limitations, Wyatt looked like the best player on the floor against Syracuse. This is primarily because Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone, which is typically one of the best defenses in college basketball, was as bad as I've ever seen it. The Orange players were overextended, they didn't rotate fast enough and/or properly, and they weren't very aggressive in general, allowing Temple to get just about any shot they wanted. In fact, the best defense Syracuse played was when they got down big in the second half, turned to a free-for-all press out of desperation, and clawed their way back into the game. On offense, the Orange ran into the familiar problems of taking too many quick and contested shots. Unlike past Syracuse teams, this squad isn't so talented that they can play lackadaisical defense and make up for it by overwhelming their opponents on offense. Lucky for them, this is a down year in college basketball in terms of individual talent, so Syracuse may not need a bunch of guys who can light it up to be successful. However, if they don't make defense their top priority, this season will be a disappointment.
7. Ohio State
Amir Williams has become more frustrating for Ohio State fans than that hot chick you went to high school with who has her privacy settings turned all the way up on Facebook. The 6-foot-11 sophomore center is achieving the impossible in that he might simultaneously be the most and least valuable player for a top-10 college basketball team. What makes Williams so valuable is that the Buckeyes don't have anybody who comes close to matching his defensive presence in the paint. Now, Williams isn't exactly a great defender, but his size alone deters opposing guards from driving to the basket or feeding the post. The same can't be said of Ohio State's other big man, 6-foot-8 Evan Ravenel. Ravenel is mentally and physically tougher than Williams, but it's clear that Williams has more of an impact on defense just because he's so much bigger. It's no coincidence that Ohio State played their best defense against Kansas a couple weeks ago when Williams was on the floor.
It's also no coincidence that Ohio State's offense looked awful when Williams was on the floor. In fairness, the Buckeyes played atrocious offense throughout the second half, and it isn't Williams's fault that OSU went cold from behind the arc. At the same time, though, Williams has cinder blocks for hands and looks as comfortable on offense as David Duke at a packed screening of Django Unchained. Ohio State's big men don't have too many responsibilities in the offense this year. They're supposed to set screens, stay out of the way, and crash the boards when a shot goes up. Even though Ravenel occasionally gets trigger-happy and shoots a contested jump shot, he understands his duties for the most part. Williams, however, seems to think his offensive responsibilities include wandering around, posting up with no intensity because he doesn't really want the ball, and softly laying the ball up after an offensive rebound even though he should be trying to rip the rim off. Oh, and having the ball ricochet off his hands if it's passed to him. There's that, too.
I know that Ohio State's terrible outside shooting concerns Buckeyes fans most after the Kansas loss, but my biggest worry is Amir Williams. Shooting comes and goes. Some nights you're hot, some nights you aren't.7 Kansas is one of the best defensive teams in the country and Ohio State got plenty of wide-open shots against them. That's all you can really ask for. You just have to hope that eventually they start falling. If Ohio State continues their atrocious shooting, then I'll get concerned about that. In the meantime, I'm focused on whether Williams can rise to the occasion and bang with the big boys in the Big Ten.
Dick Vitale hates us. That's the only possible explanation I can come up with for why he's taking such a long hiatus from calling college basketball games. He hates that Dick's Degrees of Separation is the biggest phenomenon on the Internet and he wants us to stop enjoying ourselves at his expense. That, or he's spent the past month soaking in the experience of his beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish playing for a national football title.
Whatever the case, this marks the second straight column in which we can't play Dick's Degrees of Separation because Vitale didn't call a game. I don't want to get carried away here, but this is literally the worst thing to ever happen to me in my entire life. Thankfully, there is one thing that can cheer me up — this GIF of Ben McLemore dancing:
I've watched this on loop at least 100 times now and I don't plan to stop anytime soon. What's that? Do I know why he's dancing? Well, Kansas is wearing their road blue uniforms and they're dancing in a locker room with red lockers. Looking at their schedule so far this year this means that it's probably from … son of a bitch.
Dan Dakich is the best color commentator in college basketball and there isn't a close second. In case you aren't aware of Dakich's brilliance, or you're one of his many haters, I offer you this Dakich quote from Indiana's game at Iowa last Monday: "Jeff Sagarin — and this is a little-known fact — lives with 30 cats." It should be noted that there was no follow-up after Dakich made this comment. His broadcasting partner brought up Sagarin's ratings, Dakich said he owns 30 cats, and that was that. Five seconds later they were back to talking about the game. This is why Dakich is brilliant. He dishes out vital information like he's Lori Beth Denberg. The man knows what people want to hear about, which, in this case, is how many cats are owned by the guys who come up with computer rating systems for college basketball.8
Another solid Dakich moment during the Indiana-Iowa game came when he called Victor Oladipo Indiana's best player this year. I've long been a critic of Oladipo because his game was too unrefined for me to appreciate his athleticism. It always bugged me how out of control he was on offense and how much he gambled on defense. I loved his energy, but I thought he needed to tone it down and quit trying to make a home run play every second he was on the court.
This year Olapido has finally toned it down, and I've hopped on the bandwagon. He's shooting an absurd 67 percent from the field, he's Indiana's second-leading scorer, he's third in assists and rebounds, and he's far and away the Hoosiers' best defender. But most importantly, he steps up when the team needs him. Without Oladipo, Indiana would've lost to Iowa by double digits. He shut down Iowa's leading scorer, Roy Marble, put up a double-double, and came up with a putback and two huge free throws to put the game away in the final minute. I used to think Indiana fans were crazy for suggesting Oladipo might skip his senior year and enter the draft after this season, but now I'm right there with them.9 After all, it's saying something when you're the best player on the preseason no. 1 team and your teammate is the preseason national player of the year.
Halfway through the regular season, the top five teams have distanced themselves from the pack. Louisville belongs in this group now that Gorgui Dieng has returned. Louisville's guards are great at pressuring the ball, but the Cardinals' defense isn't nearly as good without Dieng on the back line to swat away shots when opposing guards get to the rim. Dieng didn't have a monster game against Kentucky last Saturday, but Louisville's defensive mojo/swagger/confidence (pick your favorite) was back and the Cardinals gave Kentucky fits. Only when Dieng, Russ Smith, and Peyton Siva had foul trouble and stopped being aggressive did Kentucky get back into a game that saw the Wildcats down by 17 in the second half.
As is often the case with Louisville teams, the big concern for this team is their half-court offense's tendency to go cold. In their perfect world, the Cardinals would score all their points in transition off turnovers. But against Kentucky, once foul trouble forced Louisville to ease its defensive pressure, the transition opportunities disappeared and the Cardinals struggled to score. They made enough plays down the stretch to pull out the win, but the second half was more tense than the KFC Yum! Center10 crowd would've preferred. If Louisville's three main guys don't get in foul trouble, the Cards likely run away with the game and their walk-ons play the final three or four minutes. These three have a history of getting into foul trouble just because of how aggressively Louisville plays, but you have to think that the chances of all three of them having foul issues in the same big game again aren't that great. But it could happen, so Louisville would be wise to figure out how to deal with it better than they did against Kentucky.
Let's not lie to ourselves, Arizona fans. Even though the Wildcats are off to their best start in 25 years, they still aren't there yet. You know you agree. This isn't to say they are overrated or that they can't compete with the likes of Duke, Michigan, and Kansas. It's just that Arizona hasn't played that 10-minute stretch that makes you think, How can anybody beat these guys? They rose to the occasion against Miami, but for the most part Arizona hasn't dominated opponents like other top teams have.
That said, what should be terrifying for the rest of the Pac-12 is that no top-10 team has more room for improvement than Arizona. The Cats are one of just four undefeated teams in the country and they've beaten at least three tournament teams, yet right now they're essentially a three-man team. If I felt certain that the freshman trio of Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett would get even just 10 percent better by March, I'd go to Vegas right now and bet an irresponsible amount of money on Arizona to make the Final Four. Mark Lyons can sometimes be an irrational-confidence guy, but he's settled down enough and he seems to be growing into his point guard role. Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill do a little bit of everything, and Kevin Parrom and Jordin Mayes are perfect in their roles of X factor and backup X factor, respectively. All that's missing to take Arizona from good to great is consistent post play, which is why the development of those three first-year bigs is a huge deal. Especially since the only non-freshman big man in the Cats' rotation is Angelo Chol, who is … um … [thinking of the nicest way to say this] … not very good.
Michigan hasn't exactly played a bunch of nobodies, seeing as how Pitt, Kansas State, and North Carolina State should all make it to the NCAA tournament. At the same time, Michigan is the only team in college basketball's most powerful power rankings that hasn't had an appointment game. By that I mean they haven't had a game that makes you say, "I have to clear my schedule and warn my family that I'm going to neglect them for two hours so I can watch this game." This is especially frustrating because I love this team. At their best, the Wolverines are more fun to watch than any team in the country. It's just that it's hard to get excited to watch them beat up on every other school in Michigan except the one in East Lansing. Thankfully, the Big Ten schedule is here to remedy this.
Speaking of Big Ten schedules, I think the Wolverines will win the conference in large part because of their schedule. Michigan plays at Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan State before those same schools visit the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. This means that toward the end of the year, when it's nut-cutting time and the conference race is being decided, Michigan will play all the other contenders at home, including the March 10 season finale against Indiana. The Wolverines having the best team is already enough for me to like them to win the Big Ten. Their having the best schedule only solidifies it.
It's well established that Mason Plumlee is the front-runner for National Player of the Year. Creighton's Doug McDermott is making a case for the award, but the advantage will always go to Plumlee because he plays for Duke. That's not to say that the people who decide these things have a bias toward Duke (although they probably do). It's just that playing at Duke means Plumlee has to deal with pressure and a spotlight that McDermott doesn't face at a mid-major. The stakes are higher for Plumlee every time he takes the court, which is something that can't be ignored when deciding these awards.11
Anyway, as great as Plumlee has been, the most impressive player for the Blue Devils has been Seth Curry. Based on the information I've gathered from watching Duke games and listening to pundits discuss the Blue Devils, Curry's leg is basically about to fall off because of a mysterious, unnamed injury. It's apparently a miracle that he can even walk, and doctors are saying there's a 95 percent chance that he'll never play competitive kickball again. It's a sad situation and you hate to see a guy go through it. But Curry has been a pro about the whole ordeal and he has played incredibly well given the circumstances. Actually, forget the circumstances — even if he were completely healthy, he would be playing well. That he's doing it with a bum leg is nothing short of amazing. And by the way, when I say that "he's doing it," I mean he's averaging 17 points a game for the no. 1 team in the country while making 42 percent of his 3s. He's playing so well that I'm starting to believe he might be faking the injury so he doesn't have to practice. If that is in fact what he's doing, words can't even explain the amount of respect and admiration I would have for him. "Be one of the best players in the country while sitting out of every practice" has been a dream of mine since the day I could walk. Unfortunately, I could only ever accomplish the "sitting out of practice" part.
I know. I'm an idiot. I'm overreacting to the Jayhawks beating my alma mater in Columbus a couple weeks ago. It makes no sense to power-rank a one-loss team above three undefeated teams. Everything I have ever said or written about college basketball has just become irrelevant because I lose all credibility by power-ranking Kansas first. There are a lot of stupid people who cover college basketball, but this makes me the stupidest. I obviously hate Duke, Michigan, and Arizona. I'm trying to be controversial to generate page views. I'm a master troll. Even Skip Bayless thinks I'm illogical.
I'm guessing at least one of those lines accurately describes your reaction to seeing Kansas atop college basketball's most powerful power rankings.
Now please, take a few deep breaths and let me explain. It's simple: Nobody is playing better basketball than the Jayhawks right now. It's not even close, really. Duke, Michigan, and Arizona might have better résumés, but if the NCAA tournament started tomorrow and I had to bet my entire collection of pogs on one team, I wouldn't even hesitate to pick Kansas. Look at how well Kansas played in December. The Jayhawks obliterated Colorado, Belmont, and Richmond, then went on the road and beat a top-10 team fairly easily. Duke trailed in the second half at home against Santa Clara. Michigan's toughest opponent thus far has been North Carolina State, whom they played in Ann Arbor and who have been a disappointment this season. Arizona has beaten some good teams, but stealing a win against Florida at home and squeaking past San Diego State on a neutral court isn't nearly as impressive as cruising against Ohio State in Columbus. Meanwhile, Kansas bent every December opponent over their knee, pulled out a paddle, and went Miss Trunchbull on them.
Don't let November fool you. Unlike the other teams at the top of the polls, Kansas lost the best duo in college basketball from a year ago. They spent the first month of the season figuring out how to fill that void. Now that the players have settled into their roles and they're all on the same page, the Jayhawks look unbeatable. Only Louisville could make a legitimate claim to playing better defense than Kansas and only Mason Plumlee could make a legitimate claim to playing the center position at a higher level than Jeff Withey. Most importantly, the reason I believe that Kansas is the best team in college basketball right now is Ben McLemore. Ben McLemore is a bully. Ben McLemore fills your locker with shaving cream. Ben McLemore beats you up on the playground and then fake-cries to the teacher that you started it. Ben McLemore sticks his finger in your pudding cups just because he can. Ben McLemore is a bad man. Which is why Kansas is the best team in college basketball and Ben McLemore just might be the top pick in the 2013 NBA draft.12
The Parents of the Week
If you watched Louisville play Kentucky last weekend, chances are you heard about Gorgui Dieng's parents traveling all the way from Senegal to see their son play in college for the first time. CBS showed Dieng's parents at least twice, which means they now trail Cody Zeller's parents by 9,998 on the "most times parents are shown on TV during their son's game" leaderboard. The craziest part of this story is that Dieng's parents don't speak English and worked on getting to America for five months just to see their son play. This is the part of the column where I would get on all of you parents who skip your kids' youth soccer games because you want to sit on the couch and watch football, except for the fact that you're entirely justified because your kid isn't an NBA prospect playing in one of the biggest rivalries in college basketball. Instead, your kid is probably one of those little twits who picks his nose and chases butterflies during the game. Can't say I blame you.
Jokes aside, Dieng's parents (and Lesley Thomas, the Ohio native who helped set everything up) went to incredible lengths just to see their son play. I'm sure when Kevin Bacon first visited them in Senegal to recruit their son, they never imagined Gorgui would be as big of a star as he is today, so for them to see firsthand what he has become must have been an unreal experience. So shout-out to Gorgui Dieng's parents for making every other parent in the world look bad.
See you next week.