We have a lot to get to and not nearly enough time, so instead of rambling on about how we're a few weeks away from the greatest month of the year, let's just dive into the most powerful power rankings in college basketball for this week.
With Papa John Schnatter in attendance Sunday, Louisville emphatically beat Marquette and in the process reestablished themselves as legitimate contenders. In the first five minutes against Marquette, Louisville looked awful and the Golden Eagles jumped to a 9-1 lead, but eventually the Cardinals figured them out and ended up blowing out one of the better teams in the Big East. By now, it's no secret what Louisville has to do to be successful. They need to run their half-court offense well enough to allow them to set up their press. The Cardinals offense has looked pretty bad lately, though, and point guard Peyton Siva has largely been to blame. Rick Pitino remained confident in Siva, even though the senior PG has been repeatedly shitting the bed in big moments. Sunday's win against Marquette was only one game, so it might be too early to say that Pitino's loyalty has been vindicated, especially since Siva committed six turnovers. But to his credit, Siva at least showed how good he can be and why the expectations were so high for him this year, as he finished with 14 points and seven assists. Now that Syracuse has lost twice in a row, Louisville remains in the hunt for the Big East title, and they certainly aren't out of the national championship picture. But Siva has to build off Sunday's decent performance and establish some confidence for Louisville to have any chance of fulfilling their lofty preseason expectations.
What are we supposed to make of Syracuse's past week? Saturday, the Orange lost by 10 at Pitt in the ugliest non–Big Ten game I've seen this year.1 Pitt dominated Cuse on the glass and picked apart Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone. If Pitt hadn't shot 3-15 from the 3-point line and if they hadn't turned over the ball 19 times, the Panthers could've won by 30. C.J. Fair was the only Syracuse player who looked like he wanted to be there — the others were complete no-shows. The Orange followed that loss by dismantling a decent Notre Dame team two days later. For the second straight game, Boeheim played Jerami Grant for 40 minutes, and while the freshman had a forgettable game at Pitt, he was solid against his brother's Notre Dame team. And for the second game in a row, Fair carried the Orange offensively when Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche underperformed.
So here's where we stand with Syracuse: Their win at Louisville last month was a fluke in that it didn't prove that the Orange would be fine without forward James Southerland, like I thought they'd be. They miss his scoring badly, but worst of all they have no depth without him. Grant has done a respectable job of filling in for Southerland, but a serious problem exists if Syracuse needs him to play 40 minutes a night. After all, we're talking about a guy who played only two minutes against Providence less than a month ago. Meanwhile, Carter-Williams and Triche can't continue to have lackluster games. Those guys haven't been awful, but given the current state of Syracuse's roster, not-awful isn't enough. Fair has been pretty great as of late, so if those two guys can give him some help, if Trevor Cooney and Baye Keita can provide something off the bench, and if the Orange can play defense like they did against Notre Dame, they might be all right. Without Southerland, Syracuse is looking at a tough ride, but I wouldn't count them out just yet.
Speaking of teams searching for an identity after losing a key player …
Duke is the most intriguing team in college basketball this season and they'll hold that title as long as Ryan Kelly remains out with a foot injury. Duke is clearly worse without Kelly, but just how much worse is up for debate. I'm more in the "they can't chew gum and walk at the same time without him" camp, although I'm starting to lean toward the "they'll be fine because they have Coach K and they're Duke" camp. It's not that I think Kelly is a superstar who is the lifeblood of the team. It's just that even when Kelly is healthy Duke has zero depth, not to mention his skill set is something that can't even be partially replaced. He can defend three different positions and his ability to stretch the floor with his shooting creates opportunities for Mason Plumlee down low. Plus, along with Seth Curry, Kelly gives Quinn Cook another shooter for drive-and-kick plays. In other words, if Kanye West's theory that "the prettiest people do the ugliest things" is to be believed, then Ryan Kelly's basketball ability is proof that the opposite is also true.
After Duke opened a can of whoop-ass on Florida State in Tallahassee last weekend, my Blue Devil doubts have started to fade. That said, despite the Seminoles' reputation as Duke killers, Florida State isn't nearly as good this season as they've been in recent years, so I'm also hesitant to praise Duke too much for figuring out how to succeed without Kelly. Their blowout loss at Miami wasn't too long ago, and the Blue Devils struggled to beat a pretty bad Wake Forest team last Wednesday. Thursday's game at home against North Carolina State should reveal some truth about Duke. If they can't beat a struggling team in a revenge game at home, I may be ready to give up on them for good.
9. Michigan State
I guess we can officially declare Keith Appling's abysmal game at Indiana a fluke. Appling, Michigan State's leading scorer, was as bad as he's ever been last week in Bloomington. He fouled out in 19 minutes and finished with three points, no assists, and four turnovers. This was especially frustrating for Michigan State fans because the Spartans lost by five — had Appling not been awful the Spartans would have had a great chance to pull off an upset.
But Appling bounced back from one of the worst games of his career and had probably the best game of his career against Illinois last Thursday. He finished with 24 points, seven assists, and eight rebounds and carried the Spartans when Gary Harris and Travis Trice left the game with injuries. Sure, Trice's absence probably wasn't much of a loss because he's been as helpful to the Spartans this season as Alicia Keys is to her local fire department when she just stands there and sings while a woman is engulfed by flames. But Harris has been phenomenal — he's the front-runner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year during a season when the conference is loaded with talented first-year players.2 If Illinois weren't free-falling into irrelevancy at a "Gangnam Style"–like pace,3 I would've expected the Spartans to fold once Harris left with back spasms. But Appling came up huge with clutch play after clutch play toward the end of the game, proving that Michigan State is going to go as far as Appling takes them this season.
When Kansas is at their worst, turnovers are usually a big reason why, and Saturday's home loss to Oklahoma State wasn't any different. The Jayhawks typically mask their turnover issues by playing stellar defense, but Saturday that defense was nonexistent, as Oklahoma State's Markel Brown and Marcus Smart combined for 53 points. Looking back at how Kansas has played over the past month, this type of loss was probably inevitable. The Jayhawks hadn't been playing well, but they were still finding ways to win. It's counterintuitive, but all that winning may have hurt Kansas. When things are going well, teams typically don't change what they're doing. But problems were lurking beneath the surface of Kansas's win streak — most notably, the stat that since January Kansas's turnover rate per game has increased while the turnover rate of their opponents has decreased.4
Moving forward, the Jayhawks need to get back to what made them so good in the first place, which is playing great defense and not trying to do too much on offense. Ben McLemore is really the only Jayhawk who can create offense for himself. Elijah Johnson has it in him, too, but he's inconsistent. Jeff Withey has a few post moves, but most of his success on offense comes from using angles to score.5 This makes offensive execution particularly vital for the Jayhawks. Setting good screens, cutting hard off those screens, taking good shots, and making the easy pass is crucial because they don't have guys who can make something out of nothing.
Leading up to the Oklahoma State loss, Kansas seemed too aware of their no. 2 ranking and their long winning streak — it looked like they were playing with a carefree mind-set, like they thought they were better than they actually are. Strangely enough, they really are one of the best teams in the country, but only when they play like they don't know it. Hopefully, this loss will steer them back toward their blue-collar ways.
What a difference a few days can make. On Monday, if somebody forced me to bet my life on one team to win the national championship, I probably would've picked Florida. Over the weekend, the Gators earned a convincing win over the second-place team in the SEC and their fifth-best player, Scottie Wilbekin, was the game's MVP. He had 13 points and seven assists, but most importantly he played great defense and won the Mohawk battle with the SEC's leading scorer, Marshall Henderson.6 No other team in the country could beat one of the best teams in their conference so easily and have their fifth-best player lead the way. This is why I was so high on Florida.
And then Tuesday night came around and Arkansas happened. From start to finish, the Razorbacks dominated Florida so badly that I had to double-check to make sure all of Florida's players made the trip to Fayetteville. It was the most shocking result of the college basketball season to me, which isn't to say that I thought Arkansas was bad, but rather that Florida had been playing so well that I was beginning to believe this Gators team could hang with the back-to-back national championship group from 2006 and 2007. Tuesday night killed that notion.
Other than "pretty much everything," the Gators' biggest problem against the Razorbacks was their defense. Florida's offensive firepower rightfully gets a lot of attention, but the Gators' defense is what has made them dominant this year, as they've given up just 50 points per game. But Tuesday night Arkansas nearly scored that much in the first half. Good thing I don't have to bet my life on a team until next week.
I have some bad news. Even though Dick Vitale called a couple games recently, there won't be Dick's Degrees of Separation this week. That's because I have to give credit where it's due and tip my cap to Vitale for staying on topic throughout both the Indiana-Michigan game and the Michigan–Ohio State game. There were a couple times when I thought he was about to go on an irrelevant tangent, but he always reined himself in, most likely because those games were exciting from start to finish. You win this round, Dickie V.
Instead, I'm going to use the halftime break to show a video that's been posted in every corner of the Internet over the past couple days, including The Triangle. If you've spent more than 10 minutes on a computer this week, you've likely already seen it, but I'm including it anyway because I know that somehow at least one of you hasn't seen this, and it's something everyone needs to see. Pay close attention at the start of the video so you can catch the kid's name. I'm guessing it's not a coincidence.
6. Ohio State
I'm not even mad. I know I should be. I know losing to Michigan by two in overtime when Ohio State outplayed the Wolverines most of the night should make me furious. I should be curled up in a ball in my shower, crying as Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" plays on my laptop. Instead, I'm writing this with a big smile on my face because Ohio State played by far their best game of the year Tuesday night at Michigan. "There's no such thing as a good loss," or so goes the saying. But for this Ohio State alum, the Buckeyes' defeat at Michigan was a FANTASTIC loss.
Take a deep breath, Ohio State fans, and think about it: If you would've known before the game that Michigan would hit 14 3-pointers, have five players score in double figures, and shoot 47 percent from the field, how much would you have guessed Ohio State would've lost by? Twenty? Fifty? A million? Heading into the game, I was certain the night would end in embarrassment for the Buckeyes. Sure, OSU matches up better with Michigan than any team in the country, but the Wolverines were coming off a loss and they were playing a revenge game at home against their rivals. Meanwhile, except for the November game at Duke, the Buckeyes haven't played particularly well on the road this season. All signs pointed to a Michigan blowout. But Ohio State rose to the occasion and provided us with the best game in college basketball this year.
There's no need to dissect this game, as it's pretty evident what the difference was for OSU. LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams both played the best games of their careers on the same night that Aaron Craft played maybe the best defensive game of his career. Ohio State shot well, got contributions from everyone who saw the court,7 and really did everything any reasonable fan could've hoped they would. In the end, Michigan was just too hot. Good offense always beats good defense, and unfortunately, as great as OSU's defense was, Michigan's outside shooting was just a little better.
If you want to nitpick, I guess Deshaun Thomas disappearing on offense toward the end of regulation and throughout overtime is a head-scratcher. For what it's worth, I didn't mind Craft's decision-making on offense. I actually applaud him for stepping up to make big plays when the situation called for it. Yes, he's not a great offensive player, but he's also not as terrible as everyone seems to think, so I'm not that upset that the ball was in his hands in key moments. At the same time, there's no excuse for Thomas getting zero touches in overtime, or for the stretches in regulation when Ohio State abandoned the one guy who has carried their offense all season.
Anyway, stay positive, Buckeyes fans. I've been saying all year that if Ohio State could get everything clicking, they have the pieces necessary to make a national championship run. Tuesday night proved it. Now let's cross our fingers and hope they put forth a similar effort when Indiana comes to Columbus on Sunday.
CBS accidentally showed the Georgetown–St. John's game in Ohio markets last Saturday instead of Miami–North Carolina State. At least, I assume it was an accident, because Miami–NC State was the second-best game of the weekend just like everyone thought it would be. Thanks to this mistake, I couldn't watch Miami's one-point win, which is especially frustrating because looking back at the box score, I can't figure out how Miami won. (Wolfpack fans: You might want to skip ahead to the next team, because the rest of this section will just be me taking the dagger out of your heart and slowly putting it back in again and again.) The Hurricanes were outrebounded, they shot 3-for-21 from behind the arc, they gave up 78 points, they let NC State shoot 54 percent, they were down by nine in the second half, they were down five with less than two minutes to play, and yet they somehow won in regulation. It's the kind of game that would make stat nerds crazy because everything about the box score says NC State should have won. But (choose your own cliché) I guess that's why they play the game/the box score didn't account for Miami's desire and toughness/the only stat that matters is that mark in the "W" column.
Before I dive into Gonzaga's game against San Diego, let me first say that the West Coast Conference has some of the worst college basketball officials I've ever seen. By my count, there were at least four different calls made in that game that weren't just bad calls — they seriously made me wonder if the refs knew the rules of the game or had legitimate eye trouble.8 These guys officiated like they were working in a church league that paid them with coupons for Chicken McNuggets. They were so bad, in fact, that if you proposed a trade that would send Ted Valentine and Ed Hightower to the WCC and bring two of them to the Big Ten, I'd think about it for at least three seconds before saying yes.
Now that I've got that off my chest, let me address something that's starting to bother me with this crop of Foreigners: leadership. I've watched every loss and close win Gonzaga has played this year, and the common theme in all these games is that they don't have that guy who, when things start heading south, can grab his teammates by their jerseys and tell them to pull their heads out of their asses. Kevin Pangos seems like he should be this guy — he's the point guard and he's the one who gathers the team into a huddle before free throws.9 But that doesn't seem to be his personality, and often when the Foreigners are taking bad shots or not playing particularly hard, he's a big reason why.
This leaves two other candidates: Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. Olynyk is the best player on the team and an All-American candidate, but he also looks like someone who sells candy in between games to raise money for his Little League baseball team. If he started yelling at his teammates, I'm guessing most of them would laugh in his face and he'd promptly shut up. And Harris is basically a West Coast version of Deshaun Thomas in that he always seems to have blinders on. He robotically goes about his business to the point that he almost seems oblivious as to everything else that's happening on the court.10
I don't think teams necessarily need an obvious leader, but I do think that it would help this club immensely, especially since Mark Few is a laid-back coach. Success in college basketball can often be attributed to containing opponents' runs, and the best way to do this is to have a guy who can rally the troops at the slightest hint of a momentum shift. If Pangos can step up and be that guy for Gonzaga, there's no telling how good the Foreigners can be.
Don't ask why I did this, but I watched the Arizona-Washington game on the Watch ESPN app after it had already been played. This is only noteworthy because I watched it with the commentary in Spanish. It was the first time I've ever watched a basketball game with Spanish-speaking announcers, and it was just as fun as I thought it would be. This is my way of saying that it was mildly entertaining to try to recall the month of Rosetta Stone lessons I took, and that it was cool to hear the announcers get excited every time a basket was made.11 It's also my way of saying that it ended up being pretty frustrating because I couldn't understand shit.
As for the game, remember how I said that Syracuse-Pitt was the ugliest non–Big Ten game I've watched this year? I lied. Arizona-Washington takes the cake. The Wildcats couldn't make anything, committed 17 turnovers, and were so bad that Angelo Chol actually got in the game.12 Thankfully for Arizona, Washington was even worse, and thankfully for me, the Spanish-speaking announcers made the game bearable.
Given the inexperience and inconsistency of the Wildcat big men, outside shooting will be a big deal for Arizona as the season progresses. The Cats don't need to hit 11 3s like they did against Washington State on Saturday, but against stronger opponents they can't shoot 3-for-18 from behind the arc (like they did against the Huskies) and expect to win. Assuming they get this fixed, there's no reason to think Arizona can't avenge their losses to Oregon and UCLA, win the Pac-12, and do some damage in the NCAA tournament.
As giddy as I am over Ohio State's performance in Ann Arbor, a small part of me can't help but acknowledge the obvious — the Buckeyes played their best game of the season and Michigan still won. Similarly, Michigan didn't play very well at all at Indiana over the weekend, yet the Hoosiers beat the Wolverines by only eight. This is terrifying. Michigan is taking the best shots of some of the best teams in the country while not playing anywhere close to their best, and they're still tough to beat. They just have too many weapons, especially now that Mitch McGary is coming around. Very few guys in America can contain Trey Burke one-on-one, but if you decide to help too much to stop him, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III, or Nik Stauskas will make you pay. The only hope in beating Michigan is to hope several of their players have off nights (like they did at Indiana). I guess you could also try to beat them at their own game and get into a shootout, but unless you're Indiana or Florida, good luck with that.
My biggest concern for Michigan moving forward is that they seem to be falling more and more in love with jump shots — 3s in particular. When they're hitting like they were against Ohio State on Tuesday, that's not a problem. In fact, if they hadn't taken as made as many 3s as they did against the Buckeyes, they wouldn't have won. Michigan's 3-point shooting is a big part of what makes them so good, so I'm not saying they need to reinvent themselves. All I'm saying is that if and when they go cold from deep, they don't have much else to fall back on. The Wolverines' defense could be better (and I expect it to be once Jordan Morgan gets completely healthy), and Burke, Hardaway, and Robinson aren't getting to the rim as much as they should. Michigan's entire offense these days seems to be either penetrating-and-kicking out to shooters, shooting jump shots off ball screens or handoffs, and occasionally setting flare screens on the perimeter to free shooters for 3s. Again, this isn't a huge deal because Michigan has three NBA guys playing on the perimeter along with one of the best freshmen shooters in the country. But it's not ideal for their offense to be so one-dimensional. In a perfect world, Michigan will get back to Hardaway and Robinson slashing to the basket, Burke dicing up defenses with his penetration, and Hardaway and Robinson posting up to exploit mismatches. As it stands, they're really, really good offensively. If they can become more versatile and play to their potential, they'll be unstoppable.
Now that the Hoosiers followed up the biggest road win in the 112-year history of the Indiana-Purdue rivalry13 with Saturday's win over top-ranked Michigan, expectations for Indiana have reached a season high. If the Hoosiers' season ends in anything less than a national championship, the Indiana faithful might slip into a historic depression. I'm not sure even a free John Mellencamp concert held in Assembly Hall featuring a special appearance from Bob Knight and a highlight video with Keith Smart's shot, A.J. Moye's block, Christian Watford's shot, and Victor Oladipo's almost-dunk shown in loop could save them.
Just think about this: No fan base in college basketball is more desperate for a national championship,14 as it's been more than 25 years since the Hoosiers won a title, which is by far the longest drought of any team with three or more championships. This is the best Indiana team in at least 20 years, and the national championship race is wide open. To top it off, Indiana is four years removed from their worst season ever, meaning this year is supposed to be the culmination of one of the best turnarounds in college basketball history. And then one has to consider that IU will surely take a step back after this season, because Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford will graduate and Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller will likely declare for the NBA draft. In other words, it's now or seemingly never for Indiana, and IU fans know it.
The encouraging thing for Indiana fans is that the Hoosiers are playing out of their minds. When Indiana plays fast and their offense is clicking, they're the best team in the country. Add the defense they played against Michigan and they're damn near unbeatable. I had my doubts about Indiana's ability to stop Michigan because I thought Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell would be defensive liabilities. As it turned out, Hulls was a liability but Michigan couldn't capitalize because Nik Stauskas had an off game. Ferrell, on the other hand, rose to the occasion by keeping Trey Burke out of the lane and forcing him to take a bunch of jump shots. Most impressive of all, Christian Watford and Jeremy Hollowell — two guys who are consistently inconsistent — completely shut out Glenn Robinson III. Don't let the fact that Michigan shot 43 percent and scored 73 points fool you — Indiana played some of the best defense I've seen from them in the past two years and made scoring really tough for the Wolverines. If they can keep that up, there's a good chance that John Mellencamp concert will be a celebration instead of an attempt to prevent mass suicide.
The First-Grader of the Week
I discovered this video thanks to Evans from Maryland, and it was too good to not share.
Let me set the stage: According to the person who uploaded this YouTube video, Blake Harper is a first-grader at Mater Dei School in Bethesda, Maryland, who was given a responsibility that many first-graders dream about but few have the stones to deal with — he was granted an opportunity to get his entire school a day off. Outside of a 64-pack of Crayolas with a sharpener on the back, I can't think of anything a first-grader could possibly want more. According to Evans, the administration at Mater Dei gave Blake a chance to make a free throw. If he made it, the entire school got the Monday after the Super Bowl off. If he missed, he would probably get bullied all the way through his teens for blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I'm guessing you know what happened.
See you next week.