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The Defending National Champs Are Being Weirdly Overlooked

Villanova is rolling, but can it prove it’s more than just Josh Hart? Plus, breaking down Indiana’s quest to return to the top.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Before we get to the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, here’s something to think about: Herb Sendek, Tim Floyd, Al Skinner, Reggie Theus, Mike Dunleavy Sr., Vin Baker, Mark Price, Terry Porter, Dan Majerle, Damon Stoudamire, Theo Ratliff, Donyell Marshall, Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson, and Ron Mercer are all currently head coaches of Division I basketball teams. And I only lied about three of the names on that list! Good luck figuring out which three!

12. Purdue (8–2)
11. Creighton (10–0)
10. Louisville (9–1)
9. Gonzaga (10–0)
8. North Carolina (10–1)

7. Indiana (8–1)

Let’s not sugarcoat it: Nothing about this season, or any season, will matter to Indiana fans if the Hoosiers can’t make a deep NCAA tournament run. Few need to be reminded about the program’s heyday under Bob Knight in the 1970s and ’80s, and fewer still need a rundown of how it hasn’t been the same since he was fired in 2000. Starting in 2001, Hoosiers fans have had to endure a stretch that includes Mike Davis being Mike Davis, the Bracey Wright era, Kelvin Sampson shitting on Knight’s “we do things the right way” mantra, Devan Dumes emerging as the team’s best player, and Tom Crean doing countless things to garner ridicule from fans around the country. So when Crean led Indiana to its first outright Big Ten title in 20 years in 2012–13, it was understandably a big deal. Maybe it was a little premature and/or insulting to what Knight accomplished to declare that the program was back, but you couldn’t fault people for getting excited.

Devonte Green and Tom Crean (AP Images)
Devonte Green and Tom Crean (AP Images)

Since then, the Hoosiers have won another outright Big Ten title (2015–16), produced three top-10 NBA draft picks (Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, and Noah Vonleh), done well on the recruiting trail, and racked up more top-10 wins than most IU fans probably remember. As easy as it is to pick on Crean, it must be noted that Indiana basketball is currently in the midst of its best run in a quarter-century. But for all the success that’s returned to Bloomington, fans old enough to remember the Knight era can’t help but notice the obvious: The Hoosiers can’t get it done in March. For a program that values NCAA titles so much that the five banners hanging in Assembly Hall have become as iconic as the building itself, that’s a problem.

Trigger warning for Hoosiers fans: This is the part of the column where I list depressing Indiana postseason facts. Since IU last made an Elite Eight in 2002, Butler and Notre Dame — two programs that were afterthoughts in the state of Indiana’s basketball landscape for years — have each made multiple Elite Eights. Baylor, Oregon, West Virginia, Marquette, Michigan, Ohio State, Memphis, and Xavier have all made multiple Elite Eights, too. Indiana is one of four programs with multiple NCAA championships to have not made an Elite Eight since 2003 (Cincinnati, NC State, and San Francisco are the others), and Crean is 1–4 at the school against teams seeded no. 1 through no. 8 in the NCAA tournament, with his losses coming by an average of 10.8 points. Also, while it’s not as big a deal as IU’s NCAA tourney failings, the team has regularly flopped in the conference tournament. The Hoosiers are tied with Purdue for the most Big Ten regular-season titles of all time, yet Indiana has never won a Big Ten tournament and made the championship game only once, a 2001 loss to Iowa that was sealed when IU transfer and Indiana native son Luke Recker hit the game-winning buzzer-beater.

So that’s where we stand. Indiana is back, to a certain degree. The recruits are back, the massive regular-season wins are back, the All-Americans are back, the Big Ten titles are back, and the general buzz around the program is back. With James Blackmon Jr., Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson, and OG Anunoby leading the way, this season’s Hoosiers already have two top-five wins and are heavy favorites to win yet another Big Ten title. But now that those hurdles have been cleared, Hoosiers fans are desperate to take the next step. That’s why Saturday’s game against Butler is such a big one. The Bulldogs are exactly the kind of team that could give the Hoosiers problems come March and make an otherwise great season irrelevant to a fan base starved for postseason success.

The NCAA tournament is nothing if not a demonstration of the importance of contingency plans, and Indiana’s backup plans under Crean haven’t exactly been great. Butler, meanwhile, has earned a reputation as the king of forcing opponents to adjust, and that will almost certainly be the case on Saturday. The Bulldogs will do everything they can to slow the game down and make the Hoosiers’ superior athletes stop to think. And because Butler plays solid team defense and is every bit the 3-point shooting team that Indiana is, the Hoosiers will likely have to find a way to win that doesn’t involve their usual fast-tempo barrage of dunks and long-range bombs.

Keep an eye on how this game is played. If Indiana wins, don’t just fall into the trap of fawning over another Hoosiers’ victory against a ranked foe; if Indiana loses, resist the urge to sum things up by firing off a string of “LOL Tom Crean” tweets. (Yeah, I know — that’s unbelievably rich coming from me.) The final score isn’t nearly as important as whether IU looks comfortable when forced to play a different brand of basketball. If the Hoosiers run Butler out of the gym, that’s obviously great … in the short term. I’d much prefer to see them struggle early, go cold from the 3-point line, and still find a way to come out on top. Because if they’re going to make their first Final Four run in 15 years — which is all that ultimately matters — they’re going to have to be able to win in all sorts of ways.

Whatever the case, I’m sure Indiana will be fine. Butler is a tiny in-state school set to play in its home city against an Indiana team that will have the majority of the arena’s fan support and will be dealing with health concerns surrounding Anunoby. What could possibly go wrong?

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only 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 to it.

During Saturday’s Duke-UNLV game in Las Vegas, how does Dick Vitale end up talking about Lady Gaga?

A. UNLV’s Uche Ofoegbu scores on a layup, prompting Vitale to say, “San Francisco, I left my heart” for what seems to be no discernable reason. However, Dickie V. quickly clarifies he said that because Ofoegbu is a transfer from the University of San Francisco. After a beat, Vitale mentions that Tony Bennett, who released “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1962, is his idol since Bennett is 90 years old and still regularly performing. Vitale then drives his point home by mentioning that Bennett isn’t just performing — he’s performing with Lady Gaga.

B. ESPN’s cameras show Bryce Harper, a Las Vegas native, in the stands. Vitale mentions that he’s a huge baseball fan and that he loves the Tampa Bay Rays, his hometown team. He says he heard that the Washington Nationals are willing to let Harper go when his contract runs out after the 2018 season and that he thinks the Rays should go after Harper. Dickie V. admits the Yankees likely have the inside track on landing Harper, but he also makes clear that Tampa is a wonderful place to live. As proof, Vitale lists things he enjoys doing in Tampa, prompting him to mention that he once saw Lady Gaga in concert.

C. As Duke blows the game wide open in the second half and cruises to a 94–45 win, Vitale takes an opportunity to praise Mike Krzyzewski, who Dickie V. says operates on a completely different level than every other coach in the country. Coach K’s ability to always have his players ready, despite the target on their backs, reminds Vitale of Bill Belichick, who he believes will coach the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl win this season. Vitale then explains how he’s rooting for a Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl, although he confesses he’ll be fine with any matchup because he thinks the real star of the Super Bowl will be Lady Gaga, who’s performing at halftime.

6. Kentucky (9–1)
5. Duke (10–1)
4. Kansas (9–1)
3. UCLA (11–0)
2. Villanova (11–0)

1. Baylor (9–0)

The defending national champs are 11–0, ranked no. 1 in the AP poll, and led by national player of the year favorite Josh Hart. They’ve won their last 17 games dating back to last season, haven’t lost by double digits in almost a calendar year, and haven’t lost a Big 5 game since … I want to say 1998? They’ve been so good that everyone’s favorite college basketball robot, Jon Rothstein, has started beating a Villanova catchphrase into the ground.

So why does it feel like the Wildcats are flying under the radar? Why does it feel like everyone is talking about teams like Duke, Kentucky, and UCLA instead of the top-ranked defending champs led by the best player in the country? I mean, the most powerful power rankings in college basketball have Villanova power ranked behind f’ing Baylor? Are you shitting me?

Let’s start with the obvious: Big East bias is real. That’s not to say that the college basketball media gets together every year and conspires to avoid talking about Big East teams. (Or maybe they do and I’m just never invited, which actually seems plausible.) It’s just the unfortunate and inevitable byproduct of a conference full of private, mostly small and Catholic schools without FBS football teams signing a TV deal with a network that isn’t on the forefront of college basketball fans’ minds. ESPN has been synonymous with college basketball over the last 30-plus years (starting, ironically, with the rise of the Big East in the 1980s), with CBS’s high-profile weekend games trailing close behind. Thus, the Big East on Fox is like Notre Dame football on NBC: If you’re reeeeeallllly into it, you’ll seek it out and love it just the same as if it were on Oprah’s network; if you’re not, you’ll keep flipping through your familiar cycle of channels and almost forget it exists. So, no, Big East bias isn’t necessarily intentional. But it’s definitely real.

That said, there are legitimate concerns about Villanova that fall outside of the talking about how good the Wildcats are would require me to put more effort into my job, so I’d rather just try to ignore them all season umbrella. As great as Hart has been — and he’s been otherworldly thus far — Villanova can’t just rely on him to morph into a superhero every time it plays in a tight game. Maybe I’m just overreacting to the Wildcats’ 74–66 win over Notre Dame last Saturday, when Nova trailed by nine with 13 minutes remaining before Hart put on his cape and finished with half of his team’s 74 points, a third of Villanova’s 33 rebounds, and 40 percent of the team’s steals and assists. But even the Temple game on Tuesday, a 78–57 victory that was never in doubt, had a similar feel, with Hart carrying an absurd amount of the load. (He finished with 26 points on 19 shots and put the game away by scoring 11 straight Nova points early in the second half.)

Josh Hart (AP Images)
Josh Hart (AP Images)

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is the optimistic point of view, which says Villanova fans should thank their lucky stars they have someone as special as Hart leading their team. Who cares if he has to do everything? In any walk of life, having the guy who is better than everyone else on your side is ALWAYS a good thing. The concern, though, is that one-man teams not named UConn don’t have a recent history of success in the NCAA tournament. Buddy Hield is the only national player of the year in the one-and-done era who could be described as a “one-man show” who made the Final Four, and his team got historically destroyed once it got there. (All-time one-man shows since 1985 who made the Final Four in the same year they won POY: Hield in 2016, Texas’s T.J. Ford in 2003, UMass’s Marcus Camby in 1996, Duke’s Danny Ferry in 1989, and Kansas’s Danny Manning in 1988. Only Manning won it all.) Putting all of your eggs in one basket is rarely sound, no matter how talented that basket may be.

But that’s the thing about Villanova: Unlike most of those examples where star players had to single-handedly carry their teams, Hart’s supporting cast is pretty good. Kris Jenkins, the hero from the 2016 national title game, is capable of dropping 30 on any given night (even if he has become a little too one-dimensional as a 3-point shooter and his shot selection has been awful). Jalen Brunson is as solid of a sophomore point guard as there is in the country. Mikal Bridges is a lockdown defender who’s shooting 62 percent from the field. And for a team sorely lacking size after freshman big man Omari Spellman was declared academically ineligible in September, Eric Paschall and Darryl Reynolds have filled their roles admirably. (And we haven’t even mentioned Phil Booth, who scored a team-high 20 points in last season’s national championship game and has missed the last eight games with a knee injury.)

The big question, then, is whether Villanova relying so heavily on Hart is a temporary case of feeding the hot hand or a sign of the Wildcats’ 2016–17 identity. The former makes sense. Hart has been playing out of his mind and should have the green light to do whatever he wants at this point. Asking him to stop trying to have such a big influence on games would be asinine. But if the latter is accurate, and if Nova is falling into the trap in which talented guys are content to only scratch the surface of their potential because they don’t want to interfere with Hart’s heroics, a disappointing end to the season seems inevitable.

The End-Game Sequence of the Week

Please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened, because what you’re about to see is absolutely bonkers. Last Friday, Nebraska’s Blair High School and Waverly High School were tied at 50 in a game with less than five seconds to play. Then this happened.

If you’re as confused as I was, here’s the rundown: Waverly had a foul to give and used it just before Blair made that almost full-court heave. Then Waverly stole the ensuing inbound pass, and its coach called timeout just before a player hit half-courter. And then Waverly ultimately banked in a 3 to win, the student section spilled onto the floor, and the curmudgeonly sportswriters who cover Nebraska high school basketball presumably wrote impassioned columns about how dangerous court-storming is and how Waverly’s fans should “act like they’ve been there before.”

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is A. See you next week.