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Baylor’s Hot Start Is Beyond Debate

Scott Drew and the Bears are undefeated and silencing the critics. Can they keep it up? Plus, sizing up North Carolina and more.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The long national nightmare is over: After a hiatus of almost two years, the most powerful power rankings in college basketball are back! In retrospect, it would have been nice if someone had told me that I didn’t have to sit out an entire season when I transferred from Grantland to The Ringer, since that rule applies only to the players. But whatever. I’m here now, I spent my redshirt season working on my game, and I’m ready to rock. Let’s do this.

12. Purdue (7–2)
11. Creighton (9–0)
10. Louisville (8–1)
9. Gonzaga (9–0)
8. Indiana (7–1)

7. North Carolina (9–1)

North Carolina was shell-shocked at Indiana on November 30, a result that was somewhat surprising given the Tar Heels’ considerable experience, but somewhat not given that Assembly Hall always brings the motherfucking ruckus for big games. With that, it’s hard to know how much stock to put in Carolina’s 76–67 loss. We can’t just pretend that the game never happened, because it definitely did and UNC looked outmatched every step of the way. But we also can’t pretend that this was anything close to a typical road game. When top-five teams go to Bloomington, Assembly Hall turns into a living, breathing organism that swallows opponents alive and gives the Hoosiers magical abilities: Marco Killingsworth can suddenly hit trailer 3s, A.J. Ratliff can score 20 points, Jordan Hulls can block a shot, and Troy Williams can play 25 minutes without committing a single turnover. There isn’t a team in the country — not even Fort Wayne — that would have beaten Indiana on that November night.

Many felt the Tar Heels were the best team in America heading into that Indiana matchup, and I’m inclined to think an argument could still be made that that’s the case. The Heels have played a decent schedule thus far and have been dominant in all their other games, cruising to a Maui Invitational championship two weeks ago and following up the Indiana loss with a 45-point win over Radford and an 83–74 victory over a pretty good Davidson team. Because of its pedigree and penchant for stockpiling talent, Carolina faces huge expectations at the start of every season, making it difficult to discern how good it really is. The temptation, then, might be to see that UNC was beaten handily in its first big test and assume this group could be a disappointment like the 2009–10 or 2012–13 North Carolina teams.

I’d caution against that type of thinking for a few reasons. First of all, losing in November has become one of coach Roy Williams’s favorite pastimes, right up there with saving timeouts, using “doggone” as a euphemism, and laying on the “Isn’t it hilarious how out of touch I am?” act just a little too thick every time Carolina wins something. UNC has made three of the last six Elite Eights, yet the Heels haven’t entered December undefeated since 2008–09, when they were arguably the best team college basketball has seen in the last 20 years. More importantly, there are four factors that must be considered when gauging North Carolina early in the season.

  • Does the point guard understand the system and have the tools to effectively run it?

Outside of Bill Walton’s weed dealer, there’s no job in college basketball that’s more important than point guard at North Carolina. (Don’t worry, Carolina fans, I’m not going to reference how Kendall Marshall breaking his wrist in 2012 completely changed … ah shit, I’m doing it, aren’t I?) Without giving it a lot of thought, you might believe this player’s only task is to push tempo, but there’s so much more to it. Carolina point guards have to know when to push tempo, when to let off the gas and run the secondary break, and when to hit the brakes and go into a half-court offense. They have to be able to score a ton of points and also be willing to defer when someone else has the hot hand. They have to know the strengths of all their teammates and be able to get them the ball in positions to succeed.

Joel Berry (Getty Images)
Joel Berry (Getty Images)

Carolina’s offense is like a race car at the Indy 500: It’s an engineering marvel with a ton of horsepower that operates at a million miles an hour, but that alone isn’t enough to guarantee a win. UNC still needs a guy in the driver’s seat who can harness all that power and simplify everything to the point that it looks like he’s just repeatedly making left turns. The Heels had a really good driver last season in Marcus Paige, and it seems like they have an even better one now in Joel Berry.

(Since I promised not to reference how UNC had a decent shot at winning the 2011–12 national title before Marshall broke his wrist, I’ll point to its struggles against Davidson on Wednesday to illustrate just how important a good point guard is to Carolina. Berry was out with a sprained ankle, Nate Britt went 0-for-8 shooting, and the Heels never really looked comfortable. Davidson made that game much closer than it should have been.)

  • Can the big men make post moves?

North Carolina’s bigs are typically thought of as guys who can run the floor, and that’s definitely the most important trait for them to have. It’s just that when the Heels surround their perimeter athletes with a post presence who can create his own offense — like Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, or Brice Johnson — they become something close to unstoppable. Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks certainly fit that description, while freshman Tony Bradley has shown plenty of post-move potential.

  • Are there multiple knockdown shooters?

This one is self-explanatory, as shooting is key to any basketball team. And in Kenny Williams (48.3 percent from 3), Berry (41. 9 percent), and Justin Jackson (39.3 percent), Carolina has guys who can connect from deep.

I guess it should be noted that having knockdown shooters is not a necessity for UNC to emerge as a contender. Last season’s Tar Heels shot just 32.7 percent from the 3-point line and came a possession away from winning the national title. Their 2012–13 group was their best 3-point-shooting team of the last seven years and finished 25–11. You know, maybe there isn’t really a correlation between shooters and success for North Carolina. I think I’m just forever scarred from watching P.J. Hairston and Harrison Barnes jack up brick after brick throughout the 2011–12 season, when the Heels fell to Kansas in the Elite Eight. Let’s move on.

  • Does the team care about defense?

Carolina always plays pretty decent defense, but there are times when the Heels seem to make stopping opponents a point of pride, and others when they seem to rely on their natural advantages in size and athleticism. This year’s version of UNC has played pretty great defense and appears to relish making opposing offenses miserable. That’s a promising combination.

There are a handful of constants with every Carolina team: size, pace, and blue-chip talent. What sets the Williams-era national title contenders apart from the decent teams are how many of those four criteria are met. (Or three if we aren’t counting shooters who can stretch the floor, a factor I still think makes a bigger difference for Carolina than it does for the average team, regardless of whether it’s irrational.) This team satisfies all four, which is why — despite how the Tar Heels performed at Indiana — I have a hard time imagining a scenario where these guys don’t win 30-plus games.

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! Here’s the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get down to business.

During Tuesday night’s Duke-Florida game, played as part of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, how does Dick Vitale end up talking about John Calipari?

A. ESPN’s cameras spot Kyrie Irving sitting in the front row, prompting Vitale to reminisce about Irving’s brief collegiate career. Vitale reminds viewers that Irving sat out for most of his lone season at Duke with a toe injury, then came back for an NCAA tournament run that was cut short by Derrick Williams and Arizona. Vitale then says he thought Arizona would win the national championship after that game, and that he felt bad for head coach Sean Miller when the Wildcats lost to UConn in the Elite Eight. Vitale says Miller is the best coach in college basketball to have never made a Final Four and, after a beat, says Miller is the second-best coach from Pittsburgh, behind John Calipari.

B. When Florida’s Devin Robinson misses a shot early in the game, Vitale reminds his broadcasting partner, Dave O’Brien, that the two of them saw Robinson play really well in the Gators’ loss to Gonzaga in November. After O’Brien rattles off Robinson’s stats from that game, Vitale says he believes that Gonzaga is a really good team. In fact, he goes so far as to say there’s no question that Gonzaga and UCLA are the two best teams on the West Coast, as UCLA staked its claim with an impressive win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena. The Bruins’ scoring 97 points was the most impressive thing about that win, Vitale says, because defense has always been a point of emphasis for John Calipari.

C. Duke’s Luke Kennard hits a 3-pointer in the first half, prompting Vitale to marvel at how Purdue made 15 3s against Arizona State in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic. When O’Brien notes that six different Boilermakers made 3s, Vitale says he wishes that Spike Albrecht, who is nursing a back injury, could have been out on the court, too. Vitale reminds viewers that Albrecht now plays for Purdue after transferring from Michigan, where he famously scored 17 first-half points against Louisville in the 2013 national championship game. Vitale then talks about the team Pitino has this season before proclaiming that he believes Louisville will beat John Calipari and Kentucky on December 21.

6. Kentucky (8–1)
5. Duke (9–1)
4. Kansas (8–1)
3. UCLA (9–0)
2. Villanova (9–0)

1. Baylor (8–0)

I know. I’m just as surprised as you are. Baylor received zero votes in the preseason AP poll, which was the exact same number of votes as my YMCA men’s league team got. Hell, even Princeton and Harvard got votes in the preseason poll. The Bears ascended from obscurity to become the most powerfully power-ranked team in college basketball in less than a month? It makes no damn sense. Before we dive into this, I want to give Baylor fans a second to switch their browsers into incognito mode, as otherwise this column might qualify as pornographic material in their internet histories.

With apologies to Duke’s Kennard, UCLA, and Indiana’s OG Anunoby (who’s leading the charge to bring back short shorts), Baylor is the story of the 2016–17 season thus far. The Bears are 8–0 despite playing a ridiculous schedule featuring the likes of Louisville, Xavier, Oregon, Michigan State, and VCU. It should be noted that Baylor won’t play a true road game until conference play and that Vegas gives the Bears only the 13th-best odds to win the national championship. But I’m not sure that matters. Picking apart résumés in early December is a fool’s errand, as is generally trying to make sense of a sport that almost allowed a Matt Howard–led team to win the 2010–11 title. If Baylor’s jerseys said “Duke” or “Kentucky” or even “Not Baylor,” we probably wouldn’t have such a hard time wrapping our brains around the fact that the Bears have the best case for being the most powerfully power-ranked team in college basketball.

Maybe Baylor will collapse when Big 12 conference play starts. Maybe the “Is Scott Drew a good coach?” debate will heat back up when Kansas beats the brakes off Baylor in February. For now, Drew is the national coach of the year front-runner, Johnathan Motley is arguably the best big man in the country, and Baylor’s defense is giving opposing offenses fits. Each of those three statements is more shocking than the last.

It’s been fascinating to watch the tug-of-war between talking heads and fans around the country when it comes to discussing Baylor in recent years. The pundits incessantly remind everyone of how amazing it is that Drew resurrected Baylor basketball, while fans counter with something along the lines of, Well, maybe Baylor should hang a “We had a really good rebuild once” banner since it sure as shit hasn’t won anything else under Drew. Few debates have been as pointless as trying to determine whether Drew is good at his job, which probably explains why people on both sides care so much. Pouring gasoline on what’s become the college basketball version of “Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback?” has been one of my favorite traditions, but Drew starting 8–0 with wins over Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino has squashed the debate for the time being. Getting everyone to shut up about it for more than a day may honestly be the upset of the year.

Johnathan Motley (Getty Images)
Johnathan Motley (Getty Images)

The biggest reason Drew has momentarily silenced his critics is the play of Motley, a 6-foot-10 junior who’s averaging 16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. This might sound like me giving you unsolicited advice, but if you haven’t watched Motley play yet, you should probably reevaluate your life. He’s blossoming into an offensive savant, with a 17-foot jumper that’s as reliable as his array of post moves. He’s picking his spots beautifully, and his combination of size and skill makes him virtually unguardable. For a guy who looked offensively unrefined for most of his college career, Motley’s transformation into an All-American-type player has been remarkable.

Also playing a huge part in Baylor’s rise has been the Bears’ zone defense, which — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — has been the best zone defense in the country. I won’t lie: I’m terrified this is unsustainable. People who love Drew’s matchup zone cite the fact that it can morph from a 1–1–3 to a 2–3 to a 1–3–1 as the reason why it’s great, but that’s precisely why I’ve always hated it. The biggest benefit to playing zone is that defenders don’t have to study the tendencies of opposing offenses as much as they would playing man-to-man; offenses have to adjust to the zone, the thinking goes, instead of the other way around. But because Baylor mixes up the makeup of its zone from game to game, that’s not quite true for the Bears. As a result, Baylor’s defense has historically featured the worst qualities of both man-to-man (where players have to adjust from game to game) and zone (where there are always a handful of gaps that can be exploited). And yet, the defense is working wonderfully this season, thanks largely to the size and athleticism of Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., a 7-foot junior who is second in the country in blocks (4.4 per game).

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of whether Baylor can keep this up for four more months. Until proved otherwise, though, the Bears are the kings of college basketball. Drink it in, America.

The Conspiracy Theory of the Week

I love half-baked conspiracy theories that originate on the internet almost as much as I love college basketball. So when you put the two together, like the infallible sleuths of Reddit did in pointing out that Virginia’s scoreboard constantly flashes when opponents have the ball and stops when the Hoos have possession, I guess you could say that it got my attention. I have no idea what to make of this, and that’s exactly why I’m so enamored of it. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that the scoreboard’s flashing coincides with the visiting team having possession. (This comment does a good job of pointing out relevant examples.) But are we really supposed to believe that someone in Virginia’s athletic department is timing that up purposefully because he thinks it’s an effective way to distract opponents? And are we sure that the players can even see the lights from the court? Maybe the TV cameras are located at the right angle to pick them up, and players don’t notice at all.

I could be convinced that this is the dumbest thing ever just as easily as I could be convinced that it’s a serious issue and warrants an ACC and/or NCAA investigation. It’s the perfect off-court story, and I can’t get enough. Like any dumb college basketball conspiracy, my ultimate goal is to make this a big enough deal that it causes the school to call a press conference to address it. With that, I apologize in advance for refusing to let this die.

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