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Arizona Is Terrifying at Full Strength

In overpowering UCLA, Lauri Markkanen, Allonzo Trier, and the Wildcats looked every bit like a national title contender. Plus, Florida State is college basketball’s answer to the Monstars.

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

I am just going to come out and say it: I have no idea what to make of the college basketball landscape. Overseeing the most powerful power rankings in the sport is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly, but part of my duty is to be transparent with you, the most powerful power readers. So I’ll face that responsibility head on and acknowledge that (a) this past week has been absolutely bonkers and (b) other than power ranking teams by drawing names from a hat, there’s no good way to make sense of it.

In the past seven days, Josh Pastner and Rick Barnes led their programs to wins over top-10 opponents that were favored by double digits. Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene dropped 50 in a win, Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett dropped 40 in a Crosstown Shootout loss, and Coach K tried to drop the bullshit by reportedly banning his players from the locker room and apparently making them practice without clothes. UCLA lost twice. NC State won at Duke for the first time in 22 years, Northwestern won at Ohio State for the first time in 40 years, and Kevin Stallings got tossed as Louisville beat Pitt by something close to a million. After three straight underwhelming performances, including a home loss to Oklahoma, West Virginia beat the brakes off the no. 2 team in the country. Marquette erased a 15-point deficit in about eight minutes to down defending national champion Villanova. Oregon is red hot but has played a favorable schedule to this point. Butler has a great résumé but has yet to really pass the eye test. (To be fair, Butler rarely passes the eye test and just lets its results speak for themselves.) Virginia and Wisconsin are lurking, North Carolina is in the ACC driver’s seat but is heading into a brutal stretch, and Arizona has morphed from a what-if to a holy-shit team faster than you can say, “I was given a banned substance by a well-intentioned, but misguided person not associated with the university.” Meanwhile, come Monday, Mark Few and Scott Drew will likely be coaching the two top-ranked teams in America.

And things are only going to get crazier from here! Virginia plays at Villanova on Sunday, while Kentucky hosts Kansas on Saturday. Both games should be great, and Kansas-Kentucky has game-of-the-season potential. It’s the two best backcourts in the country, two teams that don’t play defense as well as they should, and two teams coming off losses that could use another huge win to solidify their case for a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Plus there’s the potential for a showdown between Brad Calipari and Tyler Self? Yes, please. There isn’t a single outcome in this game that would surprise me, so I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what will happen. I’ll just say that I don’t have confidence in anyone on the Jayhawks to match up with Bam Adebayo, and I don’t have confidence in anyone on the Wildcats to match up with Josh Jackson. So, in lieu of making an official prediction, I’ll take the cowardly approach and say that whichever one of those guys has the better game will lead his team to victory.

On to the power rankings!

12. UCLA (19–3)
11. Louisville (17–4)
10. Florida State (18–3)

Ever since Space Jam revolutionized the film industry in 1996, it’s been impossible for me to resist drawing parallels between the sports world and one of the greatest movies ever made. Basketball players reaching out to finish incredible dunks conjure up Michael Jordan’s game-winning stretch from half-court (which wasn’t technically a dunk!). Unexpectedly great performances are chalked up to athletes drinking “Michael’s Secret Stuff,” while unexpectedly bad ones get blamed on aliens stealing someone’s talent. When golfers benefit from a friendly roll, I assume Bugs Bunny is underground steering the ball with a magnet. And when people compare white guys in the NBA to Larry Bird solely because of skin color, I remind them that, in the words of the great Bill Murray, “Larry’s not white. Larry’s clear.” I’ve made so many Space Jam references over the years that my comparisons have lost as much credibility as referee Marvin the Martian lost when he didn’t blow his whistle even after Foghorn Leghorn got torched by a fire-breathing mutant. But this Space Jam comparison is indisputable: The Florida State Seminoles are the goddamn Monstars.

Dwayne Bacon (Getty Images)
Dwayne Bacon (Getty Images)

There’s a lot to like about Florida State from a talent standpoint. Point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes has scored 30-plus points four times in his career … and he’s the third-best player on the team. Forward Jonathan Isaac will be a lottery pick (and could possibly go in the top five) in June’s NBA draft, and shooting guard Dwayne Bacon has a decent shot at being a first-round selection, as well. The Seminoles can score and they can defend, which are generally two of the most important things to do in a basketball game. But all of that is boring. What we really need to discuss are the cartoonish physical dimensions of Florida State’s players.

Here are the facts that matter: Florida State has a 16-man roster with just one player (freshman guard C.J. Walker) shorter than 6-foot-4, and that includes walk-ons. The 6-foot-7, 221-pound Bacon is built like a smaller version of LeBron, and Rathan-Mayes has an at least two-inch height advantage on virtually everyone who has to guard him. Isaac, the best player on the team, stands 6-foot-10 (with hair that makes him look 7-foot-8) and weighs, by my estimation, something close to 140 pounds. Starting center Michael Ojo is a 7-foot-1, 304-pound rock who presumably has his size-20 shoes delivered in parts on separate aircraft carriers before being assembled in Tallahassee. And if all of that weren’t overwhelming enough, the Seminoles bring a player — Christ Koumadje — off the bench who is 7-foot-4 and has a perfect name, considering it’s exactly what I’d say to myself if I walked past Florida State’s team in an airport.

You know how youth football leagues force kids who are over a certain size to wear a black stripe on their helmets and forbid them from ever carrying the ball? Well, the Seminoles should have to wear the college basketball equivalent of black stripes. They’re what you would get if you took every fifth-grader in a school who has hit puberty and pitted them against the rest of the smaller, weaker fifth-graders. It’s like head coach Leonard Hamilton purposely set out to build the most physically imposing team imaginable just so he could unleash his experiment on the ACC and manically laugh as his squad steamrolled the competition.

I mean that seriously. If I told you to picture Hamilton, chances are you’d think of him with the same permanent scowl he’s had since 1972.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

But look at his headshot on the official team website from before the season:

(Florida State athletics)
(Florida State athletics)

That’s the face of a man who knows something you don’t. That’s a man who pities you for having no idea what’s about to hit your favorite team. It’s like the photographer reminded Hamilton that he hasn’t made an NCAA tournament since 2011–12 and the coach was angry enough to tear the guy a new one, but also cognizant that he had a plan to take over college basketball with his Monstar army, so he tried to laugh it off and ended up making that face. Now that the secret is out — Florida State is ranked no. 6 in the AP poll with wins over Notre Dame, Virginia, Louisville, Duke, Virginia Tech, and Florida — let’s get a mood update on Hamilton.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Like I said, this Florida State team is a diabolical experiment. I’m pretty sure Hamilton doesn’t even want to win games at this point. That’s why I’m not sweating Wednesday night’s embarrassing 78–56 loss at Georgia Tech. (If a blowout loss to the Yellow Jackets happens on the ACC Network after a six-game stretch against ranked teams in which FSU went 5–1, can anyone prove it actually happened?) Hamilton’s motivation is clearly just to make opposing players turn to their coaches in disbelief and say, “Where the hell did these guys come from?”

So yeah, the Seminoles could have climbed to no. 2 in the next AP poll if they hadn’t blown it on Wednesday. It was a bad loss to be sure. But let’s focus on what matters: This might be the best Florida State team of all time, and the Seminoles still have a great chance to be crowned champions of one of the best conferences in college basketball history. Besides, I seem to remember the Monstars also losing a road game to a vastly inferior team. And not only did none of the Looney Tunes want to end up in the Monstars’ bracket in March, but Jordan was also so scared of a rematch that he made the aliens give back all of their talent. Go ahead and try telling me with a straight face that the exact same situation doesn’t apply to the Seminoles.

9. Virginia (16–3)

8. Kentucky (17–3)
7. Kansas (18–2)

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 Florida State–Louisville game in Tallahassee, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about popcorn?

A. A promo for an NBA game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs later that night is shown on screen. When Dave O’Brien, who is calling the game with Vitale, mentions LeBron James during his read, Vitale remembers that he called the first televised game of James’s career when LeBron was only in high school. Vitale notes that he called that game with Dan Shulman and Bill Walton, then says that he loves the chemistry that Walton has with his current broadcast partner, Dave Pasch. One great example of their chemistry, Dickie V. continues, is the way Walton will occasionally pour popcorn on Pasch’s head.

B. Vitale mentions how impressed he is with Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s ability to put together such a great team every year. He mentions that Pitino even beat John Calipari and Kentucky this season, a feat he has historically struggled to accomplish. The most impressive part of that Louisville win, according to Vitale, was the Cardinals shutting down Malik Monk, who dropped 47 points in a victory over North Carolina earlier in December. Dickie V. then says that the Monk performance against the Tar Heels ranked among the best individual games he had ever seen, and that it was so entertaining it caused him to double his typical intake of popcorn.

C. A graphic shows that Florida State is playing its sixth straight game against a ranked opponent. Vitale mentions that the Seminoles went 4–1 in the previous five, a stretch that has vaulted them atop the ACC standings. O’Brien follows up by asking Vitale how he thinks the ACC might shake out, to which Dickie V. replies that he believes North Carolina will emerge as the best team in the conference. One other squad people should keep an eye on, Vitale emphasizes, is Duke. He says he thinks that the Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country, but also concedes that they need to start playing better defense. Vitale concludes that on the defensive end Duke looks like it’s just watching the action and eating popcorn.

6. Oregon (19–2)
5. North Carolina (19–3)
4. Arizona (19–2)

This section was supposed to be about UCLA. For weeks I had purposely put off writing about the most exciting team in college basketball because I knew the Arizona game was lurking, and I figured it’d be fun to dissect how Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, and Co. lit up one of the best defenses in America. Even as last Saturday’s game unfolded and it became clear that Arizona had no intention of going away, I still planned to focus on the Bruins. There’s just something intoxicating about the way they play, like they’re a divine gift to the sport after so many years of hearing about how unwatchable and broken it is. Even if the Bruins ended up losing, I thought I’d just spotlight their terrible defense. All I knew is I had to write about UCLA, because the Bruins’ resurgence is one of the biggest stories in college basketball. Fans across America are chugging the UCLA Kool-Aid and, win or lose, it made sense to address the phenomenon it had become.

But then Arizona came into Pauley Pavilion and went full Brian Wilson on that jug of Kool-Aid.

It wasn’t until there were less than two minutes to play that I realized the story of that game wasn’t UCLA at all. I mean, yeah, that’s where my mind had been all afternoon: The Bruins’ defense could cost them in the tourney, their shot selection can be horrendous at times, and their decision to have four starters average 30-plus minutes while playing at a balls-to-the-wall tempo for an entire season doesn’t seem like the greatest idea. But by the time the clock hit all zeroes on Arizona’s 96–85 win, my attention had shifted from UCLA’s problems to the real takeaway from Saturday: Allonzo Trier’s addition to the Wildcats has enhanced this team’s performance to a level that can no longer be ignored.

What has made UCLA games so fun to watch isn’t just that the Bruins play fast and score in bunches. It’s that their style extends an open invitation to opponents to showcase their ability. UCLA’s lack of defense and fast-paced tempo make its games resemble All-Star exhibitions, and it feels like the Bruins head into every contest saying, “We dare you to think that you have more talented players than us.” Arizona laughed at that dare, overwhelming UCLA with its size and ability.

And that’s the big lesson from Saturday. Not to downplay the job the Wildcats did in stopping the Bruins’ potent offense, but we already knew that Arizona’s defense was great. (It’s 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.) What we weren’t quite sure of was the extent of Arizona’s offensive talent, and more importantly, whether all of that talent could come together in a big game. The Cats had probably the nation’s third-best roster on paper (behind Duke and Kentucky) in October, but then the hits started coming: Ray Smith’s career-ending ACL tear, Kadeem Allen’s sprained knee, Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s sprained ankle, and Trier’s mistaking of coyote piss for Gatorade or whatever the hell that official story is. At one point Arizona’s roster was so depleted that I’m pretty sure head coach Sean Miller sent one of his assistants to Dirtbag’s to offer a scholarship to anyone who came out of the front door without puking all over themselves and stumbling into the 7-Eleven parking lot. (There were no qualifying candidates.)

Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Sean Miller (AP Images)
Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Sean Miller (AP Images)

For the first two months of the season, Arizona was a rowboat that kept springing leaks, and Miller did all he could to keep the damn thing afloat. But with everyone now healthy (except Smith, of course) and with Trier cleared to play, the Wildcats we’ve been waiting to see, at long last, have finally arrived. And I know the sample size is small, but every question I had about this team before last weekend has been emphatically answered. The talent is every bit as good as advertised; the defense is terrifying (Thomas Welsh missed multiple baseline 15-footers!); and the Cats’ scoring attack is remarkably balanced.

The gist of Arizona is this: There are no role players. Everyone who sees the court is both capable of inflicting serious damage and actively trying to do so. I’m not even sure what weaknesses the Wildcats have. I mean, we’ve really seen only one relevant game from the version of this team that should exist for the remainder of the season, and that performance was nothing short of spectacular. Allen is a defensive specialist who is averaging 11.5 points and 3.4 assists per game in Pac-12 play. Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins are way too good for freshmen who likely won’t go on to become first-round picks (at least not this summer). And best of all, the Cats have a 7-footer, Lauri Markkanen, who is shooting better than 50 percent from beyond the arc and plays the three in some of Arizona’s lineups. (If that last sentence didn’t make your brain explode, go ahead and reread it.)

It took a couple of months to get here, but Arizona looks like a potential national champion. That is, assuming the Cats don’t end up in Wisconsin’s region of the bracket. I’m not saying Miller still gets night sweats thinking about Frank Kaminsky knocking Arizona out of the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments. I’m just saying it’s pretty interesting how after back-to-back years of being denied by a versatile 7-footer with ties to a country that borders the Baltic Sea, Miller has placed his hopes of reaching his first career Final Four on Markkanen, a versatile 7-footer from Finland.

3. Villanova (19–2)
2. Baylor (19–1)
1. Gonzaga (21–0)

The Mayoral Court-Storm of the Week

Weber State beat Northern Colorado 74–69 on Saturday in a game that has little bearing on a national level. However, it provided the kind of story that we need more of in college basketball. According to the Greeley Tribune, the hometown newspaper of Northern Colorado, the mayor of Greeley was ejected from the game for allegedly walking onto the court to protest a call.

Now, it’s important to note that the mayor claims he was “behaving” and didn’t actually step on the court, so I may be blowing this out of proportion. That seems especially likely since, as we all know, politicians always follow the rules and tell the truth. And for what it’s worth, the mayor was let back into the building to watch the rest of the game, so it couldn’t have been that big of a deal. I mean, what am I supposed to believe — that he wielded his power to force his way into the arena? Come on. That would never happen.

In all seriousness, I live for this shit. Every student section in America complains about the old heads who steal the best seats from the real fans so they can read their James Patterson novels as the games are being played. Northern Colorado, meanwhile, has its goddamn mayor pulling a Shooter Flatch. There should be a rule that all lower-level season-ticket holders have to get at least a warning from arena security at some point during the year or else they lose their tickets for the following season. I honestly can’t think of a single reason why this could end poorly.

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