My new favorite college basketball tradition is annually forgetting that lots of highly ranked teams lose during the first week of conference play. There have been so many huge upsets and close calls since Christmas that listing them all would feel excessive, like I’m a high school student trying to reach a word-count quota for an essay. Yet every single one has left me in a tizzy. Ohhhh my god this sport is INSANE! How does this keep happening?!?!
The best part is the reason is so obvious. Teams have total control (or close to it) over their nonconference schedules, and more often than not end up playing opponents that aren’t familiar with their style and/or personnel. Most teams also use the first month of the season to figure out their lineups and chemistry. Thus, comparatively speaking, nonconference games are more about who has the better athletes than who has the better team.
But then conference play comes along and teams are forced to go on the road to face opponents that know them well. If North Carolina would have played the Big Ten equivalent of Georgia Tech (Rutgers?) in November, the Tar Heels would have won by infinity. And yet the Yellow Jackets beat Carolina 75–63 on New Year’s Eve in what many experts are calling “the game that Josh Pastner will bring up three years from now when Georgia Tech administrators consider firing him.” It’s a trap I fall into every year, and somehow I don’t mind one bit.
On to the power rankings!
12. Louisville (12–3)
11. Creighton (14–1)
10. Oregon (14–2)
9. Wisconsin (13–2)
8. Florida State (14–1)
7. Duke (13–2)
You heard it here first: If Duke wins the 2016–17 national title, Mike Krzyzewski will retire. That’s pretty clearly his plan, which is why he’s constructed this season as an amalgamation of his entire Blue Devils tenure in an effort to pay homage to himself. Think about it. What notable thing has happened in Coach K’s career that isn’t represented by this team? There’s a high-profile white guy whom everyone in America hates. There are freshmen bound to be future lottery picks, and seniors who are labeled as unheralded despite being former McDonald’s All Americans. There have been a ton of injuries about which Duke refuses to disclose the details, as though the status of Harry Giles’s knees is akin to the goddamn nuclear codes or something. There are charges being taken, managers holding up towels to block television cameras from peeking into the team huddle, and Coach K’s repeated refusals to do halftime interviews as he single-handedly keeps the hair dye industry afloat.
And now we’ve added two more pieces to the puzzle: Krzyzewski is taking a leave of absence to have and recover from back surgery (just like he infamously did during the 1994–95 season), while Grayson Allen has been reinstated from his indefinite suspension after only one game, giving Krzyzewski the opportunity to explain yet again how difficult it is to give these young men the tools they need to grow, not just into great basketball players, but also into great citizens. This Duke season makes me feel like I’m watching one of those retrospective clip-show episodes of a sitcom. All that’s missing is a Plumlee on the roster, an instance of Krzyzewski lecturing opposing players, and an NCAA probe into an impermissible benefits scandal that ultimately leads nowhere, presumably because Coach K explained to the NCAA that “we do things the right way at Duke” and that was all the investigators needed to hear.
So what’s to be made of Allen’s reinstatement? As is always the case with issues involving Duke, taking a firm stance on one side or the other is simply asking for backlash from the opposition. That’s why I’m going to take the cowardly approach and say that neither side is entirely in the right. On the one hand, the Allen saga has been blown way out of proportion, to the point that some felt like Allen should have been kicked off the team. As easy as it is to hate the guy, he’s not evil for tripping a few players and being emotional about it. He just has (or had, I guess, since he’s obviously a changed man now) an attitude problem that ultimately manifested itself in him swinging his foot into the back of unsuspecting opponents’ knees. Sure, it’s embarrassing for Allen and Duke and it’s “bad for the game,” and he potentially could have injured one of the players he tripped. But based on public outcry, you’d have thought he was throwing punches on the court and then driving drunk back to his apartment to run a secret dogfighting ring. Plenty of players around the country have attitude problems, and virtually all of them are dealt with behind closed doors. So while part of me wishes that Krzyzewski would have given America the pound of Allen’s flesh we all seem to desire, I don’t see the harm in giving Coach K the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand: This stinks to high hell. One game? Are you shitting me? What’s the point of calling a suspension “indefinite” if it’s going to be only one game? And isn’t the timing of Coach K’s leave of absence curious? No program in America elicits conspiracy theories anywhere close to the level that Duke does (something Tate Frazier and I talked about on The Ringer’s college basketball podcast this week), so it’s easy to dismiss this as just another concoction from Duke haters. But, my god, is all of this just a little too perfect. If you wanted to make the case that Coach K is taking a leave of absence only to (a) grab the headlines from Allen, and (b) reinstate Allen on his way out and pretend that his hand was forced because he didn’t want to leave interim coach Jeff Capel with such a serious decision, I’d certainly pull up a chair. That alone makes this fishy. Throw in the fact that both the news of Krzyzewski taking a leave of absence and Allen’s reinstatement came immediately after Duke had its vulnerabilities exposed in a semi-embarrassing 89–75 loss at Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve — as well as the Blue Devils’ notorious history of keeping everything about their program hush-hush — and suddenly all of this speculation feels more believable than whatever Duke’s official story is.
The only down side to everything going on in Durham is that I find myself no longer really caring about what happens on the court. The subplot to Duke’s season is waaaayyyyy more interesting than the main story line, which is kind of a bummer considering all of the expectations this team had coming into the season. Otherwise, I can’t get enough. This is a perfect college basketball controversy, as the stakes couldn’t possibly be lower (how does the length of Allen’s suspension or Coach K’s recovery from back surgery really have any impact on our lives?), while the drama and layers of potential conspiracy couldn’t be higher. The only way this could get better would be if Duke were to win the national title and Krzyzewski were to turn his postgame/retirement press conference into one fuck-you after another, where he lets all of the skeletons out of Duke’s closet and dares the NCAA to do something about it. The great thing about the way this season has gone is that I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s been his plan all along.
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 Tuesday’s Kentucky–Texas A&M game in Lexington, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about lasagna?
A. When Malik Monk makes his second 3-pointer in as many attempts, Vitale uses it as an opportunity to rave about Kentucky’s freshman guards. Dave O’Brien, Vitale’s broadcast partner, mentions the 47-point outburst Monk had in a win over North Carolina on December 17, which Vitale calls the greatest freshman performance he’s ever seen. Dickie V. goes on to say that the one thing holding Monk back is consistency, and he cites Monk’s 1-for-9 3-point-shooting outing in a 73–70 loss to Louisville. Speaking of which, Vitale claims that that win over Kentucky should have made Rick Pitino as happy as when his wife makes lasagna.
B. Following Texas A&M’s 12th turnover of the game, Vitale mentions how great Kentucky’s defense has been, and how that will be pivotal for the Wildcats moving forward. He says Kentucky should avoid the temptation to simply try to outscore opponents, which he believes was their biggest problem in a loss to UCLA on December 3. O’Brien chimes in to mention that UCLA took its first loss of the season at Oregon a couple of weeks ago, which prompts Vitale to say that he still thinks UCLA has a “dynamite” team. Dickie V. then points out that he’d like to experience the Pauley Pavilion atmosphere this year, and should he make the trip to Los Angeles, he’d also like to spend some time with Bill Walton and go to his favorite restaurant in Westwood, La Bruschetta, for lasagna.
C. After the broadcast returns from a commercial break, Vitale comments that there are many impressive statistics for Kentucky in the John Calipari era. However, Dickie V. says that the most impressive college basketball stat belongs to Geno Auriemma, who has won 88 consecutive games with the UConn women’s team. Vitale makes the case that the UConn women are taken for granted, which O’Brien does not dispute. Instead, O’Brien says there are a lot of similarities between how Calipari and Auriemma run their programs. Vitale interjects to say that there are also a lot similarities in the types of food the coaches enjoy, such as spaghetti and lasagna.
6. Kentucky (12–2)
5. UCLA (14–1)
4. Villanova (14–1)
3. Gonzaga (14–0)
2. Kansas (13–1)
If I were an idiot, I’d have some doubts about whether this Kansas team can keep the Jayhawks’ Big 12 regular-season championship streak, now at a ridiculous 12 years, alive. I’d point out that the streak will come to an end at some point, and that what happened over the course of the past decade-plus has no bearing on how the Big 12 will shake out this season. I’d mention that Bill Self has historically found success with a combination of great defense and a reliable offensive post presence, and that neither of those qualities applies to this year’s team. I’d ignore the fact that Landen Lucas is finally coming around, Josh Jackson is close to figuring it all out (“it” being that he sucks at shooting 3s, of course), and Frank Mason III has been playing out of his mind.
Instead, I’d focus on Devonte’ Graham making just four of his past 22 3-point attempts, Udoka Azubuike having wrist surgery that will keep him out for the rest of the season, and nobody in the program knowing what Lagerald Vick’s role is. I’d bring up the fact the Big 12 is the deepest conference in America; Baylor has been the best team in the country to this point; and Kansas losing at West Virginia, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State is all but inevitable. I might even put a lot of weight into the Jayhawks opening conference play with a narrow 86–80 win over TCU, or the fact that to beat Kansas State on Tuesday night they required a Sviatoslav “The Ukrainmaker” Mykhailiuk buzzer-beating layup in which he traveled so badly that he looked like Fred Flintstone starting a car.
Good thing I’m not an idiot. Because as much as I want to believe this is the year — finally — that someone other than Kansas will win the Big 12, it’s a fool’s errand to make such proclamations in the first week of January. We’ve been here before with the Jayhawks. In fact, there’s been a time relatively early in every Big 12 season since Kansas’s 2012 Final Four run when the streak has seemed in jeopardy.
Kansas lost three straight in February 2013 and shared the Big 12 title with a Kansas State team that could have ended the streak had it not lost at Oklahoma State 76–70 on the last day of the regular season. The Jayhawks were extremely vulnerable entering their Big 12 slate in 2013–14, as they were 9–4, coming off a home loss to San Diego State, and poised to be challenged by three other conference teams that ranked in the top 11 of the AP poll. And Kansas was practically begging for someone to end the streak throughout the entire 2014–15 campaign; it lost five Big 12 games and still won the title outright despite playing in a league that had eight of its 10 teams ranked in the polls at some point. (Read the second half of that sentence again and try telling me that Self doesn’t have a witch doctor on staff.) It seems like nothing can alter this outcome. Last season Kansas dropped three of five in January, yet managed to win the conference crown by two games. It made no difference that nearly every effing team in the Big 12 was ranked in the top 10 at some juncture.
I’m sick of this goddamn streak. I’m sick of talking about it, I’m sick of people telling me, “Well, don’t talk about it then,” and I’m sick of telling them that I have to talk about it because it’s mind-blowing how this keeps happening. I’m sick of pretending that anything else in the Big 12 matters. We all know how this is going to play out: Kansas is going to fart its way through the first half of its Big 12 schedule, lose at Iowa State and West Virginia at the end of the month, and then lose at Kentucky to close out January. And with a showdown with Baylor looming as the Jayhawks’ first game in February, we’re all going to get sucked into thinking that things might be different this time around. “Ohhhhh here we go, you guys! Baylor can drive the dagger through Kansas’s heart and maybe end the streak once and for — ahh shit, never mind. Kansas just won by a million. Welp, that was fun while it lasted.”
This streak has to end, for the good of college basketball. Deep down, even Kansas fans have to admit that they want it to end, too. It has become a burden that overshadows everything else in the Big 12 that would otherwise be compelling. Thankfully, this really could be the year. We just have to count on Scott Drew to not screw it up. What could possibly go wrong?
1. Baylor (14–0)
The Real-Life Movie of the Week
On Butler’s trip home from its 76–73 loss at St. John’s on December 29, the Bulldogs’ charter flight lost cabin pressure and was forced to make an emergency landing in Pittsburgh. According to head coach Chris Holtmann, the plane got dark and cold as it rapidly descended, oxygen masks were deployed, and everyone onboard became varying degrees of panicked. The plane landed safely and everyone was OK. But for a program that has endured the premature deaths of two high-profile former players and a staffer’s infant son within the last year alone, it would certainly be understandable if there was lingering emotional trauma from the incident.
Whatever trauma exists, though, obviously hasn’t translated to the court. In the two games since that emergency landing, Butler has rolled over a not-terrible Providence team 78–61 and upset top-ranked and previously unbeaten Villanova 66–58. If escaping what would’ve been an unspeakable tragedy six days before snapping the defending national champs’ 20-game win streak doesn’t evoke a sports-movie ethos, maybe this will help: The win over Villanova triggered a Hinkle Fieldhouse court-storming, a scene that might feel familiar.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.