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Texas A&M Looks Like the Class of the SEC

Is it time to start taking the Aggies seriously as conference title contenders? Plus, a defense of Bill Walton and the rest of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.

Bill Walton and DJ Hogg Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I can’t believe that I need to do this, but I’ve seen way too much Bill Walton slander over the past few weeks not to speak up. Walton has always been a polarizing commentator because, well, he’s the absolute best and maybe that makes some people jealous? I really don’t know. All I can say is that Walton typically doesn’t ruffle many feathers this early in the season since he doesn’t tend to surface on the national college basketball radar until he starts asking Dave Pasch what his name is during Pac-12 conference play. But ESPN needed all hands on deck for its coverage of Nike’s PK80 event in Portland, where Walton started his NBA career and led the Blazers to the 1976–77 title. That meant Walton was thrust into a rare high-profile November prime-time broadcast. He called Michigan State’s 63–45 win over North Carolina last Sunday and delivered a fantastic monologue about bridges that received mixed reactions, to say the least.

Now, I’m not here to tell you how to feel. You’re entitled to your own opinion, and the last thing that you probably need is another millennial white guy on the internet with a beard and a blue checkmark telling you why you’re wrong. So instead I’ll explain why I love Walton’s commentary so much because — and I apologize if this comes across as condescending — I feel like I’m picking up on an important nuance that others are missing. Try to stick with me here because this might get a little complicated.

Walton is funny. That’s it. That’s my entire argument. I watch basketball to be entertained, and Bill Walton talking about weed and volcanoes and the Grateful Dead and John Wooden teaching him how to put on his socks is hysterical and therefore entertaining to me. You might read this and say, “I think he’s funny, too. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for him to talk about these things during a basketball game. I mean, with that logic, we might as well get Dave Chappelle to do color commentary. Is that what you want?” And to that I’d say: Abso-freaking-lutely. Chappelle calling games would be a dream come true.

The truth is that there are a lot of bad college basketball commentators. If I put you on the spot and asked you to name a color guy you like, chances are you’d have to think about it for a second before responding. But if I were to ask you to name a color man you hate, you’d likely answer the question before I even finished posing it. And if I told you to name someone other than Dan Dakich, you’d still probably be able to answer quickly. So who cares if Walton is out to lunch when he’s calling a game? Hoping that a good college basketball commentator will be assigned to your favorite team’s game is like hoping to win at the poker table with a two of hearts and the old maid in your hand. So why not embrace the fact that you’re going to hate whoever sits in that chair and do your best to make the most of an unwinnable situation? Who knows, you might even learn something.

And if nothing else, just remember that Walton doesn’t read mean tweets about himself on the air in a misguided attempt to endear himself to viewers who are screaming at their televisions for him to shut up already. Let’s get to the rankings.

12. Arizona (4–3)

Just kidding.

12. Minnesota (7–1)

Minnesota started the season on a tear before running into a Miami team that looked better than the Gophers from start to finish in an 86–81 game on Wednesday night. Minnesota’s bench players combined for 35 minutes of playing time, and all they had to show for it was two rebounds, a foul, and a turnover. That’s what we in the business would call “not ideal.”

But there is good news. Minnesota remains the most obvious challenger to Michigan State for the Big Ten crown, as Seth Greenberg’s tiered system would likely slot the Spartans at 1, the Gophers at either 1A or 2C, Purdue at 2.6.158-G, and then everyone else in the conference somewhere between 6.9–53X and 80,085. Also, Jordan Murphy is the Big Ten’s new version of Caleb Swanigan and would be named league player of the year if the season ended today, partly because he’s a double-double machine, and partly because there are maybe three good players in the Big Ten right now.

Miami’s four-guard lineup gave Minnesota fits, especially given that the Gophers don’t have the flexibility to go small. But that’ll be true of many teams the Hurricanes play this year. I like what I’ve seen from Minnesota.

11. Cincinnati (7–0)

Putting all of my trust in a single college student would feel reckless under ordinary circumstances. I have a big enough ego to think that I’m a decently smart man, and even I was a complete dipshit in college, especially the time that I [insert a wild story that blows your mind and makes you think I’m an absolute LEGEND]. But I’m making an exception for Cincinnati student and OhVarsity! writer Matt Allaire, for the simple reason that he submitted the single greatest piece of journalism that you’ll read all season with his takedown of the Cayman Islands Classic.

Seriously, read it. It’s incredible. Again, I know that I’m taking a risk in trusting a college kid as my lone source on this, but the picture he paints as to how thoroughly this tournament was a dumpster fire is too hilarious to not accept as fact. Outdoor tents serving as locker rooms, an unwatchable broadcast that cost $10 to see, and interviews being conducted in laundry rooms? All of it is amazing and amounts to further proof that nobody does a lazier job of masking money-laundering schemes than the people who organize offshore Thanksgiving week college tournaments.

John Calipari
John Calipari
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

10. Kentucky (6–1)

John Calipari is a genius. I don’t mean that in the way you think I do, Kentucky fans, so put your pants back on. I mean that I would have paid at least $38.01 to see Calipari’s reaction when he heard the news that Arizona dropped three consecutive games in the Bahamas, the last of which was a 25-point blowout loss to Purdue. I imagine he let out a massive sigh of relief knowing that a similar thing could/would have happened to Kentucky had the Wildcats played in the PK80, as they would’ve done in a perfect world.

Kentucky typically schedules a slew of marquee nonconference matchups every season, but this year the Wildcats’ slate is a bit underwhelming since Calipari knew that he had an especially young team and that it could have been disastrous to risk getting slaughtered for two straight months. And now that decision looks smart, considering that the SEC is shaping up to be the most competitive conference in college basketball and that a bad opening stretch could have hung over Kentucky all season. I know you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop here and for me to deliver some sarcastic remark. But I genuinely mean it: As weird as it is to be coming off the most exciting regular-season week in college basketball history without Kentucky playing a prominent role, Calipari made the right decision by not throwing his team into the fire too soon.

9. Wichita State (5–1)

The soft rims of Maui are so legendary that I could easily be convinced that they’re a Dean Smith Horcrux, and that North Carolina’s national title hopes depend on it first making a pilgrimage to Hawaii to harness Smith’s power. Hell, those rims have brought so much joy to my life that any article about Adam Morrison’s 2005 Maui Invitational — 86 points in three tournament games, including 43 in the semifinals! — reads like erotic literature.

In celebrating all of the great moments that the Maui rims have created, though, it’s easy to forget that they play a zero-sum game. They can’t usher in a triumphant victory without causing someone else to suffer a crushing defeat. Wichita State learned this the hard way on November 22, when Martinas Geben’s free throw with 2.3 seconds left hit the rim approximately 40 times before the ghost of the Iowa’s 1987–88 team (whose entire roster was inexplicably named the 1987 Maui Invitational MVP) pushed it through the hoop to tie the game at 66. Geben then cleanly sank his second free throw to seal Notre Dame’s 67–66 win.

This is why I’m not concerned about the Shockers moving forward. The combination of those soft rims, the aura of Casual Mike Brey, and the luck of the Irish made for too much magic for Wichita State to overcome. Yeah, letting a 15-point second-half lead slip away is bad. But if you ask me, the Shockers’ real concern should be that Landy Shamet is twice as good as any of his teammates but is somehow third in shot attempts behind both Shaq Morris and Conner Frankamp. I’m not going to tell Gregg Marshall what to do, as the man has carved out quite a career by running up and down the sidelines and shaking his wrist to adjust his watch. But, uh, I’d probably see to it that Shamet becomes more of an offensive focal point.

8. Notre Dame (6–1)

Much could be made of Notre Dame’s 81–63 loss at Michigan State on Thursday, but I’m not sure that game taught us anything we already didn’t know about the Fighting Irish. They lack size, they don’t always play great defense, and Mike Brey can trust only four of his players. I don’t mean to be dismissive of these flaws, as they’re clearly going to hamper the team’s ACC and national championship hopes all season. It’s just that there’s still plenty to love about Notre Dame in 2017–18.

Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson form the best (or at least the most fun to watch) two-man game in America. When the Irish are cooking on offense, they’re capable of putting up a ton of points in a hurry. Thursday’s outing confirmed my suspicion that Notre Dame to no. 5 in the AP poll after winning the Maui Invitational was an overreaction, but that’s OK. This year’s group should be very good and occasionally great, and that’s certainly worth getting excited about if you’re an Irish fan.

Dewan Huell
Dewan Huell
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

7. Miami (6–0)

As a proponent of the “guards + defense = titles” philosophy, I was bullish on Miami entering this season. The Hurricanes played solid defense in 2016–17 and returned a great group of guards, led by Bruce Brown Jr. and Ja’Quan Newton. They were also set to add McDonald’s All American Lonnie Walker IV. That’s all I needed to know.

Or so I thought. Because it turns out that Miami is far from being just a team of guards. The Canes also have a dunking machine named Dewan Huell, who, after a lackluster freshman season, is destroying everything in his path and showing why he was once a McDonald’s All American himself. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know this guy existed. I’m proudly ignorant when it comes to recruiting, and since he averaged only 5.8 points as a freshman, I didn’t notice him much last year either. But now that he’s leading the team in scoring (15.0 points per game) and serving as a perfect complement to Miami’s four-guard lineup with his ability to finish pick-and-rolls, it’s safe to say that Huell has my attention.

If you haven’t already heard talk about how Miami could win the ACC title this season, I promise you are going to very soon. Just know that this isn’t the typical lip service where people mention any ranked team as a conference title threat even though that team doesn’t have much of a chance. The Canes have the pieces to be every bit as good as anyone in America.

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 business.

During Wednesday’s North Carolina–Michigan game in Chapel Hill, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about a team named the Titans?

A. ESPN shows a replay of Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman making a layup over the front of the rim, which reminds Vitale of George “The Iceman” Gervin’s legendary finger roll. Dickie V. says that The Iceman was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and tells viewers that Gervin played his college ball at Eastern Michigan. Vitale, who took over as the University of Detroit’s head coach in 1973 just after Gervin left Eastern Michigan to go pro, then claims that had he been hired at Detroit a few years earlier he could have convinced Gervin to play for the Titans.

B. A promo is shown for the upcoming ACC football championship game between Clemson and Miami. This prompts Bob Wischusen, who is Vitale’s partner for the game, to spark a conversation about college football as a whole. Eventually, Wischusen and Vitale discuss the coaching search mess at the University of Tennessee, leading Dickie V. to suggest that the Vols should just hire Jeff Fisher. Vitale then backs up his claim by saying that Fisher has a ton of experience and would generate lots of local excitement since the peak of his career came when he coached the Tennessee Titans.

C. The camera pans to Roy Williams on the bench. Sitting next to Williams is North Carolina assistant coach and former ESPN broadcaster Hubert Davis. Vitale notices Davis in the shot and quickly informs viewers that the two are friends. He then begins to comment upon Davis’s attire. Dickie V. says Davis looks sharp and jokes that if Davis isn’t careful, people might mistake him for Denzel Washington. As Wischusen laughs, Vitale cracks that he’s glad Davis wasn’t asked to star in the movie Remember the Titans.

6. Kansas (6–0)

The Jayhawks are inexplicably ranked no. 2 in the AP poll even though they’ve played a garbage schedule and looked bad for stretches against an inexperienced Kentucky team. I imagine what’s pushed Kansas so high is that it’s destroyed virtually every opponent it’s faced, and it’s benefited from that sweet blueblood name-recognition boost. All of that is fine and well, but it should be noted that outside of Florida and maybe Cincinnati, no team in America is designed to blow out vastly inferior foes quite like the Jayhawks. They’re an athletic, veteran squad that shoots a ton of 3-pointers and operates at a quick tempo, and they’ve used that combination to rout South Dakota State, Texas Southern, Oakland, and Toledo in succession.

This isn’t to say that I think the Jayhawks winning their last four games by an average margin of 39.5 points is some sort of mirage. It’s just that I can’t shake the sight of Kansas’s guards being swallowed by Kentucky’s length in the Champions Classic. I need to see the Jayhawks take on another respectable opponent to know whether those struggles were specific to that one game or a glimpse into the problems that Kansas will have to deal with all year.

5. Texas A&M (7–0)

You’re probably surprised to see the Aggies this high on the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. I’m surprised, too. Texas A&M was supposed to be one of those teams that’s good enough to beat anyone on any given night, but not good enough to be taken seriously as a national title contender, like every Xavier team of all time. Instead, the Aggies have paired one of college basketball’s best defenses with a balanced offense that boasts five double-digit scorers and eight players averaging more than 6.5 points per game. And A&M is undefeated, has won every contest by more than 10 points, and counts four wins against power-conference teams (all of which are among the top 50 on KenPom) away from home, including last Sunday’s 75–59 beatdown of no. 10 USC in Los Angeles.

The best non-Duke frontcourt in college basketball (DJ Hogg, Tyler Davis, and Robert Williams) looks unstoppable at the moment. And the more I see from the Aggies, the more I’m convinced that they should be considered the favorites to win a loaded SEC.

Florida Gators
KeVaughn Allen
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

4. Florida (5–1)

The Gators lost to Duke in the PK80 Motion Bracket title game by choking away a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes, but they won over America’s heart by establishing themselves as the most fun team in college basketball. It’s not just that the Gators have a ton of talent and a deep bench. It’s that every Florida player who sees the floor appears to ooze with confidence. For college basketball fans accustomed to watching players glance over at their coaches 40 times per possession in an attempt to figure out what’s expected of them, it’s jarring to see all of Florida’s players simultaneously having the green light. It also makes formulating a defensive game plan to stop the Gators nearly impossible.

I mean that last part seriously. I have no idea how you’re supposed to stop an offense this skilled, balanced, and confident. The only hope seems to be crossing your fingers and praying that Florida’s offense will stop itself, which is sort of what happened in the team’s 87–84 loss to Duke. (Marvin Bagley III also happened.) This brings me to a question that I’ll leave for you to chew on: How often does the most fun team in America win a national championship, or even make the Final Four, for that matter?

3. Michigan State (6–1)

Soooooo … umm … has anyone else noticed that Michigan State just beat top-10 teams in back-to-back games, and Miles Bridges wasn’t the Spartans’ best player on the floor in either? Not only that: I’m inclined to believe that he was Michigan State’s fourth-best player in last Sunday’s win over North Carolina. This isn’t a slight on Bridges, who despite playing out of position is leading one of the nation’s best teams in scoring (15.0 points per game) and is second in rebounding (6.7 per game). It’s that his teammates have been incredible recently, most notably Cassius Winston and Josh Langford. Winston still turns the ball over too often, but his scoring and passing ability more than compensate for his mistakes, as he’s 10th in the country in assists (7.4 per game) while also averaging 12.9 points per game. Langford, meanwhile, has nearly doubled his scoring average from a season ago (14.1 points per game) and has gone 9-for-14 from beyond the arc over his last four games. Michigan State feels like a different team than the one that lost to Duke in the Champions Classic.

With that said, I don’t want to put too much pressure on the Spartans, but they must win the national championship this season, and anything less should be considered a colossal failure. In other words: PLEASE, I’M BEGGING YOU. THE BIG TEN IS AKIN TO A TRAIN FULL OF MANURE CRASHING INTO A DUMPSTER FIRE, AND I JUST CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE. WE DESPERATELY NEED A NATIONAL TITLE, AND YOU’RE OUR ONLY HOPE. PLEEEEEEEEEEAAAAASSSEEE.

2. Villanova (7–0)

The Battle 4 Atlantis was supposed to be a great early-season test for Villanova, as the Wildcats were expected to have to go through Purdue and Arizona to win the title. Instead, their path consisted of Western Kentucky, Tennessee, and Northern Iowa, all respectable teams, but a group that doesn’t count as the murderer’s row that most people had anticipated. Going forward, Villanova’s only marquee nonconference game figures to come against Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic next week.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here, but I’m a sucker for undefeated speculation, and it’s impossible to not start thinking that way when looking at the Cats’ schedule. To be clear: I don’t think Villanova has a serious chance to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. It has completely dominated the current iteration of the Big East, but the conference still has a bunch of solid teams that could conceivably beat the Wildcats by double digits on any given night. I just want to bring to your attention that a 25–0 start is a serious possibility since Villanova does not go on the road to face any of the four other Big East schools (Xavier, Creighton, Seton Hall, and Providence) that should definitely make the NCAA tournament this season until it plays at Providence on Valentine’s Day. In other words, there’s a chance that the only tournament and/or ranked team it’ll play outside of Philadelphia in the first three months of the season will be Gonzaga.

This is significant given that Jay Wright has lost only three combined home games in the last four seasons. It’s also worth noting that Villanova almost never loses home games to unranked teams. And I do mean almost never.

(I swear there will come a day when I will no longer feel compelled to bring up the Ethan Wragge game in the Villanova section of my rankings. Today is not that day.)

1. Duke (9–0)

I’m not ready to hit the “It’s Duke against the field” button quite yet, but my hand is hovering over it given what we’ve seen from the Blue Devils so far. If you just look at box scores, you might think that Duke is vulnerable, as it beat Texas and Florida by narrow margins and had to mount second-half comebacks to win each of its last four games. The Blue Devils aren’t great on defense (which is why Mike Krzyzewski is using more zone this year than he ever has), and the offense can be susceptible to guys thinking that it’s their turn to chuck up a shot. But in the words of Herm Edwards: “Wait, Arizona State is seriously offering me this job?” No, sorry. I got my quotes mixed up. I meant: “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!”

Duke can morph into Tiger Woods–at-the-2005-Masters form after the under-eight timeout in the second half, and it can make opponents come close to shitting their pants in the process. I’m pretty sure this isn’t factored into KenPom’s rankings, which explains how a team that nearly everyone agrees is the scariest in the sport is ranked seventh by college basketball’s gospel.

Anthony Davis carried Kentucky to a national title in 2011–12 with the greatest freshman season the sport has ever seen. Marvin Bagley III is no Davis, mostly because he butters his bread on the offensive end whereas Davis made a name for himself by blocking so many shots that he looked like a windmill on a putt-putt course. But Bagley has been so dominant to begin his college career that I’m already wondering if there will be a real debate over whether he or Davis had the better freshman year when all is said and done. If that is the case, the rest of the country might as well stop playing now. Because if Davis can carry Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague, and Doron Lamb to a title without breaking a sweat, I shudder to think what Bagley can do with his supporting cast.

The Trillion of the Week

For those who are new to this party, the term “trillion” was coined by legendary 76ers statistician Harvey Pollack and made semifamous by some turd Ohio State walk-on who has since become irrelevant. Trillions occur when a basketball player gets on the floor but records no stats while out there, meaning that the player’s box score shows a number under minutes played but features zeroes in every other column. When William & Mary hosted Old Dominion last Saturday, the Tribe’s Oliver Tot had a 19 trillion (read: He played 19 minutes and recorded no stats) working when, with 1.5 seconds left in the game and William & Mary trailing 77–76, he decided to selfishly ruin what would have been a legendary trillion by doing this:

Thus, the Trillion of the Week is instead awarded to Minnesota’s Michael Hurt, who posted a ridiculous 15 trillion in the Gophers’ loss to Miami on Wednesday. Dropping a relatively close home game on national television is a brutal way for Minnesota to suffer its first loss, which is why you might assume that the Gophers are in anguish as they lick their wounds. But if you really think about it, folks, I guess you could argue that the Miami game actually produced as little Hurt as possible.

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