The College Football Playoff is ruining college basketball. Actually, let me rephrase. That came off too strong, and I don’t want Virginia fans getting mad at me for claiming that something other than the Hoos’ defense is causing the death of the entire sport. It’s just that college fans now care about rankings, résumés, good wins, and bad losses more than they ever did before the introduction of the football playoff in 2014. Ten years ago, no one gave this stuff a second thought until Joe Lunardi emerged from his bunker on Groundhog’s Day to tell us if there would be six more weeks of Duke on his no. 1-seed line. Now, people have been conditioned in October (if not late September) to start yelling into the void about how Team A “ain’t played nobody,” Team B is being unfairly punished for losing with a strong schedule, and Team C deserves more love for being undefeated.
It makes sense for this to happen on an expedited timeline in football given that arguing about nonsense is woven into the fabric of that sport. The regular season features only 12 games, only four teams make the playoff, and teams play maybe three games that truly matter. The process by which a committee determines the four best teams in the nation is both ridiculous and self-contradictory, which is why it’s necessary for bullshit-spewing to begin in October so the committee members have enough time to delude themselves into thinking they aren’t just making it up as they go along.
The problem is that once the football playoff bracket is set, college fans can’t turn off the part of their brain that’s been trying to organize this chaos for the past two months. And so, when basketball season starts getting interesting in December as parity arises and undefeated teams go down, fans make the same arguments they’ve been making in football for months and we arrive in the position where people are tricked into thinking that the polls legitimately matter. I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping yet and people are already busting out phrases like “if the season ended today” and “strength of schedule” and “body of work” like any of it is remotely relevant. Here’s a friendly reminder: calm down. The polls are always worthless in basketball, and they’re especially worthless this early in the season. There’s no need to freak out about whether certain teams are overrated or underrated because every team has 20-plus regular-season games and a conference tournament still to play.
So if you’re a TCU fan wondering why the undefeated Horned Frogs aren’t getting more love, just be patient. There’s no conspiracy to keep TCU out of the national title hunt, like there may or may not have been in football in 2014. Even though the processes of crowning a champ in college basketball and college football may now feel similar, the sports remain very different. If this were football, final judgments would soon need to be made about whether Kansas and Arizona suck, whether Arizona State and Florida State are for real, and whether J.P. Macura has claimed Grayson Allen’s throne as the most hateable player in America. But the truth is that we don’t need to start yelling ass-backwards logic at each other until February.
For now, just take a deep breath, relax, and let the season unfold. And if you absolutely must argue about college basketball this early in the season, you can always take a stab at this age-old riddle: Is Scott Drew a good coach?
12. Arizona (7–3)
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Arizona might be good. I know. You probably just wanted the Wildcats to go away after they lost three straight in the Battle 4 Atlantis, the last of which was a 25-point defeat at the hands of Purdue. Yet those who were quick to write off Arizona failed to consider two pivotal pieces of context. First, despite what you may have been led to believe, the Wildcats’ season did not end the day after Thanksgiving in a Caribbean casino’s poorly lit ballroom. The Cats should have two of the best players in college basketball for at least the next three months, and they bounced back by beating UNLV (which is decent) on the road, Texas A&M (which is very good) on a neutral court, and Alabama (which is pretty good) at home. Arizona is still very much in the hunt for a no. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and could conceivably get a no. 1 seed if it gets a little help.
The other thing that’s important to remember is those three Battle 4 Atlantis losses came on consecutive days, meaning a young Wildcats team didn’t have the luxury of addressing its defensive problems in practice. Under ordinary circumstances, the loss to NC State would have happened, it would’ve been treated like dozens of other upsets this season, and Sean Miller would have massaged out his team’s flaws with film sessions and drills. Instead, Arizona had to take the court against SMU the next day and have its wounds exposed even more … only to do it all again a day later against a talented, experienced Purdue team that was desperate for a win.
I’m not making excuses for Arizona or implying that its losses shouldn’t count. They should and will when it comes time for the committee to seed teams for the NCAA tournament. I’m just saying that Arizona’s three-game losing streak is different than a three-game losing streak that spans a week and a half during conference play. This feels important when weighing both how good Arizona is now and how good it ultimately can be. It’s also why I’m more bullish on the Wildcats than seemingly everyone else.
11. Gonzaga (8–2)
Two college basketball questions have recently popped up that I’m dying to get answered. The first and most important: Why did Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams decide to shave his head for years when he apparently was never going bald? We’re talking about a man who once basically dared West Virginia fans to murder him and then laughed about it, so I’m not expecting any sort of reasonable explanation. Williams probably either thought he looked like a badass with a shaved head or shaved his head as a motivational tactic. Even in the bizarro world that is college basketball coaching, though, unnecessarily taking a Bic to the dome is among the weirdest moves I’ve ever seen. (Follow-up: Which coach would you most want to shave his head for no apparent reason? I’m torn between Coach K and Tom Crean.)
The second, more relevant question: How is the Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell Jr. dilemma going to shake out for Gonzaga? Kispert is a true freshman from the Seattle area who was an all-state high school player and won a couple of state titles, so he’s got the local-legend thing going for him. That might explain why he was in Gonzaga’s starting lineup at the beginning of the year. But ever since Kispert sprained his ankle against Incarnate Word a few weeks ago and Norvell — a redshirt freshman from Chicago — took his spot in the rotation, Norvell has been the Zags’ best player. Kispert’s first game back from injury was Sunday’s 97–70 victory over Washington, when he came off the bench to score three points in 13 minutes. Norvell, meanwhile, started that game, scored 21 points, and played a team-high 36 minutes. The rest of Gonzaga’s starting five (Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams, and Killian Tillie) is set. The final piece will be determined by how Mark Few answers the million-dollar question: Is it better to bring the glue guy or X factor off the bench?
10. Kentucky (8–1)
Kentucky has been impossible to get a read on all season, especially now that the “at least we gave Kansas a good game!” argument the Wildcats had going for them has been rendered worthless by the Jayhawks’ quest to get blown out by every team in the Pac-12. (Up next: Kansas at Stanford on December 21!) That should change over the course of the next two weeks, though, as the Cats play Virginia Tech, UCLA, and Louisville in succession. I’m going to hold off on forming any opinions about Kentucky until I see how it fares against the highest-scoring offense in America (Virginia Tech) on Saturday.
In the meantime, Wildcats fans should take it as a great sign that Kentucky blew out Monmouth last Saturday in a game in which Kevin Knox was MIA. I’ve had the feeling all year that the Wildcats are basically just Knox and a bunch of other guys who aren’t skilled enough to matter. And while a rout of Monmouth isn’t enough to make me abandon that thought, it’s a notable step toward proving me wrong.
9. Florida State (9–0)
It’s a good thing that polls don’t matter in college basketball, because Florida State — one of six remaining unbeaten teams in the nation that has multiple true road wins over power-conference opponents — is somehow only no. 19 in the latest AP poll. As someone who definitely doesn’t get worked up about this stuff, I honestly don’t care that the Seminoles are being treated differently than other surprise undefeated teams like, say, Arizona State. I’m laughing about it.
Seriously, I think it’s funny that Arizona State shot up to no. 1 in ESPN’s power rankings and no. 5 in the AP poll just because the Sun Devils smoked the no. 2 team on the road. If Florida State wanted the same respect for blowing out then–no. 5 Florida in Gainesville, well, maybe the Seminoles should have seen to it that the front of the Gators’ jerseys had “Kansas” printed on them. Of course, none of this matters anyway, so who cares, right? Certainly not me. I’m just spelling out the hypocrisy as a way to show how much it absolutely doesn’t faze me.
8. Texas A&M (9–1)
I want to take a second to point out that Robert Williams is a projected lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft and is currently the sixth-leading scorer for Texas A&M. The Aggies have a 6-foot-10, rebounding, shot-blocking beast who shoots 67 percent from the field and is about six months away from being paid millions to play basketball, and they don’t even give him the damn ball. And the most absurd part about it is it’s not absurd at all. That’s how much talent A&M has.
The Aggies’ only major cause for concern is their guard play, but even that complaint is somewhat nitpicky. Admon Gilder has had only one bad game all season, and Marquette transfer Duane Wilson has proved to be a more-than-capable point guard. Still, this roster’s three-headed point guard monster — Wilson, T.J. Starks, and J.J. Caldwell — is shooting a combined 13-for-46 (28.3 percent) from the 3-point line. The recipe for winning a national championship typically includes a guard who creates something out of nothing and carries an offense on his back, and that’s something these Aggies definitively lack.
What they do have, though, is the best frontcourt in college basketball, a ton of experience, and a great defense. That’s plenty enough to consider A&M the favorite to win a solid SEC.
7. Arizona State (9–0)
Well, folks, it looks like the hot Christmas present this year isn’t bitcoin or the new Apple product. It’s Arizona State basketball hype. I spoke to an extremely reputable hype analyst recently, and he told me that the Arizona State hype machine is pumping out product at an unprecedented rate. Following the Sun Devils’ 95–85 win over Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse on Sunday, the demand isn’t anywhere close to being met. Experts are saying they haven’t seen a hype rush like this since the Great Iowa Hypetastrophe of 2016, when the Hawkeyes shot from unranked to no. 3 in the AP poll in a span of four weeks … only to immediately drop eight of their next 14 games to close out the season, including a 19-point blowout against Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
However, all signs point to a different destiny for the Sun Devils, as initial forecasts project that this Arizona State hype storm should only grow stronger. My sources are saying that the combination of the team being undefeated and coached by media darling/March Madness legend Bobby Hurley have combined to create a hypenado with a massive amount of potential. In fact, one expert cited Arizona State’s perpetually hapless history (two NCAA tournament wins in the past 22 years) as an amplifying factor, going so far as to reveal that around half of the simulations he’s run have predicted that a strong pocket of abandoned Northwestern hype will be absorbed by the Arizona State hypenado, creating the possibility of destruction the likes of which we’ve never seen.
That same hypetologist warned that a doomsday scenario may be imminent in which the Northwestern hype redirects the Arizona State hypenado toward a collision course with the Duke hypeicane. If that happens, our only hope of survival is for a strong gust of “Arizona State shoots too many jumpers, has no size or depth, and can’t play defense for shit” to diffuse the hypenado and divert it back toward Tempe. Otherwise, a Super Hypenadocane could descend upon San Antonio the first weekend in April and swallow the entire college basketball world alive. In that case, may God have mercy on us all.
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 Tuesday’s Michigan-Texas game in Austin, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about the Cleveland Indians?
A. Vitale and broadcast partner Dan Shulman have a discussion about Texas center Mo Bamba during which ESPN shows a cartoon graphic that depicts some of college basketball’s best freshmen big men as babies. Dickie V. explains the baby motif — and the network’s choice to attach the players’ heads to animated babies’ bodies — as representative of his “big man diaper dandies” bit. A crib is included in this ESPN illustration, and above the crib hang three real-life pictures of Vitale. Shulman points out that one of the photos shows Vitale throwing out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game. Vitale proudly confirms that he’s a Rays fan and says he’s scared of the New York Yankees now that they’ve traded for Giancarlo Stanton. He then goes on to comment that he believes the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians will still compete with the Yankees in the American League pennant race.
B. Shulman recaps Texas’s season to this point during a break in the action, asking Vitale how the Longhorns fit in the Big 12 picture now that Kansas appears vulnerable. Vitale says he thinks Texas could be in the mix by the end of the conference play, but notes that he has his eye on Oklahoma because of Trae Young. Dickie V. says Young is the best point guard to play for the Sooners since Mookie Blaylock, who led the program to the 1988 Final Four. After an on-court sequence produces a dead ball, Vitale revisits the conversation and mentions that the 1988 Oklahoma team lost to Kansas in the national championship after beating an Arizona squad that featured Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott, and future Cleveland Indians great Kenny Lofton.
C. Almost six minutes into the game, Shulman points out that the score is only 3–2. This prompts Vitale to remark that he feels like he’s watching a baseball game, especially since he’s sitting next to Shulman, who also calls MLB games for ESPN. Dickie V. then says Shulman has a knack for getting ESPN’s baseball broadcasters hired as managers, citing both Aaron Boone’s recent move from the booth to the Yankees dugout and former analyst Terry Francona’s move to the Cleveland Indians.
6. Duke (11–1)
It was only a matter of time before a group of experienced and red-hot guards torched Duke so badly that the Blue Devils simply couldn’t hit the turbo button in the final minutes and pull away. Anyone who has watched even one Duke game this season could have predicted that a result like last Saturday’s 89–84 loss was eventually coming. When an opposing offense sets two ball screens on any given possession against the Blue Devils, the Duke defense basically declares a state of emergency as every player on the floor says “this is bullshit” and waits to go back on offense. Still, even if a loss like this was inevitable, I’m not sure if anyone envisioned it happening against a Boston College team that had won two combined ACC games over the previous two seasons.
A couple of things to keep in mind: First, college basketball teams loaded with freshmen are almost never as good defensively as they are offensively early in the season. There’s a reason ball screens are so widely used in the modern game, and that’s because they’re really, really tough to guard against, especially for teams full of guys who were playing against children eight months ago. There are a million different decisions that need to be made when defending a ball screen, and they need to be made in a split second with every defender on the court in sync. The only way to figure this stuff out is through experience. For what it’s worth, Duke’s 2015 national title team was embarrassingly bad on defense in December, didn’t start turning it around until Miami smoked the Blue Devils in mid-January, and became a great defensive team during its NCAA tournament run. (However, a bunch of other recent Duke teams also sucked on defense in December … and then sucked on defense in January, February, and March as well.)
The other factor to note is that Boston College went 15-for-26 from beyond the arc in this game, whereas Duke went a measly 8-of-30 from deep. That makes this a classic “we just didn’t hit shots and they did” loss. This excuse is only good for up to three losses per year, so I don’t recommend busting it out every time your team falls. If I’m a Duke fan, though, I use it here, forget this ever happened, and move on.
5. North Carolina (9–1)
North Carolina has shot a combined 47.8 percent from 3-point range in the four games since Michigan State shut down the Tar Heels in the PK80. Even when factoring in that 1-of-18 disaster against the Spartans, Carolina is still shooting 39.9 percent from deep on the season, which makes the Heels a top-50 3-point-shooting team in the country. This is somewhat shocking given preseason expectations. Outside shooting was supposed to be a massive concern for this roster, to the extent that Joel Berry II would have been the only Carolina player I would’ve trusted to even hit the rim on a wide-open 3, let alone consistently make it. I mean, Theo Pinson is allowed to launch 3s on this team. That’s how bleak things should be.
Instead, Kenny Williams (22-of-40 from deep) has had a hot hand almost all season, Jalek Felton (7-of-18) has been a pleasant surprise, Berry (21-of-58) has been solid, and Pinson (2-of-21) has even found the net a couple of times. And the Heels are waiting on the return of the player who is supposed to be their best shooter, as Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson (who shot 41.5 percent from deep in 2016–17) is set to come back from a knee injury in the next few weeks. Carolina has already been better than I expected this season, and if it can come out of its upcoming gantlet — at Tennessee, at Florida State, at Virginia, and at Notre Dame in the next month — relatively unscathed, it might be time to start talking about a repeat.
4. Wichita State (8–1)
Landry Shamet, as it turns out, is a good scorer when he’s aggressive. Who could’ve possibly seen that coming? Shamet was on every preseason watch list in existence and has played at an All-American level to this point, yet through the first seven games of the season, Shamet led Wichita State in shot attempts exactly zero times. Now, the Shockers are a bounce of the ball away from being undefeated, and Shamet has been excellent in virtually every facet of the game, so I’m not going to say that he was wrong for not shooting more. It’s just that he finally started looking for his shot over the past two games, and the results — 21 points in a 95–85 victory over South Dakota State and a career-high 30 points in a 78–66 win at Oklahoma State — have left me thinking that Scoring Shamet is much more fun to watch than Traditional Point Guard Shamet.
Speaking of scoring point guards, I would like to call your attention to the fact that Shamet will play Trae Young and Oklahoma on Saturday. I REPEAT: LANDRY SHAMET VERSUS TRAE YOUNG IS HAPPENING THIS WEEKEND. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. CALL YOUR FRIENDS, LOVERS, MOTHERS, AND CONGRESSMAN TO HELP SPREAD THE WORD.
3. Miami (8–0)
The most powerful power rankings in college basketball have loved Miami all season. In the interest of fairness, though, I feel like I need to point out that the Hurricanes have played a terrible schedule to date. And by terrible schedule, I don’t mean that they’ve beaten a couple of decent teams to go with a bunch of cupcakes. I mean that Minnesota is the only team with a pulse that Miami has played all season, and the Golden Gophers have looked awful since the Canes defeated them on November 29.
Speaking of Miami’s lackluster schedule, I should mention that Duke’s loss to Boston College last week is a brutal blow to Miami. I mean, it’s great for the Hurricanes’ ACC title hopes, but the plan all along was for the Blue Devils to be undefeated when they came to Coral Gables on January 15 so Miami could blow them out and grab the nation’s attention. Now a win over Duke won’t carry as much weight, not to mention that there’s a chance Duke will use the Boston College loss as a wake-up call and be more prepared for the Canes.
2. Michigan State (9–1)
I don’t need to spend much time on Michigan State, considering that the Spartans destroyed Southern Utah 88–63 in their only game this week and won’t play another notable opponent until 2018. But then, the last part of that sentence has piqued my interest. Here’s the thing: There’s no telling when in 2018 that notable game will come, because, in case you haven’t noticed, the Big Ten is awful this year. As if that weren’t bad enough, Purdue — the only Big Ten team other than Michigan State that will certainly make the NCAA tournament — plays the Spartans just once, and that game takes place in East Lansing. Of the four best non–Michigan State Big Ten teams on KenPom right now (Purdue, Michigan, Maryland, and Penn State), the Spartans will play only one (Maryland) on the road.
That’s right, folks: I’m ready to bring up the possibility of Michigan State running the Big Ten table. Four teams (1992–93 Indiana, 1998–99 Michigan State, 2004–05 Illinois, and 2006–07 Ohio State) have closed out Big Ten conference play with only one loss in the past 40 years, but no one has gone undefeated since Indiana’s 32–0 campaign in 1975–76. And yes, I am bringing this up just because it’s the only reason I can think of for fans across the country to care about the Big Ten in 2017–18.
1. Villanova (11–0)
I don’t even know where to begin with Villanova anymore. The Wildcats are so good it’s starting to get comical. Mikal Bridges almost single-handedly made Gonzaga disband its entire program last week and left me thinking that he might be the best player in the country. Eight days later, he went 3-of-10 at Temple and finished with seven points. When an All-American-type talent goes 3-of-10 in a rivalry game on the road, that typically means his team is screwed. Villanova, however, was very much not screwed, as Jalen Brunson went for 31 points, six rebounds, and five assists, while Omari Spellman added 27 points and eight boards. The Wildcats won 87–67.
That’s just silly. I can hardly wrap my head around the idea that a roster can have so much talent that its fourth- or fifth-best player can casually drop 27 and eight in a rival’s gym. You may think I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but I should mention that Temple isn’t half bad. Villanova just has a way of making every other Philadelphia team look like it sucks, which is the same effect the Wildcats have on nearly every Big East team, too. It’s unbelievable that Villanova has become the best program in college basketball over the past five years, and I often find myself staring at Jay Wright as I watch Villanova play and wonder how in God’s name he’s gone from a GQ model with a contract to cover Sweet 16 games in the CBS studio to one of the five best coaches in America in the snap of a finger.
Wait, did I just say I often stare at Jay Wright?
The Hilariously Bad Play of the Week
If you aren’t familiar with Wisconsin freshman and world-class flopper Brad Davison (a.k.a. Buzzcut Brad), allow me to bring you up to speed. Take every existing stereotype about Wisconsin basketball, throw in a dash of Aaron Craft, set your oven to “J.J. Watt,” and let that bake until there’s a nice “there’s no way this kid can possibly be real” crust around the edges. That’s Buzzcut Brad.
On Wednesday night against Western Kentucky, Buzzcut Brad and the Badgers were tied 80–80 with the Hilltoppers with two seconds remaining in regulation. Wisconsin, which is in the midst of one of the worst starts for the program in recent memory, needed to go the length of the floor and make a basket to secure a victory and bring its record to 5–7. That’s when Buzzcut Brad stepped in and heroically hit the game-winning shot.
Via a free throw.
Because he did this.
He just makes winning plays.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 14, 2017
Freshman Brad Davison draws a charge, gets to the line and sinks Western Kentucky to give @BadgerMBB the win. pic.twitter.com/8tAxIVmUTR
I’ve been on my #BanCharges crusade for years now, and under normal circumstances, this would be Exhibit A in my case. It’s a dangerous and completely unnatural play that spits in the face of the spirit of the game and represents everything people hate about college basketball. But I have to be honest: I’m not even mad about this. It’s so perfectly on-brand for Buzzcut Brad and Wisconsin that I can’t help but laugh my ass off. This play is the college basketball equivalent of the “What are you going to do, stab me?” screenshot. Of course that player on that team found a way to win a game in that fashion. Don’t be mad at Buzzcut Brad for being Buzzcut Brad; be mad at yourself for not seeing this coming from a mile away.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. (But A was true all the way up until the last sentence!) See you next week.