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Villanova Has Dunked Its Way to the Top

Led by the high-flying Mikal Bridges, the Wildcats look like the nation’s most complete team. Plus, examining a troubling jersey trend and the rest of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We are in the midst of a college sports epidemic. You probably won’t see the mainstream media mention it, because it doesn’t have the balls to address an issue this widespread. Most reporters would prefer to fall in line, do what Big Brother tells them, collect their paychecks, and go home.

Well, folks, I’m proud to say that ain’t my game. I owe it to my readers to spit in the face of the status quo and find the truth no matter what the cost. And that’s why I’m putting my neck out there and asking the question that everyone else is too scared to: Why the hell are we putting Roman numerals on the backs of jerseys now?

You know what I’m talking about. Marvin Bagley III’s jersey has “Bagley III” on the back of it instead of just “Bagley.” Joel Berry II has “II” on his uniform. Tons of other guys all over the country are doing the same, and I can’t figure out why. What purpose does this serve? The Roman numerals (and the “junior” and “senior” designations) are supposed to distinguish someone from a father and son who share the same name. THERE ARE NO OTHER BAGLEYS ON DUKE, LET ALONE MARVIN BAGLEYS! I JUST DON’T GET WHY — hang on a second. Let me grab my Life Alert button in case my 84-year-old ass falls over during this rant and can’t get up.

All right, we’re good. Where was I? Ah, here we go.

I DON’T GET WHY THIS IS A THING. IT MAKES NO DAMN SENSE. Back in my day, guys only put their last names on the backs of the jerseys AND THAT WAS IT. Nobody cared that your daddy gave you his name, and we sure didn’t try to build our brands with Roman numerals. Names were put on the backs of jerseys for two reasons only: so diehard fans could insult opposing players by yelling, “Hey [player name], you suck!” and so fair-weather fans could tell who was on the court. That was it. Shoot, I’m old enough to remember when teams didn’t even bother putting names on the backs of jerseys at all, because PLAYING FOR THE NAME ON THE FRONT OF THE JERSEY WAS ALL THAT MATTERED.

Seriously, what’s going on here? Who started this trend? And where will it end? Are players going to start putting nicknames on the backs of jerseys soon? How long until emojis are fair game? Why not throw “Mr.” in front of player names while we’re at it? I give it five years before Darren Rovell’s wet dream comes to fruition and college athletes begin slapping their Twitter handles on jerseys.

Wait, why am I complaining about this? Twitter handles, nicknames, and emojis would be awesome on uniforms. Forget I said anything. Let’s just get to the power rankings.

12. Arizona (6–3)

You may think that Arizona is unworthy of a spot in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, and you’d have a point. The Wildcats have been a mess for most of this season, to the extent that — in what can I can only assume is some sort of sadistic magic trick — Sean Miller’s team is somehow finding ways to give up an absurd amount of points in the paint despite utilizing a pack-line defense with two 7-footers in the lineup. Under any other circumstances, the Wildcats beating Texas A&M 67–64 in Phoenix wouldn’t be enough to make up for their sluggish start to the fall that hit rock bottom with the disaster that took place in the Bahamas. But let’s forget all that and focus on what really matters: ARIZONA IS BACK!

Or is it? I mean, beating A&M is great and all, but the Wildcats needed a big second-half comeback and a strong overtime performance to edge UNLV 91–88 three days earlier. So what we should make of Arizona? Is this a team that’s gradually figuring things out? Or is it flying by the seat of its pants and winning with overwhelming talent? It’s too soon to know for sure, which means that — you guessed it, folks — we’ve got a good old-fashioned BACK/NOT BACK situation brewing with the Wildcats. And as someone who plans to eventually write an anthology about the magnificent roller coaster that was Duke in 2016–17, I see this as an incredible development.

I know we’ll never get another story like Duke’s last season, but this Arizona group is about as close as we’re going to get. It’s a loaded team with an FBI probe hanging over it, a national player of the year candidate who was once suspended for performance-enhancing drug use (Allonzo Trier), a potential no. 1 NBA draft pick (Deandre Ayton), point guard issues, zero defensive intensity, a star player working back from injury (Rawle Alkins), and a coach who coughs and sweats so much that a medical leave of absence feels like a possibility. There are a hundred different directions this Arizona season could go, and I have my popcorn ready for every single outcome.

Terance Mann and Ike Obiagu
Terance Mann and Ike Obiagu
Alex Menendez/Getty Images

11. Florida State (8–0)

Well, this is quite the surprise. Florida State lost its top three scorers (Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes) from 2016–17 and was expected to experience the kind of drop-off that plagues most teams that lose a huge chunk of their scoring production. And honestly, there’s a decent chance that will end up happening considering that six days before blowing out the no. 5 team in America, Florida State struggled to beat Rutgers (which isn’t as bad as you might think, but it’s still Rutgers) in a 78–73 win. For now, though, the Seminoles are undefeated and just secured the most impressive victory in college basketball by downing Florida 83–66 in Gainesville. I have no choice but to pay them the respect they’ve earned.

Do I really think that Florida State has a legitimate chance at winning the ACC or making the Final Four? Of course not. Terance Mann can be great when he’s on, but he’s not nearly good enough to carry this roster to heights that even last year’s ultra-talented Florida State team couldn’t reach. But that’s the beauty of sports: Florida State’s destiny will unfold out on the court, meaning that my opinion of the team ultimately doesn’t matter.

With that in mind, I invite you to continue reading for more of my opinions.

10. Kentucky (7–1)

I’ll be honest: I was tempted to leave Kentucky out of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball this week. The Wildcats couldn’t guard Harvard throughout Saturday’s 79–70 win, and they’ve played a schedule that’s been laughably easy so far. That’s not a bad thing; I praised John Calipari’s scheduling philosophy last week, and still believe that having a weak nonconference slate will benefit Kentucky in the long run. It’s just that nobody can say with confidence that this team is good right now. The Wildcats can’t shoot, are lackluster defensively, and only have one player (Kevin Knox) who I trust. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m probably only including them because their jerseys say “Kentucky.”

Then again, Kentucky has a ton of length and athleticism and was never supposed to be impressive in November or December. Maybe it’s simply sticking to the plan and using these games to give experience to its young roster. Who can know for sure? And more importantly, why is it my job to sort this out? Is it because it’s literally my job? Actually, don’t answer that.

9. Gonzaga (7–2)

Whatever good vibes arose from Gonzaga’s impressive 91–74 victory over Creighton were immediately stifled when the Zags ran into the Villanova buzzsaw in Madison Square Garden. Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson dealt with foul trouble throughout an 88–72 loss; the Zags threw the ball all over the gym; and Josh Perkins went 1-for-7 from the 3-point line despite entering the game shooting 55 percent from beyond the arc. Everything that could have gone wrong for the Zags did, and that was before Mikal Bridges dunked on the entire city of Spokane.

Here’s the good news for Gonzaga: It’s much better than I thought it’d be at the start of the season, and it should still be considered one of the nation’s best teams. Perkins and Melson form a great 1–2 punch in the backcourt. Williams and Killian Tillie are more skilled than I realized. And freshman Zach Norvell Jr. (60 points in his last three games) is quickly becoming one of my favorite players in America. The Zags have played a tough schedule to date and have proved they can hang with anybody, so I’m not sweating the Villanova loss too much. That’s especially true since the list of teams that Villanova wouldn’t humiliate is incredibly short.

8. Kansas (7–1)

I’ve long been working on a theory that teams are good when they make shots and not so good when they don’t. I’m still collecting the data, so I’m not ready to reveal specifics, but let’s just say this Kansas team is helping make my case. My main concern heading into this season was that the Jayhawks lacked size and relied heavily on 3s, which might feel like absurd concerns when Kansas is hitting everything from deep and running teams off the floor. During games like Wednesday’s 74–65 loss to Washington, though, when the Jayhawks went 5-for-20 from deep, those concerns become fatal, particularly since Kansas doesn’t have a backup plan.

I’m sure Bill Self’s team will spend most of the season in the top 10 of the AP poll, win 25-plus games, and bring home its 400th consecutive Big 12 title. Still, I’m conditioned to look ahead to the NCAA tournament, and it’s hard not to be skeptical of Kansas considering its vulnerability when its jump shots aren’t falling. Keep this in mind the next time the Jayhawks hang 100 on some overmatched bums and you feel tempted to consider them one of the two or three best teams in the country.

7. Texas A&M (7–1)

The Aggies suffered their first loss of the season against Arizona on Tuesday night. Despite Bill Walton claiming that this was college basketball’s game of the year, it was sloppy and disjointed, and its semi-exciting ending opened the door for viewers to draw a million different conclusions.

A case could be made that the no. 7 team in America falling to an unranked opponent should always be considered embarrassing, especially when the unranked team’s leading scorer (Allonzo Trier) had more turnovers than made field goals. But this could also be spun positively for A&M, by making the argument that it stepped into a road environment and hung with one of the three most talented rosters in college basketball. Tyler Davis was the only Aggies player who really showed up, and A&M had a handful of late chances to pull ahead or force overtime. While the Aggies shouldn’t hang a banner to commemorate a 3-point loss to Arizona, they also shouldn’t be labeled overrated just because the Wildcats stopped sabotaging themselves.

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 end point of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to business.

During Saturday’s Kansas-Syracuse game in Miami, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Richard Pitino?

A. Kansas’s Devonte’ Graham inbounds the ball by using a one-armed throw, and Vitale comments that it looks like a football pass. Speaking of football, Vitale says that he’s excited for the ACC championship game between Miami and Clemson later that night. The mention of Miami’s football program prompts Rich Hollenberg, Vitale’s broadcast partner, to plug that Kansas-Syracuse is the first game in an ESPN doubleheader, and that Miami-Princeton will follow. Vitale remarks that he likes Miami’s team and was surprised that the Hurricanes were able to pull out a big win last week at Minnesota. He reminds viewers that Minnesota’s best players are Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, and that its head coach is Richard Pitino.

B. Syracuse’s Frank Howard delivers an errant pass that finds its way into the hands of a man sitting courtside in an all-white suit. Hollenberg notices the man’s attire and comments that his Miami Vice aesthetic is appropriate given that the game is being played in Miami. Vitale laughs and says that seeing someone in an all-white suit will always remind him of Rick Pitino. Vitale then explains why he thinks Pitino got a raw deal with his Louisville ouster before Hollenberg asks if Vitale thinks Pitino will ever coach again. Dickie V. says that he hopes Pitino gets another shot somewhere, but concedes that it’s unlikely. Vitale then goes on to predict that that Pitino will serve as an unofficial consultant at Minnesota for his son Richard.

C. ESPN cuts to a shot of Jim Boeheim on the sidelines during a break in the action, prompting Vitale to list off all of Boeheim’s career accolades. Dickie V. marvels at the fact that Boeheim has been Syracuse’s head coach since 1976 and reminds viewers that the first assistant he ever hired was Rick Pitino. As if that weren’t enough context, Vitale follows that up by pointing out that 1976 was more than 40 years ago and that Pitino’s son Richard wasn’t born until 1982.

6. North Carolina (9–1)

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the theme of this week’s most powerful power rankings in college basketball is that it’s impossible to know how good anyone is outside of the top four. That certainly applies to North Carolina, which has looked impressive in rattling off four straight wins since getting blown out by Michigan State on November 26. Here’s all I’ve figured out about the 2017–18 Tar Heels: If they’re playing a respectable opponent, two guys from the triumvirate of Joel Berry II, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams have to play well for Carolina to win. The problem is that I’m not sure if that’d be enough to take down the nation’s best teams, and I haven’t figured out the odds of all three dropping a turd at the same time, the way that they did against the Spartans.

All I know is that if you would have told me going into this season that Williams and Maye would arguably be the Heels’ two best players, I would have been certain that they were heading straight to the NIT. And I would have been wrong.

5. Wichita State (7–1)

I made this point on One Shining Podcast, a critically acclaimed show (subscribe!) that I host with Tate Frazier, but it bears repeating: Wichita State’s “play angry” branding has run its course. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that the Shockers don’t fit the mold of a small school that wins with HUSTLE and TOUGHNESS anymore. They win because they have good players and a good coach. That’s it. In fact, I’d argue that this Wichita State squad isn’t angry at all. Outside of the Cal comeback in Maui (which I felt was more about the Bears’ refusal to break a press than any other factor), there hasn’t been a single moment in any game this season that I’ve been blown away by the Shockers’ effort. I haven’t thought, “Damn, it’s making me uncomfortable how badly those dudes want to win!”

And that’s fine. I just think we’ve entered a new era of Shockers basketball, and it’s time to leave the old motto behind. Pumping up the “play angry” ethos with a team that’s better on offense than defense would be ridiculous, like if Arizona dubbed itself “Point Guard U” even though point guard play has been an Achilles’ heel for one of the most talented Wildcats teams of all time. Wait, bad example.

4. Miami (8–0)

Miami has played one of the worst schedules in the nation thus far and is the second-worst free throw shooting team in Division I. (Coincidentally, the worst is Boston, which Miami beat Tuesday.) This might lead you to believe that the Hurricanes have reached no. 4 in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball only because most other top teams keep losing. And that is partly the case. But the other part is that I’ve slowly talked myself into an idea: The Hurricanes are going to win the ACC.

I don’t think there’s any question that Duke is the most talented team in the conference, but Duke winning regular-season ACC titles is sooo last decade. The Blue Devils don’t even bother with that anymore. Their only focus is to win the national championship, beat Kentucky on the recruiting trail, and keep searching for the key to immortality so that Coach K can lead them to the first-ever Intergalactic Championship in 2589. Meanwhile, I can’t bring myself to completely trust North Carolina, Florida State’s start feels like a flash in the pan, Notre Dame couldn’t stop a paper cut from bleeding, and Virginia’s destiny seems to be staying just good enough for its fans to say, “Hey, what about us?” to media members all season.

Miami certainly has problems, and its offensive flow could be much better. But I like to look at what I call “The Four D’s” when assessing a team, and Miami has each of the four: defense, depth, definitely enough experience, and dang, they have a balanced scoring attack too.

Nick Ward
Nick Ward
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

3. Michigan State (8–1)

The Spartans have been red hot since losing to Duke in the Champions Classic, riding an offense that’s loaded with weapons and a defense that just might be the best in the nation. In fact, Michigan State has been so good that it’s not unreasonable to think that Spartans would beat the Blue Devils if the two played a rematch today. Seeing as how we’re still three months out from the NCAA tournament, though, this is a bit of a problem for Tom Izzo. He’s famous for getting his teams to peak at the right time, and it’s hard to envision how this group could play any better. Something needs to be done to make sure that the Spartans take a step back so they can make a late push right as the NCAA tournament starts. So let’s spin the patented Izzo Manufactured Adversity Wheel and see what pops up!

Ah, there it is — benching your starting center for no discernible reason. I would have tried to take a page out of Bo Ryan’s playbook and given half the team the flu, which is the only explanation for that stretch beginning in January 2014, when an eventual Final Four–bound Wisconsin team dropped five of six. But this just might work, too. Let’s see how it all plays out.

2. Duke (11–0)

1. Villanova (9–0)

I have a feeling that moving Villanova to no. 1 in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball is going to trigger mass hysteria, especially since last week I claimed that I was about ready to hit the “It’s Duke against the field” button. So I might as well just combine the Duke and Villanova sections to address what one can only assume must be a desperate attempt to get those sweet, sweet page views. I mean, Duke just hung 124 points on a team full of guys who are getting scholarships to play Division I basketball. In what world does it make sense to punish the Blue Devils for that?

It doesn’t. But my rationale has nothing to do with Duke. The Blue Devils are as terrifying as ever, and if you asked me to bet my life on a team to win the national title, I’d pick Duke without hesitation. But the most powerful power rankings in college basketball are designed to deal with the here and now. And as I watched Villanova dismantle Gonzaga on Tuesday, I felt as if a Jay Wright hologram appeared on my shoulder and whispered in my ear: “We’d beat Duke on a neutral court if we played today, and you know it.”

The more I thought about that stupid, sexy hologram’s words, the more I realized it was right. Villanova is the complete package. More importantly, it’s the complete package now. The Wildcats aren’t working through role assignments or defensive problems. They don’t have a ton of freshmen who are trying to figure out how to consistently make an impact. They’re just a talented, veteran team that plays well together and is an absolute joy to watch. Just look at this:

Are you kidding me? Do you realize how well Gonzaga had been playing up until this point? The Zags had me thinking that they might be good enough to get back to the Final Four; then Villanova went and surgically dissected them piece by piece. And right as Gonzaga was using its final breath to beg for mercy, Mikal Bridges dropped a nuke on its faces.

And get this — three days before crushing Gonzaga, Villanova drilled 19 3s during a 94–53 win over St. Joe’s. NINETEEN! It’s unbelievable how good this team is, and it’s even more unbelievable how Wright keeps losing a massive amount of talent, bringing in zero high-profile recruits, and then putting another unstoppable machine on the floor. Duke is likely going to get much better between now and March, and I’m not sure the same could be said for Villanova. But then again, I’m not sure Villanova needs to get much better. The Wildcats are already incredible.

The Dunk of the Week

Have I linked to the Mikal Bridges dunk on Gonzaga? I have? Are you sure? Let’s see it one more time to be safe.

It’s always difficult to rank great dunks because what makes them great is often the element of surprise. Put a bunch of great dunks in a compilation and that surprise factor is ruined, since the viewer goes in expecting to see something ridiculous. Knowing this, I’m not going to make any statements about where this dunk belongs in the all-time hierarchy, as it likely didn’t have the same effect on someone who first saw it on a highlight reel as for those of us who saw it in real time.

Instead, I’ll just comment on my own experience: This dunk absolutely stunned me. I kid you not. I jumped out of my chair and started pacing around my living room with my hands on my head, which is something I hadn’t done watching college basketball since James Young unleashed a dunk on UConn in the 2014 national championship. It’s so amazing that I’m just going to stop writing now and let you drink this in one more time.

Congratulations, Villanova fans. At long last, I think I’ve finally found a video worthy of replacing the Ethan Wragge Experience.

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