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Chaos Is This College Basketball Season’s Only Constant

What should we make of a campaign in which Kentucky and Kansas are underwhelming, Texas Tech and Oklahoma look dominant, and West Virginia and Purdue could be NCAA tournament no. 1 seeds? The most powerful power rankings in college basketball break it all down.

Tony Bennett and Jevon Carter Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This college basketball season is drunk. I know that gets said every year around this point in January, but that’s only because the sentiment always rings true. The entire sport’s landscape feels fuzzy: Unranked teams are beating top-10 teams so often that it’s no longer even surprising; all the blueblood programs are worse than expected; there were no undefeated teams left by New Year’s Day; and four teams — Arizona, Florida, Texas A&M, and Notre Dame — have fallen to unranked status after previously cracking the top five of the AP poll. The SEC and Pac-12 are shitshows, the Big East and Big 12 are bloodbaths, the ACC might be the fourth-best conference in America, and the Big Ten is a thing that also exists. Plus, Wisconsin and Iowa State stink, Auburn and Arizona State don’t, Buzz Williams has hair, and J.P. Macura doesn’t wear sleeves on the court.

Grayson Allen hasn’t tripped anyone as a senior. Brad Calipari played meaningful minutes in a competitive SEC game. Most shocking of all, Ted Valentine, a referee who once nearly kissed a furious Mick Cronin and made a name for himself by standing up to Bob Knight, reportedly contemplated retirement because the internet hurt his feelings.

If the first two months of this season are any indication of what to expect in the NCAA tournament, we all might as well give up on filling out brackets now. Instead, let’s do the only thing that makes sense in college sports and crown the UCF football team as national champions.

12. Your Favorite Team

I know how much fun this season’s chaos must be for fans all over the country, and I understand why many people would want to celebrate the unpredictability of the last few weeks. But I’d like to ask you to please take a moment to send your thoughts and prayers to all of the college basketball power rankers out there. Because the reality is that all of this fun comes at a cost, and it’s us — the real heroes who have to make sense of it all — who are left suffering. And so, it’s with a heavy heart that I humbly stand before you and admit that I don’t feel great about giving any team the no. 12 slot in this week’s edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.

Xavier has lost two games in a row and looked like it didn’t belong on the same court as Villanova in Wednesday’s 89–65 rout. Kansas is hanging by a thread and could lose by a thousand points at West Virginia next week. Arizona State has dropped three of four, TCU has too, and I’m not sure that Cincinnati has beaten an NCAA-tournament-caliber team all season. Seton Hall was knocking on the door until Marquette ran the Pirates out of the gym 84–64. The same was true of Clemson until it went down 78–77 at NC State on Thursday. Miami has yet to wash off the stench of its recent 64–54 loss to Georgia Tech. North Carolina has lost three of six (and one of those three came at home, 79–75, to Wofford); and the big hang-up I have about Kentucky is that I like good teams and the 13–3 Wildcats aren’t good.

All things considered, I suppose I’ll put Cincinnati in the no. 12 spot even though I think Miami is a better team. Wait. Reading that sentence back, I realize that logic makes no sense and I’ve lost my damn mind. Screw it: I’ll just let my readers choose their own adventure here. Put whichever team you want at no. 12. Just not South Florida, whose existence is an affront to college basketball.

11. Gonzaga (15–3)

Gonzaga has won four of its five West Coast Conference games by 30 or points more, which is another way of saying that whatever chaos exists in college basketball this season, it has yet to make its way to the WCC. As is typically the case with the Zags, this lack of conference competition means that getting a read on how the team stacks up against the rest of the country requires scrutinizing what transpired in its nonconference slate. But here’s the problem: Gonzaga’s nonconference performance left me with more questions than answers. The Zags boast solid wins over Creighton, Ohio State, and Texas, but also got pasted by Villanova and lost at San Diego State three weeks ago. Thus, we find ourselves in a familiar conundrum: Nobody — including Gonzaga fans — has any idea how good this group is.

I’m erring on the side of trust and assuming that coach Mark Few’s team will be a tough out in March, if for no other reason than the Zags pass my eye test with flying colors. It also doesn’t hurt that the bulk of Gonzaga’s roster has Final Four experience, or that six different players have scored 20 or more points in a game this season. That’s something even Villanova (which has the best six-man rotation in college basketball) hasn’t done.

Keenan Evans
Keenan Evans
John Weast/Getty Images

10. Texas Tech (14–2)

In a season full of surprise teams soaring to unexpected heights, Texas Tech may be the biggest surprise of them all. The Red Raiders have ascended to the no. 8 spot in the AP poll despite being picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 during the preseason. They’ve already made two fan bases mash the panic button, blowing out Kansas 85–73 in Allen Fieldhouse early this month and destroying Northwestern 85–49 in November, a result so lopsided that it set the entire Northwestern program back … uhh … I guess only two years. Put together all the best stereotypes about typical Florida State and Cincinnati teams and you’ll get the 2017–18 Red Raiders, who have tons of athleticism, play an imposing brand of basketball, boast one of the best defenses in the country, and can’t shoot to save their lives.

The Big 12 is going to be absolute madness all the way through March, and there’s no telling what kind of shape Texas Tech will be in when the dust settles. For right now, though, Chris Beard belongs in national coach of the year conversations, and the Red Raiders look every bit like a team that can walk away with one of college basketball’s most prestigious honors: being officially named the second-best Big 12 team by the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.

(Speaking of beards: This is yet another reminder that Jay Bilas has still not fulfilled the promise he made on national television last season to grow a beard as thick as Przemek Karnowski’s if Gonzaga made the Final Four. People don’t forget!)

9. Arizona (13–4)

Even though the dreaded Pac-12 mountain trip (games in high altitude at Utah and Colorado) has chewed up and spit out good teams for the last few years, Arizona still had no business losing 80–77 in Boulder on Saturday. I’m not here to make excuses for the Wildcats. When you let Dusan Ristic shoot 16 times in a close game, you deserve everything that comes to you, including losses to teams that won’t even make the NIT. Why Sean Miller continues to play Ristic and Deandre Ayton together instead of surrounding Ayton with four guards and giving the 7-foot-1 freshman — who is the most talented human to ever don an Arizona uniform — the freedom to do what he does best is a mystery that may never be solved.

But I continue to believe in Arizona for three reasons: Ayton, Allonzo Trier, and Rawle Alkins. That’s it. I can’t quit the Wildcats because they have the best trio in college basketball. Shoot, every time Arizona takes the court, it features two guys (Ayton and Trier) who are better than its opponent’s best player, and that’s something that could hold true for every hypothetical Wildcats opponent in the country except Oklahoma and Duke.

I know the Cats lack a great bench or point guard. I know their coach is so stubborn it hurts. And I know that we’ll look back on this Arizona season 10 years from now and scratch our heads over some of these losses. But I also know that swearing off a team that’s this talented in January would be an extraordinarily dumb thing to do.

8. Wichita State (14–2)

Nobody seems to be talking about it anymore, but I’m really pumped to see Wichita State move to the American Athletic Conference next season. It’s getting exhausting trying to figure out how good the Shockers are, and I just can’t bring myself to care about their annual demolition of terrible Missouri Valley Conference teams such as South Florida and East Carolina. Wichita State is four games into its conference schedule and has won all four by an average margin of 25 points, with the closest coming when the Shockers beat Connecticut 72–62 on the road. Yes, UConn is the only Missouri Valley team to — oh no, UConn isn’t in the MVC. And that must mean … are you telling me that Wichita State has already switched conferences? And it’s still beating the piss out of everyone in its league?

Can we please fast-forward to the part of the season when the Shockers play the teams that made guys like me think this conference realignment was a good thing? More importantly, why hasn’t Wichita State played those teams by now? If the people who made the American’s schedule were smart, they would have put Wichita State’s first conference game on the road against one of the premier, nationally relevant programs in the league. Instead, Wichita State opened conference play at UConn.

7. Michigan State (16–2)

Miles Bridges is averaging 5.8 3-point attempts per game. He’s shooting 34.3 percent from behind the arc. For the sake of comparison, here are those same stats for some notable players around the country who aren’t 6-foot-7, 230-pound freak athletes:

College 3-Point Attempts

Player 3-Point Attempts/Game 3-Point Field Goal %
Player 3-Point Attempts/Game 3-Point Field Goal %
Jalen Brunson 4.7 48
Landry Shamet 4.9 53.2
Jevon Carter 5.1 39.5
Allonzo Trier 5.3 41.1
Tra Holder 6.5 43.9
Kyle Guy 6.5 44.2
Grayson Allen 6.7 41.1

Bridges, who is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound freak athlete, leads the Spartans in 3-point attempts by a wide margin despite having the worst shooting percentage from deep in the Michigan State rotation. Bridges, who is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound freak athlete, has attempted more 3s than 2s on four different occasions in the 17 games he’s played this season. Bridges, who is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound freak athlete, has attempted only 44 free throws in 2017–18, even though he’s a nearly 90 percent free throw shooter who plays more minutes and takes more shots than anyone else on his roster.

I’m not going to overreact to Ohio State dominating the Spartans 80–64 last Sunday or Rutgers taking Michigan State to overtime before falling 76–72 on Wednesday. I’m not going to pretend that one of the three most talented teams in college basketball, which boasts a top-five defense and an offense full of weapons, is no longer a national title contender. But I also feel compelled to point out that one of those weapons is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound athletic freak (I’m referring to Bridges, FYI) who allows the fans of every Michigan State opponent to let out a massive sigh of relief whenever he chucks up a 22-footer over a much smaller defender.

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 Saturday’s North Carolina–Virginia game in Charlottesville, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Davidson?

A. Roy Williams and Tony Bennett are shown via a split screen, and Vitale comments on how Bennett looks like he could still play. ESPN broadcast partner Bob Wischusen reminds viewers that Bennett played three years in the NBA after a great college career at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, then goes on to joke that Williams does not look like he could still play. Vitale responds by saying that Williams may be older now, but notes that the 67-year-old was a decent ballplayer as a student at North Carolina. Of course, Vitale clarifies, Williams played for Carolina’s junior varsity team because the varsity squad was so good in that era. Vitale informs viewers that those late-1960s Carolina teams went to three straight Final Fours, beating Davidson in the Elite Eight in consecutive years.

B. Joel Berry II hits 3s on back-to-back North Carolina possessions in the second half to keep the Tar Heels in the game, prompting Wischusen to ask Vitale if he thinks that Berry is somehow underrated despite being the 2017 Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Vitale says there’s “no question about it” and that an argument could be made that no player is as important to his team as Berry is to Carolina. Wischusen then asks Vitale if he’s sure that Berry is more valuable to UNC than Marvin Bagley III is to Duke or Trae Young is to Oklahoma, respectively, and Vitale walks back his comments. Dickie V. then declares that Young is the most exciting college guard he’s seen since Steph Curry at Davidson.

C. The broadcast cuts to Bennett on Virginia’s bench, and an accompanying graphic pops up showing where Bennett ranks on the all-time wins list for Virginia coaches. Vitale notes that at the top sits Terry Holland, who coached the Hoos from 1994 to 2001. Vitale informs viewers that when Holland was in college he played for Lefty Driesell, who Vitale says should be in the college basketball Hall of Fame. Dickie V. backs up his claim by explaining that Dreisell was not only great as Maryland’s coach, but also found a ton of success in the 1960s as the head coach of Davidson.

6. Purdue (16–2)

No team in college basketball is more fun to follow than Purdue right now, and by that I mean that no fan base in the sport is more fun to follow. The Purdue faithful have gone berserk, in one way or another, for basically every day over the past nine weeks. First the fans hated AP poll voters for putting Purdue 20th in the preseason rankings. Then they hated their own coach and team for blowing back-to-back games against Tennessee and Western Kentucky in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Then they hated AP poll voters again for failing to recognize how hot the Boilermakers had become since returning from the Bahamas. And now they hate themselves because their relentless complaining has helped Purdue earn a no. 5 ranking in the latest poll, news that would be exciting for most programs, but has caused a state of emergency for a Purdue fan base that has been conditioned to believe that high rankings are a precursor to disastrous heartbreak. When ESPN’s Jay Williams said that Purdue is the best team in the country on Tuesday night, I swear I heard a stream of expletives coming from West Lafayette for the next four hours.

Knowing this, a provocateur might try to exploit these anxieties by pointing out that Purdue has a very real chance of earning a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and that a no. 1 seed has never lost to a no. 16 seed. This same hypothetical person, who would have to be completely bereft of anything resembling compassion, might also highlight how much parity exists in college basketball this season, or how Purdue has a tendency to rely heavily on 3-pointers, or how the Boilermakers’ starting guards — P.J. Thompson and Carsen Edwards — are both 6-foot-1 or shorter. Rest assured, I’m certainly not going to do anything of the sort because that’d be unbelievably cruel. Besides, I believe in this Purdue team. A senior lockdown defender on the wing who can score is essentially the ideal college basketball player, and Purdue has two of them in Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias. That alone is reason to believe that a no. 16 seed would stand absolutely zero chance of upsetting a theoretically top-seeded Purdue.

I mean, Isaac Haas would have to get in foul trouble, Purdue would have to go cold from deep, and a no. 16 seed would have to hit everything it throws at the rim. The odds of that happening are nonexistent, though, to the point that it’s frankly reckless to even consider the possibility in the first place.

5. Duke (14–2)

What the hell is going on with Duke? I’m not talking about the baffling losses to Boston College and NC State. I’m talking about how boring this Blue Devils’ season has been. Sure, the team’s combination of explosive offense and awful defense has made for an entertaining brand of basketball. And I could watch Bagley try to lick his elbow for two hours and still be blown away by his greatness. It’s just that if someone set out to write a movie about the 2017–18 Duke season, the script to this point would be remarkably dull, especially given the standards that I’ve come to expect.

The Blue Devils aren’t the unbeatable final boss that everyone else is trying to slay. They also aren’t so bad that the people who love laughing at Duke’s demise will need to call a doctor in four hours. Grayson Allen hasn’t done anything particularly egregious, but the Grayson Allen Redemption Tour isn’t being shoved down our throats, either. And Coach K isn’t removing his team’s locker-room privileges, dishing out indefinite suspensions, taking a dubious leave of absence, or lecturing opposing players in the postgame handshake line and/or locker room.

The one theme this Duke team has going for it is the “loaded roster is more vulnerable than we initially believed” storyline, but that doesn’t move the needle for me after last season’s team elevated that to a masterpiece that can’t be topped. Plus, part of the fun in seeing stacked teams struggle is trying to figure out why they’re having so much trouble, and the answer in this case is obvious: Duke sucks at defense. That’s it. Trevon Duval can’t shoot; the Blue Devils lack depth; and Allen probably wishes that he took three or four of Bagley’s shot attempts per game. For the most part, though, this Duke group has the right pieces and fits together well. The only thing keeping it from becoming a juggernaut is that it can’t be bothered to give a single shit defensively. And while that’s compelling in the sense that it means there’s no telling what will happen in any individual Duke game, it’s a bummer in the sense that it keeps us from having “Can Duke win without a true point guard?” or “How much do Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard hate each other?” discussions that include rampant and wildly reckless speculation.

I need this fixed and I need it NOW. I need Duke to start playing defense and dominating the ACC so that an early loss in the NCAA tournament feels like a monumental upset instead of a logical conclusion to the Blue Devils’ season. I need a suspension or a controversial locker-room fight. I just can’t live in a world where a Duke team with a player as talented as Bagley and a star with a hated history like Allen’s isn’t constantly making headlines for borderline ridiculous reasons.

4. Oklahoma (13–2)

Full disclosure: I’ve reached the point of no return with Trae Young. To be honest, I probably reached it a few weeks ago. But as Young struggled in the first half of Tuesday’s 75–65 win over Texas Tech, it dawned on me that the guy could punt the ball into the upper deck every time he touched it and I’d still probably make excuses for him. Every time he missed a shot or turned the ball over, I was certain that he was fouled. When his teammates missed shots that could have given Young assists, I screamed that Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger should cut them. This is a serious issue for a fair and balanced journalist like myself, who up until this point has never shown an ounce of bias in any content I’ve ever produced. There’s a solid chance that I will be blackballed from the industry for admitting this, which is to say that I’ll be forced to drink water in Final Four media rooms, like some sort of civilian, as every media member around me gets to slug unlimited Diet Coke.

For what it’s worth, it’s not just Young who makes these Sooners so fun. He also has a perfect group of teammates around him, from incredible athletes who can catch lobs in the rafters (Jamuni McNeace) to knockdown 3-point shooters (Christian James and Brady “Literally Larry Bird” Manek). The biggest concern for Oklahoma all season has been defense, but the Sooners have tightened up in that regard recently and resemble a team that could make the Final Four or — dare I say — possibly even win the Big 12.

3. Virginia (15–1)

College basketball media types love to throw out their “way-too-early top 25” the second that a given season ends, presumably because they think college basketball fans are idiots who wouldn’t be able to figure out that Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas are all expected to have good teams again the following campaign. Despite the absurdity of publishing these lists before NBA draft decisions are made, the junior college and graduate transfer markets shake out, and, in some cases, before recruits have signed their national letters of intent, the end of a season always seems to mark the universal release date for these rankings. Nobody has the stones to release their lists earlier. Nobody until now, that is, because I’m officially going on record and anointing Virginia as the no. 1 team in my Way-Too-Early Week 7 of the 2018–19 Season Power Rankings. That’s right — Virginia has the way-too-early lead in the race to be the no. 1 team in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball during Christmas week 2018.

I’ve reached this conclusion by using a formula I’ve been honing over the last few years. It’s just a prototype that wasn’t meant to be shared publicly until I gathered more data, but after factoring in the impact of Virginia’s unexpected hot start this season, I feel comfortable claiming this method is foolproof. Here it is: At the start of any college basketball season, ask yourself the following five questions about Virginia:

  1. Is there a name on the roster that most casual fans recognize?
  2. Did Virginia lose a key player who everyone thinks is irreplaceable?
  3. Is there a white big dude in the rotation who might be good and might be terrible — and is it impossible to know which it is?
  4. Did a player nobody has ever heard of take a redshirt the year before?
  5. Is Tony Bennett the head coach?

If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” literally nothing else matters. It’s 100 percent guaranteed that Virginia will have a good team. This has been true for all the great Virginia teams of the recent past, it’s true for this season’s Virginia team, and — would you look at that — it’s going to be true next season’s Virginia team, too. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but I’d recommend printing out this formula and keeping it in a safe place. That way, you can be prepared before all the way-too-early rankings come out, and you’ll never have to worry about a Virginia basketball team sneaking up on you again.

Teddy Allen
Teddy Allen
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

2. West Virginia (15–1)

There is tons to love about the only team in college basketball that has yet to lose a game in the Western Hemisphere this season. The Mountaineers are riding a 15-game winning streak, just cruised to an 89–76 victory over Oklahoma, have positioned themselves in the driver’s seat of the toughest conference in America, and are led by two senior guards (Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr.). Oh, and they’re about to get their second-best player (Esa Ahmad) back from an NCAA suspension this weekend. Longtime readers of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball know I’m a huge proponent of the “national championship teams require great defense and a guard who can carry the offense” theory. Well, West Virginia’s defense is among the nation’s best (even if it’s slightly overrated by the people who talk about Carter like he’s Mike Singletary playing linebacker for the 1985 Bears), and Carter is good enough offensively to single-handedly create points when everything else goes to hell. That’s why I have no reservations in proclaiming that the Mountaineers have what it takes to win a title.

To play devil’s advocate, though, it’s worth mentioning that West Virginia has yet to beat a legitimate NCAA tournament team away from home. (The same could be said about Virginia, by the way.) But I’m not sweating that given that this would only be concerning if the Mountaineers were losing a few games. West Virginia is about to play a ton of tournament-caliber teams away from home, too, beginning with a visit to Texas Tech on Saturday.

1. Villanova (15–1)

Here’s something to think about: What if there is a great team in college basketball this season? What if, despite all the talk about parity and how no one deserves to be ranked no. 1, there was a 15–1 team that has played what KenPom considers the 15th-hardest schedule in America, and that has 12 wins coming by double-digit margins? What if there was a team whose only loss wasn’t indicative of any fatal flaws, but instead was an anomaly in which a not-terrible opponent used the magic of home-court advantage to pull some Ethan Wragge bullshit out of its ass? What if this team was led by a class of juniors who have already won a national championship and have averaged 33.5 wins per season up to this point in their careers? What if said team was coached by a guy on track to win at least 29 games for the fifth consecutive season? What if the coach claimed the team was so good that it essentially has six starters (one of whom is a future lottery pick), and the team just dominated a top-10 opponent that was supposed to challenge it for conference supremacy? Wouldn’t that be something?

Well, folks, I’ve got some news for you: There is a team that fits each and every one of those descriptors. And you’re never going to believe who it is. (Keep reading for the answer!)

The Inexplicable Referee Move of the Week

For those who are out of the loop, Ted Valentine, the third-worst thing to plague college basketball in the last 20 years (behind only the FBI and the Plumlee family), told The Athletic’s Seth Davis last Sunday that he was contemplating retirement. His comments came on the heels of Valentine literally turning his back to Joel Berry as Berry asked for clarification about a blatant non-call in North Carolina’s 81–80 loss to Florida State. Because of the incident with Berry, Valentine was removed from two Big Ten games, including Ohio State’s blowout of Michigan State. His news stunned the college basketball world and prompted tributes to started flooding in, as fans from all over the country rushed to Twitter to send a legend their warmest regards via celebratory GIFs and/or some variation of the message: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

In what was perhaps the most shocking twist in college basketball history, though, Valentine — a man famous for loving attention and being the world’s biggest hard-ass — decided after two long days of agonizing deliberation that he wasn’t ready to give up the dream just yet. And in his triumphant return to action for the Virginia-Syracuse game on Tuesday night, Valentine put forth a performance for the ages. And by that I mean that he SACK-TAPPED JACK SALT FOR NO APPARENT REASON.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. And the team I spoke of in the Villanova section is Villanova! What a coincidence! See you next time.