Before we get to the most powerful power rankings in college basketball this week, I want to take a second and congratulate Duke for landing Zion Williamson last Saturday. By securing the commitment of the five-star forward from Spartanburg, South Carolina, the Blue Devils now have the top three players in the 2018 recruiting class. Even before he won his fifth national championship in 2015, Mike Krzyzewski had already cemented his status as the greatest coach the sport has ever seen. This kind of thing only adds to his legacy.
Sure, I know that trophies aren’t handed out on the recruiting trail, because if they were, Kentucky’s John Calipari would have more national titles than UConn’s Kevin Ollie. But I think an exception needs to be made for Coach K. College basketball is in the midst of an ongoing and widespread FBI investigation into recruiting corruption, a scandal so severe that many have claimed it amounts to the sport’s Armageddon. Cynicism is at an all-time high, trust is at an all-time low, and fans all across this great country have no idea where to turn. But then Coach K comes along and eases all of our worries by reminding us that there are still LEADERS OF MEN in college sports who are willing to stare down insurmountable evils and achieve success by DOING THINGS THE RIGHT WAY.
Just think about what this great man is up against. Thanks to the FBI probe, we now know that some high-level recruits are being offered at least $100,000 to play one season for certain programs. This means that every time Coach K steps into a recruit’s living room, he probably does so with the understanding that he’ll likely have to persuade a prospect to turn down a life-changing sum of money to come to Duke. Williamson, R.J. Barrett (the no. 1 recruit in the Class of 2018), and Cam Reddish (the no. 3 recruit) all could have realistically made a quarter of a million dollars in the snap of a finger had they chosen to commit elsewhere. But Coach K was able to extract the goodness inside of each and every one of them, set them on the path of righteousness, and give them something that no amount of money could ever buy: the opportunity to join the Duke Brotherhood (and compete with one another for playing time because they all play the same position). Coach K is a living legend whose face belongs on the front of currency, and it warms my heart to no end that kids these days have enough reverence for this LEADER OF MEN that they refuse to sell their souls for a quick buck (or even a quick, non-taxable fortune). You know, folks, I think sometimes we get so wrapped up in teams’ wins and losses that we forget what truly matters is the game of life. Given how Coach K has already led these young men away from their greedy impulses, I have no doubt that they are destined to become champions where it matters most.
Wait, what’s that? You think Duke is paying recruits, too? Please. Don’t be such a hater. Without mentioning the names Corey Maggette, Chris Duhon, or Lance Thomas, show me even one instance of recruiting violations ever happening under Coach K’s watch. And without bringing up how Jeff Capel was fired from Oklahoma in the midst of a scandal that pertained to how one his players was paid, name one time that Duke’s top assistant — whose hiring in 2011 just happened to coincide with the start of the Blue Devils’ remarkable recruiting surge — has ever been in the same stratosphere as an NCAA violation. That’s right, you can’t.
12. Duke’s 2018 Recruiting Class, I Guess?
Finding a team to put in the no. 12 spot in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball has been nothing short of impossible this season. Let’s review this week’s candidates.
West Virginia has lost three of its past four. Ohio State just lost at home to Penn State in a game that the Nittany Lions more or less dominated. Texas Tech has dropped three of its past five, including Saturday’s 70–52 blowout loss at Iowa State. Gonzaga has one decent win all season and just lost at home to a 19–2 Saint Mary’s team, so there’s no way of justifying slotting the Zags above the Gaels. Yet Saint Mary’s also owns only one decent win, has played a horrid schedule, and lost to a terrible Washington State team earlier this season. Wichita State lost back-to-back American Athletic Conference games handily. Clemson scored 36 points at Virginia on Tuesday night. (That is not a typo.) Florida just lost to South Carolina at home. Arizona State has been in free-fall mode ever since conference play started. Auburn recently lost to Alabama and is … wait a second. Auburn is 18–2, has only one loss in the past two months, and is in sole possession of first place in the SEC right now?
Boom. Done. That’s good enough for me. Congratulations to the Auburn Tigers on their first appearance in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball!
11. North Carolina (16–5)
Have North Carolina fans shifted their expectations to “just beat Duke, make the Sweet 16, and hope the Blue Devils don’t win the national title” yet? Because that’s starting to feel like the best-case scenario for this team. Optimistic Tar Heels fans could maybe convince themselves that Carolina could beat any opponent on the right night if Roy Williams magically gets all of his guys to play well at the same time. But if we’re going to live in a fantasy land, why not take things a step further and say that the Heels should be crowned 2018 national champs since they’d clearly be undefeated if Tony Bradley and Justin Jackson had not declared early for the NBA draft?
There isn’t a more frustrating team in college basketball this year than the Tar Heels. When examining this season’s other inconsistent teams, I can at least pinpoint their problems. Yet my brain gets tied into knots trying to figure out what’s going wrong in Chapel Hill. All I know for sure is that Joel Berry II is pretty good (but not great). But is Luke Maye actually good? Is Kenny Williams good? Is Theo Pinson the type of basketball player that someone might be inclined to refer to as “good”? We’re almost six weeks away from Selection Sunday and I’m no closer to having answers.
Carolina is good enough to beat up on decent teams (Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Tennessee), bad enough to get pasted by great teams (Virginia, Michigan State), and inconsistent enough that getting smoked at Virginia Tech and losing at home to Wofford somehow don’t feel all that surprising. It’s maddening trying to determine whether the Tar Heels are a legitimate contender or not, and it’s even more frustrating knowing that I won’t get a definitive ruling for another two months.
10. Cincinnati (18–2)
I demand a refund from every college basketball preview magazine I bought during the 2017–18 preseason. They all led me to believe that this Cincinnati team was going to be the most offensive-minded one that head coach Mick Cronin has ever had. I was fooled into thinking that these would not be my granddaddy’s Bearcats, that every preconceived notion I held about the program should be tossed aside, and that adding Cane Broome to this roster would make Cincy resemble the Warriors every night. Instead, I’m pretty sure this is the most Cronin team that’s ever Cronined.
Say what you will about the man, but he knows how to coach defense, or at least his version of it. It’s essentially what you would get if the defenses of Virginia and West Virginia had a baby. Well, this season that baby is all growns up, and that makes Cincinnati absolutely terrifying. The Bearcats have held four of their past seven opponents to 20 points or fewer in the first half. They’ve given up 65 or more points in only four games.
Here’s the scariest part: All of those preview magazines were also kind of right. This actually is Cronin’s best offense. He’s never previously coached a Cincy team that’s shot better than 35 percent from the 3-point line (shouts to the 2009–10 Bearcats, who went 29.1 percent from deep), and this group is shooting 36.6 percent from behind the arc. It also has a better field goal percentage (46.1) and is averaging more assists (17 per game) than any of Cronin’s Cincinnati teams before it. I know that the Bearcats’ schedule has been terrible and that playing in the American Athletic Conference doesn’t help their case. Still, this truly does seem to be the best team that Cronin has ever had.
9. Xavier (19–3)
Speaking of Cincinnati college basketball programs with stereotypes, it hit me the other day that the biggest reason I’m not taking Xavier seriously as a national title contender is because the Musketeers have never made a Final Four. This, of course, is dumb logic. Jay Wright was considered a notorious March Madness choker … until he won a national championship. And it was universally accepted that Mark Few and Bo Ryan would never make a Final Four … until Ryan made two in a row and Few got to that stage last March. Given that the Musketeers reached the Elite Eight as a no. 11 seed a season ago and have a history of relative success in the NCAA tournament, I should probably start taking one of the best teams (if not the best team) in Xavier history more seriously.
After all, despite the perception the Musketeers are basically just a two-man team of Trevon Bluiett and J.P. “Sleeves” Macura (the sleeves are back!), the truth is that this Xavier squad has a deep rotation of guys who can play. In the past two weeks, Quentin Goodin led this team to an 89–70 win against Marquette with 15 points and five assists (and a nasty inside-out dribble that led to a dunk); Kerem Kanter put up 22 and 13 in an 88–82 victory against St. John’s; and six different Musketeers (none of whom were Goodin) went for double figures in a 92–70 rout of Creighton. I’d like to see Xavier put forth a more consistent effort on defense (holding Marquette’s explosive offense to 6-for-23 from the 3-point line is a good start) so blowout losses like the ones against Arizona State (102–86 on November 24) and Villanova (89–65 on January 10) don’t happen. But the point stands: The Musketeers, who lit up the Cincinnati defense I was just raving about for 89 points in December, definitely have the goods to make their first Final Four.
8. Trae Young’s Team (15–4)
Not that it took a psychic to see this coming or anything, but when I wrote about Trae Young three weeks ago, I predicted that America would turn on the Sooners star freshman because of overexposure. Well, when Young shot 39 times — 39 TIMES!!! — in an 83–81 loss at Oklahoma State on Saturday, it felt like we’d arrived at that inflection point. College basketball fans hating how the media incessantly highlights an individual player is a tale as old as time. It dates back all the way back to when Cornelius “Buffalo” McCutcheon had soup cans thrown at him in Jonesboro, Arkansas, simply because he was put on the cover of How About These Sports! magazine for three consecutive weeks in 1909 after he dribbled behind his back in a game against the East Kansas Jackals. The NBA is supposed to be about individual stars while college basketball is supposed to be about the teams; when the line between the two blurs, college fans have a habit of losing their damn minds.
This is why — and I mean this as no disrespect to Kansas — I was ecstatic to see Oklahoma beat the Jayhawks 85–80 on Tuesday, and not just because it keeps the Big 12 race somewhat interesting. ESPN basically turned the past seven days into Trae Young Week, so Young having a bad game against the Jayhawks as Oklahoma suffered its third loss in a row would’ve made life much harder for Young apologists like me. Instead, the Sooners pulled out the win, Young finished with 26 points (on nine shot attempts!) and nine assists, and the idiots of the world were left saying “yeah, but … ” as they searched for a reason to discredit Young’s excellent performance.
At this point, if you’re still wondering why the media spends so much time talking about a guy who is doing things that nobody in the 100-plus-year history of college basketball has ever done, please strap yourself to a rocket and go live on Mars.
7. Kansas (16–4)
Consider the following hypothetical: What if the Jayhawks’ recent loss at Oklahoma was an NCAA tournament game instead of a regular-season conference result in January? Can you imagine the amount of Bill Self backlash? People already give Self shit for choking in March, even if his version of choking is to almost annually lose in the round of the tourney that only eight of the 351 Division I teams reach. But if what happened on Tuesday night — Kansas blowing an 80–77 lead with under three minutes to play, Udoka Azubuike being repeatedly forced to the free throw line and missing six attempts in a row, and Self standing on the sideline with his patented smirk while watching his team’s hopes slip away — happened in the Elite Eight, neutral fans would absolutely crucify the Jayhawks coach. And that’s to say nothing of Kansas fans, who I’m pretty sure would descend on Self’s house and demand his head on a platter.
The only logical explanation I can think of as to why Self didn’t take Azubuike, a 37.5 percent free throw shooter, out of Tuesday’s game is that Self is extremely bored and can’t be bothered to care in the slightest about January Big 12 games anymore. While the Jayhawks could still theoretically finish dead last in the conference, it feels like they’ve already clinched their 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship, as I laid out last week. It’s going to happen because it can’t not happen. Self knows this better than anyone, and maybe he’s exhausted with the charade at this point.
The man has been living college basketball’s version of Groundhog Day every January through March for almost 15 f’ing years now. It’s entirely possible he purposely threw the Oklahoma game just because he wanted to feel something for the first time since Oregon ripped his heart out in Kansas City last March. Perhaps that’s why he had the smirk turned up to 11 at the postgame press conference. Self knew the media was going to rip him apart. It made him feel blood coursing through his veins for the first time in ages.
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 Louisville-Miami game, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about José Altuve?
A. Miami’s Lonnie Walker sinks a tough 3-pointer with a hand in his face, prompting Karl Ravech, who is calling the game with Vitale, to rave about how great Walker is. Vitale says that Walker not only boasts tremendous talent, but also has a name that makes him sound like a superstar. After repeating Walker’s full name a couple of times, Vitale mentions that he wants to congratulate his good friend Chipper Jones on being elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ravech, who hosts Baseball Tonight, proceeds to tell viewers that Vitale is one of the biggest baseball fans he knows, a claim Vitale backs up by saying that his two favorite current MLB players are Aaron Judge and José Altuve.
B. ESPN shows Adnan Virk, Dalen Cuff, and Tom Crean in the studio to tease the network’s upcoming halftime show. The broadcast then tosses back to Ravech and Vitale, and Dickie V. quickly mentions that Crean is his neighbor in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. Vitale tells Ravech that he should move into the neighborhood as well, and Ravech jokingly replies that he will only if Vitale provides the down payment for his house. Vitale says that he talked to Alex Rodriguez the previous night and that he’d just ask A-Rod for some cash. Ravech then comments on how many baseball people spend time in Florida during the offseason, explaining that Eduardo Perez is in attendance for the Louisville-Miami game and that Jessica Mendoza is also in Miami while working on a story about José Altuve.
C. Vitale comments that even though these Hurricanes are unranked, he believes they are in a great position to accomplish something special in March. He backs this up by saying that he believes in Jim Larrañaga, whom he considers one of the best head coaches in the business. After Ravech points out that Miami also has a pretty great football coach in Mark Richt, Vitale says that this is a great time to be a Canes fan. Ravech then remarks that being a Marlins fan isn’t so great these days, seeing how the Marlins traded Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees in December. Vitale says that it’s killing him to see Florida baseball lose all of its stars, and he cites his beloved Tampa Bay Rays also trading Evan Longoria last month. When Ravech asks Vitale what he would do if he were the Rays GM, Vitale jokingly says he’d spend every dime he owns to get José Altuve.
6. Arizona (17–4)
The good news: With less than a week remaining until the calendar turns to February, Arizona has lost games only in Atlantis (which isn’t even a real place) and Colorado (might as well be on the moon). Oklahoma features a freshman who is setting the record books on fire, and Duke has a freshman who could score every time down the floor if he wanted to, but if I were an NBA general manager I’d still take Arizona’s Deandre Ayton over both of them. Allonzo Trier has been incredible since the Wildcats’ loss at Colorado, Dylan Smith has played nearly flawlessly in the two games that he’s started in place of the injured Rawle Alkins, and Arizona has a decent shot at landing a no. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The bad news: Head coach Sean Miller can’t get out of his own way, because his basketball philosophy is stuck in 1986 and he’s apparently hell-bent on going down with the ship. I refuse to give up on this Arizona team until it’s eventually bounced early from the NCAA tournament, but even I can’t deny it anymore: I have zero faith that the Cats are going to figure things out defensively. I just don’t see it happening when Arizona plays a majority of every game with two 7-footers and a tiny point guard on the floor at the same time. Remember when I said North Carolina was the most frustrating team in college basketball? I lied. The Tar Heels are frustrating since I can’t figure out why they’re so inconsistent. The Cats are frustrating since I know exactly why Arizona keeps finding itself in close games despite having the two best players in the Pac-12, and it destroys me that I can’t do a damn thing about it.
5. Michigan State (18–3)
Other than celebrating March Madness, hating on Duke, and loving Bill Raftery, I’m not sure that anything unifies college basketball fans more than seeing a super-talented team underachieve. This is why virtually every discussion surrounding Michigan State basketball over the past three weeks has ended with the conclusion that the Spartans are such a mess on the court that they might as well disband the program and start from scratch.
I get it. It’s fun to talk about how Miles Bridges has played out of position all season, how the Spartans desperately need a legitimate point guard, and how their half-court offense can be abysmal. It’s fun to laugh at the team’s blowout loss at Ohio State, close call against Rutgers in East Lansing, and embarrassing defeat to rival Michigan on its home court. It’s fun to imagine a world in which Tom Izzo, the Wizard of March, can’t even make the Sweet 16 with one of the four most talented rosters in college basketball.
By no means do I expect anyone to stop doing any of these things. I just want to point out that the Spartans have still lost only three games, and those losses came to teams currently ranked fourth, 13th, and 25th in the AP poll, respectively. It’s not like they lost three in a row to Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Plus, Bridges has been incredible in the two games since Michigan State’s loss to Michigan, and the Spartans have five and a half players (depending on whether they get “lights-out shooter Matt McQuaid” or “awkwardly run around and fall over all game Matt McQuaid”) who can go off on any given night. They’ve also shown the ability to play some of the best defense in America.
OK, now let’s get back to laughing at how Michigan State was supposed to go undefeated in Big Ten play but is instead trailing the team that was projected to finish 11th in the conference by two games.
4. Duke (18–2)
The biggest game of the 2017–18 season to this point will take place in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday afternoon when Virginia visits Duke. That’s not just because the Blue Devils and Hoos might be playing for a regular-season ACC title and/or a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s because the result should signal the trajectory of this Duke team. If these Blue Devils are indeed following the path that the 2014–15 squad took to the national title — going from having an awful defense in mid-January to suddenly taking pride in their effort and becoming a defensive juggernaut by March — Saturday’s game will likely serve as the tipping point.
Truth be told, I wouldn’t care much about whether the Blue Devils win or lose here if I were a Duke fan. It’s far more important that this team starts showing signs of life on the defensive end without having to hit the “throw a 2–3 zone out there and hope an offense overthinks everything and shoots itself in the foot” panic button. Basically, if the switch is going to flip and Duke is going to put it all together in the leadup to the tourney, that process has to start happening within the next week or two.
3. Purdue (20–2)
I noticed something weird happening as I watched Purdue play Michigan on Thursday night: I never doubted for a second that the Boilermakers were going to win. Michigan was running circles around Purdue’s defense and could hardly miss all night, and yet it never registered that Purdue losing was a possibility. For anyone who has read even a single page of any Purdue basketball history book, this should be shocking, as confidence is a rare commodity around West Lafayette. But there’s something undeniably special happening with the Boilermakers right now, and I get the sense that everyone associated with the program — players, coaches, fans, concession workers, whoever the hell the football coach is now — can feel it too.
The vibe in Mackey Arena reminds me of what it felt like to be a Cubs fan in 2016, when I was certain from Opening Day that Chicago was going to win the World Series. For those who have been a fan of a tortured team forever and constantly live in fear that the other shoe is about to drop whenever it starts doing well, there comes a point when you decide that enough is enough. You make up your mind that this time things will be different, that heartbreak be damned, you’re going all in and making yourself fully vulnerable. You throw middle fingers at the sports gods and the idea of jinxes and start telling yourself lies until you become convinced that they’re the truth. We’re going all the way. I can FEEL it. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. If it doesn’t happen this year, I swear I will never watch sports again.
The anticipation keeps building as the season progresses until the team reaches one of two conclusions: Either it breaks through and FINALLY wins it all, catapulting you into a state of euphoria unlike anything you could’ve ever possibly imagined. Or the team falls short yet again and you can feel your soul getting sucked out of your body.
That’s the ride I assume Purdue fans are on right now. There’s an undefinable mystique surrounding Boilermakers basketball that I have not witnessed since at least the Glenn Robinson era, if ever. And while the more superstitious Purdue fans are huffing into a paper bag at the thought of the Boilers entering the NCAA tournament as a national-title favorite, the rest of them seem to be throwing caution to the wind as they try to soak in every moment of this incredible run. Chasing the ultimate reward comes with an inherently high degree of risk, but it’s a gamble that demands to be taken every now and then. Because even if the unthinkable happens and the Boilers get upset in the Sweet 16, Purdue fans can always pick themselves back up, take some time to decompress, and decide that maybe they’ll give sports another try next year, after all.
2. Virginia (19–1)
In light of Virginia’s humiliation of Clemson on Tuesday night, I think it’s worth revisiting an idea that I originally floated on One Shining Podcast: The college basketball community needs to find a name for when the Hoos’ suffocating defense holds an opponent under 20 points in a given half. I originally pitched this exclusively as a first-half thing, because being able to take a screenshot that reads “Virginia 32, Other Team 18 HALFTIME” provides an overwhelming sense of bewilderment. But this week’s 61–36 win over Clemson proved that I was very wrong about this instinct to limit it to the first half. What Virginia’s defense did to the Tigers was absolutely amazing. Clemson, who entered the game ranked no. 18 in the AP poll, scored just 13 points after halftime and only 16 points in the final 28:40 of the game! HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE???
Here is my humble suggestion: I say we call this a “Tony,” in reference (obviously) to head coach Tony Bennett, and whenever Virginia holds a team to 19 or points or fewer in a half, we say that the Hoos “gave [insert opponent here] a Tony.” If someone can come up with something better, I’d be fine with that, too. I just think Virginia needs something to get the rest of America excited about its historically great defense, or at the very least appreciative of what’s happening in Charlottesville.
I used to think that pitchers dominating baseball games was boring as hell unless someone had a no-hitter going. Then I learned about the “Maddux,” and now I’ll watch pitching duels I otherwise wouldn’t have cared about. My hope is that a similar effect can happen involving Virginia basketball. Instead of casual fans pissing and moaning about how the Hoos are ruining the sport, they’ll stay glued to their TVs to see if Virginia will be able to give its opponent a Tony. I have a feeling that if the Tony catches on, we might just end pacism once and for all.
1. Villanova (19–1)
On the surface, the past few weeks of Villanova dominance might seem boring, as the Wildcats have still lost only one game while each of their 19 wins have come by seven or more points. But there are two semi-worrisome developments to keep an eye on. Most notably, Phil Booth broke his hand during the second half of Tuesday’s 89–69 win against Providence, meaning that the Wildcats will have to play with only five starters instead of their usual six for the foreseeable future. (Wait … ) While Booth’s injury doesn’t appear to be season-ending, the Cats will have to play with just a seven-man rotation until he comes back. And that doesn’t even get into how bizarre it is that Booth is the third Villanova player in the past seven weeks to break his hand. (Cue Virginia fans: “That’s nothing — Jack Salt’s hands have been broken since he stepped foot on campus four years ago!”)
Another thing to monitor is the Wildcats’ heavy reliance on 3-pointers. Villanova is shooting 41.7 percent from behind the arc while hoisting up 28 3-point attempts per game. That’s absolutely absurd. I’m not here to suggest that the team should change its approach. The Wildcats have the most efficient offense in America, and if anything, Villanova shooting 41.7 percent from deep suggests that it should shoot more 3s rather than less. I just think it’s worth mentioning that only three national champions have ever averaged more than 20 3-point attempts per game, while only one has averaged more than 25. (That was the 2000–01 Duke lineup that featured five NBA players and two guys who won national player of the year awards.)
Conventional wisdom has long said that it’s reeallly hard for jump-shooting teams to win a national championship, because all it takes is one off night to get bounced. The history mentioned above seems to back up that assertion. But there are also enough outliers for Villanova fans to hold out hope, including their own program winning the 2016 national title by shooting almost 24 3s per game. I say screw it: Keep jacking up 3s and let the chips fall where they may.
The Vacated National Championship Rumor of the Week
News broke on Wednesday that Louisville will have to permanently vacate its 2013 national championship after the university’s appeal to the NCAA over the infamous prostitution scandal was denied. And by that, I mean Dan Dakich said on his radio show in Indianapolis that he has “a close friend” who was given information from “somebody who was in the room” and told him that the Cardinals will be fined $15 million and become the first program in college basketball history that’s forced to take down a national championship banner. In what may come as a huge shock, Louisville fans were less than pleased with the idea of Dakich relaying information that he received via a friend of a friend, particularly given that this information comes in reference to potentially catastrophic news for the Cardinals. No official word on the decision has come down from the NCAA, while a Louisville spokesman has called Dakich’s claim “pure speculation.”
This admittedly isn’t a great look for Dakich’s credibility, but that’s mostly because we don’t yet know how this is all going to end. A $15 million fine seems way too steep, though it does seem entirely possible that the banner could come down. So maybe we’re about to find out that Dakich really does know something? Either way, it’s worth pointing out that he followed up his news-breaking statement by saying, “Maybe I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.” So really, no matter what happens, Dakich will be right!
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is B. See you next time.