We have a ton to get to and only so many days between now and Selection Sunday to figure out what the hell “quadrants” are. So I’m not going to waste any time. Let’s get right to the power rankings, starting with a suddenly unstoppable national title contender.
12. St. John’s (14–13)
Oh, I’m doing it. You can bet your sweet ass I’m doing it. There isn’t a thing on this earth that I want more than to see the Johnnies run the table from here on out, make the NCAA tournament as a no. 13 seed, and then get absolutely stomped by a team like Tennessee or West Virginia in the first round because Chris Mullin was so busy celebrating that he forgot to prep for the game. Look, I get that it seems absurd to give the Big East’s worst team a spot in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. But in light of the Johnnies’ four-game winning streak, which includes victories over Duke and at Villanova, ask yourself this: If your favorite team had to pick an opponent to play today, would you rather it face St. John’s or Kansas? What about St. John’s or Clemson?
All right, so maybe you’d answer those questions differently than I would. But I’m telling you that I’d want my favorite team to stay as far away from St. John’s as possible right now. The Johnnies are in full-blown UConn-with-Kemba-or-Shabazz mode, with the whole team locking down on defense and Shamorie Ponds (who’s averaging 32.3 points per game during this winning streak) operating at God Level on offense.
Do I really think that St. John’s is one of the 12 best teams in America? Do I honestly believe that the Red Storm can keep this going? Should we really praise Mullin for this winning streak when his team did nothing but shoot itself in the foot for an entire month and a half prior to that? My answers to those questions come in the form of yet another question: Who cares?
11. Ohio State (22–6)
I have no idea what I did to make Penn State’s Tony Carr so angry, but the man is hell-bent on ruining my life and I would greatly appreciate it if he’d show even the slightest bit of mercy. This concludes my thoughts relating to the Ohio State men’s basketball team. Thank you for your time.
10. Rhode Island (21–3)
Do you feel like something is missing in your life now that Gonzaga came within two minutes of winning a national title and legitimized its program to most people who had still doubted it? Are you a broken shell of your former self because Wichita State left the Missouri Valley Conference and took the opportunity to bitch about its schedule with it? Do you long for the days when you could yell, “THEY AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY!” whenever the media tried to shove an overrated mid-major down your throat? Well, folks, allow me to introduce you to the Rhode Island Rams!
That’s right — Rhode Island is currently riding the nation’s longest winning streak, at 16 games, and has a decent shot at landing a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. But here’s the catch: That winning streak has come against 15 opponents that almost nobody cares about. Some might argue that it doesn’t matter that the Atlantic 10 has been unremarkable this season. They might say we’re in a college basketball climate in which so many top programs are losing to awful teams; that should be proof enough that going on this type of run is impressive. But you’re smarter than that and can see through the bullshit. So go ahead: Crack those knuckles and start typing that Facebook comment that will bring the selection committee to its knees. You know the one I’m talking about: “RHODE ISLAND WOULDN’T WIN EVEN A SINGLE GAME IF THEY PLAYED IN THE BIG 12!!!”
9. North Carolina (20–7)
The way that the Tar Heels keep letting me down and then sucking me right back in has become psychologically exhausting. I don’t know how much more of this roller coaster I can take. I love to make fun of talking heads for mentioning how important it is for teams to “make shots,” but I’ll be damned if that’s not the perfect description for this Carolina group. The Heels are one of the most “good when they make shots, bad when they don’t” college basketball teams in recent memory. For God’s sake, Luke Maye has been a revelation, is averaging 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, and should be a national player of the year favorite — except for that tiny problem where every five or so games he inexplicably goes from playing like Michael Jordan to playing like Michael Scott. I can’t figure out which version of Carolina is the real one, so I give the Heels the benefit of the doubt and convince myself that they’re good enough to repeat as national champions. And then they go out and lose to Wofford at home.
The one thing I know for sure is this: I can’t remember a pair of wings mattering to a North Carolina team as much as Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams matter to these Tar Heels. When I think of Carolina basketball in the Roy Williams era, I think of rosters with a thousand big guys who can run the floor and crash the glass. These Heels have plenty of big men in their rotation, but the only one I even kind of trust is Maye. That’s why it’s so important for Johnson and Williams to catch fire as they did in an 82–78 win over Duke last week. When those two guys are hitting shots, Carolina can beat anyone. When they aren’t hitting sh — never mind. You get it.
8. Auburn (23–3)
I don’t think it’s any secret that Auburn has traditionally been bad at basketball. Ask the average college basketball fan to tell you something about the program that doesn’t involve Charles Barkley, and chances are they’ll just make something up (“Didn’t Willis Reed play there?”) and hope you don’t catch it. With Auburn having won seven of its past eight games and coming to the precipice of winning an SEC regular-season title for the first time this millennium, though, I think it’s worth reminding everyone just how bad the Tigers have been.
Auburn is a charter member of the SEC, which is to say it’s been in the conference since the league was formed all the way back in 1932. Since then, the Tigers have won exactly two regular-season SEC titles and only one SEC tournament. That’s three conference trophies in 84 seasons of basketball! By comparison, Kentucky has won four SEC trophies in the past two seasons alone. So yeah, the numbers confirm that Auburn has, in fact, been a historically lousy program.
I bring this up as a way of emphasizing that what’s happening at Auburn this season is in a completely different stratosphere than virtually every other surprising story of the 2017–18 campaign (except maybe the rise of Texas Tech), such as Tony Bennett leading Virginia to a no. 1 ranking in the AP poll or those two weeks in December when America thought Arizona State was great. It completely boggles the mind how Bruce Pearl is doing this. The only other time that Auburn has been anywhere close to this good since the mid-1980s was when Chris Porter led the Tigers to an SEC title and the Sweet 16 in 1998–99. But what Pearl is accomplishing is much more impressive considering that the Porter-era Tigers were cut down by NCAA violations involving a player receiving illicit benefits. Something like that would most certainly never happen under Pearl’s watch.
7. Villanova (23–3)
Villanova’s recent losses to St. John’s and Providence demonstrate exactly why I have been so concerned with the Cats’ 3-point shooting this season. They also reinforce why I don’t trust NCAA tournament teams that jack up a ton of 3s and play lackluster defense. That approach just isn’t sustainable. Villanova has been incredible from the 3-point line basically all year, but like every other team in the history of the sport, the Cats have proved to be prone to cold nights. And given that the NCAA tournament is notoriously unforgiving to 3-point-reliant teams that have off nights, it’s crucial for Villanova to have defensive chops to fall back on. Instead, the Wildcats defense has been mediocre at best, ranking 41st nationally in adjusted defense. It’s no wonder that the Cats dropped games in which they shot a combined 11-for-53 from the 3-point line.
Villanova is not doomed by any stretch of the imagination. Even with a massive showdown at Xavier looming on Saturday, the smart money says that the Cats will start making it rain again soon enough and get right back to looking like a national title contender. Between now and the start of the NCAA tournament, though, Villanova must either figure out its defensive problems or emphasize finding ways to consistently score from inside the 3-point arc. Because the smart money also says that another Villanova off night is coming.
Readers have been asking for it for months (if not years), and for months I’ve failed to deliver. Well, America, the wait is over. At long last, the time has come for all of your hopes and dreams to come true. That’s right — I’m finally having Bill Walton make a guest appearance in Dick’s Degrees of Separation. The name may have changed, but the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball remains the same: I give you the end of a Bill Walton tangent, and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to business.
In Arizona’s 81–67 win over USC in Tucson last Saturday, how did Bill Walton end up talking about Jimmy Buffett?
A. After returning from a commercial break, ESPN airs a “Walton’s World” segment that features Arizona assistant Lorenzo Romar showing Wildcats big man Dusan Ristic film of Walton going 21-for-22 shooting in the 1973 national championship game. Ristic then mimics Walton’s moves from the film as Walton guards Ristic. After the segment ends, Walton informs viewers that Ristic was born and raised in Novi Sad, Serbia, and that Ristic’s father often played Jimi Hendrix’s music in the house when Ristic was growing up. Walton then says that Ristic shares a birthday with Hendrix, but clarifies that the two do not share a birth year. Rather than finish his original thought on Ristic, Walton instead tells Dave Pasch, his broadcast partner for the game, that Jimmy Page shares a birthday with Richard Nixon and that Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas.
B. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton grabs an offensive rebound and scores on a putback, prompting Walton to call him “the Black Mermaid.” As Pasch explains to viewers that this is a nickname that Ayton has given himself, Walton surmises that the nickname probably has something to do with Ayton being from the Bahamas. He then asks Pasch whether he has ever been to the Bahamas, to which Pasch replies that he has not. Walton, who seems annoyed by Pasch’s answer, then asks whether Pasch has been to Ristic’s home country of Serbia. Pasch answers no to that as well. Walton follows up by asking whether Pasch has been to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Arizona freshman Emmanuel Akot is from. When Pasch says that he hasn’t been there either, Walton sarcastically asks Pasch whether he’s been to Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s hometown of Los Angeles. Pasch reminds Walton that the two of them have called dozens of games in L.A. together before asking Walton for the purpose of these geography questions. Walton responds by saying, in the immortal words of Jimmy Buffett, “without geography, you’re nowhere.”
C. As Walton marvels at the size of Ayton, Pasch asks Walton whom he would take with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Walton says that he doesn’t have enough information to make a decision yet because he hasn’t seen most of the top prospects play. The closest Walton comes to giving an answer is saying that he loves Ayton, and that Ayton would make a great addition to any franchise. Walton then asks Pasch to imagine the excitement that Ayton might be able to bring to Sacramento. Pasch remarks that he thinks Ayton would be a great fit in Chicago, where former Arizona star Lauri Markkanen is putting together an impressive rookie year. Walton asks Pasch whether Phil Jackson is still the coach of the Bulls. Pasch replies that the coach is actually Fred Hoiberg, and that Hoiberg is upset with Walton because of an earlier broadcast in which Walton had wondered aloud whether Hoiberg was still the coach at Iowa State. As Walton feigns indignation, Pasch diffuses the situation and congratulates Hoiberg on a big win over the Timberwolves the night before. After Pasch explains that this game was Jimmy Butler’s anticipated return to Chicago, Walton asks Pasch whether he has seen Jimmy Buffett’s new Broadway play, Escape to Margaritaville.
6. Cincinnati (23–3)
Given the chaos surrounding college basketball at the moment, I wouldn’t blame Cincinnati fans for wanting to freak out over the Bearcats climbing to no. 5 in the AP poll and immediately losing to an unranked team. It’s easy to get sucked into the sport’s overarching narrative and compare Cincinnati losing at Houston to Purdue imploding, Villanova falling to St. John’s at home, or whatever the hell is happening to Kentucky. But the truth is there is no shame in losing on the road to a team that’s bound for the NCAA tournament, especially when that same team is undefeated at home this season. And besides, all the Houston loss really did is shine a light on what we already knew about Cincinnati, which is that the offense isn’t great and that the Bearcats don’t look nearly as dominant when they play an opponent that has a pulse.
Sure, both of those things should be cause for concern for Cincinnati fans. All I’m saying is that if you thought the Bearcats were a good team before they lost 67–62 on Thursday, I’ve got fantastic news for you: They still are.
5. Gonzaga (24–4)
I thought Mark Few was smarter than this. The man has worked at Gonzaga in some capacity since 1989. He should know how the game is played by now. He should know that when nobody has any idea how good a Gonzaga team is, there’s a certain finessing of the situation that’s required. The Zags’ best win of the season came against Ohio State in the PK80 on Thanksgiving. Since then, they have been blown out by Villanova, lost at San Diego State, and lost at home against Saint Mary’s … but have also beaten Creighton, Texas, and Washington and steamrolled through the West Coast Conference. Meanwhile, seemingly every player on Gonzaga’s roster has been wildly inconsistent. They all seem just as likely to drop 20 as to look like they’re shaving points on a given night. This is why last Saturday’s rematch with the then-11th-ranked Gaels felt so important. It was supposed to give us a crucial data point in our quest to determine whether the Zags are good.
So what did Gonzaga do? It went to Moraga and spanked Saint Mary’s so badly that the 78–65 game was basically over before it started. And that, my friends, is a result that’s almost as bad for the Zags as a loss would have been. Now, instead of being impressed with Gonzaga’s dominant road victory over its rival, America comes away from that game thinking that Saint Mary’s sucks. And if America thinks Saint Mary’s sucks, that must mean that Gonzaga’s beatdown of Saint Mary’s means jack squat. (Flawless logic, really.)
The smart play for Gonzaga would have been to purposely let the Gaels race out to a big lead to make it seem as if they were unbeatable. If I were Few, I would have told my team that I wanted to be down by at least 10 points at halftime. And then, when we would’ve inevitably come storming back to win in thrilling fashion, everyone watching would have left impressed at how we pulled off the seemingly impossible.
Few, of all people, should know that coaching at Gonzaga isn’t about winning games — it’s about building a certain perception. And taking part in close and exciting games is the ultimate shortcut to building the perception that the Zags are a legitimate championship contender. This is the same formula that the Big 12 uses to convince us it’s a great conference every season, even though none of its teams ever make the Final Four and Kansas wins the damn league year after year.
Although, speaking of which …
4. Texas Tech (22–4)
I mean no disrespect to Texas Tech when I say this, but holy hell, is it going to be hilarious if the Red Raiders are the program that snaps Kansas’s Big 12 regular-season title streak. Oklahoma’s Trae Young seems like a lock to become the fourth national player of the year to come out of a non-Kansas Big 12 program since the streak began in 2004–05, and if projections hold true and Young and Texas’s Mo Bamba are taken in the top 10 of the 2018 NBA draft, they’ll become the ninth and 10th non-Kansas top-10 picks to come from the Big 12 since the streak started. In other words, there has been a TON of individual talent in the conference in the past 15 years, and all of it has come up short against the Jayhawks. So you’ll have to excuse me if I think it’s hysterical that Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin couldn’t snap the streak, but a program so desolate that it hired Tubby Smith to be its savior five years ago can.
I mean, imagine if someone would have told you after the 2011–12 season — when Billy Gillispie coached the Red Raiders to an 8–23 record — that Kansas’s streak would be snapped in 2018. Imagine if that person then asked you to name the program that would end it. Where would Texas Tech have fallen on your list? I’m not even joking when I say that I would have listed Wichita State and Creighton above the Red Raiders on the off chance that either ended up joining the Big 12.
And yet, here we are. The Red Raiders are on a tear since dropping a couple of stinkers at Texas and Iowa State in mid-January, thanks in large part to Keenan Evans averaging 24.6 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting over the past seven games. Now the only things standing between Tech and immortality are a suddenly hot Baylor team, Gallagher-Iba Arena, the damn Jayhawks themselves, a trip to Morganto — oh no. This is bad. There are still way too many ways that this can all go wrong. I’m so sorry I got ahead of myself, Tech fans. Abort the hype! I REPEAT: ABORT ALL HYPE NOW!!!
3. Xavier (24–3)
The Musketeers are ranked fourth in the latest AP poll, the highest mark in program history, and are in a position to win a conference that has been dominated by Villanova throughout the entire Big East 2.0 era. Trevon Bluiett turned in his worst game of the season (3-of-9 for six points) in a 72–71 win at Creighton last Saturday and is still averaging 25 points per game over his past four outings. Xavier has eight players who are averaging seven or more points per game on the season, which is mind-blowing given that I’m pretty sure Villanova and Duke don’t even have eight players on their entire rosters. The program’s first no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament feels inevitable. Everywhere you look, things are coming up Xavier.
[SPOILER ALERT: There is a “But …” coming. Just stop reading now if you want to be happy, Xavier fans.]
But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention that Xavier is an offensive-minded team that stinks at defense, plays at a fast pace, and has been undeniably lucky throughout the season. I understand that some are inclined to argue the Musketeers have been more clutch than they’ve been lucky, and that’s fine. It makes no difference to me whether you want to frame it that way to address your anxieties. I’m just saying that if you remove all context and look at Xavier’s body of work and style of play, it very much fits the part of a team destined to break its fans’ hearts in March.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Musketeers are overrated frauds who are destined to choke, that Xavier fans shouldn’t be excited or anything of the sort. Xavier has earned all the praise it’s gotten this season, and I think it’d be cool to see the program reach its first Final Four. I just feel compelled to warn Xavier fans to proceed with caution, because there’s a decent chance that all of this could end very, very badly.
2. Virginia (24–2)
Ty Jerome is 11-of-39 (28.2 percent) from the 3-point line in Virginia’s last 10 games. I used 10 games as the cutoff for my sample because if you add in the game before that — when the Cavaliers defeated Syracuse 68–61 and Jerome went 3-of-10 from deep — it weakens my point since his percentage actually goes up. That’s right: A 3-of-10 outing represents an improvement over what Jerome has done lately. Meanwhile, Kyle Guy, who leads the Hoos in scoring at 15.2 points per game, has shot 25-of-78 (32.1 percent) from beyond the 3-point line in his past 10 games. I don’t want to tell Tony Bennett how to coach his team, but when you build an offense around three guards who are supposedly great shooters (Devon Hall being the other) and two of those guards suddenly forget how to shoot, what you have is an offense built around one great shooter. And that is not a good offense at all.
Despite Virginia’s offensive problems, though, the Hoos entered this week sitting atop the AP poll for the first time in more than 35 years. This has me wondering whether maybe — just maybe — Virginia’s strength comes on the other end of the floor. I’ll have to study more film to be sure, but the vibe I’m getting is that the Wahoos are so good because they play great team defense. What’s that? They’re playing historically great defense? Like, Virginia is literally playing a level of defense that rivals anything college basketball has seen in the past decade? Oh.
Well in that case, who cares whether Guy and Jerome aren’t hitting from deep? Virginia shouldn’t even bother playing offense anyway. What I’m most interested in finding out is how few points the Cavaliers can score and still win a game. With Pitt on the schedule next Saturday, I have a feeling we’re about to discover that the answer is somewhere in the neighborhood of 12.
1. Michigan State (25–3)
The Spartans kept their Big Ten title and NCAA tournament no. 1 seed hopes alive by beating Purdue 68–65 last Saturday, and then followed up their biggest win of the year by dragging the corpse of Minnesota’s basketball program around the Barn for two hours during an 87–57 rout on Tuesday. Michigan State is now riding a nine-game winning streak that spans almost a month; Miles Bridges has stopped jacking so many 3-pointers (although hoisting up an ill-advised 3 did work out for him recently); Cassius Winston isn’t throwing the ball all over the gym as much; and “lights-out shooter Matt McQuaid” appears to have finally killed his evil twin, “awkwardly run around and fall over all game Matt McQuaid.” It’s official: The Spartans are BACK!
And huh, would you look at that — my calendar tells me we’re now less than a month away from the start of the NCAA tournament. What a bizarre coincidence. When the Spartans were ranked no. 1 in America and then played like straight buttcheeks in losses to Ohio State and Michigan in early January, who could have possibly predicted that they’d later turn things around and play their best basketball heading into the postseason? Other than literally every person who has watched even 10 seconds of college basketball in the past decade, I mean.
The FBI Update of the Week
I’ll admit it: I was giddy when news broke last fall that the FBI was investigating corruption in college basketball. Everything I read and heard made it seem like the entire sport was about to get nuked, and I was soooo ready for the juicy drama to unfold. Not only that, since the teams I cheer for are the only teams in college basketball that don’t cheat, have never cheated, and will never cheat, I was pumped at the thought of my teams getting handed national title trophies by default since every other program was about to be deemed ineligible. But then September turned to October, October turned to November, and all of my FBI anticipation slowly faded away. In fact, the only updates that made it into my purview over the next few months were Rick Pitino trying to convince the world that he’s a victim and reports that made it seem like nothing was going to come from the initial September bombshell. All hope of witnessing college basketball Armageddon appeared lost.
Then, on Wednesday night, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach dropped manna from the heavens in the form of the following tweet:
Sources tell ESPN as many as 3 dozen Division I basketball programs could face NCAA penalties once evidence of FBI probe is public. "It's not the mid-major programs who were trying to buy players to get to the top. It's the teams that are already there."https://t.co/EhXi1ZtWA9— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) February 14, 2018
Less than 24 hours later, Yahoo’s Pete Thamel offered the delicious dessert:
Sources tell @YahooSports that the breadth and depth of material in discovery in the Basketball corruption cases will alter the sport of college basketball. Hall of Fame coaches, Lottery picks and top programs are all exposed to significant sanctions. https://t.co/u8cwrw0VOZ— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) February 15, 2018
OH, HELL YEAH. I don’t even care that the latest updates are mostly centered on programs potentially getting hit with NCAA violations and not more coaches getting busted by the FBI. I’m now back to being 100 percent convinced that the FBI is just waiting for the Final Four to throw cuffs on coaches in the most humiliating way imaginable. I have already accepted it as fact that Auburn is going to make the Final Four, and 90 minutes before the national semifinal tipoff, the feds are going to bust down the locker room door and haul Bruce Pearl’s ass out of there. I refuse to acknowledge any alternate versions of this reality that I’ve created in my head.
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next time.