The announcement of the College Football Playoff field Sunday was a good reminder to reflect on how wonderful college basketball’s system is. I don’t care about which teams did or did not get in this year. (Full disclosure: I went to Ohio State, where I played on the basketball team, won four Big Ten titles, and went to the 2007 Final Four, and I’ll happily admit the Buckeyes football team didn’t deserve to be in and weren’t good enough to win a title anyway.) Every year around this time my mind is blown at how nonsensical it is that college football has five power conferences and four playoff spots, meaning there’s always a chance that an undefeated power conference team will miss out on the chance to play for a national championship. It’s equally wild to me that the NCAA doesn’t technically declare a national champion in its biggest and most profitable sport, and instead just lets the schools and conferences figure it out among themselves. I mean, for God’s sake, a pivotal part in the process of crowning a champion in the second-most popular sport in the United States requires grown men with names like Kirby and Dabo and Urban and Jimbo to go on national television and beg the selection committee to do them a favor. How has there not been a full-fledged riot over this yet?
Thankfully, college basketball doesn’t have these problems, as the only people who truly care about how the NCAA tournament bubble shakes out each year are Dick Vitale and Providence and Syracuse fans. I guess people get worked up over seeding, the regions that teams are put in, and potential matchups. For the most part, however, there’s a tacit understanding that there’s no point in arguing about a 68-team field since all of the good teams will get their shot and Duke is going to get the best draw regardless.
Anyway, because ranking college teams is all the rage right now, it feels like a great time to finally unleash the first edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball for the 2018-19 season. These power rankings, of course, will illustrate exactly what I mean when I say that college basketball has a much smoother system than college football because, as you will soon see, the order of the best college basketball teams is always completely obvious and without even a shred of controversy. Let’s get to it!
12. Michigan State (7-2)
The bad news: In Michigan State’s two losses so far this season—against Kansas in Indianapolis and at Louisville—the Spartans averaged 17.5 turnovers and 27 fouls per game. Stat nerds will tell you that you need more than two data points to draw conclusions, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that the writing is on the wall: Fouling on defense and handing the ball to the other team on offense is no way to win basketball games. The turnover problem can be cleaned up rather easily by being more deliberate. But Michigan State’s foul rate (20.9 fouls per game so far this season, tied for 296th in Division I) is an early red flag, especially since the Spartans don’t really have the personnel or desire to play great defense.
The good news: After botching last season’s team, one that should have been the best in the country, Tom Izzo has his mojo back, whether by being direct with the media or by executing his good-cop, bad-cop routine with his players by throwing his arm around their shoulders after yelling at them extensively. With that in mind, maybe Michigan State’s foul rate isn’t something to be worried about after all. Maybe it’s just the result of some old-school, physical Tom Izzo basketball and it’s understood that the refs will eventually respect it and stop blowing their whistles so much. Because if you really think about it, calling loose-ball fouls and illegal screens on Izzo-coached teams is no different from banning the dunk from 1967 to 1976 to stop UCLA, and nobody wants to see that again.
11. Texas Tech (8-0)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think I made a mistake. There’s no way Texas Tech is back in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball this quickly after losing first-round NBA draft pick Zhaire Smith and five seniors (including All-American Keenan Evans) from last season’s Elite Eight team. Your buddy who swears he loves college basketball probably can’t name a single Texas Tech player (or probably even the Red Raiders coach, for that matter), yet Tech is sitting at 8-0 and somehow in perfect position to challenge Kansas for the regular-season Big 12 title (before coming up short in heartbreaking fashion). How is that possible?
I’ll tell you how: The Red Raiders defense has picked up right where it left off, which is to say that trying to score on Texas Tech is up there with doing Sean Miller’s dry cleaning on the list of college basketball’s most miserable tasks. When you think of great defenses around the country, you likely think of the Virginia meat grinder that has been draining opponents’ will to live for years, or the Michigan brick wall that the Wolverines started building last season. But what Texas Tech has done to opposing offenses during the past 13 months is every bit as impressive.
Also impressive: sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, a hometown kid from Lubbock, who is smooth as hell and well on his way to becoming an NBA lottery pick. He’s averaging 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 42.3 percent from the 3-point line and 52 percent from the field. Throw in the production that the Red Raiders are getting from grad transfers Matt Mooney (South Dakota) and Tariq Owens (St. John’s), and suddenly it’s not so wild to wonder whether they have a chance to be better than last year’s squad.
10. Wisconsin (8-1)
It’s with a heavy heart that I must report to the rest of the Big Ten that the Wisconsin Badgers are, in fact, back. And I don’t just mean that the Badgers are back in the sense that they are winning games. I mean that Wisconsin plays at one of the slowest tempos in college basketball. I mean that while it’s undeniable that the Badgers are good, it’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly, they keep winning (aside from their turnover margin). I mean that their best player, Ethan Happ, is the most fundamentally sound big man I can ever remember seeing in the conference and has a real chance of being named a first-team All-American, despite playing below the rim and not having a jump shot. I mean that they have a guy in D’Mitrik Trice who is a stone-cold killer but doesn’t get the attention he deserves because he plays at Wisconsin and nobody wants to sit through two hours of pump fakes and reverse layups. Most importantly, Wisconsin is back because Buzzcut Brad Davison is back. And folks, I don’t want to overstep any bounds, but if you don’t like watching Buzzcut Brad flop around on the floor in pursuit of (what I assume is a world record) four drawn charges in a single game, well, you just flat-out don’t like Wisconsin basketball.
What’s that? You’ll happily admit that you don’t like Wisconsin basketball? Oh, I see. Well, carry on then.
9. Kentucky (7-1)
Contrary to popular belief, Kentucky’s season wasn’t ended by Duke when the Blue Devils humiliated the Wildcats in Indianapolis on college basketball’s opening night. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. Kentucky has played seven games since that loss and has won each by double digits. Granted, none of the Cats’ opponents in those wins have been particularly noteworthy, but that’s not the point. While the rest of America has disregarded Kentucky, the Wildcats have been quietly taking care of business and could still theoretically be a pretty good team when all is said and done.
That’s why I’m keeping the Cats in the most powerful power rankings in college basketball. Admittedly, I still have a bad taste in my mouth from the Duke game, but so much of that result can be attributed to it being the first game of the year and John Calipari having no idea how good his team is or what kind of monster he was up against. As is tradition, Cal will continue tweaking things throughout the season, which is to say that he’ll continue his quest to find a point guard whom he can trust and he will eventually learn the names of his players. We’ll soon find out whether dismantling the likes of Monmouth and North Dakota means anything, as every remaining opponent on Kentucky’s schedule belongs to a power conference, including North Carolina, Kansas, Tennessee, and Auburn. For now, I love Keldon Johnson, I like PJ Washington, and I don’t hate Reid Travis, and that’s enough reason to trust that Kentucky isn’t as terrible as its outing against Duke showed. Rest assured, Kentucky’s place in my power rankings was certainly earned, not given.
8. Auburn (7-1)
I don’t say this to antagonize; rather, it comes from a place of genuine amazement: How Bruce Pearl and Auburn have navigated the past 15 months is nothing short of remarkable. Pearl’s assistant coach, Chuck Person, was arrested by federal agents in September of last year as part of the FBI’s widespread investigation into corruption in college basketball. In the midst of that scandal—which at the time felt like the juiciest thing to ever happen in the sport—Pearl delivered Auburn to its first regular-season SEC title in almost 20 years. Months later, Mustapha Heron, Auburn’s leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, transferred to St. John’s to be closer to his ailing mother, which figured to be somewhat of a blow to the Tigers’ chances of repeating last year’s success. Instead, Auburn is sitting pretty at 7-1, with its only loss coming to Duke, 78-72, in Maui. Much like last season, Auburn has a balanced scoring attack—led by senior guard Bryce Brown—plays great defense, and has a deep bench of guys who can fill it up.
Meanwhile, Person’s trial is scheduled to begin in February. Yet if someone asked you to name the programs and coaches involved in the FBI scandal, how far down the list would you go before you mentioned Auburn? Obviously, it’s more enticing to talk about higher-profile programs like Louisville and Arizona. But it’s pretty absurd to think that Auburn is experiencing a run of success not seen in a long time while it has a massive scandal hanging over it. And by absurd, I mean that it’s surely a coincidence that this success and the scandal are happening at the same time.
7. Tennessee (6-1)
Do you know how to talk to your kids about the possibility of Grant Williams winning national player of the year? It’s something you might want to think about now, folks, because I have some startling news: Williams is currently the best player in college basketball not named Zion Williamson. Through seven games, he’s averaging 20.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 1.0 steals while shooting 45.5 percent from the 3-point line and 59.3 percent from the field. If you aren’t great with numbers, trust me when I say that what the reigning SEC player of the year is doing is absolutely bonkers. I’m not dumb enough to expect him to keep this pace up for the rest of the season, especially since the SEC is kind of loaded. But as every ounce of attention seems to find its way toward Williamson, it’s worth pointing out that there’s a guy in Knoxville who can also do whatever he wants on a basketball court.
But wait, there’s more! As great as Williams has been, he’s far from a one-man show. Admiral Schofield is basically a clone of Williams and is also putting up incredible numbers, while Jordan Bone is the perfect point guard for what the Vols need (although, it would certainly help if he starting making some 3s). Five Tennessee players are averaging 10 or more points, and the Vols’ only loss came in overtime against Kansas in a game they let slip through their fingers once Williams fouled out. There is a lot to love about this Tennessee team, which is why I suggest clearing your schedule Sunday, parking your ass in your recliner, and watching the Vols play Gonzaga in a game that promises to make talking heads say, “This has an Elite Eight or Final Four feel to it.”
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 Tuesday’s Florida–West Virginia game in Madison Square Garden, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about oatmeal?
A. As officials review a replay to determine which player committed a foul, Vitale comments that he believes there are too many reviews in college basketball and that it’s killing the flow of the game. Dan Shulman, Vitale’s broadcast partner, says he thinks checking the monitor in such instances is OK, but he also generally agrees with Vitale’s sentiment. Vitale pretends to be shocked that Shulman agrees with him about something and sarcastically jokes about how interesting it is that a Canadian like Shulman has found common ground with a guy from the United States. A perplexed Shulman wonders aloud what his nationality has to do with anything, and when Dickie V. can’t give him a straight answer, Shulman says that the people sitting next to them must think that Vitale is crazy. Vitale confirms that he is definitely crazy from calling college basketball games for 40 years and that he “should be in a rocking chair in bed right now eating oatmeal.”
B. Bob Huggins tips over his courtside stool in frustration after West Virginia commits its eighth turnover of the first half, prompting Vitale to wonder whether the trajectory of Bob Knight’s infamous chair toss would have been different had Knight thrown a stool instead of a chair. Shulman says that he thinks the padding on the stool would have stopped it from sliding completely across the floor. Vitale then … ah, who am I kidding? The answer is A. I know I’ve gotten pretty good at making up fake Vitale answers over the years, but even I can’t come up with something as genius as, “I should be in a rocking chair in bed right now eating oatmeal.” There will only ever be one Dickie V., ladies and gentlemen, so let’s appreciate him.
6. Nevada (8-0)
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but if Nevada can take care of business against Arizona State on Sunday in Los Angeles, it might be time to maybe start thinking about perhaps talking about the potential of an undefeated season. Let me make something very clear: I am raising this only as a possibility, so don’t you dare try to put this jinx on me. What I’m saying is that Nevada’s offense is so loaded with talent that its five-star freshman and McDonald’s All American, who was the best recruit in school history, hardly sees the floor. And when you examine the rest of Nevada’s regular-season schedule, it’s tempting to draw certain conclusions. If one of the conclusions you draw is that Nevada has a very real chance of going undefeated, that’s on you. As for me and my house, we’re going to simply enjoy watching one of the most exciting teams in college basketball light up every team it faces.
Let me rephrase that. What I mean is that we’re going to watch Nevada attempt to light up every team it faces. Nothing is guaranteed, though, so I want to be sure to clarify that I am not in any way being presumptuous, even though the Mountain West looks so bad that the Martin twins could play two-on-five every game and Nevada would still probably win the conference. San Diego State and New Mexico were the two teams most likely to challenge Nevada heading into the season and they each have already lost games by 30 or more points. That’s what’s standing in the way of the Pack running the table? Man, in that case, I guess I might—NO! We’ve talked about this too much already. Let’s just move on.
5. Kansas (7-0)
Kansas is either the best bad team in the country or the worst good team, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to figure out which. The only thing I’m certain of is that the Jayhawks are incredibly lucky to be one of the 11 remaining undefeated teams in America. It’s kind of Bill Self’s thing to win just enough throughout the regular season, so that when the Jayhawks lose in the Elite Eight people can debate whether their 30-win season should be considered a success. It could be much worse this season. The Jayhawks could conceivably be 3-4 or 2-5 if not for Lagerald Vick morphing into Kobe Bryant seemingly overnight, or Grant Williams fouling out during Kansas’s win against Tennessee.
I guess the what-if game could lead to a lot of out-there hypotheticals and all that ultimately matters is the reality that plays out in front of us. Still, there seems to be so many ways that things could go horribly wrong for the Jayhawks. Udoka Azubuike is already going to miss the next month or so with a sprained ankle, while Quentin Grimes apparently used up every ounce of his talent in the season-opener against Michigan State. Dedric Lawson has been as good as advertised and I love what I’ve seen from Devon Dotson, but there’s no getting around the fact Kansas’s entire season to this point has been almost single-handedly saved by Vick, who Self was trying to run out of Lawrence six months ago. And yet, the Jayhawks are ranked no. 2 in the country and have two big-time wins over Michigan State and Tennessee. The bottom line is that no matter how rocky things have looked for Kansas thus far, you’d have to be out of your skull to expect anything other than the team winning 30-something games as it steamrolls through a Big 12 that’s not quite as great as it has been in recent seasons. As is tradition.
4. Virginia (8-0)
Am I wrong, or does it feel like Virginia doesn’t even exist this season? College basketball fans are spread all over the country, consume the sport in all sorts of different ways, and as a result have vastly different experiences, so maybe I’m way off here. But I swear that the only Virginia content I have seen so far this season has come from seeking it out on my own. I don’t stumble across tweets about Virginia, my friends and family don’t start conversations about Virginia, and I sure as hell don’t hear commentators talking about De’Andre Hunter’s eighth-grade growth spurt during games that have nothing to do with Virginia. Instead, I just see things about Duke, Zion Williamson, Gonzaga beating Duke, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson’s other teammates, where Duke’s players are popping up in mock drafts, Coach K, Duke’s recruiting class coming in next year, and whether Duke could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This isn’t a complaint, by the way. This year’s Virginia team — led by the three-headed monster of Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy — is every bit as good as any team Tony Bennett has coached, but it makes total sense why the Hoos aren’t coming up in my watercooler conversations. Most of America has found Virginia’s style of play boring for years and only ever gave the Hoos the time of day because their results demanded some measure of respect. So when Virginia lost to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, it was almost as if America got the validation it needed to never have to give a shit about Virginia again. And that’s perfectly fine by me. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life and I’m certainly not going to guarantee that this will finally be the year that Bennett makes his first Final Four. I just want to point out that if everything continues on its current trajectory (i.e., Virginia keeps winning games and nobody seems to notice or care), it’s going to be weird as hell to have a 30-win ACC team enter the NCAA tournament with underdog vibes.
3. Duke (8-1)
What can possibly be said about Duke that hasn’t been said a million different ways by a million different people by now? Every year, Coach K finds a way to raise the bar on how much of the media’s attention his program can monopolize, and even though I know exactly what is happening, every year I still get sucked right into his trap. It’s impossible to resist. The current era of Duke basketball is a content factory that somehow makes me fall victim to each of the seven deadly sins at some point during every season. And as much as I pretend that I want to get off Coach K’s wild ride, I can’t deny that when November rolls around and a fresh batch of Blue Devils takes the floor for the first time, it feels like an early Christmas for those of us who cover college basketball for a living.
To be fair, though, at least this season’s Duke team deserves all of the attention it has received so far. I know that fans don’t want to hear that and I know that it’s an embarrassing look for ESPN to not even try to hide how far in the bag it is for Duke. But this doesn’t feel like a Trae Young or Ben Simmons situation, where guys are gassed up all season for their great individual performances, even though their teams are ultimately irrelevant. And it’s not like a 2016-17 Duke situation either, when the Blue Devils jumped back and forth on the BACK/NOT BACK cycle so often and so quickly that it powered content machines all across the nation for five straight months. A lot can happen between now and March, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But this Duke team does feel markedly different from every other version of Duke since the Blue Devils won the 2015 national championship, and it’s not just because of their individual talent. It’s because they at least show a desire to play defense (even if the defense still has some kinks to work out), they have a true selfless point guard in Tre Jones, and they all seem to genuinely like one another.
OK, fine, I guess it’s also because they have the best player in America in Zion Williamson, who — I’m not sure if you’ve heard about this — is named after Mt. Zion, grew 5 inches in eighth grade and likes anime cartoons.
2. Michigan (9-0)
The Wolverines got their first real scare of the season at Northwestern on Tuesday night, and it didn’t come solely from the Wildcats’ last-second desperation heave that almost banked in for the win. Chris Collins got on all fours, banged on the floor, and presumably yelled about how unfair it is that his parents took away his Nintendo 64.
Think Chris Collins wants this @NUMensBball win? pic.twitter.com/pKNBuVsndD— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 5, 2018
Yiiiiiikes. I’m not saying that it’s tough to be a Northwestern basketball fan. I’m just saying that the most prominent GIFs related to Northwestern basketball are now Collins’s imitation of a WWE ref, the crying kid from the 2017 NCAA tournament, and all the times that Darren Rovell has set an entire sport back 200 years.
Anyway, if you’re wondering why I still have Michigan ranked no. 2 even after the Wolverines narrowly escaped Northwestern (who isn’t terrible, by the way), go check out the article I wrote last week explaining why I love this Michigan team so much. Here’s the gist: Michigan wiped the floor with every opponent it faced before Tuesday, it has the best defense in America, and Iggy Brazdeikis is single-handedly making me rethink everything I thought I knew about Canadian basketball players. For a team whose biggest weakness is shooting, nights like Tuesday — when Michigan went just 5-for-20 from the 3-point line — are inevitable and are certainly going to happen again throughout the season. But I can all but guarantee that nights when Michigan runs its opponent off the floor — like it has already done to Villanova and North Carolina — are going to happen much more frequently.
1. Gonzaga (9-0)
Gonzaga has had more semi-close calls than a team this talented probably should, from Rui Hachimura’s last-second shot to beat Washington at home, to the Zags holding just a two-point lead over a horrible Illinois team at the under-four timeout in Maui a couple of weeks back. The uncomfortable truth is that if Gonzaga is going to contend for a national title, the Bulldogs defense needs some serious work between now and the start of the NCAA tournament. But that’s not fun to talk about, so let’s focus instead on why this Gonzaga team is the stuff of nightmares.
And by that I mean let’s focus on how when Killian Tillie comes back and (I’m assuming) bumps Corey Kispert out of the starting lineup, every single one of Gonzaga’s starters will have the capacity to drop 30 on any given night. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. I mean, do you have any idea how terrifying it is that Josh Perkins is fourth on the team in field goal attempts? This is a man who hit 18 3s in a four-game stretch for the Zags last November and averaged 12.3 points per game a season ago … and he’s going to be Gonzaga’s fifth scoring option when Tillie gets healthy. That’s bananas.
I can’t imagine being the coach of some tiny-ass WCC school that might have to play these guys three times in the span of nine weeks, which is why I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The WCC and Mountain West need to combine their best basketball programs into one conference, send the likes of San Jose State and Portland packing, and partner with the Pac-12 to create the first promotion/relegation system in college basketball. Tell me with a straight face that you wouldn’t stay up every night to watch Bill Walton call Pac-12 games if Gonzaga and Nevada replaced Washington State and Cal this year. You can’t.