Dear Football Fans,
Hello. It’s me.
I know you’re sad the Super Bowl is over. I know you enjoyed the College Football Playoff, even if it did ruin your New Year’s Eve. I know you are feeling bereft that you have no games to look forward to, and you can’t even begin to study for your NFL fantasy league draft for another few months.
Take heart, pigskin lovers. You are about to witness the greatest two months in sports.
I’m guessing you have checked in on college basketball from time to time, but you probably only have a passing familiarity with the major storylines of this season. Do not despair. Your resident Hoop Thinker is here to get you in the know in advance of March Madness. Below you will find my annual football fan’s guide to college basketball. You’re late to the party, but you’ve arrived just as things are about to get popping.
1. Don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.
This time last year, you alighted into college basketball to find a small handful of dominant teams—Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin and Arizona. Not so this year. There are a whole lot of good teams and a few very good ones, but no great ones. For casual fans, it’s often more interesting to follow sport that has a dominant team (or a dominant player like Tiger Woods), but the flip side is that we are enjoying even more unpredictability than before. Just when you think you know something, you don’t.
There are a few reasons for this. First, this is not a classic freshman class, so the traditionally dominant programs who stock up on one-and-done players aren’t of the same caliber. Also, the converging trends of NBA defections and transfers have leveled the playing field even further. The gap between the so-called high-majors and the so-called mid-majors is getting smaller all the time.
Also, keep in mind that while you are just now starting to pay attention to college hoops, these kids have been doing battle since early November. They’re tired, more mentally than physically. The teams at the top of the rankings know they’re going to the NCAA tournament, but they also know it is five weeks away. So they go on the road, don’t care as much as they should, and they get clipped. Don’t try to read too much into what all that means. Just sit back and enjoy the zaniness of it all.
2. The game has gotten cleaner, quicker, and much, much better.
I’m sure you recall that last season the games had the unfortunate tendency to devolve into drawn-out slugfests. Not so much anymore. The powers that be in college hoops made another run at cleaning things up, and this time they meant business. They took five seconds off the shot clock (it’s now 30 seconds) and expanded the circle under the basket (to make it harder to draw a charge), but most importantly, they ordered their refs to clamp down on the rough stuff. There was a little slippage as conference play heated up in January, but the refs reasserted themselves, and the players and coaches have all adjusted. During conference play, scoring has gone up 5.5 points per game per team, and only about a quarter of that increase is due to increased fouls. There are also seven percent more possessions per game per team as well.
Not only that, but the games are being played on average of under two hours. Coaches have one fewer timeout than they used to have, and the TV networks do not take back-to-back commercial breaks if a timeout is called within 30 seconds of a TV timeout. Also, coaches are not allowed to call live-ball timeouts anymore. That explains the quicker time windows.
Many of us who follow this sport very closely year-round advocated for these changes largely so that you, the casual fan with the dwindling attention span, will stick around when your remote lands on a game. Enjoy.
3. Be ready to feel the Buddy Love.
I hope you tuned into the last few minutes of the Oklahoma-Texas game Monday night. Because if you did, you saw the game’s best player step up in the clutch and drill a dramatic game-winning basket. I can’t tell you that you are parachuting into a scintillating national player of the year race—though things can change, or don’t you remember Heisman Trophy winner Leonard Fournette? Still, I promise you will go ga-ga over the prohibitive frontrunner, Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield.
Hield has always been a gifted scorer, but now he is doing so efficiently and spectacularly. He averages 26 points per game, and he gave us the most scintillating performance of the season when he scored 46 points in a triple-overtime loss at Kansas on Jan. 4. Hield’s performance that night was so otherworldly Kansas fans gave him a standing ovation after he gave an interview to ESPN on the court. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
However, as good as Hield is on the court, he is that much better off it. That’s largely because he grew up in the Bahamas, and he carries the humility and hopeful spirit of his homeland. His smile is infectious. His game is sublime. Buddy Love, they call him. Prepare to be smitten.
4. Duke and Kentucky are just O.K. And that’s ... O.K.
If you were looking to do some homework and checked the national rankings, you probably noticed that that infamous four-letter word “Duke” does not appear. That is not a typo. Nor is it unreasonable that “Kentucky” has a “22” next to its name. Those two schools hauled in two of the top recruiting classes, but as I said at the top, not all freshman classes are alike. Plus, Duke has a significant injury to senior forward Amile Jefferson, who broke his foot and is still a couple of weeks (at least) from returning.
Still, these two teams are on television all the time, so you might as well check them out. They both have exciting perimeter players (you’ll remember Duke’s Grayson Allen from last year’s championship game, and Kentucky freshman Jamal Murray is a gem) as well as Hall of Fame coaches. These teams may be struggling right now, but they could catch fire at any time. Remember, in 2014 Kentucky stumbled through the regular season and began the tournament as a No. 8 seed. Three weeks later, the Wildcats were playing in the NCAA championship game, where they lost to UConn.
So while it would be unreasonable to expect the traditional greatness from Duke and Kentucky, it is still going to be interesting watching them try to find some answers during the last six weeks of the regular season.
5. Don’t nitpick Ben Simmons.
You may love football, but you still live on Planet Earth. So you know all about Simmons, the 6'10" Aussie uber-freshman at LSU who has drawn comparisons to LeBron James, Lamar Odom, Magic Johnson and Crocodile Dundee. While Simmons is very talented and is a near certainty to be the No. 1 player selected in the 2016 NBA draft, you will notice there is one glaring hole in his game: He does not make jump shots. That is a big reason why LSU has struggled at times and has a 15–8 record, although it is alone in first place atop a weak SEC with an 8–2 record. On key possessions, defenses don’t have to check Simmons out on the perimeter, and that limits his ability to score as well as set up his teammates.
When someone is as hyped and talked-about as Simmons, his flaws become magnified. Put down your magnifying glass. He is a college freshman averaging 19.4 points, 12.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.9 steals and one block per game. He has made just one three-pointer all season and once scored 43 points without even attempting a trifecta. Simmons is a natural-born lefty, but he can finish with either hand, and he is also an ambidextrous passer. Many of his dimes come with style points. (“French pastry,” as Al McGuire would say.) So don’t fall into the trap of fixating on what Simmons doesn’t have and just appreciate what he does have. And please, don’t obsess over how his game will translate to the NBA. You only have a few weeks to discover a college kid with prodigious, unique talents. Appreciate him for how special he is.
6. One of the greatest streaks in all of sports could be coming to an end.
You can be forgiven for not knowing about Kansas’s run of 11 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles under Bill Self. Casual fans are so focused on the postseason that the regular season can get lost. And hey, it’s Kansas, aren’t they supposed to win every year?
Well, when a school loses as many underclassmen to the NBA as the Jayhawks have over the last decade, the answer is no. Think about this: Three times during this run, Self has had to replace his entire starting lineup. Throw in the transfer craze and the consistent strength of the Big 12, and you have one of the most significant and underappreciated feats you will find anywhere.
That’s why it will be so riveting to watch the Jayhawks try to keep that streak going during these final four weeks. That starts tonight, when they will host West Virginia, which has a one-game lead over Kansas and Oklahoma in the league standings. And then on Saturday, the Jayhawks play at Oklahoma. If KU can get a split, it will be in good position to keep this streak going. Lose both, and this thing could be coming to an end. Given the turbo-charged roster turnover in college basketball, I highly doubt we will ever see a streak like this again.
7. A few other significant streaks are also in jeopardy.
In other words, we’re going streaking!
For starters, Wisconsin and Gonzaga have each been to the NCAA tournament 17 straight years. Even hardcore college basketball fans tend to overlook just how difficult it is to make the tournament, so it’s pretty amazing that any school, particularly two without much of a postseason pedigree, could go to 17 in a row. In Gonzaga’s case, it is especially remarkable considering that, for most of the run, the Bulldogs have played in a conference that usually gets one bid and rarely gets more than two.
Yet right now, Gonzaga is tied in the loss column with Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference standings, and it lost its starting center (Przemek Karnowski) to a season-ending back injury. That player competed in Gonzaga’s only two top-100 RPI wins, and the Zags do not have a single win against a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. They have a huge game this Saturday at SMU, and while they would still have a good chance at an at-large bid if they needed one, it has been a while since they entered this point of the season with a résumé this weak.
As for the Badgers, it is no surprise they are having a hard time replacing the nucleus that took them to back-to-back Final Fours—not to mention their coach, Bo Ryan, who abruptly retired in December and handed the reins to his longtime assistant Greg Gard. Yet, they are in the midst of a five-game win streak, including wins at home over Michigan State and Indiana, so this one could be going down to the wire.
There is one more incredible streak that almost no one knows about—San Diego State’s run of 161 wins in a row while leading in the final five minutes. That streak looked to be in jeopardy Saturday night, but the Aztecs managed to eke out a win in overtime at home against New Mexico. San Diego State had a couple of hiccups in the nonconference portion of its schedule, but it is still undefeated in the Mountain West Conference. If coffee is for closers, then SDSU coach Steve Fisher should open up his own Starbucks.
8. Go surfing for mid-majors.
They can be hard to find sometimes, but it’s worth setting your DVR to start getting familiar with those off-the-radar schools that have the potential to make news in March. In doing so, don’t think you’re gaining any advantage in winning your office pool. Just because you watch a lot of games does not mean you are good at picking games. (My picks have demonstrated that quite well over the years.) But it will be more fun watching these teams in the tournament if you’ve already gotten familiar with their storylines during the regular season.
For starters, take a good, long gander at Wichita State. The Shockers finally lost their first Missouri Valley Conference game on Saturday, when they blew a 16-point lead at Illinois State. A lot of people wrote them off after they opened the season by losing four of their six games, but they were dealing with some injury issues at that time. Also, they added an important piece in mid-December in Conner Frankamp, a sharpshooting transfer from Kansas. As a result, Wichita State will probably be underseeded when the tournament gets underway. This is the final run for the Shockers’ stellar senior backcourt tandem of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, so do your best to enjoy the storybook ending.
Elsewhere in mid-majordom, I’m a big fan of Valparaiso, which has a dynamic offensive player in 6’9” junior forward Alec Peters and is coached by Bryce Drew. You’ve probably heard about the entertaining, camera-hungry walk-ons at the end of the Monmouth bench, but the guys who play are pretty good, too. The Hawks are locked in a riveting dual with Iona to see who will win the MAAC. (They host Iona on Feb. 19. Circle your calendar. There is no football being played that night.)
Yale is undefeated in the Ivy and hoping for its first NCAA bid since 1962, while Little Rock is 21–2, holds a two-game atop the Sun Belt and notched nonconference road wins at San Diego State, Tulsa and DePaul.
From an individual standpoint, I’ll introduce you to Oakland’s diminutive dynamo Kay Felder, a 5’9” junior point guard, who is trying to become the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in points and assists. Felder ranks first in assists with 9.1 per game and he is fourth in scoring with 24.7. He may not accomplish this remarkable dual feat, but it will be a lot of fun watching him try.
9. The Big East is ready to party like it’s 1985.
Those of us who love college hoops were saddened when the Big East fell apart a few years ago, largely because your sport, football, has become so important. The mass exodus left behind a collection of seven Catholic schools with no FBS football teams. The league added three schools with similar profiles (Butler, Creighton and Xavier), but when the dust settled, many of us were left with a wistful feeling that this league would never be able to recapture its glory days of the past.
Lo and behold, the Big East is enjoying a glorious season. The first-place team, Villanova, just took the No. 1 spot in both national polls. Second-place Xavier is No. 5 and has the look of a Final Four squad. Providence is suffering a swoon at the moment, having lost three of its last four, but the Friars have an All-American guard in junior Kris Dunn (he’ll remind you of Dwyane Wade) and the nation’s most improved player in 6'10" sophomore forward Ben Bentil. Seton Hall, Georgetown, Creighton and Butler are all capable of winning games in the NCAA tournament, and Marquette has the nation’s second-best freshman in 6'10" forward Henry Ellenson. (He’ll remind you of Kevin McHale.)
Watching these teams compete will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. Feel free to take in a few episodes of Cheers and click on the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video on YouTube. I promise I won’t tell.
10. Get psyched for the NCAA tournament—now.
Contrary to what you may have heard, March Madness does not begin in March. Many of the games that will be played between now and Selection Sunday have great consequence, either for bubble teams, the higher seeds, or just pure bragging rights. (For example, even though you are joining us late, you will still be treated to two Duke-North Carolina games.) I realize a lot of people don’t start watching college basketball until the first round tips off, but you will get a lot more enjoyment out of March Madness if you are familiar with the players, the teams and the storylines. The calendar may say we are really close, but it will actually be a slow, steady build, like a balloon gradually taking in air until it finally explodes.
And when that explosion comes, you will be happy. I promise. After all, the Super Bowl only lasts a few hours. The NCAA tournament is a three-and-a-half week lovefest, and it always delivers. That’s because a total of 67 games will be played, and though many of them will be yawners, a healthy handful will be riveting and memorable, maybe even historic. You never know which one of those games will be like that, so you might as well watch them all.