Dear Football Fans,
I’m sure you’re feeling bereft. The Patriots won in a thriller. The Buckeyes are still celebrating. Your seasons are over. Now comes the sad realization that you have to wait six whole months until your next Fantasy League draft.
So what are you supposed to do until then? Treat your wife to a romantic dinner? Help your kids with their homework? Read? Child, please. I know exactly what you’re going to do: You’re going to start watching college hoops.
You are joining us at just the right time, but you have a lot to catch up on. You need to know the top storylines, the underlying themes, and an overall sense of where things are headed as we gear up for March Madness. Fortunately, you have come to the right place. As a public service, your resident Hoop Thinker is here to provide the Football Fan’s Guide to College Hoops. Consider this your brand new first and 10:
1. We could be looking at history.
If nothing else, the Wildcats are likely to enter the tournament undefeated. After all, it was just last season that Florida ran the table in the SEC, and the league is even worse this season. (That’s largely because Florida is so much worse this season.) Beyond that, winning six games in the tournament is never easy, but consider the two pitfalls that normally trip up heavy favorites: poor outside shooting and foul trouble. The former can be overcome by defense, the latter with depth. Kentucky is as strong in those two areas as any team I have covered in my two-plus decades on this beat. It's going to be quite intriguing.
2. Up until last weekend, there was another undefeated team in college basketball.
You can be forgiven if this news did not penetrate your pigskin-layered bubble, but the Virginia Cavaliers almost got through January undefeated before suffering their first loss at home against Duke on Saturday. You have to check these guys out. Like Kentucky, the Cavaliers play phenomenal team defense (they are ranked No. 1 in the country in fewest points allowed and are third in defensive efficiency). Unlike Kentucky, Virginia does not have a single former McDonald’s All-American on their roster. Not one! Or, if you need me to explain this to you in football terms, the Cavs are an ideal exemplar of the philosophy made famous by Bo Schembechler: The team! The team! The team!
3. There are freshmen worth watching besides Jahlil Okafor.
I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about NBA teams trying to “lose more for Okafor,” and though I would never endorse tanking (wink wink), I can tell you that this kid is the real deal, inside and out. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more fundamentally sound freshman true center -- and he just turned 19.
But there are a lot of other young-bloods worth your time. At the top of the list is Ohio State’s D'Angelo Russell, a 6-foot-5 combo guard who is (dare I say it) Steph Curry-like in his ability to drill long-range shots and fire creative, pinpoint passes. He also pulled down 14 rebounds last week in a win at home over Maryland. The kid is balling.
Elsewhere, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, a 6-7 swingman, is an alpha male scorer. He’s worth staying up late to watch, especially if Bill Walton is calling his game. Also, look for Maryland point guard Melo Trimble, Kentucky guard Devin Booker, Texas center Myles Turner, Kansas forward Cliff Alexander, UCLA forward Kevon Looney, Utah center Jakob Poeltl and Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead. You’ll thank me later.
4. Pay no attention to all the NBA draft talk.
There is a big mock-draft culture in the media these days, and I have nothing against guys who cover that beat fulltime. Their kids need to eat, too. But the idea that a player’s draft stock fluctuates wildly during the season is pure fiction. Teams send their scouts to watch hundreds of games, but the real work to prepare for the draft isn’t done until after the season is over.
It’s not just draft talk you should avoid, either. Pay no attention to the constant analyzing of how players will do in the NBA. I mean, who cares? It’s far more interesting to discern who can take their teams deep into the NCAA tournament. Besides, there are plenty of terrific college players who don’t make it in the NBA. Don’t be one of those dummies who use that as a mark against them. Just appreciate watching them now while you can.
5. A lot of bluebloods have the blues.
I’ll save you some time and alert you that you won’t find the Florida Gators in the rankings. The team lost the four seniors who took it to the Final Four last year, and the young guys didn’t get any better. Ditto for last year’s champ, UConn, which is 11-9 (4-4 in the American Conference). Neither of those teams is likely to play in the NCAA tournament.
There are a few other so-called brand name schools that are in the same boat. You won’t believe this, but UCLA had a game against Kentucky where it only scored seven points in the first half. Seven! That’s the lowest-scoring half in the long, storied history of that program. Michigan and Memphis will also probably miss the tournament. St. John’s will be lucky to get there, Syracuse will probably get there but not advance, and Indiana is a young, undersized wild card. Michigan State is a pretty good team, but not nearly as good as you’re used to seeing. This is how it goes in college hoops: Outside of Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, even the proudest of programs get laid low every few years.
6. Don’t dismiss Gonzaga
If you’re checking the rankings for the first time this season, you no doubt notice that Gonzaga is No. 2 and has just one loss. And you’re thinking, I’ve seen this movie. Granted, the Zags have been in this place before -- like two years ago, when they darn near became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. Yes, it’s true that in his 15 years running this program, Mark Few has never taken a team past the Sweet 16. (The 1999 slipper-still-fits Elite Eight squad was coached by his predecessor, Dan Monson.) So I don’t blame you if you feel like the Zags look like Lucy holding the football, just begging you to swing your leg so you can wind up flat on your keister.
Still, check this team out when you’re up late channel surfing one night. I’ll bet you’re impressed. This may not be Few’s best team at Gonzaga (I give that nod to the 2006 Adam Morrison-led squad that lost in the Sweet 16 to UCLA), but it is his most complete. In an era when most college basketball games don’t have one skilled true center, Gonzaga has two, including 7-foot freshman reserve Domantas Sabonis, who is Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis’ son. The team has veteran guards who can all make shots, set up teammates and guard the ball. And they’re stocked with veterans, so they don’t have to worry about freshmanitis biting them in the tournament.
This is the time of year when Gonzaga rolls through the West Coast Conference and floats up the rankings. That is not a good way to prepare for the NCAA tournament, but it is also not their fault. This team is good enough to break through. All it needs is a little more luck.
7. Don’t restrict yourself to the so-called Power Five conferences.
If you’re a college football fan, you are not used to expanding your lens. Your playoff -- congrats on finally getting a playoff, by the way -- only included four teams. But with a 68-team field, the NCAA tournament serves up lots of quality teams you know very little about.
For instance, you’re gonna love what’s going on in the resurgent Big East, where Butler is good again (yes, Butler is in the Big East) and where six of the 10 teams could be in the bracket. Northern Iowa just made a huge statement over the weekend by blitzing its Missouri Valley Conference rival Wichita State by 16 points. Also, do you remember when Stephen F. Austin dramatically upset VCU in the first round last year? Well, the Lumberjacks are back to their winning ways. So are Murray State, Louisiana Tech, Valparaiso, Wofford, Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. The traditional powers in the Mountain West are a little down, but it’s a fascinating, wide-open race that could come down to Wyoming and Colorado State.
Look, you know some charming unknown is going to be this year’s Mercer. Why not cast a wide net and see if you can find the next one? If nothing else, you’ll impress your friends with your insights when you're in Vegas the first week of the tournament.
8. Don’t over-react to individual scores over the next six weeks.
The games might seem fresh and new to you, but the young men who have been playing them have been going at it hard since early November. They’re tired, more mentally than physically. For the highly ranked, highly visible teams, these are what we call the dog days. They know they are going to be in the NCAA tournament, but that is still six weeks away. Meanwhile, they are playing unranked, less-visible teams desperate to knock off the favorites in order to bolster their résumés. So you’re going to see some wacky results the next few weeks, and each time that happens, our Twitterized world will proffer grand pronouncements about how these teams are overrated or getting exposed. Don’t follow the herd. Stuff happens.
9. Prepare to be offended by the lack of offense.
I’m not going to lie to you. You’re going to see a lot of ugly basketball. Scoring, shooting percentages, pace of play -- all of them are at historic lows. There are still plenty of teams that like to push the ball and take quick shots (Notre Dame, Iowa State, Indiana, Kansas and West Virginia come to mind), but you are also going to see some games where the winning team struggles to get 50 points. If that makes you wonder whether the people who run this sport realize what a big problem this is, the answer is, I think so. Changes are coming -- maybe not fast enough, but they’re coming. Please bear with us.
10. Get psyched for the tournament.
The Super Bowl is a wonderful spectacle -- and in this year’s case, it was an incredible game. The College Football Playoff gave us lots of storylines but only one really good game out of three. The World Series is fun, the NBA playoffs can be riveting, and it's great fun to sit on your couch and watch the back nine of the Masters on Sunday.
But nothing in American matches the three spine-tingling weeks offered up every year -- and I mean every year -- by the NCAA tournament. It is the only sporting event outside the Super Bowl that draws in so many casual fans and even non-sports fans. The problem with the Super Bowl is that it’s one game. If the game sucks, like it did last year, there’s nowhere to turn. The NCAA tournament, on the other hand, packs in 67 games of enormous importance. The winner moves on, the loser goes home. Thus, we are mathematically guaranteed to get at least a few games that will be talked about for a long time -- provided you are smart enough to watch.
For people who complain that the magnitude of the NCAA tournament diminishes the regular season, I say that is a small price to pay. Besides, as you’re about to find out, it’s not true. There is a lot of drama to come in the next six weeks. The more you watch, the more you’ll enjoy the Madness.
So bid farewell to your oblong-shaped, partially deflated pigskin, pull up a chair, and get ready for the best show in sports. I promise, these next two months are gonna be super.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• The Northern Iowa-Wichita State matchup we’ve all been waiting for may have turned out to be a dud, but at least the Missouri Valley has a double round robin. That means we’ll get a rematch Feb. 28, the last day of the regular season. Wish we could say the same for every conference.
• Now that Mike Krzyzewski’s Week Unlike Any Other is over, we ponder: Is Duke better or worse off without Rasheed Sulaimon? From a purely basketball standpoint, the answer is clearly no. Sulaimon is a big, agile perimeter defender who provided some much-needed experience off the bench. He has played well in big moments, like his 14-point performance in the win at Wisconsin. His dismissal also hurts the team’s ability to have competitive practices because it leaves Duke with just eight scholarship players.
Still, whatever was going on behind the scenes, it had to be really bad for Coach K to do this. It’s the first time he has booted player for non-academic reasons in his 35 years at Duke. From what I’m told, the tension between Krzyzewski and Sulaimon had been boiling for some time. The final straw came after the loss at Notre Dame, when Sulaimon complained that he only played 12 minutes. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Duke was able to come back and beat Virginia without him. So on balance, I’ll defer to Coach K’s judgment and say the team is better off without Sulaimon. In the final analysis, his talent was not worth the aggravation that came with it.
• What happened to Sulaimon is nothing compared to what happened to Washington junior center Robert Upshaw last week. Upshaw originally went to Fresno State, but he was dismissed for repeatedly violating team rules. He got another chance at Washington and had established himself as the nation’s premier shot blocker. He even set a single-season school record for blocks. Last week, however, the program dismissed Upshaw for yet another unspecified violation of team rules. It saddens me when I see a young person waste talent like this. It’s obvious that he needs help.
• Is there any doubt that Miami is the nation’s most enigmatic team? The Hurricanes have won road games at Florida, Syracuse and Duke this season, and they darn near knocked off Virginia at home before losing in overtime. They have also lost at home to Green Bay (by 13 points) and Eastern Kentucky (28), and last week they lost at home to Georgia Tech by 20 and at Florida State by one. That, incidentally, was Georgia Tech’s first win since Dec. 30. Never seen anything quite like it.
• Speaking of Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets lost a painful one on Saturday in Atlanta when N.C. State guard Trevor Lacey buried a 30-footer at the buzzer to give the Wolfpack an 81-80 win. You know what preceded that shot? Two missed free throws by sophomore forward Quentin Stephens, a career 77 percent free throw shooter. Ain’t that the damndest thing.
• During its loss at Iowa State last Saturday, TCU was 1-for-8 from the foul line. You don’t see that too often.
• Man, I can’t tell you how bummed I am that VCU senior point guard Briante Weber’s college career ended with the torn ACL, MCL and meniscus he suffered at the end of the Rams’ loss at home to Richmond. Not only was Weber the starting point guard, he was also one of the great theft artists in the history of college basketball. He led the nation in steals after each of his first three seasons, and he was just 12 away from breaking the NCAA’s alltime steals record. Two weeks ago, I showed my son a video package of Weber’s steals on Synergy in hopes it might improve his defense when he plays for his neighborhood team. (It did.) It just breaks my heart that Weber’s college career has ended this way. And believe me, the Rams will miss him. I thought this was Shaka Smart’s best team at VCU, including the 2011 squad that made the Final Four, but this is a tough blow.
• Is this the best fullcourt pressing team Bob Huggins has ever had? West Virginia leads the nation with 12.6 steals per game, and the Mountaineers are forcing a nation’s-best 22.1 turnovers per game.
• Boy, Texas is a hot mess. After getting embarrassed at Baylor, the Longhorns have now lost five of their last seven games. They look flat-out impotent in their halfcourt offense, and they are still not creating enough scoring off their defense. This is one case where the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.
• That was a really, really bad way for North Carolina to lose a game on Saturday at Louisville. The Tar Heels were winning by 18 points early in the second half, but during the course of the game they committed 19 turnovers and allowed the Cardinals to grab 22 offensive rebounds. Remember, the Tar Heels allowed Butler to get 29 offensive rebounds when they lost to the Bulldogs at the Battle 4 Atlantis back in November. There’s no excuse for a team with this much size, quickness and depth in the frontcourt should ever get beasted on the glass like that.
• On the flip side, did you hear about the scrimmage that Rabbi Rick Pitino held last week? (That’s what I call him when he grows his beard.) Pitino has been trying to develop his bench players, but nothing has worked. So he held a team scrimmage where the top four scorers did not play. Instead, they coached. The White team, coached by Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell, beat the Red team, coached by Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear, 67-65. I’m not saying that scrimmage was why the Cardinals beat North Carolina, but I like the idea of breaking up the monotony of a long season.
• I read recently where the Virginia team led by Ralph Sampson lost at the 1981 Final Four, and then beat LSU in the third-place game on Monday night. That was the last third-place game ever held. When you think about it, it’s hard to believe that game ever existed in the first place. A team just lost a heartbreaker to end its season, and then it had to get ready to play a meaningless game two days later?
• You know what D’Angelo Russell does immediately after games? He has someone on the coaching staff download the game onto his iPad, so he can watch it immediately. Russell is known to watch the video on the team bus, and then call teammates over to talk about what he is seeing. That’s what you call a growth mindset, people.
• We’re getting to the time of year where the letters “RPI” are thrown around a lot. Just to be clear, the RPI is a number that is calculated by the following formula: one-third a team’s won-less record, one-third its opponents’ record, and one-third its opponents’ opponents’ record. Then the teams are ranked on that basis. So when you hear someone say “SMU’s RPI is 20,” what they really should say is “SMU’s RPI rank is 20.” I know I’m a stickler for these things, but hey, someone has to be.
• It is so frustrating to watch a game when, after a made basket, we don’t see the other team advancing quickly up the court because the director wants to show a close-up of a coach or a fan in the stands. Often times, we see a close-up of the guy who just made the basket. (That’s what folks in the TV dodge call a “hero shot.”) The worst is when we miss seeing a key steal in the backcourt because of this bad habit. Television directors, please, I beg of you: Stay. On. The. Court.
• George Washington has a 6-8 freshman forward from Tokyo named Yuta Watanabe who is averaging 7.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 21.2 minutes per game. Watanabe is the fourth Japanese born player in Division I history. Just making sure you knew.
• Remember this name: Andrew Chrabascz. It’s pronounced SHRAB-iss. A 6-7 sophomore forward at Butler. Has five double-figure scoring performances in his last five games, including a career-high 30 in an OT win at Marquette on Saturday. If this is the start of something good, then Butler is about to rise to another level.
• When Coach K got his 1,000th win, a lot of people speculated about what other coaches could hit that mark. Besides Jim Boeheim, who has 962, the guy who is most likely to get there is Bill Self. He has 542 wins, and he is only 52 years old. In his first 11 years at Kansas, Self’s teams averaged about 30 wins per year. So if he stays at Kansas and keeps winning at that clip, he would reach 1k when he is 65. So it’s doable. (Thanks to my ace CBS researcher Wayne Fidelman for serving up that nugget.)
• How’s this for a happy return: Seton Hall freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead suited up on Saturday after missing nine games because of a stress fracture in his foot. In 23 minutes off the bench, Whitehead had 19 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in a 90-82 win. Prior to that, the Hall had lost four out of six. Could be a very interesting few weeks ahead for this team.
• There is no question that Nebraska, which was ranked No. 21 in the preseason, is the most disappointing team in the country. The Huskers lost last week at short-handed Michigan by 14 points, then lost at Minnesota (which came in 2-7 in the Big Ten) by 18 points to fall to 4-5 in the conference.
• Does anyone else think Iowa State forward Jameel McKay reminds them of Kenneth Faried?
• UConn suffered a really bad loss on Sunday at Houston, which had been winless in the American Conference. That dropped the Huskies to 4-4 in the ACC and 11-9 overall. It feels like the season is a lost cause, but keep in mind that the conference tournament will be played at the XL Center in Hartford, where UConn plays a lot of its home games. It’s not hard to envision this team winning that tournament to claim the league’s automatic bid.
• That was a really ugly bench-clearing brawl at the end of the Iona-St. Peter’s game on Saturday night. I’m hoping the MAAC will come down very hard on everyone involved. I understand that kids make mistakes, but there is no excuse for leaving the bench in that situation, ever.
• The key to beating Maryland is defending the Terrapins without fouling. The Terps have made a killing from the line this season, but they only attempted 12 free throws in their loss to Indiana and 16 in their loss at Ohio State.
• I’m glad to hear that San Diego State senior forward Dwayne Polee II has started practicing again. Polee has not played since he collapsed during a game against UC Riverside on Dec. 22. He experienced a similar event a little over a year ago during practice. There is no announced timetable for Polee's return, but the team is hoping it happens soon. The Aztecs certainly need his open court finishing skills, because this team really struggles to score in the halfcourt.
• Finally, if you want to see a wild finish, check out what happened at the end of this Division II game between the Quincy Hawks and the Drury Panthers. Oh my goodness indeed. (Thanks to @CoreyRiggsTV for tweeting it my way.)
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
* Weekend games not included
Virginia at North Carolina, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Both teams are coming off devastating losses on Saturday in which they coughed up double-digit leads. Unlike Duke, the Tar Heels are a weak jump shooting team outside of Marcus Paige, who has made 52 of the team’s 100 three-pointers this season. If you can’t make outside shots, you can’t beat Virginia, even at home.
Virginia 71, North Carolina 64
Iowa State at Kansas, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Jayhawks have now won nine of their last 10. The lone defeat came to the Cyclones in Ames, where Iowa State shot 51 percent to beat the Jayhawks by five. Kansas’ defense is getting better, and the change of venue will make a big difference.
Kansas 80, Iowa State 73
West Virginia at Oklahoma, Tuesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
The Sooners have turned the corner, winning two in a row (including on the road at Oklahoma State) after losing four out of five. Still, they can be careless at times with the ball (12.7 turnovers per game, ranked seventh in the Big 12), and that is a huge problem against a full-court pressing West Virginia team that leads the nation in steals.
West Virginia 72, Oklahoma 68
St. John’s at Butler, Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
St. John’s got a huge win on Saturday when it completed a season sweep of Providence. Butler, however, is a tough, disciplined team that takes care of the ball, can put points on the board and is very tough on the offensive glass despite its lack of height.
Butler 74, St. John’s 64
Colorado State at Wyoming, Wednesday, 9 p.m.
This is a battle between arguably the two best players in the Mountain West, Colorado State’s J.J. Avila and Wyoming’s Larry Nance Jr., both of whom are senior forwards. The Cowboys won the first meeting at Colorado State, so you’ve got to like their chances to complete the season sweep in Laramie.
Wyoming 65, Colorado State 61
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Wisconsin (3)
3. Duke (4)
4. Virginia (2)
5. Gonzaga (5)
6. Arizona (6)
7. Kansas (7)
8. Notre Dame (8)
9. Villanova (10)
10. Louisville (15)
11. Iowa State (17)
12. North Carolina (11)
13. Utah (12)
14. Northern Iowa (23)
15. West Virginia (20)
16. Ohio State (21)
17. Wichita State (18)
18. Maryland (14)
19. Oklahoma (NR)
20. VCU (9)
21. Georgetown (19)
22. Baylor (NR)
23. SMU (NR)
24. Stephen F. Austin (NR)
25. Murray State (NR)
Dropped out: Miami (16), Texas (22), Providence (24), Dayton (25)
I supposed I am a conflicted soul. On the one hand, I counseled the football fans not to dismiss Gonzaga. On the other hand, I am thus far refusing to rank the Zags higher than fifth. I don’t see those as mutually exclusive. This is a really good team, but there literally is no argument for ranking Gonzaga ahead of Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and Virginia. Quick: What is the Zags’ best win this season? Hard to think of one, right? The answer is SMU at home on Nov. 17 -- and that was while the Mustangs were playing without their starting power forward, Markus Kennedy, who was academically ineligible the first semester.
It’s hard to make blanket statements, but I have a difficult time believing I will rank Gonzaga higher than No. 5 the rest of the season. Let’s see if that stance holds up.
I also do my best to honor head-to-head results, but this time of year it is hard to hew to that completely. Yes, Duke beat Wisconsin in Madison, but that was back on Dec. 3. The only game the Badgers have lost since then was at Rutgers when they were down two starters. Duke, however, has lost three times, including two losses to unranked N.C. State and Miami. Plus, I had Wisconsin ranked ahead of Duke last week, so I wanted to keep that consistent.
The big riser this week was Northern Iowa, while VCU took the hardest tumble. I would have dinged the Rams hard anyway for losing to a mediocre Richmond team at home. But as I mentioned above, losing Briante Weber is just devastating for this team. I didn’t want to completely drop them out of the rankings because I want to see how they do without him, but it’s hard to imagine that this team will be as good moving forward.
Oklahoma took a one-week hiatus from my ballot but returned with wins over Texas Tech at home and Oklahoma State on the road. Before that, the Sooners had lost four out of five, but three of those were against ranked teams on the road, and the fourth was in overtime at home against a solid Kansas State squad.
I’ve got four newbies on the bottom of my ballot. Baylor has won three out of four, including wins at home over Oklahoma and Texas (by 23 points). SMU has lost just one game since Nov. 25, and that was on the road at Cincinnati. I realize the American is a weaker conference than it was last year, but at some point you’ve got to reward winning.
My desire to reward winning -- and spread the wealth -- is why I went with two off-the-radar teams for my bottom two spots. While Providence and Dayton were losing to St. John’s and UMass, respectively, Stephen F. Austin was beating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi for its 17th straight win and Murray State was staying perfect in the Ohio Valley Conference by fighting off a plucky Tennessee-Martin squad at home. Are these really the 24th and 25th best teams in the country? Who knows? But appearing in Others Receiving Votes means a great deal to these schools, and I have no compunction about using my platform to help grant them a little visibility.