Hoop Thoughts: Winners and losers from the nonconference season
We are still several weeks away from being blanketed by references to those oft-cited, seldom-understood letters: RPI. Which is as it should be. I have often said that RPI rankings are like election night returns. You might get a sense of where things are headed in the first hour or two, but you have to wait until most of the votes are counted to understand what actually happened.
There is, however, one area of the RPI in which the verdicts are already in: the nonconference strength-of-schedule rankings. These are crucial because they are often the primary differentiators between bubble teams whose résumés otherwise look identical. The basketball committee’s emphasis on nonconference schedules has been a huge boon for college basketball because it has forced the big boys to play meaningful games during a time of year when it is very hard for college basketball to grab the public’s attention away from football. It has also given a lot of mid-major schools the chance to prove they belong in the field.
Here, then, is my list of potential bubble teams that hurt or helped themselves the most during the nonconference portion of their schedules. These ranks won’t change all that much between now and Selection Sunday, and believe you me, when the committee closes the doors and crunches its numbers, they will be heavily weighted and much discussed.
Ten who helped themselves
Texas (2). The Longhorns may have a tough time going .500 in the Big 12, but if they are even close to the bubble, their schedule will take them across the finish line. Three of their five losses came against teams ranked in the top 50, and they bought a lot of house money with a win at home over North Carolina (when the Tar Heels were at full strength) and a road victory over Stanford.
Florida (4). This number is a little deceiving considering Florida’s best nonconference win was over Saint Joseph’s. The Gators don’t have any bad losses, but it is critical that they find a way to win some decent road games in the SEC.
Dayton (6). The Flyers are more likely to be a top seed than on the bubble, but just in case they go into a tailspin in the Atlantic 10 (and they dropped one at No. 271 La Salle on Saturday), their neutral court wins over Iowa and Monmouth, plus the road win at Vanderbilt, will help.
Monmouth (7). The fact that Monmouth is even on this list is a credit to the program, but the wins over Georgetown and Notre Dame don’t look as good now as they did at the time. The Hawks’ best RPI win is over USC on a neutral court, but that season-opening road win at UCLA was the big one. At the end of the day, however, I have a hard time believing the Hawks will be able to earn an at-large if they don’t win the MAAC tourney.
Wichita State (9). The selection committee is going to give Gregg Marshall some much-deserved credit for putting together a challenging schedule, and it will give the Shockers the benefit of the doubt because they did not have a full complement of players for any of their losses.
Ohio State (19). The good news for the Buckeyes is that Thad Matta put together a smart schedule. The bad news is they lost all the important games, save for the win over Kentucky in Brooklyn—and that one is not holding up quite as well over time. The reason Ohio State’s nonconference schedule is ranked this high is because it only played four teams ranked below 200 in the RPI, but without some quality wins against upper-tier teams in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes will have a hard time making the tournament.
Stanford (20). The Cardinal lost all five of their nonconference games against top-40 teams, but their loss at Saint Mary’s shouldn’t hurt them too badly. The good news is they already notched a solid road win at Oregon State. Road conference wins will be will be their ticket to March Madness.
Gonzaga (21). Mark Few always puts together one of the toughest nonconference schedules, and this season’s would have been better if the game against Pitt in Japan wouldn’t have been canceled at halftime due to poor playing conditions. Still, since Gonzaga’s best RPI win was over Washington (87), the Zags are going to be operating on very little margin for error in the WCC.
Texas Tech (22). The Red Raiders also gamed the system by staying away from bad teams. Only two of Texas Tech’s nonconference opponents are ranked below 200 in the RPI, but their best nonconference win was at home against South Dakota State, and they have yet to win a true road game this season. So they’ve got a lot of work to do, and in a very difficult league.
Georgia (27). Only two nonconference opponents are ranked 200 or below, and even though Georgia’s loss at home in overtime to Chattanooga wasn’t as bad as you think (Chattanooga is ranked No. 34 in the RPI and also won at Dayton), it was definitely a blown opportunity. That leaves the home win over Georgia Tech as Georgia’s best win, but the Bulldogs have yet to win a true road game.
Ten who hurt themselves
Northwestern (311). Heading into conference play, the Wildcats’ only two losses were to North Carolina and Maryland. We’ll find out in a few weeks whether the rest of the schedule (which included three wins in overtime) gave the Wildcats a false sense of security. This number shows just how much work they have to do in conference to earn that ever-elusive first NCAA bid.
Baylor (275). What, you didn’t realize Art Briles schedules for the hoops program, too? I give Scott Drew credit for playing a true road game at Oregon (which the Bears lost) but he needs to learn to stay away from the very low-rated teams.
Marquette (264). This program is still in rebuilding mode, so it makes sense not to make life too difficult during the first two months. It’s worth noting that Marquette’s “best” loss, to No. 16 Iowa, was mandated by the league because it was part of the Gavitt Games between the Big East and the Big Ten. But the Golden Eagles look like they could wind up squarely on the bubble—they just won at Providence—in which case one or two more challenging games would have helped a great deal.
South Carolina (260). If the Gamecocks keep winning all their games, their nonconference schedule would only help determine where they are seeded, not whether they are selected. But the fact is they have yet to play a team that is currently ranked in the top 60 of the RPI.
LSU (208). The problem here isn’t so much the weakness of LSU’s schedule, but rather the fact that it lost to every halfway decent team it played outside the SEC. The Tigers do not have a single nonconference win over a team ranked in the top 100. They need for Kentucky and Vanderbilt to turn things around lickety split so those wins keep their traction.
Seton Hall (192). This is not a great number for a bubble team, but it’s far from terrible. The Pirates’ win at home over Wichita State is looking better by the day, and there will be plenty of opportunities to notch solid RPI wins in the Big East this season. Gotta cash in.
Saint Mary’s (179). Again, not terrible, but for some reason, Randy Bennett has never scheduled as aggressively as, say, Mark Few. It is not easy to get an at-large bid from the WCC unless you’re playing a truly national schedule. So the Gaels better keep winning.
Pittsburgh (165). It’s highly unlikely the Panthers will be a bubble team, but I suppose anything can happen these next two months. This rank is actually better than Pitt has had the last few years, and it would have been better if the Gonzaga game hadn’t been cut short because of poor playing conditions.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• I have to begin with Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak’s unfortunate decision to suspend (cancel?) the school’s annual series with BYU. Sure, the games have been chippy over the years (BYU freshman guard Nick Emery was ejected on Dec. 2 for throwing a punch at Utah guard Brandon Taylor), but this has been a great annual rite for basketball fans in that state. It has also been an important asset for college basketball, which has a hard enough time drawing an audience the first two months of the season. If Cincinnati and Xavier found a way to continue playing after that nasty brawl four years ago, then surely Krystkowiak can abide a little competitive heat for the sake of a series that has only been interrupted once (in 1944, for World War II) since 1909. Here’s hoping Krystkowiak has a change of heart.
• Let’s stop the kvetching about Cheick Diallo before it gathers any more steam. The 6'9" freshman forward played a total of eight minutes in Kansas’d wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech last week. Diallo is a good athlete with a great basketball body, but he was always considered raw offensively. Besides, the Jayhawaks have two upperclassmen big men in Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas who are much more ready to help their team win. Diallo is not going to play much this season, and if he’s even smart about it, he is not going to try to enter the NBA draft. Rather, he is going to stay in Lawrence and develop his game with one of the best coaches in the history of the sport. When he’s ready to play, Bill Self will play him. Period.
• I honestly can’t mount a passionate defense of Dave Rice’s four-and-a-half years at UNLV, but I think it’s unfortunate that in-season firings are becoming more common in college basketball. The school came close to firing Rice last summer—it had Ben Howland ready to step in—but couldn’t quite pull the trigger. Supposedly one of the reasons the school kept Rice is that his brother was the high school coach for UNLV’s prized freshman, Stephen Zimmerman. Assistant Todd Simon has been given the job on an interim basis, and while it’s unlikely that Simon will get the gig permanently, you can be sure that whoever does will retain Simon on his staff. That’s because Simon used to coach at Las Vegas’s own Findlay Prep, and the school very much needs to keep that pipeline flowing. Don’t you just love amateur sports?
• It’s always a pleasure to see a player who has ridden the pine for three years break through in his final season. Duke senior center Marshall Plumlee had back-to-back career highs by scoring 18 and 21 points, respectively, in wins over Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. He also had 17 rebounds and four blocks in the games and went 13-for-14 from the foul line. Plumlee, by the way, is an ROTC student who has already been sworn into the U.S. Army, and he will become an officer after he graduates this spring. But he’s got some ballin’ to do first.
• Michigan State is understandably elated to have Denzel Valentine back, but it was helpful that during the four games he was out, Tom Izzo was forced to give Eron Harris significant minutes. Harris, a transfer from West Virginia, had been in Izzo’s doghouse because his defense was not up to snuff, but he looked good out there. I’m curious to see how well Valentine plays coming off of knee surgery, but this could be a classic case of a team getting better because of an injury.
• The best thing about Melo Trimble’s game-winning three-pointer at Wisconsin on Saturday is that the Terps had a time out remaining and Mark Turgeon declined to use it. Bless your heart, Mark Turgeon.
• Virginia easily wins the award for worst week. The Cavaliers lost on the road to twice, to Virginia Tech, which is not going to the NCAA tournament, and Georgia Tech, which is 50-50 at best to get there. The losses exposed the fact that this Virginia team is not nearly as good defensively as last year’s. In 2014–15, the Cavs were ranked first in the country in defensive efficiency. This season, they are 36th. They were especially deficient at defending the three-point line; their opponents last week shot a combined 17-for-32 from behind the arc. Offensively, the Cavs are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to play through the post, which means if their jump shots aren’t falling or they aren’t taking a ton of free throws, they have a hard time beating good teams, especially on the road. I’m a huge Tony Bennett fan and I’m sure things will improve, but there is no doubt this team got exposed last week in a major way.
• By the way, you think the Cavs have been adversely affected by the shorter shot clock? Asking for a friend.
• Man, that Allonzo Trier injury for Arizona is an absolute killer. The Wildcats’ already have a suspect perimeter corps, and the 6'4" freshman from Seattle was its most consistent and productive member. Trier broke his hand at some point while going for 25 points, six rebounds and four assists in the Wildcats four-overtime loss at USC Saturday night. (Gosh, imagine what he could have done with an unbroken hand.) He’ll be out four to six weeks, and trust me, this team will miss him very much.
• My buddy Clark Kellogg raises a great question. Why don’t box scores divide a player’s field goals between two-point shots and three-point shots?
• I’ve also been arguing that the box scores should include a category for fouls drawn. They do it in international ball, and they should do it here.
• I’m just not sure how much longer Iowa State can go with such little depth. The Cyclones’ five starters sat out for a grand total of 20 minutes during Saturday’s home loss at Baylor. No wonder they’re not expending a ton of energy at the defensive end, which enabled the Bears to shoot 52.3%.
• Just remember, Miami is a one-point loss at home to Northeastern away from being undefeated. The Hurricanes are about to begin a stretch of three straight road games, starting Tuesday night at Virginia. Pretty sure the Cavs are not gonna be in a great mood.
• For all the focus on Skal Labissiere, Kentucky’s biggest problem right now is that it is an awful shooting team. Isaiah Briscoe, the highly touted 6'3" freshman guard, is shooting 34.0% from the foul line. He’s also making 18.2% from three. That’s not a shooting guard, that’s a missing guard.
• I’m all for differing opinions when it comes to my top 25, but just so you know, an argument that solely utilizes a team’s overall résumé is specious in my book. That type of analysis is relevant when it comes to selecting and seeding the NCAA tournament, but when I’m doing my top 25, I am looking to rank the teams as they stand at that moment. My general window is to start with the previous two to three weeks, and then take the longer view as a secondary consideration. Got it, DeCourcy?
• Take a closer look at USC, and you can see a program that is building momentum step by step. The Trojans have a nine-man rotation that features four juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen, and they are starting to win some significant games – including Saturday night’s four-overtime thriller over Arizona. Give Andy Enfield credit. He is rebuilding this program the old-fashioned way, recruiting class by class, without accepting any risky transfers or looking for the quick fix.
• Here’s some free advice for my old pal Bobby Hurley, who got ejected in the final minutes of Arizona State’s loss at home to Arizona. I get what you’re trying to do. Arizona is the big brother, the in-state rival, the marquee program in your conference, and you wanted your fans, players and administration to know that you are prepared to fight. Mission accomplished. But you only get one bite at that apple, and yours was a doozy. Now it’s time to dial back.
• Although I do love that Curtain of Distraction. Makes me wish I were back in college.
• Let me say again (and again and again): I am NOT a fan of the hard-core policy of sitting a player for the rest of the first half as soon as he picks up his second foul. Too often it puts a team in an unnecessary hole. A good player should have, or should at least develop, the discipline to play additional minutes without fouling.
• I discovered over the weekend just how favorable Indiana’s Big Ten schedule is. The Hoosiers only have to play Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland once each, and only the Michigan State game is on the road. Those three one-offs all come in the second half of February, so you can expect the Hoosiers to climb the league standings (and the national rankings) in the meantime. Kinda sucks that Indiana and Purdue only play once, by the way. I guess the Big Ten doesn’t assign rivalry partners the way the ACC does. Can you imagine Duke and North Carolina only playing once during the regular season?
• You may not have noticed it (I think there were some football games on TV this weekend), but the legendary Bill Raftery called the Ohio State-Indiana game on Sunday afternoon for CBS. Then he shuffled off to Indianapolis to call the Villanova-Butler game for Fox Sports 1. Only the Guv could pull off that twofer.
• Been a tough stretch for Vanderbilt, to say the least. The Commodores, who were ranked 18th in the AP’s preseason poll, have now lost seven of their last 10, including an 0–3 start in the SEC. I thought getting 7'1" junior Luke Kornet back last week (he missed five games because of a knee injury) would help, but it hasn’t yet. The Commodores have been exposed as a mediocre defensive team, and they suffer from a lack of team speed. Kevin Stallings tried to change things up by bringing his top guard, Wade Baldwin, off the bench at South Carolina, but if anything it seemed to throw off Baldwin’s rhythm. He shot 3-for-13 and committed three turnovers in the loss.
• With the SMU and Syracuse cases having dominated headlines the last year or so, there has been a lot of talk about the need to do away with postseason bans. I’m all for having that discussion, but someone needs to propose an alternative penalty which will hit programs hard enough to serve as a deterrent against rules breaking. I do think it would be more fair to current players to put off postseason bans for a year so they have the option to transfer (or not sign if they’re a recruit), but that is a really heavy hammer because it can kill a program’s recruiting.
• Speaking of which, if you’re wondering why SMU is not ranked in the coaches’ poll, it’s because the NABC has determined that teams that are not eligible to play in the postseason should not be ranked. Which is silly, of course. As long as a team is playing games, it should be eligible to be ranked. Thank goodness we writers are more reasonable with our poll.
• I love that the refs, in following their directive from the rules committee, have stopped calling fouls on defenders because an offensive player jumped into them. Virginia’s London Perrantes tried to draw that kind of whistle on the pivotal of Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech, but despite the contact the refs properly no-called it.
• I know it won’t last much longer, but give credit to Lorenzo Romar for his Washington Huskies being the only Pac-12 team to win their first three league games. This is basically an all-new roster in a wide-open league. Big one at Arizona on Thursday.
• I still don’t understand why college coaches almost never call for a two-for-one. College coaches love to copy what the NBA guys do, yet for some reason they do not want to use this one particular tactic.
• I loved watching Tom Crean and Thad Matta coach against each other on Sunday afternoon while neither man was wearing a tie. Sean Miller and Bruce Pearl, take heed.
• You’re aware the Mountain West is gonna be a one-bid league, right? Just checking.
• Saint Mary’s has a good chance to win the West Coast Conference (they lost at Pepperdine over the weekend, leaving them one game behind the Zags in the league standings), but the Gaels are priming themselves for a nice run the next couple of years. They have no seniors and just two juniors on their roster.
• I don’t know if Wichita State can earn enough quality wins in the Missouri Valley Conference to get back into the rankings, but if the Shockers keep stringing wins together I suppose it is inevitable. One reason they are playing better is they are getting production off the bench from Conner Frankamp, the 6'1" sophomore transfer from Kansas. Frankamp was a midsemester transfer, so he has only been eligible for the last eight games, and he is starting to get comfortable. He had his best game yet in Saturday’s win at Southern Illinois, scoring 14 points on 4-for-7 three-point shooting.
• Check out Valparaiso’s Alec Peters when you get a chance. He’s a 6'9" junior who can score from any spot on the floor, whether it’s with his back to the basket in the post or facing up behind the three-point line. He’s also a real good passer. I call guys like that a queen piece.
• Another mid-major nugget: Oakland’s 5’9” junior point guard Kahlil Felder is trying to become the first player in NCAA history to lead the country in points and assists. Right now he is third in scoring (25.8) and first in assists (8.7). I hope he does it! We do, after all, see eye to eye.
• The college basketball community got some very sad news over the weekend, when Samantha Smith, the wife of former Butler center Andrew Smith, wrote in her blog that Andrew’s two-year fight against cancer is nearing an end. Andrew’s story has garnered national attention (I highly recommend this brilliant piece on him from last season by CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander), and last week his former coach Brad Stevens skipped a Celtics game so he could visit Andrew in his hospital room. I hope you all will keep Andrew, Samantha and their families in your thoughts and prayers.
• Finally, let’s end this portion of Hoop Thoughts on a high note. Check out this stirring rendition of the national anthem performed by 13-year-old Lucia Katz, the daughter of ESPN’s Andy Katz of ESPN, before Saturday’s UConn-Memphis game at Gampel Pavilion. Apparently, having a well-connected dad has its privileges. According to my sources (sorry, Andy, I can’t reveal them), the deal for this gig was brokered during the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving. (O.K., my source was Andy.)
Five games I’m psyched to see this week
Kansas at West Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
The Mountaineers are one of the few teams in the country that can match Kansas in terms of speed and depth. Theoretically, the Jayhawks, who start two point guards in Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, should be well equipped to handle “Press” Virginia. But unless you think the Jayhawks are going undefeated in the Big 12, you almost have to pick them to lose this one. West Virginia is very tough to beat in Morgantown, and you know the joint will be jumpin’.
West Virginia 90, Kansas 87 (OT)
Miami at Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
Clearly, the Cavaliers are not as good as we thought they were. But I don’t think they’re as bad as they played last week. Tony Bennett will figure something out, but his players better be ready to handle the Hurricanes’ perimeter quickness much better than they did Virginia Tech’s.
Virginia 72, Miami 68
USC at UCLA, Wednesday, 11 p.m., ESPN2
This will be the most meaningful meeting between these two programs in years. Both have a nice little shine to them following their home sweeps of the Arizona schools. I’ve felt all along that the Bruins are the most talented team in the Pac-12, and though the Trojans are on the come, they are not ready to win this type of intense road game.
UCLA 75, USC 67
Iowa at Michigan State, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The easy analysis is to say the Spartans lost in Iowa City without Denzel Valentine, and now they have Valentine back and they’re playing at home and they’re looking for revenge. All true, but Iowa is the real deal, and Valentine is still getting into the flow coming off knee surgery. If this game were earlier in the week, I might take a flyer on the upset, but having five days between games I think will give Valentine enough practice time to be the difference.
Michigan State 74, Iowa 70
Pittsburgh at Louisville, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN
I think the Cardinals are a good team, but we see now that they have a rather low ceiling. It’s not easy to beat Louisville at home, but Pittsburgh matches up really well. Panthers point guard James Robinson takes extremely good care of the ball, and Michael Young is one of the best passing forwards in the country.
Pitt 71, Louisville 68
This week’s AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kansas (1)
2. Oklahoma (3)
3. Maryland (2)
4. North Carolina (4)
5. Michigan State (6)
6. Villanova (8)
7. Xavier (9)
8. Iowa (11)
9. Miami (12)
10. SMU (13)
11. Duke (17)
12. West Virginia (15)
13. Texas A&M (21)
14. South Carolina (25)
15. Providence (10)
16. Butler (18)
17. UCLA (NR)
18. Baylor (NR)
19. Iowa State (7)
20. Pittsburgh (NR)
21. Louisville (20)
22. Virginia (5)
23. Arizona (16)
24. Indiana (NR)
25. Valparaiso (NR)
Dropped out: Kentucky (14), Purdue (19), UConn (22), California (23), Dayton (24)
The first few weeks of conference play are always volatile, so it’s no surprise to see some major shifting. In another month or so, things will settle down and it will be harder for teams to rise and fall a lot in just one week.
Let’s start with the two tumblers, Virginia and Arizona. I actually considered leaving the Cavaliers out of my top 25 entirely, but I decided their week wasn’t quite bad enough to justify that. They lost by one possession on the road to an in-state rival, and then they lost a tough road game against a Georgia Tech team that had been on the verge of a breakthrough win for some time. (The Yellow Jackets gave North Carolina all it wanted in Chapel Hill until the Heels pulled away in the last few minutes.) Arizona also lost two very close games on the road last week. The greater concern for the Wildcats is that Allonzo Trier will be out for at least a month. I’m willing to wait a week or two to see how they fare without him, but I’m not optimistic.
My biggest riser this week is South Carolina. I’ve been pooh-poohing their schedule along with everyone else, and I realize beating Vanderbilt at home is no great shakes. But I’ve been watching this team, and they are passing my eye test. Besides, you can’t do any better than beat everyone you play.
I realize I caught just a few people off guard on Sunday night when I released my AP ballot over Twitter and thus revealed that I was not ranking Kentucky. I realize the Wildcats’ résumé is decent, and they did beat Louisville, whom I still have on my ballot. That win over Louisville, however, was by a single bucket at home. On the other hand, Kentucky got embarrassed away from home twice in the last month, by Ohio State (which got drilled at Indiana by 25 points on Sunday) and LSU (which subsequently lost at Florida on Saturday). The loss at LSU is what did it for me, because Kentucky was never in the game. I think this team will get better, and I would be shocked if the Cats are not back on my ballot soon, but right now, to my eyes, they are not one of the top 25 teams in the country.
I’ve been down on Purdue, but I was quite surprised the Boilermakers lost by 14 points at Illinois, a team that has been riddled by injuries and has been one of the worst in the Big Ten this season. Again, Purdue will get better, but I have to believe that the Boilermakers lost a ton of confidence when they blew that 19-point lead at home to Iowa last week.
I’ve been itching to rank Valparaiso for a while, and the Crusaders finally put me over the top with their impressive win at Oakland. Winning conference games on the road against good teams is tough. Winning them convincingly is even tougher.
Other teams I considered ranking this week include Cincinnati, which played SMU down to the final possession in Moody Coliseum; Wichita State, which is alone in first place in the Valley after winning with ease at Southern Illinois; Gonzaga, which has had a few close shaves but is 5–0 in the West Coast Conference; and St. Bonaventure and VCU, which are tied for first place in the Atlantic 10 with 3–0 records. You know how it works boys: You have to win to get in.