Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer ponders college basketball's burning questions
- Is Gonzaga good enough to win it all? Will Duke ever put it all together? Is the Big East overrated? These are critical questions as the season comes to a close.
You’ve heard of the wanderer? Well I’m The Wonderer. I wonder round and round and round and round and round.
The Wonderer wonders . . .
. . . whether we’re all sleeping on Gonzaga
You might be surprised I am wondering this considering I am one of just six AP voters who did not have Gonzaga as my No. 1 team last week. But there are different questions to be addressed. There’s the question of whether the Zags should be No. 1 in the polls. Then there’s the separate question of whether they deserve a No. 1 seed, and potentially the No. 1 overall seed, in the NCAA tournament.
Then, there’s the only question that matters to The Wonderer: Can they win the whole thing?
Most people are saying yes to the first two questions yet giving a resounding no on the third. I am of the opposing view. No, I don’t have the Zags at the top of my ballot, but I am increasingly convinced that Gonzaga is a short-list favorite to win the national championship.
No, the Zags have never made the Final Four, but that means nothing. They have bona fide NBA talent, not just in junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and senior center Przemek Karnowski, but also with backup center, freshman Zach Collins. This is the only team in the country that checks all the boxes: They have a stud point guard (check), a bevy of three-point shooters (check), a classic back-to-the-basket five man (check), and a couple of stretch fours (check). They’re athletic (check), committed defensively (check), have a great coach (check) and oodles of experience (check).
The main reason to denigrate their chances at a title is their conference. I think this is a fair concern, not because it means they are fraudulent but because I worry that this league will not properly prepare the Zags for the mental stress of March.
Still, every team has concerns. If Gonzaga were in the ACC or the Big 12, would they be undefeated right now? Doubtful. Yet, I also doubt there are many teams who would be undefeated to this point while playing Gonzaga’s schedule. Even the metrics confirm this: Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 on kenpom.com, No. 4 on KPISports.net and No. 5 in the RPI. Rank them or seed them wherever you want. But I would warn you not to bet too much against them come tourney time.
. . . whether Villanova and Kansas are destined to run out of gas
Two things can hurt a team’s physical and emotional stamina: lack of size and lack of depth. So even though Villanova and Kansas were the top overall seeds when the selection committee revealed its midseason bracket on Saturday, The Wonderer wonders whether those teams have the legs to get across the finish line.
Both teams lost young big men who were supposed to shore up their frontcourts. Villanova’s top recruit, 6' 9" forward Omari Spellman, was ruled academically ineligible before the season started. Kansas freshman Udoka Azubuike broke his wrist and was lost for the season. The Jayhawks have been further saddled by the disappointing season that 6' 10" sophomore Carlton Bragg is having, both on and off the court.
Whether it’s the second week of the tournament or the Final Four, the NCAA tournament requires teams to win two very difficult games in three days, something they almost never have to do during the regular season. They need to be able to survive foul trouble, fatigue and occasional poor shooting to win the championship. I wonder if they can.
. . . whether Wisconsin’s season will end at the free throw line
I love that the Badgers’ starting center and power forward, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, are ranked 1–2 on the team in assists. I don’t love that those two guys are making a combined 57.3% from the foul line. That’s especially problematic considering they also account for 54.0% of Wisconsin’s free throw attempts. The Wonderer wonders if the Badgers’ season is going to end a little earlier than it should because it got outscored at the free throw line. Hope those guys are getting plenty of reps.
. . . whether Markelle Fultz is getting unfairly penalized
The awards season has always struck me as silly, but I would submit that Washington’s star freshman guard deserves every consideration for national player of the year. It is not hard to make the case that Fultz is the best player in college basketball. He is averaging 23.2 points (which ranks fourth in the country), 6.0 assists (second in the Pac-12), 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He’s even ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in blocks at 1.3 per game. Meanwhile, Fultz is making 47.9% from the floor, 42.1% from three, and 64.4% from the foul line. He is the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the NBA draft.
So why isn’t he in the POY convo? The answer his simple: He plays on a bad team. However, unlike the case last year with LSU, where Ben Simmons had some good talent around him, Washington is losing despite Fultz, not because of him. POY and All-America are supposed to be individual awards, not team awards. I challenge you to find five individuals who are having better seasons than Markelle Fultz. Actually, don’t bother, because you can’t.
. . . whether Duke’s whole will ever be greater than the sum of its parts
As impressive as Duke’s win over North Carolina was last Thursday, it was just as impressive that the Blue Devils were able to escape Clemson less than 48 hours later when they were emotionally spent. Still, I am not yet ready to pronounce this team all the way back. The Blue Devils lost valuable development time while they went through their rash of injuries, the suspension to Grayson Allen and the four-week absence of Mike Krzyzewski.
One thing I do like is that freshman Jayson Tatum has emerged as the third leg of the stool. Senior Amile Jefferson is good, but if Duke is reliant on him to score a lot of points, then that is a problem. One thing I still don’t like is the lack of a true point guard on this team, but that can certainly be overcome, as the 2010 Blue Devils, who won the NCAA tournament, demonstrated. However, that will be harder to do if Krzyzewski falls back on the habit of running an offense based around isolation drives as opposed to his more standard motion game where the ball moves quickly, creating driving lanes and three-point looks. That takes time to develop because it requires everyone to be in sync. Is the iso offense a concession on Coach K’s part that there is not enough time left in the season to create a more traditional offense? The Wonderer wonders.
. . . whether Bill Walton is the most interesting man in the world
I don’t get people who don’t get this guy. He is an absolute original. He knows the game and does his homework, but his telecasts are a long, strange trip through his colorful, plentiful mind. We’ve got enough guys who deliver us X’s and O’s. What the world needs now is more Bill Walton.
. . . whether people are making too big of a deal about the RPI
When the NCAA announced it was going to host a nerdapalooza of metrics mavens, many people celebrated the demise of the RPI. That may have been a bit premature. I spoke about this over the weekend with committee chair Mark Hollis, and it sounds to me that the committee is determined to stay out of the predictive business. That means shying away from models that give weight to things other than pure results. The RPI is the only metric that does this.
Look, there’s no doubt the RPI needs to be freshened. It was, after all, crafted in 1981. But I don’t envision a lot of wholesale changes. The committee members look at all the other metrics anyway. When they see an outlier, they dig in to find out the causes, and adjust their votes accordingly. The RPI has always been made out to be more important than it really is. So it’s fitting that the changes made to it will be less than many people expect.
. . . whether Marcus Keene knows he’s my man crush
At least once a week, I head to Synergy to check out the latest videos of Central Michigan’s diminutive dynamo. He may be a volume shooter, but he is also a volume maker, and he remains within reach of being the first player in 20 years to average 30 points per game. As of today, his average is 29.9. I wouldn’t flat out tell Chippewas coach Keno Davis to make sure Keene eclipses this mark, but if he wants to call a few extra plays for my man crush these last few games, I’m not going to talk him out of it.
. . . whether Leonard Hamilton needs to shorten his rotation
Allow myself to contradict . . . myself. While The Wonderer wonders whether Kansas and Villanova could use one more big body, he also wonders whether Florida State has too many. Ten Seminoles average at least 10 minutes per game, and three others tend to get significant playing time. That would make sense if this team played a frenetic, end-to-end pressing style, but it doesn’t.
Most coaches I’ve spoken to over the years believe firmly that as long as you’re healthy and not overcome by foul trouble, seven or eight is the perfect number for a rotation. I do like that Hamilton still finds heavy minutes for his top scorers and rotates everyone else through the fifth spot, but my unsolicited advice to him is to tighten things up as we head towards the postseason. Most of the time, when a coach tries to make everybody happy, no one’s happy.
. . . whether the Big East is overrated
When the Big East is going well, we all get nostalgic. It’s also good to see a league outside the so-called Power 5 kicking butt. But The Wonderer wonders if this league is going irretrievably in the wrong direction.
Outside of Villanova, do you see a second weekend team here? That would have been the case with Creighton, but when the Blujays lost Maurice Watson, Jr., that took away their tourney potency. Meanwhile, Xavier also lost its starting point guard, Edmond Sumner, to an ACL tear. Butler has lost three of its last four games, including at home to Georgetown. Marquette and Seton Hall, meanwhile, are fighting just to get a tourney bid. My guess is one or the other will get in, but not both.
. . . whether any of the top mid-majors will get an at-large bid
During our midseason bracket preview show on CBS over the weekend, I asked RPI guru Jerry Palm if he thought Middle Tennessee would be able to get an at-large if it doesn’t win the Conference USA tournament. I assumed they would because he assigned the Blue Raiders a No. 11 seed, but he was pretty emphatic that the answer was no. His logic was also sound. Middle Tennessee may be 21–4, but its only top-50 win came on a neutral court against UNC-Wilmington, and it has three losses to teams ranked below 100 in the RPI—including a loss at No. 301 UTEP on Feb. 4. Any loss the Blue Raiders suffer in the conference tournament would be another bad loss. That will not stack up well against other at-large candidates.
The same is true for Wichita State, which is ranked 48th in the RPI and 16th on kenpom.com but also owns just one top-50 win, at home over Illinois State. And Illinois State’s only top-50 win was at home over Wichita State. All of this does not bode well for teams like Vermont, UNC-Wilmington, Valparaiso, Monmouth, Akron, Nevada, Belmont and New Mexico State. It’s too bad, because all of those teams are capable of winning a first-round game. But they can’t do that if they’re not in the tournament.
. . . whether the two POY candidates might be the second best players on their respective teams
I’m speaking, of course, about Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’s Frank Mason. In Mason’s case, there is no question that freshman forward Josh Jackson has been Kansas’s best player the last three weeks. Likewise, there have been times when Hart has struggled—such as Villanova’s win over Xavier on Saturday, when Hart scored just 11 points—and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson becomes Villanova’s top cat. Brunson had 17 points, seven assists and four rebounds to save the day. It’s not hard to imagine his having to do it again a few weeks hence.
. . . whether Chris Mullin is building something real at St. John’s
Don’t look now, but the Johnnies have won three of their last five games to get to just one game under .500 in the Big East. They were legit wins, too—at Providence, home vs. Marquette, home vs. Seton Hall. St. John’s also played Xavier tough at home before losing by five, and earlier this season they won at Syracuse (by 33 points!) and beat Butler at home.
When a program has been this down, fans will cling to any sign of optimism, but in this case it’s easy to see an upward trajectory. The Red Storm’s two leading scorers are both freshmen averaging more than 17 points per game. There are no seniors amongst the top seven players. Chris Mullin has two pretty good transfers sitting out this season—Justin Simon, a 6' 5" point guard from Arizona, and Marvin Clark, a 6' 7" forward from Michigan State. If Mullin can keep this group together, it’s not hard to envision the Johnnies returning to the NCAA tournament next season.
. . . whether Red Panda is actually human
Does a woman just wake up one day and decide to ride a unicycle while wearing high heels and start throwing bowls on her head? Someone please investigate on The Wonderer’s behalf. He needs to know more about how this works.
. . . whether more coaches will start dressing like Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak
As you know I’m a big fan of the no-tie look, but Utah’s coach takes things even further by sporting the long sleeve golf shirt during games. As far as I can tell it does not adversely affect his coaching.
. . . whether things are going to get worse at Indiana
Things sure got ugly early in Bloomington, didn’t they?
Those wins over Kansas and North Carolina seem like a lifetime ago. The Hoosiers got dominated again on Sunday, when they lost to Michigan at home to fall to 5–8 in the Big Ten. As disheartening as that was, it was equally problematic to see Tom Crean lay into his players in his postgame news conference. Crean may have been right in his criticism, but The Wonderer wonders whether he has lost his team.
Losing O.G. Anunoby was obviously devastating. Indiana has lost five of the seven games it has played without him. Even though James Blackmon has returned from this three-game absence due to a leg injury, it’s clear he is still badly hurt. At any rate, Indiana is not going to the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be a trying few weeks for a head coach who has long felt the heat in one of the most high-profile jobs in the sport.
. . . whether there is going to be the fourth team coming out of the SEC
We know Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina are going to be in the Big Dance, but does anyone else want to join the party? Anyone? It’s pretty embarrassing that we are asking this question about a Power 5 conference with 14 teams, but given that the committee has to come up with 36 at-large teams somehow, I have a strong feeling that one way or another, the SEC will send a fourth. I actually think the fourth-best team in the league is Georgia, but the Bulldogs have lost a ton of close games and now own a 5–7 league record. Arkansas looked pretty good there for a while but has now lost three of its last five (including a loss at cellar dweller Missouri). Maybe it’s Alabama, who just pulled off a nice win last week at South Carolina in quadruple overtime. But if there is a fourth team, the smart money is on Tennessee, which owns home victories over Kentucky and Kansas State.
. . . whether Alec Peters is going to get to play in the NCAA tournament
I’ve really enjoyed watching the 6' 9" senior forward develop into an outstanding player during his four years at Valparaiso. Peters is now the school’s alltime leading scorer, and his 23.1 scoring average ranks fifth in the country. Peters had a chance to turn pro last year but came back for his senior season, even though his coach, Bryce Drew, whose school scoring record he broke, had left for Vanderbilt. Yes, Peters made a business decision to come back and improve his draft stock, but I’m hoping that his commitment to his school is rewarded with a chance to show what he can do on the game’s biggest stage.
. . . whether we should Sharpie Scott Drew as coach of the year
Speaking of the Drew family, is there even a debate for the coach of the year? Baylor started the season unranked and is sporting a roster that does not include a single highly ranked recruit. Its starting point guard, Manu Lecomte, transferred from Miami because he couldn’t beat out the Hurricanes’ starter. Yet here we are in the middle of February and Drew has the Bears in great position to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s not to mention the fact that this program had zero basketball tradition when Drew took over, and in his third year it was hit by massive penalties for a scandal that grew out of the murder of Patrick Dennehy.
. . . whether the basketball committee is overrating Florida
I’ve been ranking Florida ahead of my fellow AP ballot voters for much of the season, but I was surprised the men’s basketball committee installed the Gators as the No. 11 overall seed, ahead of teams like Kentucky, UCLA, Cincinnati and Wisconsin. I think this was a) an overreaction to Florida’s home win over Kentucky and b) another indication that the committee places a high value on the kenpom.com rankings, where Florida has been well ahead of its poll status all season long and currently sits at No. 6 in the country. I would anticipate a correction if Florida loses at Kentucky on Feb. 25.
. . . whether UCLA should ever play zone
As I’ve been saying since the start of the season, UCLA doesn’t need to be a great defensive team to make the Final Four. It just has to be good enough. For a good chunk of the season the Bruins have not been good enough (they’re ranked 126th in the country in defensive efficiency), but by coming back from 19 points against Oregon, the Bruins showed they are capable of being plenty good enough at that end of the floor when they set their mind to it.
That comeback didn’t happen until Steve Alford came out of the zone early in the second half. Playing good defense is as much about effort as it is execution, and it was clear that the Bruins were much more focused, tough and aggressive when they were playing man to man. According to Synergy, the Bruins play zone on about 12% of their possessions, and while their efficiency is slightly better in the zone, I think it robs them of their mental edge. No more zone for this group, sayeth The Wonderer.
. . . whether NC State is the most confounding team in years
They have a top-five NBA draft pick in Dennis Smith, a high-scoring 7-foot import from Turkey in Omer Yurtseven, a healthy handful of post players and athletic wings, plus a solid outside shooter in Maverick Rowan. They beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, yet the Wolfpack are 3–10 in the ACC and have lost five in a row. They have lost league games by margins of 18, 24, 25, 30 and 51 points.
. . . whether people feel foolish for giving up on Syracuse so quickly
On the flip side, behold Syracuse, which lost earlier this season to three former Big East rivals who are not going to the NCAA tournament—UConn in Madison Square Garden, and St. John’s and Georgetown at home. They lost at Boston College by 15 points on New Year’s Day and later fell to 3–4 in the ACC. Yet, it was always foolish to doubt Jim Boeheim. The Wonderer wonders why more people didn’t realize that.
The problem all along was that this was basically a brand new team. Boeheim brought in two graduate transfers (one of whom, Andrew White, didn’t get onto campus until late summer) and had two freshmen in his starting lineup. His featured player, 6' 9" sophomore forward Tyler Lydon, was in a completely different role than the complementary role he played last season. The reason Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is so effective is that it’s all his team ever plays—and practices. But that advantage is not as decisive if his guys don’t have the requisite hours to work on it.
Ditto for the offense, which was disjointed until Boeheim finally installed 6-foot senior John Gillon as his starting point guard. Now, the Orange are 8–5 in the ACC and likely headed back to the NCAA tournament. Does it feel like we’ve seen this movie before? We did, just last year, when Syracuse lost five out of six down the stretch but still somehow made the Final Four.
. . . whether people remember when Jay Wright was on the hot seat
They should, because it was only two years ago, after Villanova suffered yet another early exit with a second-round loss to UConn. That marked the sixth straight year the Wildcats failed to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. (They didn’t even make the tourney in 2012.) Isn’t it, well, wonderful how all this works?
Craziness at VCU Leads to Rules Change
It’s not often that a single play confuses so many people that it spurs a change in the rules, but that’s what happened as the result of a wild finish that occurred Wednesday night at VCU.
Here was the situation: The Rams were inbounding the ball under their own basket with 0.4 seconds remaining. George Washington had just made a three-point basket to take a one-point lead. That is important because it meant that VCU’s inbounder was permitted to run the baseline.
During the time out, VCU coach Will Wade reached into his bag of tricks and drew up a play which called for forward Justin Tillman, who was inbounding the ball, to run the baseline while his senior guard, JeQuan Lewis, stepped in to set a blind screen. When GW forward Collin Goss ran with Tillman, he plowed into Lewis. The official correctly called a foul on Goss. Lewis went to the line, knocked down two free throws, and VCU won the game, 54–53.
Here’s the thing, though: At the moment Lewis set that screen, his left foot was out of bounds. The next day, I got a text message from an officiating source telling me that Lewis’s screen should have been ruled illegal. I sent a text to another official who has refereed in the Final Four, and he confirmed the interpretation that a player cannot set a screen out of bounds. So I wrote on Twitter that the refs had gotten the call wrong, and George Washington should have won the game.
Turns out, all three of us were wrong. While the rules do explicitly state that a defensive player cannot take a charge out of bounds, there is nothing in the book that says an offensive player cannot set a screen while standing out of bounds. When I spoke with Bryan Kersey, the coordinator of officials for the Atlantic 10, he confirmed that by rule, the referees had done the right thing.
Still, there seems to broad agreement that a player should not be allowed to set a screen if he is out of bounds. Therefore, later this week, Art Hyland, who is secretary editor of the rules committee, will issue an interpretation fixing this omission in the rulebook. Once that interpretation is posted, the rule change goes into effect immediately. Hyland told me on Sunday that he expects the committee will revisit this situation at its meetings next May and discuss whether to write the change into the rulebook.
The craziest thing about this whole situation is that in VCU’s previous game, the Rams also managed to steal victory from the jaws of defeat with the same 0.4 seconds on the clock. That happened at the end of its game at St. Bonaventure. All kinds of chaos ensued after the Bonnies took a one-point lead on a three-point shot by junior guard Matt Mobley. A security guard picked up the ball. The St. Bonaventure fans rushed the floor. The St. Bonaventure players left the bench. As the security guard walked with the ball toward midcourt, VCU forward Doug Brooks grabbed the ball out of his hands, sprinted to the baseline and threw the ball inbounds to a teammate. The final 0.4 seconds ticked off the clock. The referees assessed St. Bonaventure with a one-shot technical foul. JeQuan Lewis—yes, the same guy—made the foul shot and sent the game into overtime, where the Rams won, 83-77.
The Atlantic 10 seemed as confused as everyone else about what went on, at first issuing a press release saying the officials did the right thing in calling the technical, and then another one the next day reprimanding the refs for mismanaging the game. That second release didn’t explicitly say the technical shouldn’t have been called, but that’s what it meant. While there is a rule allowing for a technical to be called in that situation for interruption of “continuous play,” there were plenty of opportunities for the officials to stop the game to bring order.
All of which is a long way of saying you better not miss any more VCU games this season.
Five Games I’m Psyched to See This Week
Louisville at Syracuse, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Forty years ago, Jim Boeheim interrupted Rick Pitino’s wedding night so he could interview him for an assistant’s job at Syracuse. This game will provide Pitino with a little payback. Also, Louisville has point guard Quentin Snider back from injury and it might be the best defensive team in the country.
Louisville 76, Syracuse 67
West Virginia at Kansas, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Mountaineers throttled the Jayhawks by 16 points in Morgantown on Jan. 24. A long memory and a change of scenery should yield a much different result.
Kansas 88, West Virginia 75
Tennessee at Kentucky, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Noticing a theme here? The Vols nicked Kentucky by a deuce in Knoxville on Jan. 24. The Wildcats will be amped to exact their revenge in Rupp.
Kentucky 85, Tennessee 68
Duke at Virginia, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
I think it’s fair to say the Blue Devils will be defended better than they have all season—and the Cavaliers aren’t so easy to guard, either, especially at home. Duke would much prefer to run than grind, and the Cavaliers will be looking to bounce back from that crazy double overtime loss at Virginia Tech on Sunday night.
Virginia 69, Duke 67
Wisconsin at Michigan, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
I still can’t believe the Badgers lost at home to a Northwestern team that was missing its leading scorer. That’s bad news for a Michigan squad that needs all the quality wins it can get while trying to build its NCAA tournament résumé.
Wisconsin 73, Michigan 68
This Week’s AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Villanova (1)
2. Gonzaga (2)
3. Kansas (3)
4. Baylor (4)
5. Louisville (5)
6. Oregon (8)
7. Arizona (9)
8. UCLA (10)
9. Duke (19)
10. North Carolina (11)
11. Virginia (7)
12. West Virginia (12)
13. Cincinnati (13)
14. Wisconsin (6)
15. Purdue (15)
16. SMU (25)
17. Florida State (14)
18. Florida (16)
19. Kentucky (18)
20. Xavier (20)
21. Creighton (21)
22. Maryland (17)
23. Northwestern (NR)
24. Saint Mary’s (23)
25. South Carolina (22)
Dropped out: Butler (24)
Just when I thought it was going to be an unchanged ballot, we had two unexpected results Sunday night, as Wisconsin and Virginia lost. I penalized the Badgers more because their loss came at home. Still, by this time of year the cake is pretty much baked. So many games have been played that it’s going to be very hard to provoke huge swings based on one or two results.
Duke was an exception, not only because the Blue Devils beat a really good team in North Carolina, but also because they are such a different (and much better) team now that they finally have all their players and their head coach. I did not punish North Carolina or Cincinnati for losing to good conference teams on the road, but I did reward SMU for its win over the Bearcats.
This will not be Northwestern’s first time in the top 25, but it is the first time the Wildcats made my ballot. What can I say? I’m a tough sell.
It is likewise difficult for unranked teams to make their way onto my ballot this time of year. I felt like Notre Dame was rank-worthy based on its convincing win at home over Florida State, but I didn’t have an available slot. Beyond that, it didn’t seem like I had a lot of really strong candidates outside the top 25 this week. Virginia Tech, Wichita State, Kansas State, Dayton, VCU and Vermont earned a looksee, but none of them made the grade.