Something needs to be done to revamp the first weekend of the college basketball season. The way that the 2017–18 campaign got underway was fine, but I want more than fine. I want the return of aircraft carrier games so I can watch Ohio State and Marquette’s managers wipe condensation off the floor for an hour. I want ESPN’s 24-hour marathon to come back so I can set my alarm to see groggy-eyed players pretend that they’re not tired while tipping off at 6 a.m. As things stand, we were treated to one game played at a military base on opening night (Texas A&M’s 88–65 win over West Virginia) and two marquee games played in the Champions Classic the following Tuesday. Those are supposed to hold us over until the wave of early-season tournaments that includes the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Jamaica Classic Montego Bay, the Cayman Islands Classic, and the Jimmy Buffett TURKeyS and Caicos Thanksgiving Day TipOff Spectacular. (I made that last one up. I think.) There have been recent efforts to make the start of each season more exciting, with the best example being the Gavitt Tipoff Games between the Big East and Big Ten that began back in 2015. But that’s not enough.
Opening Night needs to be a thing with capital letters. Now that Midnight Madness is no longer synced up so that every team starts practice at the same time, college basketball is desperate for one night when everyone can come together and celebrate the season’s beginning. I’ve long joked that the NCAA should mandate the top four teams in the preseason AP poll to play in a tipoff tournament with an automatic NCAA tourney bid on the line. Now, I’m taking that a step further: Make it a 16-team tournament. Get the 30 or so teams that are expected to top the preseason rankings to block off the first week of their schedule, and get 14 small schools to block off that portion of their slate as well. The teams that don’t get ranked in the top 16 of the AP poll would be assigned matchups with the small schools, while the teams that do would take part in a four-day tournament (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday) with real March ramifications at stake. Who cares about the obvious drawbacks to this idea (like the media manipulating the AP vote even more than usual to get certain teams in the field)? What matters is that college basketball would have one hell of a way to announce its arrival. Plus, it’s not like this is any more ridiculous than teams playing games halfway around the world or literally on boats.
If nothing else, can we at least move some nonconference rivalry games up to Opening Night? Imagine if the first Friday of the 2018–19 season rolled around and ESPN aired UConn-Syracuse at 7 p.m. ET, Kentucky-Indiana at 9, and Arizona-Gonzaga at 11 — with Cincinnati-Xavier, Kansas-Missouri, and Notre Dame-UCLA happening on ESPN2. Tell me with a straight face that you wouldn’t drop a grand to buy another TV so that you could invite your friends over to watch all of these games at once. You can’t.
12. Texas A&M (1–0)
An argument could be made that Texas A&M put forth the most impressive performance of any team in the country so far, with the Aggies routing West Virginia by 23 points at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Since this is my column and I can do what I want, I’ll make that argument now. A&M was without starting point guard J.J. Caldwell and projected lottery pick Robert Williams (both were suspended); it played against a top-15 team that has one of the best defenses in college basketball; and it fell behind by 13 points with eight minutes left in the first half. Still, the Aggies found a way to run the Mountaineers out of the gym. Admon Gilder (23 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists) and DJ Hogg (19 points, seven rebounds, and six assists) were incredible off the bench, Tyler Davis (23 points, 13 boards) was a monster down low, and Bob Huggins was left with a sweaty scowl on his face that … uh … was pretty much the same face that he always makes.
A lot can change between now and January, but the SEC figures to be the power conference with the most wide-open race for its regular-season title. If A&M can bring it the way it did against West Virginia, though — especially once Caldwell and Williams are back in the fold — the SEC might not be so unpredictable after all.
11. Miami (3–0)
Miami has annihilated its three opponents so far (Gardner-Webb, Navy, and Florida A&M) and doesn’t play a nationally relevant game until it goes to Minnesota in a couple of weeks. Based on this, you might assume that you should ignore the Hurricanes for the time being. I’d caution against that line of thinking. This is how Miami has operated in each of the past few years: It beats up on inferior teams and flies under the radar for the first six weeks of the season, and then it upsets Duke and everyone freaks out about how a bunch of overlooked dudes at a football school toppled the big, bad Blue Devils. All the while, those who closely follow the Hurricanes program wonder if the win should even be considered an upset at all. (Reminder: Jim Larrañaga is 5–3 against Duke as Miami’s head coach and has beaten the Blue Devils at least once in five of the last six seasons.)
Don’t fall into that trap again. Familiarize yourself with a four-guard lineup that features some of the best backcourt players in America (Bruce Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker, Ja’Quan Newton, and Dejan Vasiljevic). Understand that the ’Canes will probably have one of the top 20 defenses in the nation, and expect them to hang around in the ACC title hunt until the end. And when Miami hands Duke its first loss of the season on January 15 and all of your friends act shocked, tell them you saw this coming from a mile away because you read the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.
10. Cincinnati (3–0)
I blocked off two hours Thursday night to watch Cincinnati play Coppin State. The plan was to sink my teeth into the X’s and O’s and dissect what makes the most talented team that Mick Cronin has ever coached so good. When the Bearcats jumped out to a 20–4 lead by the first media timeout, though, I decided that I’d seen enough to reach a conclusion: everything. Everything makes this team good.
Cincy is good at defense, it’s good at offense, and if such a thing existed in basketball, it’d be good at special teams too. And yeah, I get that Coppin State sucks. But I don’t care if Cincinnati was playing Girl Scouts. Being up 20–4 on anyone by a game’s first media timeout is absurd, as is winning three games against Division I opponents by an average margin of more than 41 points. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I’m already more hyped for this year’s Xavier-Cincinnati matchup on December 2 than I’ve been for any Crosstown Shootout in my life.
9. North Carolina (2–0)
Are we doing it? Are we sure it’s not too soon? Ah, screw it — let’s just go for it. Let’s get the Luke Maye national player of the year campaign rolling. The guy is an NCAA tournament hero who is averaging 23 points, 9.5 boards, and two assists per game for the defending national champ. I don’t care if we’re only two games into the season. I’ve started NPOY campaigns with less in the past, and you can be damn sure I’ll do it again. (Pour one out for the Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. NPOY campaign that I tried to start last year after Baylor beat Oregon in the second game of the season and Lual-Acuil was averaging 10 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 5.5 blocks per game at the time.)
We have to be smart about this, though. Luke Maye’s North Carolina teammate is Joel Berry II, a preseason NPOY favorite who is much more widely known among casual fans. It’s going to be tough for Luke Maye to climb out of his shadow. That’s why I think that Luke Maye should always be referred to by his full name. There’s just something about it that rolls off the tongue, not to mention that “Luke” and “Maye” alone are too vague.
The obvious exception to this rule is the drawn-out, unified “Luuuuuuuke” cheer that Carolina fans break out when Luke Maye really gets cooking. But otherwise Luke Maye should be called Luke Maye for branding purposes. Now all we need is a catch phrase and hashtag. All I’ve got right now is “LUKE MAYE DON’T PLAYE” and #TheEyebrowsalArousal. We can do better. Let’s workshop this.
8. Florida (2–0)
Other than the concussion doomsday prophecies coming to fruition and sinking the entire sport of football, what would it take for a football school to transform into a basketball school in the modern era of college sports? I’m not talking about places where football is only slightly more important than basketball like, say, Wisconsin. I’m talking about a school like Florida, where football has unequivocally been the sport of choice for decades and where basketball has traditionally been regarded an afterthought. I follow SB Nation writer and die-hard Gators football fan Spencer Hall on Twitter, which is to say I have a basic understanding of just how underwhelming the Florida football program has been since Urban Meyer left Gainesville. Yet even if you include the Meyer era at Florida, the Gators basketball program has still been more successful than the football team over the last 20 years. It is certainly in a better spot now, as Mike White’s team is coming off an Elite Eight berth last spring. In averaging 112 points through two contests in 2017–18, it looks every bit like a Final Four threat this time around.
I know we’re still a loooooooong way away from Florida fans even thinking about caring about the basketball program more than the football team. But that’s the entire point in bringing this all up: How long would the Gators basketball team need to outperform the football team for the fan base to consider changing its sport of choice? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? Before you scoff at what might seem like a ridiculous notion, let me remind you that a similar shift has happened in the past: Syracuse football had Jim Brown in the 1950s, won a national championship in 1959, went undefeated in 1987 … and then ended up with Greg Paulus as its quarterback six years after Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to a basketball national title.
7. Kentucky (2–1)
Kentucky lost a mess of a game to Kansas on Tuesday, falling 65–61 in a contest in which the Wildcats went 3-of-13 from beyond the arc, committed 18 turnovers, and trailed for virtually the entire night. Yet Big Blue Nation seemed generally pleased with the result. How is that even possible?
What’s weird is that I don’t think Kentucky fans are ridiculous for feeling that way. Here are the only things I’m certain of about the Wildcats right now: The entire roster is long and athletic, and freshman Kevin Knox is an absolute stud. That’s it. That’s not to say that the Cats’ other players won’t blossom into stars as the year goes along. But thus far the Kentucky we’ve seen can’t dribble, pass, or shoot, and most experts agree that those three skills are important for basketball teams.
And yet, Kentucky’s length and athleticism swallowed Kansas’s offense alive, and the Cats only lost to the Jayhawks by four despite struggling to get anything to fall. At some point this group will need to figure out its point guard situation and find someone other than Knox to consistently score. It could do worse than having a roster full of ultra-athletic guys with 7-foot wingspans as a foundation, though.
It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to business.
During Tuesday’s Kansas-Kentucky game in Chicago, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Rice?
A. As the broadcast returns from a halftime break, Vitale tells his partner Dan Shulman that it feels good to be back. Shulman responds by saying that he enjoys calling baseball games during the summer, but that there’s nothing he enjoys more than sitting next to Dickie V. Speaking of baseball, Vitale mentions how great the World Series was, and how happy he is for the people of Houston after all they had to endure with Hurricane Harvey. He then reminds viewers that Houston has a handful of Division I hoops programs: Houston, Texas Southern, Houston Baptist, and Rice.
B. A promo is shown for the upcoming 76ers-Lakers game to be aired on ESPN, prompting Shulman to mention Ben Simmons’s recent comments about his lone season at LSU. Vitale goes on a rant about those remarks, conceding that Simmons has a point about the system needing to be fixed, but making it clear that he thinks it’s unfair that LSU’s program has to deal with any negative publicity. Vitale says he feels for Tigers coach Will Wade, who left VCU to join LSU in March. Shulman then informs viewers that VCU’s new coach is Mike Rhoades, who last worked at Rice.
C. Vitale and Shulman discuss Bill Self’s streak of 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles at Kansas, leading Vitale to mention that he thinks Self has a good chance of making it 14 in a row in 2017–18. According to Vitale, that’s because the Big 12 isn’t as strong as it usually is. Vitale backs up his point by going through the problems facing a few Big 12 programs before Shulman says that the opposite is true of the SEC. Vitale and Shulman then go through SEC teams they like, ultimately landing at Florida. This prompts Vitale to mention how he loves Egor Koulechov, a transfer from Rice.
6. Kansas (2–0)
There are two ways for Jayhawks fans to process Kansas’s four-point victory against Kentucky on Tuesday. The first is to simply recognize that winning is good and appreciate defeating a top-10 team that previously smoked the Jayhawks in the Champions Classic. Whatever problems exist can be sorted out later. All that matters is Kansas had seven scholarship players available and got a win that could be valuable when it comes time for the committee to seed teams in the NCAA tournament.
The other mindset would be to count the similarities between this week’s game and Kansas’s 74–60 loss to Oregon in the 2017 Elite Eight, when the Jayhawks went cold from the 3-point line and were thoroughly dominated by the Ducks. As was the case last season, Kansas entered this fall expecting to lean heavily on its guards, but with five-star freshman big Billy Preston’s eligibility suddenly in question, that identity has become dramatically more pronounced. That means the Jayhawks will likely be a “live by the 3, die by the 3” team, which is fantastic when the likes of Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, and Svi “The Ukrainmaker” Mykhailiuk get hot, but is less fun upon realizing that “live by the 3, die by the 3” is a phrase that has never been used in a positive light in college basketball history.
Tuesday’s game — with the Jayhawks going 8-of-28 from deep against a team with a size and athleticism advantage — was essentially a nightmare scenario for Bill Self, but his team still found a way to survive. If a similar scenario unfolds down the road, will Kansas be able to do the same?
5. Wichita State (2–0)
Landry Shamet, Wichita State’s best player, is working his way back to 100 percent health after having foot surgery over the summer. Markis McDuffie, the program’s second-best player, remains out while recovering from a foot injury of his own. Despite this, the Shockers managed to carry a 25-point lead into halftime of Monday’s matchup against the College of Charleston, which returns all its key pieces from a 25-win squad and is the heavy favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association. Wichita State rolled, 81–63.
National opinion about the Shockers is always so divided that you can take whatever you want from the paragraph above. If you hold the belief that Wichita State is perpetually overrated, the thought of me suggesting that a win against the College of Charleston is somehow impressive probably made you pull a muscle from laughing so hard. And if you’re a Wichita State fan (or worse, a college basketball media member), there’s a chance that you burst into applause or yelled “PREACH!” after reading it. (Or maybe you did something slightly less dramatic.) The point is that we don’t yet have an idea of just how good the Shockers are this season, but unlike seasons past, that should change soon. Over the next six weeks, Wichita State will play in the Maui Invitational, travel to Baylor and Oklahoma State, host Oklahoma, and open conference play by visiting UConn.
4. Michigan State (1–1)
The Spartans lost to Duke 88–81 on Tuesday despite the fact that Marvin Bagley III — arguably the Blue Devils’ best player — was limited to only 10 minutes of playing time. That’d seem to bode poorly for Michigan State’s chances moving forward. But the truth is that Tom Izzo’s team really just needs to solve two issues to become as great as most fans and analysts expected it would be heading into this season.
The first is the point guard situation. Cassius Winston currently starts over Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. because Winston is bigger, more skilled, and theoretically should make the offense more explosive. But the Spartans’ top priority at the position should be finding a player who can fit all the pieces together, not someone who injects as much talent as possible into an already-loaded starting lineup. That’s why I think that Nairn, who is a better leader and defender than Winston is, should eventually get the starting job back.
The other issue is figuring out how to play Miles Bridges at the 4. His NBA future may lie on the wing, and he’s shown that he can regularly hit shots from the outside. But Bridges’s skill set and 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame give him the perfect build of a college power forward. He disappeared for long stretches against Duke’s zone as he floated around the perimeter waiting to jack up 3s, which was fine in the sense that he shot well (5-of-10) from deep, but was problematic in that he’s way too talented to not be more assertive. In a perfect world, Bridges would spend more time in the paint while occasionally stepping out to hit 3s and take defenders off the dribble.
This isn’t a perfect world, though. Michigan State’s second- and third-best players are the 6-foot-11 Jaren Jackson Jr. and the 6-foot-8 Nick Ward, meaning the only way for Bridges to play the 4 is for one of those guys to come off the bench. My guess is that Izzo will opt to maintain the status quo and hope that Winston and Bridges can figure things out. If I were the coach, though, I’d experiment with bringing Ward off the bench (given that he’s so foul prone), starting Nairn at point guard, and sliding Winston to the 2.
3. Villanova (2–0)
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve repeated the same line of thinking when asked about my expectations for the 2017–18 season: “In terms of talent, Duke, Michigan State, and Arizona are the top three in some order, and the rest of the field is so far behind that it doesn’t even matter.” That’s not to say that those three schools have much better teams than everyone else. It’s just that their rosters are loaded, to the point that I’d pore through them over the summer and find myself saying, “Oh wow, they have him, too!”
A week into game action, though, I can admit that another team belongs in that echelon. While USC has a ton of firepower, Kansas has terrific guards, and Kentucky oozes with potential, it’s Villanova that deserves mention in the upper tier. The Wildcats currently sit atop the KenPom rankings — which means you can call them the best team in the country with impunity, since everyone agrees that KenPom is gospel — and have won their first two contests by an average margin of 25.5 points.
I must have some sort of blind spot when it comes to Villanova, as I always think of the program as an underdog basically regardless of who’s on the roster. It’s like the ghost of the 1985 title team, paired with the Wildcats’ recent history of not having high NBA draft picks, trick me into thinking that they’re only good because their players work well together. They do, of course, but that’s not the only reason why Villanova is a legitimate national title contender. Jay Wright’s team also has an eye-popping starting lineup: Jalen Brunson (AP preseason first team All-American), Phil Booth (dropped 20 points in the 2016 national title game), Mikal Bridges (potential NBA lottery pick), Omari Spellman (McDonald’s All-American), and Eric Paschall (Eric Paschall). And ohbytheway, that’s without even mentioning the team’s leading scorer to date this season, Donte DiVincenzo a.k.a. The Big Ragu a.k.a. the Michael Jordan of Delaware. That’s a six-man rotation that I would be willing to do disgusting and possibly illegal things to have if I were a college basketball coach.
2. Arizona (3–0)
I’m facing a dilemma with Arizona. I have yet to see the Wildcats play this season, mostly because they’ve played three cupcakes in the run-up to the Battle 4 Atlantis that begins next Wednesday. This feels like it needs to be fixed. As someone who’s made it a most powerful power rankings tradition to blatantly pander to Arizona fans (folks, I’ve been drunk at Dirtbag’s and hungover at Laverna’s more times than I can count!), I feel immense guilt that my pandering may come off as fraudulent.
On the other hand, I don’t want my image of Deandre Ayton to be spoiled. At this time a week ago, all I knew about Ayton was that the freshman was projected to be a top-3 NBA draft pick, stands 7-foot-1, and had a badass picture taken of him. That was it. The guy could have been unable to run 10 yards without tripping over his own feet and I wouldn’t have cared. In my mind, I only knew him as a mythical mountain of a man. And then I saw this retweeted into my timeline on Sunday.
So now I know two things about Ayton: (1) he lifts weights and (2) he puts fools on posters. And honestly, I’m kind of happy to leave it at that. I’m tempted to not watch a single second of Arizona basketball all season and only consume the Ayton content that finds its way into my Twitter feed. At the rate things are going, I’ll be spreading urban legends about the guy like he’s Paul F’ing Bunyan by February. Speaking of which, Wildcats fans, help me out with a rumor I’m hearing: Is it true that Ayton can lift Parker Jackson-Cartwright off the ground just by palming the top of his head?
1. Duke (3–0)
I tried to warn you. I wrote in August that the Grayson Allen Redemption Tour was coming, and then I repeated it as part of my national player of the year preview last week. I knew that the ESPN interview was inevitable. I knew that he’d publish a Players’ Tribune piece at some point, and that he was going to take part in some goofy, lighthearted stunt to show that he’s a real human being. I just never anticipated it happening so soon, let alone Allen also getting rid of the bangs, dropping 37 on the second-ranked team in America, and saying all of the right things during his postgame interview. What was supposed to take months to play out has instead taken days, and it’s only going to get worse from here. Before you know it, Seth Greenberg is going to concede that maybe — juuuuust maybe — Allen shouldn’t have quit last season, after all.
I’ll admit it: I’m kind of falling for it. I’m not saying that I’m rooting for the guy. I just notice more and more that I have to remind myself why he’s so despised. Sure, he’s got the same face and the same floppy bullshit to his game. But I can’t help that I’m a sucker for redemption stories. I just think that giving people second chances is something that we should value as a society, and that we should celebrate those who have the courage to … OH NO. IT’S HAPPENING. THEY’VE ALREADY GOTTEN TO ME. I CAN FEEL THE VIRUS SPREADING THROUGH MY BLOODSTREAM. IT’S TOO LATE TO SAVE ME, BUT MAYBE THERE’S STILL TIME TO SAVE YOURSELF. YOU JUST HAVE TO LEAVE NOW! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE GOD GO! RUN AWAY AND NEVER LOOK BACK!!!
The International Incident of the Week
LaVar Ball’s other son and two guys whose names you’ve seen 1,000 times but still can’t remember were arrested in China for shoplifting sunglasses last week. Initial reports suggested that they could face punishment that ranged from spending 10 years in prison to being the butt of millions of dank memes on the internet. But then Donald J. Trump himself saved the day by riding halfway around the world on the back of a bald eagle, kicking down China’s front door, and demanding that those Commie bastards hand over our Balls. Now, as people across America wait for their hands to heal from applauding Trump’s heroics so vigorously, we shift our focus to a few very serious points of contention. How long should these UCLA players be suspended for? Should the death penalty be on the table for the program in this case? And most importantly, how big should we make Trump’s statue to commemorate this historic event?
Here’s my take: [drawn out fart noise that changes its pitch 12 times and ends with a sequence of notes that can only be described as “wet”]
The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.