If you’re like pretty much everyone else in the American population, there’s a reasonable chance that up until this point you really haven’t paid all that much attention to college basketball. That’s right, the game I grew up loving, has slowly evolved into a niche sport, a six week season starting post Super Bowl and ending with March Madness. Ask most casual sports fans and they’ll tell you the same: Get me through Signing Day, get me through the Super Bowl, and then we’ll start talking about college hoops. But until that day comes, I can’t be bothered.
Well, folks, guess what? That day is here. Football is done (unless you count that silly version of the game they play up in Canada), and it isn’t quite time to start talking Combine or NFL Draft yet. Meaning that for better or worse, it’s time to embrace college hoops. Erase Aaron Rodgers from your brain, and replace him with Aaron Craft. Skip over Michael Vick and get to know Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Oh, and all that vitriol you have for Bill Belichick? Feel free to keep it, and instead channel it toward Coach K. Both are total pricks, but at least Belichick has that hoodie to make him semi-relateable. Coach K... not so much.
It's time for you to get caught up with college hoops, and thankfully, you’ve got me here to help you along. This week I’m going to bang out a two-part mid-season primer to get you all the information you’ll need to get through the next six weeks. Today, we’ll start with the contenders, looking at the five teams I believe to be truly title worthy. Tomorrow we’ll hit on everyone else, some sleeper teams to look for and a break down the National Player of the Year race.
It’s time to pack football up and put it in the closet for the next few weeks. College basketball season has officially begun. Even if the games did technically start in November.
Here are this year’s contenders.
The Uber-Contender: Kentucky
Well Kentucky fans, here we are: Three months and 25 or so games into the season, and you’re on top of the mountain, looking down at the rest of the college basketball common folk below. Barring something very surprising happening, you will be the favorite going forward. How does it feel?
Hopefully, the answer should be “pretty good,” considering that I can’t ever remember a better convergence of talent, relative experience and “buying in” from a John Calipari coached team than this year’s club. As far as college basketball and Cal are concerned, this is as close to a perfect storm as we’re ever going to see.
Speaking of Cal, let’s start with him. Because as a fan of this sport of college basketball, the one question that I get more than any is the following: “What’s your opinion on John Calipari.” It seems as though everyone wants a reason to hate Cal, even if nobody is entirely sure why that is.
Well personally, I love the guy. Always have, and always will. Besides the fact that he’s the single most interesting person in college basketball (and I’d argue probably the second most polarizing person in sports right now, behind only Tim Tebow), I really just don’t think he gets enough credit for exactly what he’s doing right now.
In specific, Cal deserves credit for two things:
1. His Ability To Mold His Team: So by now we’ve all heard the tired narrative that Cal is a “recruiter” and not a “coach,” which is about as outdated as saying Will Smith is only a good comedy actor and can’t do drama. Personally, I beg to differ. Those five Elite Eight’s and two Final Fours tell me that the guy knows a thing or two other than recruiting.
As for coaching specifically, what Cal doesn’t get nearly enough credit for is not just his ability to recruit elite players, but to get them to buy in, and play together once they’re on campus. It continually amazes me how lottery picks like DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, whomever, have always been “the man,", yet are willing to sacrifice shots, sacrifice minutes, and sacrifice stats for the good of the good of Kentucky basketball when they come to Lexington. Believe me, that’s no small feat.
This all inadvertently leads to my second point…
2. Cal Always Gets His Guys To Play Defense: Again, no small feat. Remember, most everyone who Cal recruits is the cream of the crop in their high school class, meaning that they’ve probably never actually been required to play defense at any point in their lives. Well guess what? As things stand today, Kentucky is the No. 1 defensive team in college basketball.
Anyway, now that I’ve spent the last 500 words kissing Calipari’s butt, you’re probably wondering what the point in all that is. Only this: Those two things I just listed above best explain why Kentucky is an overwhelming favorite going forward. Not only do they have the talent and raw basketball ability, but above all, they’re fully invested as a team, and fully invested on both ends of the court.
As for the specifics, well, let me ask: What exactly is Kentucky’s weakness? Quite frankly, I’m having trouble finding one.
For starters, Kentucky is ranked No. 1 in the country, and is one Christian Watford buzzer-beater from being undefeated on the season. They get it done both offensively (where they rank in the Top 20 nationally in scoring) and even more so defensively, where they have the No. 1 field goal percentage defense in the country (38.1 percent). They’re almost comically unselfish (Saturday’s game against South Carolina featured more alley oops than a Harlem Globetrotters game). They have the single biggest difference maker on the defensive end in college basketball in my lifetime (Anthony Davis is like Hasheem Thabeet.. if Thabeet had natural coordination, or an ounce of basketball IQ). They’ve got the single biggest Kemba Walker-esque, “Get on my back, I’m not letting us lose” force in the sport, in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. They hit deep balls (Doron Lamb’s three goggles are the fashion hit of the winter season). Marquis Teague is getting better (he’s got just five turnovers in his last four games). And even free throwing shooting (John Calipari’s career Kryptonite) isn’t so much an issue in 2012; Kentucky makes 71 percent, and of the guys who actually play, only Terrence Jones shoots below 69 percent.
Point being, this team is loaded.
As a matter of fact, when they’re playing their best, the only team I can see running with them is…
The Co-Contender: Syracuse
When it comes to Syracuse basketball this year, I’m like a recovering smoker, who occasionally needs to sneak out and take a drag. I don’t want to like the Orange (I am a UConn fan, after all), but when no one is looking, I’m ashamed to say that I need my Syracuse hoops fix. Simply put, they’re a darn fun team to watch.
As for the team itself, well, if Kentucky has the most talent in college basketball, Syracuse has the most depth; looking at them on paper is literally an exercise in gluttony. As things stand, the Orange have 10 guys who play 12 minutes a game, and nobody who plays more than 30. They go a legitimate two deep at every position, including point guard where they’ve got two guys (Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche) who could pretty much start for anyone in the country, and at center, where they’re the only team that I can think of which has a McDonald’s All-American (Rakeem Christmas) backing up another McDonald’s All-American (Fab Melo). Oh, and in all likelihood, their best player (Dion Waiters) doesn’t even start. Basically, these guys never stop coming at you.
Speaking of which, it’s the depth which makes them so damn scary, especially on the defensive end. Simply put, their zone has always been good. But now that they can legitimately go two-deep at every position, it’s terrifying; like meeting Frank Martin in a dark alley or something. Guys go hard every single possession, knowing that in four to five minutes they’ll be able to get out and get a breather. And because of it, I can’t imagine a much scarier team defensively.
A couple of other notes on Syracuse:
1. Considering that I haven’t always had the umm, nicest things to say about point guard Scoop Jardine, I think it’s time I make amends. Scoop, if you’re reading, I apologize. Over the past few years I’ve used a lot of not nice words to describe you. Things like “selfish,” “careless” and “basically, a disgrace to the game of basketball.” Yeah, umm about that… I’m sorry. And in your defense, this year you’ve been none of those things. You’ve been smart with the ball, team-first, and basically everything a fan could ever want from their point guard. If you have it in your heart, I hope you can forgive me.
2. Then there’s Fab Melo. For those of you who haven’t watched much college hoop this year, you’re going to stunned- I mean absolutely stunned- by how different this guy looks in 2012. Yeah, you remember that uncoordinated, doughy goofball from last year, who averaged "more dropped passes out of bounds" than points per game? Well now Melo is in shape, confident and playing out of his mind. And after a quick academic suspension he is back, and Syracuse has never looked better. What's even crazier is that there's no doubt that they weren't the same without him.
3. As much as I hate to do it, I’ve got to give Jim Boeheim credit (believe me, that’s no small feat).
As some of you know, I got into a bit of a radio snafu earlier this year by saying that I thought Boehiem should be National Coach of the Year, and while I have backed off that stance a bit, I still don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for what he’s doing this year. Like John Calipari, he’s had to manage egos, but unlike Cal, he’s had to manage minutes too. It’s one thing when you’re Kentucky, and you’ve basically only got seven guys who are going to play in any given game. It’s quite another when you’re Syracuse and you’ve got 10 guys who not only expect minutes, but frankly, deserve them. As crazy as it sounds, having “too much talent” can be a real issue (just ask Villanova these past few years… or even UConn this year), but at Syracuse it never has been. Like Kentucky, everyone has accepted their role, no one has complained, and everyone has bought in. In this day and age, with the kind of egos most college hoops players have, that’s no small feat.
Jim Boeheim might not win National Coach of the Year. Still, this is could be one of his best seasons yet.
The Rest Of The Contenders:
For anyone who reads my work (or more importantly, has engaged me in a college hoops debate at a bar), you’ve probably learned that I’m not a huge fan of this year’s version of Carolina. Do I like Roy Williams’ crew? Sure. But did I ever think that they were the sure-fire, can’t miss slam dunk No. 1 that everyone tabbed them as in the preseason? No, I didn’t actually.
And ultimately, my biggest concern about them (their toughness) has more or less played itself out during this 2012 season. The talent has always been there, but I always felt like late in a tight game, in winning time, the Tar Heels didn’t totally have guys I trusted. And so far, that’s basically been North Carolina’s Achilles heel (see what I did there?). They got tight at UNLV, couldn’t pull out a close one at Rupp (although, you can’t really blame them on that one) and straight up quit at Florida State, which bothered me more than the other two losses combined. Again, it’s one thing to lose a tough game, against a good team in a hostile road environment. But to quit? You’d never, ever see Kentucky, Syracuse or Ohio State do that. Ever.
However, what I will say about Carolina is that Saturday’s win over Maryland may have swayed me back in their favor a bit. Sure Maryland is 13-9 overall, and on paper the win might not have looked great. But if you watched that game, you probably felt a totally different vibe. The truth is that Maryland came out swinging haymakers at Carolina, and legitimately made that game chippy for the first 30 or so minutes or so. For the Tar Heels it would’ve been easy to quit or back down, but to their credit they took a few shots on the chin, spit out some blood, and kept fighting. Honestly, I’m not sure that the North Carolina team of last year (or even last month, for that matter) would’ve done that. But Saturday afternoon was gut-check time for the Heels, and to their credit they passed.
Still, it’s one thing to do it against Maryland, and quite another to do against other elite teams. Win a tough game against Duke Wednesday (especially with the Blue Devils coming off a tough loss)? Now we’re talking.
In the interest of full-disclosure, I’ll just tell you that of all the legitimate contenders, I feel like I “know” Ohio State the least well out of everyone. Then again, in my defense, it’s kind of hard to delineate this Ohio State team from every other since, well, they’re basically doing what every other Ohio State team does: Wracking up wins, laying roughshod over the Big Ten, and cruising to a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
And while I wouldn’t say this Ohio State team is better than last year’s (they’re not) or even the 2010 version, what I will say is that there’s something about the chemistry that I like a lot. Basically, everyone’s role seems to be clearly defined. Jared Sullinger is the low post scorer; Aaron Craft the point guard and best on the ball defender; Will Buford the wing scorer; and DeShaun Thomas the “I don’t care what happens, I’m getting my 20 points tonight, guy.” And behind them, there are a bunch of freshmen and role players that don’t care about minutes, don’t care about shots, and are happy to just be along for the ride.
Now of course the questions surrounding the 2012 Buckeyes are basically the same ones that surrounded the 2011 version too: Essentially, are they deep enough, and are they athletic enough?
Of every contender, Ohio State seems to be the one most prone to losing on any random night if one of their superstars doesn’t play well, or someone gets into foul trouble. Athleticism is still an issue; remember, they struggled with Kentucky’s length in the tournament last year, and well, Kentucky is even better this year, along with Syracuse, Carolina and other upstarts like Florida, Marquette could give them trouble too. Plus, let’s not forget that Jared Sullinger missed some time with a back injury earlier in the season. I’m not saying that’s a big deal per se, but to anyone who has ever had back problems you know that’s something that can continue to linger.
Point being, I like Ohio State, but don’t love them. Yes, like all the teams on this list, they seem capable of handling the weaker teams on the schedule. Plus if Saturday’s win at Wisconsin proved anything, it’s that they’re incredibly mentally tough. I know the Kohl Center mystique isn’t what it once was, but a win there is still a win.
At the same time, could you really see them taking down Kentucky, Carolina or Syracuse on a neutral floor? That’s what I thought.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that Baylor doesn’t naturally pass the “smell test” that the four teams above them do. Their two losses were to the two other best teams in the Big XII (Kansas and Missouri), meaning that both Jayhawks and Tigers fans have a legitimate gripe that I have the Bears on this list, and not them.
At the same time, whenever I watch Baylor, I can’t help but continue to have one continual, lingering thought: If I was a fan of one of the teams listed above, I’d be terrified to play Baylor. Like literally peeing my pants thinking about it right now (what can I say, I have a weak baldder).
To put it a different way, let me ask you this: Have you ever heard of the phrase “an airport team?” If you haven't, what an “Airport team” essentially is, is a basketball team that just looks intimidating walking into the arena, or walking around an airport. As in you see them from a distance and say “Woah, that must be a basketball team.”
Well, Baylor is basically the definition of that. Across the front line, they go 6’8, 6’9 and 6’11 with Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones, with 6’10 A.J. Jones off the bench… and all four of those guys are all arms and legs. Seriously, take out Acy, and the other three might weigh a combined 350 lbs. with about a 92-foot wingspan. And the fact that Baylor plays zone only makes them more terrifying; good luck trying to get an entry pass into the post on them.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Perry Jones for a second. Because to me, he might be the most fascinating guy in college basketball this year.
Simply put, there’s no real way to describe him, and no real NBA player that you can compare him to. Yes, he’s 6’11, but while he’s built like Anthony Davis, handles the ball like a guard, moves like an eel (I stole that from Clark Kellogg, but really, is there a better way to describe him?) and shoots like a guy six inches shorter…but oh by the way, he can also play in the paint too. The best comparison I can make is probably Kevin Durant, but that’s not entirely accurate either, since Durant has never been as comfortable around the basket as Jones is (Then again, Jones doesn’t have half the perimeter moves that Durant does either).
Yup, I’m fascinated by Perry Jones, and really fascinated by this Baylor team. Are they invincible? Of course, everyone is. Flawed? Sure. But name me one team that on a neutral court, on any given day they couldn’t beat? I can’t think of one.
And of everyone in college basketball, they’re the one I’m most interested in going forward…
Be sure to check in for Part II tomorrow, when I break down the rest of the contenders, a few sleepers and the National Player of the Year race!
Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter, Facebook or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones
And finally, Aaron has written his first book! It's called The Unlikeliest Champion, it's about the 2011 UConn Huskies National Championship team. It is available for order in Kindle or paperback at both www.uconnbook.com and Amazon.com. Get your order in today!)