This week’s Bucket List — 10 observations on the college basketball season.
1. Sometimes, I can’t help but laugh at the folly of the weekly AP top 25 poll. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it as a conversation piece. (Especially in college football, the arguments it engenders can be lots of fun.) But its ebb-and-flow from week to week can be utterly ridiculous.
Example: Prior to this week, Villanova didn’t get a single No. 1 vote from any of the AP’s 65 pollsters in any of the first 13 weekly polls. In the current poll, though, the Wildcats are ranked right at the top after receiving 32 of 65 first-place votes.
What happened? Did coach Jay Wright re-sign 2006 first-round draft picks Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye? Did he entice 76ers big man Jahlil Okafor to transfer across town? Is Villanova suddenly a whole new animal?
No. Previous No. 1 Oklahoma dropped a conference road game, that’s all. As a consequence, the Sooners lost all but seven of their 45 first-place votes from the previous week. An overcorrection? Clearly. Did I mention OU has only three losses on the season — same as Villanova — and pounded the Wildcats by 23 head-to-head in December?
2. Not that the top 25 poll is of any real consequence, anyway. If the NCAA Tournament field were being selected today, Villanova wouldn’t be the No. 1 overall seed. Got to think it would be Oklahoma or — depending on the result of its Thursday night game at Indiana — Iowa.
3. Six different teams have been ranked No. 1 thus far — one off the single-season record — which goes to show how wide-open things are in the national-title picture. Mind you, the apparent absence of any truly great teams has led many to call this a bad season in college basketball. But that’s silly. We’re likely in for an extraordinarily unpredictable March. What’s better than that?
The 2013-14 season didn’t draw rave reviews for its top teams, either. Florida was the No. 1 overall tourney seed, but it had well-documented offensive troubles. Wichita State entered the tourney unbeaten, but it came from a mid-major conference. Arizona was strong, but the Pac-12 on the whole was down. We ended that season with a 7-seed, Connecticut, beating an 8-seed for the title. I wouldn’t mind seeing something like that again.
4. LSU is a struggling big-league team that I’ve felt all along has a chance to win it all if only it can get into the NCAA tourney. The Tigers have the most talented player in the country in freshman Ben Simmons, along with complementary players who can run the floor and shoot the three.
We’ve seen good LSU in its blowout of Kentucky and its two-point loss to then-No. 1 Oklahoma, but too often we’re getting the LSU that can’t close games against opponents with inferior talent. That was the case again in Wednesday’s loss at South Carolina, with first place in the SEC on the line. I’m about ready to bail on Simmons, coach Johnny Jones and the Tigers.
5. Meanwhile, crushing it: first-year Texas coach Shaka Smart. The former Final Four coach at VCU (and one-time Illinois target) has had the Longhorns playing some of the best basketball in the country over the last month. The rest of the regular-season schedule is wicked, but that’s life in the Big 12.
6. Some “interim” situations feel very temporary, but at this point I just can’t imagine Wisconsin doing anything with interim coach Greg Gard other than giving him the full-time gig. The Badgers are 8-4 since Bo Ryan abruptly stepped down, and they’ve become a completely different team during their current six-game Big Ten winning streak. Gard repeatedly has shown belief in his bench — something Ryan didn’t have — and the results have been dramatic. If that’s not a sign of a good coach, what is?
7. Feels like it’s down to Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff and Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell for Big Ten player of the year. Valentine has the best numbers, and Uthoff what thus far has been the best team. Ferrell probably needs to lead IU to a league title to be the top individual honoree. My money’s on Valentine.
8. Figure Valentine, Uthoff and Ferrell all are locks for first-team all-Big Ten. Identifying the last two guys for that is surprisingly tough. Maryland’s Melo Trimble has so much talent around him and is so unselfish, it isn’t fair to judge him by his stats (which are good but not great). Purdue’s A.J. Hammons is the top true big man in the league, hands down. Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes has been unstoppable of late. And what about Iowa’s Peter Jok, a terrific talent who’s coming into his own? Again — tough.
9. Illinois’ game at Northwestern on Saturday essentially is a must-win for the 11-13 Illini if they’re going to have any chance to avoid the sting of the school’s first losing season since 2007-08 and it’s third in 37 years. Show of hands of those betting on John Groce and Co.? Hello? Anybody?
10. Northwestern had home-and-homes with Nebraska, Maryland, Ohio State, Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State on its schedule entering the season. Illinois had home-and-homes with Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Rutgers.
Hmm … what’s missing here? Seriously, the Big Ten should never have the Illini and Wildcats meeting fewer than twice. Isn’t that obvious?
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