The Double Bonus: Thin Up Top?

With losses this week by the top two teams in the country, as well as Purdue’s loss of its best player for the whole year and Villanova getting its fourth loss in seven games, a popular refrain has settled in among the college basketball punditry: There are no elite teams this year! The front line is weak! No team is unbeatable!

Well, obvs. College basketball is not like college football, where dominant teams often do seem unbeatable. College basketball teams don’t go undefeated—not anymore—and therefore, they are all beatable. No. 1 seeds are going to lose at some point during the season, but that doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

It’s popular to compare this season’s probable No. 1 seeds with UNC from last year, the preseason favorite that coasted to a National Championship. But the idea that last year’s Tar Heels were unbeatable or invulnerable is revisionist history, stemming largely from the fact that UNC did not face a significant challenge in the NCAA Tournament.

At this point last season, though, UNC was the #4 team in the country, behind Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, and UConn. They started out 0-2 in ACC play, including a loss at home to an unimpressive Boston College team, and at this point in the season had three total losses—one more than Kansas, Kentucky, and Syracuse have this year. It’s true that the ACC was a stronger conference last year, and that the Tar Heels were generally considered the favorites throughout the year, but they were by no means an unstoppable behemoth, surviving close calls at Florida State and at Miami.

Even the 2009 Tar Heels were the exception and not the rule—seldom does a Final Four team return its entire starting lineup, including the reigning National Player of the Year. The idea of a “clear-cut favorite” in college basketball is rare, and generally something that is reshaped in retrospect. The 2007 Florida team, for example, is generally considered a clear-cut, wire-to-wire favorite since the Gators were defending champions with largely the same roster, but that’s ignoring the fact that the team dropped three of its last five regular season games and won only one Tournament game by more than 10 points.

Are this year's top teams really that much worse than Corey Brewer and Florida?

But with Florida in 2007, as with UNC last year, the pre-season favorite ended up winning, so we think of them as a wire-to-wire juggernaut, since they started as #1 and finished as #1; people tend to forget their in-season struggles, or dismiss them post hoc as inevitable let-down. Similarly, if Kansas ends up winning the NCAA Tournament (I don’t think they will, but they certainly could), people will remember this year’s Jayhawks in the same way—forgetting about or dismissing their in-season losses.

Over the last decade there have been plenty of examples of the preseason favorite winning the National Championship: Duke in 2001, UConn in 2004, UNC in 2005, Florida in 2007, UNC in 2009. But none of those teams won with the air of inevitability (UConn was a 2-seed in 2004; Illinois was #1 for almost all of ’05) that often gets ascribed to them in retrospect.

The same phenomenon applies in general to front-lines. In 2008, when all four #1 seeds made the Final Four, people concluded that Memphis, Kansas, UCLA, and UNC constituted a particularly strong top four, who had been head-and-shoulders ahead of the rest of the field throughout the season. This ignored the fact that Tennessee and Duke had been ranked ahead of UCLA for about half of the season, and that the Volunteers had been one of only four teams get the #1 overall ranking, beating Memphis in their only matchup.

It’s a little myopic, then, for people to say that Syracuse, Kansas, and Kentucky constitute a weak top three on the basis of two losses—neither of which, it should be pointed out, were that bad, both coming to likely Tournament teams. Given the way Syracuse played against Villanova—and how Kentucky played in the first halves against Arkansas and LSU, and how Kansas played against Kansas State last night—though, it ought to be clear that this season’s “weak” top three are a pretty strong group.

I read somewhere on Sunday how Syracuse might not want to inherit the No. 1 ranking because it’s been such bad luck for the teams that have had it. I mean, Kansas has lost twice as the No. 1 team! Can you believe that?

I do think a lot of the conversation this year about there being no favorite is a backlash to Carolina in ’09 and Florida in ’07. You rightfully cite their relatively pedestrian regular seasons (for teams many thought would be unbeatable), but even at the time, a lot of the thought was that neither team really cared about the regular season, and they’d be able to turn it on in the Tournament. Florida kind of did that in the worst NCAA Tournament of all-time; UNC did it more impressively last year.

Even in ’06 and ’08, there was this idea going in of a juggernaut team. There was talk Duke could go undefeated in 2006 with J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, and what was supposed to be a great recruiting class. UNC in 2008 returned most of the guys from a team that was a No. 1 seed that just missed a Final Four berth.

So this was really the first year since 2005 where you had some uncertainty at the top at the beginning of the season. And I think that spirit heading into the season has carried through even against factual evidence. If anything, I’ve been surprised by how static those top few teams have been. They have six combined losses at the start of March; only twice this decade have the top three combined for fewer: in 2008 when Tennessee was No. 1 and in 2004 when Stanford and St. Joe’s were both still undefeated.

Andy Rautins and the Orange have lost only to Pitt, Louisville, and Division II LeMoyne.

Kansas has lost one conference game in a very good Big 12, Kentucky has been shaky in a lot of games but usually does what it takes to win, and Syracuse has been stunningly consistent. Remember, that team was unranked at the start of the year and lost a preseason game to Division II LeMoyne. When they rose to the top 10 early in the year, I thought they were the kind of team that was going to exceed expectations and maybe nab a three- or four-seed this season. I didn’t think they’d be No. 1 in the country on March 1.

And yeah, if any of those teams—particularly Kansas—wins the title this year, everyone will remember them as a dominant team that was practically unbeatable. Because that’s how history works.

Only in the Big Ten can a team that isn’t even on the bubble blow out a team that is on the bubble by 28 points.

You know how I know the Pac-10 sucks? Because in a game last week, Jamal Boykin and Eric Boateng were guarding each other…when the score was still close…in a matchup of the league’s two best teams.

Oh, how the mighty Duke class of 2005 has fallen. How’s Marty Pocius playing in Europe?

Someone isn’t paying attention to Zalgiris’ season. Pocius has killed Fenerbahce Ulker in two meetings this season to the tune of 18.5 ppg!

I did get to see a lot of that New Mexico-BYU game last Saturday and came away…well, impressed probably isn’t the right word. They’re both good teams but I do not think they are Final Four contenders. Darington Hobson at New Mexico is kind of a poor man’s Evan Turner on the wing while I would trade Jon Scheyer for Jimmer Fredette straight-up. Fredette is like a cross between Scheyer and Deron Williams: Like Scheyer, he’s not a pure point but is a crafty passer and excellent shooter; like Williams, he attacks the basket by changing speeds at the right time. It was too bad he missed most of the second half of that game because he was sick. BYU would have won otherwise.

Easily the best Jimmer in the Mountain West Conference today.

I’d throw Fredette and Scheyer on a list of “Players I Really Enjoy Watching This Season.” You have to include the nation’s two best players in Turner and John Wall, along with Andy Rautins, Gordon Hayward, and surprisingly, Ben Hansbrough. Can I still hate Tyler if I really enjoy watching how his brother plays? Is that hypocritical?

Of course not. Hating one brother doesn’t obligate you to hate the other—they’re not the Montagues. I’d be more concerned about how you could have any fond opinions of this guy’s offspring. I don’t necessarily share your love of Ben Hansbrough, but I accept it. Other than that, I agree with most of your list. I would probably add Austin Freeman to that list, but I know you don’t share my love of that guy.

A lot of those same guys get my vote for conference Player of the Year right now. Turner and Wall are practical shoo-ins in the Big Ten and SEC, respectively. I’d pick Scheyer over Greivis Vasquez in the ACC but that’s harder to justify this morning than it was yesterday. I don’t expect Rautins to win it in the Big East (Scottie Reynolds likely will), but he’d be my choice. Although Sherron Collins will probably take it in the Big 12 as a kind of career achievement award, I’d cast my vote for Oklahoma State’s James Anderson (you could throw him on that list above too). And, am I missing any major conference? Oh yeah, Jordan Crawford in the A-10.

Can you believe we went through all that trouble talking about court storming when Rick Reilly just made all of our well-thought-out twinkles points completely irrelevant with his own take on this highly controversial issue?

Bad news from Georgetown that Austin Freeman’s recent sickness isn’t just a stomach flu; it’s diabetes. Now, although I feel bad for not including him on my list of “Guys I Want with the Ball Late in Games” earlier this year, I was right for not including him on that list.

I think anyone who ever tries to tell you the NBA is better than college basketball only needs to watch a Senior Day to understand the difference between the two. I’ll root for pretty much any team on its Senior Day. I even felt good for Eric Hayes last night; that guy doesn’t get enough credit.

Yeah, it was a little odd how rarely Shulman and Bilas pointed out that Hayes was ALSO a senior. At one point in the game, I actually started to assume that he was a junior, since they had been harping only on Vasquez for so long. And how can you mention heartwarming Senior Day stories without including Mark Titus of Ohio State, whose blog Club Trillion just raised a bunch of money for his favorite charity by selling shirts.

I actually thought about mentioning Mr. Rainmaker but figured I was way too late on that bandwagon.

I’m not usually the biggest fan of Bobby Knight as an analyst. He tends to repeat himself and get really caught up on one specific aspect of the game (like, say, the virtues of the shot-fake), working that aspect into every single comment. But I actually thought the booth that covered the Syracuse-Villanova game, which included him, Jay Bilas, and Dan Shulman, was surprisingly good. It’s always refreshing to hear Shulman call a game without Dick Vitale (although I’m not as anti-Dickie V as some people who write The Double Bonus), and Jay Bilas is one of the best analysts in the game. As the secondary analyst, Knight is much better, since he doesn’t have to come up with new topics on his own and can instead elaborate on those of his partner. And, well, the guy does know a thing or two about college basketball.

Have we had a picture of Jon Scheyer in every Double Bonus?

Speaking of Jay Bilas, I thought he made an excellent point about Jon Scheyer during the Duke-Maryland game last night, saying that Scheyer always plays at his own pace during the game. This is a great explanation as to why Scheyer has succeeded as a point guard despite initial doubts about his ability. In terms of athleticism, Scheyer is reminiscent of Greg Paulus: He’s not going to beat a ton of guys off the dribble or out-jump anyone. But Scheyer is always in control of the game when he has the ball, and so he doesn’t get into situations where he needs to rely on athleticism. He doesn’t rush to the basket anytime there’s an open lane, only to get caught under bigger defenders; he doesn’t leave his feet unless he knows he can get a shot off (unlike Paulus who often jumped in the air with absolutely no options, only to throw the ball away to nobody). As a result, Scheyer is able to lack any deficiencies he has by way of “athleticism.”

I thought the pairing of just Shulman and Bilas last night was very good while Knight was gallivanting around with Rece Davis and Digger Phelps on the call for UConn-Notre Dame (a booth as bad as that game was). And while Scheyer does embody all those aspects, he did make a terrible decision to force up a bad shot with Duke down four and about 40 seconds left last night. Trapped on the baseline, he should have just used the team’s last timeout.

My biggest concern about Duke right now is that the Blue Devils haven’t won a close game yet. They’ve played startlingly few close games; only seven of their 30 games have been decided by single-digits, and many of them (UConn, St. John’s, BC, and Miami) weren’t as tight as the final score. The only games that were really toss-ups in the final minutes were against Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and Maryland—all losses.

Yeah, I think this is similar to the “Duke can’t win on the road” complaint in that it speaks to the team’s lack of real tests. Despite the Blue Devils’ great strength of schedule and RPI, the team has been able, for a while now, to work those numbers without playing a lot of especially tough games. They play good teams at home—or at neutral sites—early in the season, often before that team has really had a chance to coalesce. Of all the teams in the top ten, then, Duke has been tested the least, and we know the least about how they can respond to a good team.

Bruce Pearl’s genius grew again last night, as his technical foul triggered a 10-0 Tennessee run against Arkansas. I’ve seen this move—in which a coach drawing a technical pumps the team up to go on a run—work a few times now, and it never ceases to amaze me. Who knew that kind of Norman Dale shit worked in real life?

Who’s Bruce’s “Shooter” on the bench drawing up the old picket fence? Boys, don’t get caught watchin’ the paint dry!

My favorite ESPN Game Flow of the Week: Utah State’s pasting of Fresno State. But, if you take out the 22-0 run to start the game and the 18-0 run toward the beginning of the second half, the Bulldogs would have squeaked out the victory.

Games of the Week: Not too many left before the conference tournaments kick in. Let’s separate this into Significant Bubble Games and Big-Time Seeding Games. SBGs include Richmond hosting Dayton tonight in the A-10 in a near must-win for the Flyers, Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech in what may amount to a play-out game on Saturday in the ACC, Tennessee at Mississippi State on Saturday in the SEC, and South Florida hosting UConn on Saturday in the Big East.

There’s three Big-Time Seeding Games I want to see: Can Villanova bounce back and earn a season sweep of West Virginia at home on Saturday? Can Louisville cement itself with a sweep of Syracuse at home on Saturday? And can Missouri hand Kansas its second Big 12 loss in Columbia on Saturday?

Of course, all of these are just a prelude to Championship Week, which has almost become as good as the first weekend of the Tournament. I love Championship Week.

Upset of the Week: The Volunteers came through for me last week (Utah did not). I’ll go against the Vols in Starkville (not really a big upset) along with Mizzou taking care of KU and improving its positioning come Selection Sunday.

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