Fast Break: Who’s really No. 1?

Duke’s schedule should be a case of masochism. What are the Blue Devils doing playing Kentucky (then ranked ninth), Louisville (second) and Ohio State (fourth), all in a two-week span? Asking for it, that’s what.

“The schedule at Duke is probably the reason you come to Duke,” Mason Plumlee said.
And yet the Blue Devils won all those games. It is Dec. 3, and Duke has already gotten through the toughest part of its schedule undefeated.

So why is it so obvious Indiana is the best team in the country?

For starters, maybe it isn’t so obvious. But it looks that way to me, even if I can’t back up my argument with measurable data. There are no facts that can overwhelm what Duke has done so far this season, but I watched Indiana dismantle North Carolina last week, and it was as thorough and spotless a beatdown as it could have been. 

The Hoosiers bring this guy, Will Sheehey, off the bench, and he might be one of the 25 best players in the country. Their point guard, Jordan Hulls, shoots 52 percent from the 3-point line and has a 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He makes these amazing, beautiful, spot-on passes, like Aaron Rodgers hitting Jordy Nelson. He has floppy hair. He’s perfect. And then there’s Cody Zeller, who plainly outruns everybody up and down the floor.

And that’s the big thing with Indiana. Everything the Hoosiers do, they do at warp speed. I’m sure nobody in America plays faster, and when I say that I don’t mean “has more possessions per minute.” I mean I haven’t seen any other team run so fast, cut so quickly, pass with so much zip and confidence.

The Hoosiers are a machine. They’re the best team. And if you haven’t actually watched them play, you’re just going to have to, or else you’re not going to get it.

Work in progress

The most interesting ongoing experiment in sports is the one John Calipari is conducting at Kentucky. Calipari’s hyphothesis is that the most important thing in basketball is talent, and if you have enough of it, you can overwhelm any other shortcoming. The more commonly held belief — the “truth” — was that maturity, poise and teamwork were just as necessary as talent, and that a team of so-called “one and done” players would inevitably fail on the big stage.

Because look what happened to the Fab Five, and so on and so forth.

But when Kentucky scorched the basketball earth last season, and crushed Kansas in the national championship game, it appeared Calipari was right. Which meant college basketball had experienced an apocalyptic event. Any sort of student-athlete facade was destroyed. The idea that championship teams were built over time was obsolete. Turned out, Rome could be built in a day, so there was no reason for anybody to try anything different, except that nobody was going beat Calipari at his own game. It used to be that you could either sell “being a part of a championship team” or “getting zipped right on through to the NBA,” but not both. That was over.

So what has happened in this new world?

Kentucky, once again loaded, is 4-3. Last week it lost to Notre Dame and Baylor.

“That’s what happens when you have a bunch of freshmen out there,” Calipari said.

I have taken that quote slightly out of context, but only slightly. Calipari was talking about some dumb fouls his team made — the kinds of mistakes young players make that are supposed to get you beat. That never happened last season. This season it has become “A Thing” for Kentucky, and it’s probably not going away overnight.

We shouldn’t throw dirt on these Wildcats. They have all the talent they need, and they’ll probably win the SEC. It’s just that we might have overreacted to last season’s championship team. We might have looked at those freshmen too generically.

We might have missed the real truth, which was that last season’s Kentucky team was unusually unselfish and unnaturally mature. We probably did not give those guys enough credit for that.

Alas, the experiment is ongoing.

Roy getting run

I am about to give you a statistic that I cannot explain with any degree of scientific certainty, but for which I have a theory. I am confident that upon hearing my argument, you will agree with me.

Here is the statistic:

Since 1988-89, North Carolina teams that made the NCAA Tournament have suffered 17 losses by at least 20 points.

That number probably means very little to you, as most of us do not walk around with a running tally of blowout losses by NCAA Tournament teams in our heads. I am guessing you have no idea whether or not 17 is a lot.

So I thought it best to compare North Carolina to Kansas and Duke. I assume the reasons for this are obvious.

Losses of 20-plus by teams that made the NCAA Tournament (since 1988-89):

•   North Carolina 17
•   Kansas 7
•   Duke 7

My hypothesis — as someone who grew up watching Roy Williams coach at Kansas, and saw his team get run off the floor at Indiana last Tuesday — was that there is something about the way Williams coaches that makes his teams more likely to get blown out.

In order to investigate this, I decided to compare the results at both Kansas and North Carolina with and without Roy Williams, and further compare those results to a control (Duke).

Williams coached Kansas to the NCAA Tournament in all but his first season (14 years). In that time the Jayhawks lost by at least 20 four times. Since he left after the 2002-03 season, Kansas has made the NCAA Tournament every season, and lost by at least 20 three times. In Williams’ nine seasons at North Carolina, the Tar Heels have made the tournament eight times and lost by 20 six times (if you include the Indiana loss).

So Williams has suffered 10 losses by at least 20 points in his coaching career (Kansas 88-03, North Carolina 03-present).

Since we’re talking about a span of more than 20 years, that does not seem like a particularly meaningful number. But it is, and here’s why: Everybody who has coached at North Carolina since 1988 has either been part of the Dean Smith coaching tree, or been Dean Smith himself. I don’t mean to imply these men are identical, but they are similar. They run a system. And it seems obvious that system predisposes those who run it to spectacular beatdowns.

Let me stop again to file this disclaimer: I don’t intend to impugn Roy Williams or Dean Smith here. They are two of the greatest coaches of all time. I’m not going after that.

What I am saying is that a total system failure is a lot more catastrophic when you rely heavily on the system.

For example, Williams’ teams play with tremendous pace. When he has players capable of doing it, Williams’ teams will be the fastest in the country, the kind of team that tries to create a fast break (more accurately, a secondary break) even off of made baskets. This is the system. Forward takes the ball, quick outlet pass as far up the floor as possible, guard races to the other end, forward dives to the basket. If that’s not there, hit the trailer. When it works, it’s incredible. It’s gorgeous. It’s an opera, swooping and soaring and delirious.

But there are times it doesn’t work. Times when the other team muddies the whole thing up a little. Slows it down. Sticks a couple forearms in the chest of that big guy diving to the rim. Refuses to get sucked into that operatic vortex.

Then what?

Well, then that team starts to feel a little better about itself. And it remembers that Williams’ defenses are going to provide strong help against any driver. So if you’ve got a guard quick enough to beat his man, and you’ve got a couple of shooters, well, you’re going to have a lot of open 3-pointers. And a couple of them go down. Then a couple more.

And then Roy doesn’t call timeout (Roy never calls timeout), and the break isn’t there, and the 3s keep falling and the Roys keep helping off those shooters, because that’s what the Roys do – that’s The System – and before you know it Roy is up there at the podium dadgumming the whole thing.

Am I oversimplifying this? Of course I am. Are Roy’s teams just as unique in their ability to scorch an opponent? Why don’t you ask Rick Pitino? His Kentucky team got beat 150-95 in Allen Fieldhouse in 1989. Yeah, 150.

Does the system work? Absolutely.

Like any system, it sometimes fails. It’s just that its failures are more spectacular.

Telling stats

16 – As estimated by Georgetown coach John Thompson III, the number of points Tennessee would have scored against the Hoyas had the Volunteers not gotten any offensive rebounds. As it was, Georgetown won 37-36.

0 – Free throws attempted by Georgetown in the second half of its 37-36 win over Tennessee.

8 – Number of scholarship players left on the UCLA roster.

They said it

“I remember talking to the late Skip Prosser one day, and he was like, ‘Do you let your beat writers come to your practices?’ And I said ‘No,’ and he said, ‘I let them come to every one.’ I said, “Well coach, why do you do that?’ He says, “Because then they’ll stop asking me dumb questions about who I don’t put into the games, because they see every day in practice what I see every day in practice.'” – Georgetown coach John Thompson III.

“These players, my teammates, have been working hard and I have the upmost respect for them and that’s why I call them my brothers. I don’t have any brothers so these guys are all I got.”
– Indiana forward Victor Oladipo, after IU’s 83-59 win over North Carolina.

“I have to congratulate Indiana, and boy I would have loved to watch them play if it wasn’t against my team,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

“Cool record. Let’s see if we can get a championship or something.” – Duke’s Mason Plumlee, on breaking the school’s career record for dunks.

Player of the year watch

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana
Zeller returns to the top of the watch because he has to be seen to be appreciated. I don’t know if he’ll have the numbers this year, but I hope we haven’t gone so stat-crazy that watching this guy whip North Carolina up and down the floor doesn’t count for more than his scoring average does.
2. Mason Plumlee, Duke
Plumlee might be a better player than Zeller. Honestly, I don’t have a strong opinion about that. He’ll almost certainly end up with better numbers. If it comes down to these two, it’s probably going to whoever had the biggest games in the biggest matchups. And, man, it would be fun to see these guys go at it.
3. Trey Burke, Michigan
There are going to be nights when Burke doesn’t even look like he’s Michigan’s best player. That’s because, like Indiana, Michigan has a whole bunch of guys capable of going off on any night. To win this award, he’ll have to have huge games against Indiana.

Ups and downs

Down: Missouri
The Tigers had to part ways with guard Mike Dixon, who has two rape accusations against him. But doing the right thing doesn’t soften the blow on the court, where Dixon’s quickness, shooting and maturity will be missed.

Up: Baylor
The Bears took down Kentucky, which was a nice bounce-back effort after losing to College of Charleston and . . . wait . . . so are they up or down?

Down: Georgetown
The headline on the Georgetown athletic site described the Hoyas win over Tennessee as a “defensive struggle,” which is the nicest possible way of saying, “Our team somehow won despite scoring 37 points.” I’d drop Georgetown out of the Top 25 for that.

Up: Virginia Tech
Undefeated, with wins over Iowa and No. 15 Oklahoma State in the last week.

Down: Tennessee
See: “Down: Georgetown.” (Above).

Up: Minnesota
The only blemish on the Gophers’ record is a loss to Duke. Since then, they’ve beaten Memphis, Stanford and Florida State.

Conference power rankings

1. Big Ten
2. Big East
3. ACC
4. SEC
5. Big 12
6. Pac-12

Crystal ball

Indiana rips through the Big Ten schedule, remaining undefeated until Feb. 19, when it loses at Michigan State. The Hoosiers finish Big Ten play 16-2, winning the league by two games over Michigan.

Kansas guard Ben McLemore leads the Jayhawks in scoring, and breaks Danny Manning’s 1985 school record for points by a freshman (496), winning Big 12 newcomer of the year honors.

Another UCLA player transfers or is dismissed from the program.