Can Gonzaga Run The Table?
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst
THE OPENING TIP
After Gonzaga almost hung 100 points on Tony Bennett and the (technically) defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday, the talk of the Zags going undefeated this season shifted into overdrive.
It’s not just that Gonzaga is winning all of its games and it’s not just that they’re doing it against one of the most ridiculous non-conference schedules you will ever see. It’s how the Zags are doing it that’s so terrifying. The poise with which they dismantle highly-ranked opponents borders on "bizarre" ... and I don’t say that just because Drew Timme’s weird celebrations feel a lot like a lion playing with its food.
There are a million ways to illustrate how good Gonzaga has been this season, but the most succinct might be this: On Dec. 19, Joel Ayayi finished with 11 points, 18 rebounds, and 6 assists in an 11-point win over the No. 4-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes … and he’s Gonzaga’s fourth-best player. It’s not even January and the Bulldogs now have four wins over AP Top 25 teams, three of which have come against teams currently ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll. And in those four wins over ranked opponents, the Bulldogs are averaging an absurd 96.5 points per game and winning by an average margin of 12.8 points.
And yet, I wouldn’t blame you if you had the slightest thought that we’ve been here before. With the exception of maybe the NFL, there isn’t a sport on earth that gets people excited about the possibility of a team going undefeated quite like college basketball does. Whether it was San Diego State last season, Gonzaga in 2017, Kentucky in 2015, Wichita State in 2014, Ohio State in 2011, Kentucky in 2010, Memphis in 2008, Illinois in 2005, St. Joe’s in 2004, Stanford in 2001 … the list goes on and on. Point is that we have been here before because we’re here all the time. No team has finished an NCAA Division I men’s basketball season (including the NCAA Tournament) undefeated in almost 45 years, and yet every year, around this time, we just can’t resist wondering if this might finally be the season that it happens again.
Still, I’d like to take a second to point out that this Gonzaga season has been different than the typical team that gets the "undefeated watch" treatment. That doesn’t mean the Zags will run the table, obviously. But pretending that what we’ve seen from Gonzaga so far is something that happens all the time is every bit as dumb as wanting to crown a team national champions in December. Take a look at how some of the "undefeated watch" candidates I mentioned earlier stack up against Gonzaga at the turn of the calendar.
Again, I’m not saying Gonzaga is better or worse than any of these teams. We can save that debate for after the season when we have all of the data points we’re going to get and the picture is a little more clear. All I’m trying to illustrate here is that the 2014-15 Kentucky squad is the only team that comes anywhere close to starting a season as impressively as Gonzaga has. While I don’t think this necessarily means anything, maybe some of you will find it worthwhile to note that two of Kentucky’s ranked wins early in the 2014-15 season came in Rupp Arena, whereas all four of Gonzaga’s ranked wins have come two-or-more time zones away from Spokane.
Of course, that Kentucky team -– as I’m sure you have been waiting for me to point out -– failed to win a national championship that season, falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. To that point I will agree that we shouldn’t prematurely hand Gonzaga any trophies. But I’d also like to caution against believing that the "anything can happen in March" line of thinking applies to the Zags. After all, it’s not like Kentucky was upset in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament by a bunch of future insurance salesmen from the MAAC. Kentucky lost to a team that went to the Final Four the year before and brought back basically everyone, including the best player in college basketball in Frank Kaminsky, and another guy who would go on to be a first round NBA draft pick a few months later in Sam Dekker.
Time will tell if a team like Baylor or Villanova will be the fly in the ointment that Wisconsin was for Kentucky six years ago. For now, all I want to leave you with is this: It’s OK to be excited about this Gonzaga team. It’s OK to fall into the familiar trap of believing a college basketball team could run the table. Don’t let the haters try to convince you that we’ve been here before or that Kentucky losing to Wisconsin means Gonzaga is susceptible to getting bounced in the tournament by some plucky mid-major that got hot on the right night. Sure, those of us who cover college basketball for a living love fantasizing about a team going undefeated almost as much as we love calling every halfway decent freshman a "generational talent."
But this time it truly is different ... I think.
BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK
Our Big Ten Stat of the Week for this week comes to us from Peoria sportscaster Jim Mattson, who crunched the numbers and discovered a stat that I’d bet my life is going to be mentioned during every Wisconsin game for the rest of the season.
As of this week, here are the three biggest threats facing the sanctity of college basketball as we know it.
1. John Calipari, aka Gordon Bombay
John Calipari is straight up not having a good time coaching this Kentucky team. Heading into Saturday’s rivalry game with Louisville, the Cats were just 1-5 on the year, which is obviously abysmal but only tells part of the story. On top of the dreadful record, Kentucky had some in-house drama to deal with after losing to North Carolina, as Calipari threw freshman Cam Fletcher under the bus while announcing his suspension on Twitter. Later that same day, Calipari followed that announcement up by tossing out a conspiracy theory on his radio show that ESPN moved the Kentucky vs. Louisville game from ESPN2 to ESPN so more eyeballs could witness Kentucky "go to the executioner."
In short, Cal was a broken man.
So to get his squad back on track, Kentucky’s head coach did what any coach in his position would do. He turned to a team building tactic that felt like a move Gordon Bombay would pull to get the Mighty Ducks ready to play Iceland.
But it turns out that coaching big-time college basketball is apparently a different beast than coaching peewee hockey, because two days after recording that video, the Wildcats lost to their in-state rival for just the third time in the team’s last 14 matchups. Now Kentucky sits at 1-6 for the first time since 1911 with conference play set to begin on Saturday.
But there is good news! Cam Fletcher is back with the team, which is something I assume happened only because Cal went away from his Gordon Bombay playbook and instead followed the path of the greatest coaching mind Hollywood has ever produced.
All that’s left to do now is get purposely ejected from an upcoming game so his assistant can take over and install the picket fence. Then and only then will Kentucky be back on track to win the 1954 Indiana high school state championship.
2. Marcus Carr
Do you know how to talk to your children about Marcus Carr? It’s something you should start thinking about if you haven’t already, because the man is an absolute menace to the college basketball world and must be stopped IMMEDIATELY. There’s really no other way to put it. I learned first hand just how devastating Carr could be last season, when he dropped 35 points in an 84-71 December win over my alma mater Ohio State Buckeyes, who were ranked No. 3 in the country and undefeated at the time. And then, five weeks later, he made it personal when Minnesota again beat Ohio State, this time thanks to Carr’s last-second game-winning 3-pointer.
Fast forward to this season and Carr has only grown stronger, hitting a game-winner against LMU and two late 3-pointers to send a game vs. Iowa to overtime (which Minnesota would go on to win), all the while averaging 24 points and six assists per game for a Gophers team that figures to be ranked in the top 15 after ripping Michigan State to shreds on Monday. There’s no telling when this path of destruction will come to an end, but one thing I do know is that Carr ... what’s that? Ohio State plays at Minnesota on Sunday? Like this Sunday?
3. Self-imposed bans
Less than 24 hours after pulling off an impressive 88-74 win over Colorado, Arizona announced on Tuesday that the program decided to self-impose a postseason ban and therefore miss both the 2021 Pac-12 Tournament and 2021 NCAA Tournament. This move, of course, comes on the heels of the NCAA giving the school its notice of allegations in October, stemming from a federal investigation into recruiting practices.
I just want to take a second to point out how absurd it is that self-imposed bans are a thing in college sports. I don’t mean to pick on Arizona since this is something that seemingly every school in America has done at some point, but it is pretty wild to think that schools in hot water regularly say, "there’s no need to police us on this because we’re going to police ourselves … even though our inability to police ourselves is the very thing that put us in this position in the first place." And more often than not ... it works!
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
No. 21 Minnesota at No. 6 Wisconsin (4:30 p.m. ET, BTN)
No. 8 Texas at No. 3 Kansas (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
No. 11 Creighton at Providence (12 p.m. ET, FOX)
No. 10 Iowa at No. 14 Rutgers (2 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
No. 20 Duke vs. No. 18 Florida State (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
No. 25 Ohio State at No. 21 Minnesota (5:30 p.m. ET, TBD)
No. 19 Northwestern at No. 16 Michigan (7:30 p.m. ET, TBD)
No. 4 Villanova at DePaul (7 p.m. ET, FS1)
To make up for the lack of a newsletter last week due to Christmas, I’m going to offer a double scoop of little guy love this week. First up, we’re celebrating Western Kentucky (who might legitimately be better than Kentucky this season by the way) and the Hilltoppers’ big win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa last weekend that featured an ending that was every bit exciting as it was confusing.
Meanwhile, NJIT secured its first win in the America East with a double overtime victory at Vermont on Monday. It was all made possible by one of the more ridiculous game-winning sequences you will ever see.
"BIG J" JOURNALISM CORNER
The best #content of the week
The hardest working person in college basketball has long been whoever the hell is crazy enough to step into the St. Joe’s mascot suit and flap their wings for two hours each and every game. And folks, if you thought the combination of a pandemic and St. Joe’s playing on the road was going to be enough to keep the Hawk from flapping, I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken.
My favorite part about this is that you can see in the top right of the video that there is literally one person watching.
HEADLINE OF THE WEEK
There was no newsletter last week to highlight this wild headline, so I’m carrying it over and giving it "Headline of the Week" honors this week. From 247sports.com on Dec. 17:
Upon further review, the positive tests didn’t happen all at once so it’s not as preposterous as it seems at first glance. But that’s the beauty of Headline of the Week -– we don’t care about context. We just want something that is going to grab our attention, and boy, oh boy, did that one do the job for me.
SCOOP OF THE WEEK
Longtime readers of this newsletter might remember back in mid-November when professional scoop-man Jon Rothstein broke the news that two-star recruit Jaden Brownell had committed to UIC eight minutes after Brownell himself made the announcement on his own Twitter page.
Well folks, I’m happy to report that Rothstein is at it again, this time informing the world that Dartmouth transfer Chris Knight has committed to Loyola-Chicago a mere six minutes after Knight broke the news on his personal Twitter account.
On second thought, maybe I should win "Scoop of the Week" for having these scoops since Rothstein’s scoops aren’t even scoops at all? Really makes you think.
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
On Tuesday’s show, Tate and I ripped through our Good Guy and Bag Guy of the Week picks (as we do every Tuesday), before I went on a Gonzaga rant with a similar vibe as what you read at the top of this newsletter. We also talked about the Big Ten having nine teams in this week’s AP poll, Louisville’s big win over Kentucky, the Big 12 being absolutely stacked at the top, Michigan State’s free fall, Michigan’s place in the college basketball landscape, and a ton of other things.
As always, you can listen to every show and subscribe here.
See you next week!