Shaka Smart & His Magnificent Superpowers
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
As America’s preeminent Positive Vibes Only college basketball newsletter, let me start off 2021 by thanking the stars above that 2020 is in our rearview and that we are officially less than 10 weeks away from Selection Sunday!
There’s a lot going on in the world of college basketball and I’ll do my best to get to as much of it as I can. But before we do that, I wanted to first mention that for the second year in a row, the foundation I started -– the Club Trillion Foundation -– is giving a $15,000 scholarship to a Division I walk-on college basketball player. (Shoutout to Tate Clayton of Mississippi State who won the inaugural scholarship last year!)
Why am I telling you this? Well, because we need your help spreading the word. I want to make sure as many walk-ons as possible know about this thing so they have a chance to apply. They can apply by going to clubtrillionfoundation.org/apply.
Here are the stipulations:
1. Applicants have to be on an active Division I men’s basketball roster.
2. Applicants can’t be receiving any form of athletic scholarship.
That’s pretty much it! So if you know any walk-ons (and by that I mean either personally or you just know their social media handles) do me a solid and let them know about this thing so they don’t miss their chance at 15 stacks (which might as well be $10 million to a college kid).
Of course, if you’d like to help out, you can either donate directly to the foundation by going here or by booking me on Cameo (I’m not going to link to it because typing those words out is already bad enough), where 100 percent of the money earned will go directly to the foundation. Oh, and by the way -– I have all of the operating expenses of the foundation already covered, so 100 percent of the money you donate will also go directly to the scholarship. But PLEASE understand that we do not need your money and will be able to pay the entirety of the scholarship whether you donate or not, so by no means should anyone feel any sense of obligation here. I didn’t mean for this to come across as me asking you for money -– just letting you know ways you can help out if you have the means and your heart desires.
Alright, onto the real reason you’re here!
BLUE BLOOD POWER RANKINGS
A new year represents a fresh slate, and with that comes a fresh crop of college basketball blue bloods. Here’s where we stand at the start of 2021.
1. Indiana Farmers Coliseum
On Monday, the NCAA announced that the entire 2021 NCAA tournament will, in fact, take place in the great basketball state of Indiana. This isn’t much of a surprise given that we’ve known since November that this was in the works . But one thing we did learn via Monday’s announcement is that the NCAA will be using six different venues throughout the tournament: Lucas Oil Stadium (where the Colts play and the 2010 and 2015 Final Four took place), Bankers Life Fieldhouse (where the Pacers play), Hinkle Fieldhouse (where Butler plays), Mackey Arena (where Purdue plays), Assembly Hall (where Indiana plays), and … Indiana Farmers Coliseum?
Huh? What is that?
As a native Hoosier, allow me to step in here and tell you this ... You would never need to know about the most historic minor league hockey venue in all of central Indiana. First of all, Indiana Farmers Coliseum is located on the Indiana State Fairgrounds but unfortunately the name is not a nod to the farmers throughout the state who meet at the fairgrounds every August. Instead, it is just the result of a sponsorship deal with Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance. Meanwhile, the most notable tenant is probably the IUPUI basketball team, but the Coliseum is also regularly used for indoor football, hockey, and roller derby. Also, the Horizon League now plays its men’s and women’s basketball tournament there.
Other fun facts: The Beatles played there in 1964, the ABA version of the Pacers played there from 1967-1974, the Indiana high school state tournament title games were played there during World War II because Hinkle Fieldhouse was being used as barracks, and finally ... when I was in junior high, I puked in a trash can just outside of the Coliseum because I ate too many elephant ears at the state fair.
So yeah, there’s a ton of history in that place and it is every bit deserving of hosting some NCAA tournament games.
For years, the mention of the name "Drake" in college basketball circles has conjured up the image of the rapper showing up at Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness in 2014, when he got in the layup line wearing UK warmups and threw up an airball.
Those days may soon be behind us though, because after trouncing Southern Illinois for the second time in as many days, the Drake University Bulldogs are now America’s only 13-0 team. And sure, Drake’s schedule has been atrocious, as they have only played a bunch of scrubs like Chicago State and Kansas State. But still — undefeated is undefeated, and for a program that had zero winning seasons from 1987 to 2007, seeing a big fat zero in the L column as the calendar turns to January should rightfully be something to celebrate.
3. Shaka Smart's Hair
Remember a year ago when reports surfaced that Shaka Smart might be on the hot seat? How about the year before that when Smart was kinda sorta maybe on the hot seat? Or the year before … you get the idea. Smart arrived at Texas in 2015 with a reputation as being one of the brightest young coaches in the game, and while his tenure in Austin probably shouldn’t be classified as a failure, I wouldn’t blame any Longhorns fans for scratching their head the last few years as to why the school fired Rick Barnes for … this?
Fast forward to Saturday, when Texas went into Allen Fieldhouse and handed Kansas a good old-fashion butt-kicking. In a game Texas never trailed, the Longhorns won by a score of 84-59, matching the largest margin of defeat for Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse! Texas is now ranked No. 4 in the AP men’s college basketball poll, which is the program’s first top-five ranking since 2011. The Longhorns sit atop the standings of arguably the best conference in America, and look every bit like a national title contender.
And while some will explain this season’s success by pointing at Texas’s depth (sixth man Kai Jones very well may be the most talented player on the team), experienced backcourt, great defense, or just all-around toughness, those of us who have paid the slightest bit of attention to the Longhorns this year know what’s really going on here ... Shaka Smart is obviously gaining Samson-like powers from growing out his hair.
4. Buzz Williams
Speaking of coaches who inexplicably shaved their head for years despite not actually being bald, it’s about time this newsletter gives Buzz Williams the shine he has worked so hard for this season. A couple of weeks back, Texas A&M’s head coach made a splash (maybe literally) by sweating so much in a matchup against Wofford that he had to change his shirt in the middle of the game. And folks, if you think that fixed his problem, you obviously don’t know much about Buzz Williams’ sweat glands. Because some time later, Williams was right back where he started, sweating through his button up like a you-know-what in church. Williams’ fight to regulate his body temperature got so bad that he even momentarily appeared to lose his mind and start dancing on the sideline.
Which brings us to this past Saturday when Texas A&M beat Auburn and Williams’ sideline antics again became a discussion point. Only this time, Williams wasn’t dancing and was instead … uhh … playing defense.
My head says that’s an obvious technical and it’s inexcusable that the refs let him get away with it, especially in a game that was won with a last-second shot. My heart says it’s hilarious and exactly the kind of goofy thing that makes college basketball so fun, especially since it obviously did nothing to stop Auburn from scoring. In the end, my heart won out. Welcome to blue blood status, Buzz.
In case you missed it, as first reported in this newsletter, we are living in unprecedented times due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, to the extent that our sense of normalcy is forced to be redefined on a weekly or even daily basis.
But is the pandemic impacting college basketball at all? Great question.
I’d argue no, assuming you ignore the fact that games are getting cancelled every day as the virus spreads through programs all over the country, each of the top-three teams have put their programs on multi-week pauses, the student sections that bring so much life to college basketball arenas are non-existent, and broadcasters who used to give you boots-on-the-ground perspectives are by and large calling games in their underwear at home. Other than that, though, I haven’t noticed a difference at all.
Until Monday, that is, when Boston University and Holy Cross got their season started by playing one other. And due to BU’s COVID protocols, the Terriers gave us something that up to this point had not yet been seen in college basketball: An entire team wearing masks throughout the game.
Here’s where it gets interesting: BU won the game 83-76 but didn’t have a ton of time to celebrate because they were scheduled to play Holy Cross again the very next day. Only this time the two teams met on BU’s campus, where they are mandating that their opponents throughout the season also wear masks. So for Tuesday’s game, Holy Cross threw on masks as well … and ended up getting revenge with a 68-66 win over the Terriers. The lesson: Masks work!
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
No. 17 Oregon at Colorado (11 p.m. ET, FS1)
No. 4 Texas at No. 14 West Virginia (1 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 2 Baylor at TCU (3 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Kentucky at Florida (5 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 16 Minnesota at No. 5 Iowa (2:30 p.m. ET, TBD)
No. 8 Wisconsin at No. 10 Michigan (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 21 Duke at No. 19 Virginia Tech (7 p.m. ET, TBD)
LOVE FOR THE LITTLE GUY
While we’re on the topic of the Patriot League, congratulations are in order for Colgate after the Raiders found themselves ranked 16th in the initial installment of the NET rankings for the 2020-21 season . Never mind that Colgate inexplicably fell to 46th in the rankings after one day despite not even playing on that day. All that matters is that for one moment in time, college basketball’s most powerful metric said that Colgate was America’s 16th-best team. And once the Raiders hang that banner in Cotterell Court, there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do to take it away from them.
"BIG J" JOURNALISM CORNER
The best #content of the week
The best #content I saw all week was a slow-mo clip of one of the best passes I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. Check this out from Jalen Suggs.
The missed layup at the other end is devastating, but it helps slightly to know that a foul was called, so the pass wasn’t completely nullified. Also, am I crazy or is there something soothing about that clip? I have no idea the science behind it, but I swear my blood pressure drops a tiny bit every time I watch that thing. And I know this because I’ve watched that clip no less than 19,000 times.
HEADLINE OF THE WEEK
This week’s "Headline of the Week" comes to us from the Jan. 5 edition of the Indianapolis Star:
I’m typically a believer that the "Headline of the Week" should need no further context and should be amusing on its own, but I’m going to break my own rule here because I thought this was funny and it’s my newsletter and I can do what I want. Anyway, what killed me about this headline was that within the first section of the article itself, there’s this phrase that directly contradicts the headline:
"NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt won't go as far as calling the effort a bubble…"
Also, it should be pointed out that the bubble/definitely not bubble is more of an Indiana thing than an Indianapolis thing, as there will be games on the campuses of Indiana and Purdue University, which are both about an hour’s drive away from downtown Indianapolis. But to be fair, there will be an NCAA tournament, so at least they got that part right.
SCOOP OF THE WEEK
Kentucky finally got back to winning basketball games on Saturday when the Wildcats gave Dontaie Allen some minutes. Allen hit seven 3-pointers and scored 23 points as Kentucky won an overtime game over Mississippi State in Starkville. Allen’s emergence was certainly the big story of the day, but the other notable story was that John Calipari was ejected with about nine minutes left in regulation. And it was at that moment that Cal apparently became clairvoyant, as he told reporters after the game, "when I walked off, I said this is either gonna be a good thing or a bad thing."
Sure enough, he was right. Not long after that, Kentucky won its first game in over a month. Really makes you think.
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
Tuesday’s podcast was the most comprehensive show Tate and I have done all season. I’m pretty sure we mentioned every single team in the country at some point. More specifically, we spent a good chunk of time talking about the NCAA tournament being played in Indiana, Arizona’s self-imposed postseason ban, the ACC being as bad as I can ever remember it being, what’s happening in the Big East as Villanova remains on a COVID pause, and about a million other things.
As always, you can listen to every show and subscribe here.
See you next week!