College Basketball

To Play or Not to Play...

December 16, 2020

By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst

Ed. note: This college basketball season, FOX Sports is proud to announce a brand new newsletter for all your college hoops needs, with Mark Titus at the helm. Subscribe now!

THE OPENING TIP

After watching his team get smacked around for the second time in as many weeks, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski threw a slab of raw meat into the college basketball lions’ den when he wondered aloud if it’s time to “reassess” playing during the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to get worse.

This, of course, was a stroke of genius from the sport’s greatest coach for multiple reasons. First, there’s the obvious – Duke stinks this season. If you’re a Duke optimist and want to tell yourself that it’s still early in the season and both of the Blue Devils’ losses are far from catastrophic, be my guest. But I know what I saw in Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Blue Devils fell to Michigan State and Illinois, and what I saw is a team that will likely end up being one of the worst Krzyzewski has ever had. Thus, you could see why some might scratch their heads at the timing of his comments (especially since we’ve been down a similar road with him before) and wonder what the real motivation was.

To his credit, Krzyzewski saw this criticism coming and got out ahead of it, saying in the same stream of consciousness that “somebody will take what I’m saying tonight and make like I’m making excuses.” This brings me to the second reason why the postgame press conference after losing to Illinois was such a genius move – it’s almost impossible to criticize Krzyzewski for making these comments, and not just because he preemptively called out the haters. What makes it so hard to criticize him is that he’s exactly right – the pandemic is very bad, it’s only getting worse, and the idea that the show MUST go on when we’re talking about unsalaried college students playing a game does feel like a flawed one.

But one man was brave enough to go where few else dared, and that man is Alabama coach Nate Oats. In a press conference of his own on Thursday – where at one point he started a sentence with “If COVID is so bad…” and made my heart stop with anticipation as to what he was going to say next – Oats went for the kill shot by saying ... “Let me ask you a question. Do you think if Coach K hadn't lost the two non-conference games at home that he would still be saying that?”

And that is when Coach K-eyser Soze masterfully played his final, most powerful card yet, put his money where his mouth is, and released a video announcing that Duke had canceled the remainder of their non-conference schedule.

This completely disarmed critics like Oats. If Krzyzewski is really so worried about his team’s inability to win, why would he cancel what figured to be free wins against Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb? If he wasn’t truly taking the pandemic seriously, why would he shut his team down and let his players go home to see their families for Christmas?

Oats apparently saw it that way too, as evidenced by his public apology to Coach K that definitely didn’t read like he was being held at gunpoint.

"I kind of want to publicly apologize to Coach K for what I said. I actually felt terrible about it," Oats said. "Right after I got out of the press conference I reached out to him. He was gracious enough to return my call. We had a good talk on the phone and I've got the utmost respect for him as a coach."

With Oats bending the knee and kissing the five rings of the most powerful man in college basketball, I suppose Krzyzewski got what he wanted all along and this saga is now officially put to bed. And that’s a damn shame, because as so many highly-anticipated games continue to get canceled, I can’t help but think that a season-long beef between Krzyzewski and Oats could have been just what the doctor ordered.

Now that we’re more than a week removed from Krzyzewski’s initial comments, here’s where I think I’ve landed on everything: Everyone lost in this. Oats lost because he went from heroic martyr to apologetic patsy faster than you can say “don’t let losses to Illinois and Michigan State distract you from the fact that last season, Duke lost at home to Stephen F. Austin at the buzzer as a 28-point favorite.”

As for Coach K, well, I guess I’ll start by saying that I do believe that he is concerned about the spread of coronavirus in this country. That much was clear during the Illinois game, when he felt so strongly about the pandemic that every time he talked to his team, he made sure to pull his mask down to his chin so the players in his huddle could clearly understand him. So no, I don’t think that Krzyzewski is merely pretending to care about the pandemic to conveniently hit the eject button on a season that isn’t going his way.

But I also think that getting your butt kicked has a way of making you stop and reflect on things in a way you wouldn’t if everything was gravy. So in that regard, I definitely think there was merit to Oats’s criticism, which is why it’s such a bummer that he recanted his comments just to appease all of the people who acted like he broke omerta by speaking ill of The Great Emperor Krzyzewski.

Oh well. It’s all water under the bridge now. The important thing is that we’re back where we were at the beginning of all of this, which is that each coach is left to make their own decisions about playing or not playing. If Oats thinks it’s best for his team to play, great. And if Krzyzewski wants to cancel games because he’s concerned about the spread of coronavirus, that’s his prerogative. I certainly won’t judge anyone who wants to err on the side of caution when it comes to the pandemic, and I suppose an argument could be made that Krzyzewski making his team take a break until after Christmas might prove to be the responsible move.

What’s that? Duke’s not actually on a break right now? You mean to tell me that a week after playing up the concern of COVID-19, Duke traveled 600 miles to play a game tonight?

Oh.

BIG TEN STAT OF THE WEEK

This week’s Big Ten Stat of the Week comes to you via yours truly.

Did I hit send on this tweet at the exact moment Coastal Carolina lost at Wofford on Tuesday night, knowing full well that 24 hours later, Ohio State’s undefeated record was going to be in serious jeopardy at Purdue?

Why, yes. Yes I did.

BLUE BLOOD POWER RANKINGS

Many are saying that this is shaping up to be a down year for college basketball blue bloods, with Kentucky and Duke struggling early and North Carolina and Kansas not exactly looking like world-beaters. But what these people don’t understand is something readers of this newsletter have always known: Maintaining blue blood status is a fluid process, and for every blue blood we say goodbye to, there is always another waiting in the wings to take its place.

Here’s where we stand this week:

1. The crying Northwestern kid

Remember when Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament and the kid who started crying after a pivotal flagrant foul call became everyone’s favorite meme for a little while? Well that kid’s dad is Jim Phillips, who has been the athletic director at Northwestern for the last 13 years and was just named the ACC's new commissioner on Monday. That means the kid gets to go from crying over the thought of Northwestern almost making the Sweet 16 to cheering for what has historically been the best conference in college basketball and seems to win a national championship once every two-to-three years, which is another way of saying we’re about to see the final chapter of that kid’s redemption story very soon. One can only hope when the ACC wins the first basketball title with Phillips as commissioner, his son is in attendance wearing a hat with the ACC logo, ala Rob Lowe.

2. San Diego State

Undefeated Watch Part II: The “undefeated watch” is officially on for San Diego State after the Aztecs whooped Arizona State 80-68 on the Sun Devils’ home floor last Thursday. We still have a long way to go, but as of right now, the best opponent remaining on San Diego State’s schedule figures to be Saint Mary’s, who currently ranks 65th on KenPom and will host the Aztecs next Tuesday night.

This, of course, comes on the heels of San Diego State taking so much pride in being America’s last undefeated team a season ago that they incorporated the undefeated map from Reddit into their Mountain West championship rings. Which brings me to the point I really want to make here: Being undefeated is kind of San Diego State basketball’s brand now, which is a hell of a brand to have. In that regard, maybe not having a 2020 NCAA Tournament was actually good for the Aztecs, since it meant all of America didn’t tune in to see them blow a second round game against a 10-seed. Instead, everyone still thinks San Diego State was undefeated last year and completely forgot that they actually lost a couple of games at the end of the season. In fact, people remember so little about San Diego State from last season other than “UNDEFEATED” that you probably didn’t even realize I was joking and that the Aztecs really were undefeated when the world stopped in March ... OR WERE THEY?

See, this is my point. Perception is reality and the perception is that the Aztecs never lose. And that my friends, is worthy of blue blood status.

3. Cade Cunningham

There was a fear heading into this season that the nation’s top freshman would have a lone year in college similar to that of Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz, in that he would put up great numbers and get drafted No. 1 overall, but do it for a team that couldn’t possibly be more irrelevant. Well, six games into the season, Cunningham’s Oklahoma State Cowboys are a perfect 6-0 with three true road wins, including at Marquette and at Wichita State. The latter came on Saturday, when Cunningham – who is averaging 18.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game with 48-48-86 shooting splits – hit the game-winning shot to sink the Shockers and secure his place on my blue blood power rankings. 

4. Iowa

With the Gonzaga and Baylor programs both on pause due to COVID-19, does that mean Iowa should be considered the No. 1 team in the country? No? What if I told you that they have the best player in America in Luka Garza, who is averaging an absurd 29.2 points and 9.0 rebounds while shooting 69 percent from the field (including 68 percent from the 3-point line on more than three attempts per game) ... Still no? Well what if I told you Iowa has scored over 100 points in half of their games this season? Wow, still no, huh? OK then!

5. Buddy Boeheim

Congratulations to Buddy Boeheim for passing his father’s Syracuse career scoring mark of 745 points on Saturday. But more importantly, congratulations to Jim Boeheim for showing signs of maturity by not kicking Buddy off the team as he was approaching 745. I’m not saying I expected that to happen. I’m just saying that if you told me that it did happen, I wouldn’t bat an eye.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Thursday
No. 5 Kansas at No. 14 Texas Tech (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Saturday
No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (12 p.m. ET, CBS)
No. 23 Louisville at No. 12 Wisconsin (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
UCLA vs. No. 20 Ohio State (1:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
Kentucky vs. No. 22 North Carolina (4:15 p.m. ET, CBS)

Sunday
No. 9 Creighton at UConn (12 p.m. ET, FS1)
No. 13 Illinois at No. 19 Rutgers (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Marquette at Xavier (2 p.m. ET, FS1)

Tuesday
No. 8 West Virginia at No. 5 Kansas (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

LOVE FOR THE LITTLE GUY

Shoutout to Eastern Illinois’ Mack Smith for tying the NCAA Division I record for most consecutive games with a 3-pointer made when the very first points of Sunday's game against Western Illinois marked the 88th straight game that Smith hit a shot from behind the arc. Smith will now have to wait until a Dec. 21 game against SIU-Edwardsville to break the record, but in the meantime the native Hoosier in me asks you this: Has anything ever made more sense than the guy with the automatic jump shot being from Indiana?

“BIG J” JOURNALISM CORNER

The Best #content of the Week

This week’s #content of the Week was a no-brainer from the moment I saw it. Here is what Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner came up with to celebrate the Yellow Jackets’ win at Nebraska in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last week.

I could offer some background to this that would help you understand it a little better, but do you really want that? Isn’t it more fun to just have that “what the hell did I just watch” feeling I’m assuming you have after seeing Pastner hand a COVID piñata to his team as some sort of motivational tactic? I say yes.

Headline of the Week

This week’s Headline of the Week actually comes to us from Bleacher Report in April 2019, but I’m still using it because it’s tied to current events in college basketball and made me belly laugh when I stumbled across it as Notre Dame took a 48-26 lead into halftime at Kentucky on Saturday.

John Calipari to Critics of Lifetime Kentucky Contract: 'Why Are You Mad?'

Even without knowing that Kentucky is now 1-4 and Big Blue Nation’s patience with Cal is at an all-time low, that would still be an objectively hilarious headline. I mean, Kentucky could win the next 10 national titles and I’d still laugh reading that thing.

Scoop of the Week

The Scoop of the Week is already a lock for Scoop of the Year. For those who missed it, Florida’s Keyontae Johnson collapsed early in the Gators’ game at Florida State over the weekend in a scene that was terrifying to witness and unmistakably serious the instant it happened. Johnson was initially declared as being in critical but stable condition, and even spent some time in a medically-induced coma. But thankfully, good news came on Tuesday afternoon when the Florida men’s basketball Twitter account relayed that Johnson is apparently conscious and speaking.

THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE

On Tuesday’s show, Tate and I made our picks for Good Guy and Bag Guy of the Week, before pivoting into a lengthy discussion about John Calipari and whether Kentucky is the best four-loss team in America. Also, we had Andy Katz on the show last Friday for a little Tier Talk, because there’s nothing I love more than people who see the world of college basketball through a tier lens. I don’t want to come across as too clingy, but I had a great time and wouldn’t mind if Andy joined us every Friday, so fingers crossed he at least comes back on the show later in the week.

As always, you can subscribe to the podcast and listen to every show here.

See you next week!


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