During the second half of Wednesday night’s showdown between Arizona and Cal, ESPN’s Bill Walton waxed grandiloquently about a student he’d met on Cal’s campus that could solve a rubik’s cube in under a minute. These prodigy’s of the colored cube are called speed cubers. Like a rubik’s cube, college hoops is a puzzle week in and week out. Just when you start feelin’ yourself because you’ve got it all figured it out, the picture complicates and everything gets turned inside out. During this time of year, the blank canvas transforms into a piece of abstract art. In a few weeks March Madness will splash whiteout over the entire painting.
There are a few battles still left fighting hand to hand. Cincinnati and Louisville are handcuffed to one another and Creighton has no room for error in the American Athletic Conference. The most high profile of which is the ACC’s regular season title. Virginia will seek to complete its coup d’état of first place in the ACC.
Last Thursday, UNC showed its true colors after dispatching Duke for their eighth straight win and Mr. Procrastinator Marcus Paige had another second half scoring splurge.
Six days later, Paige drove to the rack and dropped a game-winning dagger layup which fell through the net and kept falling through the heart of NC State. The loss also slashed NC State’s flimsy bubble as they fell to 0-8 against teams ranked in the top 50 in the RPI.
The Big Ten’s teams have inflicted more bloodshed on one another than the Lannisters and Starks.
Michigan has the Big Ten in its palms even if they lose one of their final three games against Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana thanks to Michigan State's fragility.
Even San Diego State is being pressured as the Mountain West Coast Conference king of the hill by New Mexico.
The four month gauntlet has tested even the most formidable contenders. Except one.
Wichita State’s historic 30-0 record has been a cakewalk.
Coupled with their recent Final Four berth the Shockers should be considered a favorite to return at and perhaps advance further than any modern mid-major has ever gone before.
UNLV was the last program to jump into the King of the NCAA Ring undefeated when they entered the 1991 tournament as the defending national champs. Wichita State and '91 UNLV are as different as the zeniths of brothers Nick and Andrew Wiggins’ basketball ceilings. Senior Nick Wiggins is a lowly role player on Wichita State's bench while Andrew graced the cover of Sports Illustrated drawing comparisons to Danny Manning and Wilt Chamberlain before he'd played his first game. Kansas has grinded through one of the toughest schedules of the past two decades, but Andrew may have chosen the wrong school in Kansas.
Like UNLV, Wichita State has been marked with a bull’s eye on their backs since the season commenced, but they’ve never come close to achieving similar respect from their peers.
Before their Final Four appearance last March, Wichita State was an eight-loss team that was stuck in a favorable region. They lost to Creighton in the regular season finale and again in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship Game. Thanks in part to Creighton’s transition to the AAC, Wichita State’s faced more obstruction in practices than they have from their regular season conference foes.
However, they came four points away from beating Louisville in the Final Four. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have compensated for the graduation of Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead.
He’s no two-time JUCO Player of the Year like Larry Johnson, former Division III Player of the Year Cleanthony Early is a linchpin of the Shockers offense.
An unblemished record and a No. 1 seed seems inevitable, but the Shockers can’t start dropping bricks on a frozen river too soon. 10 years ago, Jameer Nelson and Delonte West steered St. Josephs to a 27-0 record before they lost the regular season finale to Xavier.
CLIMBING THE LADDER
Wednesday night featured enough buzzer-beaters to give you the impression that the NCAA Tournament began this week.
Glenn Robinson III v. Purdue
Marcus Procrastinator Paige Waits Until The Last Second
However, we are little more than three weeks away from the official launch of the 2014 Madness. In honor of last night's heroics, here’s a quick look at our top-five game-winners thus far.
This was the night that the 39 points from McDermott cancelled 68 Man March’s weekly Player of the Year rankings.
Technically, this wasn’t a game-winner It actually prolonged the inevitable, but if college hoops were to experiment with a four-point play this would have been Syracuse’s first loss.
3. Arizona’s First Loss
1. Tyler Ennis For The Win
The battle for No. 1 came down to Ennis’ prayer vs. Qualls’ flush. The two shots couldn’t have been more different and neither could the stakes. Qualls’ dunk gave Arkansas a major upset victory, but Ennis’ shot meant more in the grand scheme, which is why it squeaks by for the win.
GAME RECOGNIZE GAME
No. 4 Syracuse at No. 12 Virginia
Tony Bennett’s hand-me-down Pack Line defense isn’t as renowned as Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, but it could be if they’re modest roster beats Syracuse for the ACC’s “regular crown”. UVA set the tone for their business meeting with Syracuse by holding Miami to 40 points on Thursday. Like last year’s Miami squad, these Cavs are built for a slow grind it out contest. However, the offense’s rising pulse is what needs monitoring.
No. 7 Louisville at No. 21 Memphis
Josh Pastner is 3-15 against Top 25 teams in his Memphis career. Memphis closes out the season against Louisville, Cincy and SMU. Things could begin snowballing from here. Louisville is in pursuit of its first and only AAC conference title before they get thrust into the ACC lion’s den next fall.
No. 12 Saint Louis at VCU
Shaka Smart still hasn’t scored a win over the Billikens since he joined the A-10 last season. In VCU’s raucous home arena, the HAVOC will create a little more turmoil for Saint Louis’ poised offense.
IN THE BONUS
Last Thursday marked the official closing of the NBA’s 24/7 trade market. For a variety of reasons related to the new CBA, conservative salary cap management and the unwillingness to swap contracts before the upcoming free agent class, teams were hesitant to make many ripples in the calm deadline waters.
College hoops doesn’t allow student-athletes to switch teams midseason or even after the season without sitting out an entire year. Transfers such as Florida’s leading rebounding leader Dorian Finney-Smith, Kansas’ Tarik Smith, Rodney Hood, DeAndre Kane and Arizona’s floor leader T.J. McConnell.
Until the NCAA relinquishes its facade as a professional minor league, it’s an exercise that won’t be possible in the real world. However, if student-athletes were to suddenly switch their priorities the transfer deadline would operate like the trade deadline. The bartering currency would allow players to transfer mid-season with one caveat. Seniors have to have a 2.8 GPA and underclassmen must have a 3.0. It offers an incentive for education and creates the same drama as the NBA’s trade deadline. Everyone wins. It may never happen in our lifetime, but here are a few hypothetical scenarios.
Aaric Murray to Ohio State
Seniors are like expiring contracts. Ohio State’s balanced scoring attack has produced the Buckeye’s worst offensive output of the decade-long Thad Matta era. Aaric Murray has bounced around from La Salle to West Virginia, but his 48-point outburst against Temple opened eyes and it wasn’t a fluke. He’s actually 24 years old, but his skillset is phenomenal and comparable to Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky.
Bryce Cotton to Kentucky
Kentucky’s point guards have left much to be desired. However, Bryce Cotton’s got a smooth touch and mastery of the position. Providence isn’t headed anywhere after the conference tournament so this gives Cotton an opportunity to close out his career on a possible national championship contenders as a one-and-doner at Kentucky.
Billy Baron to Virginia
The Canisius senior is college hoops’ mini-Doug McDermott in more ways than one. Virginia has a reliable freshman point guard, but the Baron of Buckets is Bennett’s prodigal son, which is ironic because he left two schools to follow his biological father to Rhode Island and then Canisius. You could make an argument that he’s the top shooting star in the nation. Integrate him into Virginia’s starting lineup and the Cavaliers would have the primetime scorer they currently lack. Plus, he’s already familiar with Bennett. Baron began his career with UVA in 2010.
Noah Vonleh to UCLA
Vonleh doesn’t get as much shine as Kentucky’s Julius Randle, but like Kentucky’s young big man he has lottery pick written all over him. Vonleh’s addition gives UCLA a post presence that can get out and run with Steve Alford’s offense while also defending the paint.