“Fair and Balanced:” Men’s College Basketball Report

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The state of the Big Ten according to Isaac Mathison-Bowie.

One of the most embarrassing moments of the year for casual sports fans is the moment when they realize that it’s mid-February, the NCAA college basketball tournament is only a month away, and they haven’t followed the season at all. It’s not entirely their fault, however; emerging from the haze of the Super Bowl and BCS championships, the middle of the most bizarre Olympic Games in recent memory, and, the anticipation of spring training, college basketball often gets lost in the sports-consciousness. Given that the format of March Madness often renders the regular season irrelevant and to fully understand college basketball one has to pay attention to schools like Duquesne and Oral Roberts, ignorance of the subject can be forgiven. It is not, however, a reason to remain uneducated! For everyone in the dark about college basketball, let me be the Virgil to your Dante and guide you through the messy but rewarding season of college basketball we have had so far.

FRESHMEN WHO ARE SO GOOD THEY’LL MAKE YOU SAY: “Wow, the one and done policy is really stupid and exemplifies how farcical the NCAA’s commitment to pretending that these people are students is”

We may be witnessing the most talented freshmen class since Chris Webber was calling non-existent timeouts and taking cash on the sly. Andrew “Maple Jordan” Wiggins has been hyped and hyped about, but many of his fellow frosh have shown that Canada isn’t the only country producing incredible basketball players anymore. Wiggins’ Kansas teammate Joel Embiid projects as a possible number one overall pick whose size and strength seem to have scouts salivating without prompting. Jabari Parker has been phenomenal, helping everyone remember why they hate Duke so much and averaging close to 20 points and 9 rebounds per game. Julius Randle leads a strong Kentucky team that has had success trotting out wave after wave of 18-year-olds every night. Most of these players probably won’t stick around for a second season. They’re all expected to be top 10 selections in this year’s NBA draft, where they will actually get paid to play instead of spending 60 hours per week giving their schools pro-bono labor.

The state of the Big Ten according to Isaac Mathison-Bowie.
The state of the Big Ten according to Isaac Mathison-Bowie.

TWO UNDEFEATED TEAMS THIS LATE IN THE SEASON

The winner-take-all format of the NCAA tournament makes regular season prowess less important, but the win-loss column still matters as far as seeding goes. A couple of losses during the regular season often don’t have much bearing on the fortunes of dominant teams, so trying to win 40 games in a row is often seen as less important than making sure a squad is healthy and able to compete. There hasn’t been an undefeated men’s NCAA team since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, and they played eight fewer games than teams do today. This year, Syracuse and Wichita State, teams with vastly different backgrounds, are both threatening to finish the regular season without losing.

Syracuse, one of the premier programs in college basketball, continues to confound opponents with its patented 2-3 zone defense and tendency to pad its early season schedule with weak opponents in upstate New York. Jim Boeheim, college basketball’s grumpy old man in chief, has gotten all the production he can out of a young team, especially from freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. Ennis, averaging 12 points and 6 assists per game, has performed admirably in the spot of NBA lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams. Senior C.J. Fair is probably tied with Ohio State’s Aaron Craft for this year’s “Wait, this guy is still in college” award, a dubious honor for a player who probably won’t get drafted. The Orange finished off Duke in overtime in front of a record Carrier Dome audience on February 1st, and have to be looking ahead to away games at #25 Pittsburgh, Duke (again), and #17 Virginia before they can get their tournament ticket punched. They look like a strong enough team to at least match the Final Four appearance they registered last year, but things tend to get unpredictable come tournament time. Right now, Syracuse looks like the best team in the country, and the polls have reflected that.

Wichita State, on the other hand, could easily finish out the regular and conference tournament season without a loss, but its chances in March are much more up in the air. After a run to the Final Four worthy of a glass slipper in 2013, the Shockers have been manhandling inferior Missouri Valley Conference competition all season. At 25-0, Wichita State has established itself as the strongest mid-major school in the country, and any team that faces them in March will have to take them seriously. Without many more tough games left on the schedule, Wichita State looks to have a solid chance at entering the NCAA tournament with an indelible 34-0 mark.
While an unblemished record is certainly an impressive mark, there are plenty of teams that look to be making strong pushes before the regular season ends. From traditional powerhouses to scintillating potential Cinderellas, the field still looks wide open for now.

THE BIG TEN IS EATING ITSELF AND EVERYTHING IN ITS PATH

Midwesterners rejoice! Although the league has been overshadowed as of late by the football authoritarianism of the SEC, the Big 10 has been shining on the hardwood this season. It features five teams ranked in the top 25 (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin), all of whom look to be locks for the tournament. It’s hard to tell who is the best of the bunch because they all keep beating each other. Outside of these top five, Indiana and Minnesota both have resumes that could get them into the tournament, but the rest of their seasons will have to break just right in order to secure a spot.

Seriously though, I tried to make a spreadsheet to explain how these top seven teams have fared against each other (At bottom)

I give up. Let’s move on. The Big 10 can do whatever it wants until March.

MARCUS SMART: TOWERING GOD OR HUGE BABY?

Marcus Smart, a sophomore at Oklahoma State, was projected as one of the top picks in last year’s NBA draft until he decided to return for another season with the Cowboys. Naturally, every sportswriter decided that this was reason enough to scrutinize everything he does on and off the court. Smart has been targeted for his perceived tendency to ‘flop,’ his work ethic, and immaturity in terms that often have disturbing racial undertones. Nevermind that he’s averaging 17-5-4 (points/rebounds/assists) with a decent 42% shooting percentage for a team who lost its starting center for the season and just dismissed a key reserve for disciplinary reasons. No, it’s much more convenient to talk about Smart’s shoving a Texas Tech fan, reportedly after the fan referred to him with a racial slur, and how his three game suspension will give him time to evaluate his life and how ‘mature’ he should be. Marcus Smart is 19-years-old. This time next year he’ll probably be lighting up SportsCenter for the 76ers or Magic or whatever godawful team tanks hard enough to draft him. The mindless chatter around him has overshadowed his outstanding play for an OSU team that would be absolutely lost without him.

We still have a month left before March Madness, and thus far this has been as unpredictable a year in college basketball as any. A few constants remain: John Calipari and Rick Pitino continue to be the state of Kentucky’s greasiest residents besides Mitch McConnell, mid-majors all across the country look to be poised to make deep runs in the tournament, and Doug McDermott of Creighton has nearly completed his transformation into Kyle Korver. Everything resets in March, but even the least interested Macalester student could afford to pay some attention to the rest of the season, and be reminded over and over again why people go to state schools and support their crazy-good sports teams.