Unbeatens beginning to fall and ranked teams enduring road struggles — it must be February in college basketball. This week, the Top Freking 10 expands with my five surprises and disappointments of the season.
1. THE FOOTBALL SCHOOLS
In their respective histories, Michigan and Texas have combined for 17 national championships…in football. Both schools have enjoyed years of college basketball prominence — Rick Barnes has taken the Longhorns to 14 NCAA tournaments in his 15 full seasons, while John Beilein guided the Wolverines the national championship game just last season. But, the reality is these two schools are known more for Darrell Royal and Bo Schembechler, than Kevin Durant and the Fab Five. However, each school’s football programs struggled in 2013, winning just eight (Texas) and seven (Michigan) games, respectively — clear disappointments for both. Luckily for the Longhorn and Wolverine footballers, the basketball teams are picking up the slack. Playing without 2012-13 national player of the year Trey Burke, first-round pick Tim Hardaway Jr. and preseason All-American big man Mitch McGary, Beilein has Wolverines tied for first place in the Big Ten. Barnes has guided a no-name squad to within one game of the Big 12 lead and sports a six-game conference win streak — with wins over four schools that are currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 — heading into Tuesday night’s game at TCU. Memo Texas and Michigan fans: Don’t spend money on those spring football tickets just yet; you might have to save up for a trip to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8.
2. OVERLOOKED POINT GUARDS
Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis, ranked as the fifth-best point guard in the Class of 2013 by ESPN, isn’t exactly a diamond in the rough, but the Canadian has proved to be better than expected. Ennis reminds me of Chris Paul in the sense that when the game enters its final quadrant, the ball is always in Ennis’ hands, and he seems to always make the right decision. Factor in that Ennis has the nation’s fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio — he’s only turned the ball over more than twice in a game once this season — and it won’t be long before Ennis is rocking argyle sweaters and appearing in State Farm commercials. Arizona’s T.J. McConnell isn’t even the best guard in the Wildcat backcourt — that distinction belongs to Nick Johnson — but the Duquesne transfer has done well feeding Johnson and star freshman Aaron Gordon. McConnell’s 2.86-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio has to make Sean Miller — his coach, a fellow Pittsburgh native and a former point guard — quite proud, especially since Zona is 21-1.
3. THE HAWKEYE STATE
Kentucky schools have won the past two national championships. Hoosier Hysteria is a year-round sickness in Indiana. Massachusetts claims to be the birthplace of basketball. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a state that boasts two better programs than Iowa, with the Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones a combined 33-9 going into Tuesday evening. Iowa is the surprise team of the Big Ten, owning conference wins over Ohio State and Minnesota while boasting nonconference victories over Xavier and Notre Dame. Down in Ames, the Cyclones are in the thick of a heated Big 12 race behind native son Fred Hoiberg. A former Iowa State shooting guard who played 10 seasons in the NBA — including four with the Indiana Pacers — Hoiberg has made a habit of turning teams with transfers as stars — it’s DeAndre Kane this season — into NCAA tournament squads. After losing four out of five last month, the Cyclones have now won two in a row, the headliner a triple-overtime win at Oklahoma State Monday night for the program’s first win in Stillwater since 1988.
4. THE AMERICAN
The newly-formed American Athletic Conference, comprised of the old Big East’s cast-offs and a hodgepodge of other schools, has spawned an unlikely front runner — Cincinnati. Behind the steady play of unheralded guard Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson’s full embracement of the post position and brass-knuckle defense, the Bearcats (10-0 AAC) have won 14 in a row and at 21-2, are off to the program’s best start since 2001-02. Not far behind UC is Larry Brown-coached Southern Methodist (17-5, 6-3 AAC), which is eyeing its first NCAA tournament berth since 1993.
5. DOUG MCDERMOTT
You caught me, the fact that Creighton’s Doug McDermott is averaging at least 22 points and 7 rebounds on 50 percent shooting for the third year in a row is not surprising in any way, shape or form. Neither is the notion that McDermott is a shoo-in for first team All-America honors and possibly even national player of the year. But TV announcers, can we refute from using the words ‘crafty’ or ‘gritty’ to describe McDermott? (This logic applies to Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, too). Pack a thesaurus to the broadcast booth and just recognize the skills.
1. TWO OTHER BIG TEN FOOTBALL SCHOOLS
If last Saturday’s Ohio State at Wisconsin matchup had been played four weeks earlier, it would’ve been a tilt between the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the country. Heading into Tuesday’s games, both teams were 4-5 in conference play and out of the AP poll. What gives? Well, water found its level for one. The Buckeyes and Badgers each feasted on weak nonconference slates to butter up their records, only to find a reality checks waiting for them in Big Ten play. For OSU, scoring is like brain surgery, with it cracking 70 points just once in its past five conference games. As for Wisconsin, it’s lacking a little of the Bo Ryan grit it usually possesses — the current Badgers are a perimeter-oriented squad that only has one legitimate post presence in freshman Nigel Hayes.
2. BRANDON ASHLEY’S KNEE INJURY
Arizona suffered its first loss of the season Saturday when California’s Justin Cobbs’ buzzer-beater jumper found the bottom of the net, but it may not have happened had Wildcat sophomore forward Brandon Ashley not broken his foot earlier in the game. With Ashley (12 points, 6 rebounds per game) now lost for the season, Arizona’s depth will be tested, as Miller was only playing seven guys more than 19 minutes per game. Ashley’s absence could help Gordon, who is likely to move into his more natural position of power forward.
3. THE HOOSIER STATE
If the NCAA tournament started today, the only chance Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler would have at making the field of 68 would be to win their conference tournaments. Zero of the four played particularly difficult nonconference schedules, and in conference play, the quartet’s performance has ranged from middling (Indiana) to disappointing (Purdue, Notre Dame, Butler). The lone bright spot so far has been Indiana State (17-5, 8-2 MVC). The Sycamores have a state-best RPI of 57, which they can boost tonight with a Missouri Valley win over visiting No. 4 Wichita State (23-0, 10-0 MVC).
I didn’t quite buy into the 40-0 hype, but I thought the Wildcats would be better than an outfit that already has five losses and is a very mediocre defensive team (92nd in scoring defense). Two years ago, John Calipari’s crew won the national championship with a freshmen and sophomore-dominated group that was committed to defense, evidenced by its No. 1 ranking in opponents’ field-goal percentage. Having human fly-swatter Anthony Davis didn’t hurt, either.
5. MARCUS SMART
Considering his physical skills and the dearth of star-end talent, Oklahoma State’s Smart would’ve been a lock for a top-five pack in the 2013 draft. Instead, he chose to return to school. Though the 6-4 point guard’s stat line is about the same as it was during his freshman season, Smart’s Cowboys are underachieving at 16-6 (4-5 Big 12). Also, Smart has gained a penchant for incessant whining and flopping. There’s still time for Smart to turn it around, but so far his decision to come back looks like a poor one.
The Top Freking 10
1. SYRACUSE (last week: 2)
Trevor Cooney tied a Cuse record with nine 3-pointers as the Orange topped Notre Dame Monday in their first game as the new top dog.
2.WICHITA STATE (LW: 3)
Kokomo product D.J. Balentine scored 26 points Saturday, but it wasn’t enough for Evansville to end the Shockers’ 23-0 start to 2013-14.
3. FLORIDA (LW: 5)
Highly-touted 6-10 freshman Chris Walker, sidelined all season by NCAA and academic issues, made his debut Tuesday night in a win over Missouri.
4. ARIZONA (LW: 1)
It’s a bit unfair to drop the Wildcats this far after a road loss to a good Cal team, but Brandon Ashley’s season-ending foot injury also has to be factored in.
5. SAN DIEGO STATE (LW: 6)
Coach Steve Fisher acquired his 300th win with the Azetcs over the weekend.
6. CINCINNATI (LW: 8)
The Bearcats proved their worth by taking down defending national champion Louisville in its own building last week.
7. KANSAS (LW: 4)
I’m not going to fault the Jayhawks too much for delivering a stinker at Texas Saturday after opening Big 12 play with seven straight wins.
8. VILLANOVA (LW: NR)
After scoring 53 second-half points in a triumph against Xavier Monday night, Nova is now tied atop the Big East standings with Creighton.
9. MICHIGAN (LW: 9)
The Wolverines’ first loss in Big Ten play at Indiana Saturday can be summed as such: the Hoosiers were desperate for a big win, and Nik Stauskas was due for an off-game.
10. MICHIGAN STATE (LW: 10)
Eventually the Spartans’ injuries were going to trip them up, but I didn’t expect that defeat to come Saturday to a 13-9 Georgetown squad.
Dropped out: Louisville (7)
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.