With the sporting public finally focused on college basketball during the two week lull before the Super Bowl, the nation’s top quintets made a compelling case that there is no clear favorite to cut down the nets in Houston on April 3rd. They did so not with their stellar play but by a run of losses to lesser foes which suggests that not a team among them can string together the necessary six victories under difficult conditions to win a title.
Last week, seven of the top 10 and fourteen of the top 25 lost once. Six of the top 25 lost twice.
No. 1 Villanova blew a 17- point lead and lost to unranked Marquette 74-72. Oregon, winner of 17 straight, was upended by lowly Colorado 74-65. No. 2 Kansas lost to West Virginia 85-69. After playing six straight games against ranked teams with a 5-1 record, Florida State lost back-to-back affairs to weak Georgia Tech and unranked Syracuse. Conference kingpins Kentucky and North Carolina lost on the road to Tennessee and Miami, respectively. Duke, the pre-season number one in the AP poll, has lost five games already, including at home to NC State for the first time since 1991.
If Marvin Gaye were alive, he’d wonder “What’s Goin’ On?” The answer is not a Lack of Lovin’, nor a deterioration in the quality of play. The top programs are getting more than their share of the one-and-dones, and there is no shortage of top talent to fill out the supporting roles. So why are the best teams losing so much?
A couple of changed conditions are at work. As a result of the realignment of the conferences into five super conferences containing up to fifteen teams, the regular season schedules in the Big Ten, ACC, Big Twelve, and Pac-12 have become minefields for upsets. Prior to expansion, Duke and North Carolina used to steamroller their way to lopsided regular season records in the ACC with home and aways against Boston College, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Clemson. Now, they must face the likes of Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh in a staggered schedule. Six of Carolina’s next eight games are against Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia , and Louisville, all top 25 residents.
West Virginia, which entered the Big 12 in 2012, has already inflicted losses on Kansas and Baylor. Maryland has made things difficult for everyone in the re-constituted Big Ten. In the new Big East, Creighton, Marquette, Xavier, and Butler are tough outs for Villanova, and for each other.
Secondly, liberalization of the transfer rules has made it easier for middle tier programs to reinforce their rosters with proven scorers. Big ticket freshmen often flame out, but there is little risk to recruiting a two or three year starter who wants to take his talents elsewhere. The one –year waiting period for undergraduate transfers remains, but players with remaining eligibility who have achieved their undergraduate degrees can transfer to another institution and play immediately.
The addition of a mature scorer to an team with a pressing need can transform a middling team to a good one, a good team to great. For example, Syracuse, hit hard by the surprise defection of freshman Malachi Richardson to the pros after a break-out 2016 post-season, recruited fifth year transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon for the 2016-2017 season. Between them, they scored 71 points in the Orangemen’s overtime win over NC State on Tuesday.
Another leading exponent of transfers is also the principal beneficiary of the carnage of losses which has afflicted the top 25. Quietly, rung by rung, Gonzaga has climbed from an opening rank of number 14 to its present position at the top of the charts. The Zags did it, not with a run of big victories, but by avoiding losses during their relatively soft non-conference schedule and decidedly soft West Coast Conference schedule.
Gonzaga is not all smoke and mirrors and a patsy schedule. At 23-0, including last night’s 85-75 disposal of Brigham Young, they’re the nation’s only undefeated team. They’ve won 16 straight by double digits, and convincingly beat tough Arizona on a neutral court. They’ve made the NCAA tournament for eighteen consecutive seasons, but suffer annually from a failure to be taken seriously. This is because they play in the weak WCC, and because they have not one Final Four appearance to show for all of their post-season appearances. More often than not they have been bounced from the Big Show early.
This year’s team is anchored by three transfers. Sharpshooter Jordan Mathews left California as a graduate transfer after three years of double-digit scoring for the Golden Bears. Johnathan Williams is a burly rebounder and interior scorer who played two years for Missouri. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was a star at Washington for two seasons before moving down the road to Spokane.
Williams-Goss is already the best yet hyphenated transfer, but if he continues to shine with his all-round game, he may become Gonzaga’s best player ever, John Stockton and Adam Morrison notwithstanding. He leads the team in scoring, rebounds, steals, and assists and exerts a Jason Kidd-like control over the game. Last week, against San Francisco, he became the fifth player in the last 20 years with 35 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and 80 percent shooting from the field in a game. Against BYU, he shot 12 of 18.
Williams-Goss leads a balanced attack. The first seven average between eight and fourteen ppg. Transfer Williams supplements a massive front line, featuring 7’ 1″ 300 lb. senior Przemek Karnowski and 7’ freshman Zach Collins, who averages 10.8 ppg in less than 20 minutes a game. Rounding out the backcourt with NWG are reliable returning lettermen Josh Perkins and Silas Melson.
Unlike their Power Five counterparts, Gonzaga does not face continuing regular season challenges. Only St. Mary’s on February 11th stands a ghost’s chance of stealing a victory from the Zags before NCAA play. If form holds, they will become only the fourth team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated in the last 25 years.
If form doesn’t hold, they could lose a regular season game. But if so, or if not, be prepared for another surprise – a long Zag run in the tournament.
Fed not Dead
A most welcome interlude from the onslaught of hoops and cacophony of Super Bowl talk was Roger Federer’s five-set victory over Rafael Nadal Sunday in the Australian Open. If you saw the match, you will never forget it.
Both Federer and Nadal were returning from long lay-offs. Federer, 35, was sidelined for six months after knee surgery. The leader in major victories at 17, Fed had not won a big one since 2012. Entering the tournament, he was seeded 17th. Furthermore, Nadal , winner of 14 majors, had Federer’s number. Federer had not beaten Nadal in a major in ten years, going 0-6 in the process.
The first four sets played according to form. There was one service break per set, and each proved decisive. Each player had registered 110 points after four sets. In the fifth set, all hell broke loose.
Nadal broke Federer in game 1. Federer failed to convert either of four break points in games 2 and 4 and entered the fifth set down 1-3. To survive, Federer needed to scale breakback mountain twice, a tall if not impossible task.
Federer held serve decisively in Game 5, and finally broke through on his sixth break point to make it 3-3. Three service aces propelled him to a 4-3 lead. Federer won the first three points on Nadal’s service in game 8 to set up three break points, but Nadal elegantly fought back to deuce. After a 26-hit rally to get to ad point. Federer scaled the mountain.
The wind at his back, Federer served for the match at 5-3. Nadal reached two break points, but finally faltered. Match point, decided on an appeal of a line call, was almost anti-climactic. But there was no shortage of jubilation to come.
With all permissible props to the wondrous Nadal, Federer’s victory at Melbourne, all things considered, qualifies as one of the very great individual sports triumphs of our time.