With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror, the nation’s attention now turns to the greatest sport there is, college basketball. It has been a crazy season thus far in many ways – a global pandemic will do that to you. So, to get everyone focused on the next 2 months of basketball, our old friend and Hangover contributor Cheston stops by for a little college hoops banter.
Cheston: WH – how goes it? I mean aside from being a year into a 100-year global pandemic, in the midst of a second presidential impeachment trial in 14 months, and that stupid Ashton Kutcher cheesy puffs Super Bowl commercial?
Actually, scratch that. Let’s skip the real-life talk, since real life feels like a Black Mirror episode lately. Let’s get to yours and my favorite escape from real life: college hoops season! With our respective beloved teams – your Heels, my Wahoos – facing off this Saturday, and with only a month to go until (fingers crossed…) the first Selection Sunday in two years, it seems like a good time to talk about this peculiar, Little-Engine-that-Could of a season.
First topic: the ACC. Ah, remember the halcyon days of college basketball’s most famous conference, when its teams earned three of the four 1 seeds, produced 10 first-round NBA draft picks including a generational talent who lifted TV ratings to multi-decade highs all on his own, and one of its teams (cough, cough …. Virginia…cough) won the national title? Wait….that was two years ago?! It only feels like 20 years ago (in SO many ways)? What the heck happened to this conference, WH?!
This year, the ACC probably won’t produce any one seeds; it in fact only has three teams ranked in the Top 25. There are no Zions, no De’Andre Hunters, no Coby Whites – do they even have a surefire lottery pick? Could you name off the top of your head who might make first-team All-ACC this year?
The only silver lining in all the mediocrity is that …well, you’re the Carolina fan so I’ll let you say it…
WH: Duke sucks.
Man, it feels good to say that and for it to actually be true. We say that daily as part of our bedtime prayers with Baby Hangover, but that’s all part of the indoctrination process and not actual analysis of the basketball team. It seems less than coincidental that they are struggling in a season that their coach claimed no one should be playing. Maybe they should have played Gardner-Webb to pad the win column? One more loss giving up 93 points to Notre Dame at home with something named Cormac putting up 28 points, and ole K will likely be contracting a wicked case of COVID and hang the rest of the losses on Scheyer or one of his other minions patrolling the sidelines.
Back to your point, the ACC is a pile of mediocrity. And that may be generous. It’s almost like it’s the SEC or something (Kentucky AND Duke being terrible is the gift that keeps on giving). Much to my chagrin, UVA is pulling away from the rest of the pack, but are they even really that good? At least relative to what you would expect from an ACC-leading team in mid-February? No. The answer is no. We keep telling ourselves this to ease the pain of what will potentially be a 51-38 loss on Saturday for the Heels. Florida State might actually be the best team in the league, but they haven’t played in two weeks, so who knows what will happen when they emerge from their latest covid-induced vacation. Other than UVA and FSU, there are no other conference teams in the top 30 of KenPom’s rankings! Want to hear some schools that ARE in the Top 30: Alabama, Colorado, Loyola Chicago (unfair Sister Jean advantage), and a 7-9 Penn State team.
As for star power, there is none. With apologies to the great season Justin Champagnie is having at Pitt, there are no must-watch players. The other morning, we were watching a replay of the UNC-Maryland 1998 ACC Tournament semifinal game. Just in Carolina Blue were Antawn Jamison, Ed Cota, Shammond Williams and a nice role player named Vince Carter. All four of them would likely be All-ACC this year! The only thing more distressing than the ACC’s chances in the Big Dance is the size of Wes Durham’s lower body, which is on display in every commercial break for the ACC Network. Not sure if they broadcast up BernieLand, but someone needs to get to work on ad sales at the conference.
Since the ACC won’t be producing a national champion this year, is this really, actually, Gonzaga’s year to reach the mountaintop?
Cheston: Oh, WH, I find your UVA disdain equal parts perplexing and validating. I actually remember that ’98 ACC tourney classic against those Future ACC Quitters, the Terps; it ended with Shammond cleverly drawing a foul on a three-pointer, if I remember correctly. That ’98 Carolina team was a sight to behold. When they annihilated a very good Duke team in Chapel Hill earlier in the season, I think it was just about the best game of basketball I’d ever seen one team play at the college level, but then again, I was
17, er, I mean 10. How the hell did you guys lose to Utah again that year?!
As to your Gonzaga question, I’d say they have about a 50% chance of finally winning it all. Baylor has the other 50%. I realize that declaring only two teams title worthy in a sport that decides its champion via a 68-team single-elimination tournament seems naive. But that’s how dominant the Zags and Fighting Scott Drews have been this year. Neither has lost a game; neither team has come particularly close to losing a game, despite some stiff competition (almost all of it coming early in Gonzaga’s case, thanks to the even-weaker-than-usual West Coast Conference). But I watched what the Zags did to my Wahoos. It was embarrassing. 98 points, beat us by 23…and it could have easily been 30. Tony Bennett’s teams don’t give up 98 points. They usually don’t give up 68. So, I’ve been a big Gonzaga believer since watching that rare dismantling.
While UVA has improved since, I agree with you that my Hoos are not a true national title contender. That begs the question: who is? Are there any true challengers to the Zags and Baylor? I’d say there are about three or four real ones. And the top challenger, if they ever play again, is a team that hails from a university that had the great honor (shame?) of actually employing WH at one point, no?
WH: The 13-1 Wolverines absolutely have to be considered a legitimate challenger to Gonzaga and Baylor, and that’s not just the Maize and Blue colored glasses that we have stored away in our closet. We were admittedly skeptical of the Juwan Howard hire – and we will always be #TeamBeilein – but they have been one of the surprises of the season. Great defense, balanced scoring and depth will do that for you. Howard has been able to expertly blend the returning talent, the freshman and some key transfers to create a team to be reckoned with. Only thing that could stop them is Ann Arbor being Ground Zero for COVID mutation. Oh. There are two giant question marks for Michigan – how will a three-week shutdown in the middle of the season will impact the program? And how will they fare finally facing some good teams? They will come out of this break and face ranked teams in 4 of their final 6 games, with the other two games being @ Indiana and vs. MSU, who will undoubtedly be ready to spoil the Wolverines Big Ten title hopes.
Aside from Michigan, the Big Ten is also home to potential title contenders in Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa, all of which reside in the top 7 of KenPom’s rankings. Of those three, Illinois might be the best suited to make a run thanks to some semblance of a defense. Plus, Ayo Dosunmu is one of most enjoyable players to watch in the country, while Kofi Cockburn is the most intimidating player in the country outside of Armando Bacot’s man bun. Looking away from the powerhouse Big Ten, Villanova has earned the right to be considered, if only because Jay Wright is a wizard. Despite being the architect of the most painful moment of my Carolina Basketball fandom, we are huge Jay Wright fans. And not just because he’s so handsome. (While we don’t love the style of play, Tony Bennett falls into this category too. Being handsome, that is. This portion of Work Hangover brought to you by my mom.)
Outside of those teams, it’s difficult to imagine many other title contenders, but this is 2020/21 and part of the tournament is being played at Hinkle Fieldhouse, so there will be Cinderella runs through the tournament. Who out there is going to bust some brackets this year? Who are the 6-10 seeds that could make a Sweet 16 or Final Four run?
Cheston: Good question. So good that I’m kinda drawing a blank. Doesn’t seem to be a lot of depth in the country this year. Think about it: the ACC stinks, and yet it may be the third-best conference behind the mighty Big Ten and Big 12. The SEC has Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and not much else (Kentucky and Duke being simultaneously this bad truly is the gift that keeps on giving). The Big East is basically Villanova, Creighton and a whole bunch of bubble teams. And I’m pretty sure the Pac-12 stopped playing basketball – or football – like three years ago.
To find an under-the-radar Final Four contender, you have to look to the mid-majors this year, I think. And the best candidate might just be a very familiar one: Loyola (Chicago), they of Sister Jean fame. This year’s version might be better than the 2018 Final Four team, with just three losses and a No. 22 AP ranking. They have a big showdown this weekend with Drake, which was undefeated and also ranked until a loss last weekend. Two ranked Missouri Valley teams in mid-February?! This truly is a wacky year. So, let’s just say the Loyola (Chicago)-Drake winner may have the inside track to the higher March Madness seeding, and thus may look like the best sleeper candidate.
Who do you like as a sleeper, WH? I know sleep is a sensitive topic in your New Dad world these days…
WH: Sleep is for the weak. At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves.
You nailed the best options – everyone loves The Drake! – so we’re going to go with the original Giant Killer…the Richmond Spiders. Arachnophobia is back baby! A sentimental choice to be sure, but if the Spiders can play enough games to make the tourney, they have the pieces to upset some teams and make a run. The starting lineup features four seniors, including the best player that is shorter than both of us in all of college basketball, Jacob Gilyard. The Spiders beat Kentucky before everyone was beating Kentucky and managed a win over Sister Jean and her Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers back in December. Their toughest opponent so far has been COVID, which has forced seven different games to be canceled or postponed. They have six winnable games remaining on their schedule, and if they win those and make a decent run at the A10 tournament (which they are co-hosting with VCU), the Spiders should be in the dance and ready to make some noise.
Ok Cheston…two questions to close us out. Who is your pick to win it all and more importantly, what’s the final score Saturday between the Hoos and the Heels?
Cheston: Gonzaga. And Virginia 73, Heels 66 – higher scoring than usual, since the Hoos can really shoot this year, but don’t have a vintage Packline D, at least by their standards. But really, we’re both winners since Ole Roy just said he expects to have a full squad and the game will actually be played. Games being played this year is always a victory.
How ’bout you? Do you dare pick the Heels to break their…. (researching….) … six-game/nine-year losing streak in Charlottesville? And do you dare take anyone other than the Gonzaga/Baylor two-headed monster to win it all? (You’re so going with Michigan….)
WH: For the sake of variety, we’ll go with the Fighting Illini to win it all, but only because you already picked Gonzaga. As for the Heels and Hoos, Charlottesville has been a house of horrors for the Tar Heels since Tony Bennett showed up (we won’t even mention Scott Stadium). Even the 2017 National Championship Carolina team lost in JPJ Arena 53-43 less than two weeks after winning by 24 in Chapel Hill. So, all evidence would point to another miserable trip to the Tommy J’s campus. Of course, we’ve never let silly things like logic and evidence get in the way of our prognostications. We prefer to rely on more accurate things like emotion, gut feelings and Caleb Love’s shooting percentage. Don’t know how they’ll do it, but give me the Heels 67-61.
As always, enjoyed the banter Cheston. If nothing else, the end of the season and the tournament will be one of a kind this year! We’ve applied to the NCAA for media credentials to be able to enter the Indy Bubble, but so far, the only response is a cease and desist letter with some nonsense about “no one actually reads your site”. They probably sent the same thing to The Athletic in their first attempt at credentials too. Fingers crossed!