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Wednesday, January 30, 2013
King's Court: A big surprise party

By Jason King
ESPN.com

The most talked about player in college basketball the past few weeks is a jersey-popping guard from Ole Miss who loves his trash talk and his Coors Light and says he doesn't really care what you think about any of that.

Deep down, though, Marshall Henderson does.

It was only a few years ago, during the fall of his senior season at L.D. Bell High School just outside of Dallas, that Henderson became incensed after scanning a list of the nation's top 100 prospects on a recruiting website.

"They had guys ranked ahead of me [who] couldn't hold my jock strap in a million years," Henderson said by phone Monday night. "For some reason, people have never thought I could ball. They said I was too white.

"I play with a chip on my shoulder because of stuff like that. I've always flown under the radar because no one thinks I'm any good."

Henderson
Marshall Henderson plays with a chip on his shoulder. And that's a good thing for Ole Miss, one of the nation's surprise teams.

That's why it's so fitting that, one year after earning national junior college player of the year honors, Henderson chose to continue his career at Ole Miss. Much like their sharpshooting guard, the Rebels entered the 2012-13 season in relative obscurity.

Ole Miss was picked to finish seventh in the SEC, and coach Andy Kennedy was rumored to be on the hot seat after failing to lead his team to the NCAA tournament in his first six seasons.

But look at the Rebels now.

Even after Tuesday's home loss to Kentucky, Ole Miss remains one of the top stories of the college basketball season to date. At 17-3 overall and 6-1 in conference play, the 16th-ranked Rebels trail Florida by just a half-game in the SEC standings.

Henderson and his team-leading 19.3 points per game are a big reason for Rebs' surge. But Kennedy's squad also features one of the nation's top frontcourts in Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, who combine to average 24.3 points, 18.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks.

Guards Ladarius White, Nick Williams and Jarvis Summers are all veterans who played key roles a season ago.

"If we were on a video game, our chemistry would be 99 percent," Henderson said. "I think having experienced players helps. The teams that make the runs in the NCAA tournament usually have, like, four seniors. They know how to handle adversity. When games are close, they're calm. They're relaxed under pressure. That's how we are."

Henderson, who played his freshman season at Utah before transferring, said Ole Miss hasn't come anywhere close to hitting its ceiling. "It's been fun to watch everyone's reaction," he said. "We won some games early and people were like, 'Oh, they're really good.' Then we lost a few and it changed to, 'Oh, they suck.'

"Here we are, winning again, and everyone is back to singing our praises."

Ole Miss, which plays at No. 4 Florida on Saturday, is hardly the only team that has far exceeded expectations. Here's a look at five other "out of nowhere" squads which have forced their way into the national picture.

Oregon: The Ducks won two postseason games last season -- in the NIT. With three starters (Garrett Sim, Devoe Joseph and Olu Ashaolu) gone, it seemed reasonable to think Dana Altman's squad would take a step back.

That hasn't been the case.

Oregon, which was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12, sits atop the league standings at 18-2 overall and 7-0 in conference play. The Ducks have risen to No. 10 in the national rankings. Their only losses came against Cincinnati (in the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas) and UTEP (in triple-overtime in El Paso).

Singler
E.J. Singler and the Ducks are the clear favorite in the Pac-12.

Guard E.J. Singler was asked Monday if the Ducks were "sneaking up on people."

"Maybe earlier in the season we might've, but I don't think that's the case anymore," Singler said by phone. "Once the Pac-12 hit, I think people realized how dangerous we can be. We have so many different types of players, and we can all score."

Indeed, Oregon is one of the country's more balanced teams, with six players averaging between 8.9 and 11.7 points per game. Senior Tony Woods (10.9 points) is finally living up to expectations after transferring from Wake Forest, but the biggest boost is coming from Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi, a senior who leads the team with 9.6 rebounds per game.

"There wasn't a transition period with him at all," said Singler, who averages 11.2 points. "He knew the offense after one day. He's fun to play with because of how smart and how basketball savvy he is."

Still, the biggest reason so many people have been surprised by Oregon's success is because the Ducks start two freshmen in their backcourt. "That's dangerous," Altman chuckled.

But it really hasn't been. Damyean Dotson leads the team with 11.7 points per game while currently injured Dominic Artis chips in 10.2.

"We're roommates, so we've developed a really good chemistry," Dotson said of he and Artis. "I think we've both adapted [to the college game] really quick. It's a great situation. Everyone loves the offense because everyone touches the ball."

Oregon has already defeated preseason favorites Arizona and UCLA. And because of the schedule imbalance, the Ducks don't have to play either team again. That makes UO the hands down favorite to win the Pac-12.

"Knowing what's ahead, that keeps our fire burning and keeps our practices upbeat," Singler said. "Knowing our goals still haven't been accomplished keeps us motivated and determined."

Miami: One of the more surprising moments of the college basketball season thus far occurred on Jan. 23, when Miami blasted No. 1 Duke 90-63. The Hurricanes were picked to finished fifth in the ACC and lost nonconference games to Florida Gulf Coast, Indiana State and Arizona by 19 points.

But all of that was so 2012. Jim Larranaga's squad is 7-0 in January and 6-0 in the ACC, which puts them in first place ahead of Virginia (5-2) and Duke (4-2).

"We're just plugging along right now," Larranaga said before Tuesday's practice. "We're still in the process of figuring things out. The guys have worked hard, but we still have a long way to go. We're only six conference games into an 18-game conference schedule."

Perhaps, but that doesn't mean Hurricanes fans can't get excited.

Miami has had two consecutive home sellouts for the first time in program history, Larranaga said. And Saturday's game at NC State will be broadcast nationally by CBS. "Everything is headed in a very positive direction," said Larranaga, the former George Mason coach who is in his second season at Miami.

Much like Ole Miss, the Hurricanes are led by upperclassmen. Five of Miami's top six scorers are seniors, and sophomore point guard Shane Larkin -- the son of former major league baseball player Barry Larkin -- is averaging 12.3 points, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals.

Miami has won 20 or more games in each of the past three seasons but hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2008. "I certainly think players get hungrier," Larranaga said. "Even if you've enjoyed a lot of success, you want more. Until you've won a national championship, you still have a major goal to accomplish."

Kermit Davis
With a stingy defense leading the way, Kermit Davis' MTSU squad is 10-1 in the Sun Belt.

Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 1989, but it appears coach Kermit Davis has something special with this squad. MTSU is 18-4 overall and 10-1 in the Sun Belt Conference. Highlighting its res are victories over Vanderbilt, Central Florida and No. 16 Ole Miss. Thirteen of the Blue Raiders' wins have come by double figures.

MTSU's calling card is its defense. Opponents are averaging just 58.4 points against Davis' squad while shooting a collective 40.5 percent from the field. "We're a physical team," said Davis, the former Idaho and Texas A&M coach. "We're trying to pressure people all over the court. We've got good depth. We play 10 guys double-figure minutes. It allows us to absorb foul trouble and stay fresh. That's probably our biggest strength right now."

Senior Marcos Knight leads the team in scoring with 12.7 points while his brother, Tweety, a junior, ranks second in assists and is tied for first in steals. Eight players average between 5.3 and 12.7 points. Junior Shawn Jones leads the team with nine rebounds per contest.

"Schools like us are able to keep guys around and play some seniors," said Davis, whose team is 4-2 against the SEC the past two seasons. "It's one of the reasons you see so much parity in college basketball these days."

Arizona State: Most people predicted gloom and doom for the Sun Devils entering the season -- and understandably so. ASU finished just 10-21 in 2011-12 and then saw its top two scorers (Keala King and Trent Lockett) transfer during the offseason.

Arizona State was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, and Herb Sendek's future as head coach appeared iffy at best.

"Being here, I didn't necessarily draw those same conclusions," Sendek said Tuesday. "We did have a losing season last year, and we did have some guys leave. But we had a good nucleus returning and we had some players sit out last year.

"We felt like we had a chance to turn things around."

The Sun Devils have done way more than that.

Arizona State is 16-4 overall and 5-2 in league play with signature wins over Colorado and UCLA. A strong finish could give Sendek's team an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2009. Sendek, though, won't look that far ahead.

"We've got to get ready to play Washington State [on Thursday]," he said. "I know that sounds very simplistic and that it's not very quotable. But that's all we can do right now. We're not even halfway through the conference season. The next game will start 0-0."

Redshirt freshman Jahii Carson gets most of the credit for ASU's surge. He leads the team in scoring (17.3) and assists (5.5) and has helped transform the Sun Devils from a slow, plodding, low-scoring team to an up-tempo squad that averages 73.3 points per game.

"Carson is a great player," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "But Carrick Felix is the guy that makes that team go. He's the real deal."

Felix averages 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. Center Jordan Bachynski, who stands 7-2, is tied for third in the nation in blocks with 4.3 per game.

La Salle: The Explorers boast just one NCAA tournament win since 1983 and haven't been included in the bracket since 1992. No one would be shocked if both streaks came to an end this March.

Three days after upsetting ninth-ranked Butler last week, La Salle went on the road and defeated No. 19 VCU for its second straight win against a Top 25 team. La Salle hadn't defeated ranked teams consecutively since the 1952 NIT tournament. At 14-5, it is off to its best start since 1990-91.

"If you think we're surprised, you're nuts," La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini said after the VCU win. "You know nothing about our program and our players if you think we're surprised about winning against a good team. We don't care what anyone says or writes. We don't read articles."

Maybe that's because they haven't appeared in many.

Before this season, the Explorers were just 119-128 under Giannini and only 54-74 in A-10 play. Only once in Giannini's eight seasons has La Salle finished higher than fourth in the conference standings.

But with players such as Ramon Galloway (17.2 points) in the lineup, things could soon change. Galloway scored 31 points in the VCU win and is one of four players averaging double figures.

"It was a huge step," Galloway said after beating the Rams. "Probably the biggest step in La Salle program history."

REPORT CARD

A: Nerlens Noel -- The Kentucky center is beginning to show why he's projected as a top-five pick in this summer's NBA draft. Noel blocked 12 shots in Tuesday's win at Ole Miss and is now averaging a national-best 4.7 swats on the season. Even more impressive was that five of Noel's blocks came after he picked up his fourth foul with 9:53 remaining. I loved the energy and competitive fire Noel displayed against the Rebels. It's something that Kentucky desperately needs as it tries to bounce back from a rocky first half.

B: Vander Blue -- After subpar seasons as a freshman and sophomore, the 31st-ranked recruit in the Class of 2010 is finally living up to expectations. Blue is averaging 14.8 points per game for 25th-ranked Marquette and 19 points in his past five contests. "We don't necessarily sign guys that are ready-made," Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams told ESPN.com. "We sign guys that know they're going to have to work. He's had a lot on his shoulders. He can't control what all the expectations have been for him since he got here. He's handled that burden, and now his stock is on the rise. But we need him to do more." Blue netted a career-high 30 points in Monday's win over South Florida.

Bill Self
The Kansas Jayhawks are perfect in the Big 12, but Bill Self's offense has some work to do.

C: Kansas' offense -- The Jayhawks are averaging only 62 points in their past six games. They've managed to win all six, but three of the past four victories have come by five points or fewer. KU is shooting 48.2 percent from the field on the season, a mark that ranks 19th in the country. But that number dips to 44.8 percent in Big 12 play, which is somewhat concerning considering the Big 12 isn't exactly loaded with strong teams. Leading scorer Ben McLemore attempted only seven shots in Monday's win at West Virginia. KU also went 18-of-34 from the free throw line and committed 16 turnovers. "We're better than that," coach Bill Self told reporters.

D: VCU -- A lot of people -- myself included -- have been touting the Rams as a potential Final Four team. But it's tough to feel good about their chances after consecutive losses to Richmond and La Salle. VCU led Richmond by seven points with 30 seconds remaining but couldn't close the deal. The Spiders won in overtime. La Salle is a good team that touts a win over Butler, but VCU lost that game at home. That can't happen. The Rams still have a gaudy record at 16-5, but it's not as if their tourney profile is loaded with quality wins. Their best victories are against Memphis, Belmont, Alabama, Saint Joseph's, Lehigh and Dayton.

F: Travel pet peeves -- If you spend a lot of time in airports and on planes, you've certainly got them. Here are mine: people who stand on moving walkways, flight attendants who tell jokes and sing, people under 6-feet tall who sit in exit rows, anyone who leans their seat back in my lap and then acts surprised when I knee them in the back, businessmen -- especially ones with Bluetooth devices -- who talk on the phone loud enough for the whole plane to hear, restrooms in massive airports with only one stall, people who try to board the plane out of order, people who sit in the middle seat next to me when there's an entire row open a few rows back, planes without WiFi, being given a tiny glass of Diet Coke instead of the whole can, people who bring foul-smelling sandwiches and salads on board and stink up the whole plane, peanuts with no salt and excessive talkers. Phew! Sorry about that. Had to vent.

THIS WEEK'S POLL

Ranking the best players from non-big six conferences in college basketball, in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil and me).

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton -- 50 (5)
2. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga -- 43
3. Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- 42
4. Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State -- 29
5. Mike Muscala, Bucknell -- 28
6. Rotnei Clarke, Butler -- 20
7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State -- 13
8. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State -- 9
9. Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's -- 8
10. Elias Harris, Gonzaga -- 7

Also receiving votes: Keith Clanton, Central Florida 6; Nate Wolters, South Dakota State 4; Kendall Williams, New Mexico 4; Treveon Graham, VCU 3; D.J. Cooper, Ohio University 3; Ian Clark, Belmont 3; Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga 2; Ray McCallum Jr., Detroit, 2; Tyler Haws, BYU 1.

THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW

1. Add St. John's to the list of teams on the NCAA tournament bubble. Sunday's victory over Seton Hall was the fourth straight for Steve Lavin's squad, which is now 13-7 overall and 5-3 in league play.

Not bad for a team that entered 2013 toting losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville.

"It all started with the Notre Dame game," forward JaKarr Sampson said of his team's Jan. 15 win over the then-No. 20 Fighting Irish. "Things started to take off after that.

"Our chemistry is just so strong. Everyone on the team is finding ways to step up."

Shooting guard D.J. Harrison leads the Red Storm with 19.8 points per game, and freshman Chris Obekpa ranks second in the nation in blocks with 4.6. Lately, though, the 6-foot-8 Sampson has been one of the team's biggest threats. He's averaging 14.3 points on the season and 16.8 points during the Red Storm's current win streak. His 6.5 rebounds per game are a team high.

Sampson's college career was supposed to begin last season, but he was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA and returned to his prep school, Brewster (N.H.) Academy, for a post-graduate year.

"I was upset at first, because I was disappointed in myself," Sampson said. "But that year actually ended up helping me. I got stronger and improved my game to the point it's at today."

Sampson decommitted from St. John's last fall and took official visits to Kansas and Baylor. Eventually, though, he switched back to his original plan and renewed his pledge to the Red Storm.

"[Lavin] recruited me even harder the second time," Sampson said. "He was making more calls, coming to visit me more. I had developed such good relationships with all of the players and coaches. I realized this is where I wanted to be all along."

2. Speaking of first-year players, the race for national freshman of the year is turning into a good one. For a while it seemed as if UNLV's Anthony Bennett would run away with the honor, but Kansas' Ben McLemore and Arizona State's Jahii Carson are working their way into the mix along with Sampson at St. John's, Isaiah Austin of Baylor, Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, Rasheed Sulaimon of Duke and Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA.

McLemore and Carson have a bit of an advantage over their competitors. Both players are redshirt freshmen, meaning they worked out with their respective teams last season but were ineligible to play.

3. Nearly one month later, people are still talking about the horrid call that robbed Colorado of a victory at Arizona. Sabatino Chen made a 3-pointer at the buzzer that appeared to give the Buffs a victory. But after reviewing the play on a monitor, the officials said the shot didn't count because Chen didn't get it off in time, even though there clearly wasn't enough evidence to overturn the call. Arizona won in overtime.

Andre Roberson
CU hopes to get more points from Andre Roberson, who has dominateed the boards with 11.6 RPG.

What was Tad Boyle's message to his team?

"I just told them, 'Hey, life isn't fair. Let's move on,'" Boyle said by phone Sunday evening. "You can't feel sorry for yourself, and our guys haven't."

Apparently not.

Colorado has won its past three games and is now 4-4 in Pac-12 play. With nonconference victories over Baylor, Murray State and Colorado State, the Buffaloes have a decent resume. But an NCAA tournament berth won't be granted without a few more quality wins. Boyle's squad plays at No. 10 Oregon on Feb. 7 and hosts eighth-ranked Arizona in a rematch on Valentine's Day.

Boyle said he has been pleased with the strides he has seen from his young team. The Buffaloes start two freshmen (Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson), two sophomores (Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker) and junior Andre Roberson.

"Our guys are maturing," Boyle said. "We've had some really good practices. Some teams start going lighter at this time of year. We haven't done that. We've gone hard and made things competitive in practice. I'm not coaching them like it's mid-January. I'm coaching them like it's November. I don't want them to get comfortable."

Roberson ranks second in the country in rebounding with 11.6 boards per game. But he scored in single digits in four of his first six Pac-12 games. Roberson reversed that trend in his past two contests, when he had 12 points against Stanford and 15 in a win over Cal.

"When he's getting dunks and getting put-backs, we're at our best," Boyle said. "He doesn't have to score a ton of points for us to be successful, but he has to be a threat."

4. One of the ultimate displays of loyalty occurred last summer, when standout forward Keith Clanton opted to stay at Central Florida even after the Knights were banned from the postseason because of NCAA rules violations.

Clanton would have been eligible to play immediately had he chosen to transfer, and his suitors included high-profile teams such as Kentucky and Ohio State. But after talking with UCF coach Donnie Jones, Clanton decided to stay for his senior season.

"I feel like you could've put me on any team in the country, and I'd have been fine, basketball-wise," Clanton told me Monday afternoon. "But I want to be a leader. I think staying here helped me build character and loyalty. It wasn't just a basketball decision. It was a life decision. This is the best place for me."

A fourth-year starter, Clanton's senior season is shaping up to be his best. He's averaging career-highs in points (16.6) and rebounds (9.3) for Central Florida, which is 14-5 overall and 4-1 in Conference USA. He's also dishing out three assists a game, an unusually high number for a forward.

"Teams are keying on me and doubling me," said Clanton, who expects to be playing pro ball a year from now. "But that's allowing other guys to step up and make plays, which is going to make it easier on me in the long run.

"I feel like we can win our conference. I think we're just as good if not better than all the teams we're about to play against. I don't plan on us losing another game."

5. Back-to-back road losses to Wichita State and Drake caused Creighton to drop from No. 12 to No. 21 in the Associated Press poll. Doug McDermott and the Bluejays, though, are confident the drought will be short-lived.

"Coach [Greg McDermott] told us not to hit the panic button," guard Grant Gibbs told ESPN.com by phone Sunday. "He said to do everything we do with a little more attention to detail."

Gibbs said it's obvious that teams are more excited to play Creighton than ever thanks to their national ranking and the presence of Wooden Award candidate Doug McDermott. The success the Bluejays experienced last season -- they went 29-5 and defeated Alabama in the NCAA tournament -- also makes them feel like a hunted team.

"We've got to realize that people are going to play their best against us," said Gibbs, who averages a team-high six assists. "Last year we kind of got a taste of it. But it's a different magnitude this year, no doubt. We're going to be everyone's biggest game.

"You've got to have a different level of focus when it's like that. It's not always going to be easy and free-flowing, where we're making a lot of shots. Sometimes you have to put your head down and push through when teams are playing well and playing hard against you. The Drake game, they came out and took it to us. We were back on our heels. That can't happen for the rest of the year."

Creighton got back to its winning ways Saturday with an 81-51 win at Southern Illinois.

STARTING FIVE

Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.

Gonzaga's All-Mark Few team

Starters

PG: Dan Dickau -- Earned first-team All-American honors as a senior in 2002
SG: Blake Stepp -- Zags' seventh all-time leading scorer is in school's Hall of Honor
SF: Adam Morrison -- Averaged 28.1 points as a junior in 2005-06, 19.7 points in career
PF: Casey Calvary -- Led Gonzaga to three straight Sweet 16s from 1999-2001
C: Ronny Turiaf -- School's fourth all-time leading scorer, rebounder; three-time All-WCC

Bench

PG: Jeremy Pargo -- 2008 WCC Player of the Year averaged 12.1 points, 6 assists
SG: Matt Bouldin -- Named first team All-WCC in 2008, 2009 and 2010
PF: J.P. Bautista -- Juco transfer averaged 19.3 points, 9.4 boards in 2005-06

RAPID FIRE

Coach who doesn't get enough credit: John Thompson III, Georgetown
Coach who gets too much credit: Lorenzo Romar, Washington
Time to start talking about: Virginia
Time to forget about: Maryland
Love his energy: Kevin Young, Kansas
Could start for anyone: Erick Green, Virginia Tech
Give him the rock: Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky
Pass more, shoot less: A.J. Walton, Baylor
Welcome back: Villanova
Where did you go: Illinois
Better than I thought: Indiana State
Not as good as I thought: Notre Dame

PREDICTION TIME

Indiana 77, vs. Michigan 73: A lot of people wrote off Indiana after the Hoosiers lost to Wisconsin at home. I wasn't one of those people. In fact, I'm still not convinced Indiana isn't the best team in the country. I think the Assembly Hall crowd will play a big factor in this one. No matter who wins, these are both still top teams.

Kansas 67, vs. Oklahoma State 59: The Jayhawks' offense is struggling, but their defense has been outstanding. Oklahoma State is one of the Big 12's most talented teams, but the undersized Cowboys don't have anyone who can match up with 7-foot KU center Jeff Withey. Only a fool would pick against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks have won 102 of their past 103 games.

Florida 80, vs. Ole Miss 68: The Gators are crushing SEC opponents, having won their first six league games by an average of 26.5 points. I'll be shocked if they win that handily against Ole Miss, but I'm expecting a double-digit victory nonetheless. Florida looks like a Final Four team.

Pittsburgh 66, vs. Syracuse 65: The Orange will have had a week off by the time they take the court at the Peterson Events Center, which is one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball. James Southerland's status is still in question for Syracuse, which also will be without starting forward Dajuan Coleman (knee).

NC State 63, vs. Miami 59: The Hurricanes have been the story of the ACC season thus far, but their success could come to a halt -- at least temporarily -- against the league's most talented team. If Miami can beat NC State on the road, it would be even more impressive than last week's home shellacking of Duke.

Oklahoma 68, vs. Kansas State 64: The Wildcats defeated Oklahoma 69-60 in Manhattan on Jan. 19, but it's always tougher to win away from home -- especially against a well-coached team such as the Sooners. Romero Osby leads Oklahoma in points (14.4) and rebounds (6.4).

Louisville 61, vs. Marquette 55: If the season ended today, Marquette's Buzz Williams would be the favorite to win Big East Coach of the Year. The Golden Eagles' only conference loss is an overtime defeat at Cincinnati. Saturday's tilt with the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center, however, will be too much for Marquette to overcome.

PIT STOPS

Oklahoma Joe's, Kansas City: Every March when the Big 12 tournament rolls into town, my job title expands. Along with being a college basketball reporter, I become a tour guide for the area's top barbecue restaurants. Last year, between Wednesday and Saturday, I took a half-dozen out-of-town reporters to four of the city's most famous spots: Gates, Arthur Bryant's, Jack's Stack and Oklahoma Joe's. Everyone agreed that Okie Joe's was clearly the best -- but not because of their oddly-famous "Z-Man" sandwich, which features a thick onion ring and provolone cheese atop a mound of thinly sliced brisket. It's certainly not bad, but at the end of the day, it's still just a sandwich. What truly makes Oklahoma Joe's the top haunt in the nation's barbecue capital are the ribs, which are the best I've ever tasted. My recommendation is to order a full slab or a rib-and-one-meat platter, which features about four bones and another meat of your choice. Go with the pork -- and get french fries as your side. Those seasoned potatoes are almost as popular as the 'cue.

Whataburger, various locations in the South: My plan for years has been to move back to my native Texas, but I may have to reconsider. Chick-fil-A is in Kansas City now, Jack In The Box recently opened and Twin Peaks is on the way. A Whataburger franchise may just put me over the edge. I love In-N-Out and Five Guys, but I'll take Whataburger over both of them without hesitation. The fresh condiments set them apart along with their practice of using mustard instead of ketchup or mayo. I usually customize mine by adding a few strips of bacon and a handful of grilled jalapenos. I also ask for the bun to be toasted on both sides. High maintenance, I know. True story: I rang in 2013 by myself at a Whataburger in Moore, Okla. I covered the Oklahoma State-Gonzaga game that evening and was on my way to Dallas when I stopped in for a dinner. I took the last bite of my first burger at about 11:50 p.m. and then ordered another one shortly after the clock struck midnight. So my final meal in 2012 and my first meal in 2013 were both Whataburgers. Something tells me this is going to be a great year.