Commentary

Orange rise, Tar Heels take a dive

Originally Published: January 17, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

Along with shocking and humiliating, we may someday have another adjective to describe North Carolina's 33-point loss to Florida State on Saturday.

Historic.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Phil Sears/US PresswireNorth Carolina's loss to Florida State left coach Roy Williams searching for answers.

The Tar Heels entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2012 NCAA title. Since the tournament expanded in 1979, however, no team has ever suffered a defeat as lopsided as North Carolina's beatdown in Tallahassee on Saturday and gone on to win a national championship.

The only thing close occurred in 1993, when the Tar Heels suffered a 26-point defeat at Wake Forest in the regular season before winning it all in New Orleans.

If you think that history bodes well for the Tar Heels in their quest to make it to this year's Final Four in New Orleans, consider this: since the tournament expanded, only two teams have reached the Final Four after suffering 30-point defeats during the regular season. Stanford lost to Arizona 90-58 during the 1997-98 season and Michigan State lost to the Tar Heels 98-63 in 2008-09.

While there's a lot to like about the Seminoles, especially after their display against the Tar Heels, they don't match the level of competition the Cardinal and Spartans faced during their Final Four runs. Stanford lost to an Arizona team a year removed from winning the national championship; the Wildcats went on to win the Pac-10, earned a No. 1 seed and finished with 30 wins. Carolina fans won't need to be reminded that the Tar Heels steamrolled Michigan State a second time in the national championship game.

Considering the lack of poise and toughness it displayed against Florida State on Saturday, it's hard to imagine UNC accomplishing such a feat as its predecessors. Head coach Roy Williams said his players looked like "little junior high guys" while trying to compete with the Seminoles, who entered the game toting six losses.

If they weren't so winded, the Tar Heels probably would've cried "Uncle!"

"I did the worst job of coaching that I've ever done," Williams said after the game. "I've got to do a heck of a lot better job than that."

Elite teams lose games, but they don't lie down, they don't fold and they don't get embarrassed -- especially against mid-tier opponents. The Tar Heels are clearly missing something, and it has nothing to do with talent. They lack fire, energy, passion and, most of all, swagger.

Bringing out all of those things in his players -- if they even exist -- will take one of the best coaching jobs of Williams' Hall of Fame career.

[+] EnlargeBoeheim
Richard Mackson/US PresswireJim Boeheim tied Adolph Rupp for fourth all-time in Division I history with his 876th career win.

Speaking of Hall of Famers, Syracuse's victory over Pittsburgh on Monday night marked career win No. 876 for Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who is now tied with Adolph Rupp for fourth place on college basketball's all-time Division I wins list.

Boeheim won't remain in that slot very long.

He needs just four more victories to catapult ahead of legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith (879 wins) for third place. Like Smith, Boeheim's career is unique in that all of his success has been achieved at the same school. In this day and age of escalating contracts -- and egos -- we may never see this measure of loyalty again. Even Mike Krzyzewski hasn't spent his entire career at Duke.

That Monday's milestone victory came during such a tumultuous season had to be refreshing to Boeheim, who may be doing his best coaching job at Syracuse. Somehow the No. 1-ranked Orange have managed to maintain their focus despite the negativity and potential distractions created by the allegations and investigation surrounding former longtime assistant Bernie Fine.

At 20-0, Syracuse is off to its best start in school history. And while the Orange have taken some jabs for their schedule -- they faced just one ranked nonconference team and didn't play outside of New York until Dec. 17 -- it's impossible for anyone to deny that they are deserving of their spot atop the top-25 poll.

Baylor may have had an argument before Monday, when the third-ranked Bears were spanked 92-74 by Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks have won 85 of their past 86 games. There's no reason to write off a team for losing in the nation's toughest road venue, but until it gets tougher in the paint, it will be hard to buy into Baylor as an elite team.

Ohio State has three losses, including setbacks against a pair of schools (Indiana and Illinois) with grossly inferior talent. Missouri (17-1) is too small and Michigan State (15-3) couldn't beat Northwestern.

That leaves Syracuse and one-loss Kentucky as the top two teams in the country -- at least for now. Other schools may creep back into the picture. At this point, though, it's hard to imagine one of them being North Carolina.

In a zone

Anthony Davis' assault on the Kentucky record book: The 6-foot-10 freshman already has 82 blocks, which is just two blocks shy of breaking the Wildcats' single-season record. Davis has at least three blocks in every game this season except one -- and that was against North Carolina, when he swatted John Henson's attempt at a game-winning jumper from the baseline as time expired. Davis is averaging a national-best 4.6 blocks.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Jeff Moreland/Icon SMIAnthony Davis has been a defensive force for Kentucky.

Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson: The Kansas duo forms the top one-two punch in college basketball. Taylor and Robinson combined for 55 points in Monday's 92-74 win over Baylor, which moved the Jayhawks one step closer to an eighth straight Big 12 title. Robinson has long been the leading candidate for national player of the year, but it's been Taylor who has stepped up big recently. He scored 28 points in each of his past two games and has been virtually unstoppable when attacking the paint. Taylor has made 20 of his 35 field goal attempts through his past two games.

West Virginia: Could the Mountaineers become the first team to defeat top-ranked Syracuse when the teams meet on Jan. 28? It's definitely a possibility. After some early-season losses to Top 25 schools such as Mississippi State and Baylor, coach Bob Huggins' squad seems to be hitting its stride. West Virginia, which has a first team All-American candidate in Kevin Jones, has won three of four games and gave Connecticut all it could handle in a 64-57 loss in Hartford last week.

Steve Fisher: The San Diego State coach belongs in the national coach of the year conversation following Saturday's 69-67 victory over UNLV. The Aztecs are 15-2 overall despite losing four starters -- including lottery pick Kawhi Leonard -- from last season's Sweet 16 team. San Diego State faces a huge test Wednesday at New Mexico.

Chair slams: Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has received a lot of criticism for picking up a folding chair and slamming it into the hardwood while berating his team during a timeout in last week's 34-point loss at Michigan State. My opinion? I loved it. McCaffery didn't hurt anyone or touch a player. His passion and fire is exactly what Iowa's downtrodden team needs. McCaffery didn't apologize for the outburst. "If anybody thinks I'm going to sit there with my hands crossed when we're down by 40 [points], they've got the wrong guy," he said. Four days later, Iowa upset No. 13 Michigan.

Mike Scott: I caught a good-natured ribbing from Virginia fans last week for leaving their star forward off my weekly Wooden Award ballot. Most of them raised some good points. Scott's 16.9-point scoring average doesn't stand out from the other candidates until you remember that Virginia averages just 65 points as a team. Scott also shoots 59 percent from the field and snares 8.9 rebounds per contest. He had 23 points in last week's loss at Duke.

In a funk

Seton Hall: The Pirates' spot in the Top 25 poll lasted all of one week. Instead of capitalizing on the momentum gained from victories over West Virginia and Connecticut, Seton Hall went to South Florida on Friday, and the Pirates played one of their worst games of the season in a 56-55 loss to the Bulls, who are just 10-8.

[+] EnlargeSeton Hall
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaSeton Hall's prospects have dimmed after a loss to South Florida.

Volume shooters: I've always hated that term to defend players with high scoring averages who take 20-25 shots a game. "Yeah, he's only shooting 31 percent from the field, but that's because he's a volume shooter." I've got a more accurate description for such a player: ball hog. There are a lot of college basketball players who could average 20 points a game if their coach let them take more than 20 shots a night. Also, ever notice how "volume shooters" are usually on underachieving teams?

Mid-tier Missouri Valley schools: Seems like only a month ago when we were talking about the possibility of the league getting as many as four NCAA tournament bids. Now I'll be surprised if it receives more than two. Creighton and Wichita State are living up to expectations. But Indiana State -- which returned the key pieces from last season's postseason squad -- is 2-5 in MVC play, including a loss to lowly Southern Illinois. The same Missouri State team that upset Creighton on the road last month dropped a home game to Evansville on Sunday, which wasn't nearly as bad as Northern Iowa losing to Bradley.

Connecticut's backcourt depth: For the second time this season, freshman guard Ryan Boatright has been benched indefinitely while the NCAA examines potential infractions that could affect his eligibility. With Boatright in the mix, the Huskies had been able to speed up their offense with a three-guard lineup that included Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. It will be interesting to see how Connecticut plays during his absence. Boatright averages 10.2 points and 3.5 assists.

Clumsy coaches: Washington State's Ken Bone looked like he slipped on a banana peel as he rushed onto the court to call a timeout Sunday. Bone, who landed flat on his rump as television cameras rolled, was able to laugh about the incident moments later, but Xavier coach Chris Mack wasn't as fortunate. Mack tore the patellar tendon in his left knee while attempting a dunk in practice. Mack had joined his players in the layup line to lighten the mood of the workout. He had surgery that day and was back at practice the following afternoon.

Questions for the King

Are you still high on Indiana following the Hoosiers' losses to Minnesota and Ohio State (in a blowout)?

Absolutely. There is no shame in losing to an NCAA title contender such as Ohio State, especially on the road. As for the Minnesota loss? Hey … it happens. I still think Indiana is a legitimate top-15 team. The fact remains that the Hoosiers are 15-3 with home victories over Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan. If Indiana drops a few more games to lower-tier Big Ten teams, I may change my opinion. But at this point I'm not worried.

How concerned are you that Kentucky struggled to beat two of the SEC's worst teams, Auburn and Tennessee?

First of all, I judge teams like Kentucky different than ones such as Indiana. The Wildcats are an NCAA title contender. Indiana is not. So, yes, Kentucky's close games against subpar competition make me question whether the Wildcats are as good of a team as everyone thought. At the same time, I'm not overly concerned. Just because Kentucky isn't dominating its opponents now doesn't mean it won't eventually. Remember, three of the Wildcats' top five players are freshmen who are just discovering how difficult it is to win conference road games. The same thing happened last season with Kentucky's newcomers, who also struggled away from home. The Wildcats' ceiling is incredibly high. They're a darn good team right now and they're going to get a lot better.

What happened to the Baylor Bears in Monday's 92-74 loss at Kansas?

The same thing that has happened to the visiting team in 85 of the past 86 games at Allen Fieldhouse: they lost. There is no shame in falling to the Jayhawks in Lawrence, Kan., where their home-court advantage is so good that it's almost unfair. Baylor completely wilted under pressure near the end of the first half and never recovered after intermission. The Bears took terrible shots early in the shot clock, got intimidated in the paint and played passive defensively against a team that made 20 of its second-half shots. I'm not sure the Dallas Mavericks would've won at Allen Fieldhouse on Monday. Baylor is still a very good team with an excellent résumé. Monday's defeat didn't change that. The game said more about Kansas -- the favorite to win an eighth straight Big 12 title -- than it did about Baylor.

Is it time to put USC coach Kevin O'Neill on the hot seat?

Heck no. I realize the Trojans are one of the worst teams in the nation's worst BCS conference, but O'Neill isn't to blame. He lost standout forward Alex Stepheson and sharpshooter Donte Smith to graduation, and center Nikola Vucevic left school early for the NBA draft. Floor leader Jio Fontan tore his ACL in August, leaving center Dewayne Dedmon as USC's most-talented player. This is just Dedmon's second year of playing organized basketball. O'Neill took USC to the NCAA tournament last season just two years after inheriting a program that had been put on probation because of improprieties that occurred under the former staff. He's a good coach who doesn't cheat -- which is more important than ever at USC right now -- and he has a great recruiting class on the way. It wouldn't surprise me at all if USC finishes near the top of the Pac-12 standings next season.

Good things come in threes

Three teams I thought would be terrible that aren't

1. South Florida: Coach Stan Heath's squad touts victories over Seton Hall, Rutgers and Cleveland State, and the Bulls came within three points of upsetting Connecticut.
2. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have had trouble establishing consistency, but victories over Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota should have opponents on high alert.
3. LSU: Coach Trent Johnson may be off the hot seat if the Tigers (11-6) finish with a winning record.

Three guys I'd want to take the last shot trailing by three points with a few seconds left

1. Kim English: The Missouri guard is shooting a national-best 53.8 percent from beyond the arc.
2. John Jenkins: Vanderbilt's best player is arguably the top pure shooter in the game.
3. Brady Heslip: Baylor wouldn't be the same team without the Boston College transfer, who seems to relish playing on the road.

Three good games this week

1. Michigan State at Michigan (Tuesday)
2. San Diego State at New Mexico (Wednesday)
3. (tie) Missouri at Baylor and Mississippi State at Vanderbilt (both Saturday)

Three things for fans to debate

1. Second-best team in the SEC: Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt or Alabama?
2. Best first-year coach: Frank Haith (Missouri), Archie Miller (Dayton) or Dave Rice (UNLV)?
3. Team that will have the biggest breakthrough during the conference season?

Report card

A: Jim Boeheim: Monday's victory over Pittsburgh was career win No. 876 for Boeheim, which ties the Syracuse coach with Kentucky's Adolph Rupp for fourth place on college basketball's all-time wins list. Boeheim's success this season -- the Orange are 20-0 -- is particularly impressive considering the distractions that have surrounded his program.

B: Vanderbilt: It was only a month ago when everyone appeared ready to write off the Commodores following a Dec. 17 loss to Indiana State. Vanderbilt, though, has bounced back with seven straight wins and is looking more and more like the team that entered the season with a No. 7 national ranking. A victory at Alabama on Thursday would be huge.

C: Kansas State: Coach Frank Martin's squad let one loss become two when it followed a hard-fought, two-point setback against No. 3 Baylor with an 82-73 clunker Saturday at Oklahoma. Even at 1-3 in the Big 12, I still think Kansas State is the fourth-best team in the league. But the Wildcats can't afford multiple losses to inferior teams if they want to make the NCAA tournament.

D: Kyle Fogg: There's nothing wrong with a little screaming and fist-pumping after a dunk or clutch basket. But Arizona's Fogg took it too far when he barked at Oregon State's Jared Cunningham following a clutch shot in overtime. Cunningham responded by shoving Fogg and a bench-clearing brawl almost ensued.

F: Roy Williams critics: Rip the North Carolina coach all you want for his team's woeful performance at Florida State on Saturday. That was brutal. But there's no reason to chastise a coach for attempting to keep his players out of harm's way, which is exactly what Williams was doing when he pulled the Tar Heels off the court with 14 seconds left as Seminoles fans were gearing up to storm the court. Heck, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton even suggested it. Smart move.

Thoughts from press row

1. Given all of Kentucky's talent, it's easy to assume that the SEC Player of the Year award will go to a Wildcat. Voters, though, should at least consider Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie. The UTEP transfer leads the Bulldogs in both points (16.5) and rebounds (10.9) and has been the main reason for Mississippi State's 15-3 record.

2. Not sure what it says about Florida State that the Seminoles can annihilate one of the most talented teams in the country, North Carolina, but lose to the likes of Harvard and Princeton.

3. We'll have a much better feel for the Big 12 race -- and Missouri's place in it -- following Saturday's game between the Tigers and Baylor in Waco, Texas. The thought after Missouri's blowout loss to Kansas State on Jan. 7 was that the Tigers wouldn't be able to compete against elite teams with decent size and length. Missouri has gone 3-0 since that setback, but the wins included an undersized Iowa State squad and a Texas team that features six freshmen among its top eight players. If Missouri comes within 10 points of beating the gigantic Bears, there will be plenty of reasons for encouragement.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireLouisville is just 2-5 since starting the season 12-0.

4. I'm having trouble locating Louisville's Big East record. Are there any Cardinals fans who can tell me? Thanks.

5. Cal is the class of the Pac-12, but I'm still not ready to write off UCLA, which has two huge road games this week at Oregon and Oregon State. I also expect Washington and Stanford to be in the mix at the end.

6. I wonder how much longer SMU will stick with former Notre Dame and North Carolina head coach Matt Doherty. There are too many recruits in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for the Mustangs to be this mediocre. I'm not saying I expect SMU to get top local products such as Le'Bryan Nash, Darrell Arthur or C.J. Miles. But it shouldn't get out-recruited by North Texas, either.

7. Long Beach State's killer nonconference schedule -- the 49ers played Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Pittsburgh on the road -- appears to be paying off. Coach Dan Monson's squad is off to a 5-0 start in the Big West Conference.

8. First-year Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie is fresh off a week he'd probably like to forget. Three days after getting stomped 81-46 by Kansas and former mentor Bill Self, the Red Raiders lost to Gillispie's former team, Texas A&M, 67-54 in College Station. At 7-9 overall and 0-4 in the Big 12, it's hard to imagine Texas Tech winning more than two or three more games, if that many.

9. Creighton's Doug McDermott has missed six of his last seven 3-point attempts but is still shooting 53 percent from beyond the arc this season. Wow.

10. It appears Northwestern is going to tease us once again this season in regard to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats seemed out of the picture when they entered Saturday's game against Michigan State toting losses in four of their previous five contests. But they revived hope by handing the then-No. 7 Spartans their first defeat since Nov. 15. Northwestern is 12-5 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats have never made the NCAA tournament.

Pit stops

Mac's Speed Shop, Charlotte: I'm not a huge fan of North Carolina barbecue, mainly because of the vinegar-based sauce. Mac's, however, gives you options. The vinegary stuff is there if you want it, but regular sauce is available, too. I've never had a bad meal at Mac's. Once I even drove three hours out of my way for their "Little Bit of it All" platter, which features a mound of Mac's signature pulled pork, two pieces of chicken, a thick slice of brisket and a generous portion of ribs. Throw in two side items and Texas toast, and it's a bargain for $16. I haven't been to many barbecue restaurants in the country as good as Mac's.

Luna's Tortillas, Dallas: My hometown is littered with good Mexican restaurants: El Fenix, Blue Goose, Mariano's and Pepe's & Mito's, to name a few. I'm not sure any of them, however, are as good as Luna's Tortillas on Regal Row and Harry Hines. From the fried jalapenos stuffed with chicken and cheese to the pork tacos to the tamales and tortillas that have made the family's name famous in Dallas for decades, Luna's does everything top notch. My only problem is deciding what to order, because it's all so good.

Earl of Sandwich: Every now and then a hot, toasted sandwich sounds really good. Especially at 5 a.m. in Las Vegas when you're on your way back to your hotel room at Planet Hollywood, which is where Earl's is located. The Full Montagu (roast beef, turkey, aged Swiss, sharp cheddar and veggies with Earl's special mustard sauce) is my personal favorite. But don't sleep on the BLT or the Original 1762 (roast beef, sharp cheddar and creamy horseradish sauce). The best thing about Earl's is the bread -- and the fact it's open 24 hours. Trust me: Earl's > Charley's Grilled Subs > Quiznos > Subway.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.