Game Plan: Think happy thoughts
Game Plan is our Monday morning primer designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.
There’s a great detail in the Associated Press recap of San Diego State’s 61-57 win over Kansas on Sunday, the Jayhawks’ first nonconference home loss in more than seven years and almost certainly the biggest win in SDSU basketball history. How, exactly, did the Aztecs end KU’s 68-game home nonconference streak? What set them apart from so many who came before?
"Our coach never gets rattled," San Diego State forward Winston Shepard said. "He's always even-keeled. After every timeout, he tells us to take a good thought out there."
"He just tells you to think something positive, whether it's basketball, family, whatever. Think something positive," guard Xavier Thames said. "I think that really helps."
Think happy thoughts. It is brilliant and endearing in its simplicity, a testament to the work Steve Fisher has done -- is doing -- with yet another of his irrepressible San Diego State teams.
If Sunday night was a bellwether in the long-term arc of Fisher’s program, it was also a noteworthy status update on the compressed short-term development of Bill Self’s 2013-14 Jayhawks. Back in November, we noted that this season would be the first in a decade in which Self would have to work with a team almost entirely composed of inexperienced players, freshmen or both.
There are no classic Self-ian four-year projects made good on this team, no one who’s had the intricacies of the high-low motion offense burrowed into his head every day for four years. Instead, there is talent. So compressed is the key word: Could Self get this team where it needed to be in a few months’ time?
On Sunday night, the answer was a resounding “not yet, anyway.” Rarely has so much talent been such an inconsistent viewing experience: When the Jayhawks unleash Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, as they did against New Mexico and Georgetown in the three weeks since that Dec. 10 loss at Colorado, the result can be thrilling. But just as often, they look like they did Sunday night: stagnant, predictable, easy to guard.
Shooting remains the issue: The Jayhawks are one of the nation’s most efficient teams around the basket but are merely sub-mediocre from the perimeter. Against inferior opponents, this doesn’t matter; Kansas gets points anyway. But against elite defenses with intelligent game plans that sink in and destroy KU’s spacing, the whole thing slows to a crawl. Twitter keeps telling Wiggins to “take over” and “be more assertive” without noticing the cluster of defenders standing between him and the rim.
Still, context is key. Kansas is in no risk of disappointing in any severe way; we’re talking about a would-be national title contender reaching its true potential (or not). These young Jayhawks have played the nation’s most unforgiving nonconference schedule and acquitted themselves fairly well. The upside potential is, to use an old NBA draft joke, tremendous. And, hey: When someone breaks your 68-game nonconference home win streak, it means you won that many games in the first place.
See? Happy thoughts.
ICYMI: TOP STORIES
1. Wisconsin 75, Iowa 71. You wouldn’t like Fran when he’s angry (VIDEO): “What I feel bad about is getting the second one. The first one, I think it’s safe to say I kind of went after that one a little bit. The second one -- I’m not so sure about that.” That was Iowa coach Fran McCaffery after Sunday night’s 75-71 loss at Wisconsin. Late in the second half, McCaffery received two technical fouls in quick succession -- the latter of which he received after crossing midcourt and bumping into an official. The four points Wisconsin got at the free throw line were equal to the game’s final margin, which, of course they were. The narrative gods must be sated. The real takeaway, barring any discipline from the Big Ten office, is that two years on, this Iowa team keeps losing important, close, hard-fought and very winnable games.
2. Wake Forest 73, UNC 67: Signs of life in Winston-Salem. The past three years have been about as bad as it gets for basketball fans in Winston-Salem. Fans hated coach Jeff Bzdelik, then turned ire toward Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, then moved to some weird hybrid of pity, apathy and depression, and I’m not sure which is worst. You know the fastest way to cure all of that? Beating North Carolina, of course! Bzdelik got his first big win as Wake’s head coach and moved to 11-3 on the season; Wellman got his first real sign of progress from a coach on whom his reputation is staked. Big, big win.
3. Southern Illinois: Mother Nature’s Boys: How much of a mess is the entire upper Midwest right now? Southern Illinois spent the night on I-57 in Illinois stranded on its team bus. Also, it was 50 below in Minnesota. That’s how messy.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Colorado was so good in its 100-91 win over Oregon on Sunday -- the first loss of the Ducks’ season, by the way -- that the Buffaloes turned the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions and still scored 100 points on 75 possessions. They shot 57 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3 and went 33-of-36 from the free throw line. They scored 56 points in the second half. Forget it: This entire box score is your stat of the week.
THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE
Tuesday: Ohio State at Michigan State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: January is kind of the worst for a whole lot of reasons (again: 50 degrees below zero!); college basketball is not one of them. This is a massive game, the Big Ten’s two clear favorites squaring off in the Breslin Center, made more so by the fact that it feels like the first calling-card conference road game of the season. I love January.
Baylor at Iowa State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: For all of Baylor’s lanky, NBA-bound talent, the Bears actually play shockingly methodical basketball -- through Sunday they averaged 63.3 possessions per game, 339th in the country. Iowa State, on the other hand, likes to churn possessions as quickly as any team in the country. The stylistic matchup here is good in and of itself; when you throw in the talent and a Big 12 up for grabs, it’s a no-brainer.
Thursday: Memphis at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: An old C-USA rivalry from when the C-USA was still a thing. Let’s hope these two pick things back up next season, when Louisville is a member of the ACC. In the meantime, Louisville fans are still smarting from that loss at Kentucky, while Memphis was outclassed by Cincinnati on its own floor Saturday afternoon. Both have much to prove.
Arizona at UCLA, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Bruins have shown zero signs that they can put together a 40-minute defensive effort good enough to stop the best team in the country. But Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are playing thrilling offensive basketball, and if the Bruins can get hot on their own end, the smattering of fans in the Pauley Pavilion might actually, like, applaud or something.
Saturday: North Carolina at Syracuse, noon ET, ESPN: Can someone explain the North Carolina Tar Heels? No? OK. For now, just know that they’ve beaten Louisville on a neutral court and Michigan State in East Lansing and, as of Sunday, lost to UAB, Belmont, Texas and Wake Forest. So obviously they could win at Syracuse.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK