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Monday, December 16, 2013
Game Plan: This week is bigger in Texas

By Eamonn Brennan

Game Plan is our new 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.

The Texas Longhorns are in sort of a weird place right now.

After a decade-plus of mostly uninterrupted success thanks to a mostly uninterrupted gift of talent acquisition, Texas coach Rick Barnes finally stubbed his toe last season. The culpable rock was Myck Kabongo's run-in with the NCAA: When the former decided to take airfare and instruction from an NBA agent (and mislead Texas compliance when questioned), the latter decided to suspend Kabongo for 23 games.

The whole ordeal left Barnes with a massive hole at point guard on a team that disproportionately required one, and the Longhorns' ugly turnover-prone offense saw them slip to just 16-18 in 2012-13 -- the first sub-20 win season of Barnes' career.

Cameron Ridley
Sophomore Cameron Ridley's emergence in the post has helped Texas get off to a fast 9-1 start.

A year later, with Kabongo in the NBA and the rest of a young group rounding into shape, a more cohesive Longhorns group is off to a don't-look-now 9-1 start. The lone loss came in a close game against BYU in Kansas City; the best win came on the road at Temple. Sophomore forward Cameron Ridley has morphed into one of the nation's best shot-blockers (Ridley swats 12.8 percent of available attempts, eighth best in the country), and junior Jonathan Holmes isn't far behind. Together, the two have made Texas the second-shot-blockingest (20.8 percent) team in the country this season. Simply put: Opponents don't score easy buckets against the Longhorns.

Then again, they didn't last year, either. Texas' problem last season was offense, and while the Longhorns are a little bit better in that regard this season -- Javan Felix is less turnover-prone, Connor Lammert is shooting it well, freshman Isaiah Taylor is a capable addition, and so on -- they're still below average in a variety of ways, most notably shooting.

Even if they were considerably better, it would be hard to put much stock in the numbers, because Texas hasn't really played anyone yet. Which brings us to the crux of the matter: We know the Longhorns are better. We just don't know how much.

The answer could come this week. Texas plays at North Carolina Wednesday, and hosts Michigan State Saturday. Those are two very big games for this team, for this program, and for Barnes in showing that the 2012-13 season remains a mere stumble, rather than a sign of things to come.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

1. Saturday was pretty great: Arizona played a stout, physically dominant, and thoroughly impressive game at Michigan, wherein forwards Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski combined to shoot 20-of-35 (!) and grab 49 percent (!!) of the Wildcats' misses, and those two stats are kind of all you need to know about the Wildcats' 72-70 win. Also this: They look really, really good. ... Meanwhile, VCU struggled in another surprising loss, Kansas pulled it together in a win over New Mexico, Wichita State handled Tennessee even without guard Ron Baker, Indiana looked inept against Notre Dame and, last but not least, North Carolina handled Kentucky in a game that made the Wildcats look not only young but petulant and divided. It was kind of a crazy Saturday, in other words, and Myron covered it all.

2. St. John's fail: "'That last four minutes just showed that we still need to grow up,' St. John's swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer said. Pointer's comment is a little startling, considering he and most of his teammates are sophomores and juniors with plenty of minutes under their belts from the past season or two." -- Kieran Darcy, ESPN.com

3. Villanova keeps rolling, whacks Big 5 rival La Salle 73-52: It's worth noting, for those who are surprised by the scoreline, that this game was close for 20 minutes. And then Villanova's defense -- which entered Saturday allowing the second-fewest points per possession in the country -- locked in. La Salle scored 34 points in the first half and 18 in the second. That's pretty much all you need to know.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Since we led with the Longhorns, now is as good a time as any to tip our cap to Ryan Clark, Mr. Longhorn Road Trip who, after seven years of pure insanity, officially ended his streak of consecutive Texas road games this month. The final tally? 262. Click here for more.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

Tuesday: Florida at Memphis, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Number cluster inbound! It's a little eerie how similar Florida and Memphis' defenses have been to date: The Gators hold opponents to 46.8 percent (effective) shooting; the Tigers 46.4. Florida turns opponents over on 23.2 percent of their possessions; Memphis 23.6. Neither team is particularly good on the defensive glass (Florida grabs 67.3 percent of defensive rebounds; Memphis gets 67.4), and neither team sends offenses to the foul line (Florida's FTA/FGA rate: 33.1; Memphis': 32.3) too frequently for comfort. Which of those defenses will hold up? And can Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin play in front of that dynamic Memphis backcourt?

Tuesday: Wichita State at Alabama, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Forget Kentucky. A cursory glance at Wichita State's schedule (which Insider John Gasaway brought to our attention last week) reveals a tantalizing story unfolding in Wichita: If the Shockers get past Alabama in Tuscaloosa Thursday night, they will immediately become the nation's likeliest group to go undefeated in the regular season.

Thursday: Duke vs. UCLA, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: You are aware that Jabari Parker is what we in the business call "skilled" at what we in the business call "scoring basketballs." But did you know that UCLA sophomore guard Jordan Adams is averaging 21.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.5 steals per game with a 135.3 offensive rating on 27.9 percent usage? Well, were you?! Answer me! Because now you are, and now you know why Duke-UCLA in Madison Square Garden Thursday night is a much better game than it looked in October.

The Texas Twosome (Wednesday at North Carolina, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2; Saturday vs. Michigan State, 4 p.m. ET, CBS): See intro.

Saturday: Oklahoma State at Colorado, 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2:: This one is starting on Vegas time, and I mean that both figuratively and literally; OSU-CU is the closer in Saturday's MGM Grand Showcase bill, and what a way to end the night. (The opener, Marquette vs. New Mexico, is pretty good, too.) Colorado will come fresh from last Saturday's win over Kansas with no basketball, and lots of Tad Boyle tweaking, in between. Plus, the Buffaloes are one of the few teams in the country with the ostensible backcourt size needed to properly limit Marcus Smart's bullish effectiveness on the offensive end. But will the Cowboys be too athletic everywhere else?

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

John Calipari
"If you wanna keep losing, keep acting this way," Kentucky coach John Calipari told his team after their disjointed loss at North Carolina Saturday. Here he is performing "Someone Please Hedge A Ball Screen," his latest interpretive dance piece.

Enjoy the basketball, everyone.