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Monday, December 30, 2013
Game Plan: How good is the American?

By Eamonn Brennan

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.

Can you feel it? That fresh new-conference-play smell? Hope unfolding anew, hope everywhere, hope infecting even the most rational of certain cellar-dwellers? It’s an exciting time! It’s the start of conference play!

It’s also kind of weird. We try to process two months of nonconference stuff, try to figure out what it all means, try to preview and project it ... but our impressions rely on some combination of small(er) sample sizes, fortune, savvy scheduling or all of the above. It’s fickle. November and December set guidelines -- however vague, however mental -- for where individual leagues stand. This is how we form our hazy impressions. But how much can we really know?

Louisville’s loss at Kentucky on Saturday means the Cardinals will enter their first and only season as members of the AAC with zero quality wins on their résumé. Seriously: Louisville’s best win is probably the blowout victory over Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 7. The Cardinals have played a soft schedule and lost to their only notable opponents (North Carolina, Kentucky), and this leaves them forced to earn their plaudits in the American. But how good is the American, anyway?

Nick Russell
Nick Russell and the upstart SMU Mustangs could be the AAC's trump card when it comes to discussing the new league's overall strength.
The answer might rest with the SMU Mustangs. See, I told you it was weird.

In case you needed proof that Larry Brown was really, really good at coaching basketball, in the matter of one season he has taken a 15-win SMU team ranked No. 186 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and turned it into a 10-2, top-50-level squad, whose most recent result was a 62-54 road win at a not-bad Wyoming. SMU didn’t beat either of its notable nonconference opponents, but it played them both close. It lost to Virginia, most notably, 76-73. Brown’s assistant coaches have been recruiting like madmen; there is a lot of turnover on that roster. But the fact is, the Mustangs are playing more-than-respectable basketball.

SMU sits -- or appears to sit -- at the fulcrum of the American in its first season. There are four teams you would consider definitively better: Louisville, Memphis, UConn and Cincinnati. Everyone else is pretty clearly worse. (Temple is 5-5 and lost to Texas and Texas Southern at home in back-to-back games, to list one example.)

Which is why, for Louisville, it is important that SMU is good, that Cincinnati holds up its end up of the bargain, that UConn’s slight offensive slide in recent weeks is more of a blip than a lasting trend. It’s important that the American is good. The Cardinals are almost certainly national title contenders, but without a little help from their league -- beginning with Memphis on Jan. 9 -- their seed won’t show it. Stay tuned.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

1. Has Kentucky turned a corner? The dirty little secret about the "best college basketball recruiting class ever assembled" is that with the exception of Julius Randle, it has been pretty mediocre. Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison have been inconsistent and James Young has been streaky with his shooting. Only Randle has been steady. ... In place of eye-rolling or shoulder-sagging from the much-maligned Harrison twins, there was a combined 28 points and (mostly) smart decisions with the ball. From Young, there were three made treys, but also 10 key rebounds. And from the Cats in general there was a sense of urgency and purpose. ... With the better part of this roster only a few months removed from the ease of winning, it was hard to convince them things had to be done differently in college. Now there is evidence -- not just how a team can lose when it doesn’t work together, but how a team can win when it does. -- Dana O’Neil, ESPN.com

2. Eight unbeatens remain. Syracuse’s win over Villanova on Saturday afternoon eliminated one of the final nine undefeated teams left in college basketball. Eight remain. They are Arizona (13-0), Syracuse (12-0), Ohio State (13-0), Wisconsin (13-0), Wichita State (12-0), Iowa State (11-0), Oregon (11-0) and, last but not least, Toledo (12-0).

Wait, Toledo? Yes, Toledo! The Rockets are playing hyperefficient offense and not-great defense, and their best wins have come over Stony Brook and Cleveland State, but hey -- 12-0 is 12-0.

A fun R/CollegeBasketball post asks which teams will be the first to lose, and the last. The latter category should go by default to Wichita State, which finished nonconference play 13-0 last night and enters the rest of the season with a roughly 8 percent chance of making it to the end of the regular season unbeaten.

3. Joseph Young just keeps scoring. The aforementioned unbeaten Ducks have made a habit of playing on Sundays the past two months, so they’ve shown up in this space a bit more often than you’d expect ... but they also keep winning, and Young, formerly of the Houston Cougars, keeps scoring. On Sunday the guard dropped in 24 on another tidy shooting night (this one 9-of-13) and, well, yeah: Oregon’s really good. Bottom line.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Doug McDermott’s 24 points against Chicago State on Sunday night gave him 2,513 for his career. If he averages 25.0 for the rest of the season (not including the postseason; his current average is 24.8), he’ll finish with 2,963 points, 10 fewer than Oscar Robertson. Only seven players in college basketball history have finished with more than 3,000 points. McDermott has a real chance to become the eighth.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

Tuesday: Villanova at Butler, 7:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports: Villanova has received its fair share of national attention lately, but what of new new Big East member Butler? The post-Brad Stevens Bulldogs are still playing quality defense, Khyle Marshall is shooting 60 percent and grabbing a bunch of rebounds, and their only two losses came in one-possession nail-biters to Oklahoma State and LSU. Monday night could be a helpful reintroduction.

Saturday: Michigan State at Indiana, 2 p.m. ET, CBS: Between Keith Appling and Adreian Payne -- who have taken turns in the past two weeks trading one brilliant performance after another -- it’s easy to forget about Gary Harris, who might be the most talented of the Spartans bunch. In any case, this is a big early conference test against a likewise talented but far, far less experienced Indiana team in ever-hostile Bloomington.

Saturday: Duke at Notre Dame, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: Notre Dame survived Canisius in its first game without leading scorer (and everything else-er) Jerian Grant on Sunday night, even if it took OT. Things won’t be half as easy Saturday, when Notre Dame coach Mike Brey’s former boss, Coach K, comes to town. Jabari Parker ensues.

Sunday: Iowa at Wisconsin, 7:30 p.m. ET, BTN: We’re all excited about the start of conference play, which officially kicks off this week. But while the Big Ten takes the stage Tuesday, let’s be honest: There isn’t a whole lot there. (Ohio State at Purdue? Meh.) Sunday brings Iowa at Wisconsin, though, our first real big-time Big Ten bout -- and no doubt the first of many.

Sunday: Oregon at Colorado, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1: Oregon’s first loss? In just a couple of seasons, Colorado coach Tad Boyle has turned the Buffaloes into the kind of team -- and Coors Events Center into the kind of building -- where, almost by default, you expect an unbeaten team with a player of the year candidate to lose. Oregon has other ideas.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Trevor Cooney
Trevor Cooney shoots a free throw in an empty half court -- one of four following a pair of fouls in the final minutes of the second half against Villanova. One imagines this is how the basket always looks to that dude.