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Monday, January 27, 2014
Game Plan: The implications of injuries

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.

Do Michigan State’s injuries matter? In the words of Orlando Jones’ magazine salesman in “Office Space”: that all depends.

On Saturday, when the Spartans fell at home to hated rival Michigan -- a hard-fought and thrilling game that included a “Just-in Bei-ber” chant, Mitch McGary’s brilliant coaching advice (“win the game”) and a loving Nik Stauskas farewell -- they did so without forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne. Payne, foot be-booted, missed his fifth straight game. Dawson, who broke his hand in a self-inflicted outburst during an apparently intense Thursday film session, missed his first, with many more to come. Tom Izzo found himself plunging deep into his frontcourt reserves: Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling made appearances. Matt Costello’s 28 minutes were a season high. Russell Byrd, who hadn’t played more than five minutes in any non-guaranteed blowout all season, ran for 13.

It was tempting, then, to attach an asterisk to the entire affair, a temptation ESPN’s Chantel Jennings discussed -- and convincingly dismissed -- Saturday night. The Wolverines were missing McGary, after all, and the adjustments they’ve made since December have been stunning. Besides, Izzo wouldn’t hear of it.

Tom Izzo
Injuries have forced Tom Izzo to look for answers on Michigan State's bench.
Whatever caveats Spartans fans will use to defend themselves from their Wolverine tormentors, let’s be clear: In a micro sense, of course the injuries mattered. Payne and Dawson make Michigan State a different team from the still-good-but-incomplete version the Spartans had at their disposal Saturday night.

The real question is how these injuries will affect Michigan State in the long run. For starters, there is the Big Ten race, where the Spartans are now staring down a one-game deficit and a much more difficult remaining schedule than John Beilein’s team. But the most interesting fallout could be in the NCAA tournament seeding.

The selection committee weighs a team’s performance during and after injury, and does its best to take the “true” measure of a team based on the gulf between the two. If Michigan State doesn’t slide too far in Dawson’s (and Payne’s) absences, and then looks brilliant upon their various returns, they’ll be seeded accordingly. But if the Spartans nosedive for the next two weeks? Or the next month? The committee can apply only so many asterisks. It’s unlikely, but what happens then?

On Tuesday, Michigan State faces Iowa’s offensive onslaught in Iowa City. On Saturday, they play an even-more-hobbled Georgetown. How the Spartans look next time this week should tell us a lot about just how important their injuries will look in March.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

Arizona shrugs off Utah, moves to 20-0. Just after the Wildcats finished their 65-56 brush-off of Utah Sunday night, the Fox Sports 1 crew placed the rosters of the greatest Arizona teams of all time next to Sean Miller’s team -- Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton, Miles Simon, Richard Jefferson and all the rest. It was a sobering comparison: On paper, this Arizona team now ranks above the greatest Wildcats teams of all time. On the floor, it’s hard to argue otherwise, something the dominant final few minutes of an otherwise so-so performance showed. (It was also, for what it’s worth, a pretty impressive performance from Utah, which continues to look miles removed from the six-win disaster of 2011-12.)

Cincinnati keeps winning. Sshh. You can look at Cincinnati’s 80-76 win at Temple Sunday night one of two ways. You could note that the Bearcats were outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes against a bad team. Or, you could note that Cincinnati was outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes and went ahead and won anyway. You should also note that the Bearcats have ever so quietly jumped out to an 8-0 AAC record, are 19-2 overall, suffered their last loss Dec. 14 against Xavier, beat Pitt three days later, rebound 40 percent of their own misses and have one of the stingiest per-trip defenses in the country.

North Carolina avoided ignominy. Given North Carolina’s horrendous January -- which included a road loss to Wake Forest, a home loss to Miami, a 45-point effort at Syracuse and a throttling at Virginia -- and Clemson’s surprisingly capable defense, you could practically hear people getting ready to laugh at UNC when it inevitably lost its first-ever game to the Tigers at home. Giant clouds of schadenfreude were gathered on the horizon. It was going to be a thing! And then Roy Williams had to go and reminded his team it beat Louisville and Michigan State. North Carolina scored 80 points in 61 possessions Sunday, and the storm broke apart in the atmosphere.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Creighton. That is all.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

(For two more in-depth previews of big games week to come, check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)

Tuesday

Michigan State at Iowa, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: How’s this for a quick Saturday-Tuesday turnaround? As we discussed above, Michigan State’s road trip week starts in Iowa City and ends vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, and the first fixture is the more challenging by a factor of 10. The Hawkeyes, who rank with the nation’s best by every meaningful statistical measure, drilled Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., after Wednesday’s loss in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Wednesday

Iowa State at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For most of the season, Iowa State’s offense ranked among the nation’s best; it was certainly, in all its shape-shifting uptempo glory, one of the most entertaining. Since the start of Big 12 play -- and roughly coinciding with DeAndre Kane’s sprained ankle at Oklahoma -- the Cyclones’ offense is scoring just 1.06 points per trip, ninth best in the Big 12. What better time for a trip to Lawrence?!

Thursday

Cincinnati at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: For all its travails this season -- the bad nonconference slate, the loss at rival Kentucky, the departure of Chane Behanan -- the Louisville Cardinals have, for the most part, played pretty excellent basketball. (The latest? A 41-point win at South Florida Saturday.) Cincinnati can identify with the whole “good basketball going largely unnoticed” thing. Thursday’s winner should get everyone’s attention.

Saturday

Arizona at Cal, 10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network: Before we get all crazy: Arizona still has to play at Stanford on Wednesday. It still has a back-to-back road trip to Arizona State and Utah in mid-February. It still has two dates against Oregon. And now, with those important caveats out of the way, if the Wildcats win at Cal on Saturday, it is conceivable -- not likely, not probably, barely possible, but conceivable -- they could run the regular-season table. Gird loins accordingly.

Duke at Syracuse, 6 :30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Two weeks ago, this game would have been a harder sell, because two weeks ago the Blue Devils were coming off back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Clemson, and freshman star Jabari Parker looked like his face had become intimately acquainted with the notorious freshman “wall.” No more: Duke has won four straight, the latest, a 78-56 rout of Florida State (in 63 possessions) its most complete performance of the season. OK, so it’s Duke-Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. It was never actually a hard sell. But now the Orange don’t look quite so likely to dominate.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Nick Johnson
Arizona's Nick Johnson reacts after his two-handed second-half dunk in a 65-56 win on Sunday. If the whole basketball thing doesn't work, a career in professional wrestling isn't a bad Plan B.