Dallas Colleges: college basketball
ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's not often you see a headline that intentionally undermines the piece below it. This, dear hoops fans, is one of those times.
Yes, the "Way Too Early" prefix in "Way-Too-Early Top 25" pretty much gives this game away. We are not even a day removed from the confetti-infested "One Shining Moment" madness of the 2014 NCAA tournament. There are six months of offseason between now and the start of practice in October, and seven months between here and the return of actual college basketball. This depressingly long stretch of calendar will comprise a rush of NBA draft decisions, at least one massive recruiting race (Myles Turner, a 7-foot center ranked No. 2 overall in the 2014 class, is still undecided), transfer market dominoes, a coaching change or two, and any number of minor surprises -- suspensions, dismissals, reclassifications, and all the rest.
In the infamous words of a former United States defense secretary, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The Way-Too-Early Top 25 is a prisoner to these same predictive limitations. It is a glimpse at the landscape, and an educated guess. It is subject to change. It certainly will. And we will update it accordingly as the offseason rolls along.
This is especially true at the top of the Top 25. Any of at least three teams could, depending on draft decisions and Turner's final call, end up in the preseason No. 1 spot. Let's see how that plays out in the weeks and months to come. For now, the way-too-early No. 1 team in the 2014-15 season is ...:
To see the way too early Top 25, click here.
Also, to see how recruiting will impact's the Top 25 and how it could change who is cutting down the nets at next year's Final Four, click here.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Saint Joseph's essentially ran out of players in overtime.
Villanova was done in by another lousy shooting night.
Iowa State didn't have its offensive lynchpin, Georges Niang.
Michigan State was just off, maybe tired from a slugfest win against Virginia two nights before.
And Florida didn't really play as well as it normally does.
That is one way to view Connecticut's steps toward its improbable appearance in the national championship game.
Here's another way, a more accurate way: the Huskies are really good.
It is more than time to stop saying that Connecticut has won its last five games for reasons other than Connecticut.
UConn isn't in the national championship game accidentally.
The Huskies got there on merit.
They did not hit a wild buzzer-beater to upset Florida, the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed. They all but demoralized the Gators in their 63-53 win, beating one of the best defensive teams in the country with even better defense.
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1. Aaron Harrison did it again. By "it" we mean a last-second 3 25 feet from the rim from the left wing with a defender in his face. Kentucky trailed 73-71 with 15 seconds to play, and when Andrew Harrison's baseline drive stalled, the Wildcats swung the ball to the sideline to Aaron Harrison. Harrison sized up the defense, glanced at the clock -- there were eight seconds left, then seven -- and let it fly. It went in. Of course it went in.
Harrison ran back down the floor waving his arms, nodding his head, as if to say exactly that: Yep. Again.
Wisconsin had a great look to win -- Traevon Jackson stepped back for a wide-open jumper -- a shot he has made with the buzzer running out a handful of times already in his career -- and it looked good off the glass. It rimmed in and out. Jackson stood in disbelief. Bo Ryan reached to console him and then walked to shake John Calipari's hand.
2. Kentucky shut down Frank Kaminsky -- for most of the game. Kentucky's strategy against Kaminsky -- who had carried the Badgers offensively throughout the tournament, and especially in UW's Elite Eight win over Arizona -- worked. The Wildcats double- and triple-teamed Kaminsky, forcing him to kick the ball and refusing to give him any easy layups. With 90 seconds to play, Kaminsky had six points. His offensive rebound and putback with 1:15 was, to that point, the most important play of the game. It brought Wisconsin back into a tie, but it wasn't enough at the end.
3. Kentucky's offensive rebounding was too much -- for most of the game. For all of the big plays down the stretch, Wisconsin spent most of the game being overwhelmed by the Wildcats' relentless offensive rebounding. It's the same story every game with Kentucky: Calipari's team pummels its way to the rim and bullies its way to the offensive boards, getting easy putbacks. Through the first half and the first five minutes of the second, Julius Randle & Co. were grabbing 48 percent of their missed shots. It wasn't until Wisconsin made its second-half surge that the Badgers finally slowed the Big Blue brawlers down.
4. And Wisconsin did weather that inevitable Wildcats run. Near the end of the first half, after Randle finished a feathery spin-move hook around Kaminsky, he turned and told his team, "We're taking this." The first 10 minutes of the second half bore that confidence out: Kentucky came right at Wisconsin, driving at the Badgers' chests, gobbling up offensive rebounds and locking in on the defensive end. Within six minutes, Kentucky's 15-0 run turned a seven-point UW lead into a 51-43 deficit. The Badgers were in that familiar danger zone, in which a couple more misses or turnovers can turn into a sudden blowout.
But then, on Wisconsin came: With 14:34 to play, Duje Dukan got an easy layup on a gorgeous backdoor pass from Nigel Hayes. Dukan hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three. Ben Brust responded to Andrew Harrison's layup with a 3 of his own. Two possessions later, Brust's free throws tied the game at 53-53. Or 0-0. The national semifinal would hang in the balance until the final buzzer.
5. That was a classic. If you watched, you don't need us to tell you, but let's make sure to reiterate it anyway: That was a massive 40 minutes of Final Four basketball. Both teams shot the ball well, both teams executed, both teams scored well above a point per possession (about 1.20 each), both teams had huge, and hugely loud, fan followings. Both teams traded big basket after big basket, one crucial play after the next.
And it ended as it felt destined to: With Harrison making that same unlikely 3 from that same spot, sending these same suddenly unstoppable Wildcats through to the next NCAA tournament challenge. Again.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Playing in domes is nothing new for the Final Four. But there are domes, and there is Jerry’s World, which looms like some sort of alien spaceship in the distance off the highway.
It, like everything in Texas, is huge. Like silly huge. From the upper press box, the basketball court looks like it might as well be sitting in Oklahoma.
So the question is, can these games be as big as the venue? My guess is yes. I know plenty of people think these two games look a bit lopsided, but I don’t. Connecticut and Wisconsin might be underdogs, but the two teams aren’t here accidentally. Both strung together strong regular seasons and have more than earned their way in March.
Here’s a quick look at what especially is worth watching in this national semifinal:
UConn vs. Florida
What to watch: The free throw line. Maybe it’s not the most dazzling part of a game to watch, but it could just be the most critical, especially if this game is tight. UConn has been unbelievably consistent from the line in this NCAA tournament, hitting 81 of 92. For the season, the Huskies average 77 percent. Compare that to the 67 percent and the 54 of 73 free throws the Gators have connected on, and you’ve got a situation that might get interesting.
Who to watch: Why stop watching Shabazz Napier now? The Huskies senior has been must-watch TV since the start of this tournament and odds are nothing will change on this, the biggest stage of the tournament. Napier has gotten plenty of help from his teammates, but the Huskies will still go as he goes.
Key matchup: As much as we’ll be talking about guard play, I still think the inside matchups might matter more. How DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah handle Patric Young will go a long way in determining how the Huskies fair in this game. UConn’s ability to hold Michigan State to just six points in the paint is the reason the Huskies are here. We’ll see if they can do the same against the Gators.
Who wins: I am oh-so-tempted to say the Huskies. I’ve seen teams catch lightning in a bottle in this tournament and that’s exactly what UConn is doing, but it’s just too hard to pick against a Florida team that has four seniors who have been on a four-year mission. Florida wins 73-66.
What to watch: The boards. Kentucky has lived off its rebounding all season but never more than right now. In the postseason, only one team, Florida, has beaten the Wildcats on the boards. The Badgers have to keep them off the glass and prevent easy offensive putbacks or fouls.
Who to watch: The Harrison twins (sorry, they can’t be separated). The way the Wildcats’ guards have turned around their games in this tournament is why Kentucky is in the Final Four. Once chided for bad body language, the two have been the model of consistency, making big shots and even more importantly, making the right decisions.
Key matchup: It’s not original, but the matchup between Frank Kaminsky and Julius Randle is worth watching. Kaminsky can stretch the Wildcats’ defense some, pulling Randle out of the paint, but it’s the reverse side that could be problematic. The post players at Wisconsin are going to have their hands full (as most people do) with Randle, his post-mate, Dakari Johnson, and maybe even Marcus Lee.
Who wins: Kentucky was always the most talented team in this college basketball season. Now the Wildcats finally look like the best team. I don’t think this will be a blowout. Wisconsin is far too good and too solid for that to happen, but I still think the Wildcats make it to the national title game by beating the Badgers, 72-68.
Many brackets surely imploded with this far-from-chalk Final Four. No. 7 seed Connecticut and No. 8 seed Kentucky make it the second time since the 2011 Final Four that two teams seeded outside of the top five reached the NCAA tournament's final weekend. Butler, as a No. 8 seed, and Virginia Commonwealth, as a No. 11 seed, made improbable runs that season.
The Huskies and Wildcats may be underdogs because of their seeding, but they're far from Cinderellas.
Connecticut is riding Shabazz Napier, who was a contributor on its 2010 national championship team. Kentucky is finally living up to its potential of having arguably the most talented freshman class in history. The Wildcats' tournament run, despite their stumbles through the seasons, is seemingly validating coach John Calipari's approach to filling his roster with one-and-done talents.
Both teams will have to deal with Florida and Wisconsin, both far-from-surprising entrants into the Final Four. The Gators are playing like the overall No. 1 seed of the NCAA tournament. The Badgers, the No. 2 seed in the West Region, still haven't lost to an opponent outside of the Big Ten this season.
Florida has played every team remaining. The Gators lost to both Connecticut and Wisconsin during non-conference play when they weren't at full strength and beat Kentucky three times during SEC play including in the tournament championship game.
Buckle up, folks, the Final Four should be entertaining and compelling.
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Joe Lunardi, John Gasaway and the rest of our ESPN.com Insider college basketball team have all the tools you need to help fill out your bracket and win Tournament Challenge.
For the ninth consecutive year, Lunardi has assigned a team of analysts to put together Insider's Tournament Guide, offering in-depth roster, system and statistical breakdowns for all 68 tournament teams to help you make smart picks.
And while finding the right teams to back in your bracket is pivotal to winning your pool, just as important is avoiding those underachievers who bleed your bracket with red Xs in the late rounds. Gasaway offers 10 notes of caution, identifying teams and trends to avoid at all costs with his Do Not Pick list .
And there there are Insider's tournament tools. The Bracket Predictor helps you evaluate each of the 63 games and imports your picks directly into ESPN's Tournament Challenge. The Bracket Analyzer forecasts round-by-round survival odds and projects your number of correct picks. The Game Predictor compares any two teams in the tournament, regardless of regions, and evaluates the matchup with in-depth statistics. And PickCenter provides all the resources you'll need to make the best and most educated picks in each and every game. You can access all four of these tools in one handy place here .
INDIANAPOLIS -- Here are the winners and losers after the NCAA tournament bracket was announced Sunday.
Virginia: The Cavaliers didn't beat a team in the field in nonconference play and got rocked by Tennessee in late December. But an ACC regular-season title and conference tournament title earned the Cavaliers the No. 1 seed in a weaker East.
Kansas: The Jayhawks lost two of three games in the past week without Joel Embiid, yet they were still able to get a No. 2 seed. Plus, the Jayhawks also landed in a bracket that allowed them to stay near home in St. Louis.
Colorado: The Buffaloes lost their best player in Spencer Dinwiddie and didn't have a breakout win without him in the second part of the Pac-12 schedule, but they received an 8-seed. That shows Colorado was comfortably in the field.
Dayton: Flyers coach Archie Miller said last week he didn't want to play in Dayton, Ohio. He said he wanted his players to have a genuine NCAA tournament experience and they wouldn't have one by playing at home. He got his wish as a No. 11 seed against Ohio State in Buffalo, N.Y.
UCLA: The Bruins lost a bad game at Washington State to end the regular season and yet received a 4-seed by winning the Pac-12 tournament. Plus they get to play close to home in San Diego.
Iowa State: The Cyclones won the Big 12 tournament title, earned a No. 3 seed and are in a winnable region, which opens the door for a team as talented as Iowa State to get to the Final Four.
State of Nebraska fans: The committee put Creighton (3) and Nebraska (11) both in San Antonio, Texas. If they both win their first games they'll meet in a rematch from earlier in the season.
BYU: The Cougars had a shaky résumé and looked to be one of the last four in, but got comfortably in as a No. 10 and face No. 7 Oregon in a rematch game from earlier in the season -- a four-point overtime loss in Eugene, Ore.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are the No. 2 seed in a West region that is more than winnable. The Badgers were rewarded for a résumé that included wins over two No. 1 seeds in Florida and Virginia.
Florida: The top seed in the field got the overall No. 1 with an SEC sweep. The Gators' region includes a 2-seed they beat earlier in the season in Kansas (now without Embiid) and a 3-seed (Syracuse) that is really struggling.
NC State: The Wolfpack beat Syracuse and apparently that was enough to get into the field. They were erratic during the season, but one win in the ACC tournament appears to have put them in the First Four.
Wichita State: The Shockers did earn a No. 1 seed with an undefeated season. But they were given the "Group of Death" bracket with No. 8 Kentucky (if it gets past Kansas State), No. 4 Louisville, No. 3 Duke and No. 2 Michigan. Wow.
Louisville: The Cardinals have been as good as any team in the country the past few weeks, won a share of the American Conference and easily captured the American Conference tournament title. Their reward? A 4-seed.
Arizona: The Wildcats are a No. 1 seed but drew the short straw and could possibly face No. 9 Oklahoma State in a third-round game. The Cowboys have Final Four talent. One team was going to get an unfavorable draw with the Cowboys and it ended up being the Wildcats.
Syracuse: The Orange's recent slide didn't push them out of Buffalo, but it did prevent them from being in the East Regional and a possible "home" Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden. If the Orange advance, they will head to Memphis, Tenn.
New Mexico: The Lobos won the Mountain West Conference tournament title and beat San Diego State two out of three times only to be seeded three spots below the Aztecs. They then got put in St. Louis, where if the Lobos get past Stanford they would have to play possibly Kansas. The Jayhawks already beat the Lobos in Kansas City earlier this season. That would be two games against KU close to the Jayhawks' campus.
Michigan State: The Spartans are finally healthy, won the Big Ten tournament and then got a 4-seed with a ticket to Spokane, Wash. The Spartans can win in the East, but the road got tougher with the seeding and a possible third-round game against a tough, defensive team in Cincinnati.
SMU: The Mustangs ended the season with three straight losses, the last one to lowly Houston. That combined with a weaker showing in nonconference play bounced the upstart Mustangs.
Green Bay/St. John's/Southern Miss: The Horizon League champs lost to Milwaukee and made a strong case to be included but didn't have the résumé. Public campaigns from Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall and St. John's coach Steve Lavin failed to make a difference.
Cal: The Bears beat Colorado on a last possession to end the regular season and jumped around after earning a higher seed in the Pac-12 tournament. But a loss in the tournament to Colorado bounced the Bears.
Oklahoma State's season has begun anew with two tune-up wins over Texas Tech and TCU in advance of Saturday's showdown with Kansas, a Big Monday home finale for Smart against Kansas State and a final road game against surging Iowa State on March 8.
If you want to know when the Cowboys fate will be decided then look no further than the next eight days. Sure, Oklahoma State will have opportunities in the Big 12 tournament, but some advance work must be done before arriving in Kansas City, Mo.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford knows the stakes. He told his team the Texas Tech game was “a must-win game. We didn't have a choice. We had no choice but to band together, rely on each other. We got away from that.”
Ford said the Cowboys have suddenly embraced the desperate situation they're in at this point in the season. In the past two wins, Ford said, the team was less “disjointed,” the defense has tightened and the assists have gone up.
Smart was allowed to practice during his suspension. His numbers since his return scream of a player who is locked in like never before: 17 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals at TCU; 16 points, 3 rebounds, 10 assists and 6 steals in the win over Texas Tech.
“He came back doing all the things that made him one of the best players in the country in filling out the stat sheet,” Ford said. “I started to see a difference when he was sitting out. He had some of his best practices of the year when he was on the scout team. He had a really, really good mindset. You could see how motivated he was.”
This has been a turbulent season for Oklahoma State and Smart, to say the least. The season started fresh with a 39-point performance from Smart and a drubbing of Memphis. Losing to Memphis two weeks later in the Orlando Old Spice Classic hurt, but didn't really do any damage. The hurt came when the top big man Michael Cobbins went down with an Achilles injury before the Big 12 opener at Kansas State and a backup guard Stevie Clark was arrested on marijuana possession and later dismissed. The Cowboys lost that game and then sputtered along, despite winning four of their next five. That run preceded the seven-game losing streak.
“When we lost Cobbins, we had no adjustment, we had to prepare so quickly,” Ford said. “That was tough. That's when we got disjointed and everyone was thinking about them. We've come together pretty good. We had no choice. Everyone has a little more of a smile on their face when they're playing. The guys aren't concerned with the individual game. They're only worried about the team.”
Ford is not naive about Saturday's game against Kansas. It will take an “incredible effort,” to beat the reigning Big 12 champs, who are peaking at the right time.
“We'll have to play our best basketball game of the year,” the Cowboys coach said. “They legitimately have a chance to win the national title. Every guy must bring their best game. We can't pick and choose. They took it to us in the first half [when the Jayhawks were up 17 before winning by two at Kansas].”
Ford, however, isn't sweating his team’s bid just yet. The RPI/BPI is solid, despite a 6-9 conference record. He is convinced the selection committee will look at the season as a whole, which includes a win over Colorado when the Buffaloes had Spencer Dinwiddie, and the losses without Smart, two of which were on the road.
“I still feel we're in good shape if we win some games,” Ford said.
But this season, like no other, has worn on Ford.
“There's no question,” he said. “We went through a tough stretch. We had injuries, had to dismiss a player, and a suspension. Those three or four weeks take years off your life. I'm proud how our team handled it. Every game came down to the last possessions and literally two games down to the last minute and one to the last 30 seconds. That takes a toll. I'm proud of this team. They continued to fight and had a great attitude sticking together. But it does take a toll on you.”
Where is Travis Ford?
Watch the video again of Marcus Smart shoving a fan at Texas Tech, but look at what happens after the actual shove.
While a minute-long video clip cannot possibly capture everything that was going on in the chaos, it certainly reflects the essence of what was and, more, what wasn't happening. There's Markel Brown and Phil Forte, escorting their simmering teammate the entire length of the court to the bench. Ford, the Oklahoma State head coach never rushes out to meet them, nor is he shown escorting his players away from a volatile situation.
A little later, there's Smart, still by the bench, standing at his seat, jawing and screaming by himself. Travis Ford doesn't tell him to sit down or, better yet, head to the locker room for the final seconds and cool off.
Where is Ford?
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It seems like the Hall of Fame coach has SMU making history each time it wins a game.
Talk about progress. The Mustangs have received votes in the latest Associated Press poll. The last time that happened in one of the two major polls was during the 2003-04 season. You know what possibly gets them in? A win over No. 7 Cincinnati on Saturday.
The newly renovated Moody Coliseum has all of a sudden become a tough place for opponents. The Mustangs are 12-0 this season at home including 6-0 in Moody. Check with Connecticut and Memphis, which both notarized SMU's legitimacy, on just how tough the Mustangs are at home. They beat the Huskies by nine and the Tigers by 15 in the comfy confines of home.
They'll try and make it three wins over ranked teams when Cincinnati comes to town (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). SMU hasn't beaten three ranked teams in a season since 1984-85, which is also the only time since 1959 in program history that it was also ranked.
Just a warning, if you want offense, you're probably watching the wrong game. SMU entered the week with the nation's third-ranked field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shot just 37.2 percent. The Bearcats ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense allowing just 56.7 points per game.
Cincinnati is running away with the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats have a 16-game winning streak and have a flawless 12-0 record in the league. But their play is far from pristine. They generally out-tough their opponents for wins.
They did it in Louisville despite the Cardinals' rally from a 17-point deficit to take a lead with five minutes left. They did it to SMU too. In the first meeting this season, a 65-57 Cincinnati win, SMU trailed by four with four minutes left.
It's a simple formula really. If the Bearcats are in a close game late, they rely on their defense and experience to pull them through. Not many teams have a trio of seniors like Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. And not many teams can defend as well as Cincinnati.
The Mustangs know that and will show a different starting lineup than their first meeting. Brown is using 6-foot-9 forward Markus Kennedy, a Villanova transfer, to give them a scoring boost. And every point matters against the Bearcats.
The national scene is beginning to take shape.
Last Saturday was proof. Kansas dismissed Oklahoma State with ease. Syracuse outplayed a good Pitt team down the stretch in the Carrier Dome. Wichita State remained perfect with a victory over Indiana State. And Louisville topped UConn.
My Tennessee over Kentucky pick looked solid for a chunk of the first half. But the Wildcats just had too many weapons for a Vols squad that's still looking for a signature win.
Let's see what happens this weekend. I mean, let's see what happens with college basketball.
Not the Grammys. But I can predict that, too.
Album of the Year? "Random Access Memories," Daft Punk. Best Country Album? "Based on a True Story," Blake Shelton. Best Rap Album? "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," Kendrick Lamar. Sorry, Kanye.
Back to college basketball.
Remember, this is just one man's take. And I've been wrong before. Many times.
Disclaimer: Myron Medcalf’s views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of other ESPN.com staffers, especially with regard to that ridiculous thing he said about Syracuse being better than Arizona last weekend.
Last week: 4-1
No. 21 Michigan at No. 3 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I’m a big boxing fan. I love the hype that builds up a big fight. The biggest letdown, however, is when one fighter suffers a cut or some other injury that ruins the match. It’s deflating. And that’s how I feel about this heavyweight bout between the Big Ten’s best teams. Both Michigan and Michigan State have proved that they can overcome significant injuries. The Spartans haven’t been healthy all season and now there’s a strong chance that they’ll enter Saturday’s game without Adreian Payne (foot) or Branden Dawson (broken hand). Michigan has played most of the season without preseason All-American Mitch McGary. But the Wolverines are not wrestling with their identity. McGary is not coming back. And they’ve adapted to that on their way to becoming an elite team as Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have formed a potent trio. Michigan State remains a team in flux. Tom Izzo’s program has overcome injuries thus far in Big Ten play. But they’ll be costly Saturday when the Spartans suffer their first conference loss of the year. I’ll stick with this pick even if Payne miraculously returns to the floor.
Prediction: Michigan 79, Michigan State 72
Tennessee at No. 6 Florida, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: In a weird way, Florida is flying under the radar. The Gators are the best team in the SEC. And they haven’t lost since Dec. 2. But there’s a bigger spotlight on some of the other top-10 teams right now. The Gators are clearly dangerous, especially with Wooden Award candidate Casey Prather healthy. Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been complete for most of the season. And premier recruit Chris Walker is still unavailable because of eligibility issues. But they have the pieces to compete for a national title. The Gators have forced turnovers on 21.9 percent of their opponents’ possessions, 24th in the nation per Ken Pomeroy. They’ll face a desperate Tennessee team that held its own against Kentucky for a half last weekend but couldn’t finish. The Vols need quality wins. But the SEC won’t provide many opportunities to acquire them. They’ll still be searching after Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 74, Tennessee 66
No. 22 Kansas State at No. 16 Iowa State, 1:45 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com/WatchESPN: Bruce Weber could ultimately be in the running for national coach of the year. His best player is a freshman (Marcus Foster). But the Wildcats are 4-2 in the Big 12 after playing some of the best defense in the league (15th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). But it will be tough to get a win against an Iowa State team that has a chance to end its three-game losing streak in Ames. The Cyclones, however, are connecting on just 28 percent of their 3-point attempts in conference play. That’s a challenge for a program that has taken 40 percent of its overall field goal attempts from beyond the arc in its first five league games. It seems like a matter of time before the 3-ball becomes a more effective weapon for Iowa State again. And that’s vital. This upcoming stretch will make or break its waning Big 12 title dreams.
Prediction: Iowa State 80, Kansas State 79
Florida State at No. 18 Duke, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: There are a lot of things that make Duke an intriguing team. The Blue Devils have an offense (second in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) that’s led by a young man who could be a top-three draft pick this summer. And Jabari Parker is joined by steady offensive contributors Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. But a unit that’s ranked 73rd in adjusted defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy can’t be trusted. Although it might not matter against a Florida State squad that has held opponents to a 42.6 effective field goal percentage, sixth in the nation. But Leonard Hamilton’s squad has big, strong guards, plus 6-foot-9 Okaro White could be a tough matchup for a Duke team that has struggled against good big men all season. This won’t be an easy game for Duke.
Prediction: Florida State 73, Duke 70
Texas at No. 24 Baylor, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com/WatchESPN: Baylor has been up and down. It’s a confusing cycle for Scott Drew’s program. The Bears have wins over Kentucky and a healthy Colorado. But they’ve lost four of their first five Big 12 games. What’s wrong with Baylor? It isn't playing defense. All of those athletic weapons -- Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers. But the Bears ranked 103rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. It’s a waste of talent. Baylor should be better. And maybe this game against Texas will allow it to reverse this messy start. But Texas is rolling. The Longhorns are coming off wins against Kansas State and Iowa State. Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley are bullying teams inside. Javan Felix has really matured. It's a bad time to face Texas.
Prediction: Texas 78, Baylor 74
For the first 10 weeks of the 2013-14 college basketball season, Wisconsin and Iowa State shared much in common.
They were two of the sport’s most enjoyable “surprise” stories, scare quotes intended, because the word surprise works only if you note that both were expected to be good, and wound up even better. Both programs subvert traditional offensive dogma, both rely on players (Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky, DeAndre Kane, Georges Niang) with uncommon skill sets; both take advantage of interchangeable parts. Both programs are more sheer fun to watch than ever before: The Cylcones have pushed their typical high pace under Fred Hoiberg to new versatile lengths, while the Badgers are playing at breakneck speed (for them, anyway -- 65 possessions per game). For the first 10 weeks of the season, both remained among the nation’s ever-shrinking group of unbeaten teams. Last week, both lost that status.
This is what makes January so fascinating: It is an exercise in transition. Teams are more frequently and more rigorously tested. Fatigue and attrition come into play. Certain teams begin to take fearsome shape; others reveal their shortcomings. Outliers regress to the mean. We go from shaky impressions formed from disparate nonconference schedules to solid ideas based on less noisy data (and more of it), and all in one month. And by the time it’s all over, we’re already slotting people onto seed lines. It happens fast.
So, what about Iowa State and Wisconsin? How much should perceptions change? Neither team was without its flaws even when it was undefeated, but those flaws were hidden behind close wins and scheduling luck. (Iowa State got the “Is Mitch McGary OK or not?” edition of Michigan at home; Wisconsin played Florida in the Kohl Center when the Gators had, like, six dudes on the team.) A few losses, sudden and stacked though they may be, won’t send either team plummeting to the NIT. They’re more like gentle reminders of the work ahead.
These are the kinds of things that get figured out in January, in this first great surge of conference clarity. It’s when the nitpicking -- and the fun-- truly begins.
ICYMI: TOP STORIES
Kansas is starting to look scary. On Saturday, our own Myron Medcalf made the rather bold proclamation that Syracuse was the nation’s best basketball team. For what it’s worth, and to channel Billy Madison, I disagree! Syracuse is a very good team -- that got a really great win over Pitt on Saturday -- but Arizona is the best team in the country. It is impossible for me to watch the Wildcats’ combination of veteran guards and elite NBA frontcourt talent (not to mention its balanced offense and ruthless execution on defense) and not see the best team in the country, and it is hard for me to imagine another team approaching Arizona’s comprehensive brilliance at any point before March.
If there is one team that might, it’s Kansas.
The Jayhawks are still figuring it out, as the second half of their scraped knee of a win against Oklahoma State demonstrated. But at the rate they are improving -- which is roughly the same exceedingly fast rate as Joel Embiid's improvement -- and if they keep it up (and Andrew Wiggins doesn’t make a habit of “three points on zero field goal attempts”) the Jayhawks are a frightening long-term prospect.
(More: Kansas finally has an elite look, by Dana O’Neil, ESPN.com)
Digger Phelps was honored by Notre Dame for his career as Irish head coach, and in the process celebrated the 40th anniversary of the school’s streak-breaking win over John Wooden, Bill Walton and UCLA. I wrote about the lasting meaning of that game here.
Iowa demonstrates depth, pulls away from Minnesota, 94-73. Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding work at Iowa goes far beyond the brilliant offense the Hawkeyes play, or the textbook timeline they’ve followed to get from “disaster” to “Big Ten title contender.” It is also about depth: Josh Oglesby or no Josh Oglesby, Iowa’s combination of scorers is as well-rounded and effective as any team in the country. Even when Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble struggle at the same time, they’re pouring in points. It’s remarkable.
STAT OF THE WEEK: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Embiid’s eight blocks Saturday constituted a 26 percent block rate -- which means when Embiid was on the floor, he blocked one out of every four Oklahoma State attempts. You know when your computer stalls and you have to restart it? I just had to do that, but with my brain.
THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE
(For two more in-depth previews of big games in the week to come, check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)
Baylor at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: I’m not sure a Baylor team that looked so nondescript in Saturday’s home loss to Oklahoma -- and by the way, how good is Lon Kruger? -- has any chance here. But you have to watch Kansas at this point, because the experience of doing so is like watching a Power Rangers villain slowly learn how to assemble itself.
Wichita State at Illinois State, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN3: Speaking of the “points of the calendar we are getting to” theme discussed in today’s intro, here’s another: The point when everyone starts to take Wichita State’s chances of going unbeaten in the regular season seriously. After handling Indiana State at home Saturday, the kenpom.com projection math gives the Shockers a 25.6 percent chance of making it to the postseason unbeaten.
Florida State at Duke, noon ET, ESPN: You may have lost your interest in the Seminoles on Saturday, when Virginia tidied up a two-game regular-season sweep of FSU earlier than most, but in non-UVa-related games, Florida State has been mostly stellar since mid-December. Duke doesn't guard so well, but boy can it score; reverse that statement and you’ve got FSU’s M.O. This game is pure strength-on-strength gold.
Tennessee at Florida, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Tennessee rebounds 42 percent of its misses and features one of the best offensive guards in the country (Jordan McRae), and somehow is just 11-6. How so? The past two Saturdays -- a road loss at Kentucky, yes, but also a 57-56 home defeat to Texas A&M a week prior -- have not been kind. Will Florida make it three in a row?
Michigan at Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Last week, this game may have earned mention for the rivalry, though we would have covered the inherent disappointment, too -- that losing McGary to season-ending back surgery had kept reigning national runner-up (oxymoron?) Michigan from true Big Ten contention. After Saturday’s win at Wisconsin, is it safe to say even that much? Put this one back on your radar.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK