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Weekend Homework: Redemption chances for struggling teams

Maybe it's cosmic push and pull. Maybe that's why this season is the way it is.

Blame Kentucky. A year ago, the Wildcats were so good, so deep and so dominant that they ended their season 38-1 and two Final Four wins away from retiring the pervasive notion that a modern college basketball team could never go undefeated. Or blame Wisconsin, which casually steamrolled the Big Ten like it was the Missouri Valley, unleashed a torrent of offensive genius in the NCAA tournament and ended Kentucky's season. Or blame Duke, which was so talented it took just one season for Mike Krzyzewski -- or, more precisely, two weeks in early March -- to master defense. Or blame Arizona, or Gonzaga, or Villanova -- the three other truly elite teams that lost seven pre-tourney games among them.

Maybe the 2014-15 season was too thoroughly dominated by a handful of elite teams (and, come March, Michigan State). Maybe 2015-16 is the equal and opposite reaction. Maybe this was the only logical path forward.

There are better explanations. Or maybe there isn't any explanation at all. The point is, one year later, we've already seen five top-ranked teams lose. On Tuesday, losses by Kansas and Xavier marked the 18th and 19th top-five upsets of the season. The former number is a rarity. The latter has never, in the history of college basketball, occurred this fast.

Oh, and Duke just lost two straight home games (and three straight overall), and Coach K may or may not have blacked out for an entire (amazing) news conference.

Whatever the reasons for this season's disarray, it was especially pronounced this week, and the result is a weekend defined by the quest for short-term redemption. Or, to be less grandiose, here are a bunch of teams that would very much like to, if not outright need to, respond to this week's loss(es) with a win.

No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners
Loss: Monday at No. 11 Iowa State
Next: Saturday at No. 13 Baylor (noon ET, ESPN2)

There's zero shame in losing at Iowa State. Hilton Coliseum is a brutal place to play under the best of circumstances; it's especially bad when the Iowa State team you encounter is (A) good and (B) frustrated with its underwhelming start in conference play. That's a recipe for a loss, even if you're the No. 1 team in the country. Afterward, Iowa State coach Steve Prohm talked about the incremental mentality required of successful Big 12 teams. As he marveled at the fact that OU had to turn around and go to Baylor on Saturday, his voice practically broke into a chuckle. Or a scoff. Or somewhere in between. The point was self-evident: Sometimes in the Big 12, it is not a team but the schedule itself that becomes your worst enemy. The good news? If Kansas State could take Baylor to double OT in Waco on Wednesday, the Sooners could go one better Saturday.


No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks
Loss: Tuesday at Oklahoma State
Next: Saturday against Texas (2 p.m. ET, ESPN)

The biggest factor in Kansas' early success, in the improvement by an already good -- and largely intact -- 2014-15 team, was advanced guard play. Frank Mason III was better than ever, but it went deeper: By adding a second point guard (Devonte' Graham) to the lineup, Kansas coach Bill Self bettered his team's ballhandling and perimeter shooting and unlocked forward Wayne Selden Jr.'s talent, all in one fell swoop. It's fitting, then, that as the Jayhawks have struggled in recent weeks, Self has pinned a fair share of the fault on his backcourt. They will all have to be ready to go on Saturday. An Allen Fieldhouse tilt with Texas might look straightforward on paper, but the Longhorns are coming off a road win at West Virginia, and their biggest contributors, namely Isaiah Taylor, are -- you guessed it -- guards.


No. 5 Xavier Musketeers
Loss: Tuesday against Georgetown
Next: Saturday against Seton Hall

It's late January, and Xavier just now suffered its second loss of the season. It is far, far, far too early for Musketeers fans to panic. Still, getting outworked on the glass and losing on your own floor to a Georgetown team that (A) you usually own at home and (B) hasn't been all that good anyway is no Xavier fan's idea of a fun Tuesday night. Seton Hall gave Villanova a genuine scare, albeit at home, on Wednesday, but this nonetheless looks like a good opportunity for one of the nation's most surprising teams to get back on the glass and back to winning.


No. 6 West Virginia Mountaineers
Loss(es): Jan. 16 at then-No. 2 Oklahoma, Wednesday against Texas
Next: Saturday at Texas Tech (1 p.m. ET, ESPNNews)

If West Virginia would have won at Oklahoma on Saturday -- and it was one bucket away from doing so -- the Mountaineers would have been ranked No. 1. How could they not? They'd already beaten Kansas, and soundly so, earlier in the week; knocking off the Sooners and the Jayhawks in back-to-back games would have been the surest No. 1-worthy statement of the season. Still, if coach Bob Huggins' team had done all that, top-ranked teams would have still suffered their fifth collective loss of the season this week, because . . . wait for it . . . WVU lost to Texas on Wednesday. Worse yet, the Mountaineers lost to Texas at home. Now the follow-up is no joke: Like Kansas State, Texas Tech remains one of the country's most underrated, toughest outs, even if its Big 12 record (2-4) doesn't show it.


No. 11 Michigan State Spartans
Loss(es): Jan. 14 against then-No. 16 Iowa, Jan. 17 at Wisconsin, Wednesday against Nebraska
Next: Saturday against No. 7 Maryland (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Losing to Iowa -- even losing to Iowa in the Breslin Center -- is cool. Iowa is really good. Losing to Wisconsin in the Kohl Center? Also cool. Kohl is a tough place to play. Following both of those games with a home loss to Nebraska? When your All-American candidate point guard (Denzel Valentine) has a 24-point, 6-assist, 6-rebound return to form? Not cool, bro. Not cool at all. The Spartans' third loss in seven days -- which, and we really can't stress this enough, came at the hands of Nebraska -- dropped the former No. 1 team in the country to 3-4 in the Big Ten, exploded any notion that Valentine's injury could be a potential experience-building positive, and prompted this observation from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo:

"There's blood in the water right now, you know?" Izzo said. "And so the sharks are coming."

Needless to say, "and so the sharks are coming" is not the unofficial 2015-16 motto Michigan State fans had in mind a month ago. Oh, and the next shark is No. 7 Maryland. Gulp.


No. 18 Butler Bulldogs
Loss: Tuesday at No. 16 Providence
Next: Saturday at Creighton

On Dec. 19, Butler put together a fairly comprehensive effort -- good offense, really good defense -- against a quality Purdue team. It has yet to do so, at least against a quality opponent, since. The Bulldogs' formerly lights-out offense has been just OK (fifth in the Big East in points per possession) in conference play, and Butler is just 2-4 as a result. The upside here is the schedule: Butler has played Providence (twice, both losses), Xavier and Villanova among those six losses.


No. 20 Duke Blue Devils
Loss(es): Jan. 13 at Clemson, Jan. 16 against Notre Dame, Monday against Syracuse
Next: Saturday at NC State

The lack of superlatives in this edition of Weekend Homework means we have to use this space to reaffirm our undying gratitude for Krzyzewski's post-Syracuse news conference. Pure comedy. Of course, we would be remiss if we failed to mention the primary reason Coach K's team lost to Syracuse and Notre Dame and Clemson in three straight games: the absence of Amile Jefferson. Without him, Duke's frontcourt is paper-thin -- in Brandon Ingram's case, literally so -- and teams like the Orange are capable of beating the Blue Devils on the boards. NC State isn't good, but it is big, and its 2014-15 claim to fame was its third-round NCAA tournament demolition of an undersized, outmatched Villanova froncourt. Four straight losses is a distinct possibility.


LSU Tigers
Loss: Tuesday at No. 10 Texas A&M
Next: Saturday at Alabama (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

LSU needs a win. Not because the Tigers lost at Texas A&M. The Aggies are far too good for that. Ben Simmons' team needs a win because, from now until the end of the season, it will always need a win, the better to make up for its awful nonconference performance (against an awful schedule) and get Simmons his one crack at the NCAA tournament. Treading water with road losses is unlikely to change that calculus.


Pittsburgh Panthers
Loss: Tuesday against NC State
Next: Saturday at Florida State (4 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

Meh. Pitt is Pitt. The Panthers are better than you think. Their offense is great, their defense is suspect. They were atypically abysmal at Louisville last week ... whatever. They'll be fine.