Game Plan: The January thaw

Game Plan is our Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about the games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.

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.

Did they ever. Ten days ago, Iowa State was in the thick of a three-team Big 12 title race. The Cyclones lost at Oklahoma on Jan. 11, then at home to Kansas two days later, and then, finally, at Texas on Saturday. Wisconsin, for its part, played uncharacteristically awful transition defense at Indiana on Jan. 14, falling to a shaky group whose next game was a 54-47 home loss to Northwestern. (Yep.) Just as surprising was Wisconsin’s failure to recover over the weekend, when it managed 70 points in 68 possessions in a home loss to Michigan. It’s now been nearly two weeks since either team won a game.

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.


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.


(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.