Some college basketball teams' reputations precede them, whether those images are legitimate or not. Even midway through the season, an image can be hard to shake.
Casual fans may carry thoughts and beliefs about their conference rivals, even if those rivals have cracked the AP Top 25. Those beliefs can, however, be debunked with just a little digging into the statistics or watching the games with an unjaundiced eye.
Here are some of the more persistent misconceptions surrounding each of this week's Top 25 teams.
All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription. Statistics and rankings accurate through games of January 22.
This season's Oklahoma team is a bit of an anomaly for coach Lon Kruger.
None of his teams since Ken Pomeroy launched his site in 2003 has ranked anywhere close to the top in tempo. This year's Sooners stand ninth at more than 73 possessions per game.
Going a bit further back in the coach's history, Sports-Reference.com lists only one of Kruger's teams—the 1996-97 Illinois team spearheaded by Kiwane Garris—ranking in the nation's top 50 in scoring. OU currently ranks ninth in this category as well.
Kruger started to evolve his style at UNLV after a stint in the NBA, but this year's undersized Sooners run out of necessity. There is no player on the roster taller than 6'8", so the team has to thrive on turnovers and superior conditioning.
So far, it's worked, and other undersized Big 12 teams like Oklahoma State and Iowa State—the latter of whom the Sooners have already beaten once—will have serious fights on their hands when they tip off with the Crimson and Cream.
As a freshman, Baylor center Isaiah Austin hoisted 90 three-point attempts in 35 games. It's an impressive figure for a 7'1" player, and even though he made only 30 of those shots, his comfort level in taking them made the long jumper a weapon that opponents needed to account for.
This season, he has substantially tightened up his shot selection. Going into last weekend's game against Oklahoma, he had only taken six triples in 14 games. Over the Bears' losses to the Sooners and to Kansas, he's made up for some lost time by hoisting 11 threes and making six.
“Coach Drew told us after last game that we passed up too many shots and he knows that we have confidence in making them,” Austin said to The University Daily Kansan's Blair Sheade after the loss to the Jayhawks. “That’s what we did tonight, but we fell short.”
Austin's sheer length makes his jump shot hard to defend, and for that reason he's always ready to let one fly. This season, he's done a lot more in the mid-range area, but it's incorrect to think he's neglecting the post. Well, neglecting it any more than he did last season, anyway.
The wiry Texan will never be a typical back-to-the-basket big man, but give him some credit. At least this season he's not just content to channel his inner Manute Bol.
Memphis point guard Joe Jackson is likely to go down as one of the most important players in the program's star-studded history. His value to the Tigers has been illustrated frequently this season, but compare these two stat lines for a true indication of his worth:
Game 1: 6 PTS, 3-6 FG, 0-2 FT, 0 REB, 0 AST, 3 TO, 4 PF
Game 2: 11 PTS, 3-10 FG, 5-6 FT, 8 REB, 2 AST, 0 TO, 2 PF
Both of those outings came against the same opponent: Oklahoma State. No points for guessing which one was the Memphis win.
UM's other losses this season all shared one common thread: Some facet of Jackson's game was off.
Against Florida, he missed eight of 13 shots, including a potential game-tying layup in the waning seconds. He likewise struggled through a 4-of-14 night in a loss to UConn. Cincinnati forced him into five turnovers in 27 minutes.
Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said after the game that containing Jackson was the key to victory.
''He really initiates everything for them,'' Cronin said of Jackson, as reported by CBS Sports. ''Once we stopped him from penetrating, it stopped other guys from getting layups, stopped him from getting baskets, free throws. I thought that was the biggest key.''
Every Tigers opponent could stand to take notes.
One step forward, one step back. That's been the story for the Kansas State Wildcats this season. Beat Oklahoma State, get throttled by Kansas. Beat Oklahoma, lose at Texas.
Of K-State's first 19 games, only five have been decided by five points or less. The Wildcats have a 3-2 record in those games, including the season-opening loss to Northern Colorado and a narrow two-point win against South Dakota.
Both came at the frequently impregnable Bramlage Coliseum, which isn't called "The Octagon of Doom" for nothing. The Wildcats' home record at Bramlage stood at 290-96 (.751 win percentage) entering this season, according to Wikipedia.
One common thread has run through those five close games. Kansas State fans have died a thousand deaths watching their team shoot.
While the defense is superb, ranking in KenPom's top 15 nationally, the offense has frequently veered toward putrid. StatSheet.com ranks KSU 260th in effective field-goal percentage and 276th in true shooting percentage. Free-throw shooting is especially weak at 322nd nationally and last in the Big 12.
In the squeakers—which include that Oklahoma State win and Texas loss—State has shot an ugly 37.8 percent from the floor and 56.9 percent at the line. More close games are certain to be in the offing, and the Cats have to find some consistent scoring when those baskets are most essential.
Michigan freshman Derrick Walton is no Trey Burke. That's an understatement on par with water being wet and women having secrets (video NSFW).
There's likewise no denying that Walton had some rough early outings as he acclimated to the college game. No points and three turnovers in only 17 minutes against Charlotte. One point in 14 minutes against Arizona. Four games in his first eight with more turnovers than assists.
However, he has also put up some baskets when they've been needed, and he's done it against some of the Wolverines' biggest opposition. Iowa State and Florida State both surrendered double-digit scoring to the rookie. Walton converted a crucial layup through contact late in the game against Nebraska and started Michigan's win over Penn State by scoring the team's first eight points.
The guard is making the most of his skills, both to get his own baskets and set up teammates. "He's jet quick, and we want him to drive," Michigan coach John Beilein said to MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner. "He can get in there. But finding people? That's what he's getting better and better at."
Walton missed a start for the first time in his career on Wednesday, playing only three minutes against Iowa due to the flu. Here's hoping he's healthy for Saturday's tilt with archrival Michigan State, because it would be a shame for either team to suffer its first conference loss thanks to an illness or injury.
It's taken the Pitt Panthers a long time to claw their way into the Top 25, thanks to a schedule that could charitably be called suspect. The team's under-the-radar status has rubbed off on its largely anonymous cast of players.
With the release of the Wooden Award's 25-player midseason watch list, one Panther's omission has become a cause celebre.
Mr. @kenpomeroy has Lamar Patterson 2nd in his national POY rankings right now. Didn't make the Wooden semifinal list. Complete joke.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) January 23, 2014
Wait, Lamar Patterson didn't make the Wooden 25 list? LOL.— Jeff (BPredict) (@BPredict) January 23, 2014
On the season, senior guard Lamar Patterson ranks in Pomeroy's top 100 for effective field-goal percentage (eFG%), true shooting percentage (TS%) and assist rate. His 17.4 points-per-game average has only been boosted since hitting ACC play, as he has put up 18.5 in Pitt's first six games in its new league.
It isn't a big slight, since Indiana's Victor Oladipo wasn't on last year's January list either. He ended up having a respectable finish, and the same could easily happen for Patterson.
Especially now that the Panthers are beating teams with some name value.
Saint Louis plays nasty defense. That's an unassailable fact, which is backed up by the Billikens' lofty second-place standing in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings.
Such ferocity isn't a new development under the Gateway Arch, as this will be SLU's fifth straight season in the top 40 of those KenPom standings. What's different is how St. Louis is making a chunk of those stops.
Through 20 games, SLU is averaging 4.8 blocks per game—its most in more than a decade. The team's current 12.5 block percentage would be the school's highest in the Pomeroy era (since 2003-04).
Senior center Robert Loe averages 1.4 swats per game, and his backup John Manning carries a similar average. Manning's 12.3 block percentage would rank in KenPom's national top 20 if he had played enough minutes.
Coach Jim Crews isn't too concerned with keeping the swat team getting rejections, as long as they get stops.
“We don’t promote blocked shots,” Crews said to Tom Timmermann of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We promote positioning and then you kind of fall into things. That’s how we like to play. [...] We don’t like to ramrod things or gamble and get unsound with things.”
Past St. Louis teams frustrated opposing dribble drives with charging fouls. Now, there's a real risk of getting a shot smashed back in one's face. The rest of the Atlantic 10 is advised to proceed with caution.
During Duke's occasionally shaky start to ACC play, opposing big men didn't face a ton of resistance when they operated in the post. Sophomore forward Amile Jefferson fought hard against true centers like Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman and Georgia Tech's Daniel Miller, but each produced 14 points and eight rebounds against the Devils, thanks to substantial bulk advantages over Jefferson.
Over the Devils' first three conference games, which included losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, 7'0" sophomore Marshall Plumlee played a grand total of six minutes.
In wins over Virginia and NC State, he drew a combined 25 minutes. Jefferson, meanwhile, contributed 18 points and 23 rebounds in those two outings. Whether these two occurrences are related is up for some debate, but it's possible that using the two together would at least offer some relief of Duke's rebounding issues.
The athletic Jefferson would have an easier time in beating shorter power forwards to the glass than in outjumping lengthy 7-footers. In turn, freshman Jabari Parker (6'8", 235 pounds) could create a size mismatch against many opposing small forwards.
This is not to say Plumlee should start or even play 25 minutes per game off the bench. But any mental errors that he's committed during games this season could be remedied with experience. And of course, the only way to get experience is to earn it on the court.
A four-game losing streak leads a lot of coaches to shuffle the deck and decide that a new starting five will staunch the bleeding.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta claims not to subscribe to this theory. He told The Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises that his team is starting games out just fine. “We've got to get the middle and end corrected,” Matta said.
The middle of OSU's most recent loss at Nebraska looked fine, as the Buckeyes got back to disrupting the Huskers offense after benching slumping center Amir Williams. He left the game with 2:17 remaining in the first half and never returned, even as the Buckeyes struggled to score down the stretch when Nebraska stabilized its ball security.
A full game of a small-ball lineup with LaQuinton Ross as the "center" simply isn't plausible in the Big Ten. A focused, motivated Williams is desperately needed for the Buckeyes to contain bigs like Adreian Payne, A.J. Hammons or Noah Vonleh. Now, the question becomes how to get Williams' attention.
The big man's effort wanes when he's not involved in the offense, and he has frequently had to get his own points off the offensive glass. However, he's also prone to turnovers.
Matta's working through a chicken-or-egg dilemma with Williams, trying to decide if his center needs more touches as motivation or if those plays need to be earned. One thing the coach can't do, however, is make any panic moves.
Iowa State started the season with 14 straight wins and then hit the skids with three straight losses. The common denominators in the Cyclones' defeats against Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas were poor shooting and falling behind on the boards.
ISU made only 21 of its 83 three-point attempts in the three losses, slumping to 4-of-25 against Kansas. The Jayhawks also crushed the Cyclones 53-36 on the glass behind Andrew Wiggins' career-high 19 rebounds.
Yes, it's true that ISU has no rotation players taller than 6'8". It's also true that Kansas and Texas are among the 50 biggest teams in America, according to Ken Pomeroy's effective height rankings.
So, Iowa State is simply vulnerable to big teams, right?
Not so fast. If you're a KenPom subscriber and can actually see anything behind that link, look at the other Big 12 teams among the nation's 50 biggest. Baylor ranks 13th, and Texas Tech stands 32nd. Those teams have both suffered double-digit losses to ISU, even though both out-rebounded the Cyclones, and State missed 14 of 19 threes against Tech.
It's too simple to blame these losses on Iowa State being vertically challenged. Call it a case of Kansas growing into a very good team, Oklahoma also being tournament-quality and Texas playing for its postseason life, and then move on.
Entering the season, Cincinnati was at best a dark-horse contender in the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats' lack of scoring outside of star senior guard Sean Kilpatrick was expected to prove their downfall.
This isn't to say that UC has found a lot of points, averaging only 70.8 points per game to rank ninth in the 10-team AAC. Opponents, however, have found the Bearcats a nightmare to score against, as Cincinnati ranks third in the nation, allowing 56.2 points per game.
Coach Mick Cronin's team is winning with defense, and the stalwart on that end has been springy senior forward Justin Jackson. He is the only player in Pomeroy's top 50 in both steal and block percentage.
On the other end, He is also one of the nation's top 50 offensive rebounders, and he's established himself as a consistent double-figure scorer in support of Kilpatrick. This season's 11.6 points-per-game average more than doubles his previous career high.
Jackson was at his havoc-causing best on New Year's Day against SMU. After his 17-point, six-rebound, five-steal and five-block performance, Cronin said, "He did everything but take tickets and babysit my daughter tonight," as reported on GoBearcats.com.
Jackson is the vocal leader of the team who then goes out and does a large portion of the dirty work that wins close games. As pictured above, he sometimes even does it blindfolded.
For the season, Ken Pomeroy ranks Kentucky 270th in America in bench minutes, giving the reserves only slightly more than a quarter of the team's total playing time. However, three players in particular are earning more of Calipari's trust since SEC play began.
Freshman center Dakari Johnson was lost in the wake of sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein's hot start to the season. From December 1 to Christmas, the Wildcats played five games in which Johnson averaged a mere 5.3 minutes. That included a game against Belmont where he did not play.
In wins against Tennessee and Texas A&M, Johnson played a total of 40 minutes, producing 10 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. His coach praised him for his tough play against the Vols' post duo of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. "He's really doing some good stuff,” Calipari said to Keith Taylor of The Winchester Sun. “He's going after balls.”
Senior point guard Jarrod Polson has drawn 48 minutes over his last four games, matching his total over the Cats' first 14 games. He has made three three-point baskets and dished four assists against only one turnover.
Most successful, however, has been sophomore Alex Poythress. After averaging only 2.4 points per game in a seven-game stretch of the nonconference season, the Clarksville, Tenn. product is blossoming in SEC action.
The Cats have won four of their first five conference games, and Poythress' 10.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game have been a major reason. Calipari highly enjoyed the forward's performance against Texas A&M, telling The Advocate Messenger's Larry Vaught, “What you are seeing is what I am seeing in practice. He is just dominating."
Stars like Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison are getting the headlines for Kentucky, but these reserves must grow into substantial roles if UK is to fulfill a championship that looked predestined three months ago.
While the Massachusetts Minutemen are arguably the most talented team in the Atlantic 10 Conference, they haven't been able to run away from anyone yet.
UMass trailed for most of the last 10 minutes in its conference opener against St. Joseph's and nearly the entire second halves of wins over St. Bonaventure and George Mason. The year of living dangerously caught up with the team in Wednesday's loss to Richmond, a game in which UMass led for about a minute and change.
Against St. Joe's, UMass struggled with offensive rebounding, which has been a strength most of the season. However, defensive rebounding and offensive turnovers have been a bugaboo all season, and the games against the Bonnies and Patriots were no exception.
SBU and GMU pulled a combined 32 of 74 available offensive rebounds or 43 percent. For the season, UMass ranks 212th in defensive rebounding percentage, per Ken Pomeroy. The A-10 boasts five of the nation's top 100 offensive rebounding teams, not counting UMass.
Six other A-10 schools rank among Pomeroy's top 100 shot-blocking squads, which will also become a factor against UMass. Point guard Chaz Williams draws a lot of fouls when he attacks the tin, but he also gets swatted on a regular basis. The Minutemen are among one of the nation's 10 most-blocked offenses, according to KenPom.
Stay tuned to the A-10 race this season. UMass is a very good team, but VCU, St. Louis, George Washington and maybe even La Salle or Richmond will have something to say about the championship.
When Louisville dismissed forward Chane Behanan following its loss to Kentucky, there was no more safety net. Enigmatic sophomore Montrezl Harrell, workmanlike senior Stephan Van Treese and green freshman Mangok Mathiang had to provide a solid post rotation if the Cards were to entertain any hope of defending their national title.
That game changed everything for the Cardinals, especially their post players. These numbers illustrate each Cardinals big man's numbers in the six games prior to Kentucky and the six games since:
Harrell in particular has risen to the occasion, becoming the Cardinals' most effective rebounder. He impressed on both ends against UConn, putting up 18 points and 13 rebounds while holding Huskies forward DeAndre Daniels to three points and four rebounds.
The Cards do struggle on the defensive glass without Behanan, but they weren't always dominant with him. A more confident, productive Harrell will be essential to Louisville's fate in March, and he's building to that end now.
Oklahoma State's loss of big man Michael Cobbins may be the most underrated injury in America. The bulk, rebounding ability and defensive presence that he provided have been sorely missed, especially in a game against a bigger opponent like Kansas.
Coming into last weekend's Big 12 heavyweight showdown, KU's size was expected to provide an advantage, but just as important was OSU keeping its best lineups on the floor. Foul trouble restricted Le'Bryan Nash's availability and cost the Cowboys the services of disqualified shooting guard Markel Brown for the pivotal final minutes.
While coach Travis Ford has talented bench guards like Phil Forte and Stevie Clark to fill in for Brown, the frontcourt is relatively bare. Marek Soucek, a 7-footer, is the next man up, and he contributed only one rebound and one block in eight minutes against Kansas.
OSU still stands in Ken Pomeroy's national top 40 in steal (11.3) and block (14.7) percentages, but those figures were buoyed by early games that featured cupcake opponents and a still-active Cobbins. In Big 12 play, the Pokes' rates have fallen to 10.2 and 8.1, respectively.
The defense can't sell out for steals on the perimeter, lest the big men get into foul trouble from going for blocks on the resultant drives. This will hinder Oklahoma State's defense going forward and make the offense's efficiency much more important.
Iowa basketball has made a return to relevance this season, climbing into the Top 10 for the first time since early in the 2001-02 season. What's also returned is fast-paced, exciting basketball, the kind that hasn't been seen in Iowa City since the pictured Roy Devyn Marble's dad was the one wearing a Hawkeyes jersey.
This Hawkeyes team is averaging an eye-opening 85.7 points per game, sixth most in America. Oregon is the only major-conference team scoring more. No Iowa team has even averaged 75 since 1997-98, the next-to-last year of the Dr. Tom Davis era.
Likewise, Iowa has never ranked in the top 60 of Ken Pomeroy's tempo standings. The 2003-04 team, coached by Steve Alford, was the only one to crack 70 possessions per game. This year's Hawkeyes are screaming up the court for 73 possessions a night, good for 13th in America.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is getting maximum use out of his 11-deep roster. With that many bodies on hand, there's no reason for any coach to hold his team back if the players are skilled enough to score on the run.
Even in this action photo, Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky doesn't cut an imposing figure. He's 6'11" and 235 pounds, but he's not a mountainous big man like Purdue's A.J. Hammons or a lithe, springy sort like Joel Embiid at Kansas.
Kaminsky caught the nation's imagination when he set Wisconsin's single-game scoring record with 43 points against North Dakota. Examine the video of all his points and count the ways he scores.
There is an assortment of post moves, evidence of his silky three-point touch and even a few drives to the basket where he shows off a handle cultivated as a part-time high school point guard.
Is Kaminsky a new Magic Johnson? Hardly. Hakeem Olajuwon? No. But he's no stiff, either.
At first glance, the Kansas Jayhawks defense looks soft and permissive, at least if you're obsessed with disrupting opponents and forcing turnovers. Kansas sits in the bottom 30 nationally in Pomeroy's defensive turnover percentage rankings.
Despite that, KenPom also ranks the Jayhawks defense in the top 25 in overall efficiency. Why?
The answer is in the picture at left. Joel Embiid has immediately established himself as a Kraken-esque nightmare inside (and if anyone claims to coin that as a nickname for the Cameroonian freshman, remember you read it here first). Pomeroy has both Embiid and his team ranked 11th in the nation in block percentage, but those standings may not be sustainable.
We say that only because opponents aren't even trying to take it to the rack against Kansas anymore. According to Hoop-Math.com, KU's opposition takes less than 40 percent of its shots near the rim. The Jayhawks are in the top 15 in rim field-goal percentage and the top five in block percentage at the tin.
Rangy perimeter defenders like Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden Jr. and Naadir Tharpe could gamble more and funnel opponents to the lane to get swatted, but they haven't yet. But if they do, will it help?
The first two times that KU forced turnovers on more than 19 percent of opponents' possessions, it lost to Villanova and San Diego State. Embiid spent time on the bench in both games with foul trouble.
In KU's case, the gambles may not be worth the risk.
San Diego State has a marquee win at Kansas, ranks third in the nation in defensive effective field-goal percentage, per Pomeroy, and has an offense that attacks its opponent and doesn't beat itself. The Aztecs are in KenPom's national top 50 in turnover percentage and free-throw rate.
So why do we still not trust them in the NCAA tournament?
Every season is different, so let's leave aside the Mountain West's 3-9 malaise in the past two tournaments. Forget that the Aztecs were the team that helped kick the Dunk City craze into high gear by falling to Florida Gulf Coast in the round of 32.
Focusing on this season's SDSU team, it doesn't take long to find a point of concern: This team has not proved that it can shoot.
Through 18 games, the Aztecs have an eFG% of 46.1, good for 301st in the nation. Schools like Prairie View A&M, Wofford and Siena rank just ahead of them. Pomeroy doesn't rank true shooting percentage, which factors in free-throw shooting, but StatSheet places the Aztecs 229th in the country and third worst in the Mountain West.
During the Pomeroy era, only seven teams with eFG rates below 50 percent have reached the Final Four. The worst of the bunch was Louisville at 47.3 in 2012.
Yes, every year is different, but the need for shots to fall is one of basketball's unimpeachable truths. If SDSU isn't hitting its shots in March, the Mountain West will see another standard-bearer take an ugly tumble.
"Out of nowhere" is a phrase often used in reference to car accidents and players that college basketball analysts didn't know were good. Both are misnomers—just because you couldn't see that Jeep or Florida forward Casey Prather, it doesn't mean they weren't there.
Prather's junior season was interrupted by a pair of concussions and a knee injury that slowed his growth as a key cog in the Gators offense. While he was active, however, he was a productive piece off the bench.
In the 14 SEC games that he played in, he averaged 17.5 minutes per game. In that time, he contributed a very respectable 6.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game on 62.7 percent shooting from the floor. All those figures are bogged down by a pair of games in which coach Billy Donovan eased Prather back in after an injury, playing him only nine minutes combined.
Did anyone see 17.3 points per game out of the senior? Maybe Prather's mother, but that's about it.
If you're surprised that he is making any steady contribution to Florida's success, however, you probably weren't paying attention.
Wichita State was expected to miss departed point guard Malcolm Armstead, whose heady play and timely shooting propelled it to its first Final Four in almost half a century. Freshman Fred VanVleet proved he could run the offense in relief of the Oregon transfer, but he shot only 38 percent from the floor.
Midway through VanVleet's sophomore year, he's quelling the shooting concerns. His shooting percentage has jumped nearly 10 percentage points, including sinking almost 50 percent of his two-point shots. Only 37.5 of his attempts inside the arc found the net as a freshman.
He told The Wichita Eagle's Paul Suellentrop that it's simply a matter of repetition. “It’s just a consistency thing,” he said. “In high school, the game came a lot easier so I could get away with it. You never put the time or energy into it in high school that you do in college.”
The Shockers have a few players who aren't nearly the gunners they think they are—Cleanthony Early, Nick Wiggins and Tekele Cotton combine for less than 30 percent accuracy from three—but VanVleet isn't one of them. Coach Gregg Marshall can count on his floor general to convert when the other options aren't getting free.
The man throwing down in this picture is Villanova sophomore Daniel Ochefu, all 6'11" and 245 pounds of him. If you've never seen him before, don't feel bad. He's had some issues staying on the court this season.
Over the Wildcats' first 11 games, he averaged only 18.5 minutes a night. That's all the officials would allow him before chasing him off the court with whistles like Clint Eastwood brandishing a shotgun in Gran Torino (video NSFW).
He committed a whopping 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes in those first 11 games, including fouling out in only nine minutes against Kansas. Starting with the loss to Syracuse, however, the big man's average has dropped to an acceptable 4.9 fouls per 40, allowing him to stay on the court for 21 minutes per game.
Aside from Ochefu, there's no other player taller than 6'7" in the rotation, so keeping him available will be vital for coach Jay Wright's team. The Big East has a few solid big men capable of exploiting weakness inside, so the league's third-leading shot-blocker—Ochefu swats 1.8 per game—will come in handy.
Michigan State hasn't been healthy since this season began, and it's still a Top Five outfit. The Spartans keep offering the tantalizing potential of what they could be if all the key performers get back to full strength. Suffice to say that it makes all the preseason Final Four predictions look conservative.
Center Adreian Payne is the latest and highest-profile Spartan to miss substantial time, as coach Tom Izzo says the All-American candidate won't be back again until he's pain-free from a case of plantar fasciitis, according to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press.
Against an Illinois team that made a Top 25 cameo last month, Michigan State had no Payne and no problems in a 78-62 win. Keith Appling and Gary Harris combined for 38 points, and forward Branden Dawson was a solid rebounding presence as usual.
Where MSU excelled was in cultivating the kind of depth that its fanbase thought it had in the preseason. Guard Denzel Valentine produced 15 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, but perhaps his most important stat column was filled with only a single turnover.
The game ball, however, had to go to sophomore center Matt Costello. Rounding into form after returning from a lengthy illness, he played his best game as a Spartan with eight points, five rebounds and six blocks.
Already a solid force on the glass, he can also be a more dangerous rim-protector than Payne. An expanded role for him will aid the Michigan State defense. If his 25 minutes against Illinois become the new normal even with Payne in the lineup, Sparty will be even more difficult to score on.
Good luck to anyone that draws a fully operational MSU in March.
One of the unintended byproducts of a 2-3 zone defense is that its practitioners can have difficulties crashing the defensive glass. Syracuse has been no different in recent years.
Only once in the Ken Pomeroy years (2002-03 on) have the Orange ranked in the national top 200 in defensive rebounding percentage. That was the 2007-08 team led by Donte Greene and Arinze Onuaku.
This season's team is actually coach Jim Boeheim's best defensive rebounding club in that span, allowing opponents to pull only 31.5 percent of their own misses. The 2013-14 Orange ranks 177th in the nation, so this is not to say that Syracuse is dominating the boards this year.
Still, athletes like Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair along with bangers like Rakeem Christmas give this year's Orange plenty of rugged bodies to make opponents struggle for their caroms. By Pomeroy's figures, Syracuse had held eight straight opponents to 33.3 percent or lower on the offensive glass before the streak was snapped in a win over Pitt.
In October, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated made his way to Tucson, Ariz. to watch a preseason practice with the Arizona Wildcats. He came away with a grave concern:
...I don't know that I've ever seen a quieter practice than the one I witnessed in Tucson. The only voice I heard through the entire workout was (coach Sean) Miller's. I didn't witness a single instance of a player barking out instructions, encouragement or a criticism toward a teammate. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I think this could be a huge problem...
Turns out that he was, in fact, overreacting.
When the Wildcats blew a 13-point lead against UCLA and found themselves behind in the final minute, point guard T.J. McConnell and shooting guard Nick Johnson didn't make a show of clapping hands or screaming at teammates. They simply called the huddle.
"It was big for our team to keep our composure," McConnell said after the game, as reported by ESPN's Arash Markazi. "Nick's a great leader and we just gathered each other and said we're going to win this game, we just have to execute down the stretch."
Johnson and McConnell are the upperclassmen in a rotation otherwise dominated by freshmen and sophomores. Their veteran calm and unselfish play make them the perfect mentors for a group of underclassmen who likewise aren't self-obsessed.
"Great teammates are about winning," coach Sean Miller said after the UCLA win. "We don't deal with the egos or sometimes the selfishness that teams or great individual players can bring to the table."
That kind of unselfish play and unassuming veteran leadership made the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats an anomaly among John Calipari's star-studded teams. It also made them national champions.
It's still to be determined if these other Wildcats can equal that kind of storybook finish, but don't lose sight of the guys who'll be leading the way.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.