What to Make of the Wild Weekend in College Basketball

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 6, 2014

After nearly a month of becoming a little too predictable, college basketball gave us a wild weekend to remind us just how chaotic it can be.

As it turns out, though, opening the month of January with an unsurprising weekend is about as run of the mill as it gets.

Between Dec. 8, 2013, and Jan. 3, 2014, ranked opponents went 93-6 against unranked ones.

On Jan. 4 alone, they were 10-4 versus unranked squads. Though each didn't lose, top teams like Arizona, Syracuse and Louisville certainly didn't look great in victories by single-digit margins against inferior opposition.

If you're a fan of one of those ranked teams which either lost or struggled, I wish you would step back from that ledge, my friend.

This stuff happens every January. And because of it, it's the teams that bucked the trend that ended up looking especially impressive this weekend.

Ranked vs. unranked in first weekend of January (2011-14)
Game TypeRecordAverage Margin
Home vs. Opponent with 5+ losses19-2+15.0
Home vs. Opponent with 2-4 losses14-2+10.1
Road vs. Opponent with 5+ losses12-4+7.3
Road vs. Opponent with 2-4 losses5-12-2.2

In other sports, we obsess over how well teams can deal with going long periods of time in between real games. We'll no doubt hear about it during the BCS National Championship Game on Monday night and during the divisional round of the NFL playoffs next weekend.

Yet, you almost never hear about the break that most major college basketball programs take over the final few weeks of December.

With all due respect to schools like Elon and Jackson State, highly ranked teams enter the first weekend of January having spent the bulk of the last month playing against teams that don't even remotely resemble the competition they'll face in conference.

Motivation isn't exactly something that can be calculated, but it stands to reason that teams might be overlooking early conference opponentsthinking more highly of themselves than they should because of how easily they had been dispatching teams from one-bid conferences in late December.

Meanwhile, their unranked opponents in early January spend the final few weeks of December gearing up for this very time of year. Wake Forest undoubtedly had its home game against North Carolina circled on the calendar for months, whereas the Tar Heels probably didn't even start thinking about the Demon Deacons until about midway through the second half on Sunday night.

And it showed.

We're not arguing that Duke and Oklahoma State should or should not have lost to Notre Dame and Kansas State, respectively. We're simply pointing out that history suggests those results weren't nearly as stunning as many headlines would have you believe.

There were a few results that stood out among the rest, though.


This Is Sparta

Michigan State went on the road and beat Indiana by 17 points.

On the first weekend of January over the last four seasons, a ranked team has played on the road against an unranked team with fewer than five losses 17 times. The unranked team has won 12 of those games, and Michigan State became the first ranked team to win the game by more than 11 points.

Granted, this isn't even remotely the same Indiana team as yesteryearthe Hoosiers are now 0-5 against the RPI Top 125but to win that dominantly at Indiana while getting just four points from Adreian Payne is nothing short of incredible.

Gary Harris scored 26 points with five steals and hit five three-pointers in a game for the first time this season. If he's finally putting that ankle injury behind him, the world had better watch out for Michigan State. There may be two other undefeated teams in the Big Ten, but we've felt all along that there might not be a better team in the country than a healthy Michigan State.


Cooney Island

Speaking of sophomore shooting guards with five made three-pointers, look no further than Trevor Cooney for an explanation of why Syracuse struggled with Miami (FL) on Saturday.

When Cooney is hitting three-pointers, all is well for the Orange. In the seven games in which he has made at least five three-pointers, Syracuse is winning by an average of 17.6 points per game, taking each game by a minimum of eight points.

In the other seven games, Cooney has made two or fewer three-pointers. Of those seven games, four were decided by seven or fewer points.

Lo and behold, Cooney was 2-of-12 from behind the arc on Saturday. Despite playing 39 of the 40 minutes, he didn't have a single assist or rebound. If he isn't hitting shots in bunches, it's hard to argue that he is helping the team by being on the floor.

C.J. Fair is just about an automatic 15 points and six rebounds per game, while Tyler Ennis will find some way to positively impact the game even if he isn't scoring a ton. However, as both Duke and Syracuse found out on Saturday, it's pretty difficult to win when only two players are making an impact on the offensive end of the court.


Cincinnati Nice

Of all the things that transpired this weekend, perhaps none was more surprising than Cincinnati's destruction of Memphis.

We turned something of a collective blind eye to the Bearcats in mid-December when they followed up losses to New Mexico and Xavier with that painful-to-watch one-point victory over Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden. However, it might be time to start taking them seriously as a threat to win the AAC regular-season championship.

Through 15 games, Cincinnati has yet to allow any opponent to score more than 67 points and is allowing just 56.3 points per game on average. According to KenPom (subscription required), Cincinnati entered play on Sunday with the third-best defensive efficiency in the country.

Unfortunately, the Bearcats' offensive efficiency doesn't even crack the top 100.

One would assume that will improve once Titus Rubles breaks out of the horrendous slump he's in. He opened the season making 25 of his first 47 field-goal attempts but is just 12-of-50 over the last nine games, despite attempting nothing but two-pointers. Still, it must be nice for the Bearcats to know they are probably going to win if the team scores 60 points in a game.

On the flip side of that Cincinnati coin, what in the world is wrong with Memphis?

As we saw in the table above, ranked teams were 33-4 when playing at home against an unranked opponent in the first weekend of January. Aside from the beatdown Memphis took, only one of those losses was by more than two points. Georgetown would have lost by fewer than six points to West Virginia three years ago if not for four turnovers in the final two minutes.

Memphis' biggest issue on Saturdayas it has been all seasonwas three-point shooting. The 2-of-17 effort against Cincinnati brought its season total to a downright brutal 29.2 percent. That's good for 325th in the country.

With long-range shots completely failing, Memphis' quartet of guards was forced to venture in among the trees to try to get its points, resulting in 10 blocks for Cincinnati.

Feel free to believe it was some sort of statistical anomaly. But when Memphis struggles to score and gets blown out at Louisville on Thursday night, it might be time to accept that the Tigers have little hope of defeating a team with a shot-blocking presence and guard play that is competent enough to not turn the ball over 18 times in a game.


Jayhawk Down

Since losing at home to Oral Roberts on Nov. 15, 2006, Kansas had been 126-4 when hosting before Steve Fisher and San Diego State came into town on Sunday.

Joel Embiid had 12 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, but he accounted for just five of Kansas' 57 field-goal attempts. That isn't particularly out of the ordinaryEmbiid has attempted more than seven field goals just once this seasonbut the Jayhawks needed to rely more on their big man on a day where nothing else was working.

The rest of the starting lineup combined for just 29 points on 40 field-goal attempts.

To be sure, San Diego State's defense should be described as nothing short of swarming. Every shot and rebound was contested by an Aztec. They certainly played like a team that is undefeated aside from a nine-point loss versus Arizona.

But as impressive as the win was for San Diego State, it needs to be pointed out that Kansas looked very lethargic and played nothing like the team that destroyed New Mexico and Georgetown back in mid-December.

"I think everybody, we all missed shots we usually make," said Andrew Wiggins, according to ESPN.com, "and that's going to happen from time to time with a young team."


Below the Radar

On Saturdays when there are at least a dozen ranked teams playingand particularly on Saturdays when both NFL Wild Card Games come down to the wireit's very easy to lose sight of games played between unranked teams. 

Here are a few of the intriguing results you may have missed.

Several weeks ago, Pittsburgh had multiple long stretches against Cincinnati without a single field goal. Against North Carolina State on Saturday afternoon, the Panthers went on a 22-6 run in less than six minutes in the second half, turning a potential upset into a laugher. In the first half, it seemed absurd that KenPom was projecting Pitt to go 13-5 in its inaugural season in the ACC. In the second half, it made perfect sense.

Behind 20 points, eight assists and three steals from Semaj Christon, Xavier beat Butler 79-68 to improve to 12-3 overall. The Musketeers are now 2-0 in Big East play, but their next three games against Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown should give us a good indication of how strong they might be.

Less than a week after giving up 87 points in a blowout loss to Tennessee, Virginia's vaunted defense was on full display in a 62-50 win over Florida State. Notably, the Cavaliers picked up the win without the services of leading scorer Joe Harris, who exited the game two minutes in after getting injured during a loose-ball scramble (possible concussion, though no word yet). 

Once thought to be the SEC's best hope for an at-large bid beyond Florida, Kentucky and Missouri, LSU lost at home to Rhode Island on Saturday. There's a lot of season left to be played, but a home loss to a team that was previously 0-6 against the RPI Top 175 can't possibly bode well for Selection Sunday.

Last but not least, UCLA shot 57.7 percent from the floor in its Pac-12 opener against USC, stomping the Trojans by 34 points. Point-forward Kyle Anderson had 23 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and just one turnover in the rout.


All stats and data courtesy of ESPN's scores and schedules unless otherwise noted.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


    The 5 Most NBA-Ready Prospects

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    The 5 Most NBA-Ready Prospects

    Jonathan Wasserman
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: Izzo Not Interested in Magic Job

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    Report: Izzo Not Interested in Magic Job

    Mike Chiari
    via Bleacher Report

    How Butler Hired Brad Stevens

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    How Butler Hired Brad Stevens

    via Yahoo

    Judge: UofL Deliberately Hid Scandal Records

    College Basketball logo
    College Basketball

    Judge: UofL Deliberately Hid Scandal Records

    Joseph Zucker
    via Bleacher Report