CBGB: Iowa Soars, Syracuse Stumbles, and LSU Finally Shows Up

Iowa's Big Ten ascendance, Syracuse's stunning home loss to Clemson, Kansas's veteran lineup, and America's most photogenic coach highlight our weekly college basketball roundup.
January 7, 2016, 5:25pm
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the VICE Sports College Basketball Grab Bag, where every week we'll round up the biggest news stories in the sport. Random stuff, too, because it's college basketball. Enjoy!

The Iowa Hawkeyes are soaring

At the end of the non-conference season, it looked like Iowa would be a step behind the elite teams in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes lost close games to Notre Dame and Dayton, and then managed to blow a 20-point lead at Iowa State, losing yet another close game.

Since the start of conference play, though, Iowa has been on fire. The Hawkeyes' roll started with a 13-point win over No. 1 Michigan State. That was impressive, but it came with a caveat: the Spartans were without star player Denzel Valentine, one of the top candidates for National Player of the Year. Iowa's next victory needed no asterisk, as the Hawkeyes came back from 19 points down win at No. 14 Purdue.

Following an easy win over Nebraska, Iowa is now 3-0 in Big Ten play, and there's reason to think they're no January fluke. The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 13 in KenPom, with a projected 13-5 Big Ten record. The only games in which they'll be clear underdogs are at Michigan State and at Maryland, but Iowa's shocking win at Purdue's Mackey Arena makes road victories seem possible.

Read More: Banned From March Madness, SMU Just Might End Up Being Perfect

How are the Hawkeyes winning? It's a simple formula: good role players whose individual skill sets complement each other, and a star player who's a walking mismatch. Iowa has a sharp-shooting wing in Peter Jok, a walk-on sensation in Nicholas Baer, a dependable point guard in Mike Gesell, and a solid center in Adam Woodbury. Beyond that quartet, Jarrod Uthoff is probably the best player you've never heard of, and one of the best players in the nation.

A lanky, 6-foot-9 senior forward, Uthoff is averaging 18.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, but those numbers don't capture his versatility. Instead, try this: Uthoff is averaging 3.3 blocks and shooting .455 from beyond the arc; as Black Heart Gold Pants points out, he's the only Division I player ever to average three blocks and two made threes per game. In fact, nobody else comes close.

Uthoff is currently No. 3 in KenPom's stats-based national player of the year rankings. If he maintains his level of production—and Iowa does the same—don't be surprised if the Hawkeyes end up near the top of the more traditional team rankings, too.

"The way I dunk on you will be unorthodox." Photo by Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas is winning with experience

After Kansas won what was arguably the best game in college basketball history this week, all the attention was on Oklahoma's Buddy Hield—and deservedly so, as Hield scored 46 points and vaulted himself to the top spot in the player of the year race.

However, the Jayhawks deserve to be a major story, too, because they have the talent and the experience to win the national title.

Many of Kansas's recent teams have been led by young players. Last year, the Jayhawks started two freshmen—including late NBA Draft lottery pick Kelly Oubre—two sophomores, and a junior. The year before, Kansas was led by one-and-done lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. But this year, in a sport dominated by youngsters, Kansas is relying on experienced players.

Senior forward Perry Ellis is ranked No. 9 in KenPom's player of the year standings, and he was dominant against Oklahoma, scoring 27 points. He also had help: junior wing Wayne Selden showed his versatility, junior Frank Mason did a great job defensively on Hield—put anyone else on the Oklahoma guard and he scores 60-plus—and sophomore point guard Devonte' Graham flashed great ability to get to the rim and distribute the ball.

The crazy thing is that this is virtually the same roster as last year's Kansas team, which disappointed fans with an early exit from the NCAA Tournament at the hands of in-state, mid-major rival Wichita State. Sometimes, older is just older. Other times, it's better.

Kansas is winning with veteran players like Perry Ellis. (Veteran player hairlines optional.) Photo by John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Oh hey, LSU! Nice of you to show up

LSU started the season with a shocking string of losses, going 7-5 while falling to Marquette, NC State, College of Charleston, Houston, and Wake Forest. Somehow, the Tigers stumbled despite the presence of star forward and sure-fire No. 1 NBA Draft pick Ben Simmons, who was pretty much the entirety of their offense in a number of games.

Through two SEC games, however, LSU has taken down arguably the top two teams in the conference, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

What happened? Well, Simmons finally received some help. He scored 36 points against Vanderbilt, but senior Keith Hornsby added 23. Simmons only scored 14 against Kentucky, but junior Tim Quarterman and sophomore Craig Victor replaced his production and then some, scoring 21 and 15 points, respectively.

If LSU can sustain this level of play—or something close to it—they could end up making the NCAA Tournament. On one hand, the Tigers have some bad losses and they're 126th in RPY; on the other, they now have a few quality wins, and if they play their way onto the bubble, does anyone think the selection committee won't have a teeny-tiny bias toward showcasing the country's best player during college basketball's marquee event?

Best week: LSU and Iowa

See above. Oh, and LSU didn't just beat Kentucky; the Tigers hammered the Wildcats. Points count!

Worst week: Syracuse

Syracuse's season started off well, with wins over UConn and Texas A&M en route to a championship at the Battle of Atlantis. However, the Orange followed that up with losses to Wisconsin, Georgetown, and St. John's. Now they've lost their first three games of ACC play to Pitt, Miami, and Clemson—the last one at home! Who ever saw Syracuse losing to Clemson at home in basketball?

Smiling through the pain inside. Photo by Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Random ranking

This week, we're ranking the five best games Kansas ever. Yes, there is recency bias. I'm not claiming to be a Jayhawks historian, so apologies for that one game I missed in the 1970s that was awesome.

1. 1966 NCAA Tournament, Texas Western 81, Kansas 80 (2OT): This game helped send Texas Western to a historic national title, after a Kansas shot got called off in overtime, sending the game to a second overtime, and the Miners won out. They became the first college basketball team to win the championship with a lineup entirely of black players.

2. 2008 National Championship, Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT): This game featured a ton of future NBA stars, with Mario Chalmers leading the way for the Jayhawks and Derrick Rose leading the Tigers. Chalmers hit a three-pointer with two seconds left to send the game to overtime, and Memphis notoriously struggled with free-throw shooting, which ultimately cost them the game.

3. 2003 National Championship, Syracuse 81, Kansas 78: This was Jim Boeheim's first National Championship, and the No. 3 seed Orange rode Carmelo Anthony to the title. The championship game was a close one, as Hakim Warrick blocked a last-second Kansas shot to seal Syracuse's victory.

4. 2010 NCAA Tournament, Northern Iowa 69, Kansas 67: This Kansas team was clearly the best in the country, but the Jayhawks ran into a very solid No. 9 seed in Northern Iowa. The Panthers won on the ballsiest (and dumbest) shot in NCAA Tournament history, and Kansas's loss despite being the clear tournament favorite was reminiscent of the heavily favored, Paul Pierce–led Jayhawks' shocking Sweet 16 loss to Arizona in 1997.

5. 2016, Kansas 109, Oklahoma 106 (3OT): This one is No. 5 because of the significance of the other games, but it's the best-played game of the group. The greatest regular season game in history? You bet.

VICE Sports Tom Crean Photo of the Week

TFW you're fired up about Indiana basketball, and also the baby xenomorph that's about to emerge from your chest. Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

As always, you're welcome, America.