With conference play underway, the spotlight on this year's group of freshman will only get bigger. Everyone wants to fare well out of conference, but the first two months of the year are mainly about getting ready for the brutal grind of conference play. For the first time in their careers, freshman will be going to hostile environments against teams with just as much talent who have specifically game-planned against them.
There are no secrets in conference play. If a player has a hole in this game, all it takes is one coaching staff to notice. Once that film is out there, people start picking up on it quickly. These are the kind of games where you want to see a big-time prospect shine. Playing before an empty arena on a neutral floor in November is nothing like playing for a conference championship on the home floor of your archrival in early March.
Just as important as the why is the who. You don't want to watch Jabari Parker play against small guards being pressed into duty as small forwards. If Jabari scores 50 on a guy like that, it doesn't matter, because that's not the type of defensive player he is going to be matched up with at the next level. You want to watch these guys in games that resemble the NBA environment as much as possible.
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Jan. 13: at Iowa State
Iowa State loves to play five guys spread around the three-point line. The Cyclones push the pace, move the ball and try to hoist as many open 3s as they possibly can. The flip side of playing that many shooters is they don't protect the rim very much. If this game starts going up-and-down, there's no one stopping Wiggins from making direct-line runs at the rim. Ben McLemore had 33 points on 10-12 shooting in a game against Iowa State last year.
Jan. 18: vs. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys start four perimeter players with NBA size and athleticism. Markel Brown (6'3, 190 pounds), fellow top prospect Marcus Smart (6'4, 220), Brian Williams (6'5, 210) and LeBryan Nash (6'7, 235) are older players who all want to prove themselves against the hyped freshman. OSU is a very aggressive team that won't let you run offense unimpeded. They are going to get into you on defense and make you be strong with the ball. This is a great test for Wiggins' sometimes-shaky ball-handling ability.
March 1: at Oklahoma State
This is a pretty down year for wing players in the Big 12. There might be some guys who are a few years away, but in terms of NBA-ready perimeter players who don't play for Kansas, you are probably looking at DeAndre Kane at Iowa State and the OSU boys. A second go-round with the Cowboys should be interesting, as there's a good chance the Big 12 championship is on the line. Kansas has won nine Big 12 titles in a row, which tells you the kind of operation Bill Self is running in Lawrence.
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Jan. 18: vs. Tennessee
Jarnell Stokes (6'8, 260 pounds) and Jeronne Maymon (6'8, 260) are a WWF tag-team duo masquerading as a frontcourt. They are going to hit you with the chair, take you out with a ladder and knock you upside the head with a 2-x-4. They don't play the skill and finesse game; if they are going to score, it will be by taking the ball right through Randle's chest. It's like Cuonzo Martin is trying to recreate the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs. He's even got Antonio Davis' son coming off the bench.
Feb. 1: at Missouri
When Kentucky comes to town, everyone knows about it. Those games sell out even at schools in the heart of football country. The only game between two of the top programs in the SEC this year is in Columbia, which could have huge implications on the conference race. This is a game where you can get a good look at Randle's defense, because Missouri has three athletic 6'5 guards (Jordan Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown) with the green light to hoist 3s and attack the rim.
March 8: at Florida
Time to lace up the shoes and shorten the rotations. Everyone on the floor either will or might play in the NBA. The Gators aren't afraid to run with anyone, as they also have elite athletes at every position. Up front, Patric Young (6'9, 260 pounds) looks like he has spent more time in the weight room than in the practice gym in his four seasons in Gainesville. Randle is not going to be able to manhandle Young. He will have to beat him with actual basketball moves.
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Jan. 18: vs. North Carolina State
This game isn't getting a lot of publicity, but it could put T.J. Warren on the map. He's a 6'8, 215-pound sophomore forward who averages 22.2 points a game on 50.5 percent shooting. Those numbers are not in any way deceptive; he really does score that easy. I don't think he can guard Jabari, but I don't think Jabari can guard him either, so I could see them both going for 30+ points. NC State has an improving, young team and they only play Duke once this season. They will be ready.
Jan. 25: vs. Florida State
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton has made a living beating up on Duke teams who don't want to play street-fight ball. He throws the five biggest and most athletic players on the floor and they play hard-nosed man-to-man defense for 35 seconds every possession. Therefore, this is a good chance to see how well Jabari plays through contact. If he gets 25+ points against the Seminoles, he will feel it in the morning. FSU's starting center is 7'3 and 240 pounds. His backup? 7'1 and 290 pounds with a 7'8 wingspan and not an ounce of fat. You read that correctly.
Feb. 12: at North Carolina
There should be no one a Duke player likes playing more than UNC. You know it's going to be a defense-optional, up and down affair and everyone in the country will be watching. Austin Rivers probably made himself $2-3 million dollars just by hitting a buzzer-beating three over Tyler Zeller in 2012. UNC plays like the Detroit Pistons, starting three big men who can't shoot, and I'm not sure it works. Jabari is going to be able to do whatever he wants in this game against the Tar Heels' frontline, and I'm guessing he's going to want to put up a lot of points.