College Basketball’s Underachievers
What’s wrong with these teams? And how to fix them…
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
There are plenty of teams around the country (some more obvious than others) that have drifted through the non-conference portion of their schedule failing to live up the hype they received in the fall. Even if some of those teams’ expectations were unfair or too lofty, once the conference season begins, coaches can no longer hide behind misleading records inflated by a soft schedule or a sub-par performance made excusable by a tough non-conference slate. League play is a brutal and honest test that will spit out a true regular season champion (post-season tournament winners are nearly as unpredictable as March Madness itself) 99.9% of the time.
It’s totally cool to fool around with different lineups, search for the perfect team identity, and build team chemistry on the fly in November and December. But by the beginning of January, if these measures don’t start yielding results, conference play, with its scrupulous scouting reports, will expose any and every weakness. So with many of these intra-league contests beginning this week, and with the New Year right around the corner, here is a list of the underachieving teams in need of some resolutions to save their seasons.
Michigan State: How could I start a list of the biggest non-conference underachievers without Michigan State? I went into great detail last week about why this could finally be the year Tom Izzo isn’t able to flip the switch and miraculously reach the Final Four, but at this point in the season, it doesn’t matter whether the Spartans are a top 5 team or not. The team just needs some wins, preferably over good competition. A home win over No. 13 Minnesota would be a good start. The Spartans follow that with trips to Northwestern and Penn State. With one home game and two road games in arguably the least intimidating venues in the conference (though Northwestern is much improved), starting league play with three wins should be an expectation.
Resolution: Push the Assist/Turnover ratio over 1 through the first couple of Big Ten games (it’s sitting at exactly 1 now). Letting Kalin Lucas and forward Draymond Green (who has the highest A:T on the team) make decisions with the ball and limiting the mercurial Durrell Summers to dunking and 3-point shooting should cut down on the Spartans’ unforced turnovers.
North Carolina: For the second consecutive season, the expectations were too high for the Tarheels. Many assumed preseason First Team All-American freshman Harrison Barnes would arrive on campus and, before resolving the world’s energy crisis and finding a cure for cancer, lead the North Carolina back to college basketball’s promise land. It turns out the guy is human, but as ridiculous as his hype was, Barnes has still been a bit of a disappointment. He has been solid, but far from the go-to dominant player people drooled over coming out of high school. His strength is more his versatility than anything else, but the Kobe Bryant/TMac comparisons have been put on the backburner for now. Aside from Barnes, Roy Williams still needs to get some reliable outside shooting and solve his point guard issue. Kendall Marshall has emerged as a potential replacement for the perpetually mediocre Larry Drew…it’s just a matter of having enough confidence to play the freshman over the veteran.
Resolution: Develop an aggressive, scorer’s mentality in Harrison Barnes. Once he realizes the Tarheels are better off with him being a constant threat on offense, North Carolina will be a much more dangerous team.
Gonzaga: Yes, I know Gonzaga has played the hardest non-conference schedule in the history of mankind. But it’s still Gonzaga, the program that sets the standard from which all other mid-majors (including Butler) seek inspiration. So when the Bulldogs struggle like they have, and when the West Coast Conference promises to be as competitive as it has been in a while this season, there is cause for alarm and some soul-searching in Spokane. Everyone knew Matt Bouldin was one of the most underrated and valuable players in the country last season, but no one could have predicted he was this valuable to Mark Few. Bouldin is gone, and though there are talented parts remaining like Steven Gray, Elias Harris, and Robert Sacre, Gonzaga has struggled to fill the winning, intangible qualities that Bouldin’s took with him. Two impressive wins in a row over Baylor and Xavier have lessened the sting of their five non-conference losses. The Zags still have 3 remaining non-conference contests before the WCC opener vs. Portland to either continue the momentum they’ve gained or lose it.
Resolution: To try to find some backcourt depth behind Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson. No other guard on the roster averages more than 13 minutes a game (Gray averages more than 30), so Mark Few should search his roster for a reliable guard (or two) that he can distribute a few minutes to and save the legs of his two ball-handlers. Marquise Carter has shown flashes of production this season.
UCLA: This team has been as hard to figure out as any this season. Quality losses to good teams (VCU), really questionable home losses (Montana), nearly huge road wins (Kansas), huge wins (BYU), and lethargic, uninspired wins ( ) fill their non-conference slate. After all of that inconsistency, UCLA began the wide open Pac-10 race with an impressive home win over last week’s Pac-10 riser Washington State (seems like every week a new team out west rises from obscurity to become a conference challenger). There’s no reason for this UCLA team, as flawed and unpredictable as it is, to challenge in this conference. Washington either hasn’t hit its stride or isn’t as formidable as everyone expected (the Huskies needed overtime to beat USC on Wednesday night), so every game in the Pac-10 is a winnable one. It’s completely possible that a team like UCLA, which has talent but is just lacking in confidence, gets hot at the perfect time and steals a Pac-10 regular season title. The only issue is Washington State, Arizona, Cal, and USC are all thinking the same thing.
Resolution: Teach defense at UCLA again. Not just any defense, but instead the type of borderline criminal defense that muscled Ben Howland’s Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours not too long ago. I understand the success of those teams may have been more due to personnel than Howland’s defensive prowess, but the suddenly embattled coach needs to try something different to get this UCLA team to play something similar to the suffocating defense UCLA was once known for.
Florida: The SEC Preseason favorites still could end up being the top team in the SEC by season’s end, but it won’t be because they have an entire starting five returning from last season. The whole, “Florida returns all five starters argument,” turns out only to work when those five players have experienced some semblance of success together in the past. The furthest that quintet has gone in the tournament was last year’s first round loss to BYU. So while undeniably talented, Florida hasn’t demonstrated that it can win consistently with this group of players…yet. Other SEC challengers Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt all have their own issues, so this is another league with a wide-open race.
Resolution: Find a group of five players that will play well together. Bill Donovan’s most talented lineup, which is probably Irving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, and Vernon Macklin, looks as good as any in the country on paper. But these players, in particular Walker, Boynton, and Parsons, play over each other because each is most dangerous with the ball in his hands. Though it’s a little late for experimentation, it’s worth a try to stick another role player, like Tyus, into the starting lineup.
There are plenty of other teams in need of a boost in conference play, so feel free to add your thoughts in comments section below. And have a safe and happy New Year everyone!