Even the most impressive starts to an NCAA basketball team’s season can turn out to be hiding serious flaws. Many of the highest-ranked and most talked about teams in the country this year have revealed potential Achilles' heels during the first month-plus of on-court action.
Ninth-ranked Kansas is very much in contention for a second straight Final Four appearance, but the Jayhawks’ offense could be their undoing. Although four Kansas starters are scoring in double figures, Bill Self’s team is downright awful when it comes to three-point shooting.
Read on for more on KU’s long-range struggles and the rest of the most worrisome trouble spots for top teams (and some who have fallen from the top) on the young season.
An impressive 9-0 start has lifted Illinois to No. 13 in the national rankings. Backcourt standouts Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson have been the heroes early, ranking 1-2 on the roster with a combined 30.1 points per game.
Unfortunately for the Illini, that same duo also holds the top two rebounding spots on the team’s stat sheet. With 6’9” Tyler Griffey spending most of his time on the perimeter, Illinois’ interior game has been pretty much nonexistent.
The best actual post player on the roster has been 6’11” sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who’s contributing just 6.0 points and 4.2 rebounds a night as the starting center.
With both Egwu and transfer Sam McLaurin scuffling, Illinois will be hard-pressed to keep up with the physical frontcourts it’s going to face in Big Ten play.
No. 25 N.C. State has one of the country’s deepest offenses, with every player in its six-man core scoring at least 9.6 points per game.
That stat becomes even more impressive given the fact that so few of them can actually hit what should be the easiest shot in the game.
Four of the six leading scorers for the Wolfpack are shooting under 60 percent from the free-throw line. Freshman star T.J. Warren takes the booby prize at an appalling .429.
If it weren’t for Scott Wood’s sensational .923 shooting, the team’s ugly .617 figure would be even more painful. Bad free-throw shooting is the easiest way to lose a close game and N.C. State looks to be headed for lots of those losses in 2012-13.
Michigan State starts a three-guard lineup with Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Branden Dawson on the outside. That trio has provided more than half of the 69.3 points that the No. 19 Spartans are scoring on a nightly basis.
The loss of Draymond Green left an obvious hole in the middle for Tom Izzo’s team and none of the available big men have stepped in to fill it when it comes to point production.
Adreian Payne’s scoring is up less than one point per game from last year’s pace, while newly minted starter Derrick Nix is actually scoring less than he did as Green’s backup.
Both Payne and Nix have rebounded and defended well but that’s not always enough.
There will be nights when the outside shots aren’t falling and without a low-post scorer to turn to, the Spartans will see many of those games turn into losses—as they did in the season opener against UConn.
Fourteenth-ranked Minnesota has gotten a huge boost from the performance of unheralded sophomore Andre Hollins, now the team’s leader with 13.7 points per game.
However, Hollins’ rise has obscured the fact that the senior star expected to be carrying this team has not looked like himself in 2012-13.
Trevor Mbakwe has recovered from his ACL tear enough to be on the court, but hardly enough to look like the player who led the Big Ten in rebounding two years ago.
He’s the Gophers’ top board man again this year, but with just 6.7 rebounds a night instead of the 10.5 he posted at his peak. Worse yet, he's scoring a mere 8.4 points per contest.
Mbakwe has just one double-double this year, a 19-point, 12-rebound showcase against Stanford. Until that kind of performance becomes a regular occurrence for him, the Gophers will struggle to compete against the nation’s elite teams.
This year’s Kansas squad is obviously built to win with defense, led by shot-blocking Jeff Withey inside.
The KU offense, for its part, has mostly been a pleasant surprise on the season, with redshirt freshman Ben McLemore (14.9 points per game) leading an ensemble cast of scorers.
However, all that offense has been coming from mid-range and in, because No. 9 Kansas has been absolutely dreadful at shooting the three-pointer.
As a team, KU is shooting just .299 from deep.
The closest thing to a bright spot is point guard Elijah Johnson, but even his team-high 12 treys have come at an unremarkable .364 clip.
When Kansas faces a defense that can pack the paint (as bruising Michigan State could), it’s going to find itself scrambling for every point in the absence of a viable long-range weapon.
Third-ranked Michigan’s 8-0 start has provided plenty of evidence that its offense—led by Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.—will be as good as advertised. On the other end of the floor, though, the Wolverines have looked decidedly ordinary.
Despite having played half its games against the likes of IUPUI and Western Michigan, the UM defense is ranked a lukewarm 154th in the country in field-goal defense.
The Wolverines aren’t faring any better on an individual basis. Trey Burke leads the team with a disappointing 1.1 steals a night and Michigan doesn’t have a single player blocking more than 0.6 shots per contest.
Of the many issues that have dropped UCLA from a Final Four contender to an unranked also-ran, none is more worrisome in the long term than the performance of freshman forward Kyle Anderson.
Anderson’s college debut hasn’t even approached the level of the No. 3 ranking he got on Rivals.com’s recruiting charts.
The 6’9” swingman has been reduced to a designated rebounder, leading the Bruins with 8.1 boards a night. Offensively, though, he’s seen his much-vaunted passing skills eclipsed by transfer Larry Drew II.
Most damning of all, he’s been a complete bust as a scorer, averaging 6.6 points per game on atrocious .328 shooting from the field.
If he doesn’t start contributing to the sputtering Bruin attack, UCLA will be hard-pressed to contend in a much-improved Pac-12.
The primary reason behind Kentucky's slow start has been its lack of an effective floor leader to keep the offense flowing. Freshman Archie Goodwin leads the team in assists (4.5 per game), but he’s a shooting guard who happens to pass well.
The real point guards on the roster are transfers Julius Mays (formerly of Wright State and N.C. State) and Ryan Harrow (ex-N.C. State), and neither has played well.
Harrow, of course, has hardly played at all because of health issues, but he still needs to prove he’s ready for big-time competition.
When Kentucky has faced defenses that can exploit its lack of a distributor, the offense has faltered every time. In their three losses combined, the Wildcats’ assist-to-turnover ratio is a humiliating 0.9.
Until Harrow or Mays gets this offense into shape, Kentucky will be a very good team that isn’t ready to handle Top 25-caliber competition.
Judge Indiana star Cody Zeller purely on his performance on the court through eight games, and he’s having a brilliant year.
The sophomore center is averaging 15 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks a night as the leader of the nation’s No. 1 team.
The worry, though, is that none of those numbers is a noticeable improvement over what Zeller did in his magnificent freshman campaign.
Rather than building on an already-outstanding skill set—as, say, Duke’s Mason Plumlee has done—Zeller appears satisfied hovering at “very good” instead of making the jump to “dominant.”
Indiana is so deep and talented that it may well win a national title even if Zeller fails to take that next step. Still, his lack of assertiveness so far is a bad sign for the Hoosiers’ championship prospects.
Duke star Mason Plumlee is playing better than anyone in college basketball right now, not least because of his ACC-leading 11 rebounds per game.
That’s why it is so odd that his Blue Devils team has been so unimpressive when it comes to hitting the boards.
In No. 2 Duke’s three signature victories over Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State, it’s been outrebounded by the Cardinals while tying the other two teams on the glass.
The Louisville result is especially worrisome because the Cardinals were without starting center Gorgui Dieng and his eight boards per game.
For the year, the Blue Devils are ranked a pedestrian 173rd in the country in rebounding—hardly the stuff of runaway national title contenders.