College Basketball's 10 Biggest Disappointments Midway Through Conference Play
The non-conference schedule can be a big tease.
Most schools avoid road games at any cost and unrealistic expectations are placed on teams that have major flaws.
Conference play eventually exposes those flaws.
A year ago, for instance, Illinois started off 10-0 and climbed to No. 19 in the AP Top 25. Then the Illini went 6-12 in the Big Ten and Bruce Weber got canned—that 10-0 start probably not helping his cause.
Here are the 10 most disappointing teams midway through the conference season this year, many of which got off to a hot start and are now struggling.
All advanced statistics used in this piece come from KenPom.com.
The Buffs can blame their surprisingly average start on bad luck more than any other team on this list.
Colorado would have opened the Pac-12 season with a huge win on the road at Arizona had the officials correctly counted Sabatino Chen's buzzer-beater that he got off in time.
Instead, the refs waved the shot off after a review, and CU lost in overtime and went on to lose three of their next four games.
Wins over Baylor, Murray State and Colorado State in the non-conference and last season's run through the Pac-12 tournament suggested that CU is too good to go on that kind of funk.
A turnaround is starting to occur with the Buffs winning four straight and payback is around the corner with Arizona coming to Boulder on Feb. 14.
A win against Syracuse on Dec. 22 and then a strong showing at Kansas two weeks later had Temple in consideration as one of the Atlantic 10's top teams.
The Owls are off to a 2-3 start with one of the losses coming at home to St. Bonaventure, a team that is 9-10 overall and 2-4 in conference play.
Star guard Khalif Wyatt is doing his part, averaging 20 points per game in A-10 play, but the Owls are struggling to find offense elsewhere. They will need to figure things out quickly if they want to finish high enough in a tough A-10 to make the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year.
8. Boise State
The Broncos started the year 13-2, and one of those losses was by only four on the road at Michigan State.
The hope that Boise State was going to become more than a football school is suspect after a 2-3 start in the Mountain West, the latest of which was a 16-point loss at Nevada.
With four teams likely to make the tournament in a nine-team league, there's not a lot of hope that the Broncos will turn this around. This season could still be considered semi-successful after going 13-17 last year.
7. Virginia Tech
Erick Green, the nation's leading scorer, is putting together one of the most impressive seasons in the country. What's taking place around him isn't pretty.
The Hokies are a one-man show, but early on this year it looked like that might be enough for a solid season. They started 7-0 with wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State that helped them nearly squeeze into the AP Top 25—they were 27th in the Week 5 poll.
The Hokies began their stumble at that point, losing four of six heading into ACC play and it hasn't gotten any better since then with a 2-4 start in conference play.
Green has been outstanding, averaging 27 points per game and shooting 50.4 percent in ACC games. The rest of his teammates are shooting 38.7 percent.
The main issue is not the pressure on Green to perform on the offensive end. The Hokies are as bad as their record because they are the most accommodating defense in the ACC—possibly the entire country.
If you took the Hokies' numbers from ACC play alone, they would rank dead last in the nation in how often they force a turnover. No matter how much Green scores, it's not going to be enough with a defense that just keeps on giving.
6. Oklahoma State
When Big 12 play started, Oklahoma State was considered the only real challenger to Kansas. The Cowboys, led by stud freshman guard Marcus Smart, went 10-2 in the non-conference and won on the road at North Carolina State.
As my man John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus pointed out, Oklahoma State's 3-3 start is not as surprising as you would think when you consider their schedule. It's disappointing, obviously, but they have already had to play on the road against three of the Big 12's top teams—Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor. Plus, Travis Ford is 6-30 in his career in Big 12 road games, so this is nothing new.
After the Cowboys play at Kansas on this upcoming Saturday, they'll have played four of the Big 12's five best teams on the road and their schedule will ease up from there.
Life on the road has been tough mainly because of poor three-point shooting. In their three road losses, the Cowboys shot 22.9 percent from beyond the arc. For a team that relies heavily on its perimeter players, that's not going to turn into too many conference road wins.
Don't be surprised to see OSU eventually rise toward the top, however, as the team's defense has consistently been one of the best in the country.
5. South Florida
Watching South Florida a year ago was acupuncture to the eyes for anyone who enjoys seeing the ball go through the basket.
The Bulls made their mark on defense, holding Big East opponents to 0.95 points per possession.
This year they are still hard to watch offensively, but they're off to a 1-6 conference start because they no longer can slop it up on the other end. Big East opponents are scoring 1.08 points per possession.
South Florida is not a traditional powerhouse, but a team that returned its top five leading scorers and made the NCAA Tournament in 2012 should be better than this.
The Bulls were picked to finish eighth in the preseason and are currently in last place.
4. West Virginia
This was Bob Huggins at Big 12 media day (via WVUsports.com):
"Honestly, if we're the sixth-best team in the league then it's a hell of a league."
The Big 12 must be a hell of a league, because Huggins' squad is looking more like the seventh-best than the sixth-best, which is where the Mountaineers were picked in the preseason.
The low preseason ranking was mostly because Huggins would be relying a lot on three transfers. It likely had something to do with being the new kid on the block as well. Huggins, obviously, expected better, but the Mountaineers are not delivering.
It's easy to blame WVU's 2-4 start in the Big 12 on dreadful outside shooting, which is what held the team back early on this year. However, the Mountaineers are shooting a surprising 34.2 percent from deep in conference play, which ranks fourth in the Big 12.
It's hard to pin the Mountaineers' troubles on one thing. They just don't do anything that well other than hit the offensive glass. Usually Huggins can rely on great defense, but WVU's defense is middle-of-the-pack.
West Virginia is where it is on this list mainly because we've come to expect that a Huggins' team will eventually figure it out. He's had only one team since 1991 not reach the NCAA Tournament—his lone season at Kansas State—and only one time in his career has Huggins had a team with a losing record in conference play—Akron in 1985.
This team is sure to break those streaks.
Less than three weeks ago Minnesota was ranked No. 8 in the country and off to a 15-1 start.
It's been a cruddy three weeks.
The Gophers have dropped four straight and wiped out all the momentum from that great start.
Their last loss was particularly frustrating. Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson gave the Badgers the lead in the final seconds and Minnesota had a chance to tie when Trevor Mbakwe was fouled with 1.7 seconds left. Mbakwe hurt his wrist on the play and Wisconsin chose to send Minnesota's Rodney Williams to the line.
Williams made the first and missed the second, a microcosm of his recent struggles. The team's second-leading scorer has gone 3-of-19 from the field in the last two games.
Minnesota's defense, which had been one of the nation's best, is allowing Big Ten opponents to make 48.5 percent of their twos. Couple that with an offense that is turning the ball over at a higher rate than any other Big Ten team and that gets you four straight losses.
Maybe Louisville's Final Four run last season put the expectations too high.
When comparing last year's Big East run that saw the Cardinals go 10-8 to this year—they're off to a 4-3 start—you see improvements.
Last season, the Cardinals only outscored Big East opponents by 0.03 points per possession, and their record was about where it should have been. Through the Cardinal's first seven games they're outscoring Big East opponents by 0.13 points per possession, a margin that should lead to a much better record.
But bad luck has nothing to do with the Cardinals' three-game losing streak. They have real issues on offense, so much so that Rick Pitino is reaching. He brought leading scorer Russ Smith off the bench on Saturday against Georgetown, and Smith's shooting woes—somewhat self-induced—are part of the problem.
Or maybe this is what Louisville is, a team that will go through offensive droughts. The Cardinals are simply turning back the clock to last year's offense that was only the Big East's 13th-most efficient.
It's tough to make that argument when you see Louisville at its best. This is a team too talented to lose three straight games and thus, the Cardinals deserve to be labeled as a disappointment thus far.
The Illini jumped out to a 13-1 start and made it into the top 10 by shooting the bejesus out of the basketball from distance.
So naturally, that was the strategy Illinois took into Big Ten play.
Let's shoot a lot of threes and the wins will pile up.
That's not working out so hot. Sunday's loss to Michigan put Illinois at 2-6 in the Big Ten.
The Illini are shooting a dreadful 24.5 percent from beyond the arc in conference play, but yet they haven't let the bricks deter their efforts. They are still clipping off threes on more than 40 percent of their field goal attempts.
John Groce might want to consider throwing up a red light—or at least a yellow one.
The Big Ten is tough so it might be a bit harsh to put the Illini here, but they're playing so poorly that it's deserving. They lost by 14 at home to Northwestern, and they lost by 23 at Wisconsin in a game where there were only 59 possessions.
If Illinois can somehow turn things around enough to finish near .500 in conference play, wins against Butler and Gonzaga could get them in the tournament.
At this point, however, they are a team playing without logic and destined for the NIT.