Willie Cauley-Stein, pictured here going for a block, is one of the few holdovers from last year's disappointing Kentucky team who is expected to play a key role this year.
A year ago Kentucky started the season ranked No. 3, North Carolina State was No. 6 and Baylor was No. 19.
All three program were expected to play late into March.
Kentucky had the top recruiting class in the country, as usual. NC State returned all the important pieces from a Sweet 16 team, and Baylor star point guard Pierre Jackson was back following an Elite Eight run.
By the end of the year, Kentucky was losing to Robert Morris in the NIT, Baylor popped its NCAA bubble and finally played well in the tournament that no one cares about (the NIT) and NC State finished a mediocre season with a mediocre performance against Temple in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Sometimes expectations can lead to disappointment, and that was the case for all three programs.
So how do they fix things this season? Here’s what needs to change for each of the 2013 underachievers.
North Carolina State—Defend!
It would be easy to look at the results—24-11 season and first-round exit in the tourney—and say the lofty preseason ranking and the label of favorite to win the ACC was ridiculous.
But it wasn't ridiculous. The Wolfpack had that kind of talent. They often made offense look easy, and scoring the ball was not an issue. In six of the 11 losses, NC State put up at least 70 points.
The issue was defense and effort.
Defense was more a chore than a priority. And it showed. NC State ranked 113th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, and this was a team with the athletes and size to be good defensively.
The best thing coach Mark Gottfried could do this upcoming year is use last season as motivation. He needs to convince his players that they need to make a statement on the defensive end.
The one problem—or maybe it's a gift—is that the guys who created and didn't live up to those expectations are mostly gone. T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis are back as the only returners who were in the rotation.
"There are a ton of questions about our team," Gottfried told the News & Record in Greensboro earlier this summer. "It's kind of a blank slate. We're not real sure who can do what yet. It's going to be hard. But it'll be fun."
Warren is expected to be the star, and his main priority should be acting like he cares. That was not something that former NC State star C.J. Leslie delivered as far as his body language and effort.
One aspect of his game that Warren needs to make a priority is his devotion to rebounding. He was a lousy rebounder for his size—he averaged 4.2 boards in 27 minutes per game.
Gottfried has proven himself as a recruiter, and NC State still has talent. If Warren is a quality leader and the Wolfpack can change their identity, they could surprise some people instead of disappointing.
The solution to "fixing Kentucky" for John Calipari was to recruit as much talent as possible and make sure there weren't any holes in his roster.
"I think part of the lesson that we learned (last season), and I did as a head coach, is you can’t protect players. Competition is what brings out the best in all of us," Calipari said in a SEC conference call earlier this summer (via the The Courier-Journal out of Louisville).
"… And last year we had eight guys on scholarship. When we had an injury, we were playing seven scholarship players. I did it somewhat to protect some of the guys in the program, and you really can't do it that way. You've got to have the full complement."
Reading between the lines, this could be interpreted as Calipari didn't recruit over the guys he had slotted for certain roles. Where that hurt the Wildcats the most was at point guard, where transfer Ryan Harrow had sat out the previous season with the expectation he would be the starter in 2012-13.
It's not exactly fair to place all the blame on one player—there's plenty to go around from last season—but the absence of an NBA-quality point guard was the most significant difference between the 2012-13 roster and Calipari's previous five rosters.
That created some role confusion, because Calipari was forced to look to Archie Goodwin to play some point guard and try to create for his teammates, and that wasn't Goodwin’s game.
Kentucky's lack of athleticism on the perimeter—outside of Goodwin—also limited the defense. Calipari's ridiculous five-year run that preceded last season—which included 173 wins, three Final Fours and a national title—was the result of dominant defenses.
Should Kentucky be preseason No. 1?
Last year's team did a good job forcing low percentages inside the arc—opponents made 42 percent of their twos—but Kentucky rarely forced any turnovers and would often get torched by perimeter scorers. (See Texas A&M’s Elston Turner going off for 40 points at Rupp.)
The Harrison twins and James Young could be the solution to those problems on the perimeter. Calipari's task will be to get those guys to buy into playing defense, and that has never been a problem for Calipari when he has talent.
"Now there's competition. Now you really see guys blossom," Calipari said in the mid-summer conference call. "It's been a short period of time right now, but what you see is they're on a mission like some of my best teams have been on."
Baylor—Diversify the D
Baylor’s dominant run through the NIT showed the true potential of that team. The Bears had talent and on certain nights they could be really, really good. A dismantling of Kansas late in the year also proved as much.
The reason Baylor was in the NIT rather than the NCAA tournament was a 4-9 stretch at the end of the year.
The main issue in those nine losses was defense.
In those nine games, Baylor allowed 1.14 points per possession. That kind of defense over the entire course of the season would have ranked 342nd in terms of defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. So for nine games, Baylor's defense was roughly the equivalent of Longwood.
Defense has always been a reoccurring bugaboo for the Bears when they've struggled. Scott Drew's best teams have had a leader on that end that made everyone else better. On the 2010 Elite Eight team, that was Ekpe Udoh. On the 2012 Elite Eight team, it was Quincy Acy.
Drew's best defensive teams have also been able to mix defenses. The Bears had to resort to playing mostly man-to-man last year because they lacked the size on the wing to play a 2-3. Think of Syracuse's zone and how Jim Boeheim usually has length on the perimeter. Baylor started 5'10" Pierre Jackson, 6'1" A.J. Walton and 6'2" Brady Heslip. (Those height listings for Walton and Heslip are generous.)
Drew gave himself more options next season by signing incoming freshman wings Allerik Freeman, 6’4”, and Ishmail Wainright, 6’5”.
The big concern for Baylor will be trying to replace 19.8 points and 7.1 assists from Pierre Jackson. Of course, Jackson put up those great numbers on a team that went to the NIT. Yes, he will be missed, but offense has rarely been an issue for Baylor under Drew.
The Bears need to defend to be good, and next year's roster gives them a better chance to be more consistent on that end.