King's Court: What to Do If Your College Basketball Team Is in a Free Fall

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King's Court: What to Do If Your College Basketball Team Is in a Free Fall
USA Today

Less than two weeks ago, Wisconsin was No. 3 in the Associated Press poll after opening the season with a school-record 16 straight wins.

The Badgers were tabbed as the favorite to win the Big Ten title. A Final Four berth—the school’s first since 2000—seemed like a legitimate possibility, and college basketball analysts opined that this may be Bo Ryan’s best team ever.

Then suddenly—after a lousy three hours in Bloomington on Jan. 14—it ended.

Wisconsin lost to unranked Indiana, 75-72.

Four days later, it fell on its home court to Michigan, 77-70.

The hype, at least for the moment, was gone.

“This game,” senior guard Ben Brust said, “can be very humbling.”

The Badgers aren’t suffering alone. Across the college basketball landscape, an alarming number of teams that were ranked in the Top 10 just a few weeks ago are mired in free falls that have baffled coaches, frustrated players and angered fanbases that become louder with each loss.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

*Once ranked as high as third in the AP poll, Ohio State has dropped four straight games—including a road setback Monday at Nebraska—after opening the season 15-0.

*Iowa State was 14-0 before losing three straight. The Cyclones were down by as many 14 points in Saturday’s loss to unranked Texas.

*Sunday’s defeat against rival Oregon State marked the fourth straight loss for an Oregon squad that once was 13-0 and ranked 10th.

*Baylor climbed to No. 7 in the polls and responded by losing four of its last five games.

*North Carolina—which boasts nonconference wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky—has also dropped four of its last five contests.

“We’ve dug ourselves into a hole,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “There’s no quick fix. There’s no magic wand. (Ending the streak) isn’t easy. It’s not just going to happen. We’ve got to make it happen.”

But how?

There are all sorts of philosophies about the best ways to reverse bad mojo. Oftentimes, if he senses tension is beginning to mount, a coach will give his team a day off to refresh his players and relieve stress.

Last season, after losing consecutive games in mid-February, Kentucky coach John Calipari and his assistants canceled practice and instead took part in a game of dodgeball with the Wildcats.

“See how much fun we just had?” Calipari asked his team afterward. “Why can’t we have that much fun on the court?”

Kentucky responded with three straight wins.

Another strategy is for a team’s captain to call a “players-only” meeting. With no coaches in the room, players sometimes feel more at ease airing out their grievances with one another and working toward solutions. Maybe a ball hog needs to be called out face to face. Perhaps someone’s poor attitude about not getting enough minutes is dragging down the entire team.

After losing two of three games in 2008, Kansas forward Darnell Jackson summoned his teammates to a local sports bar for a players-only meeting. Nearly six years later, the Jayhawks say the pow-wow was one of the reasons they won their final 13 games en route to an NCAA title.

Iowa State held a players-only meeting Monday in the wake of their loss to Texas.

“We just got a lot of stuff off our chest that we felt we needed to talk about,” Cyclones forward Georges Niang said.

Still, even though they may resort to unorthodox tactics at times, most of the coaches of the struggling teams said the best way to cure their ills is through good old-fashioned hard work.

Oregon, for example, has allowed an average of 89.5 points in its four losses. No way to candy-coat that, Altman said.

“We’re going to have to change some things and do a lot better,” Altman offered. “We just haven’t gotten stops when we needed them, haven’t gotten rebounds when we needed them. It’s been our Achilles' heel.

“We have deficiencies that I’ve been harping on since the start of the season. We didn’t do a good job of addressing them. That’s as much my fault as it is the team’s.”

Frustrating as Iowa State’s losing streak has been for Fred Hoiberg, the Cyclones coach said he has no plans to come down hard on his players. He said he’s addressing his team’s shortcomings—mainly a lack of patience on offense that’s led to poor shot selection—while still making sure to keep a positive tone overall.

Matthew Holst/Getty Images

“This group isn’t going to panic,” Hoiberg said. “This is a resilient group. We’ll be fine. We’re going to continue to get better. We’ve got good leaders. They’re going to come in and put it behind them.”

Baylor players were trying to maintain that same upbeat vibe following Monday’s 10-point loss at Kansas. The Bears know that a negative attitude will only cause things to snowball in the Big 12, the top RPI league in the country. Six of the conference’s teams are ranked, and a seventh (Texas) is receiving votes.

“We’re still a very confident team,” forward Rico Gathers said as he left Allen Fieldhouse. “We know we’re capable of beating anyone. All we need is that one ‘W’ to get us going.”

Ryan is taking the same approach at Wisconsin, where he has no intention of changing the Badgers’ day-to-day routine. This mirrors what happened in January 2009, when his team lost six straight Big Ten games. Four of the setbacks were by five points or less and two were in overtime.

“I approach everything the same way: never too high, never too low,” Ryan said. “I’ve been fortunate and spoiled because I’ve had guys that can’t wait until the next (game)...‘OK, here we go.’

“So I don’t look for things to get on somebody about other than ‘this is what we’ve got to get done.’”

Ryan is hoping the tactic works better than it has for his other colleagues whose squads have fallen out of the Top 10. He’ll find out soon enough. The Badgers’ next two games (against Minnesota and Purdue) are on the road.

“It’s like getting turned down for a dance by a girl,” Ryan said. “It’s disappointing, but you have to keep dancing.”

 

This Week's Grades

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

A: The Big 12 race (for second place)—With at least a two-game lead over every team in the conference, Kansas is the heavy favorite to win a 10th straight league crown. The Jayhawks' last four victories have come against Top 25 teams, making them the first squad to accomplish that feat since North Carolina in 1997. While KU is seated comfortably atop the standings, the identity of the Big 12’s second-best team is in question. Oklahoma State, Baylor and Iowa State have spent time in the Top 10. All three are ranked along with Oklahoma and Kansas State, and Texas is receiving votes. Asked if the Big 12 was the nation’s top conference, Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford said, “I don’t know that it’s even a debate.”

B: Virginia—It may be time to put the Cavaliers back in the Top 25 poll. Tony Bennett’s squad is 5-1 in the ACC. The wins have come by an average of 18.5 points, and each has been by double digits. Even more impressive is that the Cavaliers’ hot streak comes less than a month after an 87-52 annihilation at the hands of Tennessee on Dec. 30. Give Bennett credit for rallying his team in time for conference play. Virginia, which is 15-4 overall, hosts Virginia Tech on Saturday.

C-plus: Chris Collins—After going just 7-6 against an extremely tough schedule in nonconference play, the former Duke assistant is getting things rolling in his first season at Northwestern. The Wildcats have won three of their last four conference games, which is no small feat in the Big Ten. Included in that stretch was a road win against an Indiana squad that was fresh off a victory over then-No. 3 Wisconsin.

D: Andrew Wiggins—Just when it appeared the light had turned on, the nation’s most-hyped freshman regressed in Kansas’ past two games. Wiggins scored just three points in Saturday’s victory over Oklahoma State. He had 17 points Monday against Baylor, but 10 of those came from the foul stripe. Wiggins, who is averaging just six field-goal attempts in the two wins, was rarely in attack mode. “He leaves me wanting more,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. When I met Wiggins’ father, Mitchell, in Lawrence on Monday, he jokingly suggested that I jinxed his son with the extensive feature I wrote on him last week. “You’re the reason he had that bad game against Oklahoma State,” he said, laughing. So yeah, blame me. 

F: Saturday’s games—Michigan at Michigan State and Kansas State at Iowa State (both on Saturday) are the only games this weekend between Top 25 teams. The following weekend will be much better, with Duke at Syracuse headlining what should be an entertaining day of basketball on Feb. 1. Also on the docket that day: Arizona at Cal, Kansas at Texas, Ohio State at Wisconsin, Baylor at Oklahoma State, Kentucky at Missouri, Memphis at SMU and Oklahoma at Iowa State.

 

Starting Five: Players on Top 25 Teams Who Aren’t Getting Enough Hype

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa—After not making the NCAA tournament since 2007, the Hawkeyes will contend for the Big Ten title thanks to Devyn Marble, a senior who averages 16.3 points and 3.3 assists.

Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh—At 17-2, the Panthers are one of college basketball’s biggest surprises. None of it would be possible without Patterson, who is averaging 17.4 points while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 44.3 percent from three-point range.

Ryan Spangler, Oklahoma—The Gonzaga transfer is averaging 13.3 points and 12.7 boards in his last three games for the Sooners, who own Big 12 road wins against Texas and Baylor. Spangler had 21 points and 14 rebounds in a loss to Kansas State and 16 and 15 in a win against Iowa State. 

Xavier Thames and Josh Davis, San Diego State—I couldn’t choose just one, so I decided to throw in both names from this inside-out duo. Thames, a point guard who began his career at Washington State, averages 17 points and shoots 46.7 percent from beyond the arc. Davis ranks third in the country in rebounds with 11.5 per game.

Scottie Wilbekin, Florida—A senior, Wilbekin appears to have put his off-court troubles behind him and is blossoming for the Gators. The point guard is averaging career highs in points (12.7) and steals (1.8). He’s regarded as one of the top perimeter defenders in the country.

 

A Dozen Words on My Top 12 Teams

  1. Arizona—Junior guard Nick Johnson is making a push for All-American honors.
  2. Syracuse—Losing forward DaJuan Coleman (knee injury) will hurt the Orange’s inside game.
  3. Michigan State—It could be the best team Tom Izzo’s had in a decade.
  4. Kansas—Point guard Naadir Tharpe has been an unlikely hero for the Jayhawks.
  5. Wichita State—The Shockers are preparing for everyone’s best shot, especially on the road.
  6. Florida—If healthy, the Gators won’t lose more than twice in SEC play.
  7. Iowa—Two of the Hawkeyes’ next three games are against Top 25 teams.
  8. Kentucky—The Harrison twins look more at ease, so the Wildcats do, too.
  9. San Diego State—Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are a legitimate threat to make the Final Four.
  10. Louisville—Thumping Connecticut in Storrs was a huge confidence boost for the Cardinals.
  11. Oklahoma State—Cowboys can’t wait for another crack at Kansas, this time in Stillwater.
  12. Duke—It appears the Blue Devils are back, at least for right now.

 

Thoughts From Press Row

Poythress on Fire

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

One of the more encouraging things for Kentucky in recent weeks has been the play of forward Alex Poythress, who hardly seems sour about having to come off the bench. Poythress scored a season-high 16 points in Tuesday’s victory over Texas A&M and has now reached double figures in three of his last six games.

Poythress had 12 points in last week’s loss at Arkansas, when he elevated for a huge offensive rebound in traffic that led to James Young’s game-tying three-pointer with 10 seconds left in overtime.

“I’m proud of Alex,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters after Tuesday’s game.“What he does in practice...now you’re starting to see it. Mentally, Alex thinks he’s going to kill you, so he will. Last year that’s not how Alex was thinking, so he wasn’t in the shape to do it.”

Another interesting note Tuesday was Calipari’s decision to play freshman center Dakari Johnson 24 minutes while starter Willie Cauley-Stein logged only nine. Cauley-Stein has combined for just three points in his last three games.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with Willie, but he’ll be fine,” Calipari said. “At the end of the game I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to get going here, kid.'”

 

Faces in the Crowd

Kansas coach Bill Self has said repeatedly that he’s not interested in scheduling a game against Wichita State, but a small group of Shockers will still be able to say they’ve experienced the game-day vibe at Allen Fieldhouse.

Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and Chadrack Lufile joined teammate Nick Wiggins in the stands for Monday’s Kansas-Baylor game. Nick’s brother, Andrew, is the Jayhawks’ leading scorer.

After the game I asked Baker, a sophomore, if he’d like to take on the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse.

“We’d love to,” he said, “but we know it’ll probably never happen.”

Self has said Kansas “doesn’t have anything to gain” by playing the Shockers, who reached the Final Four last season. While Self’s stance has been upsetting to Wichita State fans, the players don’t seem to hold any ill will. I asked Baker what stood out the most about his visit to Lawrence.

“Watching Bill Self coach,” he told me. “He does a great job, just like the coach I play for.”

Baker was referring to Gregg Marshall, whose squad is 19-0 and ranked fifth in America.

 

Wounded Bird

Every team in the Pac-12 has at least two losses except for Arizona and Cal, who meet on Feb. 1. By then, Golden Bears coach Mike Montgomery is hoping standout freshman Jabari Bird has fully recovered from an ankle injury that sidelined him for four games.

Bird, a 6’6” guard, was averaging 11.3 points before the injury. He returned to the court a week ago but has combined for just six points while playing sparingly in two games.

“That time really set him back,” Montgomery said on this week’s Pac-12 coaches conference call. “It’s tough on these freshmen kids. We’ve got four veterans out there who know what they’re doing.”

 

Felix the Great

A three-pointer at the buzzer by Texas forward Jonathan Holmes lifted Texas to a 67-64 victory Tuesday over No. 24 Kansas State in Austin. But it was the play of point guard Javan Felix, who scored 23 points, that keyed the Longhorns’ victory.

Felix started 23 games as a freshman last season—he averaged 5.5 assists during that span—while starter Myck Kabongo served an NCAA-mandated suspension. He said the experience has made him feel like a veteran despite being just a sophomore.

“I understand the game a lot better than I did a year ago,” Felix told me by phone after Tuesday’s win. “But there are still a lot of things I can get better at. It’s that way with our whole team. There’s a positive vibe, but we know we can play a lot better.

“We don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet.”

Maybe not, but the Longhorns have won four straight and are now 15-4 overall and 4-2 in the Big 12. That’s surpassed the expectations most people had for a team that lost its top four scorers from last season, when Texas finished 16-18 and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years.

“The upperclassmen changed up the offseason,” Felix said. “We went harder than we thought we possibly could. We worked hard every day. We didn’t want to go through the same things we went through last year.”

 

Rapid Fire

Dave Weaver-USA TODAY Sports

Heating up: Ethan Wragge, Creighton

Cooling down: Georges Niang, Iowa State

Getting better: Oregon State

Can’t figure out: Missouri

Uh-oh: Illinois

Get well soon: Adreian Payne, Michigan State

Doing a great job: John Beilein, Michigan

Coach with a big win: Tim Miles (Nebraska) over Ohio State

Another coach with a big win: Tubby Smith (Texas Tech) over Baylor

Struggling: Pat Chambers, Penn State

Next big thing: Saul Phillips, North Dakota State

Hire him at St. John’s: Orlando Antigua, Kentucky assistant

 

Pit Stops

Peppino's Downtown Grille and Pizzeria, East Lansing—Shortly before boarding my flight to Michigan, I received a text from a friend in East Lansing.

"Don't come!" it read.

Seventeen inches of snow had fallen on Michigan State's campus the night before and temperatures were expected to fall to minus-13 degrees later that afternoon. Still, I wasn't going to be deterred. I flew to Detroit, drove 90 miles at 25 mph to East Lansing and arrived safely at Michigan State. The trip couldn't have been more fulfilling. Not because I watched Michigan State top Ohio State in overtime.

But because I discovered Peppino's.

Located about 100 yards from the Marriott near campus, Peppino's couldn't have been any more impressive. Big-screen TVs lined the walls, and the bar was stocked with any type of adult beverage you can imagine. But lots of places can make that claim. Only at Peppino's, though, can you get "The Italian Thriller."

Stacked high with pepperoni, ham, salami, sausage and mozzarella cheese, the Thriller immediately catapulted into my Top 10 Sandwiches of All Time list. Drizzled with creamy Italian dressing and served on a toasted sub bun, the hot sandwich was a steal at $7.99, especially considering it came with house-made potato chips.

A friend ordered a baked pasta that looked tremendous. He confirmed as much and couldn't even finish the generous serving. Pizzas, burgers and wings were also on the menu along with burritos, quesadillas and various chicken dishes.

I'll definitely return to Peppino's, although I may wait until it's a bit warmer outside. As in, above 0 degrees.

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. 

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