How NCAA Basketball's Biggest 2014 Underachievers Can Improve in 2015
There are about 350 college basketball teams in Division I, but in reality, most of those teams will never have a chance to win a national title. It's the same 40 or 50 teams each year that are in the running for a championship, as well as to make a deep run through the NCAA tournament.
A number of the traditionally strong programs had less-than-stellar seasons in 2013-14, though, performing so below expectations they either were eliminated early from the NCAA tourney or didn't even make it at all. While down years are expected at most programs, with these powers, such a lull has a much greater significance.
But fear not, fans of the fallen, we've got some solutions. On paper, at least, these suggestions seem to be the best way for last year's underachievers to make instant improvements and return to their normal place among college basketball's top teams.
Duke Blue Devils
2013-14 record: 26-9, 13-5 in ACC
Room for improvement: Defense, interior depth
Duke had one of the most dynamic scorers in the game last year in freshman Jabari Parker, along with plenty of other guys who could contribute offensively. Scoring points was never a problem for the Blue Devils, who finished 27th nationally by averaging more than 78 points per game.
It was defense that did in Duke, leading to another early exit from the NCAA tournament at the hands of an underdog that couldn't be slowed down and made to play outside its game. Mercer shot 55.6 percent in its 78-71 second-round upset, and for the year, the Devils' opponents made 45.6 percent of their shots, causing Duke to rank in the bottom third of Division I in field-goal defense.
Parker is gone, as is Rodney Hood, but the talented freshman class that Mike Krzyzewski brings in should both replace the lost production and shore up the issues getting back and controlling things inside.
That starts with No. 1 overall prospect Jahlil Okafor, a 7'0", 265-pound center who will give Duke its best inside presence in years—combined with fellow freshman Justise Winslow, a 6'6" forward whom ESPN.com's Paul Biancardi calls possibly the best defender (subscription required) in the class of 2014.
2013-14 record: 18-15, 8-10 in Big East
Room for improvement: Consistency
Georgetown posted wins over Creighton and Michigan State in the final six weeks of the 2013-14 season but also went 2-7 on the road in Big East play and lost to last-place DePaul in the first round of the conference tournament. It was like you didn't know, each game, which Hoyas team would come out to play.
Being able to play with the same intensity and focus is imperative for Georgetown to return to the NCAA tournament—and not get run off the court by a lower-seeded opponent—after being relegated to the NIT this past season. That will be the mindset John Thompson III will try to drill into the heads of his freshman class, which is likely to include a few instant starters in forward Isaac Copeland and guard L.J. Peak.
The consistency aspect can also be aided by having Georgetown stick to a starting lineup instead of constantly fluctuating it for reasons other than injury. The Hoyas had three guys start every game but then rotated between five for the other two spots. That was partly due to center Josh Smith getting suspended for much of last year because of academic issues.
2013-14 record: 17-15, 7-11 in Big Ten
Room for improvement: Holding on to the ball
A year after winning the Big Ten title and reaching the Sweet 16, Indiana slumped to ninth place and failed to make any postseason tournament.
Actually, the Hoosiers were denied entry to the NCAA and NIT tourneys but declined an offer to participate in the third-tier College Basketball Invitational because, as athletic director Fred Glass said, per Zach Osterman of The Indianapolis Star (h/t CBS Sports' Tony Moss), "We're Indiana. We don't play in the CBI."
It was probably for the best, because the Hoosiers likely would have thrown away that opportunity to get more minutes and game-situation practice like they threw away the ball throughout the 2013-14 season.
Indiana turned the ball over 15.1 times per game last year, which ranked 329th nationally. According to Jordan Littman of InsidetheHall.com, Indiana gave it away on 21.8 percent of its possessions, which contributed to many low-scoring games.
Yogi Ferrell, who led the team in scoring at 17.3 points per game, was also the worst offender. He averaged 2.6 turnovers per contests, leading to a meager 1.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that is not what you'd like to see from your primary ball-handler.
Marquette Golden Eagles
2013-14 record: 17-15, 9-9 in Big East
Room for improvement: Toughness
Marquette was picked to win the Big East last year but instead finished in sixth place. The Golden Eagles missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years and a season removed from being in the Elite Eight. Then, to make matters worse, their coach bolted for a less-regarded job at Virginia Tech and was replaced by first-time head coach Steve Wojciechowski.
The roster Wojciechowski has at his disposal for his first season isn't going to be a big one, with no player taller than 6'7" until 6'11" Indiana transfer Luke Fischer becomes eligible in December. That's going to lead to a lot of games where Marquette gets out-rebounded, unless the Eagles use physicality and other skills to nullify the size issue.
In 2013-14 Marquette never looked like the tougher team despite being worked hard by Buzz Williams in practice. Wojciechowski is taking a lighter approach during summer workouts, focusing on skill development instead of a boot-camp atmosphere, but the players will still need to show toughness to avoid another bad year.
2013-14 record: 17-15, 9-9 in ACC
Room for improvement: Teamwork
Mark Turgeon is entering his fourth year at Maryland, but in many ways, he's basically starting over. The Terrapins have moved from the ACC to the Big Ten, and the roster went through so much upheaval it's almost an entirely new team.
Six players transferred from the program, including second-leading scorer Seth Allen and top rebounder Charles Mitchell. Maryland brings in two transfers, only one of which (North Carolina A&T guard Richaud Pack) is eligible, as well as a five-player recruiting class that will need to contribute right away.
With so much fluidity, offseason workouts and preseason practice will be as much about getting to know each other as it will be installing plays and defensive formations.
Point guard Melo Trimble, a 4-star recruit from Virginia, will team with senior Dez Wells in the backcourt as Maryland tries to find a way to hold together as a team. If not, the first year in the Big Ten will be a lot like the last few in the ACC, and Turgeon may be looking for another job.
2013-14 record: 23-12, 9-9 in SEC
Room for improvement: Game management
Frank Haith was a noted recruiter and showed that off during his time in Missouri. But for most of his tenure, it seemed like the Tigers won on talent alone, and when solid coaching and handling of game situations were needed (particularly in the postseason), Haith disappeared.
Now Haith has jumped ship, heading for Tulsa and leaving a pretty good job in the hands of noted Division II standout coach Kim Anderson. A former Mizzou guard and assistant on some of the great Norm Stewart-coached teams, Anderson won 74.5 percent of his games at Central Missouri and is coming off a D-II national title, so his ability to coach is well-chronicled.
How he'll be able to bring in top recruits has been aided by putting together a strong staff, holding on to associate head coach Tim Fuller and adding assistant coach Rob Fulford, who for the past five years coached the likes of Andrew Wiggins and other top prospects at Huntington Prep.
The roster is on the thin side to start, with the top three scorers either graduated or fighting for NBA jobs, but maybe what Anderson needs more than anything at the outset is a young, coachable group to get Missouri back on track.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2013-14 record: 15-17, 6-12 in ACC
Room for improvement: Finishing strong
Notre Dame's 2013-14 season should really be broken down into two groups: before and after Jerian Grant. When the leading scorer was declared academically ineligible in late December, the Fighting Irish were already struggling but managed to go 8-4 in nonconference play.
After that they won the next two, including a great performance in their ACC opener against Duke, but then followed 13 losses in 18 games and the first losing record in Mike Brey's 14-year tenure.
Grant is back, having been reinstated by the school in late May, and his scoring punch will be much needed on a team that graduated key contributors Eric Atkins and Garrick Sherman and isn't replacing them with any noted transfers or recruits. Twelve of Notre Dame's 15 losses were by seven points or less, including by two at North Carolina and six at Syracuse when the Orange were unbeaten.
The Irish lacked that guy who could close out games and grab the wins, something Grant could provide after averaging 19 points, 6.2 assists and 51.8 percent shooting before his suspension.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels
2013-14 record: 20-13, 10-8 in Mountain West
Room for improvement: Free-throw shooting
There's no sense in coach Dave Rice dwelling on what went wrong last season, not because there's too much to dwell on (because there was), but because the team he'll put on the court in 2014-15 will be almost entirely new.
Jelan Kendrick, a senior-to-be who averaged 6.3 points and 20.8 minutes per game, is the Runnin' Rebels' top returning scorer. The five players above him all graduated, transferred or went pro early, and the roster brings in plenty of new blood in the form of three transfers and five incoming freshmen who include 5-star guard Rashad Vaughn.
For UNLV's sake, we hope Rice figures out a way to get this new group to shoot free throws a little better than the last lineup. The Rebels shot 65.4 percent from the foul line, which ranked 309th in Division I and contributed to eight home losses and plenty of games decided by seven points or less.
2013-14 record: 17-15, 9-9 in Pac-12
Room for improvement: Post play
For the second time in Lorenzo Romar's 12-year tenure, Washington has gone through back-to-back subpar seasons. The current run could be called a three-year skid, if you count the 2011-12 team that missed the NCAA tournament but reached the NIT semifinals.
The last time this happened, from 2006 to 2008, the Huskies rebounded with a Pac-12 regular-season title and three consecutive NCAA appearances. For that to happen again, Romar will need to do it with the players he has on board, as Washington's recruiting class featured just a pair of small forwards and ranked 10th in the conference.
Though Washington has to replace the scoring and athleticism of C.J. Wilcox, Nigel Williams-Goss appears capable of picking up that slack. Where the Huskies need help is on the inside, where it's been a few years since they've had the proper big men producing and defending in the paint. With Perris Blackwell graduating, that puts a lot of pressure on Shawn Kemp Jr. to finally play to his potential.
The Huskies only had a plus-1.5 rebounding margin and allowed teams to shoot 47.5 percent from the field. Both of those stats can be boosted by better inside play, but that will mean the 6'9", 250-pound Kemp will need to do much better than his 4.4 points and 1.8 rebounds from last season.
West Virginia Mountaineers
2013-14 record: 17-16, 9-9 in Big 12
Room for improvement: Supporting cast
With West Virginia losing its second- and third-leading scorers (Eron Harris and Terry Henderson) to the transfer craze, right now it's looking like Juwan Staten or bust for 2014-15. And while Staten is a capable player, possibly the best returning starter in the Big 12, having him do more than the 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game he did last year might be too much.
That's where the rest of the Mountaineers come in.
Crummy as the departures were to team depth, it's time for the next wave of players to step up—whether that's holdovers such as Nathan Adrian or Gary Browne or newcomers such as junior college transfer Jonathan Holton. Whoever it is, he'll need to contribute on his end so that teams who game-plan to thwart Staten don't succeed in shutting down the entire West Virginia attack.
Bob Huggins has been on a steady decline since leading his alma mater to the Final Four in 2010, though last year's team was slightly better than the sub-.500 squad of the season before. If he can field a team that has all five players contributing, he might get the Mountaineers back into the NCAA tournament.
Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.