10 College Basketball Teams That Need to Sound the Early-Season Alarm

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistNovember 30, 2016

10 College Basketball Teams That Need to Sound the Early-Season Alarm

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    It's foolhardy to draw too many conclusions from the first few weeks of the college basketball season. Teams are still developing their identity and putting the pieces together so they will be ready for conference play and beyond.

    However, in some cases, discouraging early-season results can raise questions inside and outside a program. That is when it's time to sound the alarm, because those teams are approaching crisis status.

    The alarm bell can sound on teams that don't seem to be living up to high expectations, or it can sound on teams that have developed a troubling trend. These teams need to get things turned around in a hurry—before conference play begins.

    We offer 10 teams that need to sound the alarm. Most are high-profile teams, but a few are teams you may know little about.

    (Statistics are valid through games played Nov. 29)

Connecticut

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Kevin Ollie was hailed as a savior when Connecticut won the 2014 national championship in his second year as a head coach. But the Huskies became only the eighth defending champion to fail to make the NCAA tournament field the next year, and they needed to win the American Athletic Conference tournament to assure themselves an NCAA berth last season after their sixth-place conference finish.

    This season was supposed to be different. UConn was picked to finish a close second in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, and the Huskies were ranked 18th in the preseason Associated Press poll. 

    But the Huskies have floundered. They are 2-4, including an embarrassing home loss to Wagner in the opener, a home loss to a Nebraska team that went 16-18 last season and a loss to an Oklahoma State squad that finished 3-15 in Big 12 play a season ago.

    The headline on Jeff Jacobs' story in the Hartford Courant following the loss to Wagner read: "Jeff Jacobs: It's Not That Wagner Was That Good, It's That UConn Was That Bad."

    UConn's only wins have been an 11-point victory over Division II Chaminade and a three-point victory over a Loyola Marymount team that went 6-12 in the West Coast Conference last season. And the win over Loyola Marymount was overshadowed by season-ending injuries suffered by Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert in that game. Gilbert sustained a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum, according to Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com, and Larrier, the team's leading scorer in the first three games, suffered a torn ACL, according to Dom Amore of the Courant.

    Jalen Adams has been outstanding lately, averaging 28.7 points over the past three games heading into the Nov. 30 game against Boston University, but Rodney Purvis is shooting just 37.9 percent from the field.

    Ollie is known for his positive approach, and he is trying not to panic. Ollie said after the Oklahoma State loss, according to the Courant:

    It's just an unfortunate thing, but it's part of a process. And I'm going to stay with this process and I'm going to stay with these young guys and we're going to be better. And these young guys are going to win a lot of games for us. And we're going to continue to believe in that locker room. … We've got to play better defense. We've got to rebound the basketball better. And we've got to get out to faster starts.

Michigan State

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    Tom Izzo's teams typically improve as the season progresses and peak at tournament time. However, he seldom has had a team depend so heavily on freshmen. A lack of depth and early-season injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter have hurt, too.

    Ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the Spartans are unranked this week. Their 4-4 record is not particularly disturbing considering the schedule they have played, but their performances in their eight games are reasons for concern.

    Michigan State was not expected to beat Kentucky, but it was not expected to lose by 21 points and score just 48. Losing to Baylor on a neutral court is not surprising but the 15-point margin was.

    Three of the Spartans' wins have come against weak teams, and their one-point win at home over Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 20 was no reason for optimism, especially after Florida Gulf Coast won the rebounding battle 41-29. The 77-72 win over Wichita State on Nov. 25 offered some hope, but the unranked Shockers are not as good as they have been in recent seasons.

    Freshman Miles Bridges has performed as expected, averaging 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds through eight games. Freshman Nick Ward has been impressive as well, averaging 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. However, the Spartans need more from their other two highly rated freshmen, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, both of whom are averaging less than five points.

    Senior Elon Harris has been outstanding against weak teams, averaging 19.3 points in the four wins, but played poorly against the top competition, averaging 4.0 points on 5-of-20 shooting in the losses to Arizona, Kentucky and Baylor. His 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting against Duke was encouraging.

    Before the Nov. 29 game against Duke, Izzo told MLive.com:

    When you look at it as you're going through it, it looks like you're climbing Mt. Everest. You just kind of figure out how many days to practice, how many days to rest. And then you start flipping coins. So are they tired? Or are they soft? Are they tired? Or are they not playing hard enough? Is it a reality or is it a joke?

    Maybe Izzo's team will improve significantly over the course of the season like it usually does. Maybe.

South Dakota State

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    South Dakota State is tucked away in Brookings, South Dakota, so you don't hear much about the Jackrabbits. But they shared the regular-season Summit League title each of the past two seasons, and they gave No. 5-seeded Maryland a scare in the NCAA tournament last season, trailing by just a point with 13 seconds left.

    They were picked to finish second in this year's Summit League preseason poll, and Jackrabbits sophomore Mike Daum was named the preseason conference player of the year.

    South Dakota State began last season 9-1, including a nine-point road win over TCU and a 14-point road victory over Minnesota. However, the Jackrabbits stand at just 2-6 this season, and that includes a 29-point loss to California, two double-digit losses to UC Irvine and a 12-point defeat against East Tennessee State.

    It might make Jackrabbits fans wonder about head coach T.J. Otzelberger, who was an Iowa State assistant last season and had never been a head coach before landing the South Dakota State job last April. He replaced Scott Nagy, who left to become the Wright State head coach after 21 years as the Jackrabbits' head coach.

    The Jackrabbits' chief problem is they can't shoot. They are making just 37.1 percent of their shots overall and 23.3 percent of their three-pointers.

    After a slow start, Daum is doing his part, averaging 20.8 points on 50.5 percent shooting overall, including 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. But the rest of the team is shooting just 33.2 percent.

    An 81-58 victory over Milwaukee on Nov. 27 was encouraging, and the Jackrabbits should build some confidence in their Nov. 30 home game against Minnesota-Crookston. But nonconference December road games against Northern Iowa and Wichita State may make last season's 26-8 squad a fading memory if things don't pick up soon.

Georgetown

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Georgetown was expected to bounce back after going 15-18 and finishing eighth in the Big East last season. The Hoyas were picked to finish tied for fourth with Seton Hall in the preseason Big East poll, right behind three teams currently ranked among the top 10 (Villanova, Xavier and Creighton).

    D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was the only significant loss from last year's team, and the addition of graduate transfer Rodney Pryor, who averaged 18.0 points for Robert Morris last season, was expected to make up for some of that loss. In addition 6'10" Jessie Govan figured to show improvement as a sophomore.

    The season has not started well for the Hoyas, who are 3-4 with one inexplicable defeat. The home loss to an Arkansas State team picked to finish 10th in the Sun Belt Conference was embarrassing, and Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com reported some "prominent Hoya voices" were calling for John Thompson III to be fired.

    The win over Oregon in Maui was the high point of Georgetown's season, but it was followed by a 16-point loss to Wisconsin and a 27-point loss to an Oklahoma State team pegged to tie for seventh place in the Big 12.

    Georgetown even failed to blow out Howard, which had lost all four of its previous games by an average of 22 points. The Hoyas won 85-72, but Howard was within eight points with 6:23 left.

    Pryor has been more productive than expected, averaging 19.1 points while hitting 12 of 24 three-point shots, but things are not falling into place as a team.

    The Hoyas have not had consecutive losing seasons since 1971-72 and 1972-73, the latter being John Thompson Jr.'s first season at Georgetown. His son needs to right the Hoyas' ship in a hurry, because a second straight poor season will not sit well with Georgetown fans, who are used to seeing their team compete for national championships.

Long Beach State

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    Long Beach State was an overwhelming choice to win the Big West title in the preseason media poll, and it's easy to see why. The 49ers had three starters back from the squad that won 20 games and finished one game out of first place in the Big West last season. Plus they added Evan Payne, who averaged 18.0 points per game at Loyola Marymount two years ago.

    Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, who initiated Gonzaga's rise to national prominence in 1999, is capable of handling the high expectations. The 49ers might even knock off a few big-name teams.

    It hasn't happened. A daunting nonconference schedule has been too much for Long Beach State. Since winning their opening game against Cal State-Los Angeles—a Division II program—the 49ers have lost eight in a row.

    Losing to North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA and Kansas was expected, although losing by margins of 26, 32, 37 and 30 points was not in the plans. Long Beach State figured to have a shot against Wichita State, which is not as strong as usual, but the Shockers walloped the 49ers by 37 points.

    "As a coach, I’m really concerned about them mentally because of all the years I’ve done this, this has been the hardest stretch and this team was not ready for it,” Monson said in a Nov. 22 article by Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. He admitted the team was "shook."

    More disturbing were the subsequent losses to Washington, Binghamton and Florida Gulf Coast, teams this Long Beach State team seemed capable of beating.

    Already nine different players have started games for the 49ers, as Monson tries to straighten out his team before it loses hope.

Texas

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    The acquisition of Shaka Smart as Texas' head coach was expected to energize the program and make it a national title contender. He had made Virginia Commonwealth a team the big boys wanted to avoid in the postseason, so just think what he could do with Texas' resources.

    The Longhorns had moderate success last season, finishing fourth in the Big 12 before their disappointing loss to 11th-seeded Northern Iowa in the first round of the NCAA tournament. VCU went further than Texas.

    Despite the loss of Isaiah Taylor to the NBA, the Longhorns brought in a freshman class ranked as the fifth-best in the country by Scout and were expected to be a prominent national player this season. They were picked to finish third in the Big 12 preseason poll and were ranked 21st in the Associated Press preseason poll.

    The season opener against Incarnate Word provided a discouraging omen, as the Longhorns trailed in that home game with 2:36 remaining before winning by just five. That close call could be explained away by the fact that Tevin Mack and Kerwin Roach Jr. were suspended for that game for a violation of team rules.

    After beating overmatched Louisiana-Monroe and Eastern Washington in two more home games, Texas went to Brooklyn and got thrashed by two unranked teams. Northwestern, which has never been to the NCAA tournament, led by double digits through most of the second half en route to the Wildcats' 77-58 victory. The next day, Colorado led throughout the game while pinning a 68-54 defeat on the Longhorns.

    Texas then lost for the first time ever to Texas-Arlington by a 72-61 score on Nov. 29 to fall to 3-3 on the season.

    Mack and Roach are the team's leading scorers, and the two highest-rated freshmen, Jarrett Allen (10.5 points per game) and Andrew Jones (9.5), are both averaging nearly 10 points per game. But aside from Mack, the Longhorns have no one who can stretch the floor with long-range shooting. The Longhorns' 26.2 percent shooting from three-point range is among the worst in the country.

    “I’ve said all along if we can be better with each week, each month and grow, we can make strides,” Smart said prior to the Texas-Arlington loss, according to Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman.

    The Longhorns certainly have room to grow with young players in critical roles, so it's not a time to panic yet. But there is a sense of urgency.

Oregon

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    Oregon lost Elgin Cook from a team that earned a No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament, but the Ducks added Dylan Ennis, a starter for Villanova two years ago, who missed all but two games last season with a foot injury.

    The Ducks and their athletic bunch looked like a Final Four contender once again, which is why they were ranked No. 5 in the preseason Associated Press poll.

    Being without preseason Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks for the first few games of the season made things more difficult, but getting smoked by unranked Baylor by 15 points in their second game set off some alarm bells.

    It turns out that Baylor is better than everyone expected and is ranked No. 9 this week. But Oregon's loss to a struggling Georgetown team in Hawaii in Brooks' first game back did not ease concerns.

    Oregon has defeated Tennessee, Connecticut and Boise State since then, but none of those teams have a winning record. More significant is the fact the Ducks trailed Boise State by eight points with less than seven minutes left at home before rallying to win by five.

    “Obviously, it was a big game for us, to lose this one at home would have been tough to swallow,” Ducks guard Casey Benson said, according to Steve Mims of the Eugene Register-Guard.

    Even with that win, the Ducks are 5-2 and ranked No. 23, behind two other Pac-12 teams—UCLA and Arizona.

    It may be just a matter of time before the Ducks regain their rhythm as they adjust to the return of Brooks. He has been coming off the bench since his return and is averaging just 9.8 points and 19.3 minutes in four games. But they need to shoot better than their current 30.3 percent shooting from three-point range.

Vanderbilt

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    Bryce Drew is off to a rough start in his first season as Vanderbilt's coach.

    The Commodores were picked to finish sixth in the preseason Southeastern Conference poll, which suggests they should be in contention for an NCAA tournament berth by the end of the season. Vandy has not resembled an NCAA tournament team yet.

    A 21-point neutral-court loss in the opener to a Marquette team that has done nothing of note in the meantime may have been a sign of things to come.

    More demoralizing was the home loss to Bucknell, which had lost by 20 points to Wake Forest and by 26 points to Butler.

    Vanderbilt's only wins have come against Belmont and Norfolk State, both at home, and against Santa Clara in Las Vegas. And the Commodores only led Santa Clara by four with nine minutes left before winning by 10.

    At 3-3, Vanderbilt is not where it needs to be at this stage.

    One issue is the health of 7'1" Luke Kornet, a preseason, second-team all-conference selection, whose playing time has been limited due to a knee injury suffered in the preseason, per Adam Sparks of the Tennessean. He played a season-high 30 minutes against Santa Clara on Nov. 25 and collected 18 points, six rebounds and a block.

    Point guard play is another concern. According to Sparks, Drew inserted freshman Payton Willis into the starting point-guard spot against Santa Clara while moving Riley LaChance from starting point guard to starting off-guard. 

    Vanderbilt's December schedule is manageable, but the Commodores cannot afford any more bad losses, if they expect to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and for the seventh time in 11 years.

Wofford

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    Granted, Wofford's early-season struggles mean nothing to most college basketball fans, and the folks in Spartanburg, South Carolina, are not demanding a coaching change. However, the alarm siren is probably echoing through the Terriers' locker room after their rough start.

    Wofford was picked to finish third in the 10-team Southern Conference's preseason poll, but the Terriers have yet to post a meaningful win.

    The Terriers typically take their lumps early in the season when they go up against power-conference opponents on the road, but this season has been more disheartening. The Terriers have not played any ranked opponents so far, but they have yet to beat a Division I opponent through their first seven games.

    Wofford's only wins came against Allen University, an NAIA school, and Mars Hill University, a Division II program. And the Terriers had to sweat out a three-point home win over Mars Hill.

    Vermont and Kent State would seem to be opponents of comparable ability, but Wofford lost to both of them as well as to LSU, Bradley and Colorado.

    The Terriers are a good shooting team, ranking ninth in the country in three-point shooting at 43.9 percent. Plus Fletcher Magee is a proven commodity and a preseason all-conference pick.

    Wofford has been to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons and four of the past six years. But it must step on the gas if it hopes to contend in the Southern Conference and land an NCAA tournament bid this season.

    Mike Young is in his 15th season as Wofford's head coach, so he should know how prevent a panic and get the team grounded until the schedule gets easier.

St. John's

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    Hiring Chris Mullin seemed like a good idea in March 2015. He was an All-American on St. John's powerful 1984-85 team that was ranked No. 1 through much of the season and reached the Final Four. He had been general manager of the Golden State Warriors for five years and also served as an adviser for the Sacramento Kings.

    His mere presence provided a reminder of what was possible at St. John's, and his NBA experience looked good on the resume. It didn't seem to matter that he had no coaching experience, either as an assistant or a head coach.

    In Mullin's first season, the Red Storm finished 8-24, the school's second-worst winning percentage since the team went 0-7 in 1918-19. Since then, the only season that was worse was 2003-04, when the team went 6-21. It should be noted Mike Jarvis was fired as head coach six games into that 2003-04 season and Kevin Clark served as the interim coach the rest of the season.

    The Red Storm finished last in the Big East last season with a 1-17 conference record and were picked to finish eighth in this year's preseason poll.

    The early stages of this season have provided little reason for optimism. After beating Bethune-Cookman and Binghamton in their first two games, the Red Storm have lost all five games since. Losing to the likes of Old Dominion and Minnesota painted a discouraging picture for St. John's, but those defeats were nothing compared to what befell St. John's on Nov. 29. That's when St. John's lost to Delaware State 79-72.

    The New York Post headline on the Delaware State game report read: "St. John's hits rock bottom in the Chris Mullin era."

    Let's count the ways this was such a demoralizing loss.

    1. It was a home game for St. John's.

    2. Delaware State was picked to finish 12th in the 13-team MEAC, had lost 20 consecutive games to nonconference Division I opponents, had beaten only one team this season and that was Division III Summit, and was coming off a 25-point loss to Montana State.

    3. The game was not as close as the score suggests. Delaware State led St. John's by double-digit margins for most of the second half and led by 13 with 49 seconds left. The Hornets shot 58.2 percent from the floor compared with St. John's 38.2 percent.

    The alarm bell went off for Mullin and his team, who must show signs of improvement quickly, before the season gets away from them.