College Basketball: 15 Teams Riding High Now That May Fall Later

Doug BrodessCorrespondent IDecember 6, 2010

College Basketball: 15 Teams Riding High Now That May Fall Later

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    The first weeks of a new college basketball season spark optimism in coaches, players and fans alike.

    For many teams, wins come fast and furious. Stats soar, playing time is distributed and life is good.

    Then late December rolls around, and the schedule turns to familiar foes—conference play begins.

    All of a sudden, some teams' fortunes turn significantly. Winning streaks turn into loss after loss. What was an exciting and hope-filled season turns into a exercise in futility and frustration.

    The following 15 teams have opened by winning all or almost all of their games but may have a tough time when they begin to play their conference slates.

UMass Minutemen

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    Early Season Record: 7-1

    Going into this season, the Minutemen will again be looking to replace a key member of their starting five.

    Last season it was center Luke Bonner, forward Tony Gaffney and point guard Chris Lowe. This year the issue will be replacing leading scorer Ricky Harris, who graduated after last season and is now playing in Lithuania.

    Anthony Gurley, the Minutemen's leading scorer who started his collegiate career at Wake Forest, can light it up from anywhere.

    Even with some promising young players in place, the Minutemen were picked to finish 11th in the 14-team league and were the only team not to have any players selected to any of the league's three preseason all-conference, all-defensive or all-rookie teams.

    Seven wins is seven wins, but the Minutemen's schedule has been very weak so far (Rider, Sacred Heart, New Mexico State, TCU, American International, Holy Cross and Quinnipiac).

    Atlantic 10 Record Prediction: 8-8

St. John's Red Storm

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    Early Season Record: 5-1

    Steve Lavin was brought in to restore St. John's to basketball relevance.

    He has a unique challenge and opportunity: starting this process with 10 seniors.

    With that kind of experience, you might think that this could be a great year.

    Over the years, St. John's has rarely been short on athletes and raw talent. The problem is getting the players on the floor to play as a unit.

    The Red Storm's highest finish in the Big East in the last five years is 11th place, and they haven't been invited to The Dance since 2001-02. This year may not change this.

    One of the areas that will catch up with St. John's in conference play is rebounding. Currently, they are ranked No. 232 among D-I teams.

    A good example of where things are this season is that it took the Red Storm overtime to beat a 3-3 Ball State team.

    Big East Record Prediction: 9-9

South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Early Season Record: 5-1

    It doesn't get much better in Columbia, S.C. than it is right now.

    The football team played for the SEC championship and is on to a bowl game.

    Now the basketball team is out of the gate fast.

    That's good news for third-year head coach Darrin Horn.

    In his first season, Horn led the Gamecocks to a 21-10 record (10-6 SEC), two victories over Kentucky and a share of the 2009 SEC Eastern Division title.

    Last year, South Carolina struggled through a 15-16 campaign.

    Horn's two-year conference record stands at 16-16.

    The Gamecocks have only four returning players who played major minutes last season, which doesn't bode well for the team when they begin playing conference opponents.

    Even with their early success this year, the Gamecocks, as a team, are not shooting the ball well (.428—209th in the country).

    SEC Record Prediction: 6-10

Providence Friars

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Early Season Record: 8-1

    Last year was a difficult year for the Friars. They finished the season 12-19 with a 4-14 conference record. After a nice road win last Jan. 14 against DePaul, Providence only won one more game and lost 13.

    Regardless, had double-double guy Jamine Peterson not bolted for quick cash in Europe, the Friars could have been a big sleeper this year. Without him, Providence is likely to struggle again in the Big East.

    One of the Friars' biggest weaknesses is their ability to hit the outside shot.

    In spite of their hot start, they are shooting a frigid .291 from beyond the arc. No one on the team is presently shooting better than .333 from downtown.

    Big East Record Prediction: 7-11

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Early Season Record: 7-1

    Oklahoma State is coming off a strong 2009-10 season that saw the Cowboys go 22-11, with impressive wins against Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor, all ranked Big 12 opponents.

    Gone from that team are multi-talented big guards James Anderson and Obi Muonelo and their 36 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game.

    Unfortunately, this year's Cowboys rely too much on individual play. They are currently only averaging a measly 9.6 assists per game, which ranks them 329th out of 347 in the country.

    Big 12 Record Prediction: 7-9

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Early Season Record: 8-0

    Last year was a good year (23-12) for the Fighting Irish.

    But the Irish lost Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson, which is a lot (32 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists) to absorb.

    The first four games of this year (home games against Georgia Southern, Liberty, Chicago State and Maine) probably don't answer many questions as to whether or not Mike Brey has reset his lineup for this season.

    The last three challenging games of their conference schedule—against Seton Hall, Villanova and at Connecticut—will make or break the Fighting Irish's conference position.

    Big East Record Prediction: 8-10

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Early Season Record: 5-0

    Bill Carmody has turned the Northwestern basketball program around, and the people in Evanston are excited.

    The past two seasons have possibly been the best back-to-back years for the Wildcats in school history, posting a 37-24 record and making NIT appearances both years.

    But even in those two successful seasons, the Wildcats have been 15-21 in Big Ten play, good enough for finishing in ninth and seventh place in the conference.

    This year has again started on an up note, with the team winning all five of its opening games.

    It is very likely that things will instantly change when Big Ten play begins. Northwestern starts conference play against Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois.

    The Wildcats have struggled on the boards even against their early season opponents. What will happen when they begin conference play? They are currently ranked 305th in rebounds per game.

    Big Ten Record Prediction: 7-11

Missouri Tigers

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    Early Season Record: 6-1

    The Missouri Tigers are playing at a high level as they begin the 2010-11 season.

    The first five games (against Western Illinois, Northern Florida, Wyoming, LaSalle and Arkansas-Pine Bluff) allowed the Tigers to start to build momentum.

    They are scoring a lot of points and shooting the ball well, and they took Georgetown to overtime before losing to the Hoyas in a 111-102 barn-burner.

    However, Missouri is going to have to step things up on the defensive end of the court to be able to compete in the Big 12.

    The Tigers are allowing their opponents to shoot a fairly high percentage (.429) from the field and beyond the arc (.347—201st in the nation).

    Big 12 Record Prediction: 8-8

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Early Season Record: 7-1

    Tubby Smith has the Golden Gophers heading in the right direction.

    They not only have posted seven wins in their first eight games. Three of those victories were also against quality opponents: Western Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina.

    Minnesota will play a number of close Big Ten games that come down to the final moments, with the team that makes its free throws coming out on top.

    Unfortunately for the Golden Gophers, they are struggling at the line, only making 62.9 percent of their free throws, which is No. 284 in the nation. 

    Big Ten Record Prediction: 8-10

Iowa State Cyclones

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Early Season Record: 6-2

    There are lots of changes at Iowa State.

    Former Iowa State All-Conference player Fred Hoiberg takes over for Greg McDermott as the Cyclones' new head coach.

    Gone from last year's 15-17 team are All-Big 12 performers Craig Brackens and Marquis Gilstrap.

    The Cyclones opened with six consecutive wins to start the 2010-11 campaign against some less than stiff competition (i.e. Alabama State, Drake, Kennesaw State and Montana State).

    More recently, they lost close games to two teams that made it to last year's Dance (Northern Iowa and Cal).

    The Cyclones are inexperienced up front with 6'11" senior James Vanderbeken, who missed much of last season due to medical reasons, as the only returning frontcourt player. 

    Four freshmen will be asked to contribute immediately. In a conference that is competitive as the Big 12, that usually doesn't lead to much success.

    Big 12 Record Prediction: 6-10

Indiana Hoosiers

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Early Season Record: 7-1

    Tom Crean knew he was taking on a big challenge when he became the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers basketball program.

    Not only did he have big shoes to fill when it came to the longstanding tradition of Indiana basketball, but he also had to rebuild the program almost from the ground up.

    The Hoosiers have only won a total of 16 games during Crean's first two seasons in Bloomington, with a 10-21 record (4-14 in Big Ten play) last year.

    This year, Indiana has started off by winning seven of its first eight games against one of the weakest pre-conference schedules (Florida Gulf Coast, Wright State, Mississippi Valley State, Evansville, North Carolina Central, Northwestern State and Savannah State) in the nation.

    Even while playing this schedule, the Hoosiers are struggling to take care of the ball, averaging more turnovers (17) than assists (16) per game.

    This problem won't go away (and may get a lot worse) when Indiana starts to play teams like Michigan State, Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten.

    Big Ten Record Prediction: 6-12

Alabama Birmingham Blazers

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Early Season Record: 7-2

    UAB has had lots of ups and downs already in 2010-11

    They have solid wins against Arkansas and Kent State. But they have also played down to (but still beaten) Middle Tennessee and Jacksonville State.

    Cameron Moore and Ovie Soko should be able to hold down the boards, but the Blazers are still in the middle of the D-I pack (ranked No. 177 in the nation) when it comes to rebounding.

    Conference USA Record Prediction: 8-8

Hawaii Warriors

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    Early Season Record: 5-2

    The Warriors' record looks good, but their outlook for the entire season does not.

    Only one starter returns in 2010-11 from a Hawaii team that only won three conference games and 10 overall. Don’t expect much more this year.

    Zane Johnson, a transfer from Arizona, can add some nice outside shooting.

    But it will be hard for the Warriors to continue even their early success with their current ball-handling statistics: They are averaging 12 assists and 19 turnovers per game.

    Western Athletic Conference Record Prediction: 5-11

Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Early Season Record: 5-1

    Head coach John Pelphrey may be on the hot seat in 2010-11.

    Back-to-back 14-win seasons aren’t sitting well with the Razorbacks faithful.

    Good news: Lots of new faces dot the Arkansas roster. Bad news: Lots of new faces dot the Arkansas roster.

    The Razorbacks have started this season by winning five of their first six games (all home games against Grambling, Florida Gulf Coast, Southeast Missouri State, Oklahoma and Troy).

    Even with playing a substandard early schedule, the Razorbacks are struggling on the boards, where they are ranked No. 209 in the nation. 

    SEC Record Prediction: 7-9

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Early Season Record: 7-0

    The Bearcats almost always have some of the best athletes in college basketball.

    The question seems to be whether they can translate their raw ability into hoops success.

    Cincinnati is another team that has stacked up early success with a less than challenging schedule (home games against Mount St. Mary's, IUPUI Ft. Wayne, Florida A&M and Savannah State).

    The Big East always has a huge number of games that are closely contested all the way to the very last moment of the game. The Bearcats may end up on the short end of those close contests because of free throw shooting issues. They are currently making 63.4 percent from the free throw line (No. 278 in the nation).

    Big East Record Prediction: 9-9