10 College Basketball Teams That Need to Sound the Early-Season Alarm
Arizona's three straight losses in the Battle 4 Atlantis are the most prominent case of an underperforming team, but the Wildcats are far from the only ones to push the panic button barely two weeks into the 2017-18 men's college basketball season.
There's an old saying in baseball: You can't win the pennant in April, but you sure can lose it.
The equivalent in college hoops would be that you can't lock up a No. 1 seed in November, but you can certainly play your way out of that conversation. Or, at a lower point on the national spectrum, you can't secure an NCAA tournament bid in an early-season tournament, but you can kill any hope of eventually getting an at-large bid.
On the one hand, plenty of opportunities remain for these teams to rewrite the narratives of their seasons. On the other, most of them have already played about 25 percent of their regular-season games, which is a significant chunk of the overall resume.
Every team on this list appeared in the Top 75 of the preseason KenPom poll and has not lived up to expectations. They are listed in alphabetical order.
Arizona is far from a finished product. Its second-best returning player (Rawle Alkins) has yet to appear in a game due to offseason foot surgery. Four of its eight leading scorers are freshmen, and a fifth member of that octet is a transfer from UNC-Asheville.
As fun as it was to watch Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton go bonkers in the first three games of the season against Northern Arizona, UMBC and Cal State Bakersfield, it appeared to be out of necessity rather than luxury. As such, there was no telling how the Wildcats would react A) against a real opponent and B) when Trier's astronomical efficiency in the opening week came crashing back to earth.
As it turns out, they responded horrendously, losing games on three consecutive days in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
In the opener against North Carolina State, Arizona played little to no defense in the process of giving up 90 points. The big story was NC State freshman Braxton Beverly's 20 points off the bench. Not only was it noteworthy because of his public battle with the NCAA to become eligible this season, but also because that's as many points as he has scored in his other four games combined. That the Wildcats had no answer whatsoever for a backup, first-year point guard was disturbing.
The following night against SMU, Arizona committed 20 turnovers and allowed 20 offensive rebounds. The Mustangs are average in height and don't have much of a history of forcing turnovers, but you'd think from the box score that the Wildcats were trying to contend with peak Press Virginia.
In the final game against Purdue, Arizona did not show up in an 89-64 loss. To be fair, Purdue is a hell of a lot better than the average opponent for a seventh-place game, and the Boilermakers finally remembered how to efficiently score in Game No. 3. Still, it was the furthest thing from a ringing endorsement of Arizona's defense, which has typically been this program's strong suit under Sean Miller.
Over the course of the tournament, Arizona shot 10-of-54 (18.5 percent) from three-point range. That's quite the swing from hitting 29-of-57 (50.9 percent) in the first three games. Maybe it was something about playing in that weirdly lit ballroom that kept the Wildcats off their game. Regardless of the cause, it was a stunning development for a team that entered the Bahamas as a prohibitive favorite to reach the 2018 Final Four.
Connecticut went to the NCAA tournament in 18 of Jim Calhoun's final 23 seasons as head coach.
Kevin Ollie missed the dance in three of his first five seasons, and early returns are that this team is in serious danger of being left out once again.
The Huskies did have a solid showing in the first round of the PK80 against Oregon. In what was effectively a true road game in Portland, they forced 17 turnovers and kept the Ducks from getting any easy buckets.
Aside from that, there's not much to like. They trailed Stony Brook by nine points in the final six minutes before closing out that home game on a 19-2 run. And in the latter stages of the PK80, Connecticut lost to Michigan State by 20 and was blown out by Arkansas by a 35-point margin.
For the most part, the guard play has been adequate. Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital are both brutally struggling to find their outside shot, but they've done a fine job of both forcing and avoiding turnovers. Terry Larrier and Jalen Adams have been solid in leading roles, and Fordham graduate transfer Antwoine Anderson has been a nice addition, particularly on the defensive end.
But this frontcourt is a nightmare.
South Carolina transfer Eric Cobb was supposed to be the starting center, but he only made it to the third game before suffering an ankle sprain and missing the last three. Even before the injury, the big man wasn't doing much of anything other than rebounding at a great rate.
Redshirt freshman Mamadou Diarra was also expected to play a key role in the paint, but he has barely gotten on the floor and is committing fouls at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, Cornell transfer David Onuorah has played 68 minutes, attempting just one shot while committing 20 fouls and seven turnovers. The only big man putting up respectable numbers is freshman Isaiah Whaley, but those numbers were almost entirely in the season opener against Colgate. Since then, he has zero points, two rebounds and one block in 26 minutes of action.
This was always going to be the major concern for the Huskies. Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah graduated. Steven Enoch, Vance Jackson and Juwan Durham transferred out of the program. That left them without a returning frontcourt player. The hope was that Larrier could play the small-ball 4 as someone—anyone—became a serviceable 5. Thus far, it hasn't happened, and that problem has been amplified by Connecticut's shooting just 29.0 percent from three-point range.
Saint Joseph's Hawks
This was supposed to be a bounce-back year for Saint Joseph's. The Hawks went 11-20 last season, but that disappointing campaign was attributed to a lethal combination of key injuries and overall inexperience. With everyone back and (presumed) healthy, they were one of the top preseason candidates to win the Atlantic 10.
However, Charlie Brown broke his wrist in October and has yet to make an appearance, and it only took one game for Lamarr Kimble to reaggravate the foot injury that prematurely ended his 2016-17 season.
Down two starters, the Hawks have started 3-3, even though they have yet to face a KenPom Top 100 team.
They should probably be 1-5. They trailed Illinois-Chicago by six in the final minute before clawing back and forcing overtime, winning in the extra frame. And in Sunday's game against Sacramento State, Saint Joseph's trailed by as many as 12 points midway through the second half before eking out a five-point win over a team that is winless against D-I opponents.
In the actual losses to Toledo and Washington State, the Hawks were obliterated from three-point range, allowing a combined 30 made triples in those contests. And in the loss to Harvard, the Hawks were down 18-5 in the first seven minutes and could never climb out of that hole, thanks in large part to abysmal shooting.
The scary thing is that this is where the schedule starts to get tough. In the next six weeks, the Hawks will face Bucknell, Villanova, Temple, St. John's, VCU and St. Bonaventure. If they don't turn a corner in a hurry, they could easily be 5-9 by early January and will have squandered just about every opportunity for a noteworthy win.
As a whole, it has been a brutal start to the year for the A-10. At the start of play Monday, Duquesne was the only team in the league with fewer than two losses, and the Dukes were 2-1 with wins over St. Francis (NY) and VMI—possibly two of the 25 worst teams in the country. But even in a conference-wide sea of disappointment, the first two-plus weeks for Saint Joseph's stick out like a sore thumb.
Silver lining: At least the Hawks are still among the favorites to win the league.
Saint Mary's Gaels
For most of these teams, there's ample time to recover. Plenty of teams in college basketball history have gotten out to rocky starts in November before righting the ship and entering the NCAA tournament as a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four.
Then there's Saint Mary's, which may have already been eliminated from at-large consideration.
In my preseason bracket projection, I had the Gaels as a No. 9 seed and explicitly called out their...let's call it "lackluster" nonconference schedule. The one potential saving grace was the Wooden Legacy. As I wrote three weeks ago: "A potential path of Harvard, Saint Joseph's and Georgia might end up meaning three RPI Top 100 victories. However, they don't have a single nonconference game firmly scheduled against a preseason KenPom Top 100 team."
But that isn't the path Saint Mary's took. It did defeat Harvard in the opener but followed with back-to-back losses to Washington State and Georgia.
Now, instead of an undefeated team with a couple of semi-quality wins, we're talking about a two-loss team that only has two other chances (both against Gonzaga) to make a legitimate case that it belongs in the tournament. Short of winning at least one of those two games, the Gaels may well enter Selection Sunday without a single Top 100 victory.
In other words, Saint Mary's is in a similar spot to what Wichita State and Illinois State found themselves in by the start of conference play last season. From there, Illinois State went 17-1 in MVC play with a 14-point win over Wichita State and still got left out of the tournament when it lost to the Shockers in the conference championship.
Saint Mary's might end up being one of the 25 best teams in the country, but there's no chance it'll have one of the 25 best resumes. If it doesn't plan on winning the WCC tournament, it might need to win every single game between now and then.
Our second of three Pac-12 teams on this list, Stanford has been undeniably the most disastrous of the bunch.
To be fair, this Cardinal roster is nothing close to what it was supposed to be. Stud freshman Kezie Okpala has not yet been allowed to play because his AP calculus grade in high school "dropped below the threshold." (Stanford doesn't mess around with academic standards.) Marcus Sheffield hasn't played yet either due to a foot injury. And Dorian Pickens hasn't appeared in a game since the opening weekend because of a foot injury of his own.
In a perfect world, those three guys would be huge pieces of the primary seven-man rotation.
Instead, short-handed Stanford has lost five of its first eight games.
We'll overlook the losses to North Carolina and Florida. Though the Cardinal ended up losing those games by a combined margin of 45 points, no one expected them to win either one. Even the eight-point neutral-court loss to Ohio State—despite holding a 10-point lead late in the first half—is somewhat forgivable.
But a home loss to Eastern Washington? And a loss to Portland State in which the Vikings went on a 34-10 run in the second half? Short-handed or not, those are terrible outcomes for what was supposed to be either the fifth- or sixth-best team in the Pac-12.
Against EWU, Stanford gave up 11 three-pointers while shooting just 2-of-16 from distance. Through eight games, opponents are shooting 40.7 percent from downtown against the Cardinal. Against Portland State, Stanford committed 28 turnovers while only forcing 10. This, too, is more than just a one-game issue, as the Cardinal rank well below the national average in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage.
At this point, Stanford either needs to beat Kansas on Dec. 21 or win at least 12 games in Pac-12 play to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the ninth time in 10 years.
The Supposed Second Tier of the Big Ten
Heading into the season, the hierarchy of power in the Big Ten appeared to be Michigan State at No. 1, Minnesota at No. 2 and a whole bunch of teams battling for the other five or so spots in the NCAA tournament. Foremost among those other teams were Northwestern and Purdue with Iowa and Wisconsin at least in the conversation for a top-five finish.
Michigan State and Minnesota have held up their end of the bargain, but that preseason second tier has had one misstep after another.
Purdue is still favorably ranked on KenPom (No. 12) because of the 25-point win over Arizona and a few other blowouts of awful teams. However, the losses to Tennessee and Western Kentucky in the first two rounds of the Battle 4 Atlantis were anything but ideal. It seems this team is destined to go as Vincent Edwards does, and he struggled in both of those games. Also, Ryan Cline is 3-of-20 from three-point range, making Purdue's sixth man a liability.
Northwestern's start has been more troublesome, as the Wildcats couldn't do anything on defense against Creighton four days before getting annihilated by Texas Tech. Losing both Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn was a bigger deal than most were willing to admit while ranking Northwestern as a preseason Top 25 team. The Wildcats have little to no depth and have been dreadful on the defensive end outside of above-average rim protection.
Speaking of poor defense, that brings us to Iowa, which gave up at least 80 points in each of its three games in the Cayman Islands Classic, suffering losses to Louisiana and South Dakota State. Lack of defensive prowess is no big surprise, given how young and unheralded this team is. The eight leading scorers for the Hawkeyes are six sophomores and two freshmen. But if they can't slow down teams from the Sun Belt and Summit leagues, what are they going to do in their next four games against Virginia Tech, Penn State, Indiana and Iowa State? Their whole season could go up in flames in the next 10 days.
And then there's Wisconsin. The Badgers were admirably competitive in losses to Xavier, Baylor, UCLA and Wisconsin. However, last time we checked, almost doesn't count with the selection committee, so we're still talking about a 3-4 team whose best win of the season came at home against Yale.
Indiana and Ohio State are also struggling. Maryland lost to a St. Bonaventure team playing without its star. Michigan lost to LSU, which is supposed to be the worst team in the SEC. At this point, it's looking like Penn State is a top-four team in the Big Ten by default. This league will still send at least six teams to the NCAA tournament because we have to get to 68 somehow, but the Big Ten is making a serious early push for the title of "Worst Major Conference."
UCF was this year's trendy sleeper pick to do some damage.
Maybe it's because the football team completely dominated this season, which subconsciously led us to believe the basketball team would also exceed expectations. Perhaps it's because Johnny Dawkins led the Knights to 24 wins last season with four key transfers sitting on the bench and waiting to make their impact on the 2017-18 season. Most likely, it's because everyone loves Tacko Fall.
Whatever the reason for the optimism, we certainly expected this team to be better than 4-2.
Like several others on this list, injuries are largely to blame. Last year's leading scorer, B.J. Taylor, played just one game before breaking his foot. He is expected to be out for another two to four weeks. Michigan transfer Aubrey Dawkins was supposed to be one of the top contributors, but he is out for the year with a shoulder injury.
Without those wings, this offense is a total disaster.
Per KenPom, UCF entered Monday ranked 328th nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 332nd in offensive turnover percentage. The Knights were 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency—thanks primarily to Fall and Chad Brown protecting the rim—but they were 204th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
And goodness gracious, were those weaknesses exposed in the Advocare Invitational. UCF committed 65 turnovers against Nebraska, West Virginia and St. John's and shot a combined 6-of-34 (17.6 percent) from three-point range. The Knights managed to beat the Cornhuskers in the opener, but they lost 83-45 to the Mountaineers before a 46-43 loss to the Red Storm.
Things should improve when they get Taylor back, but it might be too little, too late. The Knights face Missouri and Alabama in the next seven days, and unless they win one of those games, they'll likely enter AAC play without a single quality win. Even with the addition of Wichita State, it's difficult to both pick up quality wins and avoid bad losses in the AAC without at least going 14-4 in conference play.
UCLA is the only team on the list that hasn't suffered multiple losses. However, the Bruins haven't been making grandiose statements with their wins, and there's no telling if or when their three shoplifters will be allowed to play.
Regarding the on-court product, UCLA barely survived the season opener against a Georgia Tech team playing without two of its top three players from last season due to suspensions. Freshmen Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands had impressive debuts, but the rest of the team struggled with the Yellow Jackets.
In their first game after returning from China, the Bruins needed overtime to beat Central Arkansas. Given how bad that program has been since joining the D-I ranks in 2006, had UCLA lost that game, it would've been arguably the biggest upset in college sports since Michigan lost to Appalachian State in football in 2007.
Two nights later against an equally atrocious South Carolina State team, UCLA led by just six with 10 minutes remaining before finally blowing out the inferior opponent. In the subsequent game against Creighton, UCLA gave up 100 points in a loss. The following night, it needed a late comeback to beat a Wisconsin team that hasn't been impressive yet. And even in Sunday night's 24-point win over UC Irvine, UCLA led by just two points five minutes into the second half.
I'm not saying UCLA is the worst 5-1 team in the country, but you'd have to be out of your mind to think this team is in the same class as 5-1 Michigan State or Gonzaga right now.
But how much does the off-court distraction play into the rough start, and how much better would this team be if Cody Riley, Jalen Hill and LiAngelo Ball were playing? Ball likely wouldn't be much of a factor on a team that already has Hands, Aaron Holiday and Prince Ali, but both Riley and Hill could be huge contributors in the frontcourt.
Without any indication of when they'll be allowed to play, we have to assume this is what UCLA will bring to the table for the foreseeable future. And it isn't inspiring much confidence.
No one expected Vanderbilt to be the last undefeated team in the country, but the Commodores are supposed to be better than 2-4.
It started with a nine-point loss at Belmont on Nov. 13. Granted, the Bruins are the favorites to win the Ohio Valley Conference, which makes for a challenging road game for a middling major-conference team on the fourth day of the season. Nevertheless, that's the type of game you have to win when you enter the season smack dab on the projected NCAA tournament bubble.
Six days later, Vandy let a huge opportunity slip through its fingers. Matthew Fisher-Davis and the Commodores were red-hot from three-point range in a home game against USC. They led by double digits with less than 10 minutes remaining. But they gradually let that lead slip away before losing to the Trojans in overtime.
Then in the NIT Season Tip-Off, Vanderbilt probably should've just called in sick.
The Commodores were utterly embarrassed by Virginia. It was 64-25 with less than nine minutes remaining before the Cavaliers finally let off the gas in what was still a 68-42 blowout. The following night against Seton Hall wasn't much better for Vanderbilt, as it was held scoreless for a stretch of just under 11 minutes in a 72-59 loss to the Pirates.
Opportunities remain, both in conference play and out of it. The Commodores still face Kansas State, Middle Tennessee, Arizona State and TCU, in addition to an SEC slate with double dips against Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee. It's because of their willingness to schedule aggressively that they were able to sneak into last year's tournament with 15 losses. But it took three wins over the Gators for Vanderbilt to pull off that feat. Eventually, it needs to beat some of these quality foes.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
From the moment that John Collins declared for the NBA draft, expectations for Wake Forest for the 2017-18 season went belly up. With the big man, the Demon Deacons would have been a borderline preseason Top 25 team. Without him, there might not have been anyone who had Wake Forest in a preseason projection for the NCAA tournament.
But there's a big difference between "probably won't be that good" and "holy cow this team is awful," and it didn't take long for Wake Forest to fall into that second category.
The Demon Deacons opened the season with a home loss to a Georgia Southern team that had not beaten a major-conference opponent since December 2012. The Eagles are one of the more experienced teams in the country and have a minor-conference star in Tookie Brown, but that's an inexcusable loss for an ACC team.
To prove it wasn't a fluke, Wake Forest proceeded to lose 79-66 at home against Liberty four days later. The Deacs shot 2-of-17 from three-point range and were blown out on the glass by a team that doesn't play anyone taller than 6'8".
Maybe two is a coincidence, but three makes a trend, and Wake Forest started the year 0-3 with a neutral-court loss to Drake. The Demon Deacons led by 10 points with less than eight minutes remaining, but they collapsed and were outscored 25-12 the rest of the way.
They did finally get a win against Quinnipiac, but a loss to Houston in the fifth-place game of the Paradise Jam dropped them to 1-4.
In each of the previous two seasons, Wake Forest didn't suffer its fourth loss until after Christmas. This year, it couldn't even make it 10 full days into the season before acquiring that fourth L.
The strangest part is the university announced this past weekend that it had signed head coach Danny Manning to a contract extension; according to ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, it's a six-year extension good through the 2024-25 season. Maybe it happened during the offseason and the timing of the announcement was a means of preemptively squashing any hot-seat rumors, but it felt like a bizarre vote of confidence following a terrible start to the year.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.