College Basketball Teams That Need to Sound the Early-Season Alarm
You can't win the NCAA men's basketball tournament in November and December, but you sure can lose it.
The following eight teams are finding that out the hard way.
Each one opened the season in the top 75 of the KenPom.com rankings with legitimate aspirations of at least getting into the Big Dance. But after five weeks of action and more than a few losses, most of them are so far out of the picture that it would take a minor miracle for them to appear in any subsequent bracket projections.
We'll start out with one two-loss team that was supposed to be a national championship contender. This squad is the one exception on this list that should still make it to the tournament, albeit with a much worse seed than was expected in the preseason.
After that, though, every other team has already suffered at least four defeats, many of which were ugly in terms of margin, caliber of opponent or both.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order by school.
Kansas State Wildcats (6-2)
Most of the teams on this list were borderline top-50 in the preseason, but they haven't been able to piece things together. They went from the NCAA tournament bubble to "need to turn it around in a hurry to have any hope of dancing."
But Kansas State was a fringe preseason candidate to win the tournament, and it no longer looks like a threat to reach the second weekend.
The Wildcats have been excellent on defense. In fact, aside from Michigan and Texas Tech, they have the highest adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation, thanks to outstanding defensive rebounding and a lot of forced turnovers.
Offense is a much different story, as there are long stretches of games in which Kansas State cannot buy a bucket.
In the season opener, the Wildcats scored just 25 points in the second half against a Kennesaw State defense that has allowed 88.3 points per game over its last four outings. In its second game (against Denver), KSU had 11 points 11 minutes into the matchup. A week after that, the Wildcats only had 15 points after 15 minutes against Penn.
And in Saturday's disappointing loss to Tulsa, there was a 10-minute span in which they only scored five points. They managed to lose a game in which they held an opponent to 47 points.
How are we supposed to take the Wildcats seriously as a Final Four contender? They are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country (28.2 percent), and they are just OK at converting from inside the arc. The senior backcourt tandem of Kamau Stokes (31.9 percent) and Barry Brown (39.8 percent) has been dreadful from the field.
Maybe we were duped. After all, this team went 0-7 against Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia last year and wasn't even a lock to reach the Big Dance until its overtime win over TCU in the Big 12 tourney. Even though almost the entire roster returned, had the Wildcats not reached the Elite Eight, they almost certainly would not have been ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll.
Nevertheless, this team is nowhere near what we were expecting.
Miami Hurricanes (5-4)
It's easy to understand why Miami is struggling. Star big man Dewan Hernandez has not played in a game this season while the school and the NCAA look into his connection to that whole FBI shoe scandal.
Hernandez—who changed his last name from Huell this offseason to honor his mother—led the Hurricanes in total rebounds and blocks last year and finished just three points shy of Lonnie Walker for the team lead in scoring. It's not easy to adjust to losing that guy for an indefinite length of time right before the start of the season.
It didn't immediately result in losses, but the Hurricanes are on a four-game losing streak that includes games against Rutgers, Yale and Pennsylvania that you have to think they would have easily won at full strength. At the least, the Ivy League teams wouldn't have had such an effortless time scoring in the paint if Hernandez had been there.
Both Sam Waardenburg and Deng Gak have needed to log a ton of minutes with Hernandez out of the picture. And with all due respect to those underclassmen, it's not working.
Waardenburg is 6'10", but he's much more of a stretch 4 than a rebounding and shot-blocking big man. And while Gak can block the occasional shot and rebounds well, he's shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from the free-throw line—and he missed Miami's most recent game with a left knee injury, so the 'Canes are even more short-handed than usual.
If Hernandez is eventually eligible to return and Miami starts to turn around things in ACC play, the selection committee would at least take his absence into consideration. But they'll also be considering the fact that Miami's nonconference schedule is a joke, devoid of so much as one game against a KenPom top-50 team.
The Hurricanes were always going to be in some trouble if they suffered more than one loss in November and December. Four might be too much to overcome, Hernandez or not.
Penn State Nittany Lions (5-4)
As far as KenPom rankings go, Penn State is an oddball in this list. The Nittany Lions opened the year at No. 32 and are situated at No. 42. That's only a 10-spot slip, while six of the seven other teams have dropped at least 25 spots.
But that's primarily because they haven't gotten blown out yet. Their four losses were by a combined margin of 14 points.
Four losses one month into the season isn't a good thing, though—especially not when you're a major-conference program with a head coach (Patrick Chambers) in his eighth season without a single NCAA tournament appearance.
For the first two losses (at DePaul, vs. Bradley), the Nittany Lions were playing without primary big man Mike Watkins because of injury. And in the subsequent close losses to Maryland and Indiana, he still didn't look quite right, playing just 11 minutes in each of those contests.
Watkins' name isn't well-known at a national level, but he's the heart and soul of this team. Last year, he ranked sixth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, 13th in two-point field-goal percentage and 29th in block percentage.
If he had been at full strength and playing like he did against Colgate this past Saturday (18 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks), Penn State would probably be 9-0 right now. His early absence is something the selection committee will need to consider if Penn State is able to correct its trajectory.
As things stand, though, you're looking at a squad that is 1-4 against teams ranked in the top 140 in KenPom. Granted, that one win (Virginia Tech) was an excellent one. But the Nittany Lions are already a bit behind the eightball with an 0-2 Big Ten record and home-and-home games remaining against Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue and Nebraska.
If they don't win at least one of the upcoming contests against North Carolina State (Saturday) and Alabama (Dec. 21), the Nittany Lions are probably going to miss the tournament yet again.
SMU Mustangs (6-4)
In what was expected to be a down year for the American Athletic Conference, SMU seemed like one of the legitimate contenders to win the league. Transfers Nat Dixon and Isiaha Mike were supposed to join forces with Jahmal McMurray, Jimmy Whitt Jr. and Ethan Chargois to form a starting five that could go to battle with just about anyone.
On offense, it has worked out relatively well. McMurray and Dixon are leading the attack on the perimeter, while the other three take care of business inside. Despite playing at a Virginia-like tempo, SMU is averaging better than 75 points per game. All five Mustangs have an O-rating of 112.7 or better, which isn't even true for the starting fives at Duke, Kansas or Michigan State.
But this perimeter defense is a travesty.
Opponents are shooting 38.2 percent from downtown while attempting 45.8 percent of their shots from distance. In both of those categories, the Mustangs rank in the bottom 50 nationally. SMU has allowed 92 made three-pointers through 10 games, and four opponents have made at least a dozen. And, remember, this team plays at a slow pace, so it has fewer defensive possessions than most.
Thanks to that awful defense, SMU has already suffered losses to Southern Mississippi, Lipscomb, Bradley and TCU. The loss to the Horned Frogs—even though it was a home game—is forgivable. But those other three? Not so much.
SMU opened the season at No. 37 in the KenPom rankings, but it has already plummeted to No. 104 (out of 353). That's the biggest drop by any team that opened the season in the top 100.
South Carolina Gamecocks (4-5)
How long is the 2017 Final Four hangover going to last for South Carolina?
Thanks to woeful offensive execution, the Gamecocks went 17-16 last season. But they might be even worse on offense this year, and it's not too early to start wondering if they'll even win 10 games.
South Carolina is 4-5, even though it has only faced three KenPom top-150 opponents. With the exception of the New Year's Eve game against North Greenville, every game left is against a team in the top 125, so the Gamecocks best figure out how to deal with that type of opponent and quickly.
They lost at home to Stony Brook. They got blown out by Wofford—in a game in which Terriers star Fletcher Magee had just eight points on 15 field-goal attempts. And then they lost to a Wyoming team that probably won't even finish in the top half of the Mountain West standings.
Sadly, South Carolina's most impressive performance to date was probably the 89-78 loss to Michigan. The Gamecocks couldn't do anything to slow down the Wolverines, but they're the only team to score more than 67 points against Michigan this season. After that loss, South Carolina actually moved up a few spots in the KenPom rankings from No. 109 to No. 103.
I'm well aware that Michigan is great this year, but it says a lot about the state of your program when you lose by double digits and that's a sign of improvement.
Whether 109th or 103rd, the Gamecocks are still outside the top 100, which is rather awful compared to where head coach Frank Martin had this program for several years. This was supposed to be a borderline NCAA tournament team, but with the exception of Hassani Gravett's sudden sniper skills from three-point range (47.2 percent on four attempts per game), they just are not good.
Don't be surprised if the regular-season finale against Georgia on March 9 determines who finishes in dead last in the SEC.
Texas A&M Aggies (3-4)
Texas A&M might not be as bad as its resume.
The Aggies are 3-4 with home wins over South Alabama, Savannah State and Northwestern State, which is pathetic. But with a few minor changes, they'd be 6-1 with wins over UC Irvine, Minnesota and Washington.
In all three of those close losses, A&M held a lead late in the second half. The Aggies should've beaten both UC Irvine and Minnesota, and they certainly could've knocked off Washington in Vancouver.
But, unfortunately, this team can't shoot, and its commitment to blocking shots results in poor defensive rebounding. As far as KenPom profiles go, this squad is almost a carbon copy of the one that went 16-15 two seasons ago, in spite of excellent shot blocking and offensive rebounding.
The Aggies shot below 30 percent from three-point range in each of those three losses and allowed an unhealthy amount of second-chance points—especially against Washington, which had 23 offensive rebounds.
Admon Gilder was supposed to be a big help with the shooting woes after leading the team with a 39.5 percent conversion rate from beyond the arc last season. However, the senior has not played yet because of leg injuries, and he probably won't play at all, according to CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein. In his stead, sophomores TJ Starks, Savion Flagg and Jay Jay Chandler are a combined 21-of-92 (22.8 percent) from three-point range.
Unless Gilder makes an unexpected return to the court, it's hard to see much changing. Teamwide shooting issues (and turnover problems) don't often resolve themselves over time. The Aggies will need to start digging in their heels on defense if they have hopes of even sniffing the NCAA tournament.
USC Trojans (5-4)
USC has five wins over teams outside the KenPom top 200 and four losses to teams in the KenPom top 75. The net result is a team that is light-years away from the projected NCAA tournament field at this point, even though the roster is drenched with raw talent.
Part of the problem has been injuries. Senior leader Bennie Boatwright was out for the first two games of the season, and freshman phenom Kevin Porter Jr. has played four total minutes over the past four games. Boatwright could have been an outcome-changer in the four-point loss to Vanderbilt, and maybe USC's offense would have at least shown up against Nevada and TCU if Porter had been more available.
Playing down one man is no excuse for getting blown out on a regular basis, though. Not when you have five guys averaging double figures, including Nick Rakocevic's breakout line of 15.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
However, USC's biggest issue has been halftime adjustments, or perhaps the lack thereof.
In a strange piece of symmetry, the Trojans allowed exactly 27 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half in each of the losses to Texas Tech, Nevada and TCU. Against both the Red Raiders and the Wolf Pack, USC was leading at halftime, only to get smashed after the intermission.
Even though the Trojans are shooting 40 percent from three-point range, it's hard to recover from giving up buckets at a pace of 108 points per game in the "third quarter" against quality opponents.
This Saturday is their last chance to pick up a quality nonconference win. They'll play Oklahoma at the BOK Center before finishing the pre-Pac-12 portion of the season with three straight against more teams outside the KenPom top 200 (Santa Clara, Southern Utah, UC Davis).
Beating the Sooners won't immediately be enough to get USC back into the tournament picture, but another loss would make that uphill climb even steeper.
Utah Utes (4-4)
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak has won at least 20 games with Utah in each of the last five seasons, taking little-known guys like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma and turning them into stars. It's gotten to the point where we just trust the coach to keep this team competent, regardless of the roster situation.
But it seems it was overly optimistic to think the Utes could lose Justin Bibbins, David Collette, Tyler Rawson and Gabe Bealer—aka four of last year's six leading scorers—and still remain in the top half of the Pac-12.
The losses to both BYU and Northwestern got out of hand. The Utes kept things close in the first half of both games, but they eventually devolved into blowouts. Northwestern won by more than 20. And BYU won by 15, while Yoeli Childs threw down one of the most ferocious dunks you'll see all season.
The loss to Hawaii was the most disturbing, though, because Utah led by four with seven minutes remaining in the first half and was down by 21 less than 15 minutes later. And Hawaii isn't even a good team. It's outside the KenPom top 200 with no other victories over top-250 teams.
The Utes are relatively competent on offense, but they are a mess on defense. Their steal percentage is almost the worst in the nation, and aside from the occasional Jayce Johnson or Novak Topalovic block, they aren't exactly forcing contested shots either. In all four losses, they allowed at least nine more points than possessions.
This team is building toward next season, though. (An unfortunate truth for seniors Sedrick Barefield, Parker Van Dyke and Topalovic.) The six leading scorers are Barefield, four freshmen—Riley Battin, Both Gach, Timmy Allen, Vante Hendrix—and sophomore Donnie Tillman, so it's no surprise there have been early growing pains.
Look for Utah to start to figure out things in mid-January. The Utes won't get into the NCAA tournament, but they'll lay the groundwork for a bounce-back season in 2019-20.
Advanced stats courtesy of KenPom.com.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.