Drexel's Damion Lee (US Presswire)
Drexel's Damion Lee (US Presswire)
With the college basketball season now almost a month old, we have enough of a sample size of games to start to determine which teams are better or worse than projected. Here's a look at the teams who have failed to meet expectations so far:
1. Drexel (2-5)
Losses: at Kent State 66-62 OT, Illinois State 86-84 OT, Saint Mary's 74-64, Xavier 69-65, Rider 75-66
Why they've disappointed: Drexel returned all but one key player from a 25-win team that narrowly missed the NCAA tournament last season, which is why the Dragons were optimistic about landing a bid this season for the first time in 16 years. That goal is not out of reach in an unusually weak CAA, but the Dragons have already squandered any hope for an at-large bid by losing five of its first seven. What's really odd is that so many of Drexel's problems have been on the defensive end, by far the program's biggest strength last year when it had much of the same personnel. The Dragons are eighth in the CAA in field-goal percentage defense and they're struggling to control the glass or force turnovers.
Can they recover? All hope is not lost for Drexel this season in spite of the massively disappointing start. First of all, they're capable of getting better defensively, especially if big men Dartaye Ruffin and Darryl McCoy step up and better fill the void left by the graduation of Samme Givens. Secondly, the CAA is weak enough this season that the Dragons probably don't have to play at the level they did last year to repeat as league champs. VCU is gone, Old Dominion is rebuilding and George Mason and Delaware have been the class of a down league thus far. Even with the defense regressing and guard Chris Fouch lost for the season due to a broken ankle, Drexel has the backcourt firepower to challenge both the Patriots and Blue Hens.
2. UCLA (5-3)
Losses: Georgetown 78-70, Cal Poly SLO 70-68, San Diego State 78-69
Why they've disappointed: Under pressure to succeed this season after missing the NCAA tournament two of the past three years, UCLA coach Ben Howland landed an elite recruiting class in hopes of sparking a resurgence. So far, that hasn't happened. A team ranked in the top 10 in many preseason polls has tumbled out of the Top 25 thanks to losses to Georgetown, Cal Poly SLO and San Diego State and close calls against UC Irvine and Georgia. Worse yet, guard Tyler Lamb and talented center Joshua Smith have transferred, leaving the Bruins with only eight scholarship players available — four freshmen, three North Carolina castoffs and sophomore guard Norman Powell.
Can they recover? Not only does a deep March run seem unfathomable from this group, a lot will have to change just for the Bruins to sneak into the NCAA tournament. Shabazz Muhammad needs to shed 10 pounds he put on over the summer and regain the burst he had in high school. Kyle Anderson either needs to find a comfort zone playing off ball or persuade Howland to put the ball in his hands and let him showcase his passing ability. And UCLA has to find a way to mask its lack of quickness defensively, whether that's via a packline man-to-man defense or a two-three zone. Even if the Bruins improve defensively as the season goes on and get more out of their two prized freshmen, this is still a team that's very vulnerable to foul trouble or injuries. In other words, there's considerably less hope for UCLA than there was a few weeks ago.
3. Florida State (4-3)
Losses: South Alabama 76-71, Minnesota 77-68, Mercer 61-56
Why they've disappointed: Even though top big man Bernard James and solid guards Luke Loucks and Deividas Dulkys graduated from last year's ACC tournament champs, Florida State entered this season with high expectations. Between All-American candidate Michael Snaer, jet-quick Ian Miller and promising forwards Okaro White and Terrence Shannon, the Seminoles appeared to have the most offensive talent of any team in the Leonard Hamilton era. The offense has been a bit more efficient than usual so far this season, but those strides haven't made up for Florida State's regression on defense. A lack of consistent effort and youthful mistakes on rotations have contributed to the Seminoles losing three home games — two against small-conference foes — entering this week's matchup with rival Florida.
Can they recover? If Jekyll-and-Hyde Florida State has taught us anything in recent years, it's that it's fully capable of beating anyone or losing to anyone. The Seminoles fell to Harvard and Princeton last preseason and lost to Clemson in their ACC opener, yet they rebounded to go 12-4 in league play and beat North Carolina and Duke in the conference tournament. Of course, part of the reason for those results was Florida State's identity: Its effort and success on defense kept it in the game against top teams, yet its erratic offense enabled lesser foes to stay competitive too. The Seminoles have the talent to recover from their rough start, but a resurgence has to be fueled by their defense. Some of it is regaining the "junkyard dog mentality," as Hamilton called it. Some of it also finding a rim protector to replace the graduated James.
Deniz Kilicli (US Presswire)
Losses: at Gonzaga 84-50; Davidson 63-60; Oklahoma 77-70
Why they've disappointed: West Virginia entered this season with a quiet confidence it could make an impact in its debut season in the Big 12. The departure of Kevin Jones was a huge loss, but the Mountaineers hopes to make up for it thanks to the arrival of transfers Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray and the return of center Deniz Kilicli and some underclassmen guards who showed promise last year. There's plenty of time for West Virginia to turn its season around, but the start hasn't been what the Mountaineers envisioned. Of the three games West Virginia has played against decent competition, the Mountaineers haven't won any of them. A road loss at Gonzaga was excusable, though West Virginia was never even remotely competitive. That the Mountaineers could neither defeat Davidson nor Big 12 also-ran Oklahoma on a neutral floor was more disconcerting.
Can they recover? Counting out a Bob Huggins team in December would be foolish, but this group has to make strides offensively to have realistic NCAA tournament hope. It's no surprise West Virginia isn't an elite 3-point shooting team, but the Mountaineers have been so awful from the perimeter opponents are daring them to shoot. They're shooting 23.5 percent from behind the arc as a team, with only Terry Henderson and Keaton Miles above 30 percent. The emergence of a go-to scorer would also help. No Mountaineers player is averaging more than 10.8 points per game, though point guard Juwan Staten has scored 15 or more his last three games.
5. North Texas (3-5)
Losses: at Creighton 71-51, Alabama-Huntsville 78-75, at Virginia 80-64, Texas-Arlington 72-59, Louisiana-Lafayette 80-76
Why they've disappointed: Before the season began, Tony Mitchell told me he wanted to leave a legacy at North Texas. Right now, however, the only thing this year's Mean Green will be remembered for is underachieving. Despite having a potential lottery pick in Mitchell and a talented supporting cast, North Texas is off to a disastrous 3-5 start. Some of those losses have been one-sided yet forgivable like a season-opening 71-51 loss at Creighton. Others have been downright head-scratching like a loss to Division II Alabama-Huntsville or home setbacks against Texas-Arlington and Louisiana-Lafayette. In the Louisiana-Lafayette game, Mitchell scored only three points, took only one shot and fouled out in 25 minutes.
Can they recover? Any hope of North Texas living up to its hype as a dangerous mid-major and the preseason Sun Belt favorite probably depends on whether its anemic offense improves. The Mean Green are shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and an anemic 26 percent from behind the arc. Compounding the problem, they're also turning the ball over too much. Mitchell's 13.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game are pedestrian for a super-athletic forward with first-round potential. He needs to take at least 15 shots per game, something he has only done three times this season. And with 12 turnovers and no assists in North Texas' last three games, he needs to do a better job dealing with double teams and his teammates must more consistently sink open shots.
Others who have disappointed:
Old Dominion (1-6): Perhaps Blaine Taylor's choice of "Mission Possible" as a slogan for this season wasn't the right call. The Monarchs, ineligible for the CAA tournament because they're leaving for C-USA next year, so far have performed like a team with nothing to play for.
Texas (5-2): Without point guard Myck Kabongo, Texas lost to Division II Chaminade and struggling USC at the Maui Invitational. Trouble in Paradise, indeed. Youthful inexperience and the absence of Kabongo have led to too many turnovers, a big problem with Georgetown and UCLA up next this week.
Kentucky (4-3): The Wildcats didn't make my top five because I expected some early attrition, but the home loss to Baylor in particular was alarming. Point guard play will be a season-long issue for Kentucky unless Ryan Harrow grows into the position or Archie Goodwin becomes more comfortable playing on ball.
Siena (2-6): In Mitch Buonaguro's three seasons at Siena, the Saints have gone from the MAAC's best program to the second-best team in its own city. Unless something changes in a hurry at Siena, this may be Buonaguro's last season.
Memphis (4-2): Early season struggles have been the norm under Josh Pastner, and this year is no exception. Memphis lost to VCU and Minnesota in the Bahamas, forcing the Tigers to rally to defeat Northern Iowa just to salvage seventh place.
Nevada (4-3): In a league in which everyone else is meeting or exceeding expectations thus far, Nevada is underachieving. It could be a rough Mountain West debut for the Wolfpack if they don't get Deonte Burton and Malik Story some interior help.
Vanderbilt (2-4): We knew Vanderbilt would struggle after it lost all five starters from last year's NCAA tournament team. But 50-33 to Marist? And double-digit losses to Villanova, Oregon and Davidson? That's worse than expected.
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