Analyzing the problems and potential outcomes for five sliding teams
There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse ... and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful. The boy got a horse." And the Zen Master says, "We'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen Master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out, and all the young men have to go off and fight ... except the boy can't because his leg's all messed up. Everybody in the village says, "How wonderful." And the Zen Master says, "We'll see ..."
-- Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War
Since Philip Seymour Hoffman once mentioned the Final Four while accepting an Academy Award, it's only fitting that we channel him in order to soothe some anxious fans whose teams used to be wonderful but lately have been terrible.
This is nothing new, of course. Many teams typically build up gaudy records against soft nonconference schedules, only to face a rude comeuppance when conference season rolls around. Still, it has been striking to see so many teams fall so far, so fast. But take heart: If it's clear that these teams were not as good as they once appeared, then it is equally possible that they are not as bad as they appear now. We'll just have to see.
Let us turn to Hoffman's Zen Master to get his perspective on a quintet of teams that have fallen from grace (not to mention the rankings). These teams have been riding a vertiginous downward spiral. Where it stops, nobody knows. Read on, and breathe deeply.
How wonderful: The Bears won 12 of their first 13 games, including neutral-court victories over Colorado, Dayton and Kentucky (in Arlington, Texas), and rose to No. 7 in AP poll.
How terrible: They have dropped five out of six and four in a row, including a 14-point loss at home to Texas on Saturday.
What's the Problem? Baylor was fortunate to escape Colorado in the opener, and it was even more fortunate to catch Kentucky early in the season. If Baylor played the Wildcats this week, it would be in a lot of trouble. The fact is, this team lacks high-level talent. Besides 6-foot-9 senior forward Cory Jefferson, there is no one to provide interior defense. Texas Tech's three forwards combined for 44 points and 18 rebounds, and Kansas' frontline trio scored 20 points just on free throws. Offensively, Baylor is too reliant on its lone three-point threat, 6-2 senior Brady Heslip, who was a combined 0-for-9 in the losses to Texas and Texas Tech.
Zen Master says: The Bears had a players-only meeting after the Texas game, so the soul searching has already begun. It would help if sophomore center Isaiah Austin used his size to give Jefferson more help in the paint. The Bears are who we thought they were. Will they get any better, or are their problems here to stay? We'll see.
How wonderful: The Cyclones' 14-0 start included wins over quality teams like Michigan, Iowa, Boise State and Baylor. They also won a road game at BYU, which is not easy to do even though the Cougars are having a down year. Just three weeks ago, Iowa State was ranked No. 9 in the AP poll.
How terrible: The end of the winning streak was doubly painful, as Iowa State's best player, senior guard DeAndre Kane, injured his ankle during an 87-82 loss at Oklahoma. Iowa State lost its next two to Kansas (home) and Texas (road) before rebounding with an 81-75 win at home over Kansas State on Saturday. The road ahead doesn't get any easier as the Cyclones' next three games are against ranked teams -- at Kansas, home against Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State.
What's the problem? Fred Hoiberg did a masterful job hiding his team's two main deficiencies. The Cyclones do not have any player in the rotation who is taller than 6-7, which leaves them susceptible on the boards (Texas grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, Oklahoma grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, and Kansas out-rebounded them by 17). Plus, this is not a great outside shooting team. It's not clear whether that ankle is still bothering Kane, but in his last four games he has shot 4-for-13 from three-point range; in his last two, he is a combined 6-for-24 from the floor.
Zen Master says: The Cyclones made some silly mistakes late in the second half on Saturday, but they still beat a good Kansas State. So they have to be feeling good heading into this three-game stretch. If Kane's ankle is bothering him, it will heal. If he's in a slump, he'll come out of it. Hoiberg is one of the best coaches in the country, so while the Cyclones are bound to lose some more games, they also have reason to believe the worst is behind them. Does that mean their best is ahead? We'll see.
How wonderful: Ohio State won its first 15 games, including a victory over Notre Dame in which the Buckeyes overcame an eight-point deficit in the final minute. They spent five weeks ranked No. 3 in the AP poll.
How terrible: They lost four straight games before breaking the skid with a win at home over Illinois on Saturday. Those losses got progressively worse, beginning with a road defeat at Michigan State and ending with a loss at Nebraska. The Buckeyes are one game under .500 in the Big Ten.
What's the problem? Simple: The Buckeyes can't score. Aaron Craft may be a terrific leader and a demon on defense, but he is a point guard who averages 35 minutes per game and has made nine three-pointers all season. The only bona fide scorers on this team are 6-8 junior LaQuinton Ross and 6-4 senior Lenzelle Smith Jr., but they have rarely been hot at the same time. Ross was 1-for-7 from the field in the loss to Michigan State. Smith made a total of four three-pointers during the losing streak.
Zen Master says: This is a classic case of a team being overrated thanks to a weak, home-cooked nonconference slate. Ohio State was never as good as it appeared, but this is still a great defensive team that is exceptionally well coached. It may never be a potent offensive team, but it has enough good pieces to be a factor in March. In other words, the Buckeyes still have a high ceiling. Will they reach it? We'll see.
How wonderful: At the start of the season, the Ducks lost two of their starters to a nine-game suspension for selling their university-issued shoes, yet they raced to a 13-0 start. They cracked the AP's top 10 during the final week of December.
How terrible: The Ducks' win at Washington State on Sunday night snapped a five-game losing streak. That included an eight-point loss at Oregon State, which is now a game ahead of the Ducks in the Pac-12 standings.
What's the problem? This team should be called the Ucks -- you know, as in no "D." During the losing streak, Oregon's five opponents shot a combined 52.7 percent from the field. Washington shot 58 percent against them.
Zen Master says: This is another team whose nonconference resume looks less impressive in the rearview mirror. The Ducks' three best wins came on neutral courts over Georgetown and Illinois, plus an overtime road win at Ole Miss. It is quite possible that none of those teams will be in the NCAA tournament. Oregon fans can be forgiven if they are feeling déjà vu all over again, but this ain't football: A team can survive a bad spurt and still have a chance to compete for an NCAA championship. Dana Altman is a terrific coach, and this team has lots of athletes. They also have a great chance for a new beginning Thursday night when UCLA comes to town. Will that game serve as a springboard for a turnaround? We'll see.
How wonderful: The Badgers won their first 16 games, the best start in school history. Just two weeks ago, they were ranked No. 3 in the AP poll.
How terrible: They suffered a three-game losing streak against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. The Michigan loss came in the Kohl Center, which marked the first time John Beilein had won in that building. Minnesota beat Wisconsin despite losing its leading scorer, Andre Hollins, to an injury in the game's opening minutes. The Badgers halted the streak with a 72-58 road win at Purdue on Saturday, but much damage has been done.
What's the problem? Bo Ryan's defense has always been more about being efficient than disruptive, but lately it has been just plain bad. The Hoosiers shot 52 percent and committed just nine turnovers; Michigan shot 55 percent (7-for-13 from three) and committed 11 turnovers; and Minnesota shot 59 percent and committed seven turnovers.
Zen Master says: Once again, this team's nonconference wins don't look so good in retrospect. St. John's, West Virginia and Marquette are probably not NCAA tournament teams. When Wisconsin beat Florida in the second game, the Gators were short two starters. And though the Badgers beat a very good Iowa team at home, they were losing midway through the second half when Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey got ejected. But in a league as strong as the Big Ten, it's easy to go on a brief losing streak. I never thought Wisconsin was the third-best team in the country, but it's not as bad as it has been playing of late. Will they tighten up defensively enough to be a factor in the league race down the stretch? We'll see.
Other Hoop Thoughts
- Jabari Parker is still not shooting the ball well (7-for-27 from three in his last eight games), but in his last three games he has dominated by going to the glass (36 total rebounds) and getting to the foul line (where he was 22-for-27). That's a real sign of maturity.
- Speaking of maturing freshmen, here's my favorite stat from the Wolverines' win at Michigan State: Coming into the game, Michigan freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. had attempted a total of 42 free throws. Against the Spartans, he was 9-for-10.
- One more note about that game: At one point in the second half, John Beilein got into a heated confrontation with referee Terry Wymer. It was hard to tell exactly what happened, but it appeared that Beilein became incensed when Wymer got so close that their noses grazed. A few moments later, Wymer went over to Beilein and said something in his ear, which appeared to mollify the coach. Beilein slapped Wymer on the shoulder and the game resumed without incident. It was a great reminder that there's a lot more involved in good officiating than calling the block/charge play correctly. It was also a stark contrast to the poor way in which ref Mike Stuart handled UConn coach Kevin Ollie's eruption in the Huskies' loss to Louisville last weekend. Instead of letting Ollie blow off steam and then helping him move on, Stuart blew two quick technicals and ejected him.
- I still worry about Syracuse's lack of post scoring. It's the kind of weakness that will rear its head if Trevor Cooney goes into one of his patented three-point shooting funks in a big game.
- I also still worry about Pitt's lack of three-point shooting, especially now that Durand Johnson is done for the year. The Panthers were only 1-for-7 from behind the arc at Maryland, which made the game much closer than it should have been.
- Speaking of Maryland, the last thing Mark Turgeon needed was for his team to blow an 11-point lead and lose on the road to a bad N.C. State team that didn't have its best player, T.J. Warren. Yikes.
- My CBS colleague Doug Gottlieb had a great line about Wichita State junior guard Tekele Cotton, who is one of the best defenders in the country and therefore always draws the toughest assignment: "Consider it an honor if he guards you."
- Speaking of Wichita State, it's still too early to be talking about No. 1 seeds, and I am on record that I don't believe the Shockers are going through the regular season undefeated. But if they do, and if they win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and thus go into Selection Sunday without a loss, then it would be a grave injustice to deny them a No. 1 seed. There is something truly special about winning every game you play. And remember, this school made the Final Four last year, so you can't say the Shockers don't pass the eye test.
- Here's my best advice to Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin: Recruit more athletes, and crank up the tempo. If you're gonna lose, at least be entertaining.
- I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: Iowa doesn't just have depth, it has meaningful depth. Nine of the 10 guys who played in Saturday's win at Northwestern scored. That's a great advantage because it makes the Hawkeyes less susceptible to foul trouble, and it affords Fran McCaffrey plenty of options so he can exploit matchups.
- Speaking of that Iowa-Northwestern game, I love discovering lifelong connections between head coaches. As it turns out, when Chris Collins was eight years old and his dad was winding down his playing career with the 76ers, Chris was a ball boy at Penn's home games. At the time, the Quakers had a senior guard named Fran McCaffrey. Now those two are coaching against each other in the Big Ten.
- On the other hand, I don't believe in creating depth for the sake of depth. Most coaches will say the ideal scenario is to have a seven- or eight-man rotation, as long as everyone stays healthy. That's what Arizona and Florida have right now.
- Another reason I like the strategy of fouling when you're up three late in the game: It is a lot harder than people to think to miss a free throw properly. It's not like players spend a lot of time practicing that.
- It's easy to root for Oklahoma State junior forward Le'Bryan Nash. He has fought through some outsized expectations and evolved into a tough, mature forward. If it were not for his 29 points (on only 13 shots) and nine rebounds (four offensive) on Saturday, the Cowboys would likely have lost at West Virginia. It's just unfortunate that we live in a world where someone who is only a junior in college can be tagged as a late bloomer.
- Good to see Kentucky sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein break out of his mini-slump with a six-block, six-steal performance in the Wildcats' rout of Georgia on Saturday. For most of the season Cauley-Stein has been a shot-blocking fiend, but he only had five blocks in his previous five games. Remember, folks, these are college kids, not robots.
- Providence is playing well during its four-game winning streak, which includes victories over Creighton and Xavier, but three of those four games were at home. Seven of the Friars' final 11 -- and four of their next five -- are on the road. I think the Friars are an NCAA tournament team, but we're about to find out just how tough they are.
- I've been waiting for VCU senior center Juvonte Reddic to have a breakout game. He has been way too passive for much of the season, but in Saturday's double-overtime win at La Salle, Reddic had 25 points and 15 rebounds (10 offensive). Was that an aberration, or the start of something good? The Zen Master says: We'll see.
- Has Notre Dame gone in the tank or what? Since their big upset win over Duke, the Irish have lost five out of six, and they all came against teams that are sixth or below in the ACC standings. Just shows you how much Jerian Grant meant to this team.
- If you hear anyone describe any player at any age or any level as "the next LeBron," then you don't need to listen to another word that person says. About anything.
- I always try to be respectful of college players because they're kids, but the news that Georgetown center Josh Smith will not return this season because of academic issues was not surprising in the least. The NCAA's decision to grant Smith a waiver to play right away after transferring from UCLA was very ill-conceived. I know he is supposed to have a lot of "talent," but that isn't worth much without discipline. Whatever is going on with Smith off the court, I sure hope he straightens it out.
- Good to see Gary Bell Jr. back in action for Gonzaga. The 6-2 junior missed three weeks because of a broken hand, but he returned last week and had 14 points, four rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes during a rout at home over BYU.
- Cal's recent loss at USC underscores why coaches get much more paranoid when they are playing bad teams. Coaches don't have to worry about their players getting "up" for the big games. They worry about them being flat for the bad ones. That's why when (not if) Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State lose, it will happen when you least expect.
- The decision to have coaches wear sneakers to raise awareness for Coaches Versus Cancer was a stroke of genius. It's always one of my favorite weekends of the season.
- Tough break for George Washington, which lost its second-leading scorer, Kethan Savage, a 6-3 sophomore guard, for the next six to eight weeks because of a broken foot. Savage might be able to help Colonials if he comes back in time for the postseason. The question is whether they can win enough games without him to get into the NCAA tournament.
- Good job by Luke Winn to point out in his power rankings that Aaron Gordon is making just 46 percent from the foul line. Not hard to imagine a team fouling him on purpose during the closing minutes of a Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight game.
- Could it be the SEC will only send two teams to the NCAA tournament? Don't laugh: Ole Miss is currently in third place in the conference standings.
- The shooting guard position is the deepest when it comes to All-American candidates. Is it possible to construct a first team that doesn't include Gary Harris, Nik Stauskas, Shabazz Napier, Nick Johnson or Xavier Thames? Yes it is.
- The most underrated fan base in America is Nebraska's. I'm not just talking about football. Those folks turn out in droves for everything, including non-revenue sports, and they are doing a great job filling the brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena. If Tim Miles could ever get it rolling out, that place could become one of the toughest arenas to visit in America.
- I know we are in the Age of the Ball Screen, but I think coaches use this tactic too frequently. I don't like the way a ball screen brings a second defender to the dribbler. If I've got a quick guard, I'd prefer to give him as much space as possible and let him take his man off the dribble.
READ MORE: Five games to watch ... A few minutes with Texas' Rick Barnes ... Seth's top 25
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Duke at Pittsburgh, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
This will be a telling night for both teams. Duke has won four straight, but three of those were at home. Pitt is 6-1 in the conference and 18-2 overall, but the Panthers have only played two ranked teams and lost both times. The Blue Devils are definitely on the upswing, but they are still plagued by a soft interior, and Pitt, which is ranked 13th in the country in offensive rebound percentage, is poised to take advantage.
Pitt 70, Duke 67
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
I just can't say enough about what Lon Kruger is doing. Marcus Smart has to do a better job recognizing the difference between intensity and emotion, but Oklahoma State is a tough, battle-tested team, and I think its overall maturity will be the difference.
Oklahoma State 75, Oklahoma 70
Michigan State at Iowa, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Even if the Spartans had Adreian Payne, I still would favor the Hawkeyes. Since it sounds like Payne will not be available, I'm even more convinced the Hawkeyes will win.
Iowa 80, Michigan State 74
Iowa State at Kansas, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Is any team in the country playing better than Kansas right now? Even Andrew Wiggins is starting to assert himself. He scored 19 first-half points in Saturday's win at TCU, and he has shot 22 free throws (making 19) in his last two games.
Kansas 79, Iowa State 70
Cincinnati at Louisville, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Bearcats have their offensive struggles, and they are still without freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence, who is out with turf toe and should be back mid-February, yet they still have not lost a conference game. That is going to change against a Louisville team that has found a nice offensive balance the last two weeks.
Louisville 71, Cincinnati 65
A Few Minutes With ... Texas Coach Rick Barnes
SI.com: Your team failed to make the NCAA tournament last year and then lost its top four scorers to the NBA draft and transfers. Yet here you are, tied for second in the Big 12. Are you as surprised as everyone else?
Barnes: I'm not surprised at all. As a coach, you go into the season expecting good things. We've got a group of guys who really care about each other and really do want to win.
SI.com: Was it tough when all those players left?
Barnes: Honestly, halfway through last season, I realized that we had to make changes in our program. We had to get back to the culture we've always had at Texas. Winning wasn't important. So we told the guys, "If you don't want to be a part of this, you have to make changes." We have a much better culture now.
SI.com: Did that make you reevaluate your approach to recruiting? Maybe emphasize chemistry and character more?
Barnes: We had things happen like Cory [Joseph] and Tristan [Thompson] leave after a year. I'm telling you, if it wasn't for the [NBA] lockout, those guys wouldn't have left. We've had guys leave the last couple of years who didn't even get drafted. So we had to plug holes and fill a roster, so what happens is every player thinks he ought to be playing. But what you said is true. We made a conscious effort in our recruiting to think more about chemistry. But we're also more talented this year than we were last year.
SI.com: At what point did you realize this team was going to have a chance to be successful?
Barnes: Javan Felix missed the entire preseason because he had hip surgery, and then Jon Holmes missed three weeks where he hurt his hand. So the other guys had to play every day. We didn't have subs. Our first two conference games we weren't very good. We put people on the foul line way too much and were turning the ball over, but we're doing much better in those areas now. The biggest thing is that we didn't build our team around any one guy. It might sound like a cliché, but our chemistry has just been great.
SI.com: You had a front row seat to the Mack Brown circus that cast a pall over Texas' football season. As someone who entered the basketball season on everybody's short list of coaches on the "hot seat," what did you think of how all that went down?
Barnes: I can make a case that Mack Brown did the best coaching job he ever did in the entire time was at Texas. You look at how many key guys he lost, yet on the last day of the season they were in position to win the Big 12 championship. You don't want to get caught up in all that kind of talk, but I can tell you I don't think it was fair to him. He was trying to coach his team, but his players were having to deal with all kinds of questions and rumors.
SI.com: Texas has a new athletic director now in Steve Patterson. Have you spent much time with him?
Barnes: He has had a lot to deal with in that football situation, and I've been coaching a basketball team. I can tell you that Mack Brown told me, "You can trust him because everything he said to me during the process was totally forthright and honest." Herb Sendek worked for him, and he said nothing but great things to me about him.
SI.com: Is the Big 12 the best basketball conference in the country?
Barnes: Oh, yeah. We've had years where we might have been higher rated, but I know for a fact, in my 16 years here, this is the best quality group of teams we've had from top to bottom. It's not even close.
This Week's AP Ballot
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Florida (4)
4. Kansas (8)
5. Wichita State (5)
6. Michigan (14)
7. Michigan State (3)
8. Iowa (10)
9. San Diego State (7)
10. Oklahoma State (9)
11. Kentucky (11)
12. Villanova (6)
13. Cincinnati (13)
14. Wisconsin (15)
15. Oklahoma (16)
16. Memphis (18)
17. Louisville (19)
18. UMass (12)
19. Iowa State (20)
20. St. Louis (21)
21. UConn (22)
22. Pittsburgh (23)
23. Duke (NR)
24. Creighton (NR)
25. Texas (25)
Dropped out: Ohio State (17), Kansas State (24)
It seemed like a very busy and exciting week, yet it yielded very little movement. The biggest riser was Michigan, which is undefeated in the Big Ten despite losing Mitch McGary a month ago. When a team beats a conference opponent on the road, that team should almost always be ranked ahead, but I also didn't feel right about penalizing Michigan State too much for that loss. Given that the Spartans are down two frontcourt starters in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson -- and given that Payne is likely to be back relatively soon -- I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
Kansas leapfrogs to No. 4 because a) I think the Jayhawks are really, really good and b) I am holding to my self-imposed restriction of maxing out Wichita State at No. 5. Let's see how long that lasts.
It might surprise you that Wisconsin actually moved up a spot despite its loss at Minnesota. It certainly surprised me. But beating Minnesota at The Barn is no gimme. I dropped Wisconsin more drastically than my fellow voters last week (the Badgers ended up No. 9), and I elected to take a broader view of their profile. I also looked at Oklahoma's profile and noted that the Sooners lost at Kansas State on Jan. 14. That's a rough equivalent of losing at Minnesota. So the Badgers were able to move up a spot because I had to drop UMass a few pegs following its loss at Richmond.
Incidentally, last week I also voted Oklahoma 10 spots ahead of where they ended up. But don't worry, my fellow voters will catch up to me soon enough. They always do.
You'll notice I was one of the few voters who included Texas last week. That gave the Longhorns one of five points they earned in the "Others receiving votes" column last week. They justified my faith by beating Kansas State and Baylor. Here's hoping the other balloters reward them this week.
Yes, Duke fans, your beloved Blue Devils are back on my ballot. I was one of three AP voters who did not rank them last week, but I have to say, that thrashing of Miami on the road -- Duke's first true road win of the season -- was mighty impressive, especially given how tough Miami played Syracuse on Saturday. Still, if Ohio State and Kansas State hadn't lost, I would not have been able to shoehorn the Blue Devils in there. With road games at Pitt and Syracuse this week, they will have plenty of opportunity to prove they belong.
Other teams that got strong consideration this week included Gonzaga, Minnesota, Nebraska, Louisiana Tech, Providence, Virginia, Toledo. Unfortunately, the pool of candidates seems to be shrinking, not expanding.