In case you haven't noticed, the calendar has officially turned to February. This is the time of year when teams should be fine-tuning their engines -- change the oil, replace the spark plugs, that sort of thing -- in preparation for the long stretch run.
Unfortunately, there are a few teams out there who used to be headed in the right direction but have recently run into speed bumps and pot holes. Their alignments have been compromised. Even worse, the wheels are starting to come off.
As your resident Hoop Thinking mechanic, I have taken a closer look at five such teams and am ready to present my findings. Just how bad is the damage? And can they get back in the fast lane? Let's just say I hope this quintet has decent auto insurance:
Highest AP ranking: 1Started: 17-0Since: Lost 3 out of 4
Under the hood: The Longhorns are going through an identity crisis. Rick Barnes is negating his team's greatest asset -- its depth -- by shortening the rotation so much that 6-foot-7 freshman Jordan Hamilton, who had 14 points in the Longhorns' win over Michigan State in December, played just two minutes in Saturday's overtime loss to Baylor. Teams are figuring out that this team has a hard time scoring against a zone, and those troubles have been exacerbated by Texas's atrocious foul shooting.
Wheels report: Front wheels wobbly. Back wheels sturdy. The Longhorns will never be a good free throw-shooting team (or even a mediocre one for that matter), but if they rebuild their identity around depth and tenacious D, they should still be a driving force in March.
Highest AP ranking: 9Started: 15-2Since: Lost 3 out of 4
Under the hood: When the Panthers knocked off Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 2, they made 10-of-24 from three-point range. Turns out that was a mirage. During the last four games, they have gone just 13-for-55 (23.5 percent) from behind the arc. They adjusted during Sunday's loss at South Florida by only taking eight threes, but they converted just 12-of-22 from the foul line. When the Panthers aren't making shots, it puts enormous pressure on their defense, and during this recent skid the D has not been quite good enough.
Wheels report: Three wheels wobbly. Fourth holding steady. It appears Pitt's win streak inflated expectations, but now that the Panthers have self-corrected, I think they can keep chugging along. Still, they're going to have to knock down some shots, either from the arc or the free throw line, to win Wednesday at West Virginia. Otherwise that fourth wheel might not hold up.
Highest AP ranking: 10Started: 11-3Since: Lost 5 out of 7
Under the hood: The Huskies looked inspired when they knocked off then-No. 1 Texas in Storrs, but given the way Texas has been playing, that is not so impressive in retrospect. Teams know if they can limit UConn in transition and make them play a little half-court offense, they'll get so impatient that they'll throw the ball all over the gym. (The Huskies committed 16 turnovers to Marquette's two in the loss to the Golden Eagles, and they turned it over 19 times against Providence.) In lieu of an efficient offense, this team needs to play with a high degree of emotion, especially on the defensive end, but their emotional leader, coach Jim Calhoun, remains sidelined indefinitely for medical reasons.
Wheels report: All four are wobbly. Front two are coming off. Even if Calhoun returns soon, it may not be enough to repair the damage that has been done. Over the next two weeks, UConn has to play road dates at Louisville, Syracuse and Villanova. If they lose all three, they will enter the last half of February with a very real chance of missing out on the NCAA tournament.
Highest AP ranking: 22Started: 11-3Since: 2-5
Under the hood: The Gophers have decent talent but very little margin for error. Each time they have lost, it has been for a good reason. At Indiana, they got pummeled on the boards, 40-29. Against Purdue and Ohio State, their perimeter defense was shoddy. (The Boilermakers shot 52.3 percent and allowed the Buckeyes to shoot 63 percent.) In their two losses to Michigan State, Minnesota played tentative and shot a total of 14 free throws. The final straw may have been losing their leader and point guard, Al Nolen, two weeks ago to academics. He was the guy with his hands on the wheel.
Wheels report: Front two completely off. Back wheels very wobbly. Unless Nolen comes back soon, the Gophers will have a hard time making the NCAA tournament. They still have games remaining against Wisconsin and Purdue, but at least they are both at home.
Highest AP ranking: 23Started: 15-1Since: Lost 4 out of 5
Under the hood: The Hurricanes did win at South Carolina, but that was in Charleston, not Columbia. Aside from that and a victory over Minnesota at home in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Hurricanes' gaudy record has proven to be a fraud. Their nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 342nd in the RPI, and it has been one pratfall after another for them in the ACC, though they did manage to knock off Virginia Tech at home last weekend. Miami played Boston College close twice before losing, but the Hurricanes' other three losses came by an average of 18 points -- and the hard games are still to come. There was some hope that the arrival of transfer Malcolm Grant and freshman Durand Scott would pump up the backcourt, but this team's season is exemplified by enigmatic senior forward Dwayne Collins, who at times can be terrific (23 points, 11 rebounds in the win over Wake Forest) while other times invisible (five points in the loss at Maryland).
Wheels report: All four wheels are off. The only sparks this team is making these days come when the rims hit the pavement. Barring a miraculous visit from a mechanic far more skilled than I, the Hurricanes will need to win the ACC tournament to be in the field of 65.
• If Wisconsin can get Jon Leuer (wrist injury) back relatively soon, this team might be even better than it was before Leuer got hurt. As often happens with an injury, other players who wouldn't otherwise get a lot of playing time have been making strides. Sophomore guard Jordan Taylor has scored 20 and 13 points in his last two games, and junior forward Keaton Nankivil almost singlehandedly shot the Badgers past Purdue. He finished with a career-high 25 points on 7-for-8 three-point shooting.
• Speaking of Purdue, the Boilermakers got a huge lift last week when sophomore point guard Lewis Jackson, who hadn't played all season because of a broken foot, made his return earlier than expected in the win over Wisconsin. Jackson played 12 minutes against Wisconsin and 17 against Penn State, scoring two points in each contest. He should have plenty of time to get his conditioning and timing back for March, and I believe that would restore Purdue as a legitimate Final Four threat.
• I guess it's time to reassess the argument that Duke is a good defensive team. The Blue Devils allowed Georgetown to shoot a stunning 71.7 percent from the field on Saturday. You can attribute that to Georgetown being a great team (which they are), but remember, N.C. State shot 58.2 percent when it beat Duke on Jan. 20. I'd say that is major cause for concern, no?
• It surprised me that New Mexico was able to knock off BYU without a big game from Darington Hobson. The 6-7 junior forward shot 1-for-11 from the floor and finished with just five points. Hobson's shooting percentages have noticeably dropped since conference play began. I wonder whether his slight frame is starting to wear down.
• I know it was a "big upset" when San Francisco, which came in with a 7-14 record, knocked off mighty Gonzaga and snapped the Bulldogs' 27-game West Coast Conference winning streak. But to me, the bigger surprise was that something like this hadn't happened sooner. Every game Gonzaga plays in that league is the Super Bowl for its opponent. It is very, very difficult to get emotionally amped each time out, yet for a long time the Zags have managed to do it.
• The worst thing that could have happened for Ernie Kent was for Oregon to prepare to open a new arena next season. When a school spends a lot of money on a new arena, it likes to see fannies in the seats. That does not bode well for a coach whose team is 4-5 in the worst Pac-10 in years.
• This week's Willie Warren head-scratcher: He took five shots and had four points in Oklahoma's 17-point loss at Nebraska. I honestly can't remember the last time a player this good had a season this bad.
• The Big East has the most teams ranked in the top 16 of the RPI with four. The Big Ten is tied for second with three. You know who it's tied with? The Atlantic 10, that's who.
• In the first half of Sunday's game at Tennessee, Florida attempted 20 two-point shots and six three-point shots, and they led by six at the half. In the second half, they shot 12 two-point shots and 10 three-point shots (making one), and they ended up losing the game by one. I don't think that's a coincidence.
• So let me get this straight: Illinois starts losing a bunch of games, and Bruce Weber bans his players from talking to the media. Was he trying to punish them or reward them?
• At a time when very few teams have genuine depth, Missouri continues to get more production from its bench than just about anyone. The Tigers actually had more reserves score in double figures than starters during their home win over Oklahoma State on Saturday.
• I don't know what is more befuddling, the fact that Renardo Sidney's attorney, Don Jackson, continues to send e-mail blasts to the media ripping the NCAA, or that people are still printing what he writes. I mean, has anything he has said about this case turned out to be credible?
• Would I be too much of a killjoy if I pointed out that South Carolina point guard Devan Downey needed 29 shots to score his 30 points in that big win over Kentucky?
• Cole Aldrich has his best game of the season against Kansas State (18 points, 11 rebounds). But the main reason the Jayhawks need to keep going to Aldrich is that it makes Marcus Morris a much better player. Morris, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the win, benefits from the attention Aldrich commands because it creates open shots and opportunities on the offensive glass.
• By the way, how great was it to see Sherron Collins and Jacob Pullen, two Chicago natives who have been close friends since high school, embrace like brothers after that game was over. That's what it's all about, folks.
• Michigan State is going to be a major factor in the hunt for a No. 1 seed. If the Spartans win the Big Ten by three games and then win the tournament, it's going to be hard to keep them off the top line.
• Siena scores a respectable-but-not-sensational 76.3 points per game, and they are ranked 280th in the country in three-point shooting. Yet their point guard, Ronald Moore, leads the nation in assists at 8.3 per game. Just making sure you know.
• I gotta tell ya, I think it was a very smart piece of scheduling on the part of Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt to have his Yellow Jackets play Kentucky State on Saturday. Nothing wrong with giving your guys a little breather to get them through the dog days of January.
• As DeMarcus Cousins blossoms into the best center in the country, it's worth remembering he would have been playing for UAB if the school had backed up Mike Davis and given Cousins a written promise to let him out of his letter of intent if Davis took another job. Pretty foolish move on UAB's part.
• I guess I'm the last one to say this, but I'm starting to believe North Carolina might really miss out on the NCAA tournament. Losing at home by 15 to Virginia? This is not a good start towards being named the program of the decade.
• Safe to say Washington State guard Klay Thompson, who is ranked sixth in the nation in scoring (22.3 ppg), would just as soon forget the Cougars' game at Washington last Saturday. Thompson was removed from the starting lineup by coach Ken Bone for missing the team bus, and then he scored a season-low seven points in a 28-point loss.
• I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the difference between emotion and intensity. Nobody exemplifies that balance better than Kansas State, which leads the nation in free throw attempts (intensity) but is ranked fifth nationally in personal fouls (emotion). But my goodness can those guys pursue the ball.
• Now do you understand why I've had such a man-crush all season on Baylor? If you'll recall, I rated them a BUY-PLUS in my stock report.
• I think you can also see why the Jigsaw Man wanted to give South Florida guard Dominique Jones to Duke. All Jones has done the last eight days is score 46, 28 and 37 points in wins over Providence, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. The best part: Jones scored 38 of those points from the foul line while attempting a total of 12 three-pointers. That's how you get Capone.
• Arizona senior guard Nic Wise will get the most love for hanging 30 points on California Sunday afternoon, but I'm telling you, I love this Derrick Williams kid. The 6-8 forward, who originally committed to USC, has been amazingly consistent for a freshman, scoring in double figures in all but two games. He had 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds against the Bears.
• Anyone else notice that William & Mary is tied for fifth in the CAA? Doesn't sound like an at-large team to me.
(Last week's ranking on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kansas (2)2. Kentucky (1)3. Villanova (3)4. Syracuse (4)5. Michigan State (5)6. Georgetown (6)7. Kansas State (10)8. Duke (8)9. Tennessee (9)10. West Virginia (11)11. Ohio State (13)12. Gonzaga (12)13. Wisconsin (15)14. Purdue (16)15. Vanderbilt (NR)16. Baylor (24)17. Texas (7)18. New Mexico (NR)19. Siena (NR)20. Georgia Tech (18)21. BYU (23)22. Pittsburgh (14)23. Butler (NR)24. Xavier (NR)25. Cornell (NR)
Dropped out of my rankings: Clemson (17), Connecticut (19), Ole Miss (20), Northwestern (21), Temple (22), Oklahoma State (25).
Skinny: Kansas saved a lot of voters the trouble of deciding whom to vote for as the No. 1 team by winning at K-State. I did not know who I would have chosen, but you can see by this ballot which direction I was leaning. I'm sure I would have gotten outvoted (and I'm guessing I have Kentucky higher than they will end up in the final tally), but I don't get the logic that I'm supposed to vote a one-loss team lower than other one-loss teams solely because its loss occurred last week as opposed to last month. When I look at the body of work, and more important when I check my instincts and ask who's better, I still give a very slight edge to Kentucky over Villanova and Syracuse.
I was inclined to drop Duke much further because of how soundly it was beaten by Georgetown, but that didn't seem right considering Georgetown was at home and I had the Hoyas ranked ahead of the Blue Devils going in. Even though Kansas State lost at home to the Jayhawks, I wanted to reward the Wildcats for playing so tough, and also for beating a very good Baylor team in Waco. As for Texas, who Baylor knocked off over the weekend, the Longhorns are in danger of following UConn and North Carolina right out of the polls. But as I wrote at the top, I still believe they will get themselves back on track.
Vanderbilt fans have been on me all season for not ranking their Commodores, so I hope I made it up to them by installing their team at No. 15 on the basis of the win at Tennessee. I probably left the Vols higher than they should be, but I don't think you can make a strong case that the teams ranked behind them are definitely better. You'll also notice that I left Wisconsin ahead of Purdue, even though the Boilermakers beat the Badgers last week. That game was in West Lafayette, and it was darn close. From a rankings standpoint, I call that a wash.
Meanwhile, Xavier is very quietly sitting alone in first place atop a very good Atlantic 10. It's time the Musketeers got a little AP love. I'm guessing that some other teams will notch impressive wins this week that will knock Cornell off my ballot, but the Big Red delivered a rankings-worthy statement against Harvard over the weekend.
The list of teams I considered but left out leads with Clemson, Missouri, UAB and Northern Iowa. UNI gets Wichita State and Southern Illinois at home this week. If the Panthers can win those two, they could very well be back on my ballot next week.