Welcome to the 2014-15 college basketball season, where the bluebloods are singin’ the blues.
Call them what you will -- traditional programs, dominant brands, 10-year wonders. The script has been flipped. This is one season where the headliners are not dominating the headlines.
This is the reality in today’s game. If you’re a good team, you lose some players. If you’re really good, you lose a lot of players. Right now, there are only three programs that appear capable of losing multiple draft picks over successive years and still compete for a national championship each season. So if you’re not Kentucky, Kansas or Duke, it’s only a matter of time before your uptick is followed by a downturn.
The problem is that fans are impatient. Every fan base wonders, if Kentucky can do it, why can’t we? Fans (not to mention local media and administrators) can live some bumps in the road, but a full-fledged swoon is harder to tolerate. So they want to know: How far down is this downturn going? How dry is the drought?
Not to worry. Your favorite Hoop Thinker has peered into his crystal Spalding ball and assessed the future of 10 prestigious programs that are struggling this season -- at least, by their standards. If you are a fan of the Troubled 10, you want to know how this season will pan out, but even moreso, you want to know whether you can be optimistic about the future. Short term, long term, it’s all right here. Read it and hope -- or weep.
Connecticut (9-5, 2-1 American)
Short term: Sure, the loss to Yale at home was embarrassing, but look at the Huskies’ other losses: West Virginia, Texas and Duke, and then another one at home in overtime to Temple when Ryan Boatright did not play after halftime. They have won three straight with Boatright back in the lineup, and while nobody is reasonably expecting another deep run in the tournament, it would be pretty surprising to see UConn fail to get into the bracket. The question of who will emerge as a Robin to Boatright’s Batman remains unanswered, but there is no shortage of good candidates.
Long term: The Huskies will lose Boatright, who is a senior, but Kevin Ollie recruited a stellar heir apparent in Jalen Adams, a 6-foot-1 point guard from Brewster Academy in New Hampshire whom Daniels ranks No. 27 in the senior class. I’ve seen Adams play, and I believe he is better prepared to have an impact as a freshman than either Boatright or Shabazz Napier were. The Huskies also got a commitment from 6-9 forward Steve Enoch (ranked No. 66), but the Huskies’ biggest target (literally) is Diamond Stone, the 6-10 man-child from Milwaukee. It’s doubtful anyone on this team is turning pro early, so if the Huskies get Stone, then they will be a top-15 team next year. Even if they don’t, there is very little long-term concern here.
Florida (9-6, 2-0 SEC)
Short term: The Gators graduated the four-senior nucleus that took them to the Final Four, but they entered the season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll because people assumed that two sophomores, point guard Kasey Hill and forward Chris Walker, would take giant leaps forward. They didn’t. Now, the only question is whether this is the worst offensive team Billy Donovan has had in Gainesville, or just one of the worst. On the other hand, none of the Gators’ losses were awful (the worst were a two-point loss at home to Miami and the buzzer at Florida State on the Jacob Kurtz own-goal), and the SEC does not have a lot of quality teams. I’m guessing the Gators will not make the NCAA tournament, but even if they do, they won’t scare anyone.
Long term: The good news is that the Gators shouldn’t lose anyone to the NBA, unless Walker unwisely decides to make the leap. The problem is, while Billy Donovan has commitments from two top-50 players, Daniels ranks their class No. 21 in the country. The Gators are out of scholarships, so they won’t be adding any more players to this group. They have two transfers sitting out and a third player, Devon Walker, who will be back after tearing his ACL. If you look at last year’s Final Four squad as well as the back-to-back champs of 2005 and ’06, those rosters were not stacked with a lot of highly-ranked recruits. Donovan will have this team a lot more relevant next season, but it’s going to be a little while before the Gators return to national prominence.
Indiana (12-4, 2-1 Big Ten)
Short term: After preseason turmoil and an early loss at home to Eastern Washington, a lot of people gave up on the Hoosiers. But they’re in pretty good shape, especially when you consider they lost three lottery picks in the last two years. Indiana is small and young, with no seniors in the 10-man rotation. Yet, they responded like men from their blowout loss at Michigan State, pulling away from Ohio State to win, 69-66, at home. The Big Ten is down, and Indiana only has to play Wisconsin once (albeit in Madison), so I’d say there’s a better than 50-50 chance that the Hoosiers will make the NCAA tournament. That would be a nice accomplishment for this team.
Long term: I’d be surprised if any of these Hoosiers turn pro, although freshman guard James Blackmon Jr. and sophomore forward Troy Williams may be tempted to explore the possibility. It’s imperative this roster stays intact, because Tom Crean missed out on several of his top prospects during the current recruiting cycle. According to Daniels, they will probably not make his list of the top 25 classes in the country.
Memphis (9-6, 2-2 American)
Short term: Spoiler alert: The Tigers are not going to the NCAA tournament. After losing three starters and four of its top six scorers, Memphis is in rebuilding mode. Getting Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, a 6-4 junior, eligible was supposed to be a break, but now he barely gets in the game. And once-promising sophomore forward Kuran Iverson is in Josh Pastner’s doghouse after he retweeted a nasty tweet about the coach. The Tigers’ nonconference schedule wasn’t as challenging as it has been in the past, but when they did play good teams, they didn’t play well. And they still have to travel to Gonzaga on Jan. 31.
Long term: The flip side to being such a young team is that you get everybody back next year. So that should help. Also, after Pastner failed to procure any of Daniels’ top 100 recruits this year, he landed a quality pair for next season -- Dedric and Keelon Lawson, two forwards (and brothers) who are from Memphis. They must be really good, because Pastner hired their father as an assistant to get them. It would be nice if Memphis fans were patient with this rebuilding process, but that is not in their DNA. They’ll be watching a better team next season. How much better remains to be seen.
Michigan (10-6, 3-1 Big Ten)
Short term: Did you give up on the Wolverines after they lost four straight, including home games to NJIT and Eastern Michigan? I know I almost did. Yet, Michigan owns a win over Syracuse and darn near beat Villanova, so maybe there’s hope. Still, the only remaining players who played in the championship game against Louisville are Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht. Michigan withstood the attrition last year, but two years in a row was just too much. What’s left is a team with very little inside presence, and a formidable three-man perimeter that is too dependent on jump shots. If John Beilein can get this team into the NCAA tournament, they should give him tenure.
Long term: Unfortunately, it looks like the Wolverines will lose yet another underclassman to the pros. LeVert, the 6-foot-7 junior who originally committed to Ohio, is a projected first-round pick. That’s going to sting, because according to Daniels, John Beilein is about to have his three-year streak of top 25 recruiting classes come to an end. After missing on several key targets, Beilein does not have a commitment yet for the Class of 2015. Michigan is in the mix for one of the top players in the class, 6-7 Georgia native Jaylen Brown, and Daniels says he will probably visit Ann Arbor in the next several weeks. But all of the top dogs are after Brown, so I wouldn’t bank on him coming. For what it’s worth, Michigan has Division III transfer Duncan Robinson sitting out, and though I only saw him practice once, I think he has a chance to be a terrific stretch four in Beilein’s system.
Michigan State (12-5, 3-1 Big Ten)
Short term: It might seem like the Spartans don’t belong on this list, but given their history, their status as a borderline top 25 team qualifies as a comedown. Michigan State lost three of its top four scorers and brought in a so-so recruiting class, so all things considered it is having a good season. Three of their four losses were in overtime, and as freshman swingman Javon Bess gets healthy, the Spartans’ rotation will be more sturdy. Michigan State will be in the NCAA tournament, but it’s not a short-list candidate to make the Sweet 16.
Long term: No coach the last few years has finished second on the recruiting trail more often than Tom Izzo, and almost every player he lost ended up at Kentucky, Kansas or Duke. But if you think that means he is setting his sights a little lower, then you don’t know Izzo. Losing seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson will hurt, but Izzo is bringing in a solid class featuring Matt McQuaid, a ridiculous long-range shooter who originally committed to SMU, and Deyonta Davis, a 6-9 forward from inside the state. But the biggest prize is still to come as Izzo is going hard after Caleb Swanigan, a 6-8 power forward from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a must get. The Spartans also have a transfer from West Virginia, Errol Harris, who is sitting out this season. If Swanigan comes on board, then the Spartans could contend for a Big Ten title. If he doesn’t, next season could look a lot like this one -- which is to say, not terrible, but not what we’re used to.
San Diego State (12-4, 2-1 Mountain West)New Mexico
Long term: The freshmen that Steve Fisher brought in this year have potential, but none has made a dramatic impact this season. Those guys will improve, but the class for next season is not quite as good. That’s why it’s so important that 6-8 junior Winston Shepard doesn’t try to enter the NBA draft, because the Aztecs are already losing three important seniors. I know Fisher just announced a new contract extension, but that is no guarantee he will be back next year. Even if he leaves, the school has already named his top assistant, Brian Dutcher, as the head coach in waiting. So the foundation is still strong in this program, but I don’t foresee it returning to the heights of recent years anytime soon.
St. John’s (11-4, 0-3 Big East)
Short term: This is a big year for Steve Lavin, who is in his fifth year at St. John’s but hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since his first. The Red Storm are loaded with upperclassmen, almost knocked off Gonzaga, and then won at Syracuse to enter the top 25. That, however, was followed by a three-game losing streak in the Big East. It should be noted, however, that none of those were “bad” losses (at Seton Hall, vs. Butler, at Villanova), and the Storm played the Butler game without sixth man guard Rysheed Jordan, who was dealing with family issues in Philadelphia. The problem is that the Big East is tough; next up is a road date at Providence on Wednesday. Remember as well that St. John’s lost five in a row around time last year before rallyinh to win nine of its next 10 to get back into the NCAA conversation. So provided they can keep their thin rotation intact and get some lucky breaks along the way, the Red Storm should be back in the field of 68. But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Long term: St. John’s suffered a devastating defeat when Isaiah Briscoe, a 6-3 combo guard from Newark, opted for Kentucky. There’s no shame in losing recruits to John Calipari, of course, but Steve Lavin had put a lot of eggs in this basket. They have a commitment from a Philadelphia player whom Daniels rates as a three-star prospect, and over the weekend they nabbed an important pickup in Brandon Sampson, a 6-4 wing from Louisiana. Still, this is not the type of class Lavin needed when he is on the verge of losing three seniors from his starting lineup.
Syracuse (12-4, 3-0 ACC)
Short term: It has been entertaining to watch this team struggle, if only so we can watch Jim Boeheim gripe about it. (I’ve often said it’s time for someone to launch the Jim Boeheim Press Conference Channel.) Yet, despite being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, the Orange almost won at Villanova, and it is still in position to get a lot of quality wins in the ACC. Boeheim is only playing seven guys, so it is imperative that everybody stays healthy. An NCAA berth is still very much within reach.
Long term: With his longtime assistant Mike Hopkins at his side, Jim Boeheim has never had a problem procuring players. His problem has been keeping them. For example, Boeheim publicly mocks the idea that 6-10 freshman forward Chris McCullough, who hasn’t scored in double digits since Dec. 6, will turn pro, but McCullough’s name still appears on some mock draft boards, and for many kids that is enough. Still, this is going to be the sixth straight year that Daniels will rank Syracuse’s recruiting class, which includes four top-100 players, in his top 25. Daniels also reports that Syracuse is in the lead for Thomas Bryant, a 6-10 center from West Virginia. If Bryant commits, this will be a top-five class. Also, remember that 6-9 junior center DaJuan Coleman, who is taking a medical redshirt this season, will be eligible next year. As down years go, Syracuse isn’t all that down, and things will be looking up real soon.
[Editor's Note: Syracuse announced this afternoon, after this article was originally published, that McCullough has a torn ACL and is out for the season.]
UCLA (10-7, 2-2 Pac 12)Arizona
Long term: This team is super young, so just by getting older it should improve next season. Still, to say this is a big recruiting year for Alford is a huge understatement, because Looney is as good as gone. The Bruins have commitments from two elite guards in Prince Ali and Aaron Holiday, Jrue’s younger brother. But UCLA has also missed out on a slew of targets. According to Daniels, they are still in the mix for a few of the best players in the seniors class (Jaylen Brown, Stephen Zimmerman, Ivan Rabb, Brandon Ingram), so if you’re a UCLA fan, you better hope Alford can land at least one of them. Otherwise, UCLA’s improvement next year will be modest at best.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• John Calipari was starting to move away from the platoon system before Alex Poythress got hurt. Now that his rotation has been trimmed to nine, the platoon idea is getting dicier. But what should really rejigger his thinking is the fact that the Harrison twins, who were a combined 6-for-30 in the great escape at Texas A&M, are not warranting the same minutes that the freshman duo of Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker are right now. Booker in particular has been ridonkulous of late, having made 16 of his last 21 three-point attempts. I’m not saying the Harrison twins can’t help this team win, but I am saying that their minutes should be dictated by how they’re playing.
• Incidentally, I am definitely losing confidence in my prediction that Kentucky will enter the NCAA tournament undefeated, but let’s remember the Wildcats did win two games last week while playing pretty poorly. I also fall back on the fact that Florida was perfect in the SEC last season with far less talent.
• Yes, Wisconsin’s loss at Rutgers on Sunday was a shock, and yes, the Badgers still should have won the game even without Frank Kaminsky, who sat out with concussion-like symptoms. But it was a lot more difficult overcoming the loss of senior point guard Traevon Jackson, who left the game early in the second half with a foot injury and did not return. Bo Ryan could prepare his team to play without Kaminsky, but Jackson’s absence was unexpected. And yet, the Badgers could have won the game had they gotten more from Sam Dekker, who missed all four of his three-point shots and was 6-for-15 from the field. I was in Madison for Wisconsin’s win over Purdue last week, and I can report unequivocally that Dekker’s ankle is no longer an issue. The issue with Dekker is the same as it has always been -- his confidence is not commensurate with his ability. He still tends to let his outside shooting dictate the way he plays. In other words, he still needs to get better at playing well when he’s not playing well.
• As for Duke, the Blue Devils have two serious but correctable problems right now. The first is that they are playing poor defense. They let Wake Forest shoot 46 percent from the floor, and they let N.C. State shoot 55 percent, including 10-for-16 from three-point range. Defense was a major issue for Duke last year, but this season Mike Krzyzewski has the pieces to be a solid defensive team. The other problem Duke is facing is that its players are not reacting well when defenses double team Jahlil Okafor, which is surprising because it is such an obvious strategy. Okafor played 66 minutes in those two games and did not have an assist. On the season, he only has 19. He needs to do a better job of recognizing the double teams, but his teammates also need to do a better job of moving without the ball.
• Yes, that was a great win at Notre Dame, but Virginia got a big, unfair assist when, during a key moment late in the second half, Bennett was awarded a time out while (actually, after) his point guard, London Perrantes, was falling out of bounds. The Cavaliers got another possession and hit a three-pointer. Goodness gracious sakes alive, can we finally get rid of the live-ball time outs? They’re not allowed in international ball. Does Aaron Rodgers get to call time out right before he’s sacked? At the very least, we should eliminate the ability of coaches to call time out. (Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News is my fellow warrior on this crusade, so I must be right.)
• Question: Which team has won more games away from home than anyone else in the country? Take a guess. Answer below.
• Keep your eye on Oklahoma State, folks. The Cowboys are small, quick and fun to watch. They darn near knocked off Iowa State in Ames and thoroughly outplayed Texas in Stillwater. During a year when it is hard to find made baskets, Oklahoma State has the Big 12’s two leading scorers in Phil Forte and Le’Bryan Nash. Plus, they’re old, which is even harder to come by. We’ll learn a lot more about this team when it play at Kansas and at Oklahoma in its next two games.
• Speaking of Texas, it was impressive watching 6-11 freshman forward Myles Turner make all four of his three-point attempts, but beyond that the Longhorns, who also lost at home to Oklahoma last Monday, are really struggling in the halfcourt. Jonathan Holmes was a combined 2-for-19 (0-for-11 from three) in the two losses. Coaches sure know how to scout their league opponents, don’t they?
• At some point Maryland senior forward Evan Smotrycz, who missed eight games because of a broken foot, will get into shape and become a solid contributor, possibly a starter. The Terps also just added to their roster Ivan Bender, a 6-9 forward from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bender has been inactive for a year following an ACL injury so it’s unclear how good his conditioning is, but he’s another big body with potential. So as good as this team is, it still has another gear.
• LSU coach Johnny Jones got a terrific pickup last week when Antonio Blakeney, an athletic combo guard from Florida, committed to play for the Tigers. Blakeney is the player whose decommitment from Louisville (which was supposedly influenced by Louisville’s affiliation with adidas) prompted Rick Pitino to bemoan the role that sneaker companies play in recruiting. LSU also has the top player of the class of 2015 in 6-8 point forward Ben Simmons. Suffice to say, it has been a loooong time since LSU could claim a recruiting class of this caliber.
• Here’s an obscure rule for you, as pointed out by ESPN’s Seth Greenberg. If a defensive player accidentally tips the ball into his own basket, the ball must clear the net before the clock hits zero, or the shot does not count. If it’s an offensive player, the ball only needs to leave his hand before the clock hits zero.
• The best move of the weekend was turned in by Rutgers, which held its fans from rushing the court after the big upset over Wisconsin until the Badgers could clear the floor. Contrast that with the scene at N.C. State, where Mike Krzyzewski had to start clearing his team before the buzzer sounded because the fans were getting ready to storm. This is just common sense, people.
• When sophomore guard Marcus Foster, who is far and away Kansas State’s best player, was not performing up to standards, Bruce Weber yanked him from the starting lineup. Foster pouted during that game, a 14-point loss at Oklahoma State, but in his next game he scored 23 off the bench in a win over TCU. Foster returned to the starting lineup on Saturday and scored 14 points in a stunning road win at Oklahoma. That included a baseline floater that sent the game into OT and a three-pointer that won it. So, then, to review: Young man acts immaturely. Coach holds him accountable. Young man grows up. Team wins. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
• VCU guard Briante Weber had five steals in the Rams’ win over St. Joseph on Saturday, moving him into fourth place on the NCAA’s alltime list. Weber is now just 28 shy of surpassing Providence’s John Linehan of 385. Just making sure you knew.
• Ssshhh! Kansas guard Brannen Greene has not missed a free throw this season. He’s 17-for-17. Please don’t tell anyone.
• Did you see that NJIT beat Yale over the weekend? Remember now, NJIT is the only Division I school that is not in a conference. It’s hard enough for coach Jim Engles to fill out a schedule. If his guys keep beating good teams, it’s only going to get harder.
• Gonzaga was supposed to add Eric McClellan, a 6-3 junior who is midseason transfer from Gonzaga. However, he is in limbo because of a slight break in his right foot that he sustained before Christmas. The team is hoping he’ll be available within the next week or two.
• Answer: West Virginia.
• I totally disagree with the idea that college basketball should go to six fouls. Is that what this game really needs? More fouls?
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
* Weekend games not included
Oklahoma State at Kansas, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
I realize the Jayhawks are nearly unbeatable in Allen Fieldhouse, but this team has been limping along the last couple of weeks, and I believe the Cowboys are coming in loaded with speed and confidence. They’re called upsets for a reason.
Oklahoma State 75, Kansas 73
Oklahoma at West Virginia, Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
The Mountaineers dropped a tough one at home to Iowa State over the weekend. Oklahoma actually matches up well with them -- the Sooners’ veteran guards should be able to handle West Virginia’s fullcourt pressure -- but it’s hard to imagine this team losing two in a row in Morgantown.
West Virginia 70, Oklahoma 67
VCU at Rhode Island, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
VCU is clearly the class of the Atlantic 10, but the Rams are not going to be perfect in this league. Danny Hurley’s Rams played a terrific nonconference schedule and will be ready for this one. I’m especially a fan of Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews, a 6-5 sophomore from Detroit who is the league’s second-leading scorer at 17.4 ppg.
Rhode Island 69, VCU 66
Iowa State at Baylor, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
All due credit to the Cyclones for winning two tough league games last week by a total of four points. Baylor’s not a bad team, though, and the Bears badly need this win to keep from dropping to 1-3 in the Big 12. You all know how much I love desperate home teams.
Baylor 71, Iowa State 67
North Carolina at N.C. State, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Both of these teams scored emotional wins at home over the weekend against Louisville and Duke, respectively. But the Tar Heels’ level of play was a lot closer to what they have done in their other games this season, whereas the Wolfpack performed miserably in home losses to Wofford, West Virginia and Cincinnati.
North Carolina 74, N.C. State 67
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Virginia (6)
3. Duke (2)
4. Gonzaga (5)
5. Louisville (4)
6. Wisconsin (3)
7. Utah (9)
8. Villanova (11)
9. Notre Dame (12)
10. Arizona (7)
11. North Carolina (14)
12. VCU (15)
13. Maryland (10)
14. Kansas (16)
15. Iowa State (22)
16. Oklahoma (13)
17. Wichita State (17)
18. West Virginia (18)
19. Michigan State (NR)
20. Texas (8)
21. Northern Iowa (20)
22. Indiana (23)
23. Wyoming (NR)
24. Arkansas (NR)
25. Seton Hall (21)
Dropped out: Temple (19), Stanford (24), Old Dominion (25)
It was a quiet week -- for a while. Then all hell broke loose over the weekend, with Duke, Louisville, Texas, Wisconsin and Arizona all losing. It was especially difficult to figure out what to do with Wisconsin, given that the Badgers were so short-handed in that loss to Rutgers. Before that game, I was going to rank then at No. 2, but they had to drop some. I moved them to No. 7, but when Arizona fell at Oregon State late Sunday evening, the Badgers got bumped up a spot.
At this point in the season, it is hard to find a common theme on my ballot. My Twitter trolls love to point out my inconsistencies, and there are many. But my biggest rule right now is that it is really, really hard to win a conference road game. I don’t care who you’re playing or how many overtimes it takes, it’s really, really hard. So if a team loses on the road, it’s not going to suffer nearly as much as it does after a home loss. And the same holds true if a team loses to an opponent ranked above it.
Oklahoma lost at home to Kansas State and West Virginia lost at home to Iowa State, so that is reflected. Notre Dame lost at home to a higher-ranked team, and Maryland didn’t get dinged too badly for losing at Illinois, even though the Illini lost their leading scorer Rayvonte Rice. Michigan State got back into my rankings largely because of that impressive road win at Iowa.
We’re now at the point of the season where Wichita State and Gonzaga are going to rise simply by virtue of being in weaker conferences. Last year, I tried to keep the Shockers out of my top spot, but by the end of the season it was impossible because they were still perfect. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzaga does not lose another game between now and the tournament, but that does not mean the 'Zags should keep moving up, either.
I’ve been itching to vote for Wyoming for a while, and the Cowboys finally gave me reason to do so after beating Boise State to go 4-0 in the Mountain West, which puts them alone in first place. Wyoming has only lost twice this season, and both came on the road at SMU and Cal.
Arkansas finally gives the SEC a second ranked team in this space. Given how much the Razorbacks had coming back, I wish Mike Anderson had put together a stronger nonconference schedule, but they pulled out a nice road win at Georgia last week. Arkansas plays at Tennessee on Tuesday. The Volunteers are not very good right now, so if you’re a rank-worthy team, you should win that game.
Among my teams tied for 26th are Louisiana Tech, Iowa, Dayton, Stanford, Alabama, UConn, Baylor, Ohio State, Providence and Cincinnati. There are a lot of opportunities to impress poll voters this time of year. The rules of this game are simple: If you want to get noticed, you have to prove you can win on the road.