Mailbag: Where's Duke's defense? What's wrong with Washington?
Note: Seth Davis will periodically answer questions posed to him over Twitter, Facebook and emails sent through SI.com. Be sure to check out his Hoop Thoughts column every Monday and to send questions during his Twenty for Tuesday Q&A on Twitter at @SethDavisHoops. Trolls not included.
You know we’re entering the dog days of the season when the headlines are dominated by injuries more than games. So it’s fitting that this week’s Mailbag leads off with questions about three teams that have suffered significant setbacks the last few days.
What will happen to Wisconsin without Traevon Jackson? -- Brian Fischer (@B_fisha)
Can Cuse bounce back from the loss of McCullough and still compete in the ACC/be a tournament team? -- Dennis Ellis (@dellis2525)
Does loss of Hanner Perea help or hurt IU with the emergence of Emmitt Holt? -- Corey (@Zazmania)
I'll answer these injury questions in order, from least damaging to most:
I don’t want to sound crass, but for the Orange there are more upsides to this injury than downsides. McCullough, a 6-foot-10 freshman forward who is out for the season because of a torn ACL, can tease you with his potential and is a pretty good rebounder, but the game just moved too fast for him. He had not scored in double digits since Dec. 6, he was shooting just 56 percent from the foul line, and he was often lost defensively. In the process he became Jim Boeheim’s favorite target for postgame mockery. This was not going to end well.
Now, McCullough can slow down and learn the game by watching from the sideline. Syracuse can use more dependable (albeit less talented) replacements. Best of all, the prospects of McCullough possibly entering the NBA draft are diminished. I know this is a disappointing setback for the young man, but given the way athletes can return to form following ACL surgery, this can be helpful to his long-term development. And if McCullough comes back next season to join Boeheim’s top-flight recruiting class, he could be poised to help the Orange have a monster year.
2. Wisconsin without Jackson.
The Badgers clearly missed Jackson in their loss at Rutgers on Sunday night. They played the final 12 minutes, 17 seconds without him, and while the score was tied at that point, they had led by 12 points just five minutes prior to that. The Badgers were not prepared to play without Jackson in that game, but moving forward, they will be. That’s because they have a very capable backup in Bronson Koenig, a 6-3 sophomore who was highly recruited (North Carolina offered him, among others) after he led his high school team to two Wisconsin state titles.
Koenig, in fact, is far more prepared to take over the point than Jackson was two years ago, when he was thrust into the role after Josh Gasser blew out his knee in preseason practice. The team is projecting that Jackson will be out for six weeks, which would mean he would re-join the team for the final three regular season games and the postseason. By that point, Koenig will have a lot more reps than he would have had if Jackson had been healthy. If he plays as well as I expect, then that will present Bo Ryan with the high-class problem of having two very capable point guards. If not, then Jackson will be coming back in the nick of time. It won’t be easy for him to get up to speed, but he’s a senior who has started 84 consecutive games, and he’ll be surrounded by veteran teammates. So at Wisconsin, the best case scenario is still very good.
3. Indiana without Hanner Mosquera-Perea.
It’s a good thing that Mosquera-Perea is going to return from his knee injury in two to four weeks. The Hoosiers can get by without him in the short term, but his absence would be a problem in the long term. Mosquera-Perea is not even close to being Indiana’s best player, but he is the only viable big man on the roster right now, so in many ways he is the player the team can least afford to lose -- even if he is still maddeningly inconsistent.
Without Mosquera-Perea, there is no one in Tom Crean’s rotation who is taller than 6-7. The next man up is Emmitt Holt, the 6-7 freshman who accidentally struck his teammate, Devin Davis, with his car in the much-publicized accident on Halloween night. Holt was showing the ability recently to contribute in spurts, most notably in last weekend’s win at home over Ohio State, when he had 5 points and 7 rebounds in 14 minutes. Now, however, Holt will be force-fed minutes. His teammates will have to help him pick up the slack.
On the flip side, Indiana will get something of a free pass while Mosquera-Perea is out, at least in the eyes of NCAA tournament selection committee. In the next two weeks, the Hoosiers will play Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin on the road, and they’ll face Maryand and Rutgers at home. If they beat good teams, they will look resilient. If they lose, the committee will put a big ole asterisk next to the game because they were without their lone serviceable big man.
Of course, Indiana would be in much better shape if it still had Noah Vonleh, who left for the NBA after his freshman season, or Luke Fischer and/or Austin Etherington, who transferred to Marquette and Butler, respectively. That, however, is life as a college basketball program in 2014. You’ve got to go to war with the army you have.
Will Duke play defense this season? -- Jarred McDaniel (@WJMcDaniel)
The only thing more striking than the fact that Duke has played so poorly its last three games (including two losses) is the reason it played so poorly -- awful defense. This team had not shown any indication that it was susceptible, yet the Blue Devils have been abysmal these last three outings. Wake Forest, N.C. State and Miami shot a combined 95.8 percent from the floor, and they committed just 11, 10 and 11 turnovers, respectively. To add insult to deficiency, the Hurricanes also out-scored the Blue Devils 22 to 10 from the foul line, which is almost unheard of in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Finally, now that Duke is down to nine scholarship players because 6-8 sophomore forward Semi Ojeleye transferred to SMU, Mike Krzyzewski seems to be losing trust in his bench beyond Rasheed Sulaimon.
Overall, Duke is ranked 67th in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Just a week ago, they were 11th. That is better than last year’s rank of No. 116, but it is still not of championship caliber.
Unlike last season, Duke has the pieces it needs to be a very good, if not great, defensive team. It has another versatile, strong wing player in 6-6 freshman Justise Winslow, a decent rim protector in 6-11 freshman center Jahlil Okafor, and a capable backup center in 7-foot junior Marshall Plumlee. (He was technically on the team last season, but Krzyzewski lost confidence and did not develop him during conference play.) And while freshman point guard Tyus Jones is not going to scare anyone with his lock-down D, there is no reason he shouldn’t improve.
The main weakness -- again -- is stopping dribble penetration. Miami’s guards in particular shredded the Blue Devils’ defense with ease. The problem is more about positioning and poor rotations and help than it is ability. Duke’s players are way too aggressive while pressuring the passing lanes. They take too many risks, which is allowing penetration, and the help has been way too late. And Okafor, like a lot of big men, struggles to defend the screen-and-roll far away from the basket. You an expect every team they play to exploit this until Okafor makes them pay.
Given that the Miami game came on the heels of the N.C. State debacle, you can’t say the Blue Devils didn’t come out ready to play at home. They just don’t know how to play good team defense right now. But Duke fans should take heart. This team has good players, lots of time, and a coach who has a tendency to figure things out.
Kentucky still going undefeated? -- Chainzz (@quinzigg)
Yes, I admit my reach has become a very painful stretch, but guess what -- Kentucky still has not lost. Like everyone else, the Wildcats are going through some growing pains, and they were very fortunate to escape games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M with wins. But the fact that they won while playing so poorly is why I said they’ll go undefeated in the first place. Very few teams could be in those situations and still find a way to pull it out.
John Calipari is stubbornly sticking with his platoon system. This whole concept was designed to placate the Harrison twins. Yes, they are good, and yes they can help the Wildcats win, but there is no way that backcourt is deserving as the same number of minutes as their freshmen reserves, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. When a coach doles out minutes on the basis of keeping guys happy as opposed to what will most likely produce a win, then you’re asking for trouble.
But the bigger issue in those two games is that Kentucky did not bring the same competitive edge as it did against the likes of North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville. This team has a tendency to play up or down to the level of its competition. Bad habit. Maybe they were shell-shocked into believing otherwise, because they absolutely beat down Missouri at home this week. If you look at their schedule, you cannot find a single game they should lose if they are prepared to compete, especially considering this team does not have to play at Arkansas.
So, the short answer is yes, I still think they’re entering the tournament undefeated. But I am definitely less confident about it.
If anyone can dethrone Kansas in Big 12 who is most likely? -- Ted Flint (@TedFlintKansas)
Let me start by repeating what I’ve said numerous times: Bill Self’s streak of 10 consecutive conference titles is one of the most impressive streaks in all of sports. No program has lost more great players on an annual basis, yet Self always replenishes his cupboard and walks away a champ. Simply amazing.
Coming into the season, the assumption was that Texas would be the biggest challenger. But the Longhorns have surprisingly struggled since Isaiah Taylor came back, partly because Taylor is behind in his conditioning and timing, and partly because it is not easy to re-sync a point guard who has missed most of the season. Jonathan Holmes is playing terribly right now, but that is just a bump in the road. He’s too good and too experienced not to figure it out.
So, then, I will still put Texas in the top spot, despite its 1-2 start. Here’s how I would rank the top contenders:
4. Oklahoma. Sooners have a high floor but a low ceiling. The thin bench is becoming a growing concern.
5. Oklahoma State. If nothing else, the Pokes are really fun to watch. Small, quick, and they can really score the ball.
How many teams can win the Natty as of right now? Who are they? -- John Lopez (@Dub_Step_Jones)
The answer is 31. You think I’m crazy, right?
Well, if you go to the AP poll this same week last year, the Connecticut Huskies were the sixth team listed in Others Receiving Votes. They had lost their first two league games on the road against Houston and SMU, and they fell to Louisville at home by 12 points. Let’s also recall that on the eve of the NCAA tournament, the Huskies lost at Louisville by a whopping 33 points.
All of which just goes to prove the old adage that nobody knows anything. And yes, that includes all of us so-called experts. We’re guessing, just like you.
What's up with Washington? 11-0 start then flat on their butts. Coaching maybe? -- Kalani Garces (@KalaniGarces)
It has been remarkable to watch the Huskies drop four in a row after winning their first 11. The skid stared with a five-point loss at home to Stony Brook, but the main problem now is the Huskies have hit conference play. Scouting gets much tougher at this point of the season, and it hasn’t been hard for opponents to disrupt the Huskies’ offense. As good as 6-3 sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss has been, he is only making 22 percent from three-point range. That’s a problem because he’s the team’s leading scorer and has the ball in his hands the most. Overall, Washington’s 30.6 percent clip from three-point range is ranked 283rd in the country. In three conference games, the Huskies have committed 17 more turnovers than their opponents. That’s just sloppy, inefficient basketball.
So what’s the solution? Somehow, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar has to find a way to get his two big men, 7-foot sophomore Robert Upshaw and 6-9 senior forward Shawn Kemp Jr., more involved in the offense. That won’t be easy when teams are sagging off the shooters, but he has to find a way. Defensively, he has the best shot-blocker in the country in Upshaw, but the guards are not doing their part. According to KenPom.com, Washington is 316th in the country in defensive turnover percentage, and 334th in defensive steal percentage.
It’s not easy slogging through conference play with such glaring deficiencies on both sides of the ball, but Romar needs to right this team, beginning tonight at home against an Oregon State team that is flying high following its home upset over Arizona. Because unless Washington starts playing a whole lot better than it has been the last two weeks, this team is not going to be in the NCAA tournament.