Powers Out: Duke, Kentucky among top-tier teams struggling this season
Earlier this week in the Bubble Watch, we highlighted the fact that a number of the blueblood programs across the country are suffering through uncharacteristically down seasons. From the heart of Tobacco Road to the Bluegrass State and out to the desert, programs that you can typically expect to be among the nation's leading Final Four contenders have had to recalibrate their expectations for this season. Below is a look at five of the most disappointing teams in the country, presented in order of most to least surprising.
Duke Blue Devils (16–6, 5–4 ACC)
The Blue Devils could have been expected to slip a little after winning the national championship last season and losing four starters, three of them freshmen studs in point guard Tyus Jones, center Jahlil Okafor and wing Justise Winslow. But for a program that has not just made every NCAA tournament since 1996 but has been seeded lower than No. 3 only twice in that time, they weren't expected to fall too far. Yet five weeks from Selection Sunday, Duke is unranked for the first time since 2007 and its five ACC wins have come against the five worst teams in the conference.
The Blue Devils' season took a turn for the worse when 6'9" senior forward Amile Jefferson suffered a fracture in his right foot in practice on Dec. 12. At that point Duke was 8–1 with wins over Indiana and VCU and ranked No. 7 by the AP. Since then, the Blue Devils have gone 8–5. There's no timetable yet for Jefferson's return, but even if he does come back and performs at the level close to where he'd been (10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game) he alone won't turn Duke into a Final Four threat. The Blue Devils rank just 129th nationally in adjusted defense, according to kenpom.com, and the upcoming schedule won't do them any favors. Four of Duke's next five games are against Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina, teams that rank No. 9, No. 5 and No. 4, respectively, in adjusted offense.
Kentucky Wildcats (16–6, 6–3 SEC)
Sure, the Wildcats lost seven players from last year's near-perfect team, but John Calipari been good enough at reloading with top recruits to make four of the past five Final Fours. Many expected Kentucky to return to the top of the SEC this season thanks to a recruiting class that included Skal Labissiere, who at one point was thought to be in contention with LSU's Ben Simmons to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, as well as five-star guards Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. Labissiere, though, has been one of the most disappointing players in the country, averaging 7.3 points and 2.7 rebounds through 22 games. Calipari has even made the move to take him out of the starting lineup in favor of unheralded junior Derek Willis.
Sophomore guard Tyler Ulis, the team's leading returning scorer, has done his part to help the Wildcats remain formidable, averaging 16.2 points and 6.1 assists per game. Across the roster, though, only four players average double-figure scoring, led by Murray at 17.5 points per game. The biggest problem facing Kentucky in making a potential return trip to the Final Four could be its difficulty playing away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. On the road, the Wildcats are 2–5. The most recent loss, Tuesday at Tennessee, could knock Kentucky out of the Top 25 altogether, just two months after they were ranked No. 1.
Vanderbilt Commodores (12–9, 4–4 SEC)
The Wildcats aren't the only SEC team falling short of expectations. Vanderbilt, which was ranked No. 18 in the AP's preseason Top 25, has a legitimate 7-footer in Damian Jones, great shooters like Matthew Fisher-Davis, Wade Baldwin and Riley LaChance—and an offense that ranks outside of kenpom.com's top 100 in adjusted efficiency. Jones and Baldwin are possible first-round NBA draft picks, yet they haven't been enough to preent the Commodores from falling onto the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Vandy has shot it well from behind the arc—its 16th in the country in three-point percentage at 40.1%—but it is just 173rd in two-point percentage, and are outside the top 200 in offensive rebounding. The Commodores are also turning the ball over at an alarming rate (17.7%), making them the 130th sloppiest team in the country in that metric.
While Vanderbilt's loss total is high, the good news is that none of them are particularly bad. Their Commodores' worst defeat, according to kenpom.com, was on the road to No. 51 Arkansas in overtime on Jan. 5. But they also don't have any marquee wins. They've missed opportunities to beat Kansas, Baylor, Dayton and South Carolina. Right now, their best win is over Florida, a bubble team itself. Vanderbilt was supposed to be the surprise contender in the SEC, not Texas A&M, but now it faces an uphill climb to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2012.
Arizona Wildcats (18–5, 6–4 Pac-12)
We’re into the first week of February, and Arizona has one win over a team in the RPI top 50. That team, Washington, is 49th, and no lock to make the NCAA tournament. Like some of the other teams on this list, the Wildcats lost a fair amount of talent in the off-season, with its top four scorers from last season—wing Stanley Johnson, forward Brandon Ashley and guards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell—having departed, all but McConnell doing so early for the NBA draft. Arizona has also dealt with injury issues this season, notably to freshman guard Allonzo Trier and senior center Kaleb Tarczewski. The latter has been back from multiple left foot injuries since the turn of the new year, but he has just recently started playing his usual complement of minutes. Trier, meanwhile, remains sidelined with a broken right hand. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the injury came just as Trier had seemingly gotten into rhythm in the college game; he averaged 19.5 points in the four contests before his injury. If and when he returns this season, he'll face an adjustment period to get back up to speed.
With or without Trier, head coach Sean Miller will have to get his team to figure out how to recapture its defensive tenacity. After finishing No. 1 and No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency in the past two seasons, Arizona has dipped to No. 44 this year. Perhaps when the Wildcats are fully healthy, they'll be more dangerous, but for now they are more vulnerable team than their fans are used to seeing.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (17–5, 9–2 WCC)
Gonzaga has made 17 straight NCAA tournaments. That’s tied for fourth with Wisconsin—another struggling team that just missed making this list—behind only Kansas (26), Duke (20) and Michigan State (18). And that streak is in serious jeopardy this season. The Bulldogs, which entered the year ranked No. 9 by the AP, have typically been powered by their offense. And while their effective field goal percentage is a healthy 55.1%, they rank just 45th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency by kenpom.com. That's not bad, considering there are 351 Division I teams, but it would be the second-worst finish for Gonzaga since 2001-02, the first season for which that website has such data.
The first of the Bulldogs' big problems is their lack of a solid ballhandler. At least that could have been anticipated after Kevin Pangos graduated following the Zags' Elite Eight run last year. Sophomore Josh Perkins leads the team with 3.6 assists per game, but he also averages 2.1 turnovers, numbers that pale next to Pangos's 4.8 assists and 1.6 turnovers a year ago. The second problem for this team arrived in December, when senior big man Prezmek Karnowski decided to end his season and undergo back surgery. Unless the Bulldogs find a way to upend—and yes, at this point, upset—Saint Mary's later this month, they'll likely finish somewhere other than first place in the West Coast Conference for just the third time under Mark Few. That would likely mean needing to win the WCC tournament in order to keep its NCAA tourney streak alive.