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How Alarmed Should These Four Contenders Be by Their Disappointing Starts?

Nobody's season ends in November, but these preseason Top 25 teams haven't played the way we thought they would.

Nobody should panic at this point of the season. Teams have time to sort out their issues before the start of conference play, and it’s far too soon to even begin discussing seeds, regions and possible upsets in the bracket. The national landscape is bound to undergo major change between now and March. That said, a handful of teams already have less rosy outlooks than they did when the season opened after suffering unexpected losses. Some of these defeats raise major alarms and could leave huge stains on NCAA tournament résumés. Others aren’t a huge deal and will be quickly forgotten.

The four squads listed below began 2017–18 ranked in the AP Top 25 poll but have since taken at least one L. My goal is to explain what has gone wrong so far and whether it can be fixed. This is the second version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops observations bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Arizona (4–3; losses to NC State, SMU and Purdue)

It is important to state something up front about the Wildcats: They were not overrated entering this season. They returned a National Player of the Year candidate (Allonzo Trier) and other proven rotation cogs (Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright) from a team that won 32 games in reaching the Sweet 16, and brought in a top-three recruiting class featuring a candidate to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft (DeAndre Ayton) as well as two other top-40 prospects (Brandon Randolph, Emmanuel Akot).

Arizona’s brew of seasoned contributors and incoming talent made it a defensible choice to be ranked No. 1 to open the season, which Sports Illustrated did despite the FBI investigation looming over the program. So it was stunning to watch this team unravel over three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. In falling to NC State, SMU and Purdue, the Wildcats suffered their first three-game losing streak since February 2010, during the first season of head coach Sean Miller’s tenure in Tucson.

Against the Wolfpack, Arizona allowed guards Allerik Freeman and Braxton Beverly to go off for a combined 44 points as NC State put up 1.23 points per possession. A day later, the Wildcats turned the ball over 20 times in 66 possessions and couldn’t contain Mustangs senior Ben Emelogu II (20 points, 7-of-11 shooting). And finally, gifted an opportunity to make amends for two ugly losses with a victory over a high-quality opponent, Arizona let the Boilermakers ring up 89 points in 69 possessions.

A simple diagnosis of what ailed the Wildcats during their three-game skid: They didn’t guard, and they didn’t take good care of the ball. The Wolfpack and Purdue connected on 58% of their twos against Arizona, almost 10 percentage points more than it allowed last season, when it ranked 137th in opponents’ 2PFG%. Arizona limited SMU to 29.2% shooting inside the arc, but it gave the ball away on 30% of its trips down the court and only turned the Mustangs over eight times.

The trio of defeats definitely will hurt Arizona in March. The Wildcats can still earn a favorable seed if they turn things around before Pac-12 play—Wednesday’s 91–56 stomping of Long Beach State was a nice step forward—but they’re way off the pace in the chase to earn a spot on the No. 1 line. The trip to the Bahamas was by far Arizona’s best opportunity to stack up valuable wins before the start of conference play. That holds true even when you take into account the Wildcats’ upcoming matchups against likely SEC tourney representatives Texas A&M (Dec. 5) and Alabama (Dec. 9).

Arizona is too talented, and too well-coached, to let this early skid spoil its season. The three teams that beat the Wildcats in Nassau shot aberrantly well from behind the three-point line against them (42.2%), and Trier played one of the worst games of his college career against the Boilermakers. It seems more likely that this was a temporary dip that can be surmounted than a representative sample of Arizona’s form over the course of this season. They almost certainly won’t drop three straight games again.

Purdue (6–2; losses to Tennessee and Western Kentucky)

Arizona wasn’t the only league championship contender to endure a rough Feast Week. At the same Battle 4 Atlantis event as the Wildcats, Purdue lost a pair of games in consecutive days to Tennessee and Western Kentucky. The two defeats came by a combined seven points, and the first one, against the Volunteers, went to overtime. Still, for a squad that began the season looking like Michigan State’s most serious challenger in the Big Ten, the B4A offered a startling reality check.

The Boilermakers excelled at limiting opponents’ offensive rebounds the past two seasons, in part because of the presence of double-double machine turned first-round draft pick Caleb Swanigan, but they allowed Tennessee to recover nearly 40% of its missed shots last Wednesday. On Thursday, Western Kentucky wasn’t as prolific on the offensive glass, but it had plenty of success on its first shot attempts, putting up 1.12 points per possession, the highest figure Purdue has yielded so far this season.

The Boilermakers had the good fortune of following up those two losses with a game against an Arizona squad that was clearly out of sorts. Purdue blitzed the Wildcats with 11-of-22 three-point shooting, including eight combined treys from Dakota Mathias and Carsen Edwards, in a 25-point rout that should go a long way with the selection committee, barring the unlikely scenario that Arizona is unable to steady itself over the next month after its Bahamas bloodbath.

Tuesday night’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge conquest of Louisville at Mackey Arena also is likely to hold up as a big-time out-of-conference data point on Selection Sunday despite the Cardinals’ scandal-induced coaching change, and Purdue recorded it despite connecting on only five of its 23 three-point attempts and being held below a point per possession. Mathias came through again with three second-half makes from deep, raising his his long-range hit rate on the season to 53.5% on 43 attempts.

Purdue may have sustained two surprising losses to inferior opponents on Paradise Island, but its positive work over the following five days was just as important. In downing Arizona and Louisville, the Boilermakers picked up two significant non-league wins that will grant them a greater margin of error during conference play, which begins on Friday at Maryland, followed two days later by a home meeting with Northwestern. (The odd timing owes to the Big Ten staging its league tournament at Madison Square Garden a week early.)

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Purdue still looks like the Big Ten’s primary threat to Michigan State, particularly in light of Minnesota’s home loss to Miami on Wednesday. The Boilermakers are shooting well from both sides of the arc, with Mathias sporting an unsustainably high three-point percentage through eight games, and they have the potential to rank among the conference’s top defenses this season. Neither the Terrapins nor the Wildcats look like they’ll push Purdue in league play, but the visit to College Park should be a solid test.

Saint Mary’s (5–2; losses to Washington State and Georgia)

This season began with promise for the Gaels. Gonzaga, its prime competitor in the West Coast Conference, was coming off its first appearance in the national championship game, but the Zags waved farewell to three upperclassmen starters (Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Przemek Karnowski) from that team, as well as a reserve big man (Zach Collins) picked in the lottery of this year’s draft. The roster turnover seemingly cleared the way for Saint Mary’s to win a league title. 

Unlike Gonzaga, the Gaels still had their offensive centerpiece, senior center Jock Landale, and they were losing only one starter (Joe Rahon) from the squad that won 29 games and finished in second place behind the Zags in the WCC standings last season. Saint Mary’s projected to have one of the most potent scoring attacks in Division I, one that revolved around a super-efficient interior finisher and volume rebounder (Landale) plus two lethal long-range shooters (Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson).

Less than a month into the season, a reorientation may be in order. The Zags, at 6–1 and coming off a promising showing at the PK80 Invitational, look better equipped to take the WCC than the Gaels, which suffered a pair of losses to Washington State and Georgia at the Wooden Legacy tournament. Both were close decisions, with the Cougars winning 84–79 last Friday and the Bulldogs prevailing 83–81 in overtime two days later, but neither team is projected to qualify for the NCAAs.

The issue in both games for Saint Mary’s is one that was easy to identify in the preseason. The Gaels could not consistently get stops against Washington State and Georgia, and they didn’t score enough to make up for it. Sophomore guard Malachi Flynn went off for 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting as the Cougars hit nearly three-fourths of their 35 two-point attempts, while the Bulldogs, an outfit we projected to have the No. 106 offense in the country, posted a season-high 1.19 points per possession.

Saint Mary’s has not created turnovers or blocked shots at a particularly high rate during much of Randy Bennett’s run in Moraga, but it managed to play top-30 defense anyway last season by limiting second-chance opportunities and guarding well inside the three-point arc. (The Gaels also benefited from poor opponent long-range shooting percentage, a statistic over which teams exert little control.) This season, Saint Mary’s ranks in the 12th percentile in Division I in half-court D, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology, and opponents are sinking 57.1% of their twos, good for 318th in the country.

The defensive warts could crop up again in March, but expect Saint Mary’s to sail through conference play without much turbulence even if it can’t protect its own basket sometimes. Landale is a nightmare cover for WCC big men, and the Gaels are making good on their preseason projection as a top-10 offense by ranking sixth in the country with a 124.7 offensive rating and recording a 58.5 effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of the three-point shot.

Saint Mary’s is going to need to keep it up. The long-term implications of two November losses to high-major opponents are more worrying for the Gaels than they would be for other programs from more prestigious conferences. With so few quality victories on offer in the WCC, Saint Mary’s is going to have to ace its league slate to have any shot of claiming an at-large bid. Its two matchups with Gonzaga, on Jan. 18 in Spokane and Feb. 10 in Moraga, will be critical. Saturday’s visit to Cal won’t move the needle.

Seton Hall (5–1; loss to Rhode Island)

The status quo in the Big East has not meaningfully changed from what it was before the season. Villanova is the best team, and the rest of the conference is chasing it. Seton Hall has been a compelling candidate to claim second place since big man Angel Delgado announced in May that he would return for his senior campaign. A one-point loss on a neutral court to a team that earned 27 of 28 possible first-place votes in its league’s preseason poll does not change that.

Last Thursday, in the opening game of the NIT Season Tip-Off event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Rhode Island senior Jared Terrell went off for 32 points in a 75–74 win over the Pirates that looks even better for the Rams when factoring in the absence of star guard E.C. Matthews due to a fractured wrist. This was a tight game between two teams capable of making the second weekend of the tournament that turned, in large part, on shooting: Rhode Island went 9-of-17 from three-point range and 16-of-17 from the free-throw line, while Seton Hall knocked down 5-of-12 from deep and 9-of-16 from the stripe.  

The result hurts the Pirates in that it deprived them of an opportunity to face ACC powerhouse Virginia in the championship game. (The Hoos thrashed the Rams, 70–55.) But Seton Hall flushed away any lingering disappointment the next day by handling SEC foe Vanderbilt 72–59 in the third-place game. Plus, the Pirates will have a couple more opportunities to spruce up their out-of-league CV over the next week, starting with Thursday night’s matchup against No. 22 Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden.

That game against the Red Raiders and a trip to Louisville on Sunday should tell us quite a bit more about Seton Hall’s prospects for challenging Villanova, but on the whole, the Pirates look like a tough, veteran group that will go hard on every Big East possession. Manufacturing good looks against Seton Hall will be a chore this season. It’s yielding only 0.79 PPP in the half court through six games, according to Synergy Sports, and it’s forcing giveaways on nearly a fourth of teams’ possessions.

Delgado continues to suck in rebounds on both ends of the floor and supply reliable inside finishing; Myles Powell is hitting at a higher rate both from the three-point and free-throw line as a sophomore than he did as a freshman (albeit over limited sample sizes); senior wing Dezi Rodriguez is scoring more efficiently than he did in his first three seasons in college and senior Khadeen Carrington should show progress at point guard as he gains more experience at the position.

The Pirates can only hope that opponents will start to miss more of their freebies; they’ve sank 77.8% so far, one of the 30 highest percentages in the country. Even if that persists, Seton Hall should roll into its Dec. 28 Big East opener against Creighton as no worse than a co-favorite with Xavier to grab runner-up status in the conference, and come March, a tight loss to the Atlantic 10 frontrunner will have faded into the rearview. The first two weeks of the Pirates’ season could have gone better, but they’ll be all right.