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Taking Inventory of College Basketball Teams That Have Struggled or Surprised This Year

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College basketball was officially tequila drunk last night after five buzzer-beaters and two top-10 teams losing to unranked opponents. So with that happening I figured this is a good starting point of the season to start taking inventory of teams, mostly those that have either struggled compared to preseason expectations or those that have surprised. We’ll figure out what has gone wrong or right with each team, what they need to do going forward and an ultimate projection of where they end up come seasons end.

Struggles: 

Arizona 

Recap of the season so far: You have to start with the team that has been arguably the biggest disappointment thus far in the season. Now, they have turned the corner with two wins – a road win at UNLV and a neutral court win over Texas A&M – Arizona still has some problems. First, they can’t stop anyone in the paint. They have been getting attacked coming off the wings and then bigs in the paint. Part of that is due to DeAndre Ayton lacking at great rim protection. Another part of that is Arizona playing Ristic and Ayton together, which just isn’t a great lineup at the moment. Finally, the last part and a major part to the struggles so far this year is Arizona missing Rawle Alkins. Alkins is Arizona’s best perimeter defender, a decent shooter (37% last year) and a guy who adds a different look to this team. There’s a chance Alkins plays against Alabama this weekend according to a report today.

What needs to change going forward: Well, the obvious answer here is they need to get Alkins back. Once he comes back, Arizona should 100% go small with Ayton at the five and bring Ristic and Pinder off the bench. They should play PJC/Trier/Alkins/Randolph/Ayton as the starting five, with the ability to switch three or four positions and let Ayton stay in the paint. Right now with him at the four, teams are bringing in stretch fours and forcing Ayton to where he’s uncomfortable – getting out on the wing. He’s either giving up clean looks or clean passes, something that needs to change.

Non-conference games that could change public perception: Alabama (12/9), UConn (12/21)

Ultimate prediction: I think this team figures it out. This past week was absolutely huge to come from behind to beat UNLV on the road and beat a team like Texas A&M. Now, the one thing with both these teams are they like to play through two bigs, something that should play to Arizona’s strength. I want to see them beat a team that plays from the wings and we’ll have that chance once they start Pac-12 play against Arizona State. This is a team that can still win the Pac-12 and should be viewed as a second weekend team. The return of Alkins is one of the most important things in college basketball and I think you see Arizona end up a top-15 team.

Florida

Notable losses: Florida State (home), Loyola Chicago (home)

Recap of the season so far: Florida was the darling of college basketball no more than a week ago. They were one of the most fun teams in the country as they got up and down the floor, took a bunch of threes and played fast. They should have beat Duke in the PK80 finals, which won people over and made them a top-10 team and in talks as a Final Four type team. Then this week happened. They got punched in the mouth by Florida State at home on Monday. Then last night they got beat for 40 minutes by a Loyola Chicago team that was missing its best player for the second half.

What needs to change going forward: They need help on the interior. Teams are starting to attack Florida on the inside due to the small ball lineup and having no real post presence. That will change once John Egbunu returns from injury (should be in January). Right now the Gators are playing Kervarrius Hayes at the center spot and just getting killed inside. They rank about 200th in the country in defensive rebounding, part of which is how Duke ended up coming back to beat them. Right now this team is relying on shooting and it paid off early. They need to get KeVaughn Allen more involved in driving to the rim. Chiozza needs to continue to drive and look to finish at the rim or kick. Simply put they need to get tougher.

Non-conference games that could change public perception: Cincinnati (12/9), Clemson (12/16), Baylor (1/27)

Ultimate prediction: This team is going to be more up and down this season due to the reliance of the outside shot. When they are making the shots they can play with anyone in the country. When they are struggling to find open looks or are missing like they did against Loyola, they are going to lose games they shouldn’t. Ultimately the return of Egbunu should help on the interior and allow White to mix his lineups whether he wants to go big with Hayes and Egbunu or stay small. They’ll end up a top-3 team in the SEC once Egbunu comes back, but a loss to Cincinnati this week turns the non conference into a little bit of a disaster.

Wisconsin 

Notable losses: Xavier (home), Baylor (neutral), UCLA (neutral), Virginia (away), Ohio State (home), Temple (away)

Recap of the season so far: You can argue that they’ve lost close games and they really aren’t as bad the 4-6 record shows. However, watch them play. They struggle offensively if the ball isn’t in Ethan Happ’s hands. They got absolutely blown out by an okay Ohio State team at the Kohl Center. They’ve struggled down the stretch of games – giving up a game-winner to UCLA, letting Xavier pull away late and not putting Temple away when they were up 3 late in the game. This has been a reset year for Wisconsin. That’s what happens when you lose four starters and guys who are trying to fill in for those guys played minimal minutes. So far they have really just lacked consistent shooting, especially from the 3-point line. The staple of this team outside of Happ was supposed to be good shooting yet they rank 240th in the 3-point percentage.

What needs to change going forward: Someone needs to step up and be a consistent second player. Right now it looks like it’s going to be freshman Brad Davison, but the Badgers need one of the other older guys to be someone here. Brevin Prtizil to me has been a massive disappointment as he’s been with the program now for 3 years and is still just wildly inconsistent. Khalil Iverson is another guy you can look at in terms of players who should be more consistent. Until someone else steps up and takes some pressure off of Happ, this team is going to struggle this year.

Non-conference games that could change public perception: Marquette (12/9)

Ultimate prediction: They don’t look like an NCAA Tournament team at the moment and I don’t know how much that changes. Wisconsin isn’t going to have a quality nonconference win unless they beat Marquette on Saturday. It also doesn’t help that the Big 10 is down this year so the chance for great wins is going to be few and far between. Gard needs to do something different as this is now the second regular season in a row where Wisconsin hasn’t really looked impressive. Remember last year’s team was a No. 8 seed who made a run – it wasn’t like they dominated the regular season. I would start getting guys like Kobe King and Aleem Ford more action as freshmen and see if you can find something here. I know the swing offense is a staple at Wisconsin, but maybe try a couple different sets throughout the game. Try going small. At best this is a bubble team at the end of the year.

Surprises

Arizona State

Notable wins: San Diego State (home), Kansas State (neutral), Xavier (neutral)

Recap of the season so far: Arizona State has been one of the most prolific offenses in the country so far this season thanks to the backcourt of Tra Holder and Shannon Evans. The Sun Devils have scored under 90 points just once this season and that was the last game against San Francisco. They are shooting 42% from the 3-point line as a team (15th in the country) and have an effective field goal percentage of 61.7% (2nd in the country). When you watch them play you can see that Hurley has finally taken control of the program. He’s getting in guys that fit what he likes to do – which is go score and play physical. The rebounding has improved with bigs like Romello White and De’Quon Lake.

Can it be sustained: The real answer here? Yes. This team is only going to get better. Not only are they molding as a group right now, they still get Kimani Lawrence and Mickey Mitchell added to the roster this month. That’s going to provide Hurley with depth and even more talent on the wings. He’s going to have the chance to play with the roster and lineups and match up with teams as he wants thanks to these guys. Now, is Tra Holder going to drop 40 all the time? No. I think the shooting takes a slight step back, but they are beating you off the bounce and getting to the rim as well.

Non-conference games left of note: St. John’s (12/8), Kansas (12/10), Vanderbilt (12/17)

Ultimate prediction: This is a legit top-20 team that should finish in the top-3 in the Pac-12. They are better than Oregon and UCLA who both were slotted into that 3rd and 4th spot behind Arizona and USC this year. Right now this is the best team in the Pac-12, though I think you see some changes to that as USC and Arizona figure stuff out. As I mentioned earlier, Arizona State is only getting better once the calendar hits 2018 and they add more depth to the wing spot.

Texas A&M 

Notable wins: West Virginia (neutral), Oklahoma State (neutral), Penn State (neutral), USC (away)

Recap of the season so far: A&M made the statement on the first day of the season when it kicked West Virginia’s ass by 30 out in Germany. Since then, they’ve gotten better thanks to getting Robert Williams and JJ Caldewell added to the roster, both of whom were suspended for that game. They just lost the first game of the season to Arizona in Phoenix, which A&M had a legit chance to win – or at least tie the game with 3 free throws with 2 seconds to go.

Can it be sustained: Yes. Quite simply out of all the surprise teams so far this year Texas A&M is the one most set up for success in the long term. They have NBA talent in Robert Williams and Tyler Davis. They have depth on the interior when you add in Tonny Torcha-Morelos. They can shoot the ball as they rank 37th in the country with a 40% 3-point percentage. The additions of JJ Caldwell and Duane Wilson to the backcourt should cut down on turnovers, which is the ultimate killer of this team from last year and the start of this year. They don’t rely on just one thing to beat you as they have guys that can drop 20 whenever they want in Hogg/Williams/Davis and even someone like Admon Gilder.

Non-conference games left of note: Northern Kentucky (12/19), Kansas (1/27)

Ultimate prediction: Right now this is the best team in the SEC. They have the ability to match the style of most teams and have the ability to play big while still stretching the floor. The loss to Arizona doesn’t bother me a whole ton as it was played in Phoenix and Arizona was desperate there. I still think turnovers will ultimately hurt this team and Kennedy needs to play Williams/Davis more often, especially down the stretch. But, this is a top-10 team and should be there for the majority of the year. If they can cut down on turnovers they have everything they need to be a Final Four type team.

Tennessee

Notable wins: Purdue (neutral), NC State (neutral), Georgia Tech (away)

Recap of the season so far: Tennessee really started to get noticed thanks to the Battle 4 Atlantis when it beat Purdue in the first game of the tournament down there. They took advantage of their athleticism and just bodied up Purdue, not letting guys like Vincent Edwards get comfortable. From there they played a good game in a loss to Villanova before beating NC State. They then went into Georgia Tech and won – although that’s looking like an easier thing to do now thanks to Grambling State. Either way, it’s been a great start for Rick Barnes and something that Tennessee fans needed as their athletic department has been a complete joke over the last month.

Can it be sustained?: I don’t think we’re going to be talking about Tennessee as a top-20 team this year. We saw them do something like this last year where they played UNC and Oregon tough and beat Kentucky before ultimately stumbling down the stretch. It will be somewhere in between that last year and the start of this year. They are an improved shooting team as they are shooting 42.6% from the 3-point line as a team – up from 32.6% from last year. That’s not surprising under Rick Barnes, who is known for working on things like shot mechanics. However, I don’t think 42.6% is the real Tennessee team. I expect a slip down closer to 37% when it’s all said and done. What can be sustained though is the depth of the roster and the fact that they’ll defend and play physical every game and that goes a long way in college hoops.

Non-conference games left of note: UNC (12/17), Wake Forest (12/23), Iowa State (1/27)

Ultimate prediction: They’ll slip closer to bubble talk, but should be safely on the inside this year. I don’t think they’ll finish top-4 in the SEC with the likes of Kentucky, Texas A&M, Florida and Alabama, but they should finish somewhere in the top-7, which is good enough this year to get someone in the NCAA Tournament. Grant Williams is one of the more underrated players in teh country as he’s putting up 15 and 7, so it’s worth keeping an eye on him for a potential All-SEC selection.