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NEW TGS HOOPS...COLLEGE "BRAND NAMES" IN TROUBLE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


As the college hoops landscape goes through some changes every year, there are usually some constants.

It's the "brand names" in college hoops, the oh-so-familiar names like Florida, UCLA, Michigan, and UConn that we can usually count upon to be there when March Madness commences.

But maybe not this season.

The schools listed above, plus a few others, are among a familiar group of usual college power teams that appear to have dropped significantly from their normal perches in the 2014-15 campaign. Will any of the following be "dancing" again in March?

FLORIDA...Like some others on the list, the Gators were perhaps due for a drop after the guts of Billy Donovan's Final Four squad departed Gainesville. Including longtime frontline anchor Patric Young and last year's leading scorers F Casey Prather and G Scottie Wilbekin. Only one starter (G Michael Frazier) returned, but still, the Gators were ranked in the preseason polls and expected to provide the most serious challenge to Kentucky in the SEC.

Instead, the Gators are barely clinging above .500 (7-6) entering conference play, and aren't even near the proverbial NCAA "bubble' as of early January. The pre-league schedule, while challenging, should not have been able to throw a normal Florida team for such a loop. A potential positive could be former Rutgers transfer G Eli Carter, who sat out last season with a foot injury and scored a combined 29 points in the first two games of the season before suffering another foot injury that caused him to miss four games and then another recently after re-injuring the same foot, though he did return to action last Saturday vs. UConn. Plus, 6-10 Duke transfer Alex Murphy has also recently gained eligibility and can be expected to make contributions. But Donovan has not gotten much from another transfer, ex-Michigan F Jon Horford, and Donovan could use a third scoring option to emerge beyond holdovers G Frazier (14.1 ppg) and jr. F Dorian Finney-Smith (13.4 ppg), the only double-digit scorers on the roster. The disappointment was reflected in a recent fluke loss to Florida State when Gator F Jacob Kurtz accidentally tipped in the Seminoles' game-winning basket, and ongoing woes at the FT line, where Florida converts only 64% and missed 12 of 20, including several in the final minutes, in last Saturday's bitter 63-59 loss in a Final Four rematch vs. UConn (more on the Huskies in a moment).

UCLA...Like Florida, UCLA lost an awful lot from last year's Sweet 16 team that would see three stars (Gs Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, and Zach LaVine) go in the first round of the NBA Draft. Even at a locale such as Westwood, that's a lot of talent to replace on short notice. But few would have expected the Bruins to drop so far, and a glimpse at the current Pac-12 standings shows Steve Alford's team in an unfamiliar spot at the basement after an 0-2 start last weekend, losing at Colorado and Utah.

Some believe the UCLA psyche could have been irreparably damaged by a blowout loss to Kentucky in Chicago on Dec. 20, when the Wildcats jumped to leads of 24-0 and 41-7 at the half en route to an 83-44 cruise. But that is just one of a current five-game losing streak (and seven straight vs. the number) that suggests the Bruins are not even on the NIT bubble at the moment. Alford is lacking a pure shooter (or two) to go alongside his son, soph G Bryce Alford, who leads the team at 15.7 ppg, but UCLA's overall 41.4% FG accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. The heralded frosh recruits, 6-9 Kevon Looney and 7-0 Thomas Welsh, have been inconsistent, and the squad's defensive work rate has been suspect. Though the Pac-12 does not appear to be as loaded as in recent years, there still looks to be a chance that the Bruins (only 8-7 SU) are at risk for their first losing season since Ben Howland's first campaign in 2003-04. Which is hardly going to endear Alford to the demanding Westwood support base.

MICHIGAN...Again, like Florida and UCLA, Michigan has a legit excuse for its downturn, as a succession of early departures to the NBA has robbed the core of John Beilein's program. Though such departures can be expected at top-level programs, Beilein's current team could still have had Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary, all now drawing paychecks from the NBA, plus 6-10 PF Jon Horford (who transferred to Florida), on the roster.

Beilein has instead been left with a youthful team, heavy in the backcourt, where sophs Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and juniors Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert have contributed significantly in recent years. But the result has been a lineup too perimeter-oriented, reflected in subpar 41.9% FG shooting. A key in the second half of the season is going to be the progress of 6-9 frosh PF Ricky Doyle, who has shown flashes of promise. But Beilein has not come close to replacing the contributions of the departed Robinson, who ranked among the Big Ten leaders in scoring and rebounding. And the Big Ten is no place for a team with frontline question marks. After an emotional conference-opening win over Illinois last week on the day new football coach Jim Harbaugh was introduced to a thrilled gathering at Crisler Arena, the Wolverines' shortcomings were exposed in the subsequent game at Purdue, against the big and physical Boilermaker frontline. Michigan was outrebounded 44-22 and didn't get an offensive rebound in the second half. The worse news for Michigan is that there are several teams better than Purdue in the Big Ten. Even the shrewd Beilein is going to have problems getting this team in contention for a postseason berth, with the NIT even appearing unlikely at the moment.

UCONN...Of these four teams in this unwanted spotlight, UConn is the one we might not dismiss as of yet. The Huskies' American Athletic Conference does not look overwhelming this season, with a poor 1-9 SU mark against Top 25 competition into January. And most of our regional sources believe that any team with G Ryan Boatright would probably be the favorite in the American.

But we're not so sure.

Like the others listed above, UConn suffered significant personnel losses after last season, when the Huskies caught fire for HC Kevin Ollie in the Dance and shocked the college basketball world by winning the school's fourth NCAA men's hoops title since 1999. But much of that surge was fueled by star G Shabazz Napier, who had one of the best Big Dances for a guard that we can remember. Other key cogs in the UConn machine such, as F DeAndre Daniels, swingman Niels Giffey, and sixth man Lasan Kromah, also departed after last season.

UConn's 7-5 SU record is underwhelming, but a look at some of the teams that have beaten Kevin Ollie's bunch (a list that includes Duke, West Virginia, and Texas) offers a partial explanation for the slow start. The Huskies did recover to beat Florida in a critical intersectional and Final Four rematch last Saturday, rallying late to do so. Boatright (17.4 ppg), however, has been carrying a bit too much of the scoring burden, and Ollie could use more consistency from touted 6-4 NC State transfer Rodney Purvis, whose performances have been up-and-down. The Huskies' offense has thus been easier to defend; with UConn only hitting 31.9% beyond the arc, foes are packing the paint and waiting for Boatright to attack the hoop. Huskies fans are hoping that decorated 6-6 frosh swingman Daniel Hamilton, a California product who has flashed an upside, can become a more-reliable complement to Boatright.

Kevin Ollie famously pushed the right buttons in March last season during one of the more unexpected runs to an NCAA title that we can ever recall, but he had a top-notch pilot in Napier to take over games. Boatright has some of the same characteristics...but this season, Ollie doesn't have another Boatright (like Napier did a year ago) as part of the supporting cast. Perhaps the Huskies rally their way into the Dance. But even if they do, we're not expecting another breathtaking run thru March as a year ago.

OTHER DISAPPOINTMENTS: Kansas State...With three starters back from last year's 20-win team, including arguably the best combo guard in the Big 12 (Marcus Foster), Bruce Weber's Wildcats were expected to contend this season. Instead, they're sitting at .500, with the rugged conference schedule still to come. Foster (held scoreless last Saturday vs. Oklahoma State, and just 1 of 9 from the floor in his last two games), seems to have checked out on Weber, and K-State missed a combined 19 of 22 three-pointers in the losses to Georgia and Ok State. Right now, the Wildcats look a mess. San Diego State...Steve Fisher's Aztecs are at 11-4 SU, and still might emerge from what looks like a wide-open (and downgraded) Mountain West. But compared to recent editions at Viejas Arena, the current SDSU leaves much to be desired. The Aztecs have become increasingly unsightly as the season has progressed, barely connecting on 28% of their three-point shots and inviting opposing defenses to pack the paint. And just nudging over 40% (40.4, to be exact) overall from the floor, it is apparent that Fisher lacks the scoring sources of recent teams, and is missing last year's departed floor leader Xavier Thames. A recent scary situation involving key contributor Dwayne Polee II (who collapsed in a game vs. UC Riverside) has been another distraction. When added up, the Aztecs appear a far cry from their recent Big Dance entries. Pittsburgh...We complete 3/8 of the Maui Classic field by adding the Panthers, whose 10-4 SU record deceives because the Panthers have lost to every good team they have played. Including last Saturday's 68-50 beatdown administered by NC State, which could prove ominous with the rest of the ACC schedule still to come. This was not the season for HC Jamie Dixon to lose a potential explosive scorer like 6-6 wing Durand Johnson, sidelined by an ACL tear last term and shut down by academic suspension this campaign. Dixon looks to be sorely missing the scoring of departed swingman Lamar Patterson, last season's leading scorer at 17.1 ppg.


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