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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

College basketball teams off to rocky starts in conference play

Chris Holtmann

With conference play now firmly underway in college basketball, we’ve reached a healthy point in the season to start assessing not only how teams stack up this year, but also how they’ve handled the transition into conference play.

Certainly some teams were playing well before the switch and have continued to do so. There’s also, naturally, teams who have done the opposite and struggled versus both non-conference and conference foes.

Then there’s an interesting crop of teams: Those who have seen a difference between their play early in the season and more recently against their league rivals.

While some have improved, perhaps due to a coaching change or a more consistent schedule, the more interesting group is those who were succeeding this season, but have hit a bump in the road now. These are teams whose early non-conference wins led to high hopes and dreams of a run in March. Now with a few conference losses thrown in, their fates have become much more difficult to discern.

Here are nine teams who have surprisingly cratered in conference play.

9. Florida State

The Seminoles entered ACC play riding high. Their only loss came in a tight game against the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats on a neutral court.

Leonard Hamilton has been coaching long enough to know that things would be tougher sledding against ACC competition, and the schedule did his team no favors. Florida State opened conference play with games at Virginia, versus Miami and Duke, then at Pitt.

There’s no shame in losing to Virginia and Duke, two of college basketball’s best clubs. Losing to Pitt and then BC to fall into a 1-4 hole isn’t exactly what Hamilton had in mind.

Thankfully, the schedule lightens up over the next several weeks, by ACC standards. Games against Clemson, Miami, and Georgia Tech could be the chance to bounce back and look like a top 15 team again.

If the Seminoles struggle in that stretch, however, their upcoming trips to Syracuse and Chapel Hill will start to look even more daunting.

8. Old Dominion

We’ll start on a smaller scale, with a mid-major team that has put itself behind the 8-ball. The Monarchs peaked when they were ranked 72nd per KenPom’s metrics, just before starting play in Conference USA.

Old Dominion started the season by going 10-3 in non-conference play and had some nice wins already banked onto its resume. The Monarchs won at Richmond, topped VCU at home, and even went to the Carrier Dome and beat Syracuse. Old Dominion clearly placed itself as the favorite in Conference USA.

After that, the Monarchs began just 2-2 in conference play, with a home loss versus Marshall and a bad road loss at Florida Atlantic. Defensively, conference play has been a real struggle for Old Dominion. On the entire season, the Monarchs have been the 55th best defensive team in the nation per KenPom, allowing only 96 points per 100 possessions. In four conference games, that number has skyrocketed to 108.5 points per 100 possessions, third worst in the league.

This change was most glaring in the loss to Florida Atlantic. The Owls have one of America’s 100 worst offenses by the numbers, yet were able to post 1.25 points per possession and shoot 12 of 21 from outside the arc against Old Dominion.

The Monarchs were once playing like a team with an outside chance at an at-large bid, or at least the ability to earn a seed that could allow them a chance in the first round of tournament play. Now Old Dominion has looked much worse and is third place in Conference USA.

7. Mississippi St

The Bulldogs started the season 7-1 against top 100 competition, with wins over Cincinnati and Clemson under their belts. Mississippi State opened SEC play with losses to South Carolina and Ole Miss, before a home win over Florida (whom we’ll get to in a minute here) and win at Vandy.

The Bulldogs’ defense has dropped off drastically in recent games. In conference play, Mississippi State opponents are shooting a better percentage, turning the ball over less frequently, and grabbing more offensive rebounds.

Offensively, the Bulldogs are coughing the ball up more frequently in SEC games. After averaging 12.8 turnovers per contest in non-conference matchups, Mississippi State has turned the ball over at least 15 times in each of its three conference tilts.

6. Texas

Things in the Big XII have been a mix of good news and bad news for the Longhorns so far this season. It started with some good, two wins over Kansas State and West Virginia. On January 7, the Longhorns were 10-4 on the season, undefeated in conference, and tied atop the standings.

After that, Texas lost three straight games. Two of those losses were heartbreakers with a margin of less than one possession.

Again, there is good news. Not only were all three games close, but Texas’ competition in their recent swoon has been very strong. The first loss in the stretch came at Oklahoma State, in a building that is never easy for road teams to steal a win. Next, losing a home game to rival Texas Tech wasn’t ideal for Longhorn fans, but the Red Raiders are a top ten team. Finally, Texas joined the long, long list of victims to lose at Kansas, and even kept things uncomfortably close for the Jayhawks down the stretch. At least they responded by beating Oklahoma to end the losing sreak.

The schedule really won’t get easier for Texas in college basketball’s best conference, but Shaka Smart shouldn’t need to make major changes moving forward.

5. Ohio State

The Big Ten has the most unique conference schedule of any league in America. Teams play one home game and one road game against a conference opponent in early December as a way to break up the non-conference slate and inject some excitement earlier than usual.

For Ohio State, this was no big deal. The scheduling gods gifted them games against Illinois and Minnesota, both of which the Buckeyes won with ease.

Since re-starting conference play, however, things have not gone as smoothly. Ohio State has now lost four in a row. First, the Buckeyes dropped a home game to Michigan State. Then Ohio State turned in two road clunkers, losing at Rutgers and Iowa before falling at home to Maryland.

The scheduling karma of two easy wins early on is now coming back to bite the Bucks. Ohio State will host top 20 KenPom team squad Purdue in its next game, followed by trips to face a strong Nebraska squad and the very daunting Michigan Wolverines. It’s not crazy to imagine Ohio State losing all four and sitting at 2-7 in Big Ten play. Even one win in that stretch goes a long way to stop the bleeding.

4. Creighton

The Bluejays dropped four straight Big East contests recently before finally ending the skid with a win at Georgetown. Three of their losses were by a 12-plus point margin, but the fourth was the real signal of problems.

Creighton led Marquette by three points with the ball and under one second to play. Had the Bluejays’ inbounder simply handed the ball to the Marquette player guarding him, or rolled the ball into play, or done just about anything except what he chose to do, Creighton seals up a big win. Instead, Creighton tried a long pass down the floor, the ball went untouched, Marquette then inbounded to an open Sam Houser, who hit the game-tying three. The Golden Eagles then won in overtime.

All of Creighton’s issues are on the defensive end of the floor. No team in college basketball is allowing more than 116.7 points per 100 possessions this season, per KenPom. In conference play, the Bluejays are giving up 120.6 points per 100 possessions. Crieghton’s Big East opponents are sinking better than 43 percent from long range and have made 53 threes in just 5 games. Those numbers absolutely untenable and would lead to dark days for Creighton the rest of this season.

3. Florida

The Gators are another team whose defense has not been ready to face tougher competition in conference play. Florida had been one of college basketball’s ten best defenses in non-conference play, but has struggled of late. They have allowed the highest 3-point shooting percentage and the second-highest effective field goal percentage in the SEC. Allowing opponents to make easier shots has led to a 2-3 conference record, including two home losses for the Gators.

Florida’s defensive issues have been compounded by their own shooting woes on offense. The Gators are shooting just 36.6 percent from the field in SEC games, including a dismal 30.8 percent outside the arc.

Either Florida’s defense needs to rebound and return to its pre-January form or the Gators need to start finding and hitting shots to keep them in games down the stretch.

2. UConn

When the so-called “Catholic Seven” group of schools drifted away and took with them the “Big East” conference name, many casual observers felt sympathy for schools like UConn. The Huskies have won two of the last nine national titles, yet are still middling in the American Athletic Conference. Despite being one of the best programs in the nation in the last decade, UConn is forced to play road games at the likes of Tulsa, Tulane, and East Carolina.

Perhaps that slog has taken its toll, as the Huskies this year have struggled against their AAC opponents. UConn is just 2-4 in conference play, with noteworthy losses at South Florida and Tulsa.

All season long, UConn defenders have struggled to get stops without fouling. Husky opponents have made the 5th most free throws of all 353 Division I programs. UConn has allowed the highest free throw rate and the highest percentage of points from the free throw line in the AAC this year.

It is more damning that the foul issue has been season long, not a short term issue. Something on a larger scale, either strategy or the players on the roster, will need to be overhauled to correct this issue.

1. Penn State

After winning 26 games and the NIT last season, Penn State had high expectations entering basketball season for the first time in many years. A rocky start to the season featured losses to Bradley and DePaul before the Nittany Lions lost both early Big Ten games to quality competition.

More recently, Penn State has played six more Big Ten games and lost all six, three of them in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions season hit a nadir when, during a loss to Michigan, head coach Patrick Chambers shoved one of his players, earning himself a one-game suspension.

Some expected Penn State to have a chance to fight for an NCAA Tournament berth this season. Halfway through the year, and sitting a game and a half behind trainwreck programs like Rutgers and Illinois in the Big Ten standings, this year will be more about staying afloat and building for the future than making a run in 2019.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.



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