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Saturday, July 4, 2020

5 college basketball teams off to troubling starts

Roy Williams

The new year is upon us, giving teams that have come out of the gates slowly are starting to run out of time to make corrections. Conference play for nearly every league in college basketball begins in earnest in the next week or so, with true road games abound and very few sure things left on the schedule.

There are plenty of chances to identify problems and correct them before March, but for some teams, those chances will run out sooner than they might realize. Here are five teams in need of a course correction after a shaky start.

5. Florida

No team that began the year as a title contender has been as soundly disappointing as the Gators so far this season. Mike White and company have already dropped four games and have had more than their fair share of close calls against lesser competition. Florida will enter SEC play with just one win against top 50 KenPom competition and an 0-2 record against the top 25.

The Gators’ offense has been hindered by poor shot selection, a lack of motion, and bad shooting so far this season. Florida ranks 301st nationally in assist rate — a putrid sign for a team without a true go-to scorer. Their preseason dreams of a top seed are likely in the dumps, yet there is plenty of time to turn things around and look better by March. Best of all, Florida doesn’t see Kentucky until February 22. If the Gators, a team that starts two freshmen and a transfer, can start to figure things out before then, we’ll feel a lot better about their tournament outlook.

4. Wisconsin

Greg Gard returned six contributors from last year’s Badgers, a team that won 23 games and was a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Expectations were reasonably high in Madison. Instead, it’s been a rocky road thus far for the Wisconsin program, its first season in four years without Ethan Happ reliably roaming the paint. Without Happ, the Badgers have struggled to adjust defensively. On the other end of the floor, Nate Reuvers has emerged as a leading scorer, yet the Wisconsin guards have started the season with cold shooting on questionable shot selection. It’s resulted in a 7-5 record with the absolute gauntlet of Big Ten play, likely the toughest slate of any league in college hoops, on the horizon.

The Badgers most recent game, a 20-point win over Tennessee in which Wisconsin made 11 threes, could be a sign of better days ahead.

3. Vermont

On November 19, Vermont was coming off a win at St. John’s and held a four-point lead deep into the second half against Virginia in Charlottesville. In that very moment, the sky looked like the limit for the Catamounts. Even when Virginia came back to win, the possibilities of a 30-win type season were very much in the works for Vermont. Since that loss, Vermont has hit several road bumps, losing to Rider, Cincinnati, Yale, and UNC-Greensboro. All four are good teams with tournament aspirations, yet for Vermont to reach the heights considered possible preseason, those are the types of teams against whom the Catamounts should collect wins.

Like so many teams at this stage of the season, cold shooting is to blame for so many of Vermont’s problems. More than 44 percent of the Catamounts field goals come from long range (41st most in the nation), but they’ve sunk just 29 percent of those attempts (300th best in the nation). That issue is exemplified by Vermont’s best player, Anthony Lamb, who sunk 7 of 14 from deep against Virginia but has made just 8 of 44 in his last 8 games (just 19 percent).

2. Providence

The Friars had aspirations of contending with the Big East’s elite tier this season, yet have failed to do so in non-conference play. Providence has played the 228th strongest schedule in the nation and struggled to a record of 7-6 so far. That makes the Friars the only Big East team with more than four losses. A three-game skid against Penn, Long Beach State, and Charleston marked a clear low point for Providence. Alpha Diallo, expected to be the Friars’ main playmaker, is shooting just 21 percent from long range and has coughed up 3.3 turnovers per game, eclipsing his nightly assist average of 3.0. If he can’t stay under control, the rest of the Providence offense, which relies on his production, will falter.

1. North Carolina

After a 5-0 start in which Cole Anthony looked like a First Team All-American, things looked great in Chapel Hill. Since then, the Tar Heels’ season has taken a turn for the worst. Anthony is injured and will miss a total of four to six weeks. That news came in the midst of a seven-game stretch in which Carolina lost five times, including twice at home.

With Anthony in the lineup, the Heels lacked a secondary scoring option and relied heavily on players who appear unready for the big stage. With Anthony sidelined, North Carolina has virtually no play-making ability and only finds points in transition or around the rim.

The ACC schedule is kind of North Carolina in light of Anthony’s timetable. The Heels’ tougher match-ups all come down the stretch of the season, with seven of their next eight conference games coming against teams ranked outside the KenPom top 50 (with the exception being 36th ranked NC State).

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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