Early Alerts: Teams in Trouble

-Jim Root

It’s a sleepy December week on the NCAA hoops schedule, the “trough” between the fast and furious days of Feast Week and the impending start of conference play as players “take finals” and “see their families.” There’s plenty of time before Selection Sunday; no team should panic about the state of its resume as it stands in mid-December (except Cal…the Golden Bears can panic). However, given the committee’s clear penchant for focusing on nonconference performance and top-shelf wins, the below four teams do have reason to be a little uneasy. All of them made it into our preseason Top 40 countdown, but none of the four possess any true “statement wins” through the season’s first five and a half weeks. With chances dwindling (or all but gone) to earn those before the conference play gauntlet begins, can they fix what ails them and scrape together an NCAA-worthy resume?

All rankings via the almighty NET, as of 12/13

Xavier (NET Rank: 70)

Best Wins: Illinois* (122), Ohio (132), IUPUI (142)
Remaining Chances:
@Missouri (104)

What’s wrong on the court: The defense, mainly. The Musketeers’ D went five straight games allowing more than a point per possession from November 10th to the 28th, getting torched by Wisconsin and San Diego State in particular. Part of it is bad shooting luck – opponents are connecting on a scalding 38.5% of their threes – but many of these shots are taken with acres of space, as over-helping and slow rotations have led to open jumpers galore.

Additionally, the team’s two highest-usage offensive players (Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin) have identical 10/44 (23%) shooting numbers from deep, and that futility (along with Marshall’s mildly alarming turnover issues) have limited the efficiency of an offense whose role players have been brilliant, by and large.

Resume Concerns: Of all the teams on this list, Xavier may have the most worrisome situation on their hands. Their best nonconference win is currently a neutral court triumph over floundering, 3-7 Illinois, with only a matchup @ Missouri left to bolster the resume outside of Big East play. Therein lies the larger issue, though: that the Big East is not exactly rife with marquee wins this year. Villanova is somehow clinging to a spot in KenPom’s top 20, but the NET is less kind (Marquette leads the league, slotted at 22), and the conference as whole has not impressed:

There’s still value in beating teams like Villanova, Marquette, Butler, and (maybe) St. John’s, but there’s no jump-off-the-page, elite wins available. The Musketeers will instead need to build their resume via quantity, not quality.

Verdict: Unfortunately, I don’t see it. Travis Steele made a noble effort to bring in three grad transfers and give the Muskies a chance after losing so much production, but even 11-7 in league play would be dicey to get a bid with the Big East as down as it is.

Clemson (82)

Best Wins: Georgia* (109), Akron* (144), The Citadel (113)
Remaining Chances:
Radford (83), @South Carolina (222), Lipscomb (49)

What’s wrong on the court: The biggest current issue is Marcquise Reed’s health, as he is currently out with a sprained knee. The redshirt senior guard is the Tigers’ bellwether, a skilled guard who, although struggling with his perimeter shot, is a proven scorer and creator in the ACC. The early returns show just how paramount Reed is to Clemson’s success: 

“Hey Jim, that’s a stupid sample size to use, because a lot of those possessions are from the Mississippi State loss that Reed didn’t play in!” Right you are - so let’s look at the eight games Reed has played in:

Excludes Clemson vs. Mississippi St.

Oh good, so it gets even worse! Small sample size concerns, of course, but the combination of numbers and eye test make it clear that the Tigers have a need, a need for Reed. Backcourt mate Shelton Mitchell is more solid than spectacular, and the team’s young guards – namely Clyde Trapp and John Newman – have been mostly invisible offensively.

Note: Reed will not play against Radford on Saturday, and Brad Brownell does not expect him to play the following week, either (vs. Charleston Southern, @ South Carolina).

On a more general level, the Tigers’ suffocating defense was their identity last year. That hasn’t been the case early this season, as Nebraska, Creighton, and Mississippi State have all taken turns lighting them up. Elijah Thomas, the team’s interior anchor, has struggled with injuries and foul trouble, drawing coach Brad Brownell’s ire after the hacking limited his playing time against both Creighton and Nebraska. He appears to be fully healthy and getting back into better shape now, though, which should portend better performances as ACC play begins. It’s also extremely rare for a team to pour in 19/30 three-pointers as Mississippi State did, giving that performance more of an “outlier” feel to it.  

Resume Concerns: Speaking of ACC play – that’s why Clemson can avoid any sort of panic mode. Nabbing two or three of the “Remaining Chances” listed above would certainly help prop up a sluggish nonconference performance, because their current NCAA Tournament CV is as flimsy as a “my dog ate my homework” excuse.

The real scalps will need to come in January and February, however. The Tigers have an “easy” league schedule, insofar as an ACC docket can be easy – they only play Duke, UNC, Virginia, and Virginia Tech once each, three of which are in the friendly confines of Littlejohn Coliseum – but that also reduces their shots at marquee wins. Home-and-homes with Syracuse and Florida State will help, but without rediscovering the defensive tenacity of the 2017-18 squad, the Orange Tigers may once again become just a football school.

Verdict: Sorry Dabo Swinney Nation, but my best guess is that your NCAA Tournament streak ends at 1. The ACC is too deep, and the Tigers’ regression on defense is a massive concern.

Kansas St. (42)

Best Wins: Penn* (71), Missouri* (104)
Remaining Chances:
Vanderbilt (63), Georgia St. (123)

What’s wrong on the court: The Wildcats can’t put the biscuit in the basket. This exact same group of players (#2 nationally in minutes continuity) struggled to do so last year, finishing 78th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and the problems on that end have somehow been exacerbated this year. Outside of Xavier Sneed, no one really takes (or makes) threes, cramping the Cats’ spacing and forcing Barry Brown to drive into the teeth of a waiting defense. Early struggles against Kennesaw State and Denver were warning signs, but the egg laid at Tulsa (46 points on 65 possessions) was the crowning achievement in an early season run of offensive duds. Bruce Weber’s defenses are almost always better than his offenses (five straight years of that pattern at K State), but the current gap – 107th on offense, 3rd on defense – would rival his 2007 Illinois team for the widest such spread in the KenPom era (18 seasons).

So how does it get better? For starters, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes need to start hitting shots. Their current combined stats – 14/60, 23% - is more “slumping-at-the-plate shortstop” than Division I three-point shooter, even for career 32% and 34% shooters, respectively. In my humble opinion, the offense needs to run through Dean Wade even more than it already does. Put him in the mid-post or at the free throw line, let him attack mismatches with his height + shooting + ball skills combination, and allow his adept passing to create open shots when defenses wander too far to double him:

Resume Concerns: The Wildcats were hurt by the Paradise Jam field being a collective bummer, finding themselves pitted against a Mizzou team in the championship that may struggle to finish in the SEC’s top 10. Of course, the Purple Cats’ performances in bigger games haven’t given any reason to believe they would have knocked off better teams, so that may be a moot point. The Big 12 gauntlet awaits, with seven other teams currently residing in the NET’s top 75 (and seven are in KenPom’s top 37), so the opportunities will be there; the Purple Cats just need to figure out how to score enough to complement their elite defense.

Verdict: I think the Wildcats get in, using their experience and the collective might of the Big 12 to earn a toss-up seed (my new name for anyone seeded 7-10, because those 7/10 and 8/9 games are usually toss-ups). This should teach us a valuable lesson to not expect big improvements from experienced teams, even after a nice postseason run.

LSU (40)

Best Wins: UNCG (84), Charleston (103), Louisiana Tech (115)   
Remaining Chances:
Furman (35), St. Mary’s* (76)

What’s wrong on the court: Despite a plethora of talent all over the roster thanks to Will Wade’s excellent recruiting, LSU is heavily reliant on Tremont Waters to set the tone. While he’s been dynamic as a distributor and ranks 3rd nationally in steals and steals per game, Tremont is shooting 27% from three – folks, he couldn’t hit Waters if he fell out of a boat! Hope you didn’t forget that this is a Jim article. In the Tigers’ three losses, Waters has 10 assists and 17 turnovers, and he’s currently on a run of five straight games with more TOs than assists.

Waters’s struggles reflect those of the team as a whole: their youthful exuberance often allows them to go on electric runs, but that same quality can manifest as baffling inexperience, as well, leading to droughts and accompanying bouts of poor defense. The Tigers’ shot selection is erratic and turnovers can snowball, and too often those mistakes multiply as the young Bayou Bengals then let it affect the rest of the game. Close losses against Florida State on a neutral and @ Houston prove that they’re capable of playing to a high level, but they haven’t been able to close out these would-be resume-building wins.

Resume Concerns: That leaves the Tigers with plenty of questions at this point in the year. Even if they can knock off Furman, the currently-undefeated Paladins are unlikely to remain such darlings in the NET and LSU is not a part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge this year, meaning St. Mary’s in Las Vegas tomorrow is the Tigers’ last best chance at a standout nonconference win. What could possibly go wrong for a young team in Sin City against a disciplined, well-coached Gaels squad? I certainly can’t think of anything at all.

Even more concerning, though, is the state of the SEC. Many (including all of us here at the Weave) were extremely high on that league entering this year, but aside from Tennessee and Auburn securing themselves as top 10 teams, most other SEC squads have disappointed.

Like Xavier, this could limit the Tigers’ chances at making a splash. They only play Auburn, Tennessee, Mississippi St., and Kentucky once each, further squeezing out their opportunities. Will Wade needs to plug up the leaky defense and help Waters rediscover his shot, or LSU will see another uber-talented team go out with a whisper.

Verdict: I’ll say LSU gets there, again as a toss-up seed. Given how young they are, they should continue to trend up, and hopefully they learned valuable lessons from their colossal meltdown at Houston in the team’s first road game. With such a high talent level, these Tigers could be a nightmare for a higher seed in the second round, or they could flame out against a steadier, well-coached team in Round 1 (like if they played, say, Kansas State…).