Posted: Wednesday December 20, 2006 12:41PM; Updated: Wednesday December 20, 2006 3:30PM
UCLA was one of three squads with an asterisk -- because it was plagued by injuries and had barely played a non-conference game at full-strength. The Bruins, once healed, made a 0.086-points-per-possession gain in defensive efficiency, and were the only team on the list to advance past the Sweet 16 (eventually losing to Florida in the title game). Here's how the entire Early Warnings list changed between Dec. 23, 2005, and the end of the '05-06 season:
From Early Warning, to End Of Season
Def. Eff. (Rk.) as of Dec. 23
Def. Eff. (Rk.) Full Season
Change (minus is good)
* Teams playing at less than full-strength in first third of season
Other than UCLA, two teams made sizable changes: Wake Forest and Michigan State. The Deacons went from mediocre to bad, and finished 3-13 in the ACC. The Spartans, meanwhile, made a mammoth defensive improvement of 0.075 fewer points per possession -- but they were so horrid to start the season that their late ascent merely brought them to the fringe of defensive respectability.
All in all, the first Early Warnings list was portentous: Aside from the banged-up Bruins, who were an entirely different team when healthy, it pinpointed eight ranked teams who either failed to make the NCAAs or failed to win more than two games in the tournament. So how well will we do this year? Eight teams -- six in the AP poll, two in the others-receiving-votes category -- are deserving of a warning:
Early Warnings List: Dec. 20, 2006
Adjusted Off. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.)
Adjusted Def. Eff. (Nat'l Rk.)
Pitt is both highest-ranked team on the list and the most surprising inclusion. Just a year ago the Panthers finished 12th in the nation in defensive efficiency with a rating of 89.8 -- and despite losing only one major player, Carl Krauser, have slipped to 115th. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is a disciple of UCLA's Ben Howland (their teams were Nos. 1 and 2 in the country earlier this month) but the Panthers have turned very un-Howland-like in 2006-07, riskily relying on an elite offense to make up for an average D. It's easy to blame the lapse on Krauser's absence, but Pitt is also giving up more offensive boards: The Panthers ranked sixth in the nation in 2005-06 in percentage of offensive rebounds allowed (26.3), while in '06-07 they're 69th (30.7 percent).
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Washington only has one loss and is still considered by many to be a Pac-10 power alongside UCLA and Arizona, but the numbers suggest something else: That the Huskies are the most inefficient team in the top 25, and are not a legitimate contender. They have a loaded roster -- what with Jon Brockman and Spencer Hawes inside, and freshman surprise Quincy Pondexter on the wing -- to turn things around, but I wonder if they'll have much success playing at a high pace with such an average offense and a defense that creates far too few steals.
Air Force is apparently trying to be last year's Gonzaga, only at geezer speed. Playing at the fourth-slowest pace in the nation, the Falcons have the country's most efficient offense, but the worst defense among the Early Warnings bunch. If the Falcons want to be more than a statistical marvel, they best get some grit to go with their nearly flawless execution of Jeff Bzdelik's Princeton-styled sets. On the other hand, Gonzaga, which I thought might turn into a permanent member of both this list as well as the I-Told-You-They-Wouldn't-Make-The-Final-Four Club, has been playing an uncharacteristic amount of D: The Zags rank 61st in defensive efficiency with a rating of 91.1. Far from Duke, Florida or UCLA territory, but a significant improvement from the Capote-waving days of Adam Morrison.
While Gonzaga tries to stick to its new habit, the Pitts, Washingtons, Air Forces and Nevadas of the top 25 should worry about suffering the cruel fate of an early exit from the NCAA tournament. All is not yet doom and gloom -- they still have more than two months to acquire a lock-down attitude on D. If that doesn't happen, though, they can't claim to have never been Warned.