Assessing Texas, Pitt, UConn and other struggling teams; more notes
Having lost three of its last four, Texas is going through an identity crisis
Purdue's a legitimate Final Four threat with Lewis Jackson back; more notes
My top 25 ballot has some Ivy representation in the form of Cornell
In case you haven't noticed, the calendar has officially turned to February. This is the time of year when teams should be fine-tuning their engines -- change the oil, replace the spark plugs, that sort of thing -- in preparation for the long stretch run.
Unfortunately, there are a few teams out there who used to be headed in the right direction but have recently run into speed bumps and pot holes. Their alignments have been compromised. Even worse, the wheels are starting to come off.
As your resident Hoop Thinking mechanic, I have taken a closer look at five such teams and am ready to present my findings. Just how bad is the damage? And can they get back in the fast lane? Let's just say I hope this quintet has decent auto insurance:
Highest AP ranking: 1
Under the hood: The Longhorns are going through an identity crisis. Rick Barnes is negating his team's greatest asset -- its depth -- by shortening the rotation so much that 6-foot-7 freshman Jordan Hamilton, who had 14 points in the Longhorns' win over Michigan State in December, played just two minutes in Saturday's overtime loss to Baylor. Teams are figuring out that this team has a hard time scoring against a zone, and those troubles have been exacerbated by Texas's atrocious foul shooting.
Wheels report: Front wheels wobbly. Back wheels sturdy.
Highest AP ranking: 9
Under the hood: When the Panthers knocked off Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 2, they made 10-of-24 from three-point range. Turns out that was a mirage. During the last four games, they have gone just 13-for-55 (23.5 percent) from behind the arc. They adjusted during Sunday's loss at South Florida by only taking eight threes, but they converted just 12-of-22 from the foul line. When the Panthers aren't making shots, it puts enormous pressure on their defense, and during this recent skid the D has not been quite good enough.
Wheels report: Three wheels wobbly. Fourth holding steady.
Highest AP ranking: 10
Under the hood: The Huskies looked inspired when they knocked off then-No. 1 Texas in Storrs, but given the way Texas has been playing, that is not so impressive in retrospect. Teams know if they can limit UConn in transition and make them play a little half-court offense, they'll get so impatient that they'll throw the ball all over the gym. (The Huskies committed 16 turnovers to Marquette's two in the loss to the Golden Eagles, and they turned it over 19 times against Providence.) In lieu of an efficient offense, this team needs to play with a high degree of emotion, especially on the defensive end, but their emotional leader, coach Jim Calhoun, remains sidelined indefinitely for medical reasons.
Wheels report: All four are wobbly. Front two are coming off.
Highest AP ranking: 22
Under the hood: The Gophers have decent talent but very little margin for error. Each time they have lost, it has been for a good reason. At Indiana, they got pummeled on the boards, 40-29. Against Purdue and Ohio State, their perimeter defense was shoddy. (The Boilermakers shot 52.3 percent and allowed the Buckeyes to shoot 63 percent.) In their two losses to Michigan State, Minnesota played tentative and shot a total of 14 free throws. The final straw may have been losing their leader and point guard, Al Nolen, two weeks ago to academics. He was the guy with his hands on the wheel.
Wheels report: Front two completely off. Back wheels very wobbly.
Highest AP ranking: 23
Under the hood: The Hurricanes did win at South Carolina, but that was in Charleston, not Columbia. Aside from that and a victory over Minnesota at home in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Hurricanes' gaudy record has proven to be a fraud. Their nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 342nd in the RPI, and it has been one pratfall after another for them in the ACC, though they did manage to knock off Virginia Tech at home last weekend. Miami played Boston College close twice before losing, but the Hurricanes' other three losses came by an average of 18 points -- and the hard games are still to come. There was some hope that the arrival of transfer Malcolm Grant and freshman Durand Scott would pump up the backcourt, but this team's season is exemplified by enigmatic senior forward Dwayne Collins, who at times can be terrific (23 points, 11 rebounds in the win over Wake Forest) while other times invisible (five points in the loss at Maryland).
Wheels report: All four wheels are off.
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