Analyzing the problems and potential outcomes for five sliding teams
There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse ... and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful. The boy got a horse." And the Zen Master says, "We'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen Master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out, and all the young men have to go off and fight ... except the boy can't because his leg's all messed up. Everybody in the village says, "How wonderful." And the Zen Master says, "We'll see ..."
-- Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson's War
Since Philip Seymour Hoffman once mentioned the Final Four while accepting an Academy Award, it's only fitting that we channel him in order to soothe some anxious fans whose teams used to be wonderful but lately have been terrible.
This is nothing new, of course. Many teams typically build up gaudy records against soft nonconference schedules, only to face a rude comeuppance when conference season rolls around. Still, it has been striking to see so many teams fall so far, so fast. But take heart: If it's clear that these teams were not as good as they once appeared, then it is equally possible that they are not as bad as they appear now. We'll just have to see.
Let us turn to Hoffman's Zen Master to get his perspective on a quintet of teams that have fallen from grace (not to mention the rankings). These teams have been riding a vertiginous downward spiral. Where it stops, nobody knows. Read on, and breathe deeply.
How wonderful: The Bears won 12 of their first 13 games, including neutral-court victories over Colorado, Dayton and Kentucky (in Arlington, Texas), and rose to No. 7 in AP poll.
How terrible: They have dropped five out of six and four in a row, including a 14-point loss at home to Texas on Saturday.
What's the Problem? Baylor was fortunate to escape Colorado in the opener, and it was even more fortunate to catch Kentucky early in the season. If Baylor played the Wildcats this week, it would be in a lot of trouble. The fact is, this team lacks high-level talent. Besides 6-foot-9 senior forward Cory Jefferson, there is no one to provide interior defense. Texas Tech's three forwards combined for 44 points and 18 rebounds, and Kansas' frontline trio scored 20 points just on free throws. Offensively, Baylor is too reliant on its lone three-point threat, 6-2 senior Brady Heslip, who was a combined 0-for-9 in the losses to Texas and Texas Tech.
Zen Master says: The Bears had a players-only meeting after the Texas game, so the soul searching has already begun. It would help if sophomore center Isaiah Austin used his size to give Jefferson more help in the paint. The Bears are who we thought they were. Will they get any better, or are their problems here to stay? We'll see.
How wonderful: The Cyclones' 14-0 start included wins over quality teams like Michigan, Iowa, Boise State and Baylor. They also won a road game at BYU, which is not easy to do even though the Cougars are having a down year. Just three weeks ago, Iowa State was ranked No. 9 in the AP poll.
How terrible: The end of the winning streak was doubly painful, as Iowa State's best player, senior guard DeAndre Kane, injured his ankle during an 87-82 loss at Oklahoma. Iowa State lost its next two to Kansas (home) and Texas (road) before rebounding with an 81-75 win at home over Kansas State on Saturday. The road ahead doesn't get any easier as the Cyclones' next three games are against ranked teams -- at Kansas, home against Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State.
What's the problem? Fred Hoiberg did a masterful job hiding his team's two main deficiencies. The Cyclones do not have any player in the rotation who is taller than 6-7, which leaves them susceptible on the boards (Texas grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, Oklahoma grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, and Kansas out-rebounded them by 17). Plus, this is not a great outside shooting team. It's not clear whether that ankle is still bothering Kane, but in his last four games he has shot 4-for-13 from three-point range; in his last two, he is a combined 6-for-24 from the floor.
Zen Master says: The Cyclones made some silly mistakes late in the second half on Saturday, but they still beat a good Kansas State. So they have to be feeling good heading into this three-game stretch. If Kane's ankle is bothering him, it will heal. If he's in a slump, he'll come out of it. Hoiberg is one of the best coaches in the country, so while the Cyclones are bound to lose some more games, they also have reason to believe the worst is behind them. Does that mean their best is ahead? We'll see.
How wonderful: Ohio State won its first 15 games, including a victory over Notre Dame in which the Buckeyes overcame an eight-point deficit in the final minute. They spent five weeks ranked No. 3 in the AP poll.
How terrible: They lost four straight games before breaking the skid with a win at home over Illinois on Saturday. Those losses got progressively worse, beginning with a road defeat at Michigan State and ending with a loss at Nebraska. The Buckeyes are one game under .500 in the Big Ten.
What's the problem? Simple: The Buckeyes can't score. Aaron Craft may be a terrific leader and a demon on defense, but he is a point guard who averages 35 minutes per game and has made nine three-pointers all season. The only bona fide scorers on this team are 6-8 junior LaQuinton Ross and 6-4 senior Lenzelle Smith Jr., but they have rarely been hot at the same time. Ross was 1-for-7 from the field in the loss to Michigan State. Smith made a total of four three-pointers during the losing streak.
Zen Master says: This is a classic case of a team being overrated thanks to a weak, home-cooked nonconference slate. Ohio State was never as good as it appeared, but this is still a great defensive team that is exceptionally well coached. It may never be a potent offensive team, but it has enough good pieces to be a factor in March. In other words, the Buckeyes still have a high ceiling. Will they reach it? We'll see.
How wonderful: At the start of the season, the Ducks lost two of their starters to a nine-game suspension for selling their university-issued shoes, yet they raced to a 13-0 start. They cracked the AP's top 10 during the final week of December.
How terrible: The Ducks' win at Washington State on Sunday night snapped a five-game losing streak. That included an eight-point loss at Oregon State, which is now a game ahead of the Ducks in the Pac-12 standings.
What's the problem? This team should be called the Ucks -- you know, as in no "D." During the losing streak, Oregon's five opponents shot a combined 52.7 percent from the field. Washington shot 58 percent against them.
Zen Master says: This is another team whose nonconference resume looks less impressive in the rearview mirror. The Ducks' three best wins came on neutral courts over Georgetown and Illinois, plus an overtime road win at Ole Miss. It is quite possible that none of those teams will be in the NCAA tournament. Oregon fans can be forgiven if they are feeling déjà vu all over again, but this ain't football: A team can survive a bad spurt and still have a chance to compete for an NCAA championship. Dana Altman is a terrific coach, and this team has lots of athletes. They also have a great chance for a new beginning Thursday night when UCLA comes to town. Will that game serve as a springboard for a turnaround? We'll see.
How wonderful: The Badgers won their first 16 games, the best start in school history. Just two weeks ago, they were ranked No. 3 in the AP poll.
How terrible: They suffered a three-game losing streak against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. The Michigan loss came in the Kohl Center, which marked the first time John Beilein had won in that building. Minnesota beat Wisconsin despite losing its leading scorer, Andre Hollins, to an injury in the game's opening minutes. The Badgers halted the streak with a 72-58 road win at Purdue on Saturday, but much damage has been done.
What's the problem? Bo Ryan's defense has always been more about being efficient than disruptive, but lately it has been just plain bad. The Hoosiers shot 52 percent and committed just nine turnovers; Michigan shot 55 percent (7-for-13 from three) and committed 11 turnovers; and Minnesota shot 59 percent and committed seven turnovers.
Zen Master says: Once again, this team's nonconference wins don't look so good in retrospect. St. John's, West Virginia and Marquette are probably not NCAA tournament teams. When Wisconsin beat Florida in the second game, the Gators were short two starters. And though the Badgers beat a very good Iowa team at home, they were losing midway through the second half when Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey got ejected. But in a league as strong as the Big Ten, it's easy to go on a brief losing streak. I never thought Wisconsin was the third-best team in the country, but it's not as bad as it has been playing of late. Will they tighten up defensively enough to be a factor in the league race down the stretch? We'll see.
READ MORE: Five games to watch ... A few minutes with Texas' Rick Barnes ... Seth's top 25
Duke at Pittsburgh, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
This will be a telling night for both teams. Duke has won four straight, but three of those were at home. Pitt is 6-1 in the conference and 18-2 overall, but the Panthers have only played two ranked teams and lost both times. The Blue Devils are definitely on the upswing, but they are still plagued by a soft interior, and Pitt, which is ranked 13th in the country in offensive rebound percentage, is poised to take advantage.
Pitt 70, Duke 67
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
I just can't say enough about what Lon Kruger is doing. Marcus Smart has to do a better job recognizing the difference between intensity and emotion, but Oklahoma State is a tough, battle-tested team, and I think its overall maturity will be the difference.
Oklahoma State 75, Oklahoma 70
Michigan State at Iowa, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Even if the Spartans had Adreian Payne, I still would favor the Hawkeyes. Since it sounds like Payne will not be available, I'm even more convinced the Hawkeyes will win.
Iowa 80, Michigan State 74
Iowa State at Kansas, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Is any team in the country playing better than Kansas right now? Even Andrew Wiggins is starting to assert himself. He scored 19 first-half points in Saturday's win at TCU, and he has shot 22 free throws (making 19) in his last two games.
Kansas 79, Iowa State 70
Cincinnati at Louisville, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Bearcats have their offensive struggles, and they are still without freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence, who is out with turf toe and should be back mid-February, yet they still have not lost a conference game. That is going to change against a Louisville team that has found a nice offensive balance the last two weeks.
Louisville 71, Cincinnati 65
SI.com: Your team failed to make the NCAA tournament last year and then lost its top four scorers to the NBA draft and transfers. Yet here you are, tied for second in the Big 12. Are you as surprised as everyone else?
Barnes: I'm not surprised at all. As a coach, you go into the season expecting good things. We've got a group of guys who really care about each other and really do want to win.
SI.com: Was it tough when all those players left?
Barnes: Honestly, halfway through last season, I realized that we had to make changes in our program. We had to get back to the culture we've always had at Texas. Winning wasn't important. So we told the guys, "If you don't want to be a part of this, you have to make changes." We have a much better culture now.
SI.com: Did that make you reevaluate your approach to recruiting? Maybe emphasize chemistry and character more?
Barnes: We had things happen like Cory [Joseph] and Tristan [Thompson] leave after a year. I'm telling you, if it wasn't for the [NBA] lockout, those guys wouldn't have left. We've had guys leave the last couple of years who didn't even get drafted. So we had to plug holes and fill a roster, so what happens is every player thinks he ought to be playing. But what you said is true. We made a conscious effort in our recruiting to think more about chemistry. But we're also more talented this year than we were last year.
SI.com: At what point did you realize this team was going to have a chance to be successful?
Barnes: Javan Felix missed the entire preseason because he had hip surgery, and then Jon Holmes missed three weeks where he hurt his hand. So the other guys had to play every day. We didn't have subs. Our first two conference games we weren't very good. We put people on the foul line way too much and were turning the ball over, but we're doing much better in those areas now. The biggest thing is that we didn't build our team around any one guy. It might sound like a cliché, but our chemistry has just been great.
SI.com: You had a front row seat to the Mack Brown circus that cast a pall over Texas' football season. As someone who entered the basketball season on everybody's short list of coaches on the "hot seat," what did you think of how all that went down?
Barnes: I can make a case that Mack Brown did the best coaching job he ever did in the entire time was at Texas. You look at how many key guys he lost, yet on the last day of the season they were in position to win the Big 12 championship. You don't want to get caught up in all that kind of talk, but I can tell you I don't think it was fair to him. He was trying to coach his team, but his players were having to deal with all kinds of questions and rumors.
SI.com: Texas has a new athletic director now in Steve Patterson. Have you spent much time with him?
Barnes: He has had a lot to deal with in that football situation, and I've been coaching a basketball team. I can tell you that Mack Brown told me, "You can trust him because everything he said to me during the process was totally forthright and honest." Herb Sendek worked for him, and he said nothing but great things to me about him.
SI.com: Is the Big 12 the best basketball conference in the country?
Barnes: Oh, yeah. We've had years where we might have been higher rated, but I know for a fact, in my 16 years here, this is the best quality group of teams we've had from top to bottom. It's not even close.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Arizona (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Florida (4)
4. Kansas (8)
5. Wichita State (5)
6. Michigan (14)
7. Michigan State (3)
8. Iowa (10)
9. San Diego State (7)
10. Oklahoma State (9)
11. Kentucky (11)
12. Villanova (6)
13. Cincinnati (13)
14. Wisconsin (15)
15. Oklahoma (16)
16. Memphis (18)
17. Louisville (19)
18. UMass (12)
19. Iowa State (20)
20. St. Louis (21)
21. UConn (22)
22. Pittsburgh (23)
23. Duke (NR)
24. Creighton (NR)
25. Texas (25)
Dropped out: Ohio State (17), Kansas State (24)
It seemed like a very busy and exciting week, yet it yielded very little movement. The biggest riser was Michigan, which is undefeated in the Big Ten despite losing Mitch McGary a month ago. When a team beats a conference opponent on the road, that team should almost always be ranked ahead, but I also didn't feel right about penalizing Michigan State too much for that loss. Given that the Spartans are down two frontcourt starters in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson -- and given that Payne is likely to be back relatively soon -- I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
Kansas leapfrogs to No. 4 because a) I think the Jayhawks are really, really good and b) I am holding to my self-imposed restriction of maxing out Wichita State at No. 5. Let's see how long that lasts.
It might surprise you that Wisconsin actually moved up a spot despite its loss at Minnesota. It certainly surprised me. But beating Minnesota at The Barn is no gimme. I dropped Wisconsin more drastically than my fellow voters last week (the Badgers ended up No. 9), and I elected to take a broader view of their profile. I also looked at Oklahoma's profile and noted that the Sooners lost at Kansas State on Jan. 14. That's a rough equivalent of losing at Minnesota. So the Badgers were able to move up a spot because I had to drop UMass a few pegs following its loss at Richmond.
Incidentally, last week I also voted Oklahoma 10 spots ahead of where they ended up. But don't worry, my fellow voters will catch up to me soon enough. They always do.
You'll notice I was one of the few voters who included Texas last week. That gave the Longhorns one of five points they earned in the "Others receiving votes" column last week. They justified my faith by beating Kansas State and Baylor. Here's hoping the other balloters reward them this week.
Yes, Duke fans, your beloved Blue Devils are back on my ballot. I was one of three AP voters who did not rank them last week, but I have to say, that thrashing of Miami on the road -- Duke's first true road win of the season -- was mighty impressive, especially given how tough Miami played Syracuse on Saturday. Still, if Ohio State and Kansas State hadn't lost, I would not have been able to shoehorn the Blue Devils in there. With road games at Pitt and Syracuse this week, they will have plenty of opportunity to prove they belong.
Other teams that got strong consideration this week included Gonzaga, Minnesota, Nebraska, Louisiana Tech, Providence, Virginia, Toledo. Unfortunately, the pool of candidates seems to be shrinking, not expanding.