January 20, 2021

5 Disappointing CBB Teams That Can Still Turn Things Around

We know that this college basketball season was going to be different from what we’ve seen in the past. But we didn’t expect so many traditional powers and name-brand programs to fall flat on their face out of the gate.

There have been so many teams that we expected to see make noise in March that barely look qualified to play in the NIT right now. The silver lining is that there is still plenty of time to turn things around for teams that have gotten off to a disappointing start. That being said, time is of the essence.

With that in mind, here are five teams that have disappointed this season but still have a chance to turn things around and become a contender in March.

Kentucky Wildcats

Perhaps the biggest shock of the college basketball season has been the poor start by John Calipari’s Wildcats. Kentucky lost six in a row during the early part of the season, a stunning display by one of the sport’s blue-bloods.

The Wildcats aren’t lacking in the talent department, although poor point guard play, lackluster outside shooting and youthful mistakes were too much to overcome against teams like Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville. Even when the Wildcats won three straight games at the start of SEC play, they took another huge step backward when they lost to Alabama by 20 points.

However, it’s never over for Calipari, who is accustomed to coaching young teams that are rough around the edges and making them a Sweet 16-caliber squad by the time March rolls around. The return of Keion Brooks has given the Kentucky frontcourt a boost, and the Wildcats should improve as they integrate him into the rotation.

More importantly, the Wildcats will play a rather manageable schedule inside the SEC. Outside of a stretch starting in late January when Kentucky will play Alabama, Texas, Missouri and Tennessee, the Wildcats should be able to rack up wins against less-talented teams while also improving. 

Of course, it’ll be critical for the Wildcats to win at least a couple of those games so they have some impressive wins to put on their NCAA Tournament resume. There is still a lot of work ahead for Calipari and company to get into the Big Dance. But if they get there, Kentucky’s seed won’t matter because the Wildcats will have as much talent as any team in the field.

Memphis Tigers

The third season under Penny Hardaway was supposed to be the charm for Memphis.

Heading into the season, most pundits expected them to at least compete for the AAC championship. But early-season losses to Western Kentucky and VCU gave us reason to think twice about the Tigers, as did a close loss against Auburn. Even close wins against Tulane and South Florida in AAC play have made us skeptical about Memphis. The fact that Hardaway’s team has had to postpone two straight games isn’t likely to help the Tigers get back on track. Shooting woes and an average of 15 turnovers per game have gotten in the way of the Tigers asserting themselves as genuine contenders in the AAC.

However, the Tigers have shown enough promise not to give up on them. Memphis has three players who average double digits, including De’Andre Williams, who has scored 10 or more points in his first three games. The Tigers have size and depth but are lacking a go-to player who can carry them when they need it. Even the likes of Landers Nolley and Lester Quinones have been erratic in their productivity from one game to the next.

Memphis still has better talent than most teams in the AAC outside of Houston. The Tigers are 6-5 overall and 2-2 inside the conference, so with a little more consistency moving forward, they should win enough games to put themselves in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Duke Blue Devils

This is not the typical Duke team, as the Blue Devils don’t have a larger-than-life star like Zion Williamson who can dominate night after night. While the Blue Devils retain their spot in the top 25 for now, they’ve lost all three of their games against ranked teams, most recently losing to Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, they’re three wins inside the ACC have come against teams that are a combined 1-12 in conference play. In other words, there are a lot of reasons to remain skeptical about Coach K’s team, even if we wanted to cut them a little slack for having so many games postponed for COVID-related reasons.

The silver lining is that Duke would likely be in the NCAA Tournament if it started today based on most Bracketology projections. Plus, the ACC is strong enough that the Blue Devils can punch their ticket to the Big Dance if they can finish with a winning record in conference play. More importantly, sophomore Matthew Hurt looks capable of carrying Duke on his back if needed, recording a double-double in two of his last three games. Freshmen guards DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach are also coming along.

There is also hope because players like Jalen Johnson and Wendell Moore are capable of giving Duke a lot more than they’ve provided thus far. However, Coach K needs to find more consistency from a young team in such a fragmented season, especially since most of Duke’s “easy” games inside the ACC are behind them.

Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils were picked to finish second in the preseason Pac-12 poll, and they weren’t far behind UCLA. But Bobby Hurley’s team has fallen well short of those expectations so far. We could forgive early-season losses to Villanova and San Diego State, but a loss to UTEP was puzzling. The Sun Devils then saw four straight games either canceled or postponed because of COVID issues, followed by back-to-back losses to UCLA and USC. The end result is a team that’s 1-3 inside the Pac-12 and 4-6 overall, giving Hurley a lot of work to do just to get the Sun Devils into the NCAA Tournament.

To be fair, Arizona State has played short-handed in many games because of COVID issues within the program, as well as other illnesses and unforeseen issues. That means if the Sun Devils can get back to full strength and start clicking, they might be able to rattle off enough wins to climb back into contention inside the Pac-12. The trio of Alonzo Verge, Remy Martin and Josh Christopher are all averaging better than 16 points per game and all three have pro potential.

If those three can get on the court together and stay on the court, Arizona State should be fine. But don’t discount the importance of role players like Jalen Graham, Jaelen House, and Taeshon Cherry who have also missed time. Arizona State needs to be at full strength if the Sun Devils hope to look like one of the best teams in the Pac-12 and prove over the next two months that they deserve a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Last season’s struggles have turned out to be more than an aberration for Roy Williams and the Tar Heels. North Carolina couldn’t cut it against top teams like Texas and Iowa early in the season and then started the ACC season 0-2 with losses to NC State and Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels rattled off three straight wins before losing to Florida State. 

Much like their Tobacco Road brothers at Duke, the Tar Heels have all of their toughest games ahead of them. That could be problematic for a team that’s shooting less than 30% from the perimeter and isn’t getting consistent play from the backcourt, which is still waiting for a pair of freshmen in Caleb Love and R.J. Davis to come around.

Fortunately, there is hope that the 8-5 Tar Heels can turn things around and avoid a second straight losing season.

Obviously, much of that is contingent on the development of young guards like Love and Davis. In the meantime, North Carolina has an intimidating frontcourt that’s capable of pushing teams around. Keep in mind that Garrison Brooks was the preseason ACC Player of the Year, so he’s capable of producing more than 10.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. With Armando Bacot, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Walker Kessler, North Carolina has four talented big men to rotate and create problems for opposing teams. Those guys should help keep the Tar Heels relevant for a while, but they’ll need their guards to be ready to take over games by the time March rolls around.

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