It is flu season, and the doctor is in. These are the dog days of the college basketball season -- conference play -- and the time when a malady can befall a promising team, leading to a malaise in its fan base. Once conference play begins, the difficult part of the season can hit hard, and not every team was properly inoculated by facing the right nonconference bugs.
The following five teams are all winning programs with good players that had promising outlooks to begin the season. Yet they have suffered aches and pains, and their temperatures have spiked at different times of the season, leaving some of their records looking a bit sluggish. It is not just struggling teams that may need a checkup and a prescription for better health -- elite teams are in need of assistance, too. The smartest teams evaluate themselves while winning, not just when they've been kicked to the curb.
Here are diagnoses for what is ailing five prominent teams, along with a prescription for each to regain its health before the end of the season.
Let's start with the undeniable fact the Tar Heels have lost four first-round NBA draft selections and replaced them with youngsters and players who have never played lead roles.
This season is much like 2009-10, a season in which North Carolina went to the NIT final. Roy Williams has some good young players who play hard and want to do well, but are all works in progress who are painfully young and thin, who need to get into the weight room and simply need to get older. Williams has not forgotten how to coach, and has been patiently bringing this team along.
In learning to play at such a fast pace, the young Tar Heels take tough jump shots, don't get to the rim often enough and don't have a reliable post presence to get easy scores and free throws. And, due to quick shots and turnovers, the Heels have not been able to establish a tough defensive identity. Those two things are related. As each individual player develops -- and they will -- things will continue to get better. But this will be a process, not a quick fix.
Remember in 2010 when it seemed that things wouldn't get better? They did. And they will this time around, too. The key is mental toughness. North Carolina can make strides and still lose games in the ACC. The key is to not get down, and to continue to fight and compete in games and in practice. If Carolina does that, individually and collectively, the Tar Heels will reach their destination…in time.
Phenomenal freshman talent is important, but experience is important, too. Kentucky has absolutely no experience, especially the type it had last season in Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. The outstanding recruiting class John Calipari brought in is very good, but not quite as good as last season's incredible class of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Kentucky is ranked 17th in the KenPom.com ratings -- imagine the shame.
However, this team is not far away from being pretty darn good. Kentucky's issues are small breakdowns on offense and defense. If four guys play a possession well but one has a breakdown, the possession can fall apart. Kentucky competes, but does not compete consistently. Usually, experience does that; however, Kentucky is not allowed to play young.
I see individual Wildcats playing hard, but I'm not sure Kentucky is consistently playing hard together. Once Kentucky does that -- plays consistently hard together and competes hard together for 40 minutes -- the Wildcats will be very good, and an NCAA tournament team. First, Kentucky needs a leader who can grab a teammate's jersey and call him out. This is currently a coach-led team; only teams with player leadership win big.
No team that I have seen this season plays harder than Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a very good defensive team, rated among the top five defenses in the country by KenPom.com, and they are an excellent rebounding team.
The key for Cincinnati is offensive efficiency. The Bearcats have very good guards in Cashmere Wright and Sean Kilpatrick, but do not have a post presence to throw the ball to and get a score or free throws. However, with Cincinnati's offensive rebounding prowess, if the Bearcats are patient, run good offense and reverse the ball to the second and third sides of the floor, Cincinnati will give itself opportunities to get second shots and to get its defense back in conversion.
As of now, bad shots and turnovers are essentially the first passes in their opponents' fast breaks. The Bearcats cannot defend a run-out and cannot rebound a turnover. With better offense, the Bearcats' defense will be even better.
The Buckeyes have gone from being a top-five team to being written off after a brutal loss at Illinois to resurrection after an aggressive win over Michigan. The Buckeyes have a great scorer in Deshaun Thomas, but he cannot do it alone. Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and Sam Thompson are not "natural" scorers with picture-perfect strokes and a hunger to score, and Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams, though good, are not low-post scorers.
Still, if Ohio State attacks off the dribble, using ball screens and cutting, the Buckeyes can compete with any team in the nation. The key is aggressiveness and a "hit-first" attack mentality. Ohio State does not get to the free throw line often enough, but when the Buckeyes are precise, take their time and attack, they can score well enough to win against the best teams in the Big Ten. Ravenel and Williams may not be exact replicas of Hakeem Olajuwon, but they can provide more offense than they are now.
The Wolverines have, in my judgment, the best offensive team in the country and are a legit Final Four team. Trey Burke is the nation's best point guard, and he has pros on the wing, shooters stretching the defense and big men who can screen and run. Michigan is an excellent handling, passing, cutting and shooting team that takes good care of the ball.
The only thing that stands in the way of Michigan and the Final Four is defense. Don't get me wrong, the Wolverines are not bad defensively, and are actually improved in that area. But to be a national champion, Michigan needs to upgrade its defense to a top-10 caliber defensive unit. Michigan needs to be more physical and needs to make stopping opponents as important as scoring. Of the past 10 national champs, all were ranked among the top 20 defenses in the nation, with five of them ranking in the top five. Right now, Michigan ranks 40th. The Wolverines are capable of much better.