With league play just a few weeks away, there are a number of tradition-rich programs that are looking for fixes to the problems that have plagued them so far this season. For the teams whose play has been "under the weather," so to speak, they'll need more than a cup of chicken soup and extra rest to get back on track.
The good news is that during winter break (after final exams), the NCAA allows coaches unlimited time to work with their teams. It is not uncommon for coaches to have multiple practices a day in addition to team and individual film sessions.
This is a pivotal time for even the healthiest of programs, but for ones with flu-like symptoms, the next two weeks is the last window of opportunity to find the right formula for a full recovery.
Let's take a look at five programs -- including North Carolina and Texas, which play each other Wednesday night (9 ET, ESPN2) -- that have struggled to start the season, and the chances for each to turn things around.
John Calipari's Wildcats are young even for his standards. No team in the nation lost more from last season's team and relies more on freshmen than Kentucky. Many forget that last season's championship prescription relied heavily upon three players who had experience and were invested in winning (Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller). Those three players took to coaching and the weight room, and set the tone for a gifted freshman class.
This season's Wildcats team has suffered from numerous ailments, including below-average point guard play. But most of all, the young Cats are learning on the fly how to prepare and how to not take off plays.
The challenge for Calipari is that he needs to coach his team and push his team while keeping them confident. This is made more complicated by the fact that he doesn't have a player to coach his locker room and explain to his young Wildcats that there is a method to Cal's intensity and demanding coaching style.
I do feel that these Wildcats are starting to figure it out. Ryan Harrow is playing with more confidence, making better decisions and competing harder on the defensive end, which allows Archie Goodwin to play off the ball. Alex Poythress is more consistent and is poised to be a dominant player come SEC play, while Nerlens Noel is playing harder and is more alert and making better decisions on the defensive end.
My expectation for the Wildcats is that they will take a major step forward during Camp Cal and will once again be a factor come March.
Despite a tough early schedule and disappointing losses to Connecticut and at Miami, I feel Dr. Tom Izzo will find the right prescription to cure the Spartans' early-season headaches. Izzo is one of the best tournament coaches in recent college basketball history, and his ability to prioritize what is important, teach every day and adjust his system to his players always makes his teams a tough out come March.
The Spartans have a backcourt with the potential to be dynamic in Keith Appling and Gary Harris. As Harris adjusts to Izzo's system and the intensity of college basketball, he has the potential to be special by season's end. Appling is developing into a big-time playmaker in short-clock and late-game situations. The backcourt is deep with play-starter Travis Trice and skilled 6-foot-6 freshman Denzel Valentine. Branden Dawson, a natural small forward who can swing to the 4, is a tough matchup at both positions. He is an explosive athlete who rebounds and attacks the basket.
The challenge for Michigan State is how to get more consistency out of big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. I expect Izzo will solve that issue, and that once again the Spartans will make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels are a team in transition, having lost four players to the first round of the NBA draft. This season's version of the Heels is void of a go-to low-post player, as James Michael McAdoo has not developed into a player who can take over a game. They also have a freshman point guard in Marcus Paige who is still learning to play at the pace Carolina is accustomed to playing, and as a result, they no longer can simply outscore their opponent.
For the Tar Heels to develop into an elite team they must be tougher and more consistent in their effort and alertness on the defensive end. They need to be tougher off the ball fighting through screens and do a better job communicating. In short, they must take pride in getting stops.
However, I don't see them improving enough on the defensive end to make up for their inexperience and lack of a go-to post player. They are an NCAA tournament team, but not a team that will compete for a national championship. The real remedy for the Tar Heels is one more recruiting class.
It's going to be tough to get a true sense for Texas' abilities this season until they get healthy and the NCAA makes a ruling on Myck Kabongo. Jaylen Bond's health is still an issue, and the NCAA is still holding Kabongo and Texas hostage by not ruling on his eligibility. This is a very young Longhorns team (its top nine players in minutes and points per game are all freshmen or sophomores), and even though Kabongo is only a sophomore himself, he provides coach Rick Barnes with leadership, on-ball defensive toughness and the ability to get in the lane and create easy offense.
This team will improve, but they desperately need a résumé win in the nonconference (a victory over UNC on Wednesday would be a good start). I see a foundation for something special in the future, and there are opportunities on their league schedule to earn quality wins, but without Kabongo and Bond, I don't see a full recovery for Texas until next season.
The Bruins are still trying to develop an identity. They have a talented group of young players that is still learning how to compete each and every play. Although they play hard, there is a difference between playing hard and competing. Playing hard is giving effort, while competing is refusing to give an inch each and every play. One of the hardest things as a coach is to get freshmen to play through mistakes and get to the next play.
In the frontcourt, coach Ben Howland needs more from David and Travis Wear. Both twins are skilled and physically mature and strong, but they must be more productive.
On the perimeter, the Bruins need to find a way to utilize Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and their best scorer, Jordan Adams. Anderson struggles defending perimeter players, but is most effective with the ball in his hands, which creates something of a matchup dilemma. Muhammad is an explosive athlete with a high motor, but he is still acclimating to the college game, and Adams is a pure scorer with an old-school game on the offensive end, but he has some defensive deficiencies.
Howland is a terrific man-to-man defensive coach who is being forced to play zone due to his freshmen's deficiencies on the defensive end. This is hurting the Bruins from developing the defense-first identity of Howland's Final Four teams, and offensively, they still play young.
The Bruins will get better, but I do not feel they will improve enough to make the NCAA tournament without winning the Pac-12 tournament.