Beauty in Eye of Beholder for Tom Crean & Indiana

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2015

Minutes after Indiana defeated Northwestern to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, Tom Crean was asked if he thought his team was now in the NCAA Tournament. “Well, I don’t know,” Crean said. “You know, I really don’t know. And no one knows. That’s the beauty of it all.”

It was an insight tinged with a bit of both insanity and brilliance. If you have watched Crean coach basketball for the last month, you do not believe he could possibly find any “beauty” in the uncertainty of his team’s current predicament. The cheeks have been too red; the forehead vein too prominent; and most importantly, the Indiana wins too infrequent. And yet, thinking as a college basketball fan, it made too much sense. The beauty is there. We are just two days from Selection Sunday, and in reality, so much has yet to be decided. It’s an uncertainty that catalyzes Championship Week drama every single year; in many ways, it defines the lead-in to the NCAA Tournament. And here was Crean, who in 2015 has been as negatively affected as anyone by the pre-Tournament unpredictability, telling us about the beauty of it all.

Tom Crean, Yogi Ferrell And The Rest Of The Hoosiers Will Take On Maryland Friday Night In A Game That Could Define Their Season

Tom Crean, Yogi Ferrell And The Hoosiers Will Take On Maryland Friday Night In A Game That Could Define Their Season (USATSI)

In the minds of many, Thursday’s victory over Northwestern put Indiana into the field of 68. That belief is founded partially in the strength of the Hoosiers’ profile, which undoubtedly improved by dispatching a Wildcats team that had entered the night winners of five of their last seven. But it’s also a result of bubble carnage elsewhere: Texas A&M, Illinois, Texas, Ole Miss, Miami, Old Dominion and Stanford all suffered crippling losses on Thursday. All in all, it was a day that could not have gone much better for the Hoosiers. That doesn’t mean that they are safely there yet, or that they couldn’t REALLY use a quarterfinal victory over Maryland tonight. But for a team that hadn’t won a game of any kind since February 22, Thursday was a good day.

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News & Notes: Day Two at the Big Ten Tourney

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2015

An afternoon of upsets (Michigan and Penn State both toppled higher-seeded foes) gave way to a more predictable evening at day two of the Big Ten Tournament. Meanwhile, the two bubble teams in action may have each punched tournament tickets… to different, less-prestigious tournaments. Indiana may be good to dance after defeating Northwestern, but Illinois is surely NIT-bound after its decisive loss to Michigan. A few other news and notes on Thursday’s action from the United Center:

John Groce’s Seat Warming Up: Thursday’s loss to Michigan means Illinois is almost certainly headed to the NIT, where the Illini will seek to salvage some shred of meaning from a disappointing season. John Groce has recruited well since arriving in Champaign, but the former Ohio University head man has yet to finish a season with a winning Big Ten record. His only NCAA Tournament appearance at Illinois came in 2012-13, and that happened with a team largely constructed by his predecessor, Bruce Weber. Groce is going nowhere this offseason, but if the Illini find themselves in a similar spot next postseason, his job status will be far less certain. The good news for Illinois is that the return of Tracy Abrams and another talented incoming freshman class could, and maybe even should, lead to a happier result in Champaign a year from now. It will be interesting to see how much the Illini miss Rayvonte Rice next year. On the one hand, he was a legitimately efficient volume scorer – a player prototype that doesn’t exactly grow on trees. But Illinois’ 6-3 record without Rice this season raise the question of whether his ball-dominating nature might have often been counterproductive. We’ll find out in a critical 2015-16 campaign for Groce and the Illini.

John Groce, Rayvonte Rice And The Illini Saw Their Tournament Hopes All But Die Thursday Afternoon

John Groce, Rayvonte Rice And The Illini Saw Their Tournament Hopes All But Die Thursday Afternoon (Getty Images)

Nittany Lions Drop Hawkeyes: Iowa was a trendy sleeper pick heading into the action yesterday, but Penn State quickly and effectively ended the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament. The loss changes little for the Hawkeyes except for the fact that Fran McCaffery’s team is now squarely staring down the barrel of a dreaded #8/#9 game. Things could be worse, though – they seem to be safely in the field, and unlike last year, shouldn’t be headed to Dayton. On the other side, Penn State won its third straight Big Ten game — no small feat considering the Nittany Lions had won just three of 17 league games before embarking on their recent surge. More good news for Penn State fans: Purdue awaits the Lions in the next round. No disrespect to the Boilers and their impressive 12-6 Big Ten season, but they are clearly the easiest option among the four teams that received double-byes. Penn State pushed Purdue to overtime in State College in their only meeting of the season; can the tournament’s most unexpected quarterfinalist find a way to extend its stay in Chicago for at least another day?

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Big Ten Tournament Preview

Posted by Henry Bushnell & Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2015

Henry Bushnell and Bennet Hayes will be in Chicago all week delivering coverage of the Big Ten tournament. In advance of the action tipping off Wednesday night, they sat down to tackle a few questions on the week that lies ahead.

Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but could an upset be in the works for the Badgers?

Wisconsin is the clear favorite, but could an upset be in the works for the Badgers?

Wisconsin enters the Big Ten Tournament as a heavy favorite. Which team besides the Badgers has the best shot at winning it all this week

  • Bennet: Michigan State‘s regular season was no exemplar of consistency, but with Branden Dawson expected to return to the lineup for Friday’s quarterfinal game, they’ve officially made it to March in one piece. Betting against Tom Izzo this month is always a dicey operation — particularly with the experienced Valentine/Trice/Dawson core once again intact. Furthermore, snagging the #3 seed and delaying a potential rematch with Wisconsin until the championship game is another nice coup. The double-bye should also minimize the impact of depth issues that have at times proved troublesome. Michigan State never got the Badgers on its home floor this season; here’s guessing Sparty wouldn’t mind a crack at them in neutral territory. Izzo’s bunch has the chops to win three games in Chicago this week.
  • Henry: I like the Sparty pick, but I’ll take Ohio State. I know a lot of people will be scared off by the beatdown Wisconsin put on the Buckeyes in Columbus in the regular season finale, but that result was a lot more about the Badgers than Ohio State. Thad Matta still has a very talented team, and one that on a per-possession basis has far outperformed its record. And if there’s one player in this tournament who can take over a game and engineer an upset of Wisconsin in the final, it’s D’Angelo Russell.
D'Angelo Russell And Ohio State Could Make A Run In Chicago This Week

D’Angelo Russell And Ohio State Could Make A Run This Week In Chicago. (USA TODAY Sports)

Which player are you most looking forward to watching?

  • Henry: I can’t wait to see Branden Dawson. I know he’s had an up-and-down year with some recent injury issues, but he should be ready to go on Friday. He’s one of those players where a television screen simply doesn’t do his game justice. I’ve seen him play live twice this year from the upper levels and he wowed me both times with his athleticism and sheer power. At the United Center, we should have a front row seat, and I expect his game up close to be even more eye-popping.

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As Kentucky Takes Aim at History, Wildcats Have Everyone’s Attention

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 9th, 2015

It’s not that Kentucky’s perfect regular season was never in doubt, because it often was. It took three overtime periods to dispatch the Wildcats’ first two SEC opponents (Mississippi and Texas A&M). LSU was a Keith Hornsby three away from ending the perfect season (ask Arkansas how that can turn out). And just earlier this week, Georgia had the ‘Cats on the ropes, leading by nine points in Athens with under 10 minutes to play. Kentucky was tested time and time again this season, yet the Wildcats found a way to outscore their opponents 31 times without fail. Fill in your own superlative here, because it’s been a truly historic run: No power conference team has completed a perfect regular season since Indiana did the trick on its way to a national title in 1976.

Kentucky's History-Making Season Continued Saturday. Up Next: The SEC Tournament. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kentucky’s History-Making Season Continued Saturday. Up Next: The SEC Tournament. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Bids at perfection in college basketball – and in all sports, for that matter — are so often accompanied by a burdensome tension. As the wins pile up, the looming specter of history can turn the games into an exercise in survival. Kentucky has somehow avoided this transformation. No matter how sturdy the challenger or dire the circumstances, the Wildcats have steadfastly maintained control of their season. John Calipari has cultivated a respect for the process rarely found among groups of 18- to 20-year olds. Accordingly, Kentucky has yet to flinch in the face of a challenge — his team has never lost trust in either its coach or the plan. Lately, amid the discussion of Kentucky’s postseason chances, a tired cliché has been making the rounds. Some pundits have said, “the only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky.” If missing jump shots is somehow beating yourself, then sure, Kentucky might end up “beating itself.” But anyone familiar with the team’s entire of body of work within this 31-0 regular season will be quick to tell you that, more than anything else, these young Wildcats have always shown up. Expecting a deviation from that standard is silly, particularly when you consider the considerable motivational talents of Calipari.

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Sleeping on a Darling From a March Past

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 19th, 2015

The return to anonymity was as swift as the introduction had been sudden. When Ali Farokhmanesh unleashed his ill-advised three-point attempt with 36 seconds to play in a 2010 round of 32 match-up with Kansas, Northern Iowa was a little known Missouri Valley outfit that had scrapped its way to 29 wins. But seconds later, after the brave long distance attempt found the bottom of the net and the Panthers were done toppling top-seeded Kansas, Ben Jacobson‘s team was a national sensation. It didn’t matter that his team’s season would end six days later against Michigan State — with that one shot, Northern Iowa had suddenly become the story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball's Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball’s Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Panthers’ 15 minutes of fame extended a bit beyond March that year – they won ‘Best Upset’ at the 2010 ESPYs several months later – but it wasn’t too long before most of the world (and this includes the segment that eats, sleeps and breathes college basketball) had forgotten about them. They won no more than 21 games in any of the four seasons that followed, with a 2012 first-round NIT loss standing as the most successful postseason run since ‘the shot.’ Like so many March darlings before them, they had been forced back to their post in the obscure outer regions of college hoops.

They’re now back. Most college basketball fans have taken note of this season’s Northern Iowa renaissance, but lets take a full inventory of what they have done to this point. After Wednesday night’s 58-39 victory at Loyola (IL), Jacobson’s team has won 14 in a row and sits at 25-2 on the season. On January 31, the Panthers handed Wichita State its worst loss (70-54) in over six years. Their two losses came in double-overtime at VCU and by three points at Evansville. They rank in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the AP poll and Ken Pom’s rankings list them as the 11th best team in the country. Things are not going badly for this group.

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College Basketball Loses a Legend: On Dean Smith’s “Carolina Way”

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 9th, 2015

After years of failing health, Dean Smith passed away Saturday night at the age of 83. The tributes flowed in all day Sunday: Michael Jordan remembered his “second father”; Roy Williams reflected on his mentor and former boss; and media members across the country (including SI‘s Seth Davis and Alexander Wolff) shared their memories of one of college basketball’s greatest head coaches. Smith’s 879 wins, 11 Final Fours and two National Titles all found frequent mention yesterday, but equally conspicuous was praise of Dean Smith, the human being. In 1969, it was Smith who ended segregation in the ACC when he offered a scholarship to Charlie Scott, an eventual two-time All-American for the Heels (and later, father of current Ohio State guard Shannon Scott). To reveal the injustices of the American prison system, Smith brought his players to witness death row first-hand and meet some of the prisoners. Perhaps most valuably, he is widely credited as being the first to cultivate a true sense of family within his basketball program. It’s why Jordan viewed him as more than just his coach. It’s also become the elusive ideal that every program in college basketball now aspires to create.

College Basketball Lost One Of Its All-Time Greatest Leaders On Saturday

College Basketball Lost One Of Its All-Time Great Leaders On Saturday

“The Carolina Way” may sound like a snippet of cheesy propaganda, but those three words would come to define Smith’s coaching methodology. More than anything, they represented the fact that if you were a Dean Smith guy, you would care about accomplishments and lessons that couldn’t be defined by a simple ‘W’ or ‘L’. Other programs and coaches have successfully constructed programs that stand for that family ideal – with Smith’s old Tobacco Road and ACC rival Mike Krzyzewski still existing as the clearest current example at Duke – but for every program that successfully accomplishes the feat, countless others will try and fail. In a contemporary college basketball era where coaches are under more pressure than ever to win, players are offered more opportunities than ever to defect (either by transfer or to the NBA), and increasingly little is private, creating and sustaining a college basketball program with a clear ethos is difficult. By being a human and father figure first and a coach second, Dean Smith built the template on how to create a program – not just a basketball team – that’s built to last.

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Syracuse Waves the White Flag on 2015

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 5th, 2015

Syracuse may no longer reside in the Big East, but that didn’t stop bloggers from an old rival from putting their spin on yesterday’s news that the Orange had imposed a postseason ban on itself this season. Casual Hoya, the occasionally irreverent but always on-point voice of Georgetown fans, had this to say about the news from upstate New York.

The jab is certainly worth a chuckle, but it should also be good for a firm nod or two. Even as Jim Boeheim’s team currently sits at 15-7 (6-3 in the ACC), the NIT appeared to be a likely destination for the Orange if they had remained postseason-eligible. Their respectable record partially obscures that unpleasant reality, but it shouldn’t be enough to shield Boeheim’s brain trust from a bit of second-guessing on the timing of the announcement. Declining an NIT bid is hardly a sacrifice – heck, ask the Hoyas about that themselves – but Syracuse must be hoping that it will appear as if it is giving up a potential spot in the NCAA Tournament. To be fair, there definitely was enough time and opportunity for Syracuse to play its way into the field of 68; more likely, however, is that February 3 goes down as the high point of an otherwise uninspiring season, rendering the ban meaningless.

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Even in Defeat, Northwestern Offers Hope for the Future

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 23rd, 2015

Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament drought will not be ending this season. It’s not as if inclusion in this March’s field of 68 was ever an expectation for this group of Wildcats (because it wasn’t), but Thursday night’s loss to Ohio State dropped Chicago’s Big Ten team to what will almost certainly be an insurmountable 1-5 in conference play (10-9 overall). D’Angelo Russell (33 points, seven rebounds, six assists) may have been superior to any player the ‘Cats have faced this season (head coach Chris Collins admitted as much afterwards), but the defeat was just another in a string of excruciatingly close Northwestern losses. In overtime at Michigan State. By five to intrastate rival Illinois. A two-point defeat at Michigan. And then Thursday night, where Ohio State needed every point of its best player’s career game to eke out a two-point victory. The Wildcats haven’t gotten over the hump yet, but they have been consistently close. Right now, that seems to be good enough for Collins.

Chris Collins Displeasure With The Officiating Thursday Night Did Not Stop Him From Appreciating His Wildcats' Efforts

Chris Collins Displeasure With The Officiating Thursday Night Did Not Stop Him From Appreciating His Team’s Effort (AP)

You wouldn’t expect the head coach of a team that has won just one of its first six conference games to be especially optimistic after a loss, but Collins exuded confidence. In the postgame presser he repeatedly talked about how hard his guys had played, even saying, “It was so tough that they are not getting the results they deserve.” It was the opposite of a woeful mentality; this was a coach who believes in his players and everything they put on the floor last night. In his mind, they wholeheartedly deserved to win, and maybe after another season of close calls, he feels that they will turn the corner. Even while complaining about a controversial (and incorrectly called) blocking foul in the final minutes, Collins aired his postgame grievances with a knowing, almost-cocky smile across his face. He wanted the win for his guys (if you need it, here’s proof, via his in-game reaction to that missed call), but that steady confidence from trusting the system he’s developing belied contentment with the final result. Close was okay on this night; his team had played well enough to win.

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Handicapping the Wooden Award Finalists

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 21st, 2015

The Wooden Award released its midseason top 25 list last week. College basketball’s top individual honor will likely go to a player named on that list, but there’s still time for others (attention: Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas) to work their way into the picture. However, it’s also true that the field of real contenders for the award is thinning as we near February and March. RTC handicaps the race for the Wooden…

Jahlil Okafor, Duke. Odds To Win = 3/2.

Any national Player of the Year discussion must begin with Duke’s freshman sensation. Okafor’s averages of 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game begin to explain his value to the Blue Devils, but the impact of his presence runs much deeper than that. His steadiness (double-figure points in every game this season) has stabilized a Duke attack that was far more reliant on the three-point shot a season ago, while his unselfishness has helped the Duke guards find space on the perimeter. The presumptive top pick in next June’s NBA Draft has looked like the best player in college basketball from opening night, but an April coronation as the National Player of the Year will surely depend on Duke’s success. Balance has fueled the rise of other national title contenders (Kentucky and Virginia most notable among them), but there is no question that Okafor will continue to lead the Duke charge. Pole position has been well-earned: This is Okafor’s award to lose.

At The Midway Point Of The Season, Duke Freshman Jahlil Okafor Is The Frontrunner To Win The Wooden Award. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

At The Midway Point Of The Season, Duke Freshman Jahlil Okafor Is The Frontrunner To Win The Wooden Award. (Getty)

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin. Odds To Win = 5/2.

Kaminsky nabbed the national spotlight last March with a show-stopping regional final performance against Arizona. He has not given it up since. ‘Frank the Tank’ is grabbing more rebounds (8.2 RPG this season), blocking more shots (1.8 BPG) and even handing out more assists (2.4 APG) than he did a year ago. The Wisconsin center has been outstanding all season, but his value to the Badgers may have been best exhibited in a 40 minute stint on the bench. As their star sat out with a concussion on January 11, Wisconsin fell to Rutgers in one of the most shocking results of the season. The loss showed just how important the versatile center has become for Bo Ryan’s team. A balanced Badgers’ lineup may pose some threat to Kaminsky’s Wooden Award chances, but that surrounding talent is also what’s made the his team legitimate national title contenders. And as Wisconsin chases that elusive championship, its versatile big man is making a serious push for the most prestigious of individual accolades.

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On This Season’s Gonzaga Dilemma

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2015

Two years ago, the debate raged. Did Gonzaga, the #1 team in both polls on Selection Sunday, really deserve a #1 seed? It was a question rarely faced by teams towering over the polls at such a late juncture, but the Zags’ 31-2 record didn’t impress everyone. Critics brought up the weak WCC. They pointed out an unflattering RPI ranking of #8. More anecdotally, they looked up and down the Gonzaga roster and asked — other than Kelly Olynyk — where all the pros were. The Zags claim to a #1 seed was as energized a debate as any on Selection Sunday in March 2013.

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zag's Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team's Spot Within The Bracket?

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zags’ Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team’s Placement Within The Bracket?

That story’s ending shouldn’t have escaped memory yet (Cliff Notes: #1 seed granted, but Sweet Sixteen appearance sold separately) and it may have more damage to deliver the Bulldogs. This season boasts an equally dominant Gonzaga outfit and a similarly helpless WCC, which puts Mark Few’s team on a crash course for a familiar Selection Sunday predicament. After easily knocking off San Francisco on Thursday night, the 15-1 Bulldogs look as poised as ever to rip through a soft WCC and reach Selection Sunday with just one loss, an overtime defeat at Arizona (who is kind of good!). Early results indicate competition for the four #1 seeds is likely to be even fiercer this season than it was two years ago, but this Gonzaga group also looks to be stronger as well. Dominoes in the race for a #1 seed will be falling from now until March — in both Spokane and elsewhere — but round two of the great Gonzaga debate is coming. There’s no reason not to begin considering the question now: Will the kings of the WCC deserve to be on the bracket’s top line?

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Kentucky’s Perfect Dream: Is 40-0 Really Attainable?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 30th, 2014

On days like last Saturday, they tell you to throw out the records. Rivalry games like Kentucky-Louisville are supposed to occur in a vacuum, a place where bragging rights supersede any other consideration. At leas that’s how the thinking goes. It’s a quaint notion, indeed, but this latest installment of the Bluegrass State rivalry turned out to be all about the records. To be more specific, Kentucky’s record. With all due respect to Louisville’s previously unblemished loss tally – and even more respect to a stacked ACC – the Cardinals were never going to chase a perfect season, even if they had found a way to take down the Wildcats. But for Kentucky, with its stiffest test now in the rear-view and the zero in its loss column unchanged, dreams of an undefeated season have begun to transition out of fantasy and into reality. It was all anyone wanted to talk about after the game: Is 40-0 really possible?

The Young Wildcats Have Had Plenty Of Fun So Far; Are They Capable Of Crafting College Basketball's First Perfect Season Since 1976?

The Young Wildcats Have Had Plenty Of Fun So Far; Are They Capable Of Crafting College Basketball’s First Perfect Season Since 1976?

It is hard to look at the Kentucky schedule and find a single remaining game that it is likely to lose. This much is true. Using KenPom as our basis, the Wildcats are predicted to have at least an 89 percent chance of winning in 15 of their 18 SEC games. The three exceptions are visits to South Carolina on January 24 (84% win share), Florida on February 7 (77% win share), and Georgia on March 3 (84% win share). Florida’s best win this season is over Yale; the Gamecocks have beaten only one team in KenPom’s top 125 (Oklahoma State); and Georgia has two top-70 wins (Seton Hall and Colorado). Do we really expect any of these teams to prove capable of toppling one of the most dominant college basketball teams of the 21st century? I don’t think so.

Getting through the SEC unscathed – conference tournament included — is definitely possible for the ‘Cats. But is it likely? As difficult as it is to look down the schedule and find an SEC foe capable of beating them, winning 21 straight games against major conference teams is not as easy a task as many are suggesting. Even KenPom gives Kentucky just a 24.3 percent chance of ripping off the next 18 in a row. Avoiding a road trip to Arkansas on the schedule this year helps the cause, but won’t there be a night – most likely away from Rupp Arena — where the shots just aren’t falling for Coach Cal’s young bunch? They are shooting just 32.1 percent from three-point range and 66.2 percent from the line; imagining a 40-minute offensive drought is not too difficult, particularly in a foreign environment. Of course, you could use those same percentages to make a different but equally compelling point. Kentucky has been utterly dominant to this point, despite those inefficiencies — why even worry about them?

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Dear Santa: Conference Season is Beginning, Please Bring Help

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 25th, 2014

The man in the red suit is a busy guy right about now, but more than a few college basketball teams should be hoping Santa has time to swing by campus before his work is done. No milk and cookies were left fireside in Lexington, KY, or Durham, NC (reinforcements not needed), and some programs need seek only a stocking stuffer or two (hey there, Virginia and Wisconsin). But most teams have wish lists that stretch far longer. Conference play is here, and the blissful ignorance of the non-conference season? Long gone. In its place arrive true days of reckoning – grinding tests against peers that won’t allow deficiencies to go unpunished any longer. With conference season looming, we take a look at a handful of college basketball teams in desperate need of a gift this Christmas.

Which College Basketball Teams Will Receive A Visit From Santa This Year? (Photo Credit: AP)

Which College Basketball Teams Will Receive A Visit From Santa This Year? (Photo Credit: AP)

Iowa: Last Season’s Shooting Touch

Shoddy defense destroyed the Hawkeye’s promising start a season ago, but things have changed this winter. The defense has been much improved (22nd nationally in defensive efficiency), but a sputtering offense has left Iowa just 9-4 heading into conference play. All eight of the Hawkeye returnees have seen their three-point percentage drop this year (team: 259th nationally in three-point percentage), while only Gabriel Olaseni has improved upon his 2013-14 two-point field goal percentage (team: 232nd nationally in two-point percentage). The widespread nature of the shooting epidemic would seem to indicate some sort of systemic explanation. No Roy Devyn Marble? A lack of comfort with a quicker tempo? A coaching staff that has lost its players? Any or all of these questions could be a dig at the root cause, but even if they are, expecting some reversion to the more efficient levels of 2013-14 is entirely fair. The defense has been there; can Santa bring back the Hawkeyes’ shooting strokes?

Arkansas: Road Victories

For most of Mike Anderson’s tenure at Arkansas, the New Year (and conference play) has brought two things in bunches: home wins, and road losses. The Razorbacks are well positioned to earn their first Tournament appearance under Anderson after a 9-2 start, even if old habits die hard. The Hogs are undefeated on the home hardwood (8-0) and less perfect on the road: Both of the Hogs’ losses (Iowa State and Clemson) have come in enemy arenas. A November win at SMU should not be overlooked, but Arkansas needs to prove they can win games away from Bud Walton Arena in 2015. A depleted SEC should play the role of enabler.

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