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December 27, 2005

Seasons on the brink

The holiday season has not been full of fond memories for certain college basketball programs. Regardless of the time off and all the presents, their players are having trouble thinking about anything but the ongoing season.

Early struggles and shocking upsets have put them far below anyone's expectations and in situations they never imagined.

Two teams that began the season well inside the top 25 are hovering around .500. Two more teams coming off trips to the NCAA Tournament wouldn't even reach the NIT if the season ended today. A preseason national title contender hasn't played like a top 25 team since November.

All of those programs landed in Rivals.com's top 5 biggest disappointments. We take a detailed look at each, including what went wrong and why their fans shouldn't give up hope just yet.


Preseason Rank: No. 13
Current Rank: NR
Record: 4-4
Signature Loss: at UC-Davis (64-58) on Dec. 4 - Double-digit losses to UC-Irvine and Montana already made it obvious that the Cardinal was having some big problems, but this was the most embarrassing moment. To lose to another Northern California school which doesn't even belong to a conference was a new low for the once-feared program.
Key Losses: Rob Little (9.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Nick Robinson (8.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg).
Most Telling Stat: 67 percent - The percentage of Stanford's 65.5 points per game that Matt Haryasz, Dan Grunfeld and Chris Hernandez make up. If just one has an off night, it's very tough to get a win.
What Went Wrong?: There was talk of the Cardinal making a run at the Pac-10 title, but now fans are wondering if this season can be salvaged. Inexplicably, this team has struggled despite the impressive play of Haryasz, who has looked like one of the nation's top big men. Grunfeld isn't the player he was a year ago, but he is still a solid scoring threat. The real problem is an inability to create offense for others. Hernandez (3.0 apg) is a score-first point guard, and no one is penetrating into the lane and drawing extra defenders. That has led to low percentage shots and a glaring lack of easy baskets.
Why shouldn't you give up on them?: Trent Johnson can coach. We learned that during his five-year stint at Nevada. He has a big man that consistently puts up solid numbers and a veteran backcourt with proven scorers. That equals a dangerous combination.


Preseason Rank: No. 2
Current Rank: No. 15
Record: 9-2
Signature Loss: Tennessee (95-78) on Dec. 17 - The loss to top-ranked Duke (97-66) seven days earlier was disappointing to say the least, but this was the real shocker. Playing at home, the mega-talented Longhorns never put together any threat and trailed by about 20 points for most of the game.
Key Losses: None.
Most Telling Stat: 51 percent - The combined field goal shooting percentage of Duke (53) and Tennessee (50) against the Longhorns.
What Went Wrong?: The defense has fallen apart. Sure, the injuries to Brad Buckman and Daniel Gibson (who is now back after a concussion) have hurt, but it's a lack of intensity and effort on the defensive end that has been the biggest hindrance. The Longhorns' man-to-man defense looks softer than melted ice cream at times. Nobody applies much pressure on the ball, and they allow way too many open looks from the outside. There have also been leadership problems. Just whose team is this? It was supposed to be Gibson's, but he has played with little fire or passion. LaMarcus Aldridge is their best player, but he isn't vocal enough. P.J. Tucker does take charge on the court, but he also makes a lot of mental errors.
Why shouldn't you give up on them?: Nobody has a more talented starting lineup when completely healthy. Buckman's return should give them a boost. Plus, Rick Barnes has gotten teams to overachieve before (see Clemson 1997), and if he can get this team to play to its potential, that will be enough to reach the Final Four.


Preseason Rank: No. 15
Current Rank: NR
Record: 5-4
Signature Loss: Memphis (87-76) in Preseason NIT on Nov. 17 - It turns out the Tigers are an elite team, but this was more about the Tide being completely outplayed on their home court - a rarity since Mark Gottfried took the program over. They trailed by double digits nearly the entire night.
Key Losses: Kennedy Winston (17.9 ppg), Earnest Shelton (16.3 ppg).
Most Telling Stat: 12.7 - The number of assists the Tide average a game. A rebuilding Mississippi State team is the only SEC school that averages fewer.
What Went Wrong?: The guard play. Ronald Steele hasn't been assertive enough offensively, failing to knock down perimeter jumpers or create scoring opportunities for others. The sophomore was a good fit on a team full of scorers last season, but now that he is being asked to run the show he looks uncomfortable and incapable. Winston's absence has created an obvious void on the wing as well. With Chuck Davis (18.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Jermareo Davidson (11.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg) doing plenty of damage on the inside, the Tide don't need their backcourt to be spectacular but they do require some steady production.
Why shouldn't you give up on them?: The freshmen are showing promise. The highly touted Richard Hendrix has been far from dominating - largely because he plays behind the SEC's top frontcourt - but he has been a solid contributor. So has combo guard Alonzo Gee, who recently grabbed a spot in the starting lineup. Gee provides some much-needed firepower, and as the duo improves so will the Tide.


Preseason Rank: NR
Current Rank: NR
Record: 6-6
Signature Loss: Syracuse (81-46) on Nov. 17 - The matchup of two of the winningest coaches in college basketball history quickly turned into a laugher. The Red Raiders missed 16 of their first 17 shots.
Key Losses: Donald Ross (17.5 ppg), Devonne Giles (12.3 ppg, 1.7 bpg).
Most Telling Stat: 22 - The number of blocks the Red Raiders have amassed as a team. Their opponents have exactly twice as many and most Big 12 teams have a single player with more.
What Went Wrong?: Interior defense. You could name just about any phase of the game and the Red Raiders are probably struggling in that area, but improving the defense in the paint is Bobby Knight's New Year's resolution. And if the General actually made New Year's resolutions, allowing fewer second chances would be No. 2 on his list. The Red Raiders have been out-rebounded in five of their six losses. Another common theme in those games has been opposing guards beating defenders off the dribble and finding uncontested paths to the lane. The loss of Giles has been very evident as the team lacks any real shot blocking threat or even someone who can alter shots.
Why shouldn't you give up on them?: They have Knight. Think the Red Raiders defense won't improve? Yeah, we are too scared to take that bet too. The legendary coach will have his team playing fundamentally sound defense by late January and will find a way to disguise some of its weaknesses.


Preseason Rank: NR
Current Rank: NR
Record: 6-5
Signature Loss: Mississippi State (53-38) on Nov. 23 - The 49ers were held to nine first half points at home on their way to their third consecutive loss.
Key Losses: Brendan Plavich (13.7 ppg), Eddie Basden (15.2 ppg, 3.2 spg).
Most Telling Stat: 38 percent - The 49ers' field goal shooting percentage. Four of the players in their rotation are shooting 35 percednt or less from the field.
What Went Wrong?: Curtis Withers (15.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg) lost his sidekicks. Withers was one of the nation's top players last season with a 3-point specialist (Plavich) and a shutdown defender (Basden) by his side. Now, he is surrounded by fewer weapons and is being expected to do too much. Oklahoma transfer DeAngelo Alexander got past a horrid shooting slump - going 8-of-43 from the floor during that three-game losing streak - and is now averaging 16.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. But the 49ers desperately need a third scoring threat or their first season in the Atlantic 10 will quickly become very forgettable.
Why shouldn't you give up on them?: Leemire Goldwire. The sophomore guard who missed all 10 of his shots from beyond the arc against MSU could be the answer to the problems. He has scored in double figures in four of his last five games, including a 15-point performance in the 49ers' 85-82 win at Rutgers. If that kind of production continues, the 49ers will be a contender in the A-10.

Those who survived the cut: Arizona, Miami, Oregon, South Florida

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