With more than two months of basketball remaining between now and Selection Sunday, it’s darn-near impossible to answer questions about what a team needs to do to reach the NCAA tournament. (Other than “win the conference tournament,” smart aleck.)
It isn’t too early, though, to identify some postseason regulars that might not take their usual spots in the field. Injuries and inexperience have played a role for some of these teams, but there’s also the matter of opportunities for high-end victories in the months to come.
This isn’t to say all six of these teams are doomed; Arizona, for example, looks like it will be a factor in the Pac-12, and most of those head coaches on this list have well-earned reputations. But each of these programs faces a heavier lift than usual at this point to get back to the NCAA tournament.
Unlike the other teams on this list, Arizona (12-4, 3-0 Pac-12) is chugging along about as well as could have been hoped for a team that reinvented itself. The Wildcats lost their top five in minutes played last season, a group led by Deandre Ayton, and had to reload on the fly.
They’ve done so in fairly solid fashion, even if they’d probably like back a home loss to Baylor. There was nothing surprising or shameful about Maui Invitational losses to Auburn and Gonzaga, and a three-point loss at Alabama isn’t damaging, either.
Brandon Randolph (16.6 points per game) has elevated his play as a sophomore, Duke transfer Chase Jeter is a solid post presence and freshman Brandon Williams leads the Wildcats in assists (60) and has just 25 turnovers. The Wildcats’ problem, though, is the Pac-12. A victory in Maui over Iowa State looks better now, but Arizona is going to need quantity in the win column since there isn’t going to be much quality to be found in the next two months.
No. 86 NET, No. 65 KenPom; NCAA streak: 3
The Hurricanes’ NCAA streak is modest relative to some other teams on this list. Still, they’ve been to the tournament four out of six seasons, won 20 games eight of the last nine seasons and turned in winning records in ACC play seven times in Coach Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons.
Things went sideways on Miami (8-7, 0-3) before the season began. The Hurricanes didn’t have a deep team after guards Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker IV turned pro, and their big offseason move (adding Florida Gulf Coast’s Zach Johnson) targeted the backcourt. So when forward Dewan Hernandez (formerly Dewan Huell) was suspended and eventually declared ineligible for the season, it left a huge hole in the middle.
Would the Hurricanes be headed for another NCAA bid with Hernandez? Possibly, though they still wouldn’t be particularly deep. But they probably wouldn’t have had a four-game losing skid in nonconference play (against Seton Hall, Rutgers, Yale and Florida State), and might have avoided their first 0-3 start in league play since 2002-03.
No. 94 NET, No. 71 KenPom; NCAA streak: 5
The Friars have done marvelous work in the retooled Big East under Ed Cooley, who has attracted some high-end talent but also developed plenty of overlooked players.
There was going to be a little bit less margin for error this season without Rodney Bullock, Kyron Cartwright and Jalen Lindsey, but the Friars did have a talented freshman class. And sure enough, David Duke has learned on the job and A.J. Reeves made an instant impression with 29 points on opening night against Siena.
Alas for the Friars (10-5), Reeves hasn’t played in a month because of a foot injury. While they won at Texas without him, they’ve dropped a pair of home games (to Creighton and Villanova) to open Big East play. Providence really could use a victory Saturday at Georgetown.
No. 88 NET, No. 56 KenPom; NCAA streak: 4
Has anyone understood exactly who they were as a program over the last four years better than the Mountaineers? “Press Virginia” wasn’t just a nifty nickname, it was a clear-cut identity. Anyone facing the Mountaineers’ in that span knew what was coming and how difficult it would be to handle their stifling pressure.
Coach Bob Huggins invested in that approach after two feeble defensive seasons. The Mountaineers posted four consecutive top-50 defensive efficiency seasons according to KenPom.com, peaking at No. 4 in 2017, and had three Sweet 16 trips to show for it.
These Mountaineers aren’t nearly so good at that end of the floor, they aren’t as adept offensively to overcome those problems and they’ve been without junior forward Sagaba Konate (knee) for the last six games. The result? An 8-7 record that includes an 0-5 mark in Quadrant 1 games and their first 0-3 start in conference play since 2002-03. They need a turnaround in a hurry, and the Big 12 is not an especially forgiving neighborhood.
No. 131 NET, No. 127 KenPom, NCAA streak: 7
The Shockers started four seniors and sophomore Landry Shamet last season when they went 25-8 during their debut season in the American Athletic Conference. But Shamet turned pro, and Wichita State (7-7, 0-2) has scuffled since an opening night loss to Louisiana Tech.
The story isn’t surprising. The Shockers are leaning on plenty of young players, and a typically ambitious nonconference schedule produced some good moments (victories over Baylor and Providence) but also five losses.
Things aren’t getting easier. Wichita State dropped an overtime decision to Temple on Sunday. The next three games: at Houston, followed by home dates with Central Florida and Cincinnati. The Shockers haven’t dropped 10 games in a season since 2009-10. They might get there by mid-January this year.
No. 83 NET, No. 81 KenPom; NCAA streak: 5
A five-year NCAA streak undersells the Musketeers’ consistency. They’ve been to the tournament in 12 of the last 13 seasons, and 16 of the last 18. It’s a story when they’re not heading toward the field of 68.
Despite their offensive balance — five players are averaging at least 10.2 points — the Musketeers (10-7, 2-2 Big East) have a lot of work to do under first-year Coach Travis Steele. Rallying from a 17-point deficit against Georgetown on Tuesday was a fine display of resolve. It didn’t help Xavier’s overall profile.
The Musketeers are 0-5 in Quadrant 1 games, and based on the quadrant breakdowns, their best victory so far is … at DePaul (!?). Strength of schedule isn’t going to be a problem for Xavier, but it needs to pile up some noteworthy victories in Big East play if its NCAA streak is to continue.