College basketball misery index: UCLA, Auburn among teams stumbling in conference play
The men's college basketball season has entered the new year and league play is in full swing. While there's still several months before conference tournaments and March Madness tip off, how teams fare in January can often speak volumes for their ability to peak at the right time and pad their resumes for Selection Sunday.
Plenty of top-tier teams are meeting preseason expectations and plenty of others have overachieved (ahem, Texas and Houston), but there's a handful of teams that have not lived up to expectations.
Here's a look at the latest misery index tracking teams' struggles on the hardcourt:
The Scarlet Knights (7-3) had a breakthough season last year and have carried over that momentum to 2020-21, but in a crowded Big Ten, one bad week can spell doom. Rutgers has lost three of their last four including key setbacks against Iowa and Michigan State – losses that won't stain the profile in any fashion but were opportunities to bolster it. Coach Steve Pikiell has himself an NCAA tourney team but finding separation in arguably the country's toughest conference will take beating some conference contenders along the way.
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The Cowboys (7-3) have one of the best players in the country in Cade Cunningham (19.1 ppg) but their 1-3 start in the Big 12 has been disappointing because OSU was a possession away from wins in all three of those contests. Oklahoma State lost by three points to ranked foes Texas and West Virginia and then by two points to TCU. Finding a way to get it done down the stretch will be vital for this group.
The Fighting Irish (3-6) didn't get off to the start they were hoping for in ACC play, dropping their first three games. That said, there are no bad losses on the portfolio but it could be an uphill climb for this group. Nate Laszewski (17.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) is one of the best talents in the ACC but others will need to step up to help. Coach Mike Brey hasn't had a tourney team in South Bend in three seasons – the longest of his tenure – and more consistency is needed to avoid a fourth.
Mick Cronin now faces a tough task to get UCLA back to the NCAA tournament after the Bruins lost a key player to injury. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Coach Mick Cronin had a bare-bones roster on the brink of reaching the NCAA tournament as a bubble team last year before the March Madness cancelation. After a strong 7-2 start, with respectable losses to Ohio State and San Diego State, Cronin now might have his work cut out for him as it was announced that the Bruins' second-leading scorer, Chris Smith, would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
The Wildcats (6-3) got off to a strong 6-1 start by rattling off four consecutive Big Ten wins – a sign that coach Chris Collins isn't going to let the program fade after two disastrous seasons that followed Northwestern's breakthrough NCAA tournament campaign in 2017. Back-to-back blowout losses to Iowa and Michigan set the Wildcats in the reverse direction, though. Even if those are the two best teams in the Big Ten, if Northwestern wants to stay in the NCAA tourney picture it can't afford lengthy losing streaks.
Coach Patrick Ewing was hit hard by the transfer portal after dismissing some of his best players last season. It's showed so far in 2020-21, with the Hoyas (3-7 overall) having started 1-5 in Big East play. They also lost to Navy in non-conference action. Ewing has this cast competing, but they've been error-prone, ranking 327th nationally in turnover margin. There are no nights off in the Big East, so it could be a long season for this usual contender.
While Kentucky's horrid start in non-conference play has been the main storyline of the SEC, coach Bruce Pearl's group got off to a rough 0-3 start in league play. This is a young team that needs to time to mesh and that stars with the Tigers needing to simply guard better, currently ranking 219th in scoring defense.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
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