These teams are already looking for answers

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Updated: November 21, 2017

9:00 AM ET

In college basketball, the first week can create hurdles that last all season.

A handful of tough losses or sloppy outings will force any coach to regroup early.

Ask Chris Collins, who entered Big Ten media day in New York City with a renewed perspective. No longer chasing Northwestern’s first NCAA tournament berth, Collins and the Wildcats entertained a crowd of reporters anxious to know what the program had planned for the season after it had made history in Evanston, Illinois.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that I want for our team is to be hungry for more,” Collins said in October. “And I think they are. But from a human-nature perspective, it’s different territory for these guys. You go from their first couple years being constantly told you can’t go to the [NCAA] tournament, you can’t win, Northwestern has never won to now everywhere you go, everyone patting you on the back, telling you how good you are.”

On Sunday, however, No. 20 Northwestern suffered a 36-point loss to unranked but underrated Texas Tech in the title game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut. The Wildcats lost a home game — Northwestern will play at AllState Arena while Welsh-Ryan undergoes a multimillion-dollar overhaul — to Creighton last week and squeezed by Loyola (Maryland) in its season opener.

No need to hit the red button.

Going forward, the Wildcats must play better perimeter defense (41.4 percent clip allowed from the 3-point line) and limit turnovers (one per every five possessions) to compete for a Big Ten title and return to the NCAA tournament, while adjusting to their temporary, off-campus home.

But they’re not alone.

The first week of the season left these teams searching for answers, too.

Kentucky: After his team lost to Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago last week, John Calipari said he’s still tweaking with lineups to ensure he puts the right combination of players on the court in clutch situations. That will take time. Right now, however, this excellent transition team, stacked with five-star recruits, is suffering in its half-court sets, committing turnovers on nearly one-fifth of its possessions (18.7 percent) in those scenarios and drawing a “below average” designation from Synergy Sports. Last season’s squad committed turnovers on just 12.8 percent of its half-court possessions and earned an “excellent” rating from Synergy Sports. Beyond personnel adjustments, Calipari must position his team to compete in the measured matchups that will demand more schematic, organized offensive attacks and limit Kentucky’s run-and-gun potential.

Michigan State: Tom Izzo wasn’t pleased by his team’s effort down the stretch of last week’s seven-point loss to Duke in the Champions Classic and the 25 offensive rebounds the Spartans surrendered to the Blue Devils that night. But Michigan State has the size and athleticism to dominate the offensive glass, per the norm in East Lansing. The program’s 17.0 turnovers per game should concern Izzo, too. The Spartans — with uncertainty surrounding Miles Bridges, who is “day to day” after injuring his right ankle in Sunday’s win over Stony Brook — rank near the bottom of the pack (No. 292) in turnover percentage through their first three games. No reason to panic yet, but for a team that committed turnovers on more than 20 percent of its possessions last season, it can’t be overlooked even after one-plus week of action.

Wake Forest: Danny Manning accrued critical momentum with last season’s run to the NCAA tournament, the school’s first appearance since 2010. But John Collins turned pro and changed the dynamic of this season’s program. Bryant Crawford, the new catalyst, is taking the most shots of his career while shooting the lowest field goal percentage (34.9) in his three years. After Sunday’s 78-73 loss to Houston, Wake Forest is 1-4 with two losses coming against a pair of teams ranked outside the top 150 on KenPom.com (Liberty, Drake). Manning must stop this slide now before his team plays its way out of the NCAA tournament pool long before conference play begins.

Vanderbilt: In his first season with the program, Bryce Drew reached the NCAA tournament and suffered a tough loss to Northwestern in the opening round. With three of last season’s top four scorers back, Vanderbilt should secure another invitation. But Sunday’s overtime loss to USC in Nashville highlighted some of the early problems Vandy must correct to navigate the toughest SEC landscape in years. Jeff Roberson, Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis combined to shoot 13-for-35 from the 3-point line in Vandy’s losses to Belmont and USC. With Virginia and possibly Seton Hall ahead in the NIT Tip-Off this week, Drew needs those seniors to connect in tight games to help the program add quality wins to its resume before a difficult conference slate commences.

Miami (Florida): In the program’s final two games of the 2016-17 season — North Carolina in the second round of the ACC tournament and Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament — the Hurricanes lost by 45 points combined. They had various issues in those games, but the program’s 22-for-33 clip at the free throw line didn’t help. They’ve carried those low marks into this season. They’re shooting under 51 percent from the free throw line. Bruce Brown Jr., a projected lottery pick in next summer’s NBA draft, is 2-for-9. That could ruin the Hurricanes against a talented Minnesota team in Minneapolis as the part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge next week and impact its shot at the ACC crown if the struggles remain.

How Grayson Allen saved opening weekend and might also save the season

The Duke star recorded a career-high (37 points) in his team’s win over Michigan State in the Champions Classic last week, despite the boos he heard at the United Center whenever he touched the ball. After last season’s tripping incidents, he’ll face similar hostility whenever he’s not at Cameron Indoor Stadium during his final collegiate season.

But if college basketball’s heel continues to excel and play at this level, the game will benefit. Allen’s effort turned the Champions Classic into a must-see event.

The game needs more impressive performances to compete for attention in the crowded sports landscape in November, December and January.

Lonzo Ball — and his father, LaVar Ball — led that charge last season. Ball became the polarizing performer casual fans, whether they loved him or disliked him, recognized and paid attention to him throughout the season.

That role belongs to Allen now.

His heroics in Chicago last week elevated the event on a national level, which is not easy to do with college football, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL all dominating the headlines right now.

What to expect when Michael Porter Jr. returns

Porter is currently sidelined by a mysterious leg injury that has forced him to miss all but two minutes of Missouri’s first four games. The projected top-three pick in next summer’s draft will make a significant difference once he’s back. That’s obvious, right? Well, no. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz both compiled serious numbers for LSU and Washington, respectively, but couldn’t carry a fleet of players who weren’t in their athletic stratospheres. Porter is in a similar situation.

He’s a 6-foot-10 versatile forward who can score anywhere on the floor. And he’s unstoppable in transition. He might not make Missouri an instant contender in the SEC when he’s available, but the Tigers will always have the best player on the floor whenever he returns. In offseason practices with Missouri, he competed at a level no player on the court could match. He showed promise in his team’s loss to Kansas in their charity exhibition, too.

If he can employ his athleticism on both ends of the floor and contribute as a selfless teammate, Porter can make Tigers fans forget about the weekend’s lopsided road loss to Utah once he’s healthy.

Virginia’s new pace?

The Cavaliers end most seasons as one of America’s slowest teams, based on possessions per game. Tony Bennett’s squad is still listed at the bottom of KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo ratings through four games — but with nearly five more possessions over last season’s pace.

Kyle Guy (18.0 PPG) is leading a Virginia squad that’s averaging 76.0 PPG (10.0 PPG over last season) right now in nearly 64.1 possessions per game. That might not last. But the Cavs have played 60 or more possessions — a relatively quick pace for the traditionally disciplined program — in all four games this season.

Might not seem like a major difference, but if this persists, a faster Virginia, one of America’s toughest defensive squads, will make life only harder on opponents

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Arizona’s one-two punch the combo to watch this week

Arizona’s connection to the FBI’s corruption scandal — former assistant Book Richardson was indicted along with three other Division I assistants — blurred preseason projections about the program. Through three games, the Wildcats have justified the early hype about their national title aspirations.

Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton will enjoy their first national spotlight of the year when the Wildcats compete in this week’s Battle 4 Atlantis, a tournament in the Bahamas that will also feature NC State, Purdue and a potential Villanova-Arizona matchup in the title game.

Trier (30.0 PPG, 10-for-17 from beyond the arc) and Ayton (18.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 1.7 BPG), the projected top-five pick in next summer’s NBA draft, are playing as well as any pair in the country.

The Wildcats won’t alter the narrative or remove the shadow from the FBI investigation at this juncture in the season, but they can remind their detractors Sean Miller might have his best opportunity to reach the Final Four with this group.

Article source: http://www.espn.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/21495913/northwestern-wildcats-kentucky-wildcats-teams-looking-answers