Conference season unkind to several teams
The non-conference season is a time for average teams to boost their confidence with easy games and good teams to beef up their resumes against other good teams.
The start of the conference season often separates the true contenders from the teams that may not be as good as their records indicate.
There’s still two months before the start of March Madness so a lot can change, but here are six of the teams that have struggled since the start of conference:
OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes reached No. 3 in The Associated Press Top 25 after winning their first 15 games. It’s been a freefall since the start of Big Ten play. Ohio State opened conference with a pair of wins, but followed with four straight losses – its longest streak under coach Thad Matta. The Buckeyes were a bit downcast after losing to Michigan State and Iowa, and it’s only gotten worse with losses to Minnesota and Nebraska. The losing streak dropped Ohio State (15-4) 14 spots to No. 17 and a shaky game against Illinois on Thursday could knock the Buckeyes out of the poll for the first time in four years.
BAYLOR: The Bears opened the season 12-1, their only loss to No. 2 Syracuse in the Maui Invitational title game. Once Baylor got to the Big 12, the losses have started to pile up as its defense has struggled to stop anyone. The Bears (13-5) opened conference with a loss to then-No. 9 Iowa State and followed a win over TCU with losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas. Baylor is one of two teams, with TCU, that has failed to win at least two Big 12 games and has dropped to No. 24 in the poll after reaching No. 7 just a couple of weeks ago.
OREGON: The Ducks reached No. 10 in the AP poll after winning their first 13 games, matching their best start since 2006-07. The start of Pac-12 has started a downward trend: four straight losses, including 80-72 to rival Oregon State on Sunday. The problem for Oregon has been defense. Oregon (13-4) leads the conference in scoring at 87.4 points per game, but also is last in scoring defense, giving up 77.8. The Ducks have allowed at least 80 points in four straight games for the first time since 2000-01 and gave up nearly 90 a game in their four losses.
NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels had some good wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, but did lose to Belmont (at home) and UAB. North Carolina has done nothing but struggle since the start of conference, losing four of its first five games. The Tar Heels (11-7) were in danger of starting 0-4 in the ACC for the first time before pulling away from Boston College 82-71 last Saturday. Playing without leading returning scorer P.J. Hairston (violation of NCAA rules), North Carolina has cracked 80 once in five ACC games, including a 45-point effort against Syracuse. The Tar Heels reached the Final Four the last time they started the ACC 0-3 in 1996-97, so there’s still hope.
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones were one of the surprises of the season after opening 14-0 and climbing to No. 9 after knocking off No. 7 Baylor on Jan. 7. Iowa State (14-3) has labored since the start of the Big 12 season, losing three straight games for the first time in three years. The Cyclones struggled with perimeter shooting and rebounding in losses to Oklahoma and Kansas, then had 18 turnovers in a loss to Texas on Saturday. Iowa State had a players-only meeting this week to figure out what’s gone wrong and faces a stiff challenge against No. 22 Kansas State on Saturday.
MISSOURI: All that separated the Tigers from a perfect non-conference run were a few free throws down the stretch in a one-point loss to Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game on Dec. 21. Few things have gone right since Missouri (14-4) started the SEC. The Tigers opened conference play with a loss to Georgia and has since added losses to Vanderbilt and LSU. Their only conference wins are against Alabama and Auburn, teams that have one SEC victory between them. Missouri has one of the tallest rosters in the nation and has enough talent to pull off an upset of UCLA, but barely resembles the team that was up to No. 21 in the poll.