In today's Daily Word, ESPN.com's Andy Katz examined last season's most disappointing team, the Michigan State Spartans. Can a beleaguered Tom Izzo lead his team back from one of his most frustrating seasons as a coach? Are the letdowns of the immediate past truly past?
Of course, Michigan State wasn't the only team with unfulfilled expectations last season. Below are five more programs that underperformed in 2010-11. To borrow from the immortal Dennis Green, which teams are what we thought they were? Are some more likely to repeat last year's meager performance? Who's going back to the drawing board?
Let's dive in, shall we?
Baylor: At this time last year, when the Bears were returning two key members of their 2010 Elite Eight team -- guard LaceDarius Dunn and forward Quincy Acy -- and had added one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation in forward Perry Jones, most assumed Baylor capable of big things in 2011.
Not so much. Instead, BU didn't beat anybody in nonconference play, failed to gain any steam in conference play (finishing 7-9), and ultimately fell off a Charmin-soft NCAA tournament bubble. Why so disappointing? In a word, turnovers. Baylor was ultra-generous to its opponents: The Bears turned the ball over on 23.4 percent of their possessions, one of the highest rates in the country. The carelessness was a team-wide epidemic, and sophomore point guard A.J. Walton -- who turned the ball over on a third of his possessions -- helped lead the way.
Baylor will have no shortage of talent again in 2011-12, especially in the frontcourt, where top recruit Quincy Miller -- the No. 3-ranked power forward in the class of 2011 -- will join Jones and Acy. Another highly touted player in that class, small forward Deuce Bello, also joins the mix. So the bounceback potential here is high. But if Baylor is going to leave last year's disappointments behind, someone will need to take better care of the ball. Whether that's Walton or junior college transfer Pierre Jackson or even sophomore Stargell Love (who posted the highest turnover rate on the team last year), it doesn't matter. It just has to be somebody.
Illinois: Let's not put too fine a point on it: The 2010-11 Fighting Illini were downright weird. They looked great on paper. They were efficient enough, finishing No. 18 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They had a near-ideal mix of seniors -- including at the most important position, point guard -- and talented young players, including highly touted freshman swingman Jereme Richmond. So why did Bruce Weber find himself benching his starters (including Demetri McCamey) in key games down the stretch? Why did this team limp to a 20-14 finish? Why were they so thoroughly mediocre, only rarely (like in a dominating tourney win over UNLV) putting it all together?
There are no easy answers to any of those questions; not everything in basketball can be defined by what we see on the court. That said, for all the talent at Weber's disposal, his team lacked a physical inside presence or a guard that could get to the rim and create easy scoring opportunities at will. Too often Illinois' players -- including big men Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale -- settled for soft mid-range jumpers. Eventually the Illini became easy to guard, especially in key spots.
McCamey, Davis, Tisdale and Richmond -- perhaps the most surprising one-and-done player of the offseason -- are all gone now. Usually, that would require a downgrade in preseason expectations. In this case, maybe the pertinent cliché is "addition by subtraction." Without that senior group dominating touches, guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will have a chance to step into leadership both on the court and off. Sophomore center Meyers Leonard, a true center unafraid of low-post grinds, will likely move into a starting role. And if that doesn't work, help is on the way: Weber's 2011 recruiting class includes four ESPN top 100 prospects, including No. 10-ranked center Nnanna Egwu and No. 15-ranked power forward Mychael Henry.
It's always dangerous to talk about identity in college hoops, but in Illinois' case, "identity" is another cliché that seems to fit. For all their talent last season, the Illini never found themselves. Or, if they did, what they found wasn't tough enough to win big college basketball games when it mattered. In 2012, Weber & Co. will wipe the slate clean, begin anew and hopefully find something other than ill-advised jumpers and so-so defense in their collective arsenal.
Kansas State: Last season was supposed to be Jacob Pullen's coronation. It took the preseason All-American a while to live up to expectations, but he eventually did, improving his scoring and playmaking down the stretch as Kansas State, ranked No. 3 in the preseason, went from a disastrous start to a nothing-to-be-ashamed-of Round of 32 loss to Wisconsin.
Still, last season's Wildcats team -- picked by many to compete for a national title -- was a massive disappointment on and off the court. And if not for Pullen's late-season heroics, K-State may have missed the tournament altogether.
Unfortunately, that may be the outcome in 2011-12. Pullen is gone. So is forward Curtis Kelly. Highly recruited but little-used sophomore Wally Judge left the team during the season. Assistant coach Dalonte Hill, K-State's top recruiter, departed for Maryland in May. With all that turnover, Wildcats coach Frank Martin will find himself structuring his offense around players primarily used in spot roles in the past.
Rodney McGruder will have take on much of the perimeter scoring load. Point guard Will Spradling will have to be steady on both ends of the floor. Forward Jamar Samuels will have to do more on the block than rebound. And Martin will have to hope his trio of junior college transfers -- Jeremy Jones, Omari Lawrence and James Watson -- can fill in the obvious production gaps.
Last season, Pullen famously said he wouldn't play in the NIT. After a steep uphill climb, he proved himself right. But without him, his former team may not fare quite so well in 2012.
Minnesota: Maybe we should rename it "Tubby's Law," because in 2011, anything that could have gone wrong for the Golden Gophers did. Devoe Joseph left the team in January. Al Nolen missed the team's final 12 games to a broken right foot. Junior center Colton Iverson left the team in March, the fifth player in to leave the program in the past year.
Tubby Smith expected his team to compete for a Big Ten title. Instead, it collapsed down the stretch, posting a 2-10 record in the 12 games Nolen missed as the Gophers failed to reach the NCAA tournament in a season that began with such high hopes.
What's the prognosis for 2012? It's not all bad. Yes, with Nolen, Joseph and sharpshooter Blake Hoffarber gone, Minnesota will have to recalibrate its backcourt in a major way. That will probably mean more time for promising youngsters Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins and plenty of chances for incoming shooting guards Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman (as well as junior college transfer Julian Welch). The good news is that Minnesota's bruising frontcourt -- led by athletic power forward Trevor Mbakwe and skilled center Ralph Sampson III -- will be back in the fold. That alone should be enough to keep this team in the thick of the crowded Big Ten middle for much of the season. Smith is due for a few breaks.
Villanova: On Jan. 22, Villanova looked great. The Wildcats went to the Carrier Dome and delivered a comprehensive victory over Big East rival Syracuse, moving their record to 17-2 and looking for all the world like the balanced, versatile team many expected before the season, when Nova was ranked No. 7 in the country.
In truth, the Syracuse game was the beginning of the end. The Cats went 4-10 in their final 14 games. They lost their last six, including a first-round Big East tournament loss to South Florida and an opening NCAA tournament loss to George Mason. It was the second straight meager finish from a Jay Wright-coached team, and it left many scratching their heads: Why do the Wildcats fade down the stretch? What exactly is going on here?
There's no accounting for late-season slides in early June, so it's hard to say what shape the 2011-12 Wildcats will take in February and March. What we do know is that Villanova returns only two starters from last season's team: point guard Maalik Wayns and forward Mouphtaou Yarou. Wright did land the No. 12 point guard in the country in Tyrone Johnson, but he is the only ESPNU top 100 player in Nova's 2011 recruiting class. Wayns and Yarou will be able scorers. What Villanova really needs is defensive improvement. Can some combination of 2011 reserves Dominic Cheek, Maurice Sutton, James Bell or Isaiah Armwood step into the breach? If not, Nova may enter February of 2012 in an unusual position -- as the underdog.