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December 29, 2010 The college basketball season is nearly half over as conference play begins. Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and Syracuse seem to be strong Final Four contenders while upstart programs like San Diego State and UCF seem to be on the verge of making a name from themselves. Last week, I talked about the little-known programs that seem to be on the rise as legitimate teams to watch. But for every pleasant surprise, there is a disappointment somewhere. Although the season is still early and many of these programs still find themselves in a position to make the NCAA Tournament, they have still underachieved thus far. Here’s a look at the early underachievers:

Kansas State (10-3, 0-0 Big XII)

Preseason Ranking: 3rd
Current Ranking, RPI: 17th, 38 RPI
Key Wins: Gonzaga
Bad Losses: None

What We Know: Kansas State is still very talented, but early season wins against Virginia Tech and Gonzaga are all of a sudden not so impressive as those schools have struggled. The Wildcats have been very good on defense, but have struggled shooting the basketball. Jacob Pullen is a real star, but he hasn’t shot particularly well from the field. Kansas State has also struggled from the foul line shooting just 53%. All three of the Wildcats losses have come on neutral courts including one to UNLV without Pullen and a few other key players, but Kansas State was blown out by both Duke and Florida.

Forecast: Sweet 16. Although Kansas State has struggled against high-caliber-competition, the Wildcats still have enough talent to go deep into the NCAA Tournament. A deep Big XII could hurt K-State’s seeding when Selection Sunday comes around.

North Carolina (8-4, 0-0 ACC)

Preseason Ranking: 9th
Current Ranking, RPI: N/A, 28 RPI
Key Wins: Kentucky
Bad Losses: None

What We Know: North Carolina has plenty of young talent and a lot of depth, but the Tar Heels have struggled against premier competition. North Carolina may have the best frontcourt in the ACC with Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson all averaging better than 10 points-per-game. Zeller has proven to be a very consistent low-post player while Dexter Strickland has shown the ability to light it up from downtown. North Carolina however has struggled against top-tier competition losing to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Texas on neutral courts. In each of their four losses, the Tar Heels were outshot from beyond the arc.

Forecast: NCAA Second Round. North Carolina will benefit from a weak ACC, but lack the senior leadership necessary to go deep in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida (9-3, 0-0 SEC)

Preseason Ranking: 11th
Current Ranking, RPI: N/A, 33 RPI
Key Wins: Florida State, Kansas State
Bad Losses: Jacksonville

What We Know: Florida has a very good starting five, but the Gators lack depth. Guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boyton are undersized, but are both very capable scorers. Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin are solid low-post players, but neither are dominant rebounders. Florida has been very good defensively, but have had trouble scoring especially in losses. Two of the Gators’ three losses have come in the O’Connell Center including an 18-point-drubbing against Ohio State early in the year.

Forecast: NCAA First Round. Florida should find itself in the field of now 68 and could even get a higher seed due to a weak SEC, but a lack of depth will likely prevent the Gators from reaching the NCAA Tournament’s second week.

Gonzaga (7-5, 0-0 WCC)

Preseason Ranking: 12th
Current Ranking, RPI: N/A, 51 RPI
Key Wins: Baylor, Marquette
Bad Losses: Washington State

What We Know: As always, Gonzaga has stacked its schedule with non-conference powerhouses. This year however, the Bulldogs have really struggled. Three of the Zags’ five losses have come by double-digits including a 22-point-thumping at Washington State. Despite having talented bigs, Gonzaga has struggled rebounding against the nation’s best. Steven Gray is definitely Gonzaga’s go-to scorer, but Gray is the Bulldogs’ only guard that has shown an ability to get to the rim or create his own shot. Guard play will need to drastically improve if Gonzaga is to make another run come March.

Forecast: NCAA First Round. Gonzaga will be pushed by St. Mary’s as the team to beat in the West Coast Conference, but making the tournament shouldn’t be a problem for the Bulldogs. The Zags’ sub-par guard play will make it very difficult for Gonzaga to advance past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee (8-3, 0-0 SEC)

Preseason Ranking: 20th
Current Ranking, RPI: N/A, 34 RPI
Key Wins: Villanova, Pittsburgh
Bad Losses: Oakland, Charlotte, USC

What We Know: Tennessee is very athletic and can really defend. Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris are very effective scorers and provide mismatches with their athleticism. Tennessee looked like the team to beat in the SEC after an impressive win against then unbeaten Pittsburgh, but the Volunteers have really struggled since then. Tennessee suffered home losses to Oakland and USC sandwiched around a road loss to Charlotte. Tennessee even needed a last-second basket to stave off a fourth straight upset at home against Belmont. Nevertheless, the Volunteers still have the talent to get back in the polls as conference play comes around. Tennessee will need to shoot better from beyond the arc to be the team that it believes it can be.

Forecast: Sweet 16. The Volunteers are a team that no one wants to play, but they are also a prime candidate to be upset in the first round. The rest of the season will tell whether or not Tennessee is the team that started 7-0 or the team that was upset in three consecutive games.

Virginia Tech (7-4, 0-1 ACC)

Preseason Ranking: 23rd
Current Ranking, RPI: N/A, 46 RPI
Key Wins: None
Bad Losses: Virginia

What We Know: Virginia Tech has one of the best players in the country in Malcolm Delaney and a solid post-player in Jeff Allen, but that hasn’t resulted in key wins for the Hokies. Virginia Tech lost a close one at the hands of Purdue, but suffered a blowout loss to Kansas State and lost by 12 to UNLV. Virginia Tech has struggled scoring, rebounding and shooting the three. The Hokies are also in the bottom half of the country in assists. The ACC is weaker than usual, but Virginia Tech got off to a 0-1 start after falling at home to arch-rival Virginia.
Forecast: NIT. Virginia Tech should be able to compete in an unusually weak ACC, but the remaining schedule doesn’t leave many opportunities to enhance the Hokies NCAA resume’. Virginia Tech will need to finish strong in the ACC as well as the conference tournament to return the NCAA Tournament.

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