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Friday, November 30, 2012
Life between panic and worry

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

Break out the worry beads. Go find a brown paper bag to breathe into. November is about to end.

It's officially time to panic.

Or so it would seem, with all the frantic handwringing across the country after just a few games.

Not all panic attacks are created equal. Some are Chicken Little-esque, a sense that the sky is falling when it's merely a cloudy day sure to eventually pass.

And in some cases, well, the sky is actually falling.

As the calendar flips to December, it's time to see which teams really should be worrying.

Kentucky Wildcats

Panic meter: 8
Legitimate reason to worry: 6

John Calipari
With a new crop of freshmen, John Calipari has more growing pains to work through.

The Wildcats have so spoiled their fan base in recent years that any loss is enough to incite terror in the Commonwealth. Two in one month? Borderline epidemic as Kentucky prepares to face Baylor in a showdown of panic-meter pushing teams Saturday.

No doubt the loss to Notre Dame was ugly. The Irish executed Mike Brey's game plan to near perfection, but Kentucky played a huge part. The Wildcats were passive on defense and disjointed on offense, looking like deer-in-the-headlight freshmen -- which they are.

We tend to forget that part.

The trouble with winning a national championship with a freshman-laden roster and ushering that roster out the door to the NBA is everyone expects the next class to do the same thing. Which is silly. This class is good. It is not once-in-a-decade good like last season's.

Deficiencies on the defensive end need to be addressed, but more importantly, the Cats need to get their point guard situation right. John Calipari has been blessed almost annually with a guy he could trust to lead his team -- even if that guy was a freshman.

Ryan Harrow, who just returned to the team, isn't quite that guy, and Archie Goodwin isn't naturally that guy. Without a good point guard, all that talent won't do UK much good. Harrow has to get better for the Cats to get better.

It's completely foolish to look at a game on Dec. 1 as some sort of barometer, but plenty of worried eyes will do that when the Cats host the Bears.

Baylor Bears

Panic meter: 6
Legitimate reason to worry: 6

Speaking of the Bears ...

Baylor looked mighty good out of the gate -- maybe too good considering all the Bears had lost -- which is why losses to Colorado and College of Charleston felt like a splash of unwelcomed cold water.

Which is the real Baylor, then? The one that walked all over mid-major darling Lehigh or the one that lost to Charleston? Probably both, at least for now, which is why an all-out panic attack is not quite in order. Scott Drew lost three of his five leading scorers from an Elite Eight team, and what you're seeing is a byproduct of that turnover -- crazy inconsistency.

Freshman Isaiah Austin could do to rec specs what Jacob Pullen did for Amish beards. He's that good. Austin is also a freshman, so a night after he shoots 7-for-12 (as he did against Boston College), he's going to go 3-for-12 (as he did in the loss to Colorado).

If the Bears can live up to their talent, they'll be a force, but right now they are probably the third- or fourth-best team in their conference (behind Kansas, Oklahoma State and maybe even Kansas State). That isn't what people like to hear, not with as much talent as Drew has on the roster, so understandably patience will wear thin quickly.

The good or bad news: Baylor will know how it stacks up in a hurry when it travels to Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon for a meeting with Kentucky.

UCLA Bruins

Panic meter: 10
Legitimate reason to worry: 10

On the heels of a disastrous season, the Bruins are concocting another epic mess, this time with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country on the court.

Ben Howland
Ben Howland has had to encourage his team to give simple effort.

To recap: The Bruins were pasted by Georgetown, lost to Cal Poly and, in the span of four days, have lost two players -- Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb. That leaves eight scholarship players, four of which are freshmen, a Saturday date with San Diego State and an uncomfortably hot seat for Ben Howland.

Yep, feel free to fret.

Howland vowed to "coach my tail off" in the wake of Smith's surprising departure. He is going to have to or pray that the Bruins become the poster children for addition by subtraction.

His Final Four teams won with trademark defense, hard work and hustle. This group is severely deficient in all three. Save Shabazz Muhammad, the Bruins' motor seems perpetually set on idle. Until their most recent win against overmatched Cal State Northridge, it looked as if, just a few games into the season, they were already bored with college basketball. Maybe that will change. Maybe with Muhammad in the lineup and Smith out, the trickle down will actually have a positive vibe.

But there's no getting around a short bench, little in the way of low-post heft and horrifically deficient defensive skills. I watched Howland when UCLA played Georgetown, and if he screamed "Stance" once, he screamed it 20 times, chronically reminding the Bruins to get ready on defense. If only it were that easy.

Perhaps five years ago, the Bruins would get a break. Relying so heavily on freshmen is not exactly the secure path to success. Except UCLA is relying heavily on freshmen a year after freshmen delivered a national championship to Kentucky.

That's bad timing.

Memphis Tigers

Panic meter: 9
Legitimate reason to worry: 8

They loved Josh Pastner three years ago when he was hired and loved him even more when he landed some wildly popular recruits.

Now? Love, they say, is fickle.

Stuffed with talent again, the Tigers still have little to show for it. Their losses aren't to bad teams -- VCU and Minnesota -- but nothing about Memphis has been impressive this season. The Tigers barely squeaked by Northern Iowa.

The bigger issue is the limited return on the recruiting investment. Fair or not, folks will start to question Pastner's coaching acumen as good signing days don't convert into big results. Already the pressure seems to be taking its toll; Pastner elected to shutter his players from the media, and Tarik Black didn't play against Tennessee-Martin, suspended for undisclosed reasons.

To his credit, Pastner has run a tight ship, unafraid to punish players like Black when necessary whether it hurt results or not. But at some point, he has to rein in the team tightly enough that players don't need to be punished or suspended and locker rooms don't need to be closed.

The leadership has to be transferred from coach to player or else the panic meter will rise more and the lovefest ebb.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

Panic meter: 7
Legitimate reason to worry: 5

It's been a long time since Wolfpack fans tasted a sip of expectations, so you can understand why, after losses to the only two high-caliber teams on the first month's calendar, people are starting to sweat in Raleigh.

NC State's Lorenzo Brown
In time, Lorenzo Brown and NC State should live up to expectations.

Their team, after all, was the one picked to win the ACC. Instead, Duke is busy doing a nice job of representing the ACC front-runner while NC State has lost to Oklahoma State by 20 and had to rally from down 15 to keep it respectable against Michigan.

Should fans worry? A little bit, sure.

Here's the deal: As high as the expectations are for the Wolfpack, they are still fairly new to this bull's-eye thing and are trying to figure it out while working in two critical freshmen in Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren.

Here's the concern: Until NC State learns to defend like it scores, it's going to be a long season. The Wolfpack rank 33rd in the country in scoring and 228th in scoring defense. That won't win a lot of games. When NC State turned it on last season -- in March -- its defense was good nasty. The Wolfpack allowed an average of 63.6 points over their final eight games, winning six of them.

If that happens again, NC State has a good chance of realizing its lofty expectations. Until it does, stew.

Texas Longhorns

Panic meter: 4
Legitimate reason to worry: 8

It's a topsy-turvy world in Austin. Anyplace else, a loss to Chaminade would incite a riot or at least a good picket outside of the arena. At Texas, hey, there's football to worry about.

Losing to Chaminade could, maybe in an alternative universe, be forgiven. Following it with a loss to a below-average USC team is less tolerable. No, the Longhorns didn't have Myck Kabongo, but the Longhorns should be able to beat a Division II team and the Trojans without him.

This is, after all, Texas, where athletic department money is used to carpet office floors and the recruiting field is more than fertile. Truth be told, if anyone should be able to challenge Kansas' life rights to the Big 12 title, it's Texas. Yet it's never Texas.

That's a problem.

More troubling, this lousy start looks familiar following the Longhorns' if-a-tree-falls approach to basketball. That is, if Texas makes it to the NCAA tournament but leaves within a weekend, does anyone really know the Longhorns were there? In the past four years, Texas has alternated its March exodus -- Round of 64, Round of 32, Round of 64, Round of 32.

It's not a pretty pattern, even in Texas, where folks tend to be more worried about slant patterns.

Villanova Wildcats

Panic meter: 10
Legitimate reason to worry: 7

The questions from my former Philly peeps are pouring in regularly. What's wrong with Villanova? Has Jay Wright lost his touch? An 18-point loss to middling Ivy League member Columbia will do that to a fan base.

As one bad season (13-19 in 2011-12) stretches into another, the 2009 Final Four seems as distant as Rollie Massimino's remarkable title. The concept of self-perpetuating success at Villanova seemed steadily in place until someone pulled out the rug on the Wildcats.

So the worry and the panic are fair considering the free fall from the top to the bottom of the national consciousness.

But there's a but here. You have to gauge your panic on expectation, and really, what was fair to expect from the Wildcats this season? Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek left prematurely for the NBA, taking 42 percent of Villanova's anemic offense with them.

Should the Wildcats be losing to Columbia? No. Should people be inking them into the Elite Eight? Uh, no. Without saying it in so many words, Wright admitted that he and his staff got stars in their eyes, recruiting the highly touted players that suddenly wanted to come to Villanova instead of the sort of guys that got them to the top. White collar versus blue collar, in other words. This team is decidedly bluer -- watch Ryan Arcidiacono and you'll see what I mean.

But blue collar doesn't happen overnight, and much like Wright's first big recruiting class was pretty ugly before it got NCAA tournament 1-seed pretty, this could be a work in progress.

If the work stalls, get thee to the worry beads.