Teams' issues are relative to expectations
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim stood in the back of the Orange locker room Tuesday night and bemoaned the lack of production from his center.
The Orange had just lost 74-60 to Oklahoma State in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden -- Syracuse's first defeat of the season -- and senior Craig Forth had just rung up an 0-fer, as in no points in 27 minutes after taking just one shot.
This wasn't the first time for the 7-foot center. Forth didn't score in 16 minutes against St. Bonaventure. He failed to score in nine minutes against Colgate. That's Colgate, as in Patriot League, as in not the home of 7-footers.
Now, we know Forth isn't known as a scoring machine, averaging 4.7 points in his career. And it's clear he doesn't have to score much with Hakim Warrick putting up 19 points a game next to him inside, Gerry McNamara tallying 15.5 points a game from the perimeter and Josh Pace floating in 11.6 points from the middle of the lane, usually on his left-handed push shot.
So why does Syracuse need some sort of production from Forth, or anyone else up front next to Warrick? Because while that production won't affect whether the Orange make the NCAAs or win the Big East, the lack of it could be a hindrance to getting to the Final Four and winning the national title.
"We've got to get some help right now," Boeheim said. "We've got to get someone to step up. Craig is the key to our defense, and he does a lot of stuff that people don't see: like getting his hands up, and he knows his position in the zone. But he's not finishing anything around the basket. He's got to do that. He's got to give us six, eight or 10 or 12, but he's putting up zero points three games in a row."
Boeheim might start looking to 6-9 sophomore Terrence Roberts more because he appears to be less offensively challenged. Roberts scored eight points, making 4-of-8 shots against the Cowboys, often looking to score rather than shying away from the basket. Roberts only has one goose egg this season and that came in a blowout against Siena.
Syracuse has six more games in December to get healthy, figure out its inside issues and get Billy Edelin some much needed play at the point. Playing Binghamton, Drexel, Cornell and Albany might not be a struggle for the Orange, but Rice and Hofstra won't be a walk.
"Hopefully we can go home and get some confidence going," Boeheim said. "Overall, it's a good start to the season, and I'm happy with what we've learned. But we've got to get some help up front for us to be a player at the end of the year."
There are different degrees of a team in trouble. Syracuse would only qualify as a team that might be in trouble of not winning the title if it doesn't get help for Warrick in the paint. That's according to Boeheim. That's a fixable problem.
So, too, is apparently what's going down at Memphis.
Earlier on the same night in the Garden, Memphis coach John Calipari limped out of the postgame news conference due to his still-in-rehab hip (offseason surgery), leaned against a wall and rolled his eyes over his team's current state after losing to Pittsburgh 70-51.
He said he thought he had overscheduled a tad for this group after the Tigers lost their third straight game to a ranked team by double figures.
"We've played three top-15 teams, and we're not a top-15 team," Calipari said. "This is why they pay us to coach: figure it out. But they need to get together and figure it out."
Is Memphis a team in trouble? The Tigers are talented enough to win enough games during the rest of their non-conference and Conference USA schedules to get an NCAA bid. But the Tigers won't do anything in March if they don't change the way they play.
Calipari moaned about the rec-ball style of Sean Banks, who is freelancing without a purpose.
"This game exposed our weaknesses, which is we don't play together as well as we need to," Calipari said. "On offense, we're trying to do our own thing and defensively we're not physically tough going after balls. Our guys have to learn to play off of one another, and not arguing with each other. All of that stuff can be corrected.
"Sean, Rodney (Carney), Darius (Washington) and Joey (Dorsey) can all still play," Calipari said. "We're not good enough right now against good teams."
Losing guard Jeremy Hunt, the team's only backup point guard, for a month with a left wrist fracture certainly hurts the Tigers' progress. Hunt didn't play in a loss to Maryland two weeks earlier in Springfield because of another ailment, and he wasn't healthy for the Pittsburgh game, either. But that's not an excuse for the me-first behavior on offense or the lack of toughness on defense.
"It took us three weeks of us fighting and arguing to play the way we did against Maryland and now it will take us three weeks to get us back after this," Calipari said.
But the Tigers can, so while they may be struggling, this isn't exactly turmoil yet.
That's the not the case for a few other teams thought to be NCAA-caliber in the preseason. Who else is in trouble and why?
Missouri: The Tigers are in jeopardy of ruining their postseason résumé before the Big 12. Missouri already has lost four games, all in the state of Missouri, including two home games to Davidson and Arkansas.
Tennessee: The Vols opened up with a nice victory against Stanford in Maui but have since dropped three of four games, including a home loss to Chattanooga. As the victory against Stanford might not turn out to be a quality win, the Vols might need to earn their keep solely in the SEC.
Saint Joseph's: The Hawks are struggling to score and have already fallen to Drexel and were obliterated at Kansas by 40. The Hawks still likely will be a tough out at home but could continue to struggle on the road, where they've got four of their next six.
Stanford: The Cardinal looked sloppy in Maui in losing to Tennessee and Louisville. The loss at Santa Clara stings, too. Up next is Michigan State on the road before four winnable games in a row. But the Cardinal doesn't have the look of an NCAAs lock in a league that likely will want to take out some punishment on them after Stanford went through the Pac-10 with only one loss last season.
Michigan: The Wolverines looked like they had turned the corner with the one-point victory against Notre Dame at home, but that was before Daniel Horton suffered a left knee sprain that will sideline him for four weeks with fellow injured starter Graham Brown (hernia). A third starter, Lester Abram, is gone for the year with a shoulder injury, leaving the Wolverines shorthanded in their quest to get back to the Dance for the first time since 1998.
Indiana: The Hoosiers, like Saint Joe's, can't score well enough to win games against high-quality opponents. The defense has been fine -- they allowed only 55 points to Notre Dame. Scoring only 45 in the same game won't cut it, though. The schedule is brutal and the Hoosiers will have a hard time finding wins against Kentucky, Missouri and Charlotte. Indiana has hope in an average Big Ten, but a tourney berth likely will come down to a conference record without a deep non-conference résumé.
Northwestern: The Wildcats were a preseason sleeper to make their first-ever NCAA trip. But the season started out with two losses in three games in the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Ala., a loss at Colorado and a home loss to Virginia. This team has little room for error in the Big Ten, even with the addition of Duke transfer Michael Thompson, if it wants to get a bid.
UNLV: The Runnin' Rebels were a preseason favorite to win the Mountain West Conference. It's hard to remain a cool pick, though, when you lose to Saint Mary's at home, at Nevada and at Pepperdine, with a game at Auburn on deck, followed by Oklahoma State at home. A road game at Texas is still pending, too. UNLV will have to finish first or a close second in the Mountain West to get the serious attention of the selection committee.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores get plenty of credit for playing teams, but they have to win a few of them to be taken seriously as an NCAA team. Vandy lost to Southern Illinois, Arizona State, at Oregon and at Cincinnati. The first two were on a neutral court in Las Vegas, the latter two on true road courts. That shows Vandy coach Kevin Stallings is willing to take chances, but splitting the first eight games puts even more pressure on getting a winning record in the SEC if it wants a bid.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.