Dribble Handoff: Kentucky, Michigan predicted to improve most as 2023 arrives in college basketball

The calendar is flipping to 2023 on Sunday, and some college basketball teams off to rough starts will hope the new year brings a new beginning. We are two months into the season, and some squads have holes to dig out of after disappointing nonconference slates. With conference play ramping up across the country, those teams will have a chance to start anew and flush their troubles.

Among the schools that began the season ranked in the AP Top 25 but have since dropped out of the poll are Creighton, Dayton, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, San Diego State, Texas Tech and Villanova. Sluggish starts can be attributed to numerous factors, including injuries and youth.

For some teams, it just takes longer to gel, but there are no guarantees that things will improve. Also, big leaps in performance aren’t reserved exclusively for struggling teams. Sometimes, teams that are already good can find new gear in league play and become elite. Last year’s Arizona squad is a good example.

For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are answering to the following question: What team do you think will improve the most going into 2023/conference play?

Villanova

The first year of the Kyle Neptune era didn’t get off to a great start, but the context matters. Yes, the Wildcats lost five of their first seven games. That’s obviously rough. But let the record show that they played all seven of those games without their best player (Justin Moore) and best NBA prospect (Cam Whitmore). Most teams would struggle under those circumstances.

As you probably know, Whitmore is now back after recovering from preseason thumb surgery. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds in 21.8 minutes per game. More importantly, Villanova is 5-0 since he returned. Moore, meanwhile, is still recovering from tearing his right achilles tendon in last March’s Elite Eight victory over Houston. Officially, there’s no timetable for a return; however, if he’s back at some point over the next month, Villanova should have the pieces to offset that disappointing start, compete near the top of the Big East standings and make the NCAA Tournament for the 10th consecutive season. –Gary Parrish

Saint Louis

I only picked from teams with at least four losses at this point. I think North Carolina, Villanova and Michigan State make for reasonable-but-obvious candidates. Instead, I’m looking to the A-10. That league is having its worst season in a long time and will probably be a one-bid adventure in 2023, alas. But someone has to win the conference.

Saint Louis doesn’t have the attrition issues of preseason favorite Dayton, but it does have one of the best point guards in the country (Yuri Collins comfortably leads in assist average at 10.3). Considering that the Billikens do have enough offensive firepower to find footing in a soft league, I’ll take this team to catch a groove in early January and ride that into March. You’ll never get ULS stock cheaper than right now; Travis Ford’s team is 8-5 and licking its wounds after losing at home to SIUE. Yikes. However, it has wins over Memphis, Providence and Drake.

There is reason for optimism. At the start of the season, this group ranked in the top 40 at KenPom. It brought back a healthy Javonte Perkins, who was the 2021-22 preseason A-10 player of the year (then he suffered a season-ending injury). Four of SLU’s first six conference games are on the road, starting Saturday at Saint Joseph’s. –Matt Norlander

Kentucky

I’m ashamed to say it, but I still believe in Kentucky. My preseason title pick hasn’t looked anywhere near title worthy, but I’m ready to buy the dip as conference play arrives. It’s going to take time for the pieces to fit. The freshmen could be on a longer developmental curve than other UK freshmen of the past. However, I do believe wholeheartedly that things will start clicking soon. John Calipari has been experimenting left and right with different lineup variations to see what works and what doesn’t, and eventually something is going to stick. When it does, we’ll see the Wildcats return to consistent top-10 form and look back on the start of the season as a learning curve and growing pains that they had to go through. –Kyle Boone

Michigan

Michigan is 7-4 and unranked after starting the season at No. 22 in the AP Top 25. The Wolverines rank No. 80 in the NET and No. 48 at KenPom, suggesting there is a hefty bit of improvement needed for this team to reach its preseason expectations. The Wolverines are 0-4 in Quad 1 opportunities with losses to Arizona State, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. Their best win is a neutral-site victory against a mediocre Pitt squad. This isn’t the first time the Wolverines have started slow under fourth-year coach Juwan Howard, though, and there is reason to believe a major rally is in store for Michigan. This team’s biggest issues are all fixable. The Wolverines rank 360th nationally in turnovers per game with 9.4, 263rd in points allowed with 72.1 and 293rd in free-throw shooting at 66.8%.

Defensive issues, turnover woes and poor free-throw shooting can be improved as this team continues to gel following a tough nonconference slate. Four of Michigan’s top-five scorers from last season and six of its top eight departed. That has left Howard relying on a young core. None of this team’s top-five scorers are seniors, and the one senior who was a starter, Jaelin Llewellyn, has been lost for the season with an ACL injury. Ultimately, the ingredients are still there for Michigan to finish in the top half of the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament. With one of the nation’s best big men in Hunter Dickinson and a freshman phenom on the wing in Jett Howard, the Wolverines have good size and legitimate star power. As four-star freshman point guard Dug McDaniel settles into an increased role, look for Michigan to turn a corner and start picking up some of the quality victories it failed to claim in the season’s first two months. –David Cobb

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