Whenever I run in to my fellow hoopheads on the street, they tend to ask me the same few questions. The most common are:
1. Why are you so biased against my team?
2. How long has Clay Aiken been picking out your ties?
3. Why do you look so much shorter in person, Mr. Sampras?
Somewhere way down the list is this one: Where do you get such brilliant insights into the game of basketball? While I do watch a lot of games and read everything I can, I am ready to cop to the real answer.
I steal them.
Here's how it works. I get a head coach or assistant coach on the phone and I ask him to tell me what he really thinks about a team he has scouted and faced. I throw in the three magic words -- "off the record" -- so he will tell me the truth knowing his name will not be revealed. Then I pass along these insights as my own. It might not be pretty to see how the sausage is made, but it sure tastes good, don't it?
In Sports Illustrated, we often publish a feature called "enemy lines," in which we grant anonymity to coaches and publish their quotes. In an effort to take this exercise further, I've been burning up the phone lines to get the low-down on many teams from the major conferences. What follows is a report on 19 teams from four of those conferences. I'll publish the second part next week on the remaining two BCS conferences, plus a bunch of teams from outside the Big Six.
For these scouting reports, I've talked to two coaches from each league. Some were head coaches, some were assistants. I've combined what they said into one write-up. So enjoy this little peek behind enemy lines, and be sure to check back next week for the rest of the reports.
DUKE: The Blue Devils' main weakness is their overall team speed. If you can drive the ball against them, if you can beat your man, a lot of times they overplay on the sides so you have a chance to get to the basket. But you really have to rebound because they are relentless on the offensive glass. That's how they beat North Carolina. They want to take you out of what you do defensively and impose their will, but if they're unable to do that, then quite honestly their defense is just average. They were more difficult to guard when Kyle Singler was at the four because he's so skilled, but at the three, if you have someone who's physical you can get underneath him on the perimeter. Their guard depth is suspect, but they have great depth up front.
CLEMSON: The Tigers come at you with that full-court pressure for 40 minutes, so you have to keep your composure. Demontez Stitt is OK, but he's not great. He's not making shots so they really rely on Trevor Booker, and he's not a great outside shooter either. They have very good athletes at Clemson but not necessarily great basketball players. The teams that have hurt them have been able to handle their press.
GEORGIA TECH: The biggest problem with Georgia Tech is that the Jackets invent turnovers. They play faster than they need to play at times, and that's why they turn it over. They're playing [Gani] Lawal and [Derrick] Favors, who are two mountains masquerading as men, but there's not a lot of room when you play those two guys because they're both low post players. They're almost better when they play [Zachery] Peacock because now they have a four who opens them up a little bit. [Iman] Shumpert is very tough, but it looks to me like he's trying to be in the NBA right now. [Mfon] Udofia doesn't understand at this point how to play the point guard position. They're so aggressive that they put you on the line. Lawal is an unbelievable rebounder but he's a terrible passer out of double teams. Favors is a lottery pick but he's unskilled labor right now. He's a lot like that kid from Texas A&M, DeAndre Jordan -- explosive, long and quick, but still learning how to play. They don't have a guy that just knows how to get him the ball.
WAKE FOREST: Ish Smith makes this team go. He's not a great shooter, but he's a clutch shooter, and he is the quickest guard in our league foul line to foul line. The problem with him is that at times he'll dribble around all over the place and they forget about [Al-Faroq] Aminu. Smith can't dominate the ball to the point where the other four players become spectators. If you can keep them off the glass, Smith can't make enough hard twos to beat you. Aminu is talented, but he gets into trouble when he tries to create. He has a lot of turnovers. His biggest weakness is he's not always engaged. They seem not to be as consistent as you'd like teams to be. They look like the greatest team in the country on a couple of plays, and then they won't run good offense for the next five minutes to let their opponent back in the game. Also, their free throw shooting problems are real. You can't go very far in the tournament if you can't make free throws.
WEST VIRGINIA: They have tremendous balance offensively, and when [Da'Sean] Butler gets it going they're very hard to defend. But if you can defend Butler and limit their three-point opportunities, they're not a great team off the dribble. They don't have a great guard who can break you down with penetration. Darryl Bryant is tough, but he has fallen in love with the jump shot. He's either shooting threes or he's driving hard to the lane, but he's not necessarily getting guys shots. Overall they're too much of a jump shooting team. The new kid, [Deniz] Kilicli, is a beast, but he can't defend the way they want to defend. He can't switch out on great guards. [Devin] Ebanks is also tough, but teams are making him shoot and he has struggled again with his three-point shooting. He's a pro, but he's the one guy you can play off of. [Bob Huggins] was playing Ebanks at the point early in the year, but they went to Purdue and got whacked and they haven't played him there since.
GEORGETOWN: The Hoyas have the makings of a Final Four team, but there's something missing. I don't know what it is, but when they're on, there's no better team in our league, and then they lose to South Florida and Rutgers. They're the hardest team to make up a lead on. [Greg] Monroe is the best big in the conference, and [Austin] Freeman is shooting it great from three. I'm not a huge Chris Wright fan. He can put up numbers and he's a phenomenal athlete, but he hasn't been known to be a huge winner. He can go for 30 on you so he's scary, but if he's taking all those shots it means the other guys aren't involved. When they're playing their best basketball, they're forcing you to guard all five guys. The best thing they can do is put the ball in Monroe's hands and let him make plays. He still seems disinterested sometimes, but when he's motivated they're really hard to beat. When they're clicking, Wright's numbers may be down, but that means they're winning. They probably have the best starting five in our league, but they have no depth.
SYRACUSE: If you can make Syracuse outscore you, you have a chance, but if you can't figure out that zone and you have to play from behind, you're in trouble. With the exception of [Andy] Rautins, they haven't shot it consistently from the perimeter. Wesley Johnson is a good shooter to 17 or 18 feet, but his numbers have been down lately. People may be figuring him out a little bit. He's not the strongest guy so I'm not sure if he's wearing down, but sometimes if you can get real physical with him he doesn't respond as well. Also because of the zone, their rebound numbers don't match their athleticism and size. You have to attack the middle of the zone, make them pinch on you and get shots for your three-point shooters. Rick Jackson is very slow closing out on his side of the zone. You always worry about depth with them, too. Jim Boeheim has never been known to play a lot of guys. A team that can control the tempo against them and is physical on the glass would be their toughest matchup.
UCONN: Their biggest weakness is they have no depth, plain and simple. They got into a bit of a funk when Jim Calhoun wasn't there, but now they're playing like UConn teams of the past. When they're playing with confidence, they can beat anyone in our league. If you zone them and you can keep them off the offensive glass, that forces them to make jumpers, and that's not their strength. They're going to lose a three-point shooting game. [Kemba] Walker is the key because he's been inconsistent with his shooting. If you can play off of him, they're easier to defend. [Stanley] Robinson is a streaky scorer, so [Jerome] Dyson has had a lot of pressure on him to carry them offensively. Their posts are young and don't really score, so if you can tough them out of there, it puts a lot of pressure on the guards. But if they're controlling tempo and getting up and down the floor and getting offensive rebounds, they can win. I've got a feeling they're going to go on a run right now. They're the team you don't want to play in the Big East tournament.
LOUISVILLE: It's almost like they're still trying to figure out how to play with the personnel they have. Sometimes they play a guard-oriented game, sometimes they go to Samardo Samuels. They were way up on Villanova but then they started making really bad decisions offensively that let them get back into the game. I don't know if it's because Samuels isn't assertive enough or because they don't have the mentality from the guards to go to him more, but it's almost like there's a disconnect there. I'm not a huge [Edgar] Sosa fan. I think he's talented, but I don't know if he knows how to win from the guard spot. He was great on that team last year because he was a scorer who didn't have to run a team. The kid who needs to get it going for them is Mike Marra. They need someone to knock down outside shots, because so much of their game is drive and post up. Defensively, they're not as good as [Rick] Pitino's teams have been. They don't press nearly as much, and they play three true guards now so they're not keeping dribblers in front of them defensively.
OHIO STATE: They're very good in transition because they're feeding off steals and long rebounds. [David] Lighty, [Jon] Diebler and [William] Buford are all shooting well from three and they can all stretch the defense. So you have to get back in transition and make them go against your set defenses, make them grind it out in the half-court. Their main weakness is they only go six deep. I thought they were sucking wind at the end of the Purdue game, and they were at home. I think they play so much zone because they can rest in it. If I had a team that could go 10, 11 deep, I would press the hell out of them because I think it would tire them out. Mississippi State, for example, would be a bad matchup for them. Defensively they're doing a mixture of man-to-man and a 1-3-1 zone. Everyone is 6-foot-5 or bigger, and [Evan] Turner plays at the top of that zone at 6-7, so if you throw a sloppy pass they're going to get a breakaway. When they're not playing well it's because they're turning the ball over. They were up big on West Virginia in the first half but then they got a little loose with the ball. Turner is more of a probing point guard who gets into the gaps and uses spin moves to get inside. His weakness is probably his three-point shot and he gets a little careless with that ball. You have to make him shoot over you.
PURDUE: They're so good because no matter what, they can run that motion offense. On defense they get up on you, they pressure you. They're forcing 16-plus turnovers a game. Their biggest weakness is their ability to guard dribble penetration. You can penetrate on them because they're up denying on the wings. And if [JaJuan] Johnson gets in foul trouble, they'll have problems. They have good depth, but not at that position. If you go back and look at the games they've lost, Johnson did not play well. He takes a lot of jump shots, but he's more comfortable outside. That's a strength for them because he's pulling your big man away from the basket. But if you double him in the post he has a hard time making decisions. His assist-to-turnover ratio is really bad. A lot of times your five-man is not comfortable guarding on the perimeter. [E'Twaun] Moore is one of the hardest players to guard in our conference, but he's their weakest perimeter defender. I would definitely attack him. Another weakness is their rebounding. You can get to the offensive glass on them. Johnson is not a burly center. Their chemistry is great because they have three guys who are their main scorers, and the other guys like [Chris] Kramer, [Kelsey] Barlow and [Lewis] Jackson just play their roles. In general they don't like to be pressured. A team like Texas would give them trouble.
WISCONSIN: Oh man, I hate the Badgers. That swing offense drives you crazy, but if their guards are not scoring it can really hurt them. They know who they are. They have multiple ballhandlers and scorers, they're a good passing team, a great free-throw shooting team, they have great shot selection. Their three-point shooting is the key for them. Their biggest strength is they do not turn the ball over. You have to get into [Trevon] Hughes physically. They're hard to defend because they run a lot of ballscreens, and their five man can pop out and shoot. Their weakest position is the four, where [Tim] Jarmusz has been starting. He's getting exposed more than anybody else, especially when [Jon] Leuer was out. He doesn't knock down shots consistently enough, and that allowed people to focus more on Hughes and [Jordan] Taylor, so people are sticking to those two plus [Jason] Bohannon and then it's harder for them to score. Any team with two good post guys would give them trouble. That being said they can get a shot any time they want. You have to be patient defensively to beat them and I don't know how many teams are patient this time of year.
MICHIGAN STATE: Their biggest problem is they don't have a legitimate inside threat. If you can attack them from the inside out, and if you can contain [Kalin] Lucas, who's the head of the snake, you have a great chance to neutralize them. Chris Allen can't really create his own shot, so a lot of his offense comes off of Lucas. I still haven't been able to figure out Raymar Morgan. Draymond Green has done a good job, but he doesn't give you that inside presence, so you can attack their perimeter. You have to play Lucas to contain him, because once he gets by you he is so good with the ball and makes the right decisions. I'd rather make him a jump shooter. They always seem to get hot in March, but I'm not sure I see that happening this year. I'm a little more leery about this group than I've been the last few years.
ILLINOIS: For them, it all depends on how [Demetri] McCamey plays. Remember he shot it great against Michigan State. They go as he goes. He gets lost on defense sometimes. He doesn't guard a soul. They put him on the worst player. In general they do give up dribble penetration, but their help is good. You never know what you're going to get from their bigs. Mike Davis has not had a good year. He has just been so inconsistent, you never know which Mike Davis you're going to get.
KENTUCKY: The main question with them is obviously their inexperience. Regardless of what people say, freshmen are freshmen, and all it takes is one freshman moment in a single-elimination tournament to end your season. The second thing is their perimeter shooting. Statistically their percentages are respectable, but their volume of outside shots is not high. Nobody gets up and down the floor like John Wall, but when you get into the tournament, the pace tends to slow down. Teams that are averaging 75 points a game are going to get 70 or fewer. If people put a premium on possessions, they are going to have to make perimeter shots. DeMarcus Cousins' emergence offensively has taken the focal point off of Wall, and to [John] Calipari's credit they're going more inside-out. Against Wall, you have to change your looks and try to get him confused, and he will turn it over by trying to go too fast. Then at the end of a shot clock, you have to make him make jump shots. There is no doubt Cousins is the best post player in college basketball. He's a load on the block, and it's incredible he gets one of every four shots taken off the offensive glass. [Patrick] Patterson is almost an afterthought, but he hit the big three against Vanderbilt, so you know he's going to make big plays.
VANDERBILT: Honestly, I don't know that they have a real weakness. I was surprised they didn't beat Kentucky, though you're obviously not going to beat many teams shooting 2-for-20 from three. Jermaine Beal is a strong lead guard who can score, and he runs their team. They have good perimeter shooting with [Brad] Tinsley and [John] Jenkins, an athletic wing in [Jeffrey] Taylor and good size with [A.J.] Ogilvy, [Festus] Ezuli and [Andre] Walker. This is the most athletic team Kevin Stallings has had there. The main thing with Ogilvy is you can't allow him to get deep with the ball. He's bigger than people think, he can go right or left shoulder, he shoots it quick. You have to make him a jump shooter. Maybe their one weakness is when they face a lot of pressure. They have to be better at that because they'll turn it over some. Like if they played Clemson or someone in the second round who is committed to pressing for 40 minutes, that could give them problems.
TENNESSEE: I think Tennessee has a lot of holes, to be honest with you, though Bruce Pearl has obviously done a great job managing what they went through. Wayne Chism has had a great year, but I question their guard play and perimeter shooting. Bobby Maze is playing better but his decision making is still questionable. Scotty Hopson can be the best player on the floor, but he also disappears. Great players don't do that. I'm also not a J.P. Prince fan. He's the most emotional guy in our league, much more so than DeMarcus Cousins. As a fifth-year senior who's the son of a coach, you wouldn't think that would be the case. I think they're in good shape as far as getting to the tournament, so all they have to do is tread water to get there, but I do not see them having a Sweet 16 run.
FLORIDA: Perimeter shooting is their biggest weakness, which is unusual for a Billy Donovan-coached team. [Chandler] Parsons has played lights out for them. They're bigger than people think. You've got [Alex] Tyus, [Vernon] Macklin and Parsons in the frontcourt -- that's pretty big. Macklin has really improved offensively. He hasn't scored a lot consistently, but he's 6-9 with about a 7-3 wingspan, and he has really helped them. I like [Erving] Walker's motor, but I would not want him running my team. He's a volume shooter and he's real little. His ballhandling is questionable. [Kenny] Boynton has been just OK. If you look at his numbers he's getting about 14 a game, but he has a lot of maturing to do to play at this level. He leads them in shots but he's shooting in the twenties from three. They don't press as much as they have in the past. They'll 2-2-1 you, but it's very passive. They zone you a lot, which is effective with their length in the frontcourt. Billy has become really committed to that zone the last two or three years.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: When they make shots they're a handful, because they're going to shoot a bunch of threes regardless. [Jarvis] Varnardo changes things, but to me the key is Dee Bost. When he plays well I think he's one of the most talented players in our league. He's strong, he's fast, and when he plays with confidence and makes shots they're very hard to beat. Ravern Johnson can go for 20 on any night. They almost beat Kentucky and he didn't even play that game. They have a lot of complementary guys to play with Varnardo. He has had a good year. Some of the pro scouts may be scared of him because of his lack of size and strength, but he can really block shots and he's a low-maintenance kid. His offense is so much better than when he got there. He can make free throws now, and he's not a terrible passer out of the post. It used to be if you doubled him he'd throw it to you, but he doesn't do that anymore. They have some work to do, but if they get in as a 12 seed, I wouldn't want to be the 5 seed that has to play them in the first round.