Back by popular demand, it's time to once again go behind enemy lines.
You know the drill, Hoopheads. In recent days I have spoken with several head and assistant coaches from around the country and asked them to give me their opinions -- unvarnished and not for attribution -- on several of the top teams inside their own conferences. These folks have spent hours breaking down video of these teams and got up-close and personal views of their strengths and weaknesses on game day. Their insights are candid, fascinating and invaluable as we head into the NCAA tournament.
Keep in mind that in most of the write-ups that follow, I have combined quotes from more than one source. Last week, I gave you my reports from the ACC, Big Ten, Big East and SEC. Today you'll get a read on the Big 12, Pac-10, Mountain West and Atlantic 10. Herewith:
KANSAS: You need guards who can create plays off the dribble, because they like to pressure the ball and get in the passing lanes. If your guards play off screens and sets, it's going to be really hard to score. So a team like Villanova would be harder matchup for them. Tyshawn Taylor is playing better now. I think he came into the year with the wrong idea, like things were supposed to happen for him instead of him having to work for it. Xavier Henry has also been better. He has been having his ups and downs because he always had his butt kissed in high school. In AAU ball, his team quit a lot, and his high school team vastly underachieved. Physically, he can do anything. He's the key to their team, because when he's making threes, they're very difficult to beat. Even when he's not shooting well, though, he keeps shooting. They have had games where overall they have not shot the ball well. That's probably their only weakness. They're even better on defense than they are on offense. I think a team that plays four guards might hurt them, because then Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins have to defend away from the basket. That's what Cornell did to them -- just stretched them out, and then their bigs could not get out on the shooters.
KANSAS STATE: At times, you can use their pressure against them and create some easy baskets. I worry about a team that fouls as much as they do when you get into tournament play. They're one of the best teams in the country at getting to the free-throw line, but one of the worst at putting their opponents there. Their philosophy is, we're gonna beat the hell out of you and the refs are not going to call a foul every possession. They really have a chance to go deep in the tournament. Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen can get 30 on any night. If you can take one of them out of the game, their other perimeter guys are not three-point shooters, so you can limit them offensively. Clemente is the fastest guy end to end with the ball in our league. You have to get two people on him in transition, but the problem is he can stop on a dime and shoot the three. You have to turn him away from his right hand as much as you can. Their big guys are not smooth scorers, but they post up very efficiently. You look at Frank Martin on the sidelines, he's yelling and screaming, and that's the way they play. That's how they post.
TEXAS A&M: They are the most cohesive and cerebral team playing in the Big 12 right now. They know that Donald Sloan and Brian Davis are their main guys, and the rest of those guys have no issues playing their roles. Dash Harris is one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference. He's not up pressuring guys, but you're not going to go by him. They don't try to pressure you like Kansas and Kansas State, but they keep you in front and make you take tough shots. David Loubeau may get two shots one game and then have 20 points the next game, but the way he plays doesn't change. When they run into some of those teams deeper in the tournament that are really loaded up on talent, they may have problems. They really don't want to rip and run, so if you can speed them up and make them take some bad shots, you can hurt them that way. If a team has a center that can contain Brian Davis without doubling him so you can deny Sloan, you can beat them even if you don't speed them up. I don't think they have any NBA guys on their team, to be honest, but it's a credit to the job Mark Turgeon has done that they're as good as they are.
BAYLOR: They may be the most athletic team in our league. They are night and day from last year because of two guys -- Ekpe Udoh and Tweety Carter. They play a lot of zone and it has a lot of gaps that you can attack, but the problem is, if you're not making threes and you attack the ring, Ekpe is cleaning it up. When they go man, you can get any shot you want, but he does the same thing there, so that's a world of difference. Offensively people like to talk about LaceDarius Dunn, but Tweety Carter is quietly having one of the best years in the Big 12. He's not just scoring, he's finding guys and making plays, whereas last year he stood around and shot threes. Their biggest weakness is their shot selection. They'll come down and take wild shots, and guys who shouldn't be shooting will take quick shots. There are a lot of holes in that zone, and I'm not sure if they need to go man-to-man they're going to be very good if they need a stop. If they went up against a team that had great shooters that could spread them out in that zone, it would be difficult for them.
TEXAS: Their problem is guys not knowing their roles and not knowing their identity offensively. They just ball-screen you and whoever has the ball tries to make a play. That's not a knock on Rick Barnes because it's not a schematic issue, but if you can guard their ball screens and block out, you have a great chance. A lot of times their best offense is to throw up a shot and let Dexter Pittman and Damian James go get it. Pittman does not have a left hand. If you can force him away from the basket and don't give him angles to turn and dunk, he's just okay. If you let him get deep then he's an NBA talent. I think he can be easily frustrated at times. If he doesn't get touches he doesn't play as aggressively on either end of the floor. It's hard to tell how losing Dogus Balbay will affect them. He can make it tough for you to bring the ball up the floor, but on offense you literally did not have to guard him.
MISSOURI: Their style of play makes it difficult in a one-game scenario in the NCAA tournament. If you haven't seen that pressure before and all the different spots it comes from, it's hard to prepare for. They're not as good as they were last year, because now it's easier to score at the end of their pressure against their frontline. So they have to rely more on perimeter shooting, but they have so many guys who can shoot the ball. Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Zaire Taylor, all those guys can shoot, and then you have Michael Dixon coming off the bench, as well. Their bigs shoot it well enough that you have to respect them at the three-point line. And the guy I haven't mentioned who stirs their drink is J.T. Tiller. He gives them toughness and energy.
CALIFORNIA: The thing that stands out is their lack of inside play. They've never found a consistent scoring presence in the post, so they have to play small. A lot of times, Jamal Boykin is their center, and he's not a back-to-the-basket player. But they can score; that's what they do. They spread you out and they have three guards who are as good as any guards out there in terms of being able to shoot. They don't get to the foul line very much. When Jerome Randle is not playing well and not going off, they are very susceptible. Generally they play man-to-man, but if you can get it inside on them you can score. Patrick Christopher can really shoot it, but he is not a great defender. Randle is really little, so it's tough for him to handle guys defensively. He'll jump into passing lanes, but if they don't get steals they're getting scored on. They get beat off the dribble more than they should. Their best defenders are Boykin and Omondi Amoke inside, and on the perimeter it's Jorge Gutierrez, so their best defenders are not any of their three primary players. Offensively, for some reason, they have a lot of trouble with zones, which is why they lost to Oregon State. They're just hoping against a zone that Randle and Theo Robertson will knock down 25-footers. It's hard to live and die with that.
ARIZONA STATE: Their main problem is they don't have a guy who can just break you down and beat you off the dribble. They're not running that Princeton offense anymore, but every year they've done some hybrid stuff where they run different sets. What they do is set a ton of ball screens for Derek Glasser. He's a great point guard who handles pressure and doesn't turn it over. Ty Abbott is a good shooter, and Rihards Kuksiks can really shoot. He causes mismatches because he's a four man who shoots it like a two. Like Cal, they don't have much of anything inside. Eric Boateng is a big body, but he's not a great scorer. He's not a guy you can dump it down to and have him go to work. If they got to the NCAA tournament, they could be a hard team to prepare for because they play a 3-2 matchup zone and it's different than any zone you see. It's basically like a switching man-to-man, and teams get confused because they don't know whether to run zone or man offense against it. They haven't played a possession of man-to-man all year.
BYU: They have the best player in the league in Jimmer Fredette, and they've got terrific role-playing support. Fredette is thick and strong, he has a size-14 foot, big hands, and he has improved his strength and toughness. He plays through contact really well. You have to make him work for everything because he will embarrass you, and he doesn't miss too many shots in a row. You have to go at him offensively, which not enough people do. He's just an okay defender, but the more possessions he has to chase his man off a screen, it wears him out, and he's susceptible to fouling sometimes. Dave Rose is playing more zone this year than he has before, and I think a lot of it is so they can hide Jimmer a little bit. Their main weakness is their inside scoring, although Chris Miles is the toughest big guy in the league. If they're not making jump shots that's a problem. And you may think they're a bunch of slow white guys, but they are very athletic. If you see them in person, they're flying. You may think you're going to run by them and dunk the ball, but they're going to answer with a three.
NEW MEXICO: Their weaknesses are consistent outside shooting and not having a guy who can score on the block. They've improved at the running game, they've improved their rebounding. They don't have much size, but they overcome that because you can't defend them with bigs. Who's going to chase Roman Martinez? Who's going to chase Darington Hobson? So their lack of size works in their favor because their skill level is really good. They really caught lightning in a bottle with Hobson. People say he has attitude issues, but who cares? If we eliminated every guy who had attitude issues, we'd all be in trouble. He is so skilled for his size, he's a willing passer and he's a great decision-maker. He's not a great pure shooter, but he's a shot maker, and he's a gamer. They have four shooters on the floor at all times, whereas most teams only have three. They're also great at getting to the foul line. They're leading our league in free-throw attempts by a long shot. And Dairese Gary might be the most underrated player in our league. You have to have a point guard who can match his physicality and toughness.
UNLV: They're not as physically tough as those top two teams. They have one really dynamic player in Tre'Von Willis. He is very physical, they post him up a lot, and he's got a good mid-range game. The other guys are just good. They're really good when Kendall Wallace scores off the bench, but when he doesn't make threes they have a hard time winning against a good team. I don't think they're physically tough. Outside of Willis they have a lot of finesse guys, and that includes Derrick Jasper before he got hurt. Their objective is to play small so they can space you and drive you and get to the foul line. At the defensive end they're a sieve if you have an inside presence. Another question is, can those guys score on the block? They rely on the jumper, they rely on turning you over and pressuring you. Those things are good, unless you're in a half-court, grind-it-out type of game.
CHARLOTTE: They have a great frontcourt. They're old school in that they're a low-post offensive team. They have a shooter in Derrio Green who can shoot them in or out of games. My question with them would be, if they run into a team that is as big and strong as they are, will they answer every time they get punched? Shamari Spears is a transfer, Green is a juco transfer and Chris Braswell is a freshman, so it's not like they've been there, done that. Spears is their best player. You have to play him with a bigger player and make him be a jump shooter. If he can drop his shoulder and go through your chest, you'll have a long night ahead of you. But against a bigger player he will turn and shoot fadeaway jumpers, which will take him out of position for rebounds. They've made more free throws than their opponents have attempted, so you have to try and keep them off the line.
DAYTON: I'm very confused by them. Of all the teams in our league, they have the best players. They guard you fiercely and chase every ball. They just have not performed on the road, which surprises me because they are experienced. They've been seriously hurt by a lack of a sniper. They just don't have a guy who can spread the defense and give their acrobats room to get to the rim. Chris Wright is a wonderful college player, but I don't see him playing at the next level because his range only goes to about 14 feet. I give him a lot of credit because he plays a team game. He has never gotten caught up in, "I'm Chris Wright and the rest of these guys are the Pips." They just don't score, especially when they're on the road. Chris Johnson is the best rebounding guard I've seen in college basketball. He got 20 rebounds in a game this year. Marcus Johnson to me looks like a shell of his former self, but it would not be surprise me if they won the A-10 tournament.
RHODE ISLAND: They're a high-flying group with two point guards that presses and loves to run. Their center, Will Martell, is probably the most improved player in the league. Their bench is legit, with Akeem Richmond coming in as a great long-range shooter. When the pace of a game slows down and they can't play the way they want, they're very, very vulnerable. Their weakness is perimeter shooting from the point guard spot. And also, if they get into a funk like they're in now, how do they get out of it? What happens to them sometimes is the coach grinds them and they worry what people say about them when they should be playing free and easy. Jim Baron is a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy. The refs are out to get us, the locker room is too small, they turned the heat on. As a coach, I give him a lot of credit because three years ago he was running a half-court, dump-it-inside system, but he saw what he had and opened things up. Keith Cothran may be their leading scorer, but Delroy James is their best player. He's a prototypical college four-man who can play off the bounce and above the rim. He loves to play and loves to compete.
RICHMOND: Their weakness is consistent low-post scoring. It's a skill issue more than a size issue. But they will be hard to beat in the NCAA tournament because at a time when everybody does a lot of the same things, they're a team that plays an extraordinary matchup defense and an amped-up Princeton-style offense. They also have a tremendous wealth of experience, and they have a fearlessness they get from Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez. Anderson is a player of the year candidate in the A-10. If he was at a more visible program people would be talking about him as one of the great undersized guards in America. He may be little, but he can really get to the rim, and he shoots a lot of foul shots. They run a true Princeton offense, but they'll break out of it a little and let those guys dribble-penetrate. Those guys have played a lot of games together and they have real faith that the system will carry them. If they lose, it will be because their perimeter shooting let them down.
TEMPLE: Offensively, they keep everything simple and put their guys in position to be effective. Defensively, they will give you everything from top of the key to top of the key, but they will give you nothing from the top of the key to the basket. They crowd you, they don't foul, and they don't turn the ball over, so it's hard to get runouts. Their main weakness is offensive productivity across the board. When Ryan Brooks and Juan Fernandez are shooting well, they can carry the team into the mid-60s. But when one of those guys goes south like they did at Richmond or at Charlotte, they have problems because they are not going to score enough off their defense. Lavoy Allen is their best player. He's a very, very good passer, both in the high post and the low post. The only drawback is he's a reluctant shooter at times. He doesn't create enough of a presence where you have to commit a second defender to him. Fran [Dunphy] is doing an extraordinary job with this team. They don't do anything to get themselves in trouble. A kid like Ramone Moore is not a three-point shooter. He's not going to go into the NCAA tournament and try to take threes. They won't beat themselves. You have to beat them.
XAVIER: They have a great swagger. They don't back down from anybody. They're not punks, they're not arrogant, but they have a real winning attitude. The main question with them will be whether they can win in the tournament if they need to get down and gritty and play a 65-point game. If you're playing free and easy trying to get 80, then their shot selection doesn't hurt as much. Jordan Crawford may well be their greatest blessing and their greatest curse. There aren't many guys who are more willing to take deep, challenged shots, but in a possession game in the tournament, he could take an inappropriate shot that leaves you scratching your head. But he is their difference-maker for sure. Teams try to exploit the long-range shooting of Terrell Holloway and Mark Lyons, but they're confident shooters. Holloway really sets the tone defensively. Even though it looks from the outside like they play a lot of guys, the productivity off their bench is down somewhat this year. Jason Love is the epitome of a college player who got a little better every year, but Kenny Frease to me is more gifted at seven feet tall. I don't know if conditioning is an issue with him because they limit his minutes. Against a mid-level BCS team like Florida, those guys can hang, but if they run into a top-four-seeded team, I don't know that there are going to be buckets from their frontcourt.